Friday, January 26, 2018

Texas Trip and Radio Tintype

  For about 8 years there was a giant enlarger taking up a lot of real estate in my darkroom. It was an 8x10 Durst Laborator model L-184. They are made in Italy and are the Ferrari of enlargers, but in all the years I’ve had it I only made prints on it once so I could see how it worked.  It worked wonderfully by the way.  A month or so ago I decided to let it go to someone who’s been lusting after it for a while – Steve Watkins in Fort Worth, TX.  As part of the arrangement I was to deliver the 350-pound beast, which made it a perfect opportunity for a photo road trip.  A workshop for three people was also arranged, to be hosted by Lone Star Darkroom in Dallas.  Lone Start darkroom offers rental space for people to print their own images, custom printing, classes and more - check them out if you're in FWD area. 

  From San Diego to Fort Worth and back is a long drive and with only a week to do it in and .  Here’s an action shot of the enlarger as it was entangled in the web of long-haul delivery and ready for the journey.

  On the way there, a friend of mine offered to stay the night with his family in Tucson and, in order to get there at a decent time for visitors, I didn’t stop to make plates.  Head of the household I stayed in though, Tio, is really worth mentioning.  He is 93 years old and all of his life resided in Tucson area. He’s sharp as a tack and is a living repository of local history, which should really be recorded in hours of interviews, but I didn’t have time for it.  In the morning, I went to Mission San Xavier Del Bac – a functioning catholic church built in late 18th century.

  Driving on eastward, I couldn’t help stopping when I saw the boulder-studded hills of Texas Canyon, near the town on Dragoon.  Just by taking the exit and parking within 100ft I got the following plates, so it’s definitely a spot to come back to.

  Still having a long road ahead, I drove on and on…  Between El Paso, which passed sometime in the night, and Fort Worth there’s pretty much nothing.  I’d like to explore than nothingness in more detail, but I had to push on and only stopped late next morning, when I saw an inconspicuous exit by a small town of Westbrook, Texas.  Right at the entrance to town I was greeted by the following scenes.

  After that I went straight to Fort Worth to finally meet Steve in person.  After some years of online correspondence, he definitely lived up to expectations and more.  He works in IT, fixing problems for larger companies that I only pretended to understand when he went into any detail, but loves vintage cameras and photography and is an excellent large format photographer. His family were fantastic hosts as well and there were always bagels waiting on the counter. I also got to meet Steve’s friend Pete, a great character and long-time photographer as well with many fascinating stories to tell.  With Pete’s help we wrestled the enlarger into Steve’s darkroom and set it up  It actually fit better than any of us imagined and so here is a shot of it in a place where it’s hoping to get more use than it has seen in at least 25 years.

  Saturday morning, Pete took me to an abandoned incinerator to make some plates.  Steve’s son and his girlfriend also came along. The incinerator was burning waste from 20+ years before closing in mid 1980s and by now it lay thoroughly abandoned and layered with graffiti and is a great subject.  Pete, by the way, possesses a very special gift of which Steve informed me on prior occasions – Pete is basically a human equivalent of a light meter.  Below you will see a plate with a shaft of light coming from an opening in the ceiling.  When making it I had to resort to using a spot meter and, to test Pete’s ability, asked him for readings in various spots long that wall by the ladder.  Without ever having worked with collodion, but knowing that I’m thinking of ISO 0.5, Pete called out exposures within half a stop of a Seconic L-508.  

  As a side note.  To get to the incinerator we had to put my box with all the chemicals on a dolly, and roll it down a dirt road, lift over some railroad tracks and through a well-established hole in the fence.  Here’s an action shot I took while rolling it all back and with freshly-shot plates drying on top.  It was during this return trip that my tank with fixer apparently became opened and when we returned to the car I found a puddle at the bottom of the box.  From this point on I had to use rapid fixer instead of my usual potassium cyanide, which made for a lot longer washing times, but didn’t seem to affect tone or brightness of the plates at all.

