Stairs to the Roof

Way back in the way back machine, I worked as proof reader, researcher and indexer for a couple of volumes of Tennesse Williams’ letter. It was alternately tedious and fascinating work with long hours divided between reading backwards – an old proof reader’s trick for catching mistakes when your eyes are going numb – and scanning microfilm archives like someone from a 70’s newspaper drama. It paid well, I set my own hours and I got to read as much mid century American drama and fiction as any young English major could hope for. As a result, I’ve read almost everything Williams’ ever wrote including unpublished letters, journals, half-finished plays and more versions of the Orpheus Descending story line than anyone should ever have to sit through. Out of all that reading there’s a couple of images that stick incredibly vividly in my mind. One is the image of the stairs to the roof in the play of the same title.

Stairs to the Roof for those fortunate enough not to have read it, is a fairly early stage in the evolution of The Glass Menagerie. As a play its turgid, overly fantastic and disasterously sincere. But the image of the stairs to the roof – where succor from the industrial world awaits the protagonist – stuck with me. Along the way it got blended with the image of the metal fire escape stairs that feature in The Glass Menagerie, stairs that had their own associations with escape from social and familial responsibilities. In my mind the stairs were always metal and rusting, slightly bent and held to the buidling with crumbling bolts. Rickety in the extreme and the kind of place an unlucky person would manage to catch tetanus in an instant, they held promise none the less. The promise of a life beyond the Celotex interior or, to update the reference, a life beyond the cubical walls.

That image stuck with me as I took my own journey through cube land and eventualy beyond. The stairs remained always rickety and rusty, until I saw this picture of Rex’s over on Stills. I immediately saw the stairs to the roof. The materials are entirely different from what I’ve always imagined, but those are the stairs. The decay and decrepitude of them are utterly perfect. I can almost smell the mold, a far richer smell than the one exuded by the formerly rusty metal stairs.

I offer this as a data point in the ongoing debate regarding the purpose of art and the broad question of what art is and is not. A fairly common line of thought holds art as a communicative act. If art is communication, then how do concepts like intenitonality and message figure in a case such as this where a work inspires thoughts that the artist could have had no knowledge of? If we judge a work on its ability to communicate a message, then what kind of metric are we left with when the association is one of chance? Admittedly, this particular photo is quite good, even if you don’t have your own vivid mental associations to go with it. But with those associations its elevated to the sublime.

Resizing the Right Way?

I don’t seem to know how to resize the right way. I often end up with jaggies and other artefacts around details. Take a look at this pic for what I’m talking about. Note the artefacts around the text.

So what’s the secret here? A magic $20 plugin? Selective blurring and sharpening at various stages. Not that long ago I started downsizing in steps using a PS action. It doesn’t seem to make that much difference. Kate’s old glasses seemed to present a particular challenge in this arena nearly always rendering with some jaggies at one particularly part of the curve. See below.

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I know the root of the problem has something to do with having sufficient pixels to render curves or lines of particular angles. But am I approaching that threshold that often? And if I am, what am I doing differently from all the other photographers that don’t seem to have this problem as often? This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s kind of annoying. I often find myself backing off the sharpening to reduce the apparent jaggies. I’m asking too much?

For Want of an Eyepiece

I lost the eyepiece to one of my Hexar’s yesterday. Unlike a lot of cameras in which the standard diopter is just a clear piece of glass, the eyepiece of the Hexar forms an integral part of the RF. Without it, you can’t see through the viewfinder. Of course, only Hexar eyepieces fit. And of course, since the Hexar RF is a long out production camera originally made by a company that’s changed hands a few times now, locating a replacement part is a pain in the butt.

This is one of the downsides to using abandonware. When it gives up the ghost, you are pretty much on your own. I’ve emailed Greg Weber, the only recognized Konica repair resource in the states and asked on photo.net where, oddly enough, somone else had just lost the same piece off their Hexar. I’ve also bought up KEH’s supply of corrective diopters for the Hexar thinking that if those don’t work for me perhaps I can trade them.

If the Hexar RF didn’t have such completely brilliant ergonomics, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble, but it’s the best designed camera I’ve ever used, much better than an M in many ways. The other day I was looking over Sean Reid’s review of the new M8 and thinking how much they could have improved its ergonomics by adopting the shutter speed dial off the Hexar. Using the Hexar’s exposure compensation dial would have been a good idea as well. Heck, why didn’t they just stuff a sensor into all those Hexar bodies that Sony has got sitting in a warehouse in Germany? But that’s a topic for another day.

