Category Archives: photography

Great Minds Think Alike

Okay—I’ve been predictably lame about posting to my supposed blog. Anyone surprised by that? Not really. But I’ve started getting back some of the Kodachrome I have to use up, and have a few good shots to scan.

Sometimes—for me, often—you’re just walking along and you see something sort of ordinary, the sort of thing most people would not think of as a photo subject, and you wonder, can I make something of that? Often you can’t, or at least I can’t. Two times out of three I put the camera up, look through it, try to frame a shot, and nothing comes of it. I put the camera down. The one time out of three that I take the photo, two times out of three the resulting photo doesn’t look that great to me when I see it.

Some of the remaining photos I post to the APUG galleries, with varied responses. Some people like them, some say WTF? Well, what can you do?

Sometimes you find that someone else has been looking at things kinda the same way. Here’s one of my new shots:


Then, a few days ago, a web site came to my attention, a web site dedicated to the photography of Vivian Maier. It’s likely that you’ve never heard of Vivian Maier, either. Ms. Maier apparently lived in Chicago for many years, wandered the streets with her Rolleiflex, documented what was going on around her, and never showed anyone the photos. The guy with the web site got the negatives out of some boxes in a storage room whose contents were being auctioned off. One of the shots was this:

[Link here–Technical Difficulties!]

So Ms. Maier, some decades ago in Chicago, saw some french fries lying by the curb and had the same thought I had when I saw Fritos on the ground.

I recommend checking out the rest of the site; her street photography is top-notch.

Lawn Idols

I am probably not the most disorganized person on the Earth, but I am probably not that far off. One of things I need to get organized is a batch of photos of an accidental project, the lawn idols of Somerville (and nearby). Somerville is a small and fairly densely built-up city, with much of the housing stock in the form of two- or three-family houses set on fairly small lots. The houses are close together, but most of them are set back a little from the street, so that there is usually a tiny bit of front yard. The interesting thing is that even though the yards are small, hardly enough even to be called a yard, many residents expend a fair bit of effort in landscaping.

One of the more popular types of decoration is lawn statuary. And much of that statuary is religious in nature. The classic Mary-in-a-half-bathtub is probably the most popular, followed by Jesus (with and without ripped-out heart), and various saints (I’m not sure how one is supposed to know which is which). Sometimes Mary has a little flock of worshippers. Interestingly, Jesus usually does not. I presume the little worshipper figures can be purchased on their own, but they usually seem to end up around a Mary. Maybe Mary is feeling a little insecure needs a little more reinforcement? I don’t know.

Because Somerville is a small city, it’s easy to cover on foot. A lot of these decorated yards end up as subjects for photos. Though it’s necessary to keep an eye out for interesting or unusual examples—a lawn that had just a lone Mary would not normally be a very good subject. Some of the better ones involve a multitude of themes—such as Mary and a flock of fairies and bunnies surrounded by random plants:


I’m not sure what the backdrop behind Mary is supposed to be protecting the house from: holy radiation?

Some people apparently feel that just having a Mary or a Jesus is not quite enough protection. So they’d better throw in a saint or two, plus some animals. Having just a Mary or a Jesus, or even both, leaves a little room for doubt. But nothing is getting past this guard unit:


Pity the poor wise men who must wait in the shadows for the holiday, though.

Sometimes good examples can be found in neighboring towns. Somerville hardly has a lock on the statuary market, though few places have quite the same concentration. Even upscale neighborhoods in Cambridge are not immune. But of course, in Cambridge, the idols must be suitably respectable, literate, and informed about current events. Apparently also unable to share their newspapers.


There’s more along these lines, and I’ve got to sort through them, decide which ones I like, and there’s probably a few places I’ll maybe even want to revisit and shoot again. In fact, I know there are.

A Drive in the Country

Today we went on a little road trip, just because it was a nice day. A coworker with a common interest in old diners recommended the Agawam Diner in Rowley, MA. It was reported to be worth a trip, both as a well-preserved dining-car diner and for decent diner food. It also happened to be not far down the road from the Clam Box of Ipswich, which I’d also been wanting to try.