  Saturday evening Steve took me to Cabella’s – a Texas-style sprawling store dedicated
hunting and other such outdoor activities.   It is a sight to behold.  Here’s one quick picture. Yes, those are all real taxidermy, this but a 1/20th of what was there, if that…

  On Sunday, the workshop at Lone Star Darkroom went off without a hitch.  Incredibly, none of the students had trouble with pouring collodion or developer and so plates were nice and clean.  The only factor that really messed with us were the fast-moving thick clouds that varied UV in the air considerably.  Still, the plates were all a lot better than what I did at my first workshop.
  Sunday evenings on KTCU-88.7, a Fort Worth radio station, there’s a show called Superfluous Sundays.  That show, which is a lively mix of excellent music and sharp commentary segments, happens to be narrated by Steve, Pete and the sound man Tom. That evening I was invited to be a guest there and thought to myself, how funny would it be to make a plate live while on air?  Steve agreed that radio seemed like a perfectly logical communication medium for the art of photography and thus it was set – a tintype will be made.  I dragged in some Photogenic lights, which I brought in case there was rain during the workshop, and set my dark box right on the table in front of Tom’s sound board.  I must say, I’ve never felt more under pressure not to spill anything… 

  From my understanding radio studios are usually compact and this one was no surprise in that regard.  Positioning lights not to be in the shot and camera so it doesn’t fall onto Tom’s board was a great puzzle.  Nailing the focus though was the really fun part – I used a 90mm Nikkor-SW, the widest lens I had with me.  It happens to be f4.5 and that is fast enough for the amount of flash power I had with me. I wanted Tom to trigger the shutter and lights with a cable, and I also wanted that cable in focus along with the faces of all three hosts.  In the end, I think it worked out pretty well all around for the slight exception of Pete, seen peeking from behind my dark box, who came out a little underexposed and about six inches out of focal plane.  Seeing how absurd the concept is, I doubt it’s been done before, thus I do believe this to be the first tintype ever to be made while live on the radio.

  I'm hoping to get the recording from the wonderful folks at KTCU and if that happens I'll update this post by inserting it here. 

  Monday morning it was time to headed back west toward California. For some reason, I wanted to make some plates in El Paso.  That city, long with Rio Grande by it, hold a special place in American history and folklore. When I got there, I was greeted by the reality that much of the US bank of Rio Grande, which there separates Mexico from US, was walled off in the manner that our current president wishes to see the entire border be – rather high solid mesh fence, photography through or over which was impossible.

  Driving back and forth along this border I came upon an abandoned historic site – Fort Bliss officers housing buildings that sat right on the riverbank. Sometime in the past it served as private housing for ordinary citizens, but it looks like it’s been a while since that phase ended and now the buildings are vacant with an air of importance still lingering around them.

  As you can see, the first plate above has a very ugly blueish mark on top and right edges.  The second one has a similar, but smaller mark in top right corner.  That is there because my collodion was getting to be too thick – after so many plates have been poured back and forth, ether and alcohol have evaporated enough to make it more jelly-like than it should be.  On the second plate above I adjusted my pouring technique, but even that didn’t get rid of the mark completely, so I spent the next hour or so hunting down some 95% Everclear.  I had about 90ml of collodion left and added about 20-25ml of alcohol to it. That brought back correct consistency and from then on plates started to look a lot better.
  I don’t remember how far I drove after El Paso and into New Mexico, but there I chose a random exit and found this right by it.

  Farther out west I noticed this abandoned hotel and just before the sun set made this plate.

  Next day I stopped at the Painted Rock site, just west of the town of Gila Bend.  The site has some great petroglyphs and is a lot more known than the site I went to a few weeks before (detailed in the New Years Desert Trip post below).  One of the interesting things there is that settlers started to leave their own marks long before the words like graffiti and vandalism were a part of daily vocabulary, and so there’s rather well-done signatures with dates like 1809, 1873 and so on.  I tried my very best to make a plate of the 1873 date, but to no avail.  I think my box needs a little attention in the light-proofing area – it’s perfectly fine when I’m in the shade, but if I’m set up at just the wrong angle in full sun I think it’s letting in a little light.  Due to the way that parking lot is configured and the way the wind was blowing I could not re-setup the box in any shade and so I have no plates to show you despite dashing 200ft or so back and forth between the rock and bark box three times.  Instead of a plate here’s a quick snapshot of the mound where most of the glyphs are found with some tourists, of which there were plenty, around.   There’s also a shot that a photographer by the name of Michael Rausch, who happened to have been there, snapped as I was scurrying from the box to the scene during one of my feeble attempts at securing a plate...

