Vietnam, 2018 – Part Five – Loose Ends and Epilogue

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Here are the rest of the images from Vietnam, but which do not quite fit in the other posts.

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At the Independence Palace, the bikes whiz by, with no one giving the structure so much as a passing glance. It felt as though the pace of change is threatening to leave Vietnam’s past behind.

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Scooters as far as the eye can see

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A traditional key maker leaves his stall unattended. I suspect he was taking a break in the food shops across the street.

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I wanted to take a picture of a lady in the traditional Ao Dai, but here was an example of my lack of courage, failing to take the shot when she was walking towards me. As she walked away, I noticed that her pose and that of the man in front were synchronized.

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Vendors at the market while away their time, waiting for tourists to show up and terrorize.

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A cat makes itself at home all the way above the stalls.

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The same types of stalls crowd the entire food section of the market. I wonder how the owners differentiate themselves. One lady spoke to me in Chinese, then Hokkien. Not bad.

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Counting the day’s earnings

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The Sputnik makes a guest appearance in this statue outside the central post office.

That’s that for the Vietnam series. I cannot say I really enjoyed Saigon, but I tried my best to immerse myself into the experiences of the locals. I hope that I was able to capture the quintessence of the place.

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Vietnam, 2018 – Part Four – Leisure

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One striking thing about the streets of Saigon is that there are always little stools everywhere. On our first night there, we went to a night market, and were surprised to see many of the vendors pull a stool up in front of their stall, and just eating there after closing shop. As it turns out, this was a pretty common way for the locals to enjoy their meals and rest their feet.

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Street food vendors like these were commonplace in the city, and locals just pull up a stool and start eating.

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These stools are often seen around various establishments, and seem to belong to the security guards that can be found at just about every building, who also serve as solicitors and guides. The guards can often be seen chatting with friends on these stools.

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Stools outside a gated structure. These don’t appear to belong to any nearby stall. 

I ventured to a local park one morning to get a sense of the sorts of recreational activities participate in. There were many school age kids there, playing all sorts of games. There was also a group of young kids inexplicably dancing, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse-style, in the middle of the park.

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Dancing kids.

Something else you don’t see often is badminton in the middle of the street. The courts are painted on the streets, and groups of people just played. Every few minutes, a motorcycle or car would drive by, temporarily disrupting the game.

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Street badminton.

Overall, I get the sense that the simple pleasures of life are still very much enjoyed here.

Vietnam, 2018 – Part Three – Toil

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Perhaps the most pervasive feeling one gets from the people of Vietnam, particularly the older ones, is the toiling that is involved in everyday life. You cannot walk one block without seeing vendors selling stuff at the street corners.

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This lady was not impressed when I took a picture of her. She stared at me for a while.

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“By the sweat of your brow…”

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Vendor selling ice-cream in front of the Independence Palace. The bike was playing a jingle, and it took me a while to realize that it was the Paddle Pop theme music.

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After a sudden and heavy downpour, I saw this man carrying lots of recycled metal on his tricycle (?).

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A pedestrian inquires about the produce.

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A street vendor setting up during the late morning, perhaps to catch the lunch crowds.

 

Vietnam, 2018 – Part Two – Immersion

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One of the dictums of street and documentary photography is that the role of the photographer is to contemplate reality. Bruce Davidson, famed Magnum Photos member, puts it best, as follows:

I am not interested in showing my work to photographers any more, but to people outside the photo-clique. My pictures are not escapes from reality, but a contemplation of reality, so that I can experience life in a deeper way.

The point for him and me, then, is not to take beautiful images, but to capture what we experience. For a short trip like this, it was difficult to get a true sense of the place. However, I deliberately slowed myself down, stopping to observe the people. What I’ve seen is that Vietnam is a nation that is at once full of opportunities, as well as challenges. In many ways, like China before it, Vietnam is undergoing a period of change that will likely bring it into homogenization with the rest of the world.

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The Communist flag waves proudly above what appears to be a state building, surrounded by crumbling architecture. One is tempted to make some point about the failure of the State. Yet, there I was, seated in a nice little cafe in one of these buildings, enjoying a nice cup of drip coffee.

It’s not uncommon to see scenes like this – Tourists taking selfies,

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or otherwise enjoying their time with the locals.

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On the other hand, from the locals, especially the younger ones, there is sometimes a sense of abiding boredom, and ennui.

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Of course, it afflicts the old as well as the young.

