In the Shadow of the Pyramids

January 26th, 2015

Legally I should probably preface this post with a warning that no one should take investment advice from me. I have a proven track record in losing money, particularly in 2007, although I knew what I ought to do then but just couldn’t be bothered. Like I can’t be bothered to switch energy suppliers and all the other things our government thinks we should all spend our time doing.  I rather liked it the old way where we had a Gas Board and it saved a lot of thought. And certainly if we’d subsidised British Rail the way we have the privatised companies we would have a much more joined up, cheaper and better railway system. As well as still being passengers and taking trains from railway stations – and be spared those highly annoying announcements thanking us for travelling on Southwest Trains; if there was any alternative we would be taking it.

Actually I have changed energy suppliers, but not on cost grounds, though I think changing to Ecotricity has saved me money. But they are certainly a nicer company than most and kinder to the planet, and I’m happy to give them a little free advertising on this otherwise deliberately advert-free zone.

But if you want a good investment in a photo book, my advice (for what it’s worth) is that you should be putting your 88.60 Euros (prices differ in various countries) into an order for In the Shadow of the Pyramids, a Project by Laura El-Tantawy described as:

“a first person account exploring memory and identity. With images spanning 2005 to 2014, what began as a look in the mirror to understand the essence of Egyptian identity expanded into an exploration of the trials and tribulations of a turbulent nation. The result is dark, sentimental and passionate. Juxtaposing the innocence of the past with the obscurity of the present, the book is an experience, edited to look like a one night’s encounter. A peaceful and tranquil day suddenly turns violent and chaotic, it’s claustrophobic, until a new dawn rises and there is hope again.”

I’ll buy it not because I think it will be a good investment, with a smallish print run of 500 copies which has already won an award as a dummy, but because I think it’s an interesting work – as you can explore from the front page of the web site.

It also seems to be an interesting example of book design, getting away from the simple formula that we can now all do for ourselves through services such as Blurb. I’m not sure my books will ever be a good investment, though I know they have been appreciated by a number of buyers, and they are certainly likely to be rather rare, so who knows?  UK buyers in particular can usually get any of them cheaper direct from me.

Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959)

January 25th, 2015

As promised, here is the piece I wrote in 2003, with just a few typos corrected. Perhaps the most interesting sentence in light of ‘Becoming Disfarmer‘ is: “Images by Disfarmer must be present in many family albums covering a wider range of his work and it would be of interest to discover if these show the same characteristics as the published work.” Of course more is now available on line thanks largely to the Disfarmer Project.

Disfarmer’s Origins

Birth and Family

Mike Meyer’s parents came to America from Germany some time before his birth in Illinois in 1884. When he was young the family moved to Stuttgart, Arkansas, now apparently widely known the “Duck and Rice Capital of the World” and home of the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest. Stuttgart had been settled by German Lutheran farmers, many of whose descendants still farm the same lands.

He was the sixth born of seven children, and the only unusual thing his relatives remember about him as a child was his musical ability. He had a fine ear for a tune and played several instruments including violin, piano and accordion.

Work

Meyer’s father died when he was around 14, around the time he went out to work. He continued to live with his mother and worked as a night watchman at the rice mill in Stuttgart.

At some time fairly early in his working life he became interested in photography and bought himself a camera; and taught himself how to use it. We can only speculate what books or magazines on the subject he read – at this date or later

Move to Heber Springs

In 1914, his mother decided to move to Heber Springs because of its better climate, and he moved with her. There, he set up his first photography studio, in the open at the back of the house. Before long he was in partnership as a photographer with a studio in the main street.

The Cyclone

The climate was not kind to his mother, as a cyclone (probably the great cyclone of Monday, June 5, 1916, which killed 22 Cleburne County residents, although there was another disastrous one on Thanksgiving Day, 25 November 1927) destroyed the house. Meyer was apparently mentally scarred by its effects, although he soon recovered from any minor physical injuries – none of the Meyers are listed among the 1916 casualties. His mother moved out to live with one of her sisters, and he also left home.

Penrose & Meyer

The Penrose & Meyer studio was on Main Street, in the same building as the Jackson Theatre, one of the earliest movie theatres in Heber Springs, built in 1912. Penrose was perhaps an existing local photographer, but nothing seems to be known about him. Unfortunately the block was destroyed in a fire in 1921, and he had to find new premises.

