Archive for June, 2007

Leica Blues (or Purples)

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

I’ve delayed writing anything about the Leica M8 until now largely because I don’t yet feel I know enough about it yet. I started using one in April, but for various reasons haven’t taken a great deal – only a thousand or two shots.

Part of the reason for this was that I was still waiting to send off for my two free filters until I decided which sizes I wanted. Which lenses was I going to use with this camera from the ten or so M fitting lenses of various age and manufacture? When I finally got round to ordering them, Leica had made some of the decisions for me, as several of my older Leitz lenses take filters in sizes not on offer. Even some formerly popular sizes such as 40.5mm are not on the official list.

My favourite 35mm f1.4 for example would be a fine fast standard lens. Some versions of it don’t even focus beyond 3 meters on the M8, but mine fits fine and runs to infinity. But the lens has no filter thread. A cut-out lens hood holds a Leitz Series 7 unmounted filter. My lens hood is now incredibly battered, adding a certain street cred with the impression of having been through Kosovo or ‘Nam, but it isn’t easy to find filters to fit, and the severely crushed cut-out hood on its front has a nasty habit of falling off at awkward moments. More importantly, as Irakly Shanidze says in his excellent Leica M8. How is it for professional use? (in several ways the best and most balanced article I’ve seen about the camera,) just try going to your dealer and asking for a B+W 486 IR-Cut Series 7 filter.

Actually, a 49mm slim B+W 486 filter in black mount supposedly will fit in place of a Series 7, but you’ll need a particularly friendly dealer to order even one of these. Alternatively, I’m told if you contact Leitz, they may offer to make you a filter for the purpose. The B+W filters are a little stronger than the Leitz versions, but that isn’t likely to be a problem in practical use. (Heliopan also make some IR cut filters that differ slightly from the Leitz specifications, though none that will fit in place of the Series 7.)

IR cut filters have a problem with lenses with an angle of view greater than 60 degrees, as they give a cyan cast with more oblique rays, thus increasing towards the corner of the lens. The latest M8 firmware corrects for this by recognising the focal length of the lens from the 6 bit coding and applying a suitable correction. This is fine for coded lenses, but what if your lenses are not coded?

Some older lenses can be 6 bit coded, but not the older pre-ASPH 35mm f1.4. You can try the do-it-yourself method with a black permanent marker – although I’m assured it works, so far I’ve not met any success. Perhaps I’m using the wrong type of black pen?

However, painting on the coding dots is only half the solution, as the camera apparently only takes notice of these if the correct viewfinder frame is automatically selected. This rules out lenses such as my 28mm Minolta f2.8 produced for the Minolta CLE, the best 28mm design of its era, as this selects the 35mm finder frame. I’m told it can be engineered to select the correct frame, but I’m loath to take a file to mine.

However, although the IR problem can’t be solved in software, the filter-induced variable cyan cast should be possible to correct. It would be good to see a Photoshop plugin with a ‘focal length’ slider for this purpose, as with uncoded lenses it cannot be recorded in the EXIF data.

Leica users worldwide have been screaming at Leitz to allow user selection of focal lengths for non-coded lenses as at least a partial solution, but that isn’t the Leica way, which demands perfection, even where this creates extensive pain. Even those with Leica’s own latest lenses such as the wide Tri-Elmar have spent some time waiting on Leitz to come up with the correct filter.

Truly the situation is an unholy mess, and one that severely blots Leitz’s copybook. Their engineers apparently recognised the problem in the camera design stage, but seem to have simply hoped nobody would notice. What should have been announced as a novel and superior solution – along with a plentiful supply of filters for all current lenses and a wider program to deal with the many already owned by Leica users – was allowed to leak out, appearing as incomptence and even deceit.

This is a shame, as the Leica M8 is a great camera, for all our various niggles. It delivers superbly detailed 10 megapixel files from the finest range of standard and wideangle lenses available (including some great lenses from Cosina/Voigtlander and Zeiss.) Its simplicity is a strength – the menus are all simple and straightforward, perhaps the only digital camera you don’t need a manual to use. If as I did, you loved working with rangefinder cameras when using film, you would love an M8.

Peter Marshall

The ‘I’ Word

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Archival Ink Prints

One of several things that impressed me at Photo-London last week was the number of inkjet prints on display, mainly in colour, but also some black and white, including what I thought was technically one of the best prints, if not the best, in the show (I don’t much like the subject matter, so perhaps won’t mention the photographer.)

Even more impressive was that none of the wall-labels for these prints mentioned the ‘I’ word. I*kj*t is certainly a taboo word so far as dealers are concerned. Instead there were various circumlocutions, varying from the entirely misleading ‘carbon print’ to things that were more essays than media descriptions, such as “printed with pigment based inks on archival cotton paper.” At least the term giclĂ©e seems largely to have gone out of fashion, though not entirely absent. It was probably never too popular in France, where I’m told the word, meaning ‘spurted’, has unsavoury slang associations.

