In the summer I have less teaching and I like to use some of the time it frees up on a photography project or two. This didn’t happen last year, as the summer was spent prepping for a new course. So this year I am doubly keen to explore an aspect of photography that is new to me, as a way of expanding my horizons and engaging my curiosity. Time for some blue sky thinking!
With this in mind I have been reading up on pinhole photography. This is really the simplest photography you can imagine. A tiny hole allows light to enter a sealed box containing a light sensitive medium and creates a negative image. You can then use this to create a positive either in the traditional dark room or by scanning it and inverting the resulting digital file.
You can make pinhole from just about anything; biscuit tins, shoe boxes and coffee containers, wheelie bins and even a spare transit van should you have one. For the more financially secure (and less adventurous?) there is also the option to buy beautifully crafted models that have been lovingly constructed from luxury components. Guess which option I will be taking? Yup! DIY pinhole camera here I come!
This was actually what prompted me to by the Agfa Clack I wrote about last week. This seems to be a popular ‘first build’ pinhole camera and I am hoping to convert one of the aperture rings to a pinhole without destroying the functionality of my Clack as a regular camera. Now, pass me that screwdriver!
A trip to the Wolverhampton camera fair is invariably likely to end in a few purchases, planned or otherwise. Sometimes it seems that going to the fair without a shopping list leads to worse excesses than when I plan my extravagances beforehand. Last weekend was no exception. There was absolutely nothing I needed to look out for, and so I went along with an open mind and a (unwisely) restocked wallet.
Faced with a dazzling display of photographic paraphernalia, my receptive mind reached down into its subconsciously creative recesses in a determined effort to justify one purchase or another. This time I homed in on a Clack.
A what? I hear you say? An Agfa Clack. But why? I think what appealed to me is the sheer simplicity of this camera.
The Clack is neither collectable (as defined by its price!) nor particularly rare. They were produced in serious quantities in the period 1954 to 1965 by Agfa Camera-Werk AG in Munich. Initially made with a metal body, and later a plastic one (mine is plastic), the Clack is essentially a smallish black box designed to hold 120 roll film.
You can choose one of 2 apertures to suit the prevailing weather conditions. I believe these are f/11 and f/12.5. Bokeh should be perfectly shaped, as the aperture disks are just circles in a plastic component which moves into position for each selection. Mine also has the close up filter, for subjects between 3m and 10m away. The shutter offers bulb or ‘M’, which I understand to be 1/30 second. So, the only real control you have over the exposure is in choice of the ISO rating of your film. I can see I shall be spending the summer checking my light meter, in my efforts to seek out conditions that suit my new camera!
The most exciting aspect of the Clack is of course the focussing mechanism. Err, there isn’t one.
I have plans for my Clack (watch this space!) but I can’t resist putting a roll of film through it first. How much simpler can it get?
In my wanderings in search of Curzon Street Station, I bumped into the Digbeth Branch Canal, a gap in a wall and a finger signpost showing me the way down to this hidden gem within Birmingham’s industrial heart. This short stretch of canal ultimately became the focus of several more sorties into town. The Digbeth Branch Canal was completed in 1799 and is just 1 ¼ miles long, with two tunnels and 6 locks. It links the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal with the Grand Union Canal and still retains evidence of its industrial past. From Fazeley Street near Digbeth Junction you can look down on the Typhoo basin, which as you might expect was used by the Typhoo Tea Company.
Another interesting feature is the Warwick Bar Stop Lock which controlled the water of each canal companies where the two canals joined. Adjacent to the lock is the Geest banana warehouse, now a Grade II listed building. Walking along the Digbeth Branch Canal you soon arrive at the Curzon Street tunnel which brings the trains in and out of Birmingham. Although the tunnel is wide the rumbling of the trains overhead is almost deafening. You now begin to pass the Ashted locks. I grew up in the East Midlands, where the canal locks were frequently built for 2 boats but here they are scarily deep and narrow, just wide enough for one boat, and there is often a ‘lay-by’ on the far side where another boat could wait.