New Studio

The new studio Meyer built was some 20×30 ft, slightly above the typical size for daylight studios and its design was described as modern, perhaps because of its plain backgrounds. It had a wall with large windows fitted with blinds that could be used to control the north light Meyer favoured for his pictures. In the 1930’s it became a popular place to go and have your picture taken in Heber Springs, one of the few attractions in this small town.

Birth Delusions

At some point after the cyclone, Meyer became convinced that the family in which he had grown up was not his own. He got the idea that there had been a cyclone at the time of his birth, and that during this he had been confused with the Meyer child. His own parents had been of a much higher class, more cultured and intelligent than the Meyers.

Such delusions are perhaps not as uncommon as we might think, and pass idly through the minds of many, perhaps especially those whose behaviour suggests mild autism, as some of the descriptions of Meyer might suggest. Meyer took his thoughts further to the point of an obsession, more or less breaking off relations with his real family and changing his name.

Disfarmer

The German name Meyer comes from the Middle High German meier (or meiger) which means superior or higher, and became used for more more important farmers. In modern German, Meier means ‘dairy farmer’. (The name can also be spelt Mayer or Meier, and is found from a different root in Jewish families – the Hebrew ‘meir’ meaning enlightened.)

Meyer was convinced he was not truly of German stock and was not from a family of farmers. He invented a new name for himself to express this: Disfarmer.

Small Town Studio

Heber Springs

Heber Springs was a small town of around 2000 people, although many of the studio clients will have been from the surrounding country of Cleburne County, Arkansas. The town is at the foot hills of the Ozark Mountains, and virtually the only industries at the time were farming and logging. Cotton was the main crop in the southern part of the county, and throughout the area many farmers were living at subsistence level.

Disfarmer’s Assistant

Julia Scully (see below) was able to interview Mike Disfarmer’s assistant, Bess Utely, who worked for him when the studio was popular in the 1930s and 40s. She not only developed his plates but also often cooked for him.

Utely found him to be a fine man of superior intelligence, with a firm conviction that “he was the only one who could make pictures.” His conviction that he was superior to other people made it hard for them to understand him, and “made the people think he was nutty.”

Studio Sessions

Despite his oddities – or perhaps they increased the attraction – a trip to the photographer’s became one of the attractions on the trips people made into the town. There they stood in front of the plain dark background in the studio while the photographer carefully adjusted the blinds and got the lighting just how he wanted it.

The Sessions

The town’s funeral director, recalled a sitting with Disfarmer, and suggested that it sometimes took him an hour to arrange the lighting. Although he may have worked slowly and thoroughly, it seems unlikely that his clients would have had so long a time to wait. However, it is clear that the photographer took his work very seriously and the results he obtained show this.

Over the years, Disfarmer must have taken many thousands of pictures. As well as the studio work with which we are familiar there were probably pictures taken in peoples homes and elsewhere. Images by Disfarmer must be present in many family albums covering a wider range of his work and it would be of interest to discover if these show the same characteristics as the published work.

Equipment

Disfarmer was said to have used a large homemade studio camera. Like many photographers of the time, he stuck with glass plates rather than changing over to film, at least until around 1945. Joe Albright also suggested that the camera back went through a hole in the back wall of the studio, presumably into a dark area, and that Disfarmer looked at his subjects through a window when setting up the images.

Having the camera back in the darkroom area of the studio would give the advantage of a very clear image on the ground glass screen. If the window through which the photographer viewed his subjects was equipped with a lightproof blind, plates could be loaded or unloaded without a darkslide. However, memories of Disfarmer and the way that he had worked were dim, since over 20 years had passed before the interviews.

A Recluse?

Disfarmer, particularly as he grew older, had had less and less contact with other people apart from taking their photographs, but retained his interest in music. The town barber, John Hendricks, an amateur guitarist, remembered evenings when he and Disfarmer sat in the studio playing together, Disfarmer was still a good fiddle player and enjoyed playing the kind of country music popular in the South.

Perhaps because the war had come to an end, but also possibly because of the photographer’s increasingly offhand and eccentric manner, business dropped off. Disfarmer’s studio remained open until he died at the age of 75 in 1959, but we know nothing of his work in these later years.

