Attending a party in borrowed clothes by way of an abandoned railroad

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Over at Emulsive HQ, they do these happenings called film parties, and this month it was time for the #fp4party which stars as you likely guess Ilford FP-4. I find January a great month to join in on a party as I find I need a little extra motivation to get out in the cold and grey Rhode Island winter to make photos. Saying to a group of folks on Twitter “sure, I’m in” seems to be just enough to get me out and get something done. And so I did.

FP-4 is an excellent film full stop. But rather than further my winter of discontent with a cold tripod I decided a more sensitive film would be better suited to my conditions and purpose. I skipped over my usual Tmax 400 and went to the fastest 120 film there is, Ilford Delta 3200. Using which does mean that my images will not be eligible for consideration in the viewer voting at the end of the week but as my dad used to say “we’re not here to win a beauty contest” so I’m good with that. For the tech fans: my film was Ilford Delta 3200 in 120 which I rated at its “data sheet speed” of 1000 and developed in Kodak T-Max developer diluted 1:4. The camera was a Fuji GSWIII 6x9.

As for my subject, I went to my list of desires to find a walking photo meditation along the rail line of the former Moshassuck Valley railroad in Pawtucket, quite close to home. I first encountered the MVRR without realizing it when I walked the river of that name. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that the diminutive railway had a rather interesting and long history. Although at 2 miles it was one of the shortest in the country it retained its independence from its start in 1847 right up to 1981. It ran passenger service until the 1920s and fought and won a rate dispute with “The Company” the mighty New Haven Railroad. When I learned that an extension was planned (a crucial move in winning the rate dispute) that would have brought the railroad right by my house, I was hooked, and I knew I had to explore this bit of neighborhood history further.

This is just a first effort, but I am encouraged that there is more I can work with. In the spirit of the party and my virtual notebook I’m sharing here every picture from both rolls in the sequence I made them.

The MVRR was folded into the Providence and Worcester Railroad in 1981, and this branch is actually not wholly abandoned. It sees some occasional service. I note evidence here of recent tie replacement and brush clearing, perhaps indicating that the P&W’s new owners still see some value in the line.

For more info:

And here is a cool home movie of the railroad in use from 1970.

Having issues: defeat streaky development in 2017

Develop your own film? Here's a common development issue that can pop up from time to time. It's a streak of extra density running across the short dimension of roll film, visible especially in light areas such as the overcast sky seen this example. It can happen with both 35mm and 120 size film, this one is on some 120 Ilford FP-4+. I've cranked up the contrast a bit in the scan to make this devil more obvious.

In the negative...

In the negative...

As a positive.

As a positive.

What is the cause? This problem occurs during the initial seconds when developer is being poured into the developing tank, especially with 4 or 8 35mm reel size tanks.  As the tank fills developer comes in contact with the film before the reel is totally immersed. The time between contact and full immersion is long enough for development to begin in the area of contact. This creates uneven density in an area where it should be uniform. Not good.

Happily I can think of many solutions to this problem. Let's dive in.

  • 1. Get fundamental. First thing is to to check your pour technique. You should be aiming to have the tank filled within 15-20 seconds. Tip the tank slightly as you fill to allow air to escape and then pour pour pour. Then cap the tank and agitate with vigor. If that doesn't work:
  • 2. Give up. Send your film off to a lab and let someone else worry about it. Upside: More time to do other things. Downside: additional expense and the loss of control over a crucial part of your work process.
  • 3. Give in. Accept that an occasional streak or spot, bleep or bloop is just a natural part of an organic process and just proves that your pictures aren't made by an unfeeling machine but by a flesh and blood person keeping it real. Downside: some people won't get it and will just think you're sloppy.
  • 4. Give over. Figure that it will happen once in a while so shoot only dark and busy images that will hide a random streak, or if you do wish to photograph some lovely light grey tone, take a page from your cousin the "professional" photographer and spray and pray. Downside: wasting film and becoming your cousin.
  • 5. Modify. Change something in the hope that the problem will go away. For instance try a different film type. Maybe HP-5 will be ok if FP-4 wasn't. Downside: giving up on a film that you otherwise like, creating limitations for yourself as you eliminate film types one by one, still experiencing the issue since in fact you're not actually addressing the problem.
  • 6. Slow down. Change your developer or developer dilution so it's less active. In theory this will give you more time before development begins. Downside: Development time is longer. There may be changes in image quality that you may not care for. Difficult to know how much dilution is enough before you risk exhausting the developer.
  • 7. Scale down. Develop all your film one roll at a time in small tanks. Downside: takes much more time that you might wish to use to do other things.
  • 8. Scale up. Get a processing machine like a Jobo. Downside: expensive, takes up more space, not very portable.
  • 9. Presoak. You will find a fair amount of debate over the efficacy of presoaking your film in water. On the one hand the manufacturers say it's not necessary as modern films have incorporated surfactants to encourage even development. On the other hand many people have had complete success using a presoak, including Ansel Adams. Jobo recommends a presoak for their rotary process. The theory is that a presoak will encourage even development as the water absorbed by the emulsion will be displaced by developer slowly, with the added benefit of bringing the tank to the process temperature.