On the far side of the canal, away from the towpath, nature is flourishing and I was pleased to see two brown hawker dragonflies darting around in the sunshine. Sadly there is plenty of evidence of human life, in the form of less-than-biodegradable rubbish. However, this in itself gives me pause for thought, musing on the nature of close encounters the scene has experienced in previous moments and who has been drawn to eat, drink and leave their unwanted wrappings here.
Alongside the towpath are the walls of derelict buildings and through the gaps you can see nature busy at work reclaiming the land. I found myself attracted to recording images of the various windows and doors that I saw along the route as well as the scenes that the open ones framed. I can see this might be developing into a theme this autumn.
In August I have less teaching and whilst I spend a lot of the month catching up on administrative tasks (yawn!) I also make the effort to do something a little different to usual with my camera. This summer I have made a number of trips to Digbeth, in Birmingham’s city centre. As usual, my 50mm lens came into its own on my explorations, due to its relative small size and weight. Digbeth is an industrial area, overshadowed by the huge and now disused Duddeston Viaduct that previously brought trains into the city centre. I initially went in search of Curzon Street Station, or more specifically the Grade I listed entrance building which was built in 1838 and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the world’s oldest surviving piece of monumental railway architecture.’ My interest was piqued having read a news article which suggested that this building would be incorporated into the planned HS2 terminal in Birmingham and I was keen to see it before all changed (even further) beyond recognition.
I spotted Curzon Street Station for the first time that day from the top of a bridge over the canal. A strange area, bang smack in the middle of the Eastside redevelopments, I viewed the station from the rear across waste ground which I guess will eventually hold the lines of HS2. The strange juxtaposition of this historical building orphaned alongside the wasteland, with the modern city structures in the background, and modern railway busy with trains alongside really brought home to me the inexorable pressure of humankind’s need for ‘progress’ on the landscape.
I worked my way around to the front of the building, now facing the (relatively) new Eastside City Park. Dwarfed by the modern structures nearby, it reminds me how the concept of ‘monumental’ has changed in recent years. The station appears dusty and squat, perched in the corner of the blindingly white square. I wonder quite how the HS2 terminal will preserve the dignity of the structure in among all this rampant progress.
As human beings, we rely heavily on our sense of vision, basing many of our assumptions about what we see on judgements made as a result of appearance. As a result, it’s very easy to assume that what we see is what there is to see. However, just as our cameras produce images based on the light reflected from the subject into the lens, so our eyes receive reflected light from our surroundings. Light in the visible wavelengths (approximately 390 – 700nm) stimulates the rods and cones in the retina to produce the image, but light outside this range does not contribute to our vision. Some birds and insects such as bees can see the shorter, ultraviolet wavelengths and I remember learning at school about how flowers such as foxgloves have UV guide marks to lead bees to the nectar and pollen. At the other end of the spectrum, there are insects which can see longer wavelengths, in the infrared range, and it’s said that goldfish can see the full spectrum of light.
These creatures are displaying and seeing the world in ways we cannot perceive, yet it still exists, reminding us that what our eyes see is not always the whole picture. Over the last couple of years I have found myself increasingly attracted to infrared photography as a way of representing the unseen in the seen. Initially, I tried using a filter in front of my lens but I found the need for a tripod to support lengthy exposures to be restrictive. This year, I took the plunge and bought a camera to be converted for infrared use. I opted for a 665nm filter, which lets in some visible light alongside the infrared. As a result there is still some colour in the images produced, giving the choice between colour and monochrome pictures. Creating infrared images requires quite a different perspective on your surroundings and I am still learning to judge how a particular scene will appear to the camera’s sensor. Best of all, bright sunny days are fantastic for infrared photography, so my new toy is perfect for a day out in the summer, when other photographers are at home waiting for more suitable light!
