The Vemödalen Project: Formats and Methods

(I know, you thought I forgot about this. Well, I didn’t.)

I admit that this might be considered a stretch by some when it comes to the conceptual basis of my little project, but after giving it some thought, I think it qualifies, and I’ll tell you why. The whole point of my undertaking is to approach photography, and specifically photographic subjects, differently than I normally would. Ideally, that approach would also be significantly different from the ways in which others have photographed those subjects, but ultimately it is a personal project with a personal objective, not a competition with the photographers of the world.

So that said, I went out a few weeks ago with a familiar camera and a relatively unfamiliar (to me) set of accessories. The camera in question was my Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a wonderfully battered piece of pre-war German workmanship that has clearly survived an active 80+ years and hasn’t slowed down very much. I’ve shot this camera before to good effect, but always hand-held; it occurred to me that I had another option, one that might in fact be more appropriate. I rarely use tripods, but the size of the negative and the look of the Tessar lens have both made me compare them with large format on more than one occasion, and I’d been reading one of Ansel Adams’ books (The Negative, in case you were wondering), which got me thinking about not only large format landscapes, but altering my approach to shooting them.

So instead of just using it like any other hand-held camera, I mounted it on a tripod and brought along a collection of filters as well. I loaded it with FP4+ in spite of the still-weak midday light I expected, knowing that I could extend the shutter speeds indefinitely. My plan, in a nutshell, was to shoot in the style of Adams: small apertures for maximum depth-of-field and contrast filters for maximum effect (where appropriate).

What I have just described is hardly original; clearly, it is anything but. But I’ve never shot this way before, and barring some unforeseen life-altering change, I have no expectation of shooting any larger formats at any future point I can envision. So while the methodology may be unoriginal, I hoped to use it to produce photos that looked different than anything I had produced before. Understanding the photographic possibilities available requires consideration of all the options, and this was one set I had not yet explored. If nothing else, I hoped to determine if shooting this way could open up a profitable new direction to explore further.

Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

First, I offer this 35mm shot for comparison, taken purely for documentary and comparison purposes. I used my (now departed) Olympus 35SP, a camera with a truly excellent 42mm lens of very similar focal length equivalency to the 10.5cm on the Super Ikonta, and shot at a relatively small aperture to produce adequate DOF. It was loaded with HP5+ instead of the FP4+ in the Zeiss; this was simply what was already in the camera, not any conscious choice on my part.

Had I simply taken this photo (minus the tripod rig) without ulterior motives, I suspect I would have been content but not particularly thrilled by it. It’s pleasant enough to my eyes, but nothing really makes it stand out. The details of the scene are clear and sharp, but it lacks some quality that would set it apart. In short, I’m sure it looks very similar to many photos of that scene taken before.

Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The 6×9 from the Zeiss is a totally different animal, even if the scaled-down version here doesn’t show it fully; to appreciate just how different it is you really need to see the prints. As you would expect, there’s more detail resolved and the grain is less visible, but there’s more to it than that. The tonal separations are more subtle, even in the darker areas, and there’s a really nice three-dimensional effect up around the rock formation at the top of the cliff.

Perhaps equally importantly, and more relevantly to my project, the shooting process is very different, and I found caused me to think a lot more carefully about how I wanted the final image to look. It probably didn’t hurt that the Adams’ book discusses the Zone System in detail, and I was very clearly thinking about it as I set up each shot with the Super Ikonta; not to say that the two have to go together, but I found I was much more inclined to consider these details (and take the time to do so) when shooting this way rather than hand-held. There was a distinct difference in how I approached making the photograph that was directly related to the process I selected.

The upshot of this is that equipment, film format, and methodology all have the possibility of changing how one shoots a particular scene. In that sense, I consider this experiment a success, even if the end result was not necessarily unique.


The Vemödalen Project: Geometry, Shapes, and Abstraction

As a general rule, I prefer not to start these little missives off with other people’s words, but all rules have exceptions. Henri Cartier-Bresson said “The only joy in photography is geometry. All the rest is sentiment.” He was, if I understand correctly, talking about subtle interactions of form and composition that provide structure and order to photographs. This complex, delicate concept was practiced, if not explained, by other well-known photographers of the 1920s-1950s, perhaps none more effectively than Andre Kertesz; look at his “Fork” or “Chez Mondrian” for proof.

In my own explorations, I have found these thoughts to be useful in guiding my own approach. Developing such vision as the Old Masters is frankly out of reach for the vast majority, and I have no pretensions to it, but their influence is certainly felt. As part of my Vemödalen Project, I have been exploring questions of geometry, but in a very much simplified and somewhat abstracted fashion. Faintly (very faintly) echoing Kertesz’s studies of mundane objects, I have been experimenting with tight compositions of individual or small groups of objects, trying to get the most out of subjects that may be of little intrinsic interest.

This is an illuminating exercise. Removing most of the things photographers are usually attracted to – interesting subjects, perfect light, and such – forces one to look at the most basic elements of a scene and work to extract whatever can be found in the most efficient possible manner. It’s hard, but then the only things worth doing usually are. In some cases, this lends itself to authentic representation, with the subject readily identifiable within the photo; in others, abstraction at some level offers greater opportunities. But in all cases, geometry is key. My results thus far are very graphical, and focus on constructing (and sometimes repeating) simple shapes, often with relatively high contrast.

These photos are just a few recent shots taken with this conceptual approach in mind. Enjoy.