  Frustrated I drove and drove until I noticed the shrubs by the highway sway a lot less from the wind and then stopped by the small outcrop of mountains just east of Yuma.  I again didn’t venture too far off the exit – being parked within a stone’s throw from the road I was able to make the following compositions.

  The last plate above is what I thought to have been my very last plate left on the trip.   I was very happy that it came out as well as it did (and in real life it’s a lot better than on your screen).  However, Steve wrote and reminded me that I still had a glass plate with me and so right before sunset I pulled over again and found this composition on the eastern outskirts of Yuma.  It’s a ¼ plate and is the only ambrotype (actually on green glass) I made on the trip, all the rest were tintypes.

   Being back in San Diego for a while I can now concentrate a bit on putting the final finishing touches on the studio and catching up on other fronts, but of course I can’t wait to hit the road again and when I do there will be another post about it, you better believe it.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Los Angeles Tintype Trip

  Last weekend my girlfriend and I made a quick little bus pilgrimage to Los Angeles and thought it's deserving of a quick writeup. 

  The journey was prompted by my earlier experience - in the spring of 2016 I was invited to make tintype set and character portrait plates for an independent film production -  
  It was a great experience and here are just two of over 100 plates I shot there. 

  Last weekend at a private gallery in Culver City the movie was premiered and there were some really nice displays set up with props from the movie and most of my plates, which I haven't seen in nearly two years. 

  We were actually invited to the opening in order to make tintype portraits of attendees.  It was a fun time (with me running back and forth between the gallery and Gilli's darkroom and Jozlynn being busy washing and keeping the plates straight).   I made 27 plates and here are a couple of those - the lovable monster Penge was a hit for posing with. 

  After that we spent the night in town and next day visited Getty Museum since Jozlynn has never been there.  There were some interesting exhibits, of which I'm sorry, but I don't have any pictures.  Not knowing if museums parking structure would accommodate 10ft tall and 35ft long Gilli, we actually parked on the street and walked up.  It was an interesting experience, since it made it feel a lot like a trek to the mountain to see some wizard of art.  Since there was a long line waiting for the electric trolley that takes people from parking area to actual museum grounds, we walked that part as well.  On the way back we were pretty tired, so we took the trolley back.  From its windows we briefly glimpsed Gilli as she patiently awaited our return.  Can you spot her in this photo?

  Los Angeles (and the surrounding dozens of smaller cities) comprise an impressive and chaotic sprawl of urban jungle that stretches seemingly infinitely when you're in it.   In fact, I bet there's a large percentage of residents who, after being born within the bustle and growing up knowing only the city, never set foot outside of that environment - after all, everything a modern human can want as far as civilization can be found in overabundance within the confines of the city.  However, surround this micro-universe is a beautiful mountainous area where San Bernardino and Angeles Nation Forests have been set aside as preserves.  It's amazing how small the number of visitors is to those scenic destinations considering that just below the hills, within 10-15 mile drive, there lives well over ten million people.  It wasn't totally empty up there, but still, this was a polar opposite of being stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and it felt great.  We found a scenic overlook to stop for the night and in the morning I shot some plates there as well as at another location nearby.  I'm really starting to enjoy making panoramic compositions with multiple plates, so I shot one of those as well. 

