A Year of Shooting Film

On June 6, 2017 I started photographing with film again. The last time I was super serious about film photography was in high school, where we were blessed with unlimited chemicals and film. Sadly, all my negatives from high school got stolen from my apartment when I was living in Italy.

It was a relief to go analogue, and a respite from digital, especially social media. I could just shoot all day with either my Leica M-A, Pentax K1000, or Argus C3 and never worry about battery life. I could totally unplug and just focus on the real world, and producing decent images. I didn’t think about how an Internet audience would react to my photos. The goal was just a print.

I developed most of my film except for the first few months of shooting. For that I went to Photoworks SF. Once I got the hang of shooting film, I joined the local darkroom, The Harvey Milk Photo Center, and bought a bunch of tanks and chemicals and a scanner (under $250) to develop and post-process my own film. The tanks, chemicals, darkroom membership, paper, and film come out to under $600 a year to develop and make my own prints. This is assuming I”m shooting 1 roll of film a week, and am just doing black and white. For the most part 90% of what I shot at this time was black and white. Tack on another $300 a year for chemicals and film if you want to do color.

The first trip I took with my film camera was to Oregon with Paul Wozniak and Dave Alcaraz. The familiar panic of film set in. Would the photos come out? With digital I would’ve known right away, but it was refreshing to just focus on my surroundings.

Samuel H. Boardman State Park

(Leica M-A, Portra 400, 28mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/8, 1/125)

My next trip was at the end of December to Yosemite. There was no snow, but I caught a beautiful moonrise.

Moonrise at Yosemite
Leica M-A, Velvia 50, 90mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/2.8, 1/60

After awhile, I soon grew tired of photographing landscapes. There was a feeling that it had all been done before. I devoted more of my efforts to street photography, since the same street was never the same on different days. I went to Cuba with my friends, Dan Fenstermacher and Harvey Castro. We were struck by the perpetual golden hour that suffused the city streets of Havana. I wish I had lots of great shots, but my technique still needed a ton of work. I would get anxious, and click before the shot was there. Dan got an award for 2 of his photos! But all wasn’t lost, I did get a few photos like this one:

Malecón Fisherman, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

Street photography is something you have to do everyday in order to grow. For me 5pm to 6pm is perfect for street photography since there are so many people in the streets. After Cuba, I went to LA with Dan (again) and Armand (@armand67gt on Instagram). My modicum of skill and luck finally hit a level where I was getting the shots I previsualized.

Los Angeles, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/1000

After LA, I was in New York for the Nor’easter snow blizzards, and even went out in that weather to photograph. I was very happy with this photo:

New York Snow Blizzard
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/60

For client work, I’ve been stuck with digital. There have been opportunities to offer film, but nobody has taken me up on it. Now that I’m done with a year of shooting film, and look at social media again, I can’t help but be struck with the tyranny of an audience. To produce any lasting art, the masters of the past relied on solitude. Photographing with a film camera and leaving your phone at home has totally provided many hours of solitude these past 12 months.

Rush Hour, San Francisco, 2018
Leica M-A, Kodak TMax 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

The pull of the world towards digital is still very strong despite this current film renaissance. There’s such an emphasis on NOW that the expectations are high for getting an image right away. I know that the great photographers rarely dabbled with “old” technology. Joel Meyerowitz is an exception with his “Connecticut Light” work where he used a large format, view camera that took 8×10 film. As technology advances, a new way of telling a story opens up, and its important to take advantage of that. However, with innovation pushing a new camera 3 or so times a year in the case of Sony, or every 3 years in the case of Leica, and the rest somewhere in between… Is it really worth it to keep up? I would have to say, “No.”

For my own photography, I’ve let film be the thing I shoot for travel, street photography and portraits. The great things about 35mm film photography is that I’ll never have to upgrade my camera. For landscapes and night time scenes, with a really portable, digital mirrorless kit the photos come out so clean. I know large format, film cameras still can beat digital in landscapes at day time, but digital is so convenient. Also, every year, the sensors are heading towards 1/30th of a second Milky Way shots that are clean, and at currently, science fiction level ISOs.

