Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

The Failing Scanner Blues

in Scanning , Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Woke up this morning
Stumbled out of bed
Tried to make a 48 bit HDR scan
But my scanner would not be led

Tried to fire up Vuescan
Gave Dimage Scan a chance
But even good ol’ Silverfast
Couldn’t make that scanner dance

When halfway through my scan
The thread it seems to lose
Yeah, I’m stuck down here in Memphis*
With the Failing Scanner Blues

* well ok, Lugano, but that’s not very Blues.


Yep, my 13 year old Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro has started having senior moments.  Part way through a scan, or even a preview, it just gives up and decides it’s done quite enough.  The software’s left in limbo. Vuescan looks round in confusion, Silverfast, naturally, locks up, and Dimage Scan wonders why the hell I’ve woken it up after a 5 year nap.

This isn’t good news. Received knowledge over at the MultiPro Yahoo Group is that it is probably a symptom of a failing Firewire controller, apparently a known ageing issue with these scanners.  And it probably can’t be fixed. Apparently a company in Germany called RTC Solutions can sometimes fix Konica Minolta scanners, but they’re not answering my email. Probably on holiday. Or stuck at the Gotthard Tunnel with most of Germany.

The MultiPro also has a SCSI interface, which apparently is much more robust.  I believe I last used it around 2005, which would have been when my last SCSI-equipped Mac caught fire just after I’d sold it.  One can in theory use a Firewire to SCSI converter, but these went out of production some 4 years ago, and sell on eBay for $Stupid. And of course Apple have killed off Firewire as well, so that’s not much of a long term solution.  Possibly I could find a Firewire PCIe card which might work in my Mac Pro, and which might then hook up to the scanner, but even then, since I have to use an old version of Silverfast running on a semi-retired laptop (version 8 doesn’t support the MultiPro), if all that unlikely chain worked, I’d still lose my Silverfast workflow. Vuescan would work, but well, it’s not really my first choice.

Things are looking grim on the Medium Format film-scanning front (and not much better on 35mm). There were basically 3 good MF film scanners all launched around 2000: The Polaroid 120 (and Microtek clone), the Nikon Coolscan 8000/9000 and the Minolta MultiPro.  There is some debate over which of the Coolscan 9000 and the MultiPro is better, but there’s not a lot in it. They’re both excellent.  However, the Multipro is half the size & weight of the Nikon, and scans XPan format at 4800dpi rather than 4000dpi. For general MF use, however, the Nikon offers 4000dpi over the Minolta’s 3200.  Of course all of these are out of production, and thanks to Sony’s acquisition of Konica Minolta’s photographic activities, even the statutory period for spares and servicing was ignored.

Today, there are actually two MF scanners available new. The Reflecta MF5000 (and several clones with different labels, such as Pacific Imaging), which isn’t terribly exciting, and the Plustek 120, which in theory is interesting, but has received mixed reviews, to put it politely.  In any case, even a glitch-free Plustek 120 would seem to be inferior to the Minolta MultiPro, a 15-year old design! And you can even find new copies of the Nikon Coolscan 9000, if you’ve got more money than sense.

And of course there are the outrageously expensive Hasselblad Flextight X5 & X1. Sadly I have no grandmothers left to sell. And anyway, they’re don’t even have dust removal - and, reportedly, the MultiPro delivers results almost as good.

MultiPros and Coolscans on eBay fetch prices way in excess of their original retail, and who knows how much life they have in them ? I can hardly complain about my Minolta, it has given over a decade of faithful service, which isn’t bad for an electro-optical-mechanical device.

So I’m left looking at a set of unattractive options: try to patch up the Minolta for a while yet; buy a modern but expensive, slow and less performant Plustek scanner; try to find a secondhand replacement Minolta or Nikon which doesn’t require a kidney to raise the funds.  Or rent a Hasselbad X5, 250km away in Zürich, every now and again, for CHF 300 / hour. Or give up on film.


Meanwhile, while I’ve been writing this, the MultiPro has just managed to get from one end of a scan to another without losing the plot, and delivered this:

Xpan antarctica05 10b hdr

Not (quite) dead yet ?

Really clutching at straws, I’ve ordered a new Firewire 400 cable (yes, even these are special order now, abet $0.50 from the USA). If that fixes it, I’ll be on the phone to the Vatican.

 

 

But is it art ?

in Photography , Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last week, prolific blogger Ming Thein published a piece describing his less than successful attempts to find art gallery representation for his photos. This generated a huge number of comments, remarkably so for a non-gear post, but perhaps driven by a certain sense of schadenfreude that the omnipotent and omniscient Ming had been rebuffed. Well, that’s just human nature, I suppose, but the question “is it (photography) Art” continues to bounce around.

