July Photo Chat Get-Together

Time to get together again to discuss our photographs with the ever-expanding group!

Yes, how about joining us and getting together to chat about our photographs and the stories behind them. What was your intent in making the photograph, what were you trying to say, was it a success? If you made your print, were there any particular challenges involved?

This is not a discussion focused on gear — the idea is to share insights, get constructive feedback, learn a few things, relax and make new friends!

Well, if this sounds interesting and fun, how about joining me in beautiful downtown Doylestown, PA, in the heart of scenic Bucks County, and we will get together over a cup of coffee.

Photographers of all levels are welcome.

Bring only a couple of prints to discuss. Obviously the prints should be Black and White and should be film based!

The get together will be on Sunday, July 9th, 10:00-11:30am at the Zen Den coffee shop, located on ‪20 Donaldson Street, Doylestown, PA 18901.

Email or call me at 215-348-9171 if you are interested. First come first serve!

I look forward to meeting you!

My Trip to the Second Sunday Camera Show in Jersey

Finally got around to watching the movie Interstellar that I had DVR’d about 2 years ago. Not sure what that says about me. In any case it got me thinking about my experience the next day going to what admittedly is a tiny regional camera show – The Second Sunday Camera Show, at the fire station in Wayne, New Jersey.

Like the movie’s human colony near Saturn, I thought of the show as an outpost of analog gear activity in the fight against the digital onslaught. Yes, there was a certain amount of digital stuff and a range of odds and ends such as filters, camera bags, straps and beat up accessories available, but interestingly enough, most of what I saw was old film cameras and associated lens … and yes … film!

I’ve been going to these things for most of my life and they are usually a lot fun if not sometimes frustrating. Sort of like going into a candy store. Plus it gives me an opportunity to get rid of my odds and ends that have been sitting around and gathering dust.

While much of what I saw had been around the block so to say, there were many fine camera bodies and lenses by the top manufacturers available in nice condition and at good prices. Everything from miniature formats to large format view cameras.

This was not a big show and I have been to many larger ones, but it was enjoyable nevertheless. Over the years I have found nice deals on camera gear, darkroom equipment and all sorts of hard to find items I’ve been looking by rummaging through the ubiquitous large cardboard spare parts boxes that are always a staple of these events. Nothing this time, but I did sell an unwanted item that paid for my $6 admission!

So why not find out if there are any camera shows near where you live. They’re a lot of fun and you can score some really neat stuff … or just unload some “obsolete” digitalia.

Takeaways from the 25th Annual Phillips’ Mill Photographic Exhibition

Yes another Bucks County show to talk about … but for a good reason. At least I think so. Awhile back I wrote an entry here entitled Does Size Matter? In it I stated that very large prints seem to be trendy now and that almost every time I see them in exhibits I am overwhelmed by their size and underwhelmed by their content. Often what are displayed are large images of boring subject matter.

I went on to mention two shows I had seen — Edward Weston at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Paul Strand at the Michener Art Museum. None of the Weston prints were larger than 8×10 because he only contact printed his large format negatives. With Strand, most were no larger than 8×10, with many being much smaller. I felt these prints forced you to stop, get close and look at them. Finally I said that I think a small print really has to stand on its content, but just as importantly it draws in the viewer and compels him or her to really concentrate and think about what is going on in the image.

Well guess what, I haven’t changed my mind about size. If anything I feel more strongly about it! So what does this have to do with the prestigious Phillips Mill show I saw on Saturday? A lot! The vast majority of 124 photographs selected were at least 11X14 and many were much larger. Most were technically perfect but not emotionally barren. And of course the winners and others selected for special note were very large … at least 16×20 and 20×24 to my eyes.

It just doesn’t do it for me. So I will continue to make my prints no larger than 8×10 because I really do think that a small print has to stand on its content.

So I hope you will consider moderation when printing your images. If you do, I am sure you will only print those that truly have something to say, rather than those you think might get attention.

Takeaways from the Delaware River Towns Photo Project Exhibit

On Saturday I drove about 20 minutes to the beautiful town of Lambertville, just over the New Hope – Lambertville Bridge on the Jersey side of the Delaware River. Lambertville is one of a number of small historic and picturesque towns that dot both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the river close to where I live in Bucks County.

The purpose of the drive was to view the exhibit of the Delaware River Towns Photo Project. The intent of “Project” was to “bring photographers together to photograph on the same times in the same places to see what they saw”. It was a collaborative effort bringing professional and amateur photographers together to photograph six towns on both sides of the river that share a common proximity and history. Those on the Pennsylvania side grew up around the construction of the Delaware Canal in the 1840s and ones in New Jersey emerged in response to the building of the railroad several decades later.

In February the Philadelphia Inquirer and a number of the smaller regional papers published a “call for photographers” and the photo shoot took place on Earth Day Weekend in April. The only rule was that you had to photograph within the municipal boundaries of each town. Every subject was fair game. 281 photographs were submitted for judging and 108 were chosen for the exhibit. All were 8X12 inches in size, both black and white and color, with a range of subjects from architecture, to railroads, to the river, to the people that inhabit the towns.

