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.

Photo from "On this earth"

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.

2017-04-21 State of my Astrophotography.png

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!

Week 2: Pentax Spotmatic, SMC Takumar 50/1.4, Fujicolor 100

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Week 2 of the project features the camera that started it all – the Pentax Spotmatic (old readers may recall the tale of woe associated with this camera). Or at least, it would have featured said camera if it hadn’t developed a mirror flip down problem. So I am using the Honeywell Spotmatic – a virtual copy without hotshoe (who needs flash anyway?!). It’s a hefty piece of gear so I expect slightly more difficulty, but I am optimistic!

On a related note, I was recently asked about some old M42 lens, and came across some sites that mentioned that the SMC Takumar 50/1.4 is quite radioactive. Does anyone know for sure? Would love some help with verifying this information!

Update on Blog Revival

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I’ve completed week one! Leica M4-P was used to shoot half a roll of Neopan 400 @ 320 (this project was started on a Friday, and all things considered it’s not bad that I have it shot within two days). I will be developing and scanning these in batches, but I’m excited about restarting film photography!

 

A sampling of Szarkowski’s wisdom

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Read this while leafing through my copy of “William Eggleston’s Guide”.

[I] have observed that the poem or picture is likely to seem a faithful document if we get to know it first and the unedited reality afterwards – whereas a new work of art that describes something we had known well is likely to seem as unfamiliar and arbitrary as our own passport photos.

 – Szarkowski, introduction to the Guide.

The Cruelty of the Single Frame

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Photography, as practiced by many street photographers (myself included), is an inherently cruel act. The process of extracting a person or people out of their context, placing them, disoriented, on a frame of our choosing, robs them of their humanity to a certain degree. They have no recourse to redress their grievances. There is no conversation; no back and forth; no room for discussion. The photographer, by the simple act of releasing the shutter, has all the power in this relationship. Yet, we cannot help but abstract the essence of life in a fleeting moment, if for no other reason than our own pleasure. Perhaps we even have grandiose dreams of “capturing the quintessence of an age”; to represent for posterity what it means to be alive in our time. Like the old masters we want to be revered for our unerring and astute eye, distilling that which makes now, now. At least these are the tales that we can tell ourselves.