This past Sunday we had first ever meeting of an august group to be known as the Bokeh Vista Social Club. The Music may not have been as good as the Buena Vista SC, but the chances for photographic amusement were much higher.
Drawn together by our love for photographic things pre-digital, we vowed about six months ago to try and have occasional meetings and discuss things like the Scheimflug Theorem, bellows draw, and the efficacity of fifty year old front surface mirrors. If you think this sounds hideiously boring, you would be right if you were a normal person. But there is still a fairly strong desire by some of us to keep our technique honed in the ways of the past.
At this Sunday’s meeting, we were four (Chris Usher ...& partner Adrienne Dearmas who took the team photo, Robb Scharetg, Matthew Girard, and myself.) A small yet talented ensemble whose work stretches across the photographic landscape: portraits, advertising, documentary, sports... pretty much everything is fair game.
In a manner befitting a really nerdy group of men, meeting to discuss short wave radios in the 1950s, we waded through an assortment of gear which was brought to share, took a few polaroids of each other with several different cameras, and talked about more esoteric stuff still being offered on eBay for those of us who don’t feel we have bought quite enough gear that is older than we are.
It is pretty much the defining point of the group that we use lenses and cameras which are older than we (I have a longer tenure) and that makes it kind of exciting to even imagine what the press photographers of the 20 and 30s used to make pictures. It is amazing, looking back at what can only be considered very primitive equipment, that they made any pictures at all. And the fact that they made great pictures provides, for myself at least, a sense of wonder, in trying to apply some of those age old techniques to modern day life. Until you have shot sports with a Graflex camera (where everything is backwards in the viewfinder) you don’t know what real fun is. It would be like trying to navigate through the Harris Teeter parking lot using ONLY your rearview mirror, and only going backwards, It can be done, but there must be a simpler way.
Shooting 4x5 polaroid print film is perhaps the single easiest, and certainly the quickest, way to learn by doing. It’s not as fast as shooting digital, but almost so. Inside of a minute, you are looking at what you just shot. You can try and figure out what went wrong, where you screwed up (and there area dozens of possible pitfalls on even the simplest of pictures)and then try it again. In the rather spoiled age of pointAndshoot, the fact that shooting with a vintage camera challenges so many of your senses doesn’t go unnoticed when you are the one trying it.
I once showed Alfred Eisenstaedt, the wonderful & famous LIFE photographer, a new Canon A1 (this was 1980.) It was the first camera to have a LED light inside the camera to tell you your exposure. It was bright and red and all lit up and said something like 250 F8 , or whatever it THOUGHT the exposure would be.
A young Eisie
Alfred looked at it a moment, looked inside the finder, and when he pushed the button half way (it’s just what we do...we push buttons to see what happens next) the lights went on, and he was sold “UnbeLIEVEable... I wish I could have one....” And of course all Alfred would have had to say is “I’d like one” and a dozen o f them would have appeared the next day on his desk. He just usually forgot to ask, and kept using his Leicas. But at that moment a wonderful thing happened. Almost as if he were transported in time, he put down the shopping bags he was carrying home on the subway, loosened his raincoat, and started to reminesce about his early days. In that wonderful light German accent he spoke with reverence and enthusiasm: “We never went anywhere without a tuxedo or tails. We were always dressed up.” (This was Berlin between the wars.) “I’ll never forget it, with all the glass plates we carried for the Plaubel Makina (a vintage German camera) they were so heavy.” He patted his left side ... “This side Unexposed....” , and the patted his right side “.. and this side, Exposed. We walked in like this,” (he said, leaning to the left), “and walked out like that...” (leaning towards the right.) “And taking pictures with that Plaubel Makina wasn’t so easy.” And then he proceeded to recount just what is necessary to take a photograph with a vintage camera, and it goes something like this:
“First you must open the lens, and open the diaphram [to let the light thru], then you open the back, look on the groundglass, compose your picture, focus the lens to the right distance, close the shutter back up, cock the shutter mechanism, load a plate holder into the back of the camera, pull the darkslide, and then, finally, take the picture.” And in words that have only come to mean so much more to me since I heard them nearly three decades ago... “ ... and by then, the sonuvabitch had usually moved. That’s why we had so many blurry pictures....” All of a sudden there it was, a very simple explanation for the reason that so many of their pictures just didn’t turn out. I had wondered why I had been having so many of the same issues. With a big Speed Graphic, for example, if you get one in 4 or 7 or ten pictures that you like, you’re doing well. You must wait before just shooting. Patience is a virtue. But when it works, it really does work. It’s not like anything you can get with a digital camera, and until they make a 4x5 digi camera, I suppose we will all be luxuriating in film. It keeps the labs busy, and as we say when we pick up our contact sheets after a job... “Someday, my prints will come.”
Moi, with the Mentor Reflex
The Bokeh (def: ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus area of a photograph, from the Japanese...) Vista Social Club plans to meet irregularly in the future, and since this past meeting was held at Rocklands Barbeque on Washington Ave. in Arlington, we just might be headed back sooner than we thought. Thanks to Adrienne for the group shot: it was the first time she’d ever used a Mentor Reflex camera, and based on this shot, I’d say she’s hired! We’re just sayin... David