Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Infrared Tunisia III

The Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum

Way back in March of last year I spent a week in Tunisia, with an infrared camera. I posted some of the results back then, and now I'm going to post some more. At the time I went via Thomson Airways, but arranged my own accommodation, because that's what people do nowadays, and I am a people. The website of the Sousse Residence is still up, but the place itself seems to have closed down; it was almost empty when I stayed there, on account of the situation.

El Djem

Of all the situations that arose in early 2011, Tunisia's seems to have taken a relatively peaceful course. Unlike in Yemen and Algeria, the revolution was not nipped in the bud straight away; unlike Egypt it seemed to keep going, without being recaptured by the old establishment. Meanwhile Libya and Syria erupted into bloodshed, one after the other, but Tunisia was not like that. Ben Ali was a corrupt clown of Berlusconi-esque proportions, but he wasn't a murderous despot who went to bed each night dreaming of ways to kill as many people as possible. Unlike the great tyrants of history, Ben Ali did not have a vision. He just wanted a lot of money, for him and his wife. Who looks as if she enjoyed jewellery and nothing else.

Those people are not Pink Floyd;

A part of me wonders to myself: why didn't I go with a second-hand Nikon F2, and take grainy black and white shots of the armoured personnel carriers up and down the avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, and the barbed wire, and the people? Because of the armoured personnel carriers and the barbed wire and the people, that's why. Tunisia fell out of the news quickly, which is good for the people of Tunisia.

Mankind learned about seafaring in the Mediterranean. It's big enough to be difficult, small enough to master. It's an ocean on a human scale. Imagine if the world had been one big island, surrounded by an enormous sea. No-one would have bothered to sail it, there would have been no point. And the distant islands on the far side of the world would remain undiscovered. We're very lucky that the Mediterranean existed.

The Gulf of Hammamet
And the distant sky

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

New Moon at Red Deer Wallow

Mamiya RB67 / 90mm f/3.8
Polaroid back / Fuji FP-100C instant film

Yeah, you were expecting Gentleman Take Polaroids, but I've used that before and besides, I'm smarter than you. Do a Google search for "thinking man's Duran Duran" and the top result is, surprisingly, Mansun, and then Scritti Politti, and The The, at which point you finally get Talk Talk. And one place below them, Japan. Last of the eleven results is Tears for Fears, "a pseudo thinking man's duran duran" in the words of Mr Brave G of Yelp.com. How cruel, how true.

Japan released their debut albums just as Duran Duran were forming and, initially they came across as a tacky throwback to the Glam Rock era. Seriously, look at the cover of their second album, it's awful. And then as if by magic they were New Romantics, and lead singer David Sylvian was the most beautiful man in pop. And just as they were starting to sell records they split up. Meanwhile Duran Duran were releasing Rio, and Princess Diana was declaring them her favourite band, after which they went on to massive fame and fortune. Being a medium format system camera, the Mamiya RB67 is compatible with a range of interchangeable film backs, besides the standard 120 back. Mostly they gave you other ways to frame 120 film, but the Polaroid backs are fascinating, because they're a relatively cheap way to use instant film. Here's what mine looks like:

See the daises? Long, long ago that's what photographers used instead of an LCD preview screen. They set up the shot with their lightmeter, took a Polaroid, checked it, and then set up the shot some more. And threw the Polaroid away. Then as now Polaroids were more expensive on a shot-for-shot basis than traditional film, but as the saying goes "an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure". A few wasted Polaroids were a lot cheaper than an entirely wasted shoot. Modern-day Fuji FP100C costs £9.99 in the UK from Amazon.co.uk plug plug... oh, hang on, it's gone up, to £12.95. That's (calculator) one pound and (calculator) just over one pound per shot, for ten shots. Better brush up your metering! Which I do with a Sekonic L-308, and you can see the results just up above and also throughout this post. Except for the shot of the train tracks; that was exposed automatically by the camera.

My back was made by a company called NPC, who sold backs for other medium format systems, and even some of the posher 35mm cameras. As far as I can tell they no longer exist, and the Polaroid backs are all that people remember them for. The 35mm backs were designed by a chap called Marty Forscher, who sadly died in 2009, and could transform your Nikon into a Polaroid camera. There was one major caveat, however. The images weren't enlarged; they were the same size as a 35mm film frame. Good enough for previews, not so much for general use. There were NPC backs for the FM, F3, F4, and F5 even, possibly more (I would be surprised if there wasn't one for the F2).

Some of the official Mamiya backs required a P-Adapter in order to mount onto the camera. The NPC backs had the P-Adapter built in; it's the large square thing with the four screws:

The silvery object behind it is the dark slide - silly name, really, 'cause it's bright shiny metal - and behind that is frame #10, waiting to catch the light. You have to remove the RB67's revolving back in order to mount the Polaroid adapter. The resulting Frankenstein creation is unwieldy and decidedly odd-looking, although not as odd as this Hasselblad.