I always come away from a show learning something or gain a new insight. The Delaware River Towns Photo Project was a tremendous success. It fulfilled it’s stated objective, but most importantly it served as a vehicle to get people out and photograph … and hopefully … to learn something more about where they live. Something we all could probably do more of – right? And the title of the initiative includes the word “project”. I have written previously about the value of doing both long and short-term photographic projects.

Going to see theme based shows like this can give you the push to either get your dormant creative juices flowing again … by appropriating the idea for your own work, if that’s what it takes … or just give you the necessary kick in the pants to get out there period!

Was it a monumental artistic event? No. Was it a worthwhile and a good thing?  Yes, and for all the right reasons!!!

Morley Baer, The Wilder Shore

This is one of my favorite books and I think I know why. But more on that in just a bit.

Morley Baer was a tremendous large format photographer and an all-star member of the West Coast School. He was friends with Edward Weston and assisted him from time to time towards the end of Weston’s life. He also assisted Ansel Adams, and along with Adams and Brett Weston, he was one of the founders of the Friends of Photography. Baer was considered one of the world’s foremost architectural photographers, but what originally attracted me to his work were his wonderful images of California’s beauty.

For over fifty years he used his beloved Ansco 8X10 view camera in a most effective way to capture California’s farmlands, coastline, forests, deserts and buildings. Legend has it that as time went on his camera was barely (no pun intended) being held together! The ancient machine was not particularly sexy, and he used classic old lenses such at the famous 480mm 19” Goertz Artar to make mostly black and white contact prints that are simply stunning. Not only did he possess a purity of vision, but his images were of the highest technical quality.

So why do I enjoy this book so much? Well first of all, the black and white photographs of California’s landscape are just flat out beautiful and inspiring. And then there is a wonderful text by David Rains Wallace. But what makes this book really interesting, and yes special, is the inclusion of color prints that accompany most of the black and white photographs. And yes this color work is fantastic! Recently I discovered why. They were made with tungsten balanced Ektachrome slide film intended for indoor work! The film could be corrected for outdoor application by using a #85B filter on the lens and this enables a warmer outdoor image than standard Ektachrome. But wait, there’s more! Baer created a softer contrast by overexposing the film one stop and having the color lab develop it for less than normal development time. The result … beautifully delicate, yet powerful images that are the complete opposite of the usual over saturated and postcard looking color we are so used to seeing! The entirety of book is sublime and I never tire of looking at it.

I’ve used this book to great effect as a teaching tool with my students to compare black and white and color images of similar subject matter. Several have bought a copy because they fell in love.

I think this is an under appreciated book by a truly marvelous photographer. It can often be found for under $50. I purchased mine years ago as a remainder for $25.

Listen … just do yourself a favor … find this book and buy it!

Using Color Heads with Variable Contrast Paper

Let me start by giving credit to Bruce Barnbaum. Many years ago I read an article that he either wrote or one that described his printing methods. He was extolling the virtues of using color heads over cold light heads to make black and white prints with variable contrast paper. I decided to give it a try and have never looked back!

At first it sounds counter intuitive … making black and white prints with a color head, but it turns out to make great sense!

When I first started printing as a teenager I had an Omega B22. From there I graduated to a more solid Beseler 23C, and then on to an Omega D2V and several variants of the Beseler 45MX. Like most people in the Seventies I used the standard issue condenser heads that came with these machines. But then I came across Fred Picker and read the Ansel Adams trilogy (The Camera, The Negative, and The Print). The result … I converted to cold light, which among other things dispenses a softer and more diffuse light.

I’m not going to argue the merits of cold light vs. condenser light sources, except to say cold light is better (less visible dust spots, less harsh prints, greater luminosity, no negative buckling, and more)!

I bought an Aristo cold light and mounted it onto the Beseler. At the time I was still using graded paper. I wasn’t an early adopter of VC. It took some years before it could hold it’s own with the best graded papers. But I finally made that switch due to the dwindling availability of graded papers and the tremendous improvement of VC papers. Thankfully, VC was finally able to deliver the goods that only graded stock had been able to do. Phew!

I eventually moved onto the wonderful and well-built Zone VI Type 2 enlarger with a dedicated Zone VI VC head. I had the Zone VI for several years until I heard about Devere enlargers. Built in the UK, they are straightforward solid machines made to withstand a nuclear effect!

Now back to Bruce Barnbaum. It was around this time that I came across the aforementioned piece advocating color heads as an efficient, flexible and more precise alternative for cold light. Like cold light, color heads are a diffusion light source. A different method of diffusion for sure, but so close in results that it doesn’t matter for all intents in purpose. And let’s face it; if it’s good enough for a Master like Barnbaum, well it’s good enough for me!

