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End Frame

the Fat Lady is warming up

in Hasselblad XPan , Thursday, September 17, 2020

This is quite possible the last frame I ever took on my Hasselblad XPan II:

Xpan 2020 08 01 17 copy


After I pressed the shutter, the familiar film winding sound did not come. The film counter LCD showed "E". Pressing the film rewind button had no effect. All I could do was open the back and try to clear the jam.

Having removed the film, I tried to load another. Instead of winding completely, onto frame 21, it quickly stopped, showing frame 1. I tried several times. I tried resetting everything by pulling the batteries out. I tried changing the batteries. I tried cursing. Nothing worked.

This was the first serious outing for the XPan in several years, two weeks in Puglia capturing midday sun-baked inland towns and villages on Portra 400. But it wasn't to be: just a few frames of a masseria near Monopoli.

Xpan 2020 08 01 09 copy


On returning home I contacted Hasselblad customer support. They did actually reply, and did not totally rule out repair. They required that I first send it to a "local dealer", though, rather than direct. Given the likely difficulty of persuading my "local" dealer (who is on the other side of the alps and speaks a weird variant of German) to handle an antique, and also my experience with said dealer's speed, not to mention the notorious sloth of Hasselblad service, I decided instead to send it to Les Victor in Paris. They haven't promised anything, but then again they have fixed my 30mm viewfinder, which Hasselblad customer service said was impossible.

So, fingers crossed, but I'm not optimistic. XPans are heavily reliant on electronics, and they are dying. People, please, do not blow $5000 buying one on eBay. Mine is relatively young (late XPan II) and well looked after, and this came out of the blue. XPans are on borrowed time.

UPDATE, Sept 18th: I heard from Les Victor this morning. Seems they can fix it, and they are going to do a complete service as well. Seems like it's got a reprieve.
 

The last roll of the dice

finally, good photos!

in GAS , Thursday, August 13, 2020

So, as hinted in my last post, I've gone off at the deep end. I have renounced common sense, fiscal rectitude and a bunch of other things and bought into the new-ish Hasselblad X Medium Format digital system. I'd been eyeing this for a long time, and when a very good offer came up for a new X1DII boy and factory reconditioned ex-demo 45mm lens, I decided it was now or never. I rapidly flogged off a bunch of other stuff that was clogging up my shelves, and just about scrapped together the money, so from that point of view I could tell myself I was being reasonable. I also got an adapter to use my XPan Lenses (they provide full coverage, not just "XPan crop mode"), and finally I chanced upon another very special offer on a new 90mm XCD lens, so I got that too. That is probably as far as I can go, or indeed want to go, for now.

So, WHY (and of course, "why not Fuji")? Well, to answer the Fuji part, I have tried out their MF cameras, and impressive as their are, I just don't like them. They are too complicated, the lenses have a reputation for hit and miss quality control, and the retro nonsense gets in the way. And they're ugly. If I'm paying that much money, and anyway it's strictly for my own pleasure, then how it looks and feels is not a trivial factor. The Hasselblad X1D is above all a fantastically usable camera. It has a modern, totally intuitive user interface, as few buttons as it needs, a very, very nice viewfinder, and it fits my hand like a glove. Yes, I'd like to have tilt screen for tripod use, but I can manage without.

But WHY? Well, obviously: it will make all my photos better and make me a better photographer! (What? What do you mean it won't??). Basically for most of the time I've been making photographs, off and on I've been mildly frustrated by my inability to capture and reproduce subtle gradients in colour. Maybe tonality as well, but I'm fundamentally, in my own way, about colour. Actually I have found that in some circumstances I could get what I wanted through medium format film. I've also discovered that very frequently, work by published photographers that appeals to me was done on medium format film. Of course it isn't just film - medium format lenses play a significant part too. The problem with this though is that I have never found a medium format film camera I actually like, and in any case, for several reasons, medium format film photography is unwieldy and impractical. So, I hope to find at least some of the character I'm looking for in (small) medium format digital. The 50 Mpix resolution is nice to have but not a necessity. The extra dynamic range is very nice to have. The Hasselblad colour rendition on the other hand is a key factor.

So, essentially, because I wanted to.

So far all I've just been getting familiar with the camera, the required technique, the depth of field and other aspects that need to become second nature, but some initial results have been quite encouraging.

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Handheld shot in Bedigliora, just up the road. XCD 45mm f3.5, handheld



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Near Ponte di Aranno, Magliasina, also just up the road. XCD 45mm f3.5, tripod



This does not mean I'll be giving up my Olympus system. Far from it. The two are very complementary, and the fact that both have the same native 4:3 aspect ratio is a major plus. I'm very used to seeing in 4:3, and indeed this aspect ratio was a key reason I bought into the Olympus system in the first place, many hundreds of years ago.

I've had a few failed and fairly costly experiments on the gear side in recent years, in particular the Linhof 612 and the Sigma sd-H. Hopefully this time I've finally got a camera which will enable me to take the photos I see in my head. Certainly I have no more dice to throw on this front.