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To be continued…

 

Vietnam, 2018 – Part One – Arrival

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I had the opportunity to visit Ho Chi Minh City these past couple of days, and had decided to use this to jumpstart my street photography. Man, was it hard! Having shot no more than sporadically for the last 4 years, I’ve found out what damage this lack of practice can do to one’s technique. For starters, on more than one occasion, I spotted the scene too late. Other times, my camera settings were way off – constant changes in lighting conditions did not help. And perhaps most egregiously, several times I found myself lacking the courage, and backing down when the subject got near. The result has been less than ideal. However, perhaps it will be a launchpad to better photography. Maybe my eye can, as HCB says, be awakened again.

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On arrival, I found myself on a bus, from which I saw the insane number of motorcycles that filled the streets.

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I was taken by how the riders continued to hold conversations on the bikes, even though the roads were crowded, the traffic rules essentially non-existent, and the noise pretty unbearable.

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Approaching the hotel, I saw this scene, where the bike in front appeared to be leading the pack.

P.S. All images in this series were taken with the Leica M8, with 35mm Summicron v3.

DIY – Adapting Instax Back to Tachihara 4×5

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Large format photography is a particularly slow and contemplative practice that often calls for a different state of mind than the ‘run-and-gun’ style more typical of street and/or documentary photography. A big reason for this is that, with few exceptions, the large format camera has to be set on a tripod, and since that already precludes snapshots, the practitioners go to the other extreme and employ a level of control over the image that borders on the insane. The large film size also ensures that a lot of detail can be captured on the film, thereby necessitating great care in capturing the image.

One challenge for users of large format cameras before the digital age (and for the most part, after it) is that despite the care and control taken in setting up the image on the ground glass, what happens at the moment of exposure remained guesswork. From the 50s, photographers quickly found that the then-new technology known as instant Polaroid film can be used for previewing their shots. No less distinguished a photographer than Ansel Adams himself was a proponent of this use for the new instant medium (though one should note that he was employed as a consultant by Edwin Land!).

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4×5 Polaroid Sheet Film Holder
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4×5 Packfilm holder

Over time, two types of Polaroid film – sheet film and packfilm – saw popular use in large format photography. These were reasonably high quality film, and were able, with some control for the latitude, to provide valuable feedback to the discerning photographer for adjusting the lighting. However, the third film type – the integral film – remained almost exclusively in use by amateurs for snapshots, despite being very convenient (no messy goop to deal with, as is the case for other Polaroid film), in part because of the slightly lower resolution. Nevertheless, a relatively rare film back for 4×5 cameras exists, which is essentially a Polaroid camera without the entire lens assembly.

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This rare CB-70 holder is a film processor for integral films.

Because of the rarity of this film back, it soon became an overpriced item. When I was shooting the Impossible Project (now called Polaroid Originals) film, I desperately wanted to get my hands on one of these film backs. In any event, these films were experimental and pricey, and I decided to stop shooting them some time back.

The only other company still making integral films is Fujifilm, under the Instax banner. The Instax Wide film is of excellent quality, with a relatively large image area. However, the cameras are ‘plastic fantastics’, that is, cheap, low quality camera, without any meaningful exposure control. For a long time, no film back existed for large format cameras. Until Lomography came onto the scene. Say what you will about the company’s appeal to hipsters, they have certainly helped make film cameras and accessories more accessible to everyone.

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The Lomography Belair Instant Back is a manual processor for the Instax Wide film.

One of their product lines is the Belair 6×9 medium format cameras, and for that series, they developed an Instant Back, as pictured above. This is a manual processor, that runs the film through a pair of rollers for processing. It is very overpriced for what it is, but I bit the bullet and bought one a few years ago, intending to modify it for my 4×5 camera.

Now, I have a 4×5 Tachihara camera that has seen little use in the past couple of years. This is due in large part to the difficulty of getting the sheet film developed, especially when I feel like shooting color images. In the past, getting around this involved using the Fujifilm sheet film or packfilm, but in recent years, all these film types have been discontinued, and I am hesitant to open up what film packs I have to shoot carelessly.

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My underutilized Tachihara 4×5

On the other hand, Instax film can be had for reasonable amounts of money, and this prompted the current project. What I needed to do was to adapt the Belair Instant back onto the Tachihara. Of course, I’d have preferred to make this a generic instant back for use with any 4×5 camera, but its thickness meant that this was always going to be difficult.

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Parts removed from the Belair

What the mod amounts to is the removal of the parts protruding from the film side of the instant back, as seen above. Next, careful measurement of the Tachihara interface, as well as what remains of the Instant Back yielded a 3D model of what the adapter plate needs to look like. Since my 3D printer isn’t big enough to print the whole thing in one piece, I split the model in three, and build screw holes into the design to allow the pieces to be securely fastened together. Furthermore, the dark slide (obtained by savaging a 4×5 film back) needed for this film back has to sit in a groove that is too small to print directly – the amount of support material that needs to be put in, and removed from the groove makes it unlikely to succeed. Printing in parts allows me to sand away material if the groove proves to be too small.