Personally I used a presoak for many years (largely because of Ansel's recommendation) with little issue. Oddly, one issue I did have was with X-tol developer in a rotary Jobo processor, I was getting the dreaded "wagon ruts", bands of uneven development running the length of the film. Jobo support recommended skipping the presoak which did in fact eliminate the problem. But I digress. For many years now I've not used a presoak but I feel pretty safe in saying that there's little risk if you do. Downside: one more step added to the process, some small adjustment in development time may be needed. 


The handy lifting rod.

The handy lifting rod.

  • 10. Get a lift. This one requires the fewest changes, but does require that you develop your film in an actual dark room and have a second developing tank on hand. A lifting rod is very useful, but not completely necessary. For the big 8 reel tanks (and larger!) this is the best method to ensure not only even development but to be certain that the film on the top of the tank is being developed for the same time as the one on the bottom.

How to? Place your loaded reels into one tank, using the lifting rod if you have one. Fill the second tank with developer. Turn out the lights, open the film tank and lower the reels into the developer, smooth and steady. Cap the tank and agitate as normal. Now you can switch on the lights and continue as usual. Downside: you need a darkroom. 

Issues with film development can creep into the process of even the most careful worker, or lab. Hopefully one doesn't cost you a once in a lifetime image. If you take the time to understand the problem and to review the fundamentals you should be back up and running with confidence in short order.

Photography and Baseball [metaphors]

Today is the first day of the baseball season and although it's snowing and many games on the east coast have been postponed it still makes me excited. Excited for the baseball season? Nope, don't really care about that. I get excited for the photography season.

Graveyard, Douglas Ave, Prov. 1994

When I was young and could indulge in such fanciful notions I had this idea of aligning my photo season with the baseball season. Training camp opened and I would go through my gear, do some film testing and generally get myself ready to get out there. In these years I was doing most of my own work with a view camera, and I didn't shoot that often in the winter. (I don't really like snow pictures and don't often do them. Here's a rare exception, from 1994 4x5 FP-4)

So the baseball season would start and I'd get out there and start working. Hopefully by the All-Star break things would be going along well, shooting, processing, seeing the field. Going well or not it was a moment to reflect and to see what was needed to make the most of the rest of the season, knowing that the fall light lay ahead. I never made the payoffs and I never won the pennant but I kept at it until winter. I don't really know how that came about as I'm not really a baseball fan of any seriousness, but these days I don't let myself take the winters off.

Going year round can generate a lot of self-inflicted pressure, and that pressure can in turn put up creative blocks that need to be overcome. I've developed a tactic for that that seems to have taken the form of another sports metaphor: the change up.

The change up can simply mean picking up a different type of camera, or shooting different film. It can be changing modes all together, perhaps listening and recording audio or sitting down with a notebook and writing. Once when I was feeling especially frustrated and completely lost I gave myself permission to give it up and just write. Which I did for about three months. When I picked up a camera again it was because I was excited to do something with it, I was inspired again. I knew that photography would be there if I needed it and as it turned out I did and it was.

There are times I will shift from one project to the next and that can bring about a new set of problems but I'd rather that than feel I was pounding my head on a wall or just going through the motions. Identifying a habit and then doing the opposite can be a great change up. Avoiding people? Go shoot portraits. Only like sun? Go shoot in the rain.

Maybe photo projects have their own seasons, certainly they their own internal rhythms. Stay flexible and you can move with them too. So get out there, give it 110%, leave it all on the field, take it one picture at a time and bring home a pennant. Whatever that is.



The ghosts of edits past

Editing a project for a show or a book has it's stages, from shooting, which may continue well into the editing stage, to the initial selection from contact sheets, printing, sequencing, more printing and then on to book layout or exhibition hanging.

When it comes to sequencing, I've found no better way than working with actual prints, laid out on the table or the floor, shuffling and shifting until the rhythm is right. Digital or film, it doesn't matter, you need the space to see it all together flowing from one image to the next.

The hardest aspect of any edit is the cutting away of things you like and have become attached to. It starts out fairly easily but eventually you get to where it hurts, and you agonize over each choice. But choose you must and (hopefully) the sequence shows you what it needs most. The deadline looms, you convince yourself it's right and up it goes.


It begins...

Sequencing underway...

We have an edit...

On the wall for all to see.

On the wall for all to see.

You pack up the outtakes, hang the show, make the book and move on. Sometimes those outtakes linger with you, like ghosts popping in unexpectedly until finally you go back to that box and have a visit. Some, you admit you still like. Some give you ideas for new work. Thanks to the miracle of modern digital media you can put them up and excise your ghosts. And so I shall. These are outtakes from Canonicus' Bow.

Closing the Loop

On work and practice.

I don't make New Year resolutions but the end of year break seems to be as good a time as any to reflect and to think about what I'd like to work on in the coming months. Specifically I've been thinking about how I go about what I do and how I can be more effective in doing it. 