If I really had to make a black or white, proviso-free call, then I’d have to say “no, it isn’t”. But the world doesn’t work like that. In view the answer is closer to “not usually”. I’m not in possession of much art or history of art education, although I’m probably a bit above the average level, so I don’t have much grounding for my opinions on the matter. But this is the internet, so that’s totally irrelevant.

The vast majority of photos, including the vast majority of those which are described by their authors as “fine art” are not art. They’re illustrations, recordings, mementos, with a common theme that they are representing a thing, rather than an idea, or indeed an idea of a thing. Photography is usually an end in itself. People like taking photos, it’s an activity. Perhaps Vermeer liked painting, and didn’t care much about the product, or the fact that it made him a decent living, but we’ll never know. Actually, while remembering that I know nothing of the History of Art, I do wonder when art became “Art”, rather than home decor (John Berger’s classic “Ways Of Seeing” has some key insights into this, if you can get past the rather dated marxist polemic).

In my understanding, the product of Art cannot be decoupled from the process of Art. Both rely on each other to grant validity. This is where movements such as surrealism or cubism arise. Photography with a purpose which can be clearly articulated can be Art, but generally individual photographs, while they might express the vision of the photographer, and be beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking even, largely remain craft. There’s also the aspect that probably most photographers aspiring to “artist” status really want to get people to buy their stuff to hang on their walls. Popular art, not fine art. Peter Lik, not Ed Burtynsky. Most artist don’t make a lot of money, although Burtynsky might be an exception. Art also seems to need to be curated, which would imply that there is more than one level of interpretation going on, and that the original body of work is strong enough to both attract and survive curation. A semi-random selection of photos, however excellent, isn’t going to get far in such a process.

So on the whole, most of us taking photos day in, day out, of whatever strikes our fancy, are basically dilettante hobbyists, however mean a spin of the focus ring we might make. To start to move towards art photography, I think you need to make some hard decisions. Photograph only what is defined within the expressive framework you’ve decided on. Forget Flickr, forget Facebook, forget blogging, or at least get your assistant to do these for you. Taking random photos, however excellent, doesn’t cut it. Oh, and make sure your photography is monochrome, analog, and blurry. It isn’t essential but it seems to work one hell of a lot better than color, digital and sharp (and hence landscape photography pretty much can’t be art. Ever).

You don’t need to be famous or well-known to be an artist; indeed, most artists are and always will be unknown. But starting off well known and then trying to cross over to artist doesn’t seem to work very well. The art world doesn’t seem to like. Ok, there are exceptions, arguably, like Bryan Adams, but I don’t know of any photo-bloggerati who’s work adorns gallery or museum walls.

And of course there seems to be a basic assumption that if you get your photos shown in an art gallery, then you’re an artist. Well, not necessarily. “Art Gallery” is often a delicate way of saying “Expensive Trinket Shop”, in other words, galleries show what they think will sell. They have too, otherwise they’d go out of business. They’re not museums. And as is often noted, art gallery customers are far more often than not less concerned about the artistic merits of what they’re buying than whether it will clash with the curtains.

So could I describe what I do as art? Absolutely not, although I have a dim notion about what direction I would need to go in to try to make it so.  A small amount of the photography I do is informed by both a strong emotional attachment, and also by knowledge and experience of various dimensions of what I’m trying to express. I’m very, very slowly building up a small body of work which looks at the complex nature of our interaction with the high latitude / polar environment. Precious, pretentious ? Certainly. Something that others have done and are doing far better than me ? No doubt. But it is something which drives me and which I continue to try to present coherently. The rest, well, snapshots, time-fillers and pretty (and not so pretty) pictures. Below are some examples:

Art ?

Isitartcomp

Possibly art, in an appropriate context. These are quite bland shots, really, but they’ve grown on me and together they start to be more expressive.


Not Art ?

Xpan antarctica05 06

This, on the other hand, despite being my most popular photo on Flickr, by far, is just a pretty picture, as my current guiding concept does not include penguins, and it doesn’t really give me more than superficial satisfaction.

But I bet if ever tried to sell any of these, the “penguin” shot would have by far the best chance.