Of course many inkjet prints are of poor quality and fugitive in nature, particularly in the early years of inkjet printing. The same problems beset photography in its early years, with salt prints and albumen prints often disappearing almost before your very eyes – and many watercolours also have fading problems. The rise of the photographic gallery in the 1970s and 80s more or less coincided with the so-called ‘new color’ photography, and many of those early C-types are now more a study in browns than colour images (although some at least of the dye transfer prints from the era retain their stunning quality – and there were some fine examples by Eggleston in particular at Photo-London.)

Dealers are also reluctant to use the term inkjet because everyone has an inkjet printer at home, just as many don’t like the term photograph, because the whole world takes and makes photos. Calling them ‘silver gelatin prints’ or even ‘color coupler prints’ associates them with the long and distinguished heritage of print-making rather than that common upstart photography.

Most of the descriptions of inkjet prints currently in use would surely fail under the Trade Descriptions Act as misleading. Carbon prints are something quite different, dating from the nineteenth century, which produced some of the richest and most lustrous images in existence (as well as many that were atrocious.) Of course many of those did not use carbon as pigment.

Archival is also a term lacking in definition. In terms of paper, cotton is a fine material for long-lasting papers, but probably the best lignin-free alpha-cellulose materials are probably its equal. All papers, including 100% cotton materials, may also contain optical brighteners (OBAs) whose fading will make papers yellow with age, and may also be coated with ink-receptive materials whose archival properties in such situations are undetermined.

Inks too are complex materials. Early inkjets all used soluble dyes, chosen with little thought as to their light stability, and prints faded fast. But there are dyes that are stable, that can most likely match the stability of the pigment inks we use. Not that pigments are always particularly stable, and carbon itself isn’t without problems. Of course even inks sold as carbon based inksets for black and white printing have turned out also to contain metallic pigments and often dyes as well (and there is good reason for their presence.) Inks also contain other materials which may too contribute to their fading.

It perhaps isn’t surprising that Stephen Livick, a photographer who seriously studied the problems of making long-lasting inkjet prints and published his personal test results received “serious litigious threats” which eventually forced him to remove his test information from the website. You can still read some of his conclusions, including the fact that certain coatings, particularly Clearstar’s Clearshield, applied after printing will greatly increase print longevity.

Of course, however prints are made, it is largely storage and display conditions that will determine the rate of their deterioration. Most prints would do pretty well if kept in an inert atmosphere at low temperature and controlled humidity – even silver negatives will keep for a considerable age under these conditions. Mounting on acid-free or impermeable supports (and of course any adhesive material used), framing under glass etc all will affect the rate of fade.

Although inkjet printing covers a wide range of materials (and some differences in method) I think we need a commonly agreed simple term intended to describe such prints rather than the current attempts at obfuscation. I don’t like the term archival, but it is hard to think of a better word, so I think we are stuck with it. Otherwise I think it best to keep the description as short and simple as possible. So I propose the term:

Archival ink print.

It is short, avoids the ‘I’ word (and the ‘P’ word), makes it clear that the image is an ink image, while avoiding much confusion. Of course many photographers will want to give a more detailed description of their working practices, perhaps as a part of a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ which may also include advice on storage or display (such as “should be displayed framed behind glass out of direct sunlight.”)

This is a subject that has been discussed in various on-line forums over the years, and I’ve taken part in those often heated debates. My views as I’ve thought (and learnt) more about the problem have changed. So for me at least, this is a new suggestion. Your views are welcome.

Peter Marshall

Water, Water Everywhere.

Friday, June 1st, 2007

From the beginning, photographers have always had a thing about water. Of course it’s inherited from painting, as a quick walk around almost any art gallery, at least of work before the twentieth century, will soon confirm. Walking around art galleries is always useful exercise for photographers, and in London we are peculiarly blessed with both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery adjoining Trafalgar Square where I’m often photographing events, and Tate Britain a short and pleasant walk from Parliament Square, where I’ll drop in and say hello to Brian Haw even if there is no other demo taking place. These galleries are also handy places to dry out when you’ve got soaked photographing in the rain.

In the first decade or two of photography, exposures were long, and one of the great challenges was to photograph waves. I wrote recently on ways to photograph water, and mentioned the success of John Dillwyn Llewelyn in an image of waves breaking on the Welsh coast in the early 1850s.

Water was essential to the wet-plate process that he used, where the photographic plate had to be coated and made sensitive to light on the spot, then exposed and developed before it dried to form a hard, impermeable skin. Of course water remained essential to photographic processing until the advent of digital, but we didn’t need to do the business on the spot. Even now, large quantities of water are needed for the manufacture of digital cameras, computers and the other equipment we need. Truly water is essential for life!