Taking apart the term creative practice I'll consider both halves in order. Looking back at 2015 I find that i have a number of interesting projects going, I have ideas that I'm excited about and I'm curious enough to want to continue the pursuit. I have been shooting as the stack of negatives (and digital files) testifies. So far so good. However I know myself well enough to know that I'm very fond of keeping projects somewhere between 20-80% complete. Not completely vapor but still ripe with potential, still able to keep me happily busy pursuing leads and reaching dead ends free from the final nail and critical assessment that comes with being done. There are a couple of projects that I wish to see in a finished state by this time next year. I can visualize that, so it remains to move them there. Ideas, actions (in the form of taking photographs and recording sounds) words written, the creative half looks healthy enough.

How about the other word, practice? I like the sense of that word that describes what musicians do prior to performance. Few people are so gifted as to be able to perform at a high level without dedicated practice, and beyond that there are positive aspects that come only through repetition. There is a physical fluidity that comes from what's described sometimes as muscle memory, you just know where and how to move without having to think about it. There is confidence that comes from that and from a deepening insight into what the materials are capable of. Therein lies the catch within my own recent process. Insight and knowledge requires seeing the thing through every stage. For me that would mean from shooting or recording, to negative or file, to print or to screen to whatever the finished state should be. Then looping back through the process over and over again. I have plenty of practice in shooting and handling the camera, I earn my living shooting after all, but to get better I need to see finished prints and edited files, and I need to have others see that too. I need to close the loop. That is something I didn't do often enough in 2015. That is what I will endeavor to do this year. We'll see how it goes.

Bucket Week - Day Four

Downtown in winter.

This week in honor of the city of my residence and my daughter's home town, I will be featuring Pawtucket, Rhode Island, aka the 'Bucket'.

At Summer St. and North Union, downtown Pawtucket, 1994


Today's pair represents something that I rarely do, which is to say something that I do all the time. That is take multiple, slightly different views at one location. I do that often, what I usually don't do is promote more than one view as the work goes forward. Normally I will make a choice, or feel the choice has been made for me, one is usually clearly the "best", or the best I could do. With these I've continued to like both variants. Although I don't remember I believe they are shown here in the order I made them. I framed up the first and then moved forward for the second. I think the shadows agree with that. There is one thing here that shows something that I do rarely do: photograph snow. My guess is this is late winter. Made with a 4x5 camera on Tri-X film.

At Summer St. and North Union, downtown Pawtucket, 1994

Bucket Week - Day Three

In Oak Grove.

This week in honor of the city of my residence and my daughter's home town, I will be featuring Pawtucket, Rhode Island, aka the 'Bucket'.

Oak Grove Cemetery, 1994


Gates of the Oak Grove Cemetery, 1994

Some people are put off by pictures of cemeteries. Some people are put off by cemeteries in general. Not me. I find they are great places to explore, full of interesting names and fragments of interesting stories. They are usually relaxing places to photograph in as well. No traffic, often no people at all (above ground anyway) so you can mess about with your gear and not feel stressed. There are exceptions. Swan Point in Providence has a strict policy regarding photography and they will chase you out. Hasn't stopped me though, you just need to be quick(ish). In cemeteries within urban environments I find I'm drawn to the ways that the city of the living relates visually to the city of the dead, how the streets line up or how a row of headstones is echoed by a row of houses. This is very likely something else that Walker Evans has taught us to see. These two photographs are almost back to back from each other. I love the detail of the little lamb (a child's grave) in the lower right of the second image. These were made with a 4x5 camera on Tri-X film.

Bucket Week - Day Two

US Route 1.

This week in honor of the city of my residence and my daughter's home town, I will be featuring Pawtucket, Rhode Island, aka the 'Bucket'.

Broadway, Pawtucket, looking south, 1995


This picture was made in 1995. I had an idea to photograph Route 1 in Rhode Island from north to south. This is almost as far as I got. It did lead to other projects: the intersection set and a walk down RI route 2. This is a 4x5 camera image on HP-5 film.

Bucket Week - Day One

On the W.E. trail.

This week in honor of the city of my residence and my daughter's home town, I will be featuring Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Pawtucket will be kicking off it's campaign for the 2015 Pawtucket Arts Festival on Thursday. A worthy effort.

Wilkinson Park, Pawtucket, 1993


I made this image in 1993, not too long after I arrived in Rhode Island from upstate NY. I was working then exclusively with a 4x5 camera and I had just begun the work that became the Rhode Island Photographs project. This image is an homage of sorts to Walker Evans, and it is fair to say that almost everything I was doing then was an homage to Evans. Evans did a great series on war monuments during his time with the FSA. He was responding to photographs made of monuments during the Civil War, photographs he attributed to Mathew Brady, although we now know them to be made by others in Brady's employ. The Evans photographs inspired Lee Friedlander to make a series on monuments. I was thinking both of Friedlander and Evans when I made this.