A word about film. There were several different types of Polaroid film. The stuff that Polaroid discontinued a few years back looked a bit like this:

You remember. It came out of the front of the camera, whirr, and you swished it around a couple of times although you didn't know why. It developed in front of your eyes. It was called Type 600. This is the type resurrected by The Impossible Project. However, the type of film used by Polaroid backs - and older Polaroid cameras - was Pack Film, which is more complicated to use. You have to brusquely yank it out of the camera, wait for a bit, and then rip it open, at which point you get something like this:

It's sticky. The paper tag is dangling from the other half of the film, which contains the negative, which is even stickier. The negative fades to blackness, although some people have managed to scan it by bleaching out the black dye. The prints look a bit fuzzy up-close, but the negatives are nice and sharp. Hard to scan, though, because they're wider than my Epson V500's negative scanning area. Here's a very rough negative scan, followed by a 100% crop (the print is much less detailed):

You'll notice that the image is scrunched off to the left, with a black bar on the right. In fact it's a square format picture on a rectangular frame. The film area is 7.3x9.5cm and was designed to work with pack film cameras, which fill the frame; the RB67's 6x7 format only fills up 7cm of the image, so the result is a photograph that's roughly 7x7cm (slightly wider). A company called Arca-Swiss sold a clever sliding back that records two vertical images on one frame, with a dividing line down the middle; the results are hipper than... oh, the Ulm School of Design. Hipper than the Mexico 1968 Olympic logo, which I'm not even going to link to. If you don't know what the Mexico 1968 Olympic logo looks like, I don't want you, I don't need you. You sicken me. And you stink of Marmite.

You worm. But what's the film like? Fuji make three types. FP-100C is the one I used. There's an FP-100C Silk, which has a bumpy surface that's supposed to look matte. I don't use that. And there's an ISO 3000 black and white film which costs a fortune and is handy if you spend time in dark rooms with a giant old camera. FP-100C's colours tend to be a bit blueish, especially shadows. It doesn't deal with overexposure very well - it goes all digital, viz the original of the headline shot:

The sun's burned through the emulsion. It wasn't even particularly bright. After weeks of pouring rain Britain has decided to usher in the Olympics by going straight to early Autumn.

I exposed for ISO 100 and the results seemed to turn out fine. There's a fudge factor at work, though, because you're supposed to take account of ambient temperature when you remove the film from the back. The rule of thumb is that there's no harm in letting it develop for much longer than it should, although with each frame costing over one pound I'm unwilling to experiment. Poverty is the enemy of experimentation. You have a choice between a guaranteed meal tonight, or possibly a slightly better or at least different meal, with the risk of having nothing at all and going hungry until tomorrow; and you can't just nip out for a takeaway.

That's why so many families just plonk down oven-cooked chicken nuggets in front of their kids; no time to experiment with something that might not work. Time and space are the luxury of the well-off.

Still, does a Polaroid back make sense in this day and age? If you plan on using it as a preview back - for flash metering, perhaps - it's slightly less bulky than carrying a digital SLR in addition to your film camera, but less handy than any second-hand compact digital camera with a hotshoe or other means of triggering a flash, such as a used Olympus E-P1, for example.

A bit of the Polaroid magic is diminished by the cropped image. And Polaroids were snapshot party cameras or candid street shooters; the Mamiya RB67 isn't a snapshot party camera, unless you go to parties with a rucksack and only photograph unflappable people. Perhaps you do, I don't know what kind of parties you go to. For just over one pound per image you really have to have a hankering for Polaroids, although having said that it's cheaper than Impossible Project Polaroid film, which is £17 a pop.

You can of course use this film in older 100-series Polaroid pack film cameras, which are now over thirty years old, as the last were discontinued in the 1970s. On the other hand, they tend to fetch a high price on the used market, 'cause they're chic. How high? £400 or so high for a good used example; double that twice for one of the re-issues that Polaroid sold in the early 2000s to hipsters. The cheaper models are, well, cheaper, but the range is confusing; the popular Square Shooter and Super Swinger cameras used Type 80 film, which is no longer available. Medium format Polaroid backs are themselves very cheap nowadays (less than £100, much less), for the same reason that used RB67s are cheap - there's a glut of used equipment.

There are continual rumours that Fuji will or already has discontinued FP-100C. It's an aberration in the modern marketplace, because industrial-scale professional photographers no longer use Polaroid previews, and haven't for several years, and there are no consumer cameras that take it. When it dies, Polaroid film backs die too, at least once used and expired stocks are shot. And expired Polaroid doesn't age nearly as well as expired film.

Curiously, The Impossible Project doesn't make pack film, although you'd expect them to. Guys, that's your next job. You've done the impossible once, you can do it again.

I wrote this whilst listening to The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Ah, 1992. A time when you could fill your expanded Akai S1000 with NASA samples, layer them over some moderately-paced beats, instant album. And yet, despite the occasional dud - "Into the Fourth Dimension" hasn't aged well and sounds like music from a business-to-business sales video, even the name is tacky - it mostly holds up today. "Little Fluffy Clouds" was the famous single but my favourite is "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld" because it's a bit less smooth than the others. There's a sly wit, too; after fourteen minutes of build-up the beat kicks in and then stops thirty seconds later. Doesn't have the fundamental bleakness of the KLF's Chill Out though. Here's my latest musical opus, by the way, another live performance with Audiomulch, and - yes - you can tell I was listening to early-90s ambient techno.

You can't go back. It's not there any more. You took it with you. "All the way down the east coast..."