  During the night before above plates were made a noteworthy story occurred. I thought I would try to make a night-time plate of Los Angeles since we had quite a view.  The lights were relatively bright, and the ever-present smog which hangs above LA was illuminated fairly well, so I thought I had a chance at capturing it in collodion.  It was about 65°F and 20% humidity, so I knew I couldn't go too long with the exposure or the plate would dry out.  First, because framing would have been perfect, I chose my trusty Tele-Fujinon 400mm f8 lens and tried a 15min exposure wide open.  Well, I got the lights of the city, but they were rather dim and appeared to be floating, because none of the foreground mountain outline or the fog recorded.  Then I decided to try a Voigtlander Petzval which I had with me, at f3.2 it's 2.5 stops faster than the Fujinon, so maybe with it I would have some trace of areal glow above showing.  I coated a 4x5 plate, dipped it into silver, and went to switch the lens.  After focusing I realized that on a 4x5 the image would be much too small because instead of the perfect framing that 400mm lens offered I was not shooting with a 175mm, so the next image would be much better tried in a smaller 1/6th plate size.  Skipping ahead I can tell you that even the 1/6th plate with Voigtlander didn't turn out - the lights were perfect, but again there was no trace of glowing atmosphere, however it was what happened before I exposed that last plate and went to bed that I think is more exciting. 
  Not wanting to simply waste that already coated and sensitized 4x5 I decided to make my first-ever collodion chemigram.   Chemigrams are made by combining various chemistry in a seemingly random fashion upon a light sensitive surface and seeing how things will turn out.  To make them really sing visually one would need to experiment a bit more extensively and be mindful of which chemistry produced which effects combined in particular order.   This being my first try I grabbed 4 things immediately within reach in the Gilli's darkroom and sprinkled and splashed them liberally on the surface of a plate still wet with silver nitrate.  Different chemicals made quite varied splotches and it was fun to watch them grow and mature.  After a while I poured on developer and in time washed that off.  After fixing this is what I was left with.  I'm definitely going to experiment further with chemistry and also with ways to control where each effect appears. 

  We drove back to San Diego that afternoon and were blessed with there being no traffic due to it being a holiday.  When back by the darkroom Jozlynn decided to cook up the rest of the food we had with us on the trip.  She made steaks with Brussel sprouts and mushrooms a side of potatoes.  I strongly believe that this is the best looking and tasting meal so far cooked aboard The Photo Palace Bus and so here is the plate just before being consumed by a hungry and tired me.

  More adventures to come!


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Desert Ghosts - A Story of One Picture

  This was to be the last plate of the trip.  On the first day of the new year we were on the way out of the desert and I saved the last two glass plates for a house we saw on the way in.  The desolate flat landscape consists of low sparse bushes and earth covered with small vocalic rock bits.  This structure stood out like a sore thumb and what’s more, it was within stone’s throw of the freeway, so it watched everyone who drove by on the way from Florida to California and anywhere in between all day and all night for close to a hundred years.

 Not wanting to get too close and disturb any possible compositions, I parked the bus half-way from the dirt road which led us there and set up the chemistry.  By now it’s down to about 2.5min or so from when the engine stops till the tripod is up, so soon I was walking to the front door.  Right on the front porch there was a square well made of rough concrete.  It captured my eye until I was close enough to see that it was completely full of sand and gravel and my gaze shifted inside the house.  It was made of large grey local rocks slapped together with same rough concrete and only two and a half of the old walls were still upright. The floor was interesting.  Most of it was drab, concrete again with a rare inclusion of a flat rock here or there.  There was a short walkway though, just about 6ft or so, which led visitors inward for some reason at an odd obtuse angle.  It was lighter concrete inlaid with large bright pink quartz. Not something that would photograph well with collodion.  The largest remaining wall was crumbling on the northern end, but right in the middle of it was the biggest fireplace I’ve seen in a while.  It was like a gaping mouth eight feet across and four feet tall and the stones making up the top lip were all around a foot each, so it was jagged and misshapen.  One could still easily imagine a roaring fire on a cold desert night warming up many mysterious inhabitants of what must have been a populated establishment.  I paced the area for a good two minutes, bending down and back up and rising again and moving to left or right in search of a good perspective while making mental lens choices.  Nothing added up to perfection and having reluctantly settled my mind upon a normal lens from a high perspective with freeway in background I started to go for the exit to fetch my camera when a few bright white objects in the corner by the door caught my attention.