Posthumous Fame

Death

Disfarmer became more and more a recluse, avoided by most of the townspeople and he had few visitors, and even fewer customers at the studio. He was there on his own when he died in 1959, and it was two days before his body was discovered.

After Disfarmer’s death, the executors wanted the studio cleared, and a retired army engineer with an interest in photography was living in Heber Springs bought the entire contents of his studio for the token amount of 5 dollars.

Saving the Negatives

Although Joe Albright was disappointed to find no photographic equipment worth saving, he did have the foresight to hang on to the boxes of glass negatives that he found, some 3,000 of them, thinking they might be of some interest to local historians.

The latest of these negatives appears to date from around 1945, possibly suggesting that at this date Disfarmer changed over to using film. Albright kept the negatives in store until around 1974.

Miller and Scully

It was then that photographer Peter Miller and his wife Karen moved from New York to join an Arkansas cooperative corporation ‘The Group, Inc, and found themselves running the weekly Heber Springs newspaper ‘The Arkansas Sun’. They began featuring old photographs supplied by their readers, and Albright got in touch, offering some of Disfarmer’s work.

It was Miller who recognised that these images were possibly of more than local interest. He made some prints from the negatives and sent a few to Julia Scully at ‘Modern Photography’ magazine. She too was impressed, and set to work with Miller and Herschel and Elizabeth Coley to find out more about the man and his work

Modern Photography

Modern Photography‘, edited by Scully since she joined in 1966, was a mass circulation photographic magazine that unusually attempted to take the medium seriously, publishing features by critics including Andy Grundberg as well as a regular column ‘Seeing Pictures’ written by Scully herself.

Many photographers both in the USA and abroad looked to it for a wider view of creative developments, until it was finally swallowed up by its rival ‘Popular Photography’. The texts published by Scully form the basis for all other articles on Disfarmer, including this feature.

Publications

Disfarmer’s work began to be published in magazines and a book appeared in 1976, published by Addison House: ‘Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits, 1939-1946′ with: Disfarmer Photographs from Peter Miller, the Group, Inc. and text by Julia Scully.

Other publications followed, including a feature by Scully in ‘Aperture‘, certainly one of the highest accolades a photographer can achieve. In issue 78 (Fall 1977) the company was august, including Paul Strand’s images from his garden at Orgeval, Hilla and Bernd Becher’s images of preparation plants (“breakers”), colour by Joel Meyorowitz and early pictures by Francis Frith and others from Egypt.

From an unknown and forgotten career in a small town in rural America, Disfarmer had enjoyed a meteoric rise over a couple of years to become regarded by many as a major figure in the photographic pantheon, drawing comparisons to Atget, Arbus and Sander.

Image and Reputation

The Pictures

Disfarmer is said not to have posed his ‘sitters’, and indeed most of them simply stand facing the camera in simple groups. However it is a rare individual who does not look unflinchingly into the eye of the camera, and even rarer one who smiles at at. Whatever he did or did not say to them, Disfarmer clearly imposed a relatively common approach in these matters.

The strength of these images is in part in their simplicity, but their appeal is also very much to do with the character of the people that he photographed. The pictures have a built-in nostalgia, a reference to a time past that for most of us was never present, except in film.

The People

The people here are a past we would perhaps like to think we had, a view of America when the dream was still real, even if those who are shown were not getting much of a share of it.

These are hard-working people, some still in their working clothes, but mainly in their ‘Sunday best’, reserved for going to church or for having your picture taken. Honesty apparently shines through their faces, looking at us from a simpler world where right was right. There is also a fine humanity in them, often most evident in the little imperfections.

Lighting

Disfarmer used soft, overall lighting, probably using reflectors as well as the large north-facing windows which even reduced or eliminated any shadows on the underside of hat brims. Generally the light was slightly directional, coming from the left of camera to produce some slight form shadow which gives the figures their three dimensional quality.

Exposures

His exposures seem to have been quite lengthy – perhaps in seconds – with some faces clearly showing movement blur. The people are clearly concentrating on having their picture taken, staring into the camera with the same kind of intensity that was required for the daguerreotype.

A Collector

I get the feeling that Disfarmer regarded himself more as a scientist than an artist, pinning these people closely against his background and walls almost as if he were making a butterfly collection. But here the subjects respond to his game, some with dour obedience (life was hard and many things just had to be born), some with near terror and others determined to show their individuality through pose or gesture.

