Unreformierte Photographie

Aesthetik des Verzichts

So, this happened...

I entered my work-so-far, the Namibian Women project, to One Africa TV's 'Proudly Namibian' competition, and the jury saw fit to declare me the winner.

I'm somewhat nonplussed about the response to the project, but I am grateful for the validation and the recognition. And I am grateful for One Africa for hosting the competition.

It would not have been possible without the participation of the women who consented to be photographed to get the ball rolling: Heather, Gesche, Sue, Nesindano, Shishani, Alna, Kulan and Juliana. Thank you so much, ladies!

The next step seems simple enough: carry on. There are three more shoots scheduled for this week, and another few tentatively for next week. Meanwhile I shall start creating a few prints, and I shall start looking into putting together an exhibition.

Onwards and upwards!

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Namibian Women  |  26 images

Pops and Crackles

Large format photography is enormously challenging. Simply the act of loading the film into the holder is – frankly – a bit of a schlep. Even fiddling a rollfilm into a Hasselblad's magazine in a dusty desert by the light of an oil lamp is more straightforward.

And large format negatives, by their nature, are hugely prone to picking up imperfections: dust, scratches, blemishes, errant dog hairs in the film holders, more dust, more scratches... So as an artist and a photographer I'm left wondering what to do about those.

Doubtless, fastidiously clean work habits will make a positive difference. But Namibia is a dusty place; no matter how careful I am, there will be dust. The photographer / perfectionist in me is naturally a little cranky about that. But then there's imperfections in the surface of the film itself – that's nothing I can do anything about. I tend to use film that I can afford, and that means making certain sacrifices.

And so, the artist voice in me pipes up: it is part of the nature of the medium. Roll with it.

So I've decided to do what I can to work carefully and cleanly, but I will accept what comes. Obviously I'm not going to eat a handful of rusks over my negs and my enlarger's stage before making prints, but if there's little bits and pieces, well, there they are. 

It's a little like listening to music on vinyl. The sound quality may or may not be better than a digital format – this is not the place to discuss the relative merits – but to me it's undeniable that there is an immediacy and individuality that derives from the inevitable pops and crackles of a well-loved record. And so it is with my large format photos.

In particular, this applies to my Namibian Women project. There will be no retouching at all, and only minimal tone correction and cropping. It's not about making the Women look perfect – "perfect" in this context is a social construct, an aggregate standard of expectation: this is what a woman is "supposed" to be – beautiful, approachable, friendly, empowered only in palatable doses, individual only in easily compartmentalised ways. I don't want to make these Women look "perfect" – I will photograph them as they are, as they would like to present themselves. 

And I've chosen large format photography in part because I happen to love the medium, but also in no small measure because of its quirks; it is at once kind to the subject of the photograph, and unforgiving of the photographer's technique. 

And the pops and crackles of an old record, in my mind, add to the nature of my message.

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Namibian Women  |  26 images

New Project: Namibian Women

HeatherMusician

— Updated —

In part as my celebration of the 25th anniversary of Namibia's independence, and in celebration of living in Namibia for 15 years myself, I've embarked on a portrait project of Namibian Women.

I am trying to show Namibian Women as empowered, strong, resourceful people. The project is not about conforming to any perceived standards of beauty or perfection, so much as showing the pride and dignity that comes from what Namibian Women achieve every day. I intend to explore the contrast between expectation and reality, to challenge viewers with a traditionally andro-centric viewpoint to examine their preconceptions about what it is that Women have to be proud of, and to examine the gender-role constructs that predicate judgement.

I am not confining this project to any social class or ethnic background. The more diverse, the better, since I am trying to represent as many facets as possible.

Ultimately the aim is to have these photographs in an exhibition, as well as assembling them into a book.

This project is growing and evolving. In a way I see myself only as a messenger, so I welcome input and feedback with respect to the direction and the message of this project. Initially the portraits will be taken at my studio. Much further down the line I'll be in a position to travel. But for now: Windhoek.

On a technical note: I will be shooting these portraits on large format film, generally with a Schneider Symmar 1:5.6/210 on a Linhof Technika 13x18. I will use either Spürsinn G50 type 2 or Fomapan 100 film, and I will process these in a Rodinal-type developer at a concentration of 1+50. In part this is because I love the medium, but also large format film lends the images a certain feel not easily achieved with modern equipment.

We have Moved

It's good to be home.