Needless to say I found and purchased a Devere 504 with a Devere color head from a local color lab scaling down its darkroom business. Simply stated, I LOVE THIS ENLARGER (but more on that at another time)!!

For me the color head provides all of the benefits of cold light, but is far easier to use and enables greater precision! Best of all, they are plentiful and cheap! All enlarger manufacturers made them and they’re easily available on eBay, Craigslist, APUG, etc. And yes, I also use one on my Leitz Focomat V35 too. Sure, I own the dedicated black and white diffusion VC heads that came with both of my enlargers, but truth be told, why would I want to use them? In my experience the color heads just flat out offer so much more flexibility and ease of use.

So how do I use color heads with VC paper? There are different approaches, and your mileage may vary as they say on the forums, but after so many years of printing with graded paper my that’s the way my mind thinks, so that’s the way I come at it. It’s fast and yields great results. I simply take the paper manufacturer’s recommended color head settings for the “grades” I usually make test strips of and dial in the settings on the color head (Note: I don’t use strips but whole sheets of paper). Grade 2 and 3. I examine both papers under my viewing light to determine the proper basic exposure for each “grade”. Then I make a pilot print for each one. Using my viewing light again, I then dispense with one of the “graded” pilot prints (e.g., Grade 3). Now I go to work to fine-tune the one I have chosen (e.g., Grade 2) and create the finished fine print. Of course I can easily dial up or dial down the contrast for subtle change if I need to. In the past with graded papers I would use Selectol Soft with Dektol or Zone VI developer to lower contrast between grades, or more vigorously agitate the print in Dektol/Zone VI to slightly raise contrast. Finally, I can burn in using the chosen “grade” setting I’ve made, or I can simply dial in harder or softer settings depending on the effect I wish to achieve. So effective and so easy!

So if you are ready to get an enlarger (Note: I didn’t say buy because you might easily pick one up for free!) do consider one with a color head. And if you are currently printing with a black and white head of some kind think about picking up a color head and giving it a go. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

Third Photo Walk Meet Up

By popular demand we are going to take another break from doing our periodic Photo Chat Get-Togethers and instead get together for another Photo Walk Meet Up!

Yes, how about getting together to make some photographs in and around the historic New Hope and Ivyland Railroad station in Hope, PA. There are plenty of old train cars in various conditions near the train station to photograph so we will have opportunities to capture a wide range of images from train cars to abstract images of decaying metal and graffiti.

Well, if this sounds interesting and fun, how about joining me on Sunday, June 4th, at 10am.  We will meet at the train station located at 32 W Bridge St New Hope, PA 18938.

Photographers of all levels are welcome.

Email at info@michaelmarksphoto.com or call me at 215-348-9171 if you are interested.

I look forward to meeting you!

Takeaways from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent Exhibit

I finally got there! Wasn’t sure I was going to make it before it closed, but on Saturday I fought through the crowded scene to witness this historic show on its last weekend. What can I say … wow! 140 water color paintings by American artists, including many by the great masters Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Thomas Hine of the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that the exhibition makes a strong case that “watercolors were among the greatest achievements of American art during the 19th and early 20th centuries”.

It was a glorious show to see despite the low light levels needed to prevent fading of the artworks. And the paintings presented a different look than I was used to seeing with works done in oil or acrylic.

Two wonderful surprises for me were paintings by Charles Sheeler (see my recent entry on Charles Sheeler’s photographs and paintings at the James A. Michener Art Museum) and Man Ray. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a multi-talented artist, capable of making truly great work in more than one medium. It’s hard enough for me to soldier on, only with photography!

Not a bad segue to take me into my takeaways from this wonderful experience! I’ve stated before and will do so again … we as photographers can learn a great deal from looking at paintings! I know … the vast number of paintings are not monochromatic (however there was a very nice black and white watercolor harbor scene in the exhibit!), so as black and white photographers, what’s the point? I can only say that in my experience I learn a lot from every great exhibit of paintings I go to see — the presentations (horizontal vs. vertical), the subject matter, the perspective of view (think normal vs. wide angle or telephoto lenses), and of course the feeling of light!

To my eyes the watercolors render a somewhat different presentation of light compared to what I have seen in oil or acrylic works. It’s hard for me to describe, but there was a real sense of transparency, luminosity and delicacy I could easily detect even in the less then optimal museum lighting conditions. It is this sense of light that I think we should strive for in our black and white prints! Contrast that is snappy sometimes gets me to take an initial look. And while there is an immediate allure, the feeling soon passes.

Another thing that struck me right away was the size of the paintings. By my guess most were no larger than about 11×14. This forced me to look closely to see the delicate beauty and locate the secrets waiting to be discovered. There’s another takeaway here; the intimate sizes of the paintings again reinforced my thinking concerning why I print no larger than 8×10 and generally admire smaller picture made by others.

I encourage you to continually be on the lookout for exhibits of the true painting masters. I always learn a lot when these opportunities present themselves, but perhaps most importantly I am inspired to translate what I learn into my own work.