For many a trip to the photographers was perhaps similar to a trip to the dentists, something that had to be endured. Young men about to go to war, dragged in by their family to pose with them, and also proud men returning and celebrating.

Although some families will have had their Kodaks, there was still an immense gulf between the kind of small blurred mementos these provided and the carefully composed large format quality of the professional.

Disfarmer and Evans

Although I have no doubt that these are fine portraits of their time, to me the work lacks the complexity of that of Atget and Sander. It is, like its subjects, honest and straightforward.

It has a similar appeal to some of Walker Evans’s work for ‘Fortune’, such as his images of tools, but lacks the complex feelings of those images that he made of share-croppers, articulated both in his photographs and in the text by James Agee that accompanied his work in ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’

Evans took his pictures as an East coast intellectual coming in to the lives of the sharecroppers; while Disfarmer, despite his own certainty that he was an outsider, had known and shared the circumstances of those who entered his studio for all of his life. It is work from a different viewpoint, equally valid but more limited.

Evans – and his colleagues at the FSA – give us a view from the outside, and at times one that was designed to further the aims of the organisation, although Evans himself clearly worked to his own agenda.

In later years, the work of the photographers was more clearly linked to the war effort. Disfarmer had no such pressures, providing a service directly to those he photographed, if one suspects rather on a take it or leave it basis.

Vintage Prints?

I admire Disfarmer’s work, and was pleased to have the opportunity to view some original prints at a recent exhibition. These were prints made from the original negatives, rather than prints made by the photographer himself, and it would be interesting to be able to compare the two.

Those who have edited and published his work appear to have treated it with commendable respect, although it is not possible to know how clearly their selection of his images would reflect what Disfarmer would have considered to be his most important work.

More Disfarmers?

Disfarmer isn’t a photographer whose work has changed the course of photography, but work that was carried out by someone who remained unknown outside his own small community. It is interesting to speculate on other Disfarmers hidden away in their own small towns around the world, working quietly and diligently cultivating their own gardens.

There have indeed been such claims made for other photographers – including even some from Arkansas – but the evidence that I’ve seen usually fails to support their cases. However, interesting photographers from the past are still being discovered.

It is perhaps less likely in the present that such talent should be overlooked. Had he lived in the present, Disfarmer would probably have been spending a great deal of time on the Internet, creating a web site about his switch at birth and his photographs. Bushels are rarer these days and fewer candles remain hidden.

Louis Clergeau

Of course not all photographers get treated fairly after their death. To judge from John Berger’s review of ‘A Village in France’, Louis Clergeau’s pictures of life in a small town near Blois in central France from 1902-36, his work has been reduced to an almost meaningless nostalgia.

Rephotography

Photographer Toba Pato Tucker was so impressed when she saw Disfarmer’s work that she went to Heber Springs for two years, photographing some of the same people that he had photographed, as well as their descendants and relatives. The differences her work showed between the 1940s and the later work was the subject of a book by her and Alan Trachtenberg, published by the University of Mexico Press in 1996.

 

 

 

Becoming Disfarmer

January 24th, 2015

Back in 2003 I tidied up my notes on a studio photographer who had been unknown outside his home town at the time of his death in 1959 but whose remarkable work had been discovered, published and exhibited in the 1970s. It seemed surprising to me at the time – fairly close to his death when many who had known him were still living – that apparently rather little was known about the man – Mike Disfarmer – and what there was seemed rather strange. Perhaps there was in some an interest in making him out to be a true eccentric – as had been done with Atget until further research gave us more facts. In part it seemed good marketing and it was perhaps getting in the way of many seeing his pictures for what they were.

As usual my own writing wasn’t based on any original research, but on what I could glean from a number of magazine articles and internet sites, and I made no claims to originality other than possibly in my comments on the work. And perhaps I could claim to have looked at the pictures more carefully than many, and with a photographer’s eyes.

It was a piece that at the time led to considerable interest, and I got comments and e-mails from a number of people, including from Julia Scully who, together with Peter Miller had written about and first published his work, and several others closely involved.

