The Lost Weekend Collection

Being one of fairly robust opinions on just what the world should look like, it should come as no surprise that this extends into my philosophy of photography. I’m well-settled in the camp of those who decry technology over technique, who would rather look at good but grainy and slightly out-of-focus over banal but pin-sharp and HDR’d to death. It’s a relatively short step from that position to preferring photos be authentic; not unmodified – plenty of realist photographers altered their negatives in printing – but faithful to reality. Mood, tone, and color should all be representative of the actual scene.

But photography in this narrow definition has its limits. Lots of photographs have been heavily altered and used successfully – look at Andy Warhol’s work. In fact, one could make the case that some of the photographs used this way may be better for it, not as photographs but more broadly as art. The photograph becomes merely one component of the work, not its sole object.

This is often polarizing. People love it or hate it. Some (often photographers) may decry the ruining of a perfectly good photo, while others (often not) will proclaim that this new interpretation transcends the staid medium of photography. This is understandable, and probably the way it should be. An artist who seeks universal popularity isn’t focused on art. They’re concentrating on popularity, which is far less interesting.

So why is Your Humble Filmosaur rambling on about this like some self-righteous second-year Fine Arts major at their first real cocktail party? Well, mostly because I’m about to post some photos that have been modified. A lot. And you know what? I like them.

I started fooling around with digitally altering photos years ago, but aside from relatively innocuous corrective adjustments I’d pretty much put it aside when I started shooting seriously. Recently, however, having seen prints in several exhibitions that were toned in various ways (selenium, palladium, etc.), I decided to see if I could replicate the look digitally. Turns out you can, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it, without too much difficulty. Certainly, it doesn’t work for everything (don’t worry, I won’t be applying this technique to every photo I post from here on), but on some photos it adds a little something to the final image.

As one who shoots film primarily, one of the more interesting filter sets available in GIMP (via G’MIC) is an extensive collection of film emulation presets. Why would you need film emulation when shooting film, you ask? Well, for one, given that Kodachrome is dead, the only way you’re going to get the look today is digitally. It’s also useful for desaturating color photos if you want to give them the look of a particular black-and-white emulsion, or as a quick way to change the appearance of photos taken with a less-than-ideal film for a particular scene. This little exercise in experimentation can eat up countless hours. Again, it’s not something to be applied everywhere at all times, but in certain circumstances it’s a neat trick to have available.

This revelation led me down the rabbit hole of more and more extensive modification. Being much more familiar with the software than the last time I tried, I started fooling around with the many filters and scripts that GIMP has to offer and found a few I liked, at least as a starting point. More fiddling and I actually began to be pleased with the results. Who knew?

I was then confronted with a philosophical dilemma (of my own making, to be sure): which photos should be given this treatment? If I began altering some of my favorites, I was sure to be disappointed with them; after all, these are photos with which I was satisfied in their natural state – why would I mess them up? The answer soon became clear: mediocrity. Anyone who takes photos knows exactly what I’m talking about. The majority of photos are mediocre: not bad, nothing glaringly wrong with them, but nothing special. These are the photos that had the potential to be improved, made into something more interesting than they were in their original form, by this sort of tinkering.

So, with full acknowledgment of that mediocrity, and of potentially putting some people off, I offer you some of the results of my journey down the murky path of digital alteration, a veritable Lost Weekend of photographic experimentation masquerading as high art. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll sober up soon enough – the morning after is bound to be ugly.

Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100 in Caffenol C-M(RS), modified in GIMP

Decay

Few things attract the wandering photographer like the decaying remnants of past human activity. Old industrial buildings are primo subject matter, full of interesting surfaces and textures, often intermingled with graffiti and debris from later visitors, and sometimes lit by beams of sunlight pouring through various and sundry holes that the architect never intended to be there.

Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)

When one is wandering through such places, bulky equipment is not welcome. The last thing you want is big, heavy cameras swinging around and running expensively into the remaining still-solid parts of the structure. My handy little Olympus Pen D3, on the other hand, is perfect. It’s tiny enough to fit in a pocket, weighs almost nothing, and is capable of taking great photos – as long as you use the right film (as noted in a previous post on selecting films for half-frame cameras, which you can read here). Getting ~75 shots on a roll means reloading in less than ideal conditions is almost never required.

Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)

The juxtaposition of natural light and man-made structure is often among the more interesting parts of what one sees in these sorts of places. The irregular and highly directed light created by small holes in the building highlights thing that would usually go utterly unnoticed in regular artificial light. On really bright days, there’s sometimes a glow around the openings that makes the whole scene seem a little otherworldly.

Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)
Olympus Pen D3, Kodak TMax 100, Caffenol-C-M (RS)

Seeing how nature starts to take back abandoned places is fascinating; it never seems to happen in the same way, yet there are always constants, one of which is that plants will seek light wherever they can find it. The more light, the more and larger the plants that will grow into it. The floor in this location is still pretty intact, but nonetheless this tree managed to take root in a spot that guarantees it will get sunlight and water until it grow up through the roof. When it does, the perfect strip of sunlight that now falls on the floor will be broken, and the shot you see will no longer be possible. That’s why we photograph things – to see them as they are, as they may never be the same again.