Over the summer I teach fewer classes and my mind turns to tasks that don’t usually get a look in at more hectic times of year. Over the last couple of weeks of ruthlessly deleting unwanted image files from my hard drive I have found it interesting to reflect on the ways in which my photography has changed over the last couple of years. One aspect that really stands out is that I no longer take as many images. On a photowalk, I spend much more time considering my subject before I press the shutter. What was it that attracted me, caused me to pause and look more closely? On a more careful look, is this attraction something I want to record? Perhaps when I frame the image in the viewfinder I am unable to represent the aspect of it that stopped me – so I will move on. I hope I am more mindful as I create my pictures. Working indoors or in the garden, I also take fewer shots. Perhaps this is due to my increasing confidence in my ability to recreate the scene in front of me. It is also, I think, a result of an increasing rejection of the worship of image sharpness above all else. I am most definitely not a ‘pixel peeper’ and the message conveyed by the image is more important to me than razor sharpness. To this end I find myself working more and more with my Lensbaby Composer, to create images that are more about nuance and tones than cutting edge pixel by pixel definition. Perhaps for the same reasons, I am finding that colour is increasingly becoming a distraction and I am very much in a monochrome phase. This is what I see, what startles me out of the everyday, the aspects of the world that speak to me.
My urge to refresh has extended to this website in the last week or so and I have changed the look to a simpler, quieter theme. Armed with the spoils of my hard drive excavations I have completely updated the galleries. I have found that the old galleries no longer reflected my interests and so now, after a great deal of deliberation, we have new groupings and a whole new set of images. I hope you like it.
They say variety is the spice of life and the British weather certainly offers that. From the unseasonably late winter (snow in March?!) to the recent heat-wave in July we have certainly seen some contrasts already this year. Not a fan of hot weather, the main attraction for me is the inevitable storm that will herald the arrival of cooler, fresher days. I love this heady reminder of the power of nature, living as I do cocooned from many of the natural world’s inconveniences in the second largest city in a country where the weather is mostly pretty benign. We might grumble, but on the whole we have a fairly easy time of it. I have been struck recently by a strong awareness of the changes in the weather that we experience over the year. Sitting out in the garden in recent weeks, I have been desperate for a cooling breeze to take the edge of the heat and humidity. At the same time, I felt a deep need to absorb this experience and remind myself of it when I am shivering in the inevitable cold raininess of November or squinting in the sun-glasses-bright snow of February. All of this because Earth is tilted a few degrees on its axis, bringing a cycle of seasons to many parts of the planet that governs the format of our years and the passing of our days. How different our world might be without this axial tilt, or with a greater one. In these little ways does the world remind me of my existence on this planet as it moves through space and prompt me to consider what else I am taking for granted and have not yet learned to see. As a commitment to myself I plan to pay greater attention to this passing, to these seasonal contrasts, and to record this in a project marking the seasonal changes in my world.
I tend to associate the summer with strong, bright colours. Bluer than blue skies, verdant green grass and a spectrum of flowers encourage me to dig out my gaudiest summer clothes and revel in the long, warm days. So why, then, this year, am I increasingly drawn to creating images in monochrome? Sometimes the full-on-ness of summer can become a bit much and July has been just that. The heat and brightness can become overpowering and hide the subtlety of tones and shades that can be seen in monochrome. Although black and white are strong colours in themselves, the many shades of grey reveal details of the world that colour can mask. In the midst of summer’s brashness, I seek the cool peacefulness of a simpler palette, to see beyond the distraction of hue to the reality of form.
Images full of contrasting colours make an effective metaphor for a busy life. They are lively and full of interest, jumping off the page or screen and demanding your attention. Although interesting, they can be quite wearing too. For me, working in monochrome is a more restful way of connecting with my subject. The simplicity of the colour scheme parallels the simplicity I am seeking elsewhere in my life. Removing the colour from my images is like clearing the clutter from my cupboards. Both provide a sense of space, a restful environment in which to exist. And it’s way too hot for clearing cupboards!