Images are basically free to produce these days. Video, however, has always been a production, especially if its high quality. Where does this leave us? Nostalgia for the past isn’t the way forward, nor is being prisoner to a tech company’s idea of what is art, and what people ought to see. At the end of the day, you have to have a story worth telling that’s so good that even if you’re just sitting by a campfire, people will love it. The same is true for our images. Regardless of what the post-modernists says, the fun and exciting photography still has to be about something. Epic images have to be about something you are passionate about, and that you’ve risked lots to get.

Do you shoot film? Want to meet up? Let me know in the comments below.

Beeronol: Developing Ilford FP4 film in beer

I’m experimenting with different ways of developing film, e.g. stand development. This weekend I developed black and white film using beer. The mix I used was from Peta Pixel and is called beeronol.

The ingredients for the beeronol I made are:

  • 50cl of Guinness stout,
  • 12g of Vitamin C crushed into powder, and
  • 50g of washing soda (I baked baking soda at 400F for one hour to turn it into washing soda).

Develop the film in this soup at 86F for 15 minutes. Agitate for the first 30 seconds and 5 seconds every minute until done. Stop & fix as you’d normally do.

I found the results to be interesting. The beer turned the grain in Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 into irregular shapes, and the grain was larger. Some frames became foggy. Many frames displayed some sort of bromide drag. Some frames were flat and others super contrasty.

In the example below you can see 8 bands of bromide drag.

8 bands of bromide drag (Leica M-A, Summicron 50mm, f/16, 1/125, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125)

Here’s an example of fogging with bromide drag, too.

Fogging and bromide drag

Here’s an example that came out okay. If you zoom in, the grains are highly irregular, large and spotty. I suspect this might have something to do with the beer bubbles. There’s bromide drag in the bottom left.

Some bromide drag, irregular and big grains

Beeronol is expensive to make. 2 bottles of Guinness Stout (25cl) is already $4 versus sixteen cents ($0.16) per teaspoon of Rodinal per roll of film. If I wanted to make a photo look like it was from long ago, the irregularities with bromide drag, fog, and graininess make this a good choice.

Stand Developing Ilford FP4+ in Rodinal 1:100

I stand developed Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal for an hour. I was expecting a very fine grain, and high amount of accutance but was slightly disappointed. The highlighting and gradient effect you expect from stand development still blew me away. In the highlights the grain was fine, but the midtones and shadow areas gave medium grain that one would find in pushed film. With all this said, when looking at a magnifier, these were the sharpest negatives I had ever seen. The quirkiness of the results will make me think twice before using it as a film for landscapes, but the detail I got from the close up shots with bokeh make me see the potential for portraits.

Unfortunately, the low-end Epson V600 scanner I had wasn’t able to capture the subtleties in highlights that I could see in the negative. I’m pretty sure that as a print the highlights will be there, and if not, a little dodging should fix that.

Here’s a photo shot with Ilford HP5+ 400 pushed to ISO 1600 stand developed in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal for 2 hours. This shot is exceedingly sharp thanks to the lens, and stand development process. However, the grain prevails everywhere. Some like this; others don’t. I am a fan of grain, but also understand the need for fine or undetectable grain for portraits.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/2, 1/500, Ilford HP5+ ISO 1600

Here’s a photo shot with Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal stand developed for an hour. You can see the fine detail and sharpness, but the bokeh area has a bit of grain.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/2, 1/500, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125

If you compare the first two photos carefully, you can see that the Ilford FP4+ definitely has the finer grain, but not as fine as one would expect. I know I’m not comparing apples and oranges, but Portra 160 when well or slightly over-exposed exhibits no detectable grain.