Meet the Camera: Olympus Pen D3

In “Jaws,” as a drunken Quint (played by, according to those who would know, the equally drunken Robert Shaw) recounts the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, he says “Sometimes shark’d go away…sometimes he wouldn’t go away….” Ideas are like those sharks – they come along whenever they feel like it, and if you know what’s good for you, you try everything to make them go away. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. And with ideas, as with sharks, when they don’t go away there are bound to be consequences.

Recently the idea of doing some half-frame photography popped into my mind. I have my Yashica Samurai Z, so I grabbed it and popped in a roll of film. As I was shooting (nothing in particular, just general walking-around photography), my thoughts turned back more than once to the Olympus Pen EES-2 I used to have. The selenium-metered auto-only exposure of that camera never sat quite right with me (the Samurai is auto-only as well, but rather more sophisticated), but the packaging was always impressive. The camera was well-built and easy to carry. I liked it – I just wished it allowed some control over exposure.

But all is not lost. A quick troll through the magic Interweb is enough to tell anyone curious enough to look that Olympus built a few variants of the Pen that did indeed offer the user some control. The original Pens were meterless manual cameras, and the later D-series added a meter and considerably faster lenses to the manual setup; all of these are far less common than the automatic variants, naturally with higher prices.

If I was going to try to act on this idea, the trick was how to do it inexpensively. As a general rule, I don’t like spending significant amounts of money on things that might not pan out the way I hope. Thankfully, I’m happy to buy less-than-perfect things and bring them back to working order. In short, my route to a manual Pen was likely going to begin with a busted, dirty, or otherwise flawed camera. Ebay, here I come….

IMG_1396_Modified

After a few false starts and some annoyingly persistent bidders, I landed myself a candidate, and pretty rare one at that. My new Pen is a last-of-the-line D3, complete with a CdS meter and the fastest lens ever installed on a Pen – a six-element Zuiko 32mm f/1.7. The auction photos were lousy (honestly, how hard is it to take halfway-decent digital pictures?), but clear enough that I could see there were a few dings, ample dirt everywhere, and maybe something worse going on with the lens. But it was complete, a relatively rare model, and ended up being cheap. What could possibly go wrong?

Camera arrived intact, no thanks to the indifferent packaging the seller opted to use. Beginning the cleaning process, I found that most of the dirt was pretty easily removed, and most surfaces came up pretty well. Two larger issues emerged: the battery cap was stuck in place with corrosion, which was relatively easily dealt with, and the front element of the lens had some persistent spots of crud on it, small deposits closer to the outer edge. Repeated efforts with a variety of methods (all gentle, non-damaging techniques) slowly took them down, only to reveal shallow pitting where the deposits had been. Thankfully, the rest of the glass is perfect.

IMG_1399_Modified

Having unstuck the battery cover, I replaced the battery with a 675 hearing-aid battery. Unfortunately, the meter failed to respond. I ripped into that and found a dodgy wire connection, which I resoldered, but it still sat there inert. Since there’s no automatic exposure – the meter is uncoupled – and since I rarely use a meter anyway, I’m leaving it dead for the moment. If I get ambitious I’ll take it fully apart and replace the CdS cell.

I tore down the Copal shutter and cleaned everything up – it was a bit sticky, and the double exposure prevention mechanism wasn’t working reliably. It’s a fairly straightforward leaf shutter with a five-blade aperture. Once I cleaned it everything seemed fine. The focusing mechanism was smooth and did not require service. Further testing proved, however, that the shutter was still not quite right: it would sometimes trip when wound, especially when the camera was held at certain angles. While trying to sort this out, all the shutter blades decided to fall out. This meant a full tear-down. Thankfully it’s a fairly straight-forward process, and while a few things required some force to remove, it wasn’t too hard to figure out. Nothing was broken (I think the shutter blade retaining plate screws were loose), and so it’s all back together now and seems to be behaving itself.

IMG_1401_Modified

After all that, it was time to test with film. Before heading out I got a small screw-in metal hood to deal with any potential loss of contrast due to the damage to the front element. Now that everything was working, my attention turned to the capabilities of the lens. It’s quite sharp, especially considering the tiny negative. The damage to the front element doesn’t seem to have much effect, certainly nothing I can identify. Zone focusing is easy due to the short focal length, and this plus the small size make this an ideal street photography camera.

So I now have the manual Pen my brain somehow decided I needed. It didn’t come easy, but I didn’t shell out much money for it, and as you’ve probably figured out by now, I don’t mind a project. As I said earlier, when kicking and hollering won’t dissuade them, the ideas that won’t go away are bound to have consequences. I’ll never put on a life jacket again.

UPDATE – April 2014: As much as I don’t particularly care about the functionality of uncoupled meters, I got a bug in my head about trying to sort this one out. After extensive testing with a multimeter to see just what was connected to what and just where the battery’s voltage was actually going, I determined that the problem was simply connectivity. Cleaning all the bits of the battery chamber thoroughly (the brass screws that a responsible for connecting the positive battery terminal to the body of the camera were badly corroded) and adding a small aluminum spacer to improve the contact between the battery and the cover seems to have solved it. The meter is now working and did not even require adjustment. Maybe now this camera will stop haunting me.