Anti-adventure photography

in Photography , Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Following the world of photo blogs, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the constant flux of fantastic images from fabulous places, taken by ultra-cool world traveller photographers wielding priceless gear. Locked into a day to day existence which largely means being sat at a desk all day doing largely pointless things, this can get depressing fast. I’m sure I’m not the only one bemused by the seemingly endless stream of exotic “workshops” being offered at prices that seem to start at unaffordable and head swiftly upwards.  Yes, I’d love to travel the world and take photos (well, I think I would, mostly), but I have neither the money nor the time, or perhaps the drive. But every now and again I can, a little, so when opportunities arise, hopefully I can make the most of them.

drm_2014_08_04_P8040147

And the best way to make better photos is to make photos often. Not just on vacation. Not just on the odd weekend or day out, but everyday. “But there’s nothing to photograph here”, is a frequent complaint, and certainly one I’ve made. And it’s wrong. There’s always something to photograph. If you can’t find it, you’re not looking.

drm_2014_07_18_P7180053

My daily routine involves working in an office in a superficially nondescript suburban dormitory village, which had most of the life sucked out of it decades ago. Oh, but thousands of years ago it was a strategic Neolithic settlement. And hundreds of years ago, a refuge from bandit country. Nowadays most of that past is concreted over, though. Oh, and when I get to go out, it’s usually midday, with a harsh, burning sun directly overhead. Hardly an auspicious location for an aspiring landscape photographer. Not much joy for a street portraitist either: the streets are largely deserted of pedestrians.

drm_2014_07_14_P7140040

So, basically it’s challenging in lots of ways. And yet most days around lunchtime I venture out with a camera, generally sticking with the same body/lens combination for weeks on end. Operating the camera becomes a more and more automatic, tactile process. And sometimes I get photos that, despite the odds, I quite enjoy. They’ll never get many faves on Flickr, and they’d get ignored on 500px. Some scenes I’ve shot many times over, noticing how slight changes in light and time of day can make a big difference.

drm_2014_08_04_P8040153

Most of these walkabout shots get deleted. But they all help me to hone my compositional skills, and to coax some kind of coherent image from the jumble of the soulless concrete boxes so beloved by many Swiss, from the vestiges of the older village, or the in-between times. Sometimes they quite surprise me. And getting more and more instinctive about composition, especially in uninspiring circumstances, will only help when I have the opportunity to photograph something I care about. And then again, despite myself, through roaming the streets of this unremarkable, dull, unloved, half-deserted village I can’t help but develop a strange attachment to it.

drm_2014_08_04_P8040148

All these were taken using the 17mm f/1.8 lens on the Olympus E-P5.

Inspired Eye Issue 12

in Photography , Monday, July 28, 2014

I’m very honoured to be able to announce that some of my photography is featured in the latest edition of Inspired Eye, the fantastic eMagazine edited and published by Olivier Duong and Dan Springer. They had already very kindly featured me on the associated blog a little while ago, so this is really great encouragement.

Ieye12

I have to say that when I started subscribing to the Inspired Eye it was because I found it to be a very interesting concept. The standard of photography it presents is very high and frequently original. It is also by far the best designed and edited e-photo-magazine I know of, with strong aesthetic values. But I didn’t expect to be featured myself, apart from anything else because generally the theme is street photography, and generally will a strong story-telling angle.  From early on there has been a regular travel photography feature, but again, featured work has usually had strong authorial strands, tending towards travelogue rather than (or as well as) pretty pictures, which is not something I can lay much claim to. Personally, I was particularly impressed by Jean-Marc Ferriére’s Yemen portfolio in Issue 9.

However, there it is. Olivier suggested the “icescapes” theme, and applied his editorial and layout skills to very flattering effect.  I still wonder what the majority of subscribers will make of this, but then again, the Inspired Eye doesn’t play safe!

Ieye12 2

Needless to say I strongly encourage you to check out the Inspired Eye for yourselves. If you’re interested in photography, and photographers, then really you can’t go wrong. The concept is to publish “unknown” photographers, but it would be patronising to call for support for a good cause: the Inspired Eye doesn’t need patronising, it’s an entreating, thought-provoking, very professional produced and run publication, and excellent value for money.

streetwide

in Hasselblad XPan , Sunday, July 20, 2014

A photographic post with a return to the topic of street photography (which I don’t do).  Here I line up all sorts of obstacles for myself by first trying to do street photography, second using a camera which really is at it’s best on a tripod and used slowly, and third, using what was always an unconventional choice of film, and now is just plain flat-out eccentric, Agfa Scala monochrome E6 slide film (or indeed using film at all).

Agfa Scala is nominally rated at ISO200, but is designed to be used from 100 to 1600 depending on circumstances. The canisters are not DX-coded, so you need to set the speed yourself. I ran this roll at ISO800, as the XPan’s 45mm lens is relatively slow at f/4.  Note, 45mm on an Xpan corresponds to a horizontal field of view around 28mm for a normal 35mm frame, so you need to get close.

It’s pretty easy to scan in Silverfast, using 16bit greyscale settings and auto-levels.

The results are, well, at best tentative, but it was an interesting experiment.

xpan-lugano0513-sc3

xpan-lugano0513-sc2

xpan-lugano0513-sc1

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but you can still buy the allegedly withdrawn Agfa Scala film from Fotomedia in Switzerland, who will also process it.

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