Here’s another photo shot with Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal stand developed for an hour. This is a photo of a very popular spot for photographers, Sutro Baths in San Francisco. There were at least 2 couple photography sessions happening while I was here.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/16, 1/125, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125

So I’m really not sold on Ilford FP4+ for landscapes, but close ups and portraiture would seem to be its strength. I was surprised by the amount of grain, too. I am not sure I would buy this film again.

A Review of Blade Runner 2049

I’ve seen Sicario and Arrival, and both had far more emotional resonance than Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049. In Sicario, I felt the loss of innocence of Agent Kate Macer played by Emily Blunt. In Arrival, I mourned for Louise Banks’ daughter which set the emotional tone for the rest of the film. These are both masterful films by Denis Villeneuve who is the director for Blade Runner 2049.

Neither Blade Runner had that emotional resonance. I thought Roy Batty’s poetic language before dying was beautiful. Gaff’s line, “Too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” still sticks with me for its sang froid. I thought the “love” scene between Rachel and Deckard which teetered between rejection, and near rape, made me feel very uncomfortable. Yet, where was the emotional core?

The sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, is even worse at evoking an emotional response. Like a reverse Voigt-Kampf test, if this movie left you feeling nothing, then you’re probably human. Yet, I can’t dismiss it. There are certain visuals that haunt me. There’s a scene where Officer K (Ryan Gosling) arrives at a dystopic orphanage, that looks more like a junk yard, where a sea of charges are made to take apart green computer boards. This harkened back to a visual that might more be seen in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

I could not find fault with the world-building which extends Ridley Scott’s original vision, and at the same time has a Villeneuve and Cuaron feel to it. The visuals delighted. The world is headed to the ecological breaking point: sea walls to protect the city because the glaciers have melted.

The San Pedro Sea Wall in Blade Runner 2049

The philosophical questions raised by this Blade Runner sequel are the same as the last one (can an android be human?) except with the addition of the idea of a skin job revolution derivative of Battle Star Galactica (RDM).

It just gets worse and worse, both in Hollywood, and in dystopias, so maybe the replicants should take over.

Finding Photographic Inspiration from Tree of Life

Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is one of the few films that dares to answer the question, “Why?” Kubrick’s 2001 also made such an attempt but it didn’t quite have as clear of an answer in the way that “Tree of Life” does.

Malick carved his vision for “Tree of Life” well before Instagram launched, so when I look at his film, as someone who came to Instagram first, I can’t help but notice how much it all looks like Instagram in its early days.

Here are some inspiring images from that movie.







The Friendships of Convenience in Frances Ha

I heard about Frances Ha from a friend in Sweden.

I read about mumblecore and its manifesto seemed very authentic to me.

The first scene in Frances Ha feels like something from a very pleasant dream or a reverie. We see two women who are having fun in a park, and then soon cut to running in the streets. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind’s first 20 minutes comes to mind, yet the two women are not romantically involved. They are flatmates who share the deepest intimacy.

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Franes Ha

Unfortunately, this intimacy doesn’t last for long. Sophie, Frances’ flatmate, has other plans and just isn’t that into Frances in a platonic way. (You could call “Frances Ha” a bromance with chics.)

A very good job is done of making the audience feel just how close to Sophie Frances is. All the more heartbreaking when Sophie tosses Frances aside for an apartment in Tribeca, Manhattan.

The film accepts that we live in an age of friendships of convenience. We form deep intimacies yet are barely conscious of them being there and we so easily toss them aside. Does it have anything to do with mobile phones? Frances laments that Sophie’s phone with email seems to be more important to her than her.

I wish more films like this were made; they are after all low budget, but no budget can buy the insight into how we are living. Some might call the film NYC navel gazing; I’d like to call it great art.

A Philosophy Junky Reviews To The Wonder

The following paragraph is a variation of what Heidegger wrote in his Bremen Lectures. It’s one of 2 keys that helped me with understanding Terrence Malick’s lastest film, “To the Wonder.”