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Three-piece 3D model for adapting Instant Back to Tachihara.

After assembly, and with a bit of epoxy and black silicone, this is what I have.

There were teething problems in the form of light leaks, but these were reasonably easy to solve. Here’re some results from the camera and Instax back.

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Instax back with results

Portraiture

It’s been a quite few months since I’ve written anything here, because work has been hectic. Despite having left my Leica M2 in the car this whole time, I have barely shot a single roll in 6 months. Today, I reached a bit of a breaking point in terms of stress. It’s nothing major, but I realized that I have been living without any access to good ol’ fashioned aesthetics for the past couple of years, and it’s taking its toll on my psyche. I decided to do something about it, and broke out some photography books (notably, Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell), and just let the beauty of the photographs wash over me. And it was also at this time that I took a look at the types of photography books I own. Recently, Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer discussed in an excellent post (“Mini-collections can be a clue”) about our photographic passions, and how the books in our libraries tell us what our true passions and inclinations are.

Now, for me, I decided a long time ago to avoid taking photographs that didn’t contain people, because I had seen landscape and cityscapes and thought that they were pretty sterile and meaningless. No doubt this was also partly the result of my decision, upon graduation from middle school, to take a whole roll of photos of the school premises without a single picture of my school mates, to my lasting regret. This desire to image subjects in their normal setting led me to assume that I was interested in Street Photography (I am), and nothing else. But looking at my photo books collection, it dawned on me that what really drew me to taking street or documentary photos were the human stories, some of which I told myself in my head. And furthermore, the photos that I love the most may even qualify as (environmental) portraiture.

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Photo from “On this earth”, by Nick Brandt, of an elephant. Despite having no humans in this image, Nick Brandt manages to capture the personhood of the animal.

Take the famous image by Nick Brandt of the elephant, shown above. Obviously, there isn’t a human being in it, and yet one cannot deny that the elephant seems oddly… human. In other words, this was a portrait of the elephant (and not in the loose way the term “portrait” is used, but rather a proper portrayal of some essence, for lack of better word, of the subject). And sometimes, the image is a mirror that is held up, so that a portrait of the photographer is created (and I must emphasize here that few photographs ever attain this level of introspection). One of which is a W. Eugene Smith image below:

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I have always dreamed of taking great portraits, and have even, on a few occasions, attempted the feat. However, I find that my personality is not well-suited to this genre, so perhaps I will continue to be a spectator. And thankfully, we live in what some have called the Golden Age of Photobooks, and the access to great portraits, despite my own ineptitude in the genre, will continue to be available. And yes, it did relieve much of the stress that I was experiencing.

Astrophotography

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During my long hiatus, I started getting interested in astronomy. It’s pretty ironic, considering that, when I was in the US, had access to clear, dark skies, and cheap telescopes, I did not think to visit this old interest of mine. Instead, after I got back to light polluted Singapore, I got to know a few local amateur astronomers and really got into the hobby. Anyway, although not my usual style of photography, I was interested in capturing those amazing views my eyes beheld (one look in the telescope at Jupiter, and I was hooked). In fact, in many cases, the images far surpass what the human eye can see. So here, I present a short summary of the state of my astrophotography adventures.

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Week 5: Fuji GS645S w/ TMAX 400 @ 320

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Week 5 will feature a nice little rangefinder that I purchased a long time back – The Fuji GS645S. This camera is all-plastic. And it feels pretty cheap. However it’s certainly a capable little shooter. This medium format rangefinder shoots 6 x 4.5 cm frames in portrait format. It features a useful over/under meter with LED indicator in the viewfinder, activated with a half-press. I had previously written about fixing the low contrast of the rangefinder patch on this camera. Something that surprised me was that despite having left the batteries in the camera for almost four years, they are still not flat. Looking forward to using this!

Week 4: Olympus OM-1 with Neopan 400 @ISO320

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Alright. Chugging along, this week I’ll be shooting the venerable Olympus OM-1 with one of my last rolls of Neopan. This is camera is one that I particularly like, but haven’t shot with much. Part of the appeal of the camera is that it reminds me of the Pentax, but much more refined. The film winding is smooth; the shutter sounds great; there’s little mirror slap. Just very well-dampened motion all round. I only have a single OM-series lens so I’ve not shot with it nearly as much as I’d like. Despite having owned it for around 5 years, this is just the second or third roll with it!