The next question is finding an opportunity to use it. Getting to Greenland (for example) has become a lot more complicated. Then again, there is plenty of potential in my own back yard.
 

No more excuses

A picture speaks a thousand words

in GAS , Saturday, August 08, 2020

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(as previously hinted :-) )
 

Sara Wheeler

a polar star

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 07, 2020

Admin Note: one decision to emerge the hand-wringing period I had over this website is that I would close off my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here, which was anyway moribund, and publish occasional off-topic posts here. Whatever "off-topic" may mean - since it is all personal anyway, everything is on-topic. So, here is the first "off-topic" post. And a heavily overdue one, at that.


Many, many years, I wandered into Waterstones in Guildford (probably), and noticed a book cover with a bulkily-clad figure kneeling on ice apparently attempting to interview a group of emperor penguins. I bought it immediately. After many moves and changes in my life, this copy of this book is still with me. I've read it more than a few times, and always get lost in its pages. "Terra Incognita", by Sara Wheeler, is a travel book that has spoken to me like no other, and her other books are not far behind. At that time I would certainly have ranked "Foreign Land" and "Coasting" by Jonathan Raban at the same level, but these have faded over time. Terra Incognita shines as bright as ever.

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Pretty much all first person narratives set in Antarctica are written by what Wheeler accurately and amusingly describes as "Frozen Beards". They are about conquest and discovery, and the superficiality of the continent. They are about geography and landscape, and going from here to there (and hopefully back again), generally having the worst possible time while doing so. I find Wheeler's book, instead, to be about a search for a sense of place and belonging. Such a book could very quickly becoming terminally cloying, but not Terra Incognita. It is written in such a captivating, engaging way, and with a very healthy dose of self-deprecation, that the deeper currents only become clear later. Of all the "travel books" (whatever that means), there is none that have stayed so close to me as this one.

The idea of being able to travel around a significant part Antarctica as a writer would problem seem bat-crazy today, never mind 30 years go. That Sara Wheeler managed to do this, fitting in diverse locations in the Ross Sea area, the Pole, the West and East Antarctic ice caps and both ends of the Peninsula is a gold-standard tribute to her ingenuity and persistence. Totalling up the cost to various supporting organisations, agencies and individuals would come to a pretty scary figure, but the result is priceless. Others have said this, as have I, and I'll repeat it again: Terra Incognita is simply the best book ever written about Antarctica. Or to be more precise, about the experience of Antarctica. The only vaguely similar book I am aware of is Jenny Diski's "Skating to Antarctica", but that is a completely, and darker, kettle of fish.

I can't help but empathise with much of Terra Incognita. Antarctic was a huge part of my early adult life. I spent 2 summers there a few years before Sara Wheeler, and while I was there as a salaried scientist, it felt far, far more than going to do a job. The first part of Wheeler's book describe her time largely under the wing of the United States Antarctic Programme, with sorties to Italian and New Zealand bases. Within the narrative are dark hints at what is coming next, her sojourn in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula abetted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If ever she was unhappy in the Antarctic, it seems it was during this time. She describes BAS sadly dragging a stifling male-dominated class culture with it, featuring public schoolboy behaviour, a complete ban on expressing any kind of emotion, essentially pretty much what you would find in any wealthy village pub in southeast England. I can corroborate this. Although I had some unforgettable experiences and shared time and tents with some fantastic people, my experience in particular at Rothera base was pretty miserable. And unnecessarily so. My later experience in Antarctica with a haphazard gang of Scandinavians was something of a redemption.

Interestingly, Wheeler's better times with BAS appear to have been spent at the mythical Fossil Bluff, which I never reached, as we had a bit of a prang with our jolly old kite over Palmer Land. However I suspect she would have enjoyed spending a few days out at our happily isolated camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf.

You can reach in and touch the ice, the clear air and the stillness - as well as the storms - in the pages of Terra Incognita. It is multi-levelled narrative, as much about the author as the places, but handled in superbly skilful way.

Much like Terra Incognita, Wheeler's earlier book, "Chile - Travels in a Thin Land" is the kind of book you never want to end. Written about a 6 month wander from one tip of the country to the other - and even beyond - it feels like it distorts time. After (re)reading it over a few days last week, I feel like I had myself spent 6 months in Chile. Personally Chile is a country I came late to, and have only scraped the surface of. We planned to return shortly, but obviously events have put that on hold.

Chile, the book, is another delight. Again, with a light touch, Wheeler pulls you into her explorations, both inner and outer. There is a stronger element of her Christian faith in this book, something that is touched upon in Terra Incognita, but to a lesser extent. Although I don't share her faith, the way she writes about it could make be come to regret this. Clearly it is a source of inner strength and inspiration to her, and I only wish I could feel the same way. And equally clearly it does get in the way of her having a good time!