The Internet or Jet Age does not equal closeness. Almost everything is at our fingertips. Journeys that took months now take less than a day. News of major world events took years to make their way around the world, if they completed their journey at all. The Internet gives us major world events in seconds. Food out of season, I can have delivered to my table in the coldest and harshest winter in a day. I can see distant cities from long ago as if they were here today. The Internet and Jet Age which has reduced all distance, is the foundation of our commerce Yet, despite reducing all distances, no closeness seems to exist. There is even more loneliness and alienation.

The film starts off with a woman played by Olga Kurylenko saying in French, “I am newborn.” The trailers pretty much tip off that this newborn-ness is the sort you get when you fall in love and the entire world gets transfigured.

The audience is then given vignettes and montages of a couple exploring Paris and Le Mont St. Michel. The first 5 minutes are actually filmed with a digital harinezumi, a cheap Japanese digital camera that gives video a gritty, edgy feel through grain while saturating and washing out colors in unexpected ways.

The man in the couple, played by Ben Affleck, asks the woman and his daughter to come back with him to live in Oklahoma. The relationship unravels from there and never seems to have the intensity and vitality it had in France. While in Oklahoma we are presented with Malick’s trademark scenes involving fields of wheat shot during “magic hour,” the hours around sunrise and sunset when golden light casts everything better than it really is, or so it seems.

It’s not only for aesthetic reasons that Malick shoots during “magic hour.” There are sections of Being and Time where Heidegger finds the origins of our entanglement with the world in the sun:

Taking care makes use of the handiness of the sun giving forth light and warmth. The sun dates the time interpreted in taking care. From this dating arises the most natural measure of time, the day… Thrown being-together-with things at hand is grounded in temporality. (Being and Time, II.vi.413)

There is no division between humanity and nature. We are imbued with each other, intertwined, yet when Malick films “nature” he is trying to return us to something more primordial – time measured in the intensity of light, not in numbers.

If nature is sick, through our lack of taking care, then we, too, shall be sick. This is a theme that echoes lightly in the background of the film. The man in the couple has some work related to the environment. The machinery we see seems to be used for fracking to get oil. The townspeople all echo that either the dogs or the children have started to act strangely because of some environmental collapse. The water is polluted and tar seeps out of the cracks in concrete.

It’s around this time that we got introduced to a priest played by Javier Bardem. Wow, it’s tough being a priest. You try to take care of things but then at the same time feel so isolated. An elderly woman tells him that she will pray for him that he might find joy.

The woman from France eventually has to go back because her visa expires. It’s at this time that Affleck’s character meets up with a local woman from his youth and starts a relationship with her. This local woman played by Rachel McAdams does lots of the voice overs. Although the land is sick, and her ranch is struggling, there are the buffalo – lots of them.

At the end of the movie, I felt the part about the priest didn’t make sense for the longest time. I also wondered why the movie ended with the image it ended with.

Luckily I ran into a nurse who went to see To the Wonder with a bunch of philosophy grad students. She had a BBQ and there I met one of them that supplied the missing piece, Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.

In this work Kierkegaard talks about 2 sorts of love: the kind that blossoms and so must eventually die, and the love where we must care for everyone but never dies. Both are inevitable, and the inevitability of either kind of love is a theme in Malick’s movie. The couple has the first kind of blossoming love; whereas the priest has the second kind of love.

There are images that just stick with you, and I’ve often wondered why Malick doesn’t also do photography. Perhaps it’s because in a Heideggerian sense, photos are a covering up of temporality.

One of the images that just sticks with me is of the water flowing up slowly during high tide at Le Mont St. Michel. Another is of the fields of wheat with the sun. These alone would make strong photos.

Heidegger’s Bremen Lectures and Kierkegaard’s Works of Love seem to be a pre-requisite for this film. I really loved it even though I was missing the Kierkegaard piece.

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