  Upon closer inspection, there was a small pile of well-dried fir and many fragile ribs and other skeletal remains of some poor creature.  The bones were so dry and riddled with erosion pockmarks that when I tried to pick one up it crumbled to dust in my fingers.   I did however find a pelvic bone about two inches across that looked sturdy and clean.  Figuring I’ll use it in some future still life I picked it up and blew off and walked outside the wall perimeter.  Immediately I was struck by a strong foul smell of rotting meat.  Right away I wondered how could I have avoided it on my way in as it was overwhelming.  I looked around and saw that to the right of me the two or three-foot-wide space between the well and the house was filled with fir that covered at least a 6-square-foot area a foot deep.  Out of that pile, which gently and rather peacefully swayed with each passing breeze, stuck out large parts of bones and meat and other ingredients of mammalian life.  It all couldn’t have been there long, what was left of soft tissue still had tinges of red to them.  Looking around with more attention now I realized that within inches of my left foot there was a large coyote skull with a frozen expression of angst upon it the likes of which I’ve never seen.  The nose and some bits of whiskers of what must have one day been a majestic and ferocious creature were still present.  His nose snarled in the last throw of a fight and whiskers raised up in their last futile warning to the enemy.  Most likely ambushed and culled by members of his own pack as he got old and became the weak link.  The jaw was open wide…  not wide enough.

  The last image made during the trip now clicked in my head and I ran toward the bus to get the 90mm Nikkor-SW.  In order to get near-ground angle I reversed the tripod column so that the head was pointing down, set up the camera, went into the darkroom, dipped a plate into silver and went to focus.  Focusing a view camera is always a little challenging, though of course with practice it becomes almost second nature, but focusing while the ground glass is four inches form sharp little rocks on the ground is quite an experience in itself, especially when every time I breathed in the penetrating smell made me want to wretch.  It took a while being on my knees bent over under a cloth like in prayer, but after a while I managed to secure the frame I had in mind.  The skull was about ten inches from the lens and the walls rose like monoliths starting at about 5ft in the background and going back maybe 25ft.  In order to get most of the scene in focus I had to employ a strong rear tilt, bringing the back standard to an almost 45° angle to the front.  The theory laid out by our old pal    Even then though, wide open at f4.5 depth of field was too shallow and I stopped down to f32 to make things as sharp and vivid as I was experiencing them.  With such an aperture collodion exposure would be in the range of eight seconds, but nothing was to move in my composition, so that didn’t worry me much.  What I was thinking was the inverse square law and how bellows extension with me shooting that close this should be accounted for when calculating exposure.  On the way to the retrieving the light-sensitive plate I decided to give it twelve seconds and hope for the best.

  While developing the image I remember seeing the house appear quick and clear, but the skull and foreground detail were nowhere to be seen even after 25 seconds, which is never a good sign.   At forty-second-mark I started washing off developer from the upper half of the plate, gently feathering my flow downward so it won’t leave an obvious line. I kept pushing and pushing, but even by 55sec I could only see dim information within the milky murkiness of my wet plate substrate and at that point I knew I’ve carried development too far for comfort and so I rinsed the entire plate.  The cyanide fixer revealed a gradated likeness of the scene, with the house having excellent bright tones and the skull being dark and shrouded in a shimmering fog of overdevelopment. This wasn’t my initially intended visual take on the scene, so I knew it had to be redone. Still, something captivated me about that plate and for a while I stood inside the blacked out rear darkroom part of the bus staring at is closely. I did not wipe it off right away like I have done with so many test hundreds of plates.

  The next plate, which was literally the last plate I had with me, turned out great. Full of sharp detail and tones with the skull almost as frightening as it was in real life and also camouflaging as perfectly well into the busy pattern of a desert floor.  After all, the proud coyote to whom it belonged was once an integral part of the landscape, a dominant force whose sad demise on the steps of this crumbling abode was also just a slight turn in the greater wheel of life.  In the background, what remained of walls stood up as stiff and out of place, yet planted and enduring as they felt when surrounding me.  Their energy vibrated with lives lived harshly in perpetual chase of wild west dreams.