I will, for the foreseeable future, be based in Windhoek, Namibia.

I am working on a number of personal projects, which will take shape once I am properly settled in again. Details, as always, as they emerge.

My first priority will be to perform a few much-needed renovations to my home, which will include building a daylight studio, as well as building a properly-equipped photographic lab in which I will be able to develop film and prints as well as collodion plates.

My emphasis will remain on monochrome work, but since Africa is a colourful place, I'll obviously be shooting some colour as well.

I am looking forward to getting stuck in on something I have been brainstorming about for the last few months: an online publication which will showcase the best that Namibia has to offer in many areas, in addition to offering interesting feature articles and travel suggestions. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile those that know me personally are welcome to drop by for a coffee and a chat!

Ch-ch-ch-changes...

For the past 5 years I have been sharing my time between Germany and Namibia.

And while living in Germany has its advantages, I'm feeling stifled here. And so, by the end of this year, I won't be dividing my time anymore: I'm going home.

Africa has always felt like my spiritual home, while Europe has always felt like a transit lounge. 

In Windhoek I shall be building a daylight studio – for which I shall post the build-log here – and a lab in which I will be able to process everything from 35mm negatives to large sheet film and collodion plates. In personal projects, my emphasis will be on examining the desert, its wildlife and its people, although I will obviously be open to new creative paths as opportunities present themselves.

And unlike in Germany, I'll be in a position to accept commissioned work.

More details as they emerge. 

How to travel with an iPhone

Erica"Art-model-face"

This is not a manual about how to travel with an iPhone. Sorry for misleading you.

This is a quick meditation on a sort of workflow that I have come up with, with which I can take surprisingly useful images using the iPhones otherwise rather humble camera.

I've tried a number of different camera apps, including 645PRO, Landcam, and a few others. Some of them are very good, and able to produce excellent results on my iPhone 4. I'm told the 4S and up have even better cameras; this is perhaps true, but it's academic until I "upgrade."

I keep coming back to this: capture the image initially in plain-vanilla Camera.app, ensuring that I frame it well, that I expose for as much useful dynamic range as possible, and that I place the focus where it's best placed. It helps to previsualise, of course, to have a final aesthetic in mind. But sometimes it's more important to just get the picture in the can, as it were, and worry about details later. In particular urban photography does not often lend itself to much deliberation, and some of the more sophisticated camera apps are also some of the slowest.

Sometimes I'll put the camera in HDR mode; this is especially useful when shooting contrasty things like architecture, and when shooting in awkward light. It's not real HDR, which is just as well since I despise most digital HDR, so much as intelligent tone-mapping. 

I do not like using apps that have "canned" effects, such as Hipstamatic or Instagram, since the images always seem to end up looking very gimmicky.

Subway

Later, when I have a bit of time, perhaps over coffee and a bit of wifi (All of Germany, please please fix your shit. Open hotspots are good. Restricted hotspots make me angry.), I sit down and look over what I've taken, and I'll pick my keepers.

My workflow for the New York January 2014 album is rather simple.

I open the photo in an app called Snapseed (which is available for free both for iOS and Android). This is an app – originally by Nik Software, who also developed the excellent SilverFX processing software – that has a number of development "modules" that can be used to add various features to a photo. For my B&W urban shots, I do this:

  1. Use the 'Drama' module to exaggerate the tonality of the image somehwat, but exercise restraint to keep it looking realistic;
  2. Use the Black & White module to convert the image to monochrome, experimenting with colour filters and effect modes to obtain a pleasing result;
  3. Crop as required
  4. Save to Camera Roll (or whatever the Android equivalent is)

The resulting image can then be shared by whatever means are appropriate.

In conclusion: Simple workflow, surprising results. Enjoy.

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New York City, January 2014  |  14 images

Zuwachs

"Go big or go home" lautet das Sprichwort.

Angefangen habe ich mit 10x12cm Tintypien, in einer eigens dafür umgebauten 4x5" Planfilmkassette – die sich weiterhin bewährt. Die Kamera ist eine Holz- und Messingkonstruktion aus Indien, schön anzusehen, etwas klapprig aber grundsätzlich absolut zweckmäßig.

Dann habe ich in einer naheliegenden Fotobörse ein Rückteil für eine Linhof Kardan in der Größe 13x18, bzw 5x7", gefunden, und spontan gekauft. Es schwebte mir vor, mir eine Kamera zu bauen, aus einer hölzernen Aufbewahrungskiste aus einem bekannten schwedischen Möbelhaus, welches auch – ohne es zu wissen – ein weiteres umfangreiches Angebot an Photo- und Dunkelkammerzubehör anbietet.

