Category Archives: black & white

Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

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Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Masahisa Fukase: solitude or loneliness?

The show ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (until 23 April 2016), has a bleak mid-winter feel. A profound sadness pervades Fukase’s images which were made over a ten year period following the photographer’s divorce. The images speak not just of solitude or being alone but of a deeper loneliness that may have become – or been caused by – a long-lasting period of depression.

MasahisaFukase-1

The photographer Masahisa Fukase peaks at us from between two Raven images

I can imagine the photo series starting as a means of working through a traumatic period but inadvertently becoming a brake on emotional recovery; as if the photographer is mired in a self-perpetuating cycle of depression rather than finding an upward recovery towards a happier springtime.
The motif of the unfairly maligned raven recurs through the series as a bird of ill omen. The birds are frequently depicted in silhouette like shadow puppets subject entirely to the external control of the puppeteer, alluding to the lack of control the photographer may feel over his own life.
Sharpness and definition are rare commodities in these images, which are more about mood than content, about emotion rather than fact. There is a muted tonal pallet: black shapes and grey textures dominate even in the non-Raven images.

MasahisaFukase-3

Limited tonal range, blur and grain typify the images in ‘Solitude of Ravens’

The photographs are not sequenced but several are placed close to each other to emphasise their similarity. Fukase originally made the series in 1982 but the images here are a re-working by a friend of his, with some additional ones. Most of the photos are printed beyond the image frame giving a rough-edged look with a hint of 35mm film perforations, reminiscent of a frame from a movie or a keyword chosen from a sentence: a staccato summary of a bleak period in life.

MasahisaFukase-2

The show is not ordered like a narrative but there is an association of pictures that seem to speak to each other

Masahisa Fukase died in 2012 after being in a coma for 20 years following an accident. One is left with the distinct impression that his was not a rich and happy life. But the show is a masterful demonstration of how photography can be used to evoke emotional intensity and as such is well worth seeing.

Clare Strand: performance photography

Clare Strand's Getting Better and Worse at the Same TimeGrimaldi Gavin Gallery, London, are currently showing Clare Strand‘s latest photographic works (ends 6 June 2015), which they describe as revealing “Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.” Such a description has me rubbing my hands in anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed: I loved the sense of directed play and the irreverence towards “art”, which is something I wasn’t expecting at a gallery situated in an area of London renowned for being rather affluent and well-heeled.

Although there isn’t much time left to see the show, leaving it until the end has the advantage that you will see more output from The Entropy Pendulum. This pendulum has a foot designed to scour the surface of a print in a central stripe. The print is changed each day and the one from the previous day put on display in one of the 35 waiting frames. The original images are not Strand’s but have clearly been chosen for their centred composition, which means the pendulum abrades and corrupts the original meaning, giving it a new meaning. Although I could intepret the images individually I couldn’t make any sense of the sequence, narrative or developing concept, which I think is a trick missed. Though it’s entirely conceivable that it was just me who missed this final point.

Clare Strand's Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

Clare Strand’s Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

The Entropy Pendulum in action

The Entropy Pendulum in action. I was attracted to the dust generated by the abrasion of the print’s surface

Rubbings is as close as Strand gets to conventional photography: she photographed the bifurcation points of trees, printed them life-size then pinned them back on the trees for a time thus letting nature create the art, and she photographed the prints on the trees from a little further away. On display were the now-weathered prints from the trees twinned with the record of the work in progress. As an experiment in random decay it’s OK I suppose, but what elevated it for me was its unintended juxtaposition with the concurrent exhibition by Robin Maddock and Benedicte Kurzen at TJ Boulting Gallery, which I saw the same day (see my review here). The latter also examined time/decay of photographic objects, and the two works together were particularly resonant.

The Happenstance Generator went even further into randomness with a selection of small images blown about as if by the wind followed by a short period to allow them to briefly settle before being blown about into another random sequence.

The Happenstance Generator

The Happenstance Generator (and a strikingly red sofa)

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log. Not content with playing with photography, Strand is also happy for us to see the artwork warts-an’-all!

As a microcosm of the random images we see everyday blurring past us and occasionally visible to our conscious mind, it makes its point well. I had expected to see a random display of images that the viewer could develop a story from during the quiet dwell time of the apparatus but unfortunately the dwell time was too brief for me to grasp more than a couple of images before they were whisked off again into the vortex of the machine, which is a shame because a small adjustment to the timer could have allowed this extra level of interaction and engagement of the viewer’s imagination. So a great concept falling just short of great implementation, well for me at any rate.