In some of the e-mails I was sent other pictures that Disfarmer had produced, that had not at that time been published elsewhere. The pictures we all knew in 2003 had all come from a batch of glass plates that had been saved by a former Mayor of Heber Springs after Disfarmer’s death and were then discovered by Miller and were a relatively small part of his output – a few years from his around 45 years life as town photographer. None of them were actual prints made by the photographer, who had only made prints for the clients he had photographed; his prints were on the walls and in the family albums of people living in Heber Springs and the wider area of Cleburne County.

The Disfarmer Project was launched in 2004 after New York photo collector Michael Mattis was offered a family collection of fifty prints made by Disfarmer by a young couple who had grown up in Heber Springs. He set up the project to find as many vintage prints as he could using people from the community to visit local homes, working with the local Cleburn County Historical Society. They unearthed well over 3000 photographs. A chapter from the book Disfarmer, The Vintage Prints “Disfarmer Rediscovered” on ASX shows some of the range of his work over 40 years.

At times there seemed to be some friction or competition between the Disfarmer Project, Disfarmer.com who market prints from the Miller collection of glass negatives and other collectors of original Disfarmer prints (and it was something I became at one point peripherally involved in, though I write as an outsider), with each laying claim to being concerned with the ‘real’ Disfarmer. But all seem to be cooperating in the new official Facebook Page.

But things are not all sweetness and light, as Chelsea Spengemann, art historian and curator of Becoming Disfarmer, currently showing at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York State until March 22, 2015 found. In a Time Lightbox feature Spengemann talks about how she wanted to go beyond the myths and put the published enlargements into the wider context of the vintage contact prints made by the photographer for his clients. Two collectors who had been working with her withdrew their prints from the show a week after the catalogue was printed as they objected to her choice of lesser known – and in some cases damaged prints. Half the show had to be replaced and the catalogue reprinted. Disfarmer is now big money for some and they don’t want their investment damaged.

According to the museum press release, Becoming Disfarmer includes “examples of his restored and unrestored vintage prints made between between 1925-1950, enlargements made posthumously from 1976-2005 from his glass plate negatives dated 1939-1946, as well as audio clips, historical journals, newspapers, and other ephemera.” The show also features some pictures with inscriptions on fronts and backs showing their function as “intimate family keepsakes“.

I’ll perhaps look out my article on Disfarmer and make it available here again, so long as it doesn’t seem to need much alteration.

Shirley Baker

January 23rd, 2015

I’m surprised to find that I never seem to have mentioned the work of Shirley Baker (1932-2014) on this site. A  post on Facebook today reminded me of her work, and linked to a gallery of pictures on The Guardian, which also carried a good obituary of her last October.

I never – so far as I know – met her, though we walked many of the same streets in Manchester. Some of her finest work came from Hulme, through which I walked every day in my first year at university – and where, a few years later, after it had all been demolished, I learnt to drive along empty streets lined with rubble and just the odd pub and church still standing, the community destroyed by redevelopment.

On my way I walked past scenes like those she photographed, though at the time I could not afford to take pictures. I lived too in streets like these for the first three years of my married life, on the top floor of a house like those in her pictures – a few years ago I could have gone back and bought it for less than the price of a good digital camera.

I went back to Hulme too, after the redevelopment, as a volunteer interviewer for a sociology project; going into the new system-built  flats which were instant slums, already damp and leaking at the seams due to poor assembly. Before long they too were demolished and replaced. Streets of houses like those demolished in 1974 or 5, well over a hundred years old, still stand, and many have now been renovated and improved. Again The Guardian had a good article about a fairly similar area in Liverpool recently.

Much of the time I was in Manchester I didn’t really have a working camera, having dropped my Halina 35X into the lake when visiting Versailles in the summer of 1966. Eventually a boatman managed to fish it out, but it was never the same again. The shutter would work sometimes, but the speeds it gave were random, though generally on the slow side. The few black and white pictures I took have heavily over-exposed negatives, generally with camera shake.

It wasn’t until around 5 years later that I could afford to replace it, and in the whole seven years I spent in Manchester I only took and handful of films. I was busy with other things, and simply could not afford films or processing – and had no idea of how to develop or print my own.

Baker studied photography at the Manchester college where I took my second degree (by that time it was a university and a part of the ‘white heat of technology’) and when she took the pictures of Hulme was a lecturer in photography in neighbouring Salford.  She worked too for newspapers, but felt that she was only given the jobs that were thought to be suitable for women and not worthwhile for her male colleagues.   According to the newspaper article there is to be a show of her work at the Photographers Gallery in 2015.

