Friday, July 13, 2007

Caretaking the Rare Glass

From time to time I have one of those moments when I start to feel that I’m just passing through. I know (though I can’t find anything apropos at this very moment) that many societies have held that you don’t really OWN anything: you are just a caretaker, that interim holder between your parents and your children. There is a clever Rolex ad which reminds you that you don’t really get to own the watch. You are merely taking care of it until your own child is old enough to wear it.

I often feel that way about some of the photographic gear I use. For the past few years I have been buying some older lenses to use on my 4x5 cameras, and invariably, the first few moments that I open the box (they usually are found through eBay, that great equalizer), there is an almost familial kinship, and a desire to know what that lens has done and seen in it’s life. I would give much to know their history. What events did they see? The most fascinating thing, I think, is to understand where they came from and how they were produced – by hand – at a time long before computers existed to work out mathematical formulae. Whether it is a fast lens (lots of glass/ heavy) or something slower (lesser glass, and more modest), the beauty of these old lenses never stops striking me. Some of my favorites are from the mid 1920s, Ernostars, which are beautifully hand crafted, and hewn, one suspects, from some piece of rare earth glass from the Carpathians, which had been dragged to Dresden or Køln on a carriage drawn by a dozen enormous draught horses.

Erich Salomon, “the first photojournalist”, who worked in Germany and the US in the twenties and thirties, before dying in a Nazi death camp during the war, was a master, the first master, of the candid photograph. A contemporary of Alfred Eisenstadt and other pioneers, he shot with glass plate cameras, using a Ermanox with a very fast lens. I managed to secure one of those lenses several years ago, and mounted it on my Speed Graphic. The look of that lens, crisp, contrasty and narrow depth of field, was unlike anything I had used before, and really caught my attention. The stupidest moment came when trying to dismount the lens from the camera the first time.

Erich Salomon with his Ernostar, and his ever present tux.

Here I am, with an 80 year old piece of artisanal hardware, and in getting the slider off the board, my hand slips, and the lens falls. I have this slow-motion memory view of seeing the lens board start to tumble, slowly, over and over, end over end, racing with my left foot to try and break the fall. I made pedestrian contact, and kept the lens from hitting full force into the wood floor, but part of the lens tube hit on the second bounce, and knocked what had for 80 years been a perfect circle into a very slight oval. What an idiot! This beautiful piece of Lindberg-era industrial engineering weathers the Weimar Republic, the burning of the Reichstad, Kristalnacht, the whole of the Second World War, Russian dominance, and God knows what else. Only to have me, a putz in Virginia, drop it on a hardwood floor? It’s the kind of “dip-stick” moment that makes you wonder if you really should be allowed behind the wheel of a car, or permitted to hold a Ginsu knife. In the ongoing circle of life, dropping that lens was a wake up call. You have a responsibility to keep these things for the people yet to follow. They will never again make material like this. Its all going to be computer generated, and designed. The old hand crafted gear is just not to be repeated again.

A 1927 ad for the Ermanox - what a little beauty!
It’s funny, because what drew me to shooting with the older, larger, filmier gear, was a kind of allergic reaction to the way digital was taking over everything. Everyone I knew was shooting with the same three lenses (17-35, 24-70 and 70-200 zooms), and while each photog brings his or her own vision to the viewfinder, there was a certain technical sameness to many of the pictures. This is really what spurred me into looking at Large Format. A “normal” lens on a 4x5 camera has, inherently, much less depth of field than the same kind of lens on a 35mm or digi cam. It just looks different, presents the subject in a different way, and lets you try and tell the story with a different palate at your disposal.

Last week I received another lens, an old Xenon from a German aerial recon camera of the late 1940s, early 50s. It is a bit beat up, has undoubtedly lived a life with no small amount of stress. Yet, when I eagerly wanted to try it out, I was once again faced with the dilemna of the free lancer who works from home. No staff. No interns. No Fedex drivers who just happen to be dropping something off. No wife (she was in New York). No kid (she was in New York.) The list of potential subjects began to diminish quickly, and I realized that I was about to once again nominate myself for the position of photographer/subject. Cindy Sherman made millions of dollars selling portfolios of her self portraits. I don’t suppose my pictures have the same patina, but I share what must have been a difficult technical approach.

The Speed Graphics have a little shutter release lever on the side of the camera. Some models have a place for a cable release (giving you an extra 12-24 inches of reach). But since I ‘d grabbed one of the cameras without the cable fixture, I was shooting me at, literally, arms length. This doesn’t say much for ‘arms length’ business deals. It’s NOT that FAR! The real issue, when you have a fast, long lens, is getting the lens focused where you want it sharp (usually the eyes). This leads to a difficult set of circumstances: How to be IN the shot, and have it sharply focused as well.

My solution several years ago was to expand a wire hanger into a square, tape the hooked part onto a light stand, focus on the wire square, then put my head IN the square, and reach over to shoot the picture. Semi-cool but I didn’t like the wire IN the shot.

Me, where the door handle was moments ago

Next, and this is what I tried on Monday, was to focus on a door handle, move the door and SIT where the door had been and shoot it. Not bad, but I wanted to try something out in the fading sunlight. Hence, to the barbeque grill. We have one of those big gas grills, usable all year round, on the back deck. This was relatively easy, if a bit cumbersome. Focus on grill cover handle. Lift grill top out of the way, and put head where grill handle had been.

Me, where the Grill Handle had been

Nearly perfect, and good enough to know that this lens, having survived any number of regime changes and war threats, is a wondrous addition to my little collection of antique glass. Something worth saving for the next generation. And since I’m only taking care of it, and don’t really own it, I guess I will. We’re just sayin… David

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Walt says

When you find yourself at home alone with a new old lens needing a photo subject, visit Westminster, the other home of regime change lenses.

I think you need to shoot a portrait or two of horses.

Then to Baugher's for lunch and Hoffman's for ice cream.

Life doesn't get much sweeter than that.

Bring your rubber boots 'cause my dogs will want to show you the stream.

Anyway, we don't have hardwood floors (yet).

Walter Briggs said...

I kinda saw a similar slo-mo scene when I destroyed my 28-70..You can bet I was calling myself all but a bi-pedal humanoid!!

Great portraits, by the way..

michael ross said...

An interesting work around for taking self portraits with large format and non existent DOF. Although, having an entire series of self portraits framed with coat hangers could make you a fortune. Or not...