There were a couple of other works on show but I’ve gone on long enough. I call her art Performance Photography in the sense of performance art and in this too she is pushing forward conceptually. Suffice to say that I think Clare has a playful and insightful imagination that resonates with my own ‘world view’, and I look forward to seeing more of her work!

Processing C41 colour film in black & white chemistry

Summary

I have had promising results developing colour print film in standard black & white chemicals. Not only is it identical to processing black & white film but the fine grain and wide exposure latitude of C41 colour film is preserved in a black & white negative.

35mm colour print film can still be obtained in most city high streets, at least in the UK, and provides an available and low-cost alternative to regular b&w negatives for those willing to process and digitise their film.

The test

I had some out-of-date 35mm C41 colour print film (Kodak GC-400, a cheap, consumer-level ISO400 film, no longer available) and wondered what would happen if I processed it in my normal black & white developer, Rodinal (actually ADOX Adonal, which is identical to the original AGFA formula), so I fired off a roll of the colour film followed by a roll of black & white film at the same ISO400 setting, which I processed in the same chemistry for comparison. I used the same development time for the C41 film as the Massive Dev Chart recommends for Ilford XP2 (a C41 b&w negative film), so if you want to use a different developer go ahead!

The C41 film was given 18 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

Ilford HP5+ was given 6 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

The films were scanned using the same scanner and software (Epson V750 and Vuescan). Vuescan was set to auto-expose and give 2 passes for each frame, which I’ve found significantly reduces noise. The levels were adjusted in Photoshop to give a full tonal range on the histogram but no other manipulation. Samples for comparison are shown below.

The results

Inspection of the films under a loupe showed that the colour negative had low contrast and a long tonal scale together with fine grain; this is consistent with expectations for standard C41 processing. The black & white film showed normal tonal range (it was a dull day when both films were shot) but more distinctive grain. Here are the scans from the 35mm frames. The cropped images are an identically-sized area (10 x 7mm) of the frame:

C41 film full frame

Kodak GC-400 colour film at ISO400 processed in black & white chemistry, full frame

HP5 full frame

Ilford HP5+ at ISO400 processed in same black & white chemistry, full frame

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

Conclusion

C41 colour film can be processed in standard black & white chemicals to good effect. Although only one film type has been tested it is reasonable to assume that other C41 films will respond in the same way as they are formulated for standard machine processing.

The wide tonal range and fine grain characteristics associated with colour print film is retained when processed in black & white chemistry, though only a black & white negative is obtained on the orange film base of the C41 film. This is excellent for scanning but is likely to be problematic for anyone wanting to darkroom-print onto gelatine-silver paper.

If you need b&w film urgently or want to use cheap film to give black & white negatives for scanning, C41 colour films like Kodak Color Plus (ISO200), Agfa Vista 400 or any film from the Fuji Superia range (ISO200 to ISO1600) should be a lower-cost alternative to black & white film, especially if you can get short-dated film over the Internet (short-dated colour film should still be fine for black & white work as any colour shifts over time are irrelevant).

If you want gritty grain, well-tested development times for push and pull processing, or the ability to darkroom print from the negative, it would be best to stick with black & white negative film.

Esther Teichmann: Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears

Esther Teichmann’s photographs – actually more of an installation using mainly photographs – are on display at Flowers Kingsland Road, London until 10 May 2014. The images are somewhat dark and the meaning obscure so displaying them in the upstairs space with its smaller area, lack of natural daylight and lower ceiling height is very appropriate.

 

Esther Teichmann photographs

Large manipulated overlapping images give a surreal quality to Esther Teichmann’s exhibition

Although the images are recognisably of places or people or shells, they are altered to give them an other-worldliness. They are then overlapped or juxtapositioned to produce a surreal effect as if we have been transported to a dream-world which Teichmann is exploring both physically but more importantly, emotionally and with a strong feminine theme. A central display of coral, wood and one of my all-time favourite books “The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design” points out that we air-breathing creatures can still explore an underwater world in our imaginations, where physical limitations can be overcome.

the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

Part of the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

At first I found Teichmann’s show perplexing, as if it was in another dimension that I wasn’t part of, but as I looked around (several times) I found myself becoming more involved in her exploration. Once I mentally released myself into this different, parallel world I enjoyed it. Thank you, Esther, for being my guide even though you weren’t there!

potential replacement for Polaroid type 55 pos/neg film

Polaroid 545 holder

You will need one of these film holders to use the proposed new pos/neg instant film

If you own a 5×4″ camera and Polaroid 545 back you will be interested to hear about a project to develop a replacement for the much-lamented black & white positive+negative film, type 55.

Bob Crowley in the USA is working on this and has a Kickstarter project to raise some capital. Do consider helping him out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bobcrowley/new55-film