The final pages of "Travels in a Thin Land" seem to be almost a different world. Wheeler returns from the paradisiacal world of the South to Santiago, and in a very unexpected move veers off to spend 10 days immersed in one of the more deprived parts of the city. Many a writer would have gone into full virtue-signalling here, but not Wheeler. In fact she downplays this part very much, not indulging in explicit social commentary, but the contrast with the (kind of) gringo trail atmosphere of the main body of the book is very striking. As is that with her final few days living in the world of the privileged upper middle classes of Santiago. It is an extremely effective jolt back to reality.

I'd like to spend more time writing about these books, but I'm not very good at writing, and I would only do them a disservice. All I can say is seek them out and read them. They will surely touch your soul. And I would not stop there: her later books, such as "The Magnetic North" (inspired title), set in the Arctic, and "Access All Areas", set pretty much ever, are equally admirable. Actually, thanks to "The Magnetic North", I renewed contact with a companion from my BAS days while travelling around Svalbard. And then there is her latest book, "Mud and Stars", which is sitting a few feet away from waiting to be read.

I feel there could be a sequel to this post in the not too far future!

Links to books:
Chile - Travels in a thin country
Terra Incognita
The Magnetic North
Access All Areas
Mud and stars

There also a couple of videos online of Sara Wheeler giving talks on her writing and travels:

Sara Wheeler @ 5x15
Access All Areas: In Conversation with Sara Wheeler

 

The Filmopocene

...they do things differently there

in Film , Wednesday, August 05, 2020

I always thought that my persistence with film photography had nothing to do with nostalgia, or wanting to pursue some retro look. I thought it was just that I liked how some film photographs look, here and now, not in the past. Now that I’ve largely abandoned it, I’ve come to realise that it had everything to do with nostalgia. Only with a bit of a twist.

It was part of a much larger longing, one for that halcyon period which stretched between around 1980 to 2010. That period when you could travel to discover places. Sure, you may have read about them in a similar beaten up (hard)copy of Lonely Planet (1st edition), but it was still discovery. You hadn’t seen your destination a million times on Instagram or Facebook, as a backdrop to impossibly hip and gorgeous couple. You hadn’t seen it featured in twenty thousand over-processed Serious Photographer shots on Flickr or 500px. And you didn’t have to reserve a bed three months in advance on booking.com. Actually, you could just turn up, and find somewhere nice to stay.

So in 2002, we could roll up in Oia, Santorini, and stay for a week in an old vaguely refurbished windmill right at the point of the village. Or travel around the Danube Delta in Romania, hopping on and off old ferries, hitching a ride with local fishermen, sleeping wherever we could find someone with a spare room. A year before, we could travel around New Zealand in peak season with booking anything at all in advance (although that scruffy travel guide did help). We could travel dusty roads in Tuscany, stop wherever we wanted, visit museums in Siena without queuing up, have San Gimignano largely to ourselves, and stock up on Fuji Provia or Kodak Ektachrome pretty much everywhere.

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Oia, Santorini, peak sunset, back in the Filmopocene

And that’s the trigger - I associate all of these places with boxes of green or yellow film canisters scattered on a night table or shelf somewhere, their latent images patiently waiting to emerge. That’s the world they belonged in, and that world is well and truly gone. It seems that I sometimes tried to recreate it by grabbing a few boxes of Kodak, but it was a fool’s errand. Indeed, in recent times I’ve often felt that I’m forcing myself to find things to photograph with film cameras, but when there’s something I really want to photograph, I inevitably go for digital. The hassle of carrying those little canisters (or rolls) anywhere significant has now grown exponentially - along with their price - and the magic has gone.

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The Age Of Innocence, and film. Peak Pelican in the Danube Delta, Romania

There does remain one exception for me, which is of course the Hasselblad XPan. That is not so much a film camera, more simply a camera which requires film. Film does not define it. I tried to extend this by adopting the expensive and unwieldy Linhof 612, but I was 20 years too late. If only I’d bought one back when I first heard about in New Zealand all those years ago, then it might well have worked for me. Subconsciously I was treating it as a time machine, not a camera.

This was all with a healthy dose of hindsight. I actually sold off most of my film cameras to free up some cash to go down another rabbit hole. It was only later that it dawned on me what was actually tying me to film photography, tangentially triggered by a few books I’ve been reading recently.  But the world has indeed changed, and there really does not seem to be any going back. My origins as a “photographer” are closely tied to that time of more carefree travel. Trying to cling on to it through the artifice of taking film cameras on trips and vacations is futile and just gets in the way of anything coherent I might do as a photographer.  It was, I think, this which has been stifling my creativity (well, that and chronic laziness). I still long for a way to capture that pastel evening light over Sermilik ice fjord or the Gerlache Strait. The closest I - and several others, in my opinion - have ever come to is with medium format film, and that’s gone for me now. 

But one door closes, and another one opens.

 
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