We drove up Route 1, past such local landmarks as the Hilltop, Kowloon, The leaning tower of pizza, and the orange mini-golf dinosaur. We stopped at the site of the defunct Bel-Aire diner, sadly closed and abandoned (for at least four years now, according to Google searching). Vines were visible growing inside the vestibule. Perhaps some venturesome and wealthy patron will someday find the funds to relocate this classic 1950s-vintage diner to a location where it would do enough business to stay open. Nearby we counted two or three boarded-up motels, including one directly across the street. Two local strip clubs had full parking lots, though.

The Agawam Diner has had the good fortune to escape this end, though it is the last of what was once a chain of four. In fact, when we got there, the place was packed, so we decided to keep driving and go by the Clam Box. The Clam Box had a line out the door and down the block a ways. As much as I like fried clams, I’m not up for long lines.

So what is there to do in Ipswich besides eat? Antique shops. And flea markets. And more antique shops, really, as far as the eye can see. So we se a sign for a flea market, and go in.

Find #1: An Argus AF 35mm camera in decent condition. Five bucks, with an intact leather case. Not a steal really: five bucks is about what the camera is worth. This camera dates from around 1937, but the Argus was the first relatively inexpensive (a list price of $15, compared to, say, a Kodak Retina I at $57) 35 mm camera made in the US, and it was pretty popular in its day. Used Arguses (Argi?) are still abundant and commonly found gathering dust in antique stores and flea markets. So I hardly need to buy this camera. But as I say, it does seem to be well-preserved example. The shutter and focusing mechanism seem to be working okay, and the glass is clear. And it is kind of a funky 1930s art-deco bakelite artifact. So what the hell, another toy to play with. I’ve got some FP4 in a bulk loader–I can make up a short roll to test.

As I go to the table to pay, the guy says, “Do you know anything about cameras?” I’m wearing my “Got Film?” T-shirt and carrying my Nikon F2, so I say, “yeah, a little.” He’s just happy to get rid of the thing.

Find #2: We go down the road a ways to check out more antique stores. At one, I find two boxes of #25 flashbulbs, each with a dozen bulbs. Twelve white and Twelve blue. The blue bulbs have a better balance for color film. Judging by the packaging, I’d guess these are late-60s vintage bulbs. The box gives times for two versions of Kodachrome discontinued in 1974, so before then, anyway. Original sticker price: $2.59. My price: $5 per box. Press 25 bulbs fit the flash tube for my Speed Graphic, so I can use them as soon as I finish rigging up the shield. I have found a clip-on diffuser that fit, so all I need is something to keep the glass shards contained. One of the dangers of using 40+ year-old flash bulbs is the occasional burst bulb. The bulbs are actually plastic-coated to prevent shattering, but the coating can fail.
I discovered this by direct experience.

We did get back to the Agawam diner for dinner. And indeed, the Agawam is very well maintained. Nice chrome exterior, nonworking jukebox selectors at the booths, Formica counters. It was busy, but we snagged seats at the counter with no waiting. I actually like being at the counter at a diner, especially a curved counter. You can watch what’s going on behind from there. We’re sitting next to the dessert station, mainly various types of meringue and cream pies, fairly usual diner offerings, along with some fruit pies. At one point I watch a waitress do a fairly sloppy job of slicing a blueberry pie, mashing it so the filling runs out all over the pie tin.

After spending the day driving around and seeing signs for clams every hundred yards or so, I give in to suggestion and order the clam roll. Not the strips; whole clams. And these were definitely whole, with necks. Some places cut the siphons because they can be kinda chewy, but some places leave them on. I’m okay with that. Strips are usually made from sea clams, not shore clams. They’re cheaper, but I don’t think you get a good clam flavor unless you have whole clams. The batter was decent–not quite as crisp and light as you’d get at a good clam shack, but okay–not too thick or crunchy, a frequent failing. The roll is industrial-grade hot dog roll, but toasted in butter. Fries and cole slaw. I don’t eat the cole slaw.

I decide on what seems a safe choice for dessert–chocolate cake. And it’s actually okay, better than I was expecting, though there was a white-frosting filling that was less than good. On the whole, a satisfactory diner experience.

Gift from the Great Wall

Today we have something a little different. My latest camera acquisition is a Tru-View, a cheap plastic camera made by Great Wall Mfg. of Taiwan, probably in the 1970s. It’s a clone of the more well-known Diana. Great Wall made (I hesitate to say “built”–extruded? Pooped out?) the Diana in a few variations with many different trade names, for different markets, but all essentially the same camera. Simple plastic lens, three apertures, one speed. Takes 120 roll film, makes 16 small exposures. The contemporary Holga is a descendant of the Diana.