Dann habe ich dieses neue Rückteil allerdings gegen die Rückwand der indischen Kamera gehalten und festgestellt, daß es perfekt passt: meine hübsche Chandini (so nenne ich sie) war nicht nur eine 4x5" Kamera; sondern auch eine 5x7"! Mit einem Schweißdraht und etwas Gekniffel wurde ein Haltebügel bewerkstelligt, der es ermöglicht hat, das große Rückteil an der Kamera zu befestigen, ohne die Kamera umbauen zu müssen. 

Also habe ich wieder das Werkzeug rausgekramt und eine 13x18cm Planfilmkassette zu einer Plattenkassette umgerüstet (details dazu in einem späteren Artikel). Da 13x18cm eine gängige Bilderrahmengröße ist, war Materialbeschaffung überhaupt kein Problem. 

Mit diesem Gespann bin ich auch nach Namibia gereist. 13x18cm balanciert wunderbar zwischen einer prächtigen Größe und doch einer gewissen Reisetauglichkeit, die erst recht in der Wüste nicht zu unterschätzen ist. Objektive sind auch zu finden, und auch recht bezahlbar, was auch von Vorteil ist.

Aber der Mensch schaut immer gerne über den Zaun und begutachtet den dortigen Rasen und hält ihn für grüner. Und so blätterte ich in der Photographica Abteilung eines online-Auktionshauses und fand sie: eine Reisekamera, Baujahr ca. 1900, für die Größe 18x24cm, mit Plattenkassette. Preis in Ordnung, Zustand OK. Kein Objektiv, aber dafür hortet man ja Objektive aus dem Ramschladen...

Sie ist – Altersbedingt – nicht mehr wirklich reisetauglich. Dafür ist sie etwas zu klapprig, und die Strapazen einer Afrikareise würde ich dem schönen alten Ding nicht antun wollen. Aber ein reines Sammlerstück ist sie auch nicht!

Zunächst habe ich ein Projektionsobjektiv von einem Liesegang-Episkop montiert. Funktioniert wunderbar, und ich habe damit auch gleich Portraits gemacht:

V18x24cm clear glass ambrotype.

... Allerdings ist das große Liesegang Objektiv sehr schwer. Also habe ich mir einen Adapter gebaut, mit dem ich meine anderen Objektive montieren kann, ohne jedes mal die Objektivplatine wechseln zu müssen:

Nun bin ich also in der Lage, auch aufwändigere Stilleben anzufertigen, die ich durch mehrfach-blitzen erst überhaupt ausgeleuchtet bekomme. Das folgende Bild wurde 14-mal angeblitzt!

I'll Shoot the Moon... right out of the sky for you baby.

Natürlich habe ich nicht die kleinen Bilder vergessen: die prächtigen kleinen Schmuckstücke für die Wand, den Schreibtisch oder die Vitrine. Aber nichts — gar nichts — ist in der Lage, die schiere Präsenz einer großen Platte zu ersetzen.

Ist 18x24cm das Nonplusultra?

Natürlich nicht. Der Zaun ist immer noch da, und das Gras ist woanders nach wie vor hartnäckig grüner.

Namibia Collodion: Technical Challenges

The Lone Tree: Making ofTaking a collodion photo in the Namib Desert. Courtesy of Martin Zimelka; used with kind permission. The mobile lab is visible perched on the back of the pickup.

Shooting collodion wet-plates is an involved process, even compared to conventional analogue photography.

First the surface of the plate must be prepared. In the case of glass it must be absolutely clean. I usually wash the plate carefully in piping hot water and detergent before rinsing it off generously with distilled water. Traditionally the plate was also polished with calcium carbonate – known as whiting chalk – which is a laborious process but which rewards the photographer with very clean plates.

The collodion – a mix of ether, ethanol, nitrocellulose, and small amounts of certain halogen salts – is poured onto the plate in a puddle which is then flowed across the plate by tilting it until the collodion covers the entire plate in a smooth layer. Immediately afterwards the plate must be immersed in a solution of silver nitrate; this sensitises the collodion, forming compounds called silver halides, which are reactive to light.