Few photographers, even the most cynical of us, are not occasionally seduced by the reflections of our subject in a smooth pool or broken by ripples, even though we know such things have already been done to death (and there is much evidence of this demise on Flickr and elsewhere.)

I’m trying hard to remember which the photographer was when asked for his definition of photography replied “never anything shot on a beach” or words to similar effect. I don’t think it was me, though I have a certain sympathy with the sentiment. As in the same way I used to call for a moratorium on the sale of colour film in the “Fall”, so aptly named by Americans. O Kodachrome, O tempora, o mores!

So when I agreed to take a walk with Linda and Samuel along some of London’s canal system last Saturday, did I stick to my principles and leave the camera at home? Of course not. From Mile End, we walked not to Paradise, but Willesden Junction by way of Kensal Green.

Grand Union Canal (Paddington Branch) at Kensal Green, steady rain.
(C) 2007, Peter Marshall

Water, at least towards the end of our journey was certainly everywhere, with an intense fine rain falling constantly as we walked the last few miles, although for once I managed to keep most of it out of my Nikon. Perhaps the canal looks at its best in rain?

More pictures from the walk in My London Diary, May 2007

Peter Marshall

Summer Photography

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Certainly the most satifying of the various photographic shows currently in London is the Summer Photography Exhibition at Bernard Quaritch Ltd on the edge of Golden Square in Soho. It gains from being a relatively small show, concentrating on photographers who have photographed within a particular community or urban area. The show continues until 29th June, 2007 and is open Mondays to Fridays, 9.30-5.30.

(C) 2005, Mike Seaborne.
Mike Seaborne, Bethnal Green, 2005

Quaritch is an antiquarian bookseller, established in 1847 by Bernard Quaritch, who on his death in 1899 was described, according to The Times, as “the greatest bookseller who ever lived.” Their premises in Golden Square, where they moved in 1970, have something of the air of a gentlemen’s club and the walls are lined with bookcases of old and rare volumes.

Before going into the downstairs gallery, we lingered around a glass case with some examples of the work of Thomas Annan, including a couple of fine large published volumes of his work, the superb carbon prints published in 1878/9 and the photogravures published in 1900 by his son, Robert Craig Annan, which included 12 of his prints along with 38 taken by his father. The photogravures are also splendid prints.

Downstairs in the gallery is a rare treat, 5 salt prints from the calotype images that Hill and Adamson made at the fishing village of Newhaven on the edge of Edinburgh, not a great walk from their Calton Hill studios. These prints are still powerful images 160 years later, and I was particularly struck by the image of the three fishermen. The different poses they have adopted to attempt to remain still for the lengthy exposure required express powerfully their varied characters. It remains a far more powerful portrait than anything I saw in Photo-London, and reminds me strongly of some of the best images of August Sander, taken some 80 or 90 years later. The five fishwives grouped around some of their baskets is also one of their more interesting images.

The five Thomas Annan prints in the show are glowing examples of his work on the closes of Glasgow in 1868-71 (printed in 1877.) Carbon prints are perhaps capable of a quality unequalled by any other photographing printing process, and these are good examples.

John Thomson’s Street Life in London, with text by Adolphe Smith is represented in the show by six Woodburytype prints. These are carbon prints produced in a printing press from a lead relief plate, created under high pressure from a gelatin relief image made in a similar manner to a carbon print, contact printing a dichromate sensitised gelatin coated sheet under the negative using a powerful UV source.

Street Life in London was one of the truly pioneering works of documentary, and the nicely produced Quaritch catalogue for the show (Catalogue 1351) lists copies both of this work and ‘Street Incidents’, published a few years later to get rid of unsold sheets of prints from ‘Street Life.’

Although Henry Dixon along with Alfred and John Bool produced many fine images recording London around the 1870s and 1880s, their work was perhaps the least striking in the show. Compared to the Annan images, the prints shown lacked depth, and both the viewpoints and the choice of times when the streets were largely deserted make their work of less interest.

By contrast, Roger Mayne’s images from North Kensington, Notting Hill and Paddington in the 1950s are entirely about incident. I was particularly taken with his view of children and teenagers on the doorsteps of St Stephen’s Gardens. Times have changed, not only in the dress and behaviour of children, but also in public attitudes to photographers and being photographed; it would be a brave photographer who tried to take similar pictures on the streets of London today.

Again by contrast, Mike Seaborne’s ‘Facades are deliberately empty of people. Taken from across the street with a square format Rolleiflex camera, they create a systematic visual catalogue of shopfronts surviving (in some cases only just) from an earlier age. Taken in 2004-6, these colour images (some of which are on the Urban Landscapes site I started with Mike) are powerfully evocative, the remains of an older world still with us, often in contrast with ugly 2000s street furniture.

Also included in the show is a single print of New York by Berenice Abbott, a beautiful riot of washing in the yard of New York’s first model tenements, built in 1882 and photographed by here in 1936.

Peter Marshall