Update: Folks looking to replace the eyepiece on their own Hexar RF, should look at this post, in which I detail building your own replacement eyepiece. With some tinkering this could also be a good way to get diopter correction or an increased mag VF. For those wanting to buying a diopter, check out KEH and http://www.photostop.net/Hexar.html.

Pulling TriX

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the kind of tonality I’d like to see in my B&W photos both digital and analogue. The creamy tonality, deep blacks and detailed highlights of photography pre-1970 has always made me wonder if light was somehow different before I was born. I’ve never reliably been able to reproduce the look I’m after either in the darkroom or digitally. After reading one of Mike Johnston’s old Sunday Morning Photographer columns over on The Luminous Landscape, I decided to give pulled TriX another shot. I picked up half a dozen rolls of TriX the other day thinking that if I didn’t have success pulling them, I’d just repurpose them as lowlight rolls to be developed in Diafine, something for which long experience has shown TriX to be eminently well suited.

Now, it should be noted, that the article mentioned is primarily about getting your photos to glow, which we all know is something you can really only accomplish with Leica lenses. Glow is an incredibly loaded term, and I’m fairly certain that no one factor is fully responsible for its presence in a photo, but I long ago decided that the quality of light is the most important factor. I’m also fairly confident that I can at least spot and sometimes create that kind of light. What eludes me is the kind of tonality that often accompanies glow in the very best photos. I’ve tried many different film and developer combinations, but I’ve always avoided pulling films due to the speed penalty. In the past, low light work dominated my photography. It doesn’t play quite as big of a roll anymore, and I’m less concerned with always being able to capture a photo than I once was, so the loss of a stop of speed isn’t as big of a deal to me now.

Enough pre-amble. On to the test. TriX exposed at 200 with reduced development in D76 is fairly standard for the kind of tonality I’m looking for. I’ve got my TriX, but no D76 and no convenient way to get any. I do have a ton of TMax developer, which apart from being a bit more active is not all that different from D76. It will have to do for now in any event. Of course, no one has documented time, temp and dilution for TriX at 200 in TMax developer. Fine. I’ll make up my own time, temp and dilution. Normal for values for TriX at 400 in TMax are 6 minutes at 68 degrees in developer diluted 1+4. As a starting point, I take 20 percent off for scanning to keep the density from exceeding the scanner’s range. For the pull I need to further reduce development by about 20 percent, but times below 5 minutes are kind of dodgy for even development, so I can’t cut the time back sufficiently. Fine. I’ll cut the dilution. At half the standard dilution, 1+8 would be a good starting point, but with a 600ml tank, 1+9 is easier to mix. OK, so if I cut the dilution approximately in half, I need to double the time to get equivalent development giving me a time of 12 minutes. Twenty percent off of 12 minutes is 10 minutes. Take off another 20 percent and you get a time of 8 minutes. That’s my starting time.

The first two rolls at this time and temp look pretty good. It’s not quite the look I was going for, but it’s better than I’ve done with TriX before. The light I was working in was pretty contrasty, but I managed to hold detail in most of the highlights and still have details in the shadows. Midtones look prety good too. I might need to add another minute to the time, but I’ll need to do some more shooting in different light as well.

As a side note, a month or two of shooting with the D80 have raised my standards for detail. I’m not entirely sure that 35mm film is up to those new higher standards. I am, however, entirely sure that not having to de-spot every photo in PS is a major plus.

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Worth a Look

Paul Butzi, whose article on the Monday Night Photo Club served as inspiration for the Stills photo critique club, has got not a new blog (for those of you who were counting, yes that was 3 links in one sentence). Apart from being a pretty darn good photographer, Butzi has got some awfully good writing on his pre-blog site. As someone who’s worked in both digital and large format, he has a broader range of technical knowledge than some whipper-snapper like me, which in itself would be enough to make him worth reading, but he also manages to write coherently about the process of art. For a snapshot of just exactly how broad a field he can command read “Art is a Verb, Not a Noun and “Digital Myth #1 – Staircase Interpolation”. If you are ready to start questioning some things about your photography, take a look at “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” If the quality of the writing on his pre-blog site is any indication, his blog will be well worth adding to your RSS reader.