While the plate is still wet it is transferred into a plate holder, which is inserted in the camera and then exposed. The exposed plate must immediately be developed – while the plate is still wet – in a solution of iron vitriol, acetic acid, a little ethanol and water. This turns the latent image into an actual image, which is subsequently fixed in conventional photographic fixer (sodium thiosulfate, also known as hypo), washed in water, and finally dried and varnished.

Since all this must take place before the emulsion on the plate dries – hence its name: the wet-plate process – this necessarily means that the photographer must work in the immediate vicinity of a lab. Most collodion photographers who work in the field have thus built some form of mobile laboratory which allows them to handle the chemicals safely and most importantly in carefully-controlled light. 

Namibia’s climate and environment poses a number of technical challenges which I had to overcome. In the summer it is hot and humid, and in the winter very cold and dry. The summer daytime ambient temperature is actually often higher than raw collodion’s nominal boiling point of 35˚ C. The solvents in the emulsion would boil and sublime off the plate before the coating has a chance to form. 

Dust is a problem: How do I keep my plates clean? The roads are a challenge: all of the places in which I would like to take pictures are remote, with gravel roads and difficult trails leading to them. Keeping my chemistry intact, and keeping my plates intact, is a a concern. 

The low ambient humidity and high temperatures mean that evaporation off the plate is definitely an issue: while in Europe I might have a few minutes to take my picture, my “window of opportunity” is much narrower in Namibia. 

The challenges: formidable, but not insurmountable. The rewards? 

To my knowledge I will be the only person doing this in Namibia. And collodion plates have a look that nothing else quite matches. They are evocative, timeless, and a sort of quiet protest against the over-saturated digital avalanche. And that is its own reward.

A Desert Sojourn

There is a farm in Namibia called Niedersachsen. Situated on the edge of the Namib desert and the foot of the Khomas Hochland, just north of the Khuiseb Canyon, it’s one of the older established farms, and comprises approximately 18,500 hectares – or 71 square miles, 45,715 acres, 185 square kilometres if you prefer.

It belongs to a family with whom over the last decade I have struck a close friendship. But aside from the companionship what draws me back to Niedersachsen is the solitude.

I admit that I am introvert, and occasionally I need to be completely alone for a time. And on those occasions I will occasionally pack my gear into my old Land Cruiser and head out there for a few days. There is a campsite on the farm which is about 7.5 kilometres away from the house – if I climb a nearby hill, I can just about see the lights of the house at night. But otherwise the place is absolutely, utterly peaceful; it’s just me and the zebras and the occasional jackal.

I have to bring my own food, of course, and I have to bring my own water, because Niedersachsen is – to put it mildly – arid. There is no real cellphone reception, and certainly no internet. There is not much firewood because there are very few trees, and euphorbias are best not put in fires.

I am not the first whom this patch of solitude has sheltered.

In 1940, a pair of German geologists named Henno Martin and Hermann Korn fled into this part of the Namib, to escape internment and the complications of the second world war. The South African administration of the Southwest Africa territory – which would become Namibia in 1990 – had decreed that German men were to be interned for the duration of the conflict in order to prevent sedition. Martin and Korn had come to SWA in order to escape the coming storm in the first place, and so they formulated the phrase for which, in German, they are famous: Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wüste; “If war comes, we’re going into the desert.”

They packed as much equipment, fuel and supplies as they could fit into a car, a light truck and a trailer, laid a false trail to the area surrounding the Brandberg mountain, and disappeared into the rough, inhospitable badlands surrounding the Khuiseb.

They lived in a series of hide-outs, one of which is located on the farm Niedersachsen, and eked out something like survival for two and a half years, when Hermann Korn fell ill and the difficult decision to return to Windhoek was made.

After being briefly detained and paying a fine, they were set free.

Henno Martin later wrote a book about their experience, entitled The Sheltering Desert, which is in my opinion a mandatory read for anyone travelling in this region.

As it happens, Hermann Korn was also an introvert and known for his need for solitude; I feel a certain kinship with him.

And so I return to this campsite, which is perhaps two hours’ walk from the geologists’ hideout, and I seek its quiet.

When I began to address the many technical challenges associated with shooting collodion wet-plates in the Namib (more about which in another essay, I decided that the place I wanted to field-test the mobile lab was Niedersachsen. And so in early September 2013 two friends and I drove out to this remote place and with their help I was able to create four or five plates – of which the three ’keepers’ are presented here.