Looking at her pictures is for me in part looking at those memories of my own I failed to photograph, an exercise in nostalgia. But I’m sure her work also has meaning for those who don’t have that shared experience, and is also an important record of how people lived and played and of social attitudes and a community which has disappeared in so many places. You can see much more of her work – around 340 pictures including some from London and abroad – by searching on her name at the Mary Evans picture library.

 

 

Breach of Copyright

January 21st, 2015

You may have seen this picture recently, as it has appeared over 80 times on the web, many in the last week, at times clearly with a Demotix watermark – indicating it is unlicensed. A few of the instances were probably taken from my own web site, with my discreet watermark cropped off the bottom.

I took this picture in London in July 2011, at a protest organised by Anjem Choudry, apparently MI5’s favourite Muslim honeypot, Muslim Extremists March For Sharia Zones.

Here is the context from my web site:

Around 70 men from Muslims Against Crusades marched from Leyton to Walthamstow calling for the setting up of Sharia Controlled Zones in the UK which ‘Islamic rules’ would be enforced by Muslims.

and the caption on Demotix is:

“Muslim man holds up ‘Sharia Controlled Zone’ poster at protest calling for Britain’s first Islamic Emirate”

and on my own web site: ‘

The controversial ‘Sharia Controlled Zone’ poster that has gone up in several East London boroughs’

I’ve not looked at all of the uses made of it on the web, but those I have seem to be using the image as evidence of ‘no go areas’ in the UK, which clearly it was not. Most also seem to be Islamophobic in tone, some rather rabidly so.

It may be that a few of those sites have licensed the image from Demotix (or Corbis etc) and I will in a few months time get a few pounds for my work – the fees Demotix charge for web use are derisory. I’ll look through the sites and decide if there are any that might be worth chasing up for payment, though I doubt it as few seem to be UK based.

I may also report it to Demotix, but I doubt they will be of any help, and the time I would have to spend on chasing up all these instances would be enormous. Its vital that we have copyright laws, and sometimes photographers can benefit from them (as I’ve done on a few occasions) but much of the time they only benefit the large multinational agencies who have the time and resources to pursue infringers around the world.
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‘Page 3′ on the way out?

January 20th, 2015

Five months ago, in August 2014, I photographed the second anniversary party of the ‘No More Page 3‘ campaign, held on the courtyard outside the new offices of News International facing London Bridge Station. A  few weeks later I wrote about it on this blog, in the post ‘No More Page 3‘.

In the news today, there were reports that The Sun has abandoned its practice of publishing these ‘topless’ images daily on the page, and in today’s issue the spot was occupied first by a couple of women  in bikinis running along a beach in Dubai, though later editions apparently displaced them with the story of the death of a long-running Coronation Street soap star. Something which is news, if not news that I have any particular interest in, having last seen the programme before she joined it 43 years ago.

What was interesting this morning was to hear the BBC’s  tame media commentator talk about this without mention of the campaign which was undoubtedly what prompted newspaper owner Rupert Murdoch to consider dropping the daily feature and to finally order its demise. It was left to a woman MP also taking part, Stella Creasy to mention them, after which he rather grudgingly admitted that ‘No More Page 3′ might have played a small part.  ‘Like’, I thought, ‘it wouldn’t have happened without them.’

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow speaks at an anti-racist event in 2012

It’s hard not to conclude that there is a conspiracy to play down the role of protests in promoting change. People often tell me it changes nothing, but it is perhaps the only way most ‘ordinary people’ can influence events. I do believe that it is important to vote (and vital to vote for the right people) but it’s even more important to get out there on the street with banners and placards, and to organise and sign petitions.

Of course, protest does often become respectable in long retrospect, and its importance can even become overstated. Slavery still continues despite the valiant efforts of Wilberforce and the abolitionists, and the racism that underlay it is perhaps now on the increase.

So far, the ‘Page 3′ success – not yet confirmed by The Sun, but reported by another Murdoch mouthpiece – seems a very partial one.  A step in the right direction to a newspaper which publishes pictures of women simply because they are making news.