These are among the crappiest cameras ever made. I got this one for $10 on eBay. These cameras now have a certain cachet in a small niche of the photo world, and you can buy new Holgas at Urban Outfitters, for three times the price they’d be anywhere else. In fact, if my Tru-View had the Diana label, it would likely have sold for more.

In my first post, I commended the Kowa for its sharp optics. Compare a similar detail from the Tru-View scan. You will note that the Tru-View is, well, less sharp. You may also note the chromatic aberration. It doesn’t help that the Tru-View has only crude distance-scale focusing. And there’s vignetting–it can’t quite cover even the reduced 4-centimeter frame.

So what’s the appeal? For starters, they’re about as far as you can get from the clean, bright, linear world of digital cameras. You can shoot with these cameras and really, you don’t know what you’re going to get until you process the film. This particular one seems to be reasonably light tight (many are not), though it appears that the red window is letting in enough light to cause an artifact. Everything becomes instantly impressionistic and surreal. The Diana-type toy camera intrudes itself into the result, and becomes part of the process.

The only drag about having one of these is that toy cameras are kinda trendy among the artsy-hipster set, or at least the artsy-hipster wannabe set. I mean, they’re for sale at Urban Outfitters, fer cthulhu’s sake. But anything that gets a few more film cameras out the door is good, right? Maybe the thing that annoys me most is that they’re paying too much–they could get the cameras and film from Freestyle or B&H for less. At least I only paid what my camera is really worth–almost nothing.

Getting Back to Work

I need to have more imaginary friends, so I guess it’s a good time to start a new blog. My wife and I moved a couple of months ago, and I need to finish setting up my darkroom, but it’s too hot to think about working. I need a small bench for the trays and I need to make blackout window frames. because my darkroom is also my home office. However, I can go ahead and get some film scanning done. I’ve got a few chromes I want to make prints of, and I don’t have any color printing capability. The wet darkroom stuff is all b&w. But that’s okay. I’m partially color blind. I don’t see green, really, much at all. It’s largely a hypothetical concept to me. So it’s easier to manage color with the computer.

I’m watching a scan appear on the screen as I write this. A frame taken with a Kowa 6, a camera I tried and couldn’t get used to, so I traded it for something else. But I did get a few good shots with it. This one is on Fuji Provia. I’m scanning at 6400 dpi, so it makes a whopping big file.

Here’s a small version:

cave of dreams

I found the Kowa to be kind of difficult to hand-hold due to its odd form factor, but it did have a pretty sharp lens (detail at 100% of original scan):


So I think the main reason I want to do this blog is to make myself actually do work, rather than just sitting around reading other people’s blogs and forums all the time. I’ll actually have to produce stuff to have things to post on the blog.

I also want to hash out some ideas about why I continue to use film, when so many think it’s obsolete. The cameras I use most of the time are vintage mechanical Nikons, no auto anything. I enjoy the actual taking of the photo–lining up the shot, considering the exposure, the focus, the depth of field, operating the camera. It’s satisfying on a visceral level, like working with well-made tool or a good sharp knife.

I’m not being entirely Luddite, I think–the mechanical camera, the chemical process is just as much a product of an industrial age as anything else. And I know that the better digital SLRs will allow traditional manual controls. Nor do I reject computers in my daily life–I’m using one now, obviously. I surf the Web, use email, all that. I use Photoshop and InDesign. Thirty years ago I had an Apple II+ and a 300 baud modem.

Part of it is, I think, just a reaction to the fact that I do spend a lot of time in front of the computer, and want to retain something that doesn’t depend on the computer. That’s partly why I enjoy cooking, too. It’s just you, a knife, and an onion.

I think about John Henry sometimes, the steel-driver in the old folk song. John Henry challenged the steam engine, and he won the race, he beat the steam engine, but he died doing it. John Henry was a symbol of the transition from the human-powered era to the industrial era, and now we are passing into a post-industrial era, at least partly. Things that used to be physical artifacts are being replaced by their digitized versions. It has its advantages, but it seems that the external world becomes a little less interesting for it.