I feel that they successfully capture the atmosphere of this magical place, and I am pleased to share them with you.

Wieso Kollodium?

Nach modernem Standard ist die Photographie mit Kollodium-Nassplatten umständlich und nicht zeitgemäß. Das Verfahren ist in vieler Hinsicht unberechenbar, umständlich – erst recht auf Location – langsam, teuer. Man braucht sehr viel Licht – eine gewöhnliche Studioblitzanlage reicht nicht aus. Bewegliche Subjekte sind mit diesem Verfahren nicht zu photographieren.

Mit jeder billigen digitalen Kompaktkamera ist es möglich, berechenbarer und schärfer zu arbeiten. Wieso also ausgerechnet Kollodium?

Dazu etwas Geschichtsunterricht: 

Im mittleren 19. Jahrhundert, in den Geburtsstunden der modernen Photographie, haben Erfinder und Künstler nach einem praktischen Verfahren gesucht, mit dem Gegenstände exakt abgebildet werden konnten. 

1851 perfektionierte der Engländer Frederick Scott Archer ein Verfahren, wodurch eine polierte Glas- oder Metallplatte mit Kollodium beschichtet und anschließend mit Silbernitrat sensibilisiert wurde; die dadurch entstandene lichtempfindliche Emulsion muß in einer Kamera belichtet werden, während sie noch nass ist, und auch sofort entwickelt und fixiert werden. 

Das Ergebnis hatte im Vergleich zur damaligen Technik gewisse entscheidende Vorteile: es ergab – auf Glas – ein Negativ, daß man vervielfältigen konnte: eine Klarglasambrotyie; und es war billiger, technisch einfacher und weniger giftig als die Daguerreotypie. Auf schwarzem Metall entstand – viel günstiger und schneller als bei anderen Verfahren – ein Direktpositiv, Tintypie genannt, daß der Kunde sofort mitnehmen konnte. 

Moderne analoge und auch digitale Photographie haben in vieler Hinsicht die damaligen Vorteile von dem Kollodiumverfahren zunichte gemacht. Doch haben Kollodiumphotographien einen ganz bestimmten Reiz, den man mit “konventionellen” Mitteln nicht erreichen kann; auch nicht, wenn man sich stundenlang in Photoshop vertieft. 

Mich faszinieren an diesem Verfahren verschiedene Aspekte. 

Erstens schätze ich in einem Zeitalter der unendlichen digitalen Vervielfältigung und “Eckdatenspielerei” die Tatsache, daß ich beharrlich, fast meditativ arbeiten muß. In einem vollen Shooting kommen vielleicht 10 Platten zusammen; im Gegensatz muß man nach einem Digitalshooting durch hunderte, oder sogar tausende Bilder wühlen, bis man seine 10 “Volltreffer” hat. 

Ich schätze auch die Kunst der Unmittelbarkeit. Ich mache von meinen Glasnegativen keine Kopien – und selten Abzüge – und die Tintypien kann ich ohnehin nicht vervielfältigen. Also muß der Betrachter in Anwesenheit des Objekts, des Bildes an sich, sein. Jedes Bild gibt es exakt einmal. Glasnegative werden mit schwarzem Lack versiegelt, damit sie zu einem Positiv werden und nicht kopiert werden können, ohne den wesentlichen Charakter des Bilds zu verlieren. Die Bilder haben eine Wertigkeit und eine Haptik, die anders nicht zu bekommen sind – es sei denn, ich beginne mit Daguerreotypie. 

Außerdem ist es für mich eine sinnliche Wonne, mit physikalischen und chemischen Materialien zu arbeiten. Der Geruch von Äther, von Essigsäure und von Fixierer; die Geräusche der alten Holzkamera: das Knarren des Balgen, das “Plock” des Luftdruckverschlusses, das seidene Schaben des Kassettenschiebers. Und der Moment, in dem das Bild aus der Emulsion zu schimmern beginnt, ist purer Zauber. 

Und wenn ich mich frage, wieso ich überhaupt photographiere, dann weil ich Freude daran nehme, ein Bild zu schaffen – egal, was die Aussage ist. 

Die hier gezeigten Ambrotypien und Tintypien sind gescannt, und haben zwangsläufig viel von ihrer Wirkung eingebüßt. In ausgewählten Ausstellungen sind meine Kollodium-Platten zu sehen und zu erwerben.

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Windhoek Wet Plate Workshop  |  7 images