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Leica M – 60 Years

January 18th, 2015

I still have the Leica M2 that I bought around 1977 when it was already over 20 years old. It’s a while since I used it, but I think it is still in perfect working order. Of course it’s been serviced a few times – though not that many. Apparently it is now 60 years since the Leica M series was introduced.

While others preferred the M3, for me the M2 was the perfect camera – within its limitations.  If you were happy always to use a 35mm or 50mm lens and work by available light it could become an almost natural extension of your eye and brain.

Leica made a few minor changes over the years – some improvements, others perhaps less so. I had to buy a specially engineered third party rewind handle as the M2 just had a knob, and later models were faster to load film, though the slightly fiddly system with the M2 was perhaps more reliable.  But there was nothing from Leica that made me think it worth the expense of upgrading, at least not until they went digital.  But then my experiences with the M8 were pretty horrendous, and although they have perhaps recovered now, I’m not sure I have, and I’ve decided that Fuji are perhaps more my style.

Even while I was still using film, it was other manufacturers who took the basic Leica formula and innovated.  Minolta with the CLE and Konica with the Hexars, which led to that M2 spending much of its life in my cupboard rather than my camera bag or hands. But while others made better cameras, Leica continued to be more conservative, tougher and more reliable.

Like most photographers I moved to SLRs for most of my work, largely for their versatility, working with a wider range of focal lengths as well as more accurate viewfinders. In particular to the Olympus OM system, ending with a couple of OM4 bodies, again great cameras to use.  Digital led me to abandon these for Nikon, and by my fifth body, the D700, there too was a camera I liked to use. Now its the Fuji XT-1 with its splendid electronic viewfinder that makes me recall at least something of the old experience of working with that Leica M2 back in the 1970s.

Back to Leica M, Leica UK have been celebrating with a series of videos celebrating the 60th anniversary, in which photographers talk about their  favourite pictures taken with a Leica M – and their thoughts about Leica. As I write you can see those by Peter Marlow, Sarah Lee, Ian Llewellyn, Matt Stuart, Paul Fuller, Olaf Willoughby, Tom Stoddart, Matt Humphrey, Kelly Preedy,  Stuart Franklin (with links to their web sites) and a film of Bill Amberg who was asked to design a new camera bag to celebrate 100 years of Leica.

I certainly can’t see myself buying this bag – or indeed any other of the special Leica camera bags, partly because they are all ridiculously expensive, but also because it doesn’t seem to me very practical, despite the obvious thought that went into its design.  I don’t think it would accommodate what are for me the two essentials for any photo bag, a bottle of water and a paperback book.

Slow Recovery

January 17th, 2015

I’m sitting typing at my notebook, and using it to copying my files from 2007-8 from an old external hard disk onto my new Drobo 5N NAS. And rethinking how I intend to backup my work. This is a slow process, as the hard disk is only USB2, and at around 15Mb/s the 500Gb will take around 8 hours.(Later I found the speed roughly doubled if I actually plugged the Ethernet cable into the router, rather than just assuming it was connected and transferring over the wireless link.) I’ve another 9 disks to go through, some larger, though I’ll not transfer everything to the new system.

To my right, my desktop computer is still chuntering through Chkdsk on my drive G:, all 3TB of it. It’s now got on to telling me that there are around 450,000 files that need fixing and is looking at each in turn to tell me it can’t fix them. It says that it is 10% through, but I don’t believe the figures. Probably it will finish some time early next week. Meanwhile I’m doing the best I can with the notebook.

I got all ready to take pictures yesterday when I got a message telling me the event had been cancelled. There was a suggestion I might cover something else, but unfortunately by the time I read the message it seemed to late to get there.  I don’t have Lightroom installed on my notebook – I decided the screen was too small and the keyboard and pad wouldn’t make it worth having. I could install it now – or put it on my smartphone as the licence allows, but instead I’ve decided to work in RAW + Fine jpeg mode until I get back onto the desktop machine. I do have an old copy of Photoshop I can use to do some adjustments.

The Drobo has advantages and disadvantages. It should protect against a hard drive failure, enabling me to replace a failing disk without losing work, and it should also allow me to increase the capacity of the system by installing disks of higher capacity. It also means that should my computer go down I will be able to easily access all my files from any other computer I attach to the network. And it is certainly convenient to have access to so much work in the one place.

Its big disadvantages seem to me to be that it is a proprietary system, and that it is also a single point of failure. So while I’m backing up my files to it, I’m also looking at keeping at least one other copy of all important files elsewhere.