  Satisfied I quickly wrapped up, audibly thanked all the ghosts that may have oversaw our visit and we moved off on the last long leg of our return to San Diego.   When I got to the darkroom back home I quickly varnished all the plates done at the last few locations as I was hesitant to do it on the road in awareness of the amount of silty dust that invaded the bus throughout.  In one go I varnished about twenty-three plates, but the now-dry underexposed overdeveloped abortive of the skull now didn’t emanate the same glow as it did when fresh out of the fixer back 400 miles east and so I put it in a tray of water to wipe off later.  Unless I’m hard-pressed for glass while shooting I usually dry my glass test plates and then re-soak them later all together for a while, and if the glass was clean before collodion was poured the layer of nitrocellulose bearing the image almost (and sometimes completely) floats off the glass and up to the surface, making cleanup very easy – pick off the snot-looking trace of an image from the surface of water and lift the plate onto a drying rack, it’s perfectly clean at that point as collodion took with it all traced of grease or dust.

   Well, it took me two days to finally get to cleaning off the image and so I looked into the tray with a paper towel in hand and ready to destroy whatever was left of my photograph.  The image that stared back at me was not the same as when I lowered it into water.   The sides of it turned sky-blue, but the middle stayed sepia, so that created a natural duotone vignette with a highly haunting effect that pulled the eye through the house and out the other end into the desert. The skull was now almost completely obscured and hardly distinguishable from the surrounding terrace, but it’s K-9s were still bore a menacing shine and had in them all the power of its previous operator and his eye sockets seemed to still have in them the power of predator’s gaze.  All of the values dropped considerably too, but the detail was all there however dark and making the eye dig and discover it forcefully.  There was a glow around the building though.  It was bright and clean and the empty walls now seemed to emanate a long past warmth of it hospitality.  The fog inhabiting the lower portion of the plate had also turned iridescent and somehow holographic, shimmering with muted rainbow hues as the light hit it from various angles.   Only a small part of the collodion, a triangle by the skull about an eighth of an inch square has lifted off the glass and tore itself away, floating upward and waving back and forth like a capitulating flag.  I felt that now the plate was worth preserving.   Before drying it, I thought it would be a good idea to wash out whatever leftover chemistry that I could still coax out of the previously dry gun cotton emulsion.  Placing the plate face up I let a medium-strength stream of water run over it while hitting it smack in the center, I walked away giving it about 5min to wash.  By the time I came back, the little triangle of ripped emulsion has grown in the direction of the lowest edge of the image and now there was basically an arrow-shaped tear which pointed up at and ended at the base of the skull, but not leaving it along.  I got impatient to see how the image would look finalized with varnish and employed the use of a hair drier, which I keep for just such occasions, to force-dry the collodion.  First I directed the hot stream onto the image side and after a while started to see the brightening associated with a drying plate.   As the emulsion was drying and shrinking I saw small sections of it starting to frill up around the torn triangle and two distinct cracks started to grow outward like little arms.  I seized applying heat to the front and finished the job by heating up the rear first.   Varnish flowed nice and even as it usually does on black glass.   After heating a quick cure over an open flame of a small oil lantern I examined the now unchanging plate to see for the first time how it will be viewed who knows how many decades from now.   I was pleased to see that the varnish behaved well around the tear, I expected a lot more unevenness to show due to the frilled edges of said tear.  One minor detail upon the varnish, visible only at an acute angle to light and after careful examination, stood out to me as if it was the pivotal point on which the entire composition rested.   There was a short swirl of bubbles that seemed to burst from one of the little arms of the torn triangle-man and, like a visual effect employed by some Hollywood studio to convey a spell being spread, and curved in the direction of the center of the plate.  If analyzed closer and disposing of a preset notion that it’s a tear in the emulsion surrounded by bubbles in varnish one can easily see a figure with its left arm outstretched and releasing some sort of magical energy and behind the figure stretches a veil of golden powder, which hangs in the air as the mystical creature moves about within the setting.

  We got back to San Diego very fast.  As if recharged by desert energy the bus didn’t slow down below 25mph on the steep uphill stretch between El Centro and Descanso and when I close my eyes at night I can still see the desert ghosts wandering the landscape around a once welcoming structure, which now was reduced to a fate of fading away through eons as the concrete slowly yields to wind and heat and the menacing lifeless guardian of that uneasy edifice carrying on his unwavering watch.