I’ll store the old external hard drives carefully – and hope they remain in working order unused. And I’ll keep another attached to my main computer to store current work, replacing that as it gets full. I suspect that they will remain usuable if stored well – at least so long as we still have hardware with USB ports.
I still have boxes full of CDs and DVDs with most of my digital work (and some scans) on them, going back now in some cases around 20 years. Despite the health warnings many have given over the years, so far these have remained readable – I did always look for disks which were supposedly of good quality. I gave up writing work to these around a year ago when with 32Mp files things really got out of hand. And some of the scans and panoramas come to around 250Mb a time, which makes DVD at 4.7Gb look rather small.

I’m thinking now of going back to them, though only for storing a copy of the jpegs that I develop from Lightroom – a much more manageable proposition. An alternative would be to use USB memory sticks, given the low prices of 64Gb USB3 sticks; again people say these are not suitable for long term storage, but those I wrote when they first came out remain readable. I’ll also consider getting a Blu-Ray – perhaps external – writer which are now available at a reasonable price, and 25Gb media at around a quid a piece, but I’m less sure about them.

Of course I should be using cloud storage, but I trust that less than I do optical media. Who can say which companies will still be in business next year – or whether the promises they make will be kept? And cloud storage for all of my work would be prohibitive in cost. It does provide a valuable safeguard against theft, flood or fire etc, but perhaps I’ll ask a friend to keep a small bag of memory sticks or box of disks instead.

 

Computer Problems

January 16th, 2015

Today I’m having computer problems. Yesterday while I was working we had a little power glitch; the light and my printer went off for a fraction of a second and then restarted; I don’t have a proper inyterruptible power supply, but the mickey-mouse protection on my fancy socket kept the computer working. People not far away had a power cut that lasted some hours, so we were fortunate. Unfortunately one of my external hard disks although it seemed to keep on working appears to have suffered some damage.

I turned on the computer it’s connected to today and went away to leave it to boot up, returning a minute of so later to find that it was running CHKSDK on my drive G:, with white figures about unreadable files flashing across the screen. Seven hours later it is still doing it, with a message telling me “10% complete”. It isn’t a good idea to interrupt CHKDSK (and I think the only way to do so is to turn off the power), so I’m working today on my notebook.

It isn’t a bad notebook, but the screen is around a third the area of my desktop, and the keyboard isn’t great for typing. But perhaps the main problem is that I can’t easily access the files stored on the desktop machine and its attached external drives.

For years I’ve been meaning to go over to network attached storage, but haven’t managed to persuade myself to pay out the cash for a decent system. Instead I’ve just added more external drives, though not all permanently connected.

I don’t know how much of the data on the disk currently being checked I will be able to recover. I think most or all of it will in any case be stored elsewhere, either on other hard disks or on CD or DVD. So I’m hoping little will be completely lost, though I anticipate it will take me quite a while to sort everything out.

Meanwhile, I’ve finally got around to ordering that NAS system I should have installed years ago, and once everything is up and running will be copying my work onto it. It will be a very long job, but should end up with things being better organised than before. It may mean rather less time for me to write here for a while.

Exploring Frank

January 15th, 2015

Thanks to a note on the NY Times Lens blog, Finding Robert Frank, Online by Maurice Berger
for pointing me to the recently published US National Gallery of Art web pages on
The Robert Frank Collection which was put on-line in time for his 90th birthday in November.

Its an illustrated guide to their vast collection of his works, and you can see selected images and contact sheets and more.  As well as the images available on line, the site enables you to search the collection, and you can then make an appointment to go to see the material you have selected at the The Robert Frank Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Though it would be rather a long journey for me.

Frank’s work is perhaps best seen not on-line, nor at the NGA, nor in the Pace/MacGill Gallery, but in the pages of two books. Most important is of course ‘The Americans‘ (or ‘Les Americains’) , and though a copy of the original publication might set you back over £3,000 you can find a more recent (and possibly better) edition for around £20. But of course if you have any interest in photography you will already have a well-thumbed copy on your bookshelf.

You can also view the book on a video. It’s best to download the HD version and play it with a proper viewer like VLC Media Player. Mute the sound, put your mouse cursor over the time line and you are ready to look at it, page by page.