As already described here and here, the emerging COVID-19 pandemic left my wife and me stranded in her hometown Yukuhashi from March to July 2020 — right after the birth of our son. During that time, I carried a camera wherever I went, resulting in the capture of a large number of scenes of the local landscape, stones, rivers, houses, people, economy, politics, COVID-19, popular mythology and religion … my perspective on Japan “from pebbles to boulders,” so to speak.
Back in Hamburg, work was begun to edit the photos into bookshape. Being a side-project to my research, it took until September of this year to see the publication of the finished book. While 38 cartridges of film were carefully exposed and developed by hand in Yukuhashi, only 96 of the resulting photos were selected and arranged for this book, the layout being handled by Shoko Tanaka.
The book is printed to order by Norderstedt’s finest “Books on Demand” printer-publisher. It can be ordered (in Europe) through any purveyor of books of your choice, i.e. your local brick and mortar bookstore (suggested!), Book on Demand’s own webstore or various online bookshops.
From Pebbles to Boulders : 96 Photos of Small-Town Japan
Alongside other tectonic shifts happening around the world at the moment, reflex is now produced differently, i.e. using the services of Norderstedt’s Books on Demand GmbH. This is in lieu of printing my photos with a laser printer and binding them by hand into little booklets, which is how it worked until now.
While many appreciated the handmade quality of the old booklets, perhaps their shape somewhat distracted from the content of the photos. If some part of my process could be considered to be handcraft it would be the development of the films. More important, the recent arrival of our baby made it necessary to decide how to allot the sparse time available for photo work. Long story short: handstitching booklets did not make the cut.
(The back issues will continue to be available as handmade booklets from the nachladen.)
As usual, reflex 08 is available from the glorious nachladen as of now.
Reflex 05 is here, with photos from (mostly) Hamburg, Strande and Kiel. And its not just here, now its also there:
I decided to make the new issues of reflex available to the general public in the “nachladen“, Hamburg’s hot spot for self-published magazines and art printing. Drop by if you are in the area and have a look, they have heaps of nice prints and magazines by local artists well worth a visit.
issues 01 to 04 are finally finished. Each issue contains 36 of my photos taken
during one quarter year, printed using electro photographical printing.
It’s been a long time coming: In March of 2018 I wrote that I would concentrate on printing my photos, instead of just publishing them on my homepage. Afterwards it seemed like no progress happened in this regard for well over one year. What can I say? The PhD thesis continues to occupy the largest part of my attention and from last summer onward, curating the exhibition “Negative/Scans” kept me busy as well. As a result, the stream of photos published on the homepage became a mere trickle, while no printed photos appeared.
I continued shooting though, as well as developing films and making proof sheets of the films. When some time was available, I experimented with different ways to print my photos.
The question of printing process
reason why the silver bullet – traditional enlargements, chemical development –
could not be used: Our apartment lacks the space necessary to set up a darkroom
able to handle print development. Turning the bathroom into a darkroom by putting
an enlarger onto the toilet seat and some development trays in the shower is
nice for some fooling around, but not for producing a reasonable quantity of prints.
The throughput rate would be far too low. While I do hope to be able to set up
a real darkroom again in the future, for now I will continue to use a hybrid
workflow, meaning I take my photos on film, scan them and use the computer to
prepare them for printing.
question of the throughput – or maybe better output – rate, there were further
requirements which the printing process would have to meet:
– The prints need to be reasonably archivable
(they should not degrade before I do, print durability should be in excess of
– The prints should cost as little as possible
(a drugstore print of the size 13x18cm costs around 0,40€. Nice for a few quick
prints, but too much when having to print a lot)
– Print quality (resolution, tonality, luster)
should still be as high as possible
experiments with on-demand digital photobook printing, which proved to not be
right for me due to reasons of cost and lack of control over the process, I
tried to print the photos myself using an inkjet printer. That one did a good
job preserving the tonality of the negatives, but I do not print every day (or
even week) and the danger of inks drying out in the printer is looming too
large. (The printer wasting ink on purpose to flush out its printing heads is
also unacceptable for financial reasons.)
I then stumbled upon “xerography” or electro photographical printing. The prints meet common archival standards and are not very costly in production. Their only downside is that tonality is not too good (resolution is reasonable though). Even if electro photographical printing sounds exotic to you, you probably have already encountered the process: It is the same one used in the humble photocopier. Following some deliberations, I figured since exhibition prints would be done through a different process anyway, xerography is the way to go for producing this little ongoing catalog of my work.
The editorial workflow for “reflex”
After the question of printing process was settled, another decision had to be made on how to edit my photos. Sometimes I work on limited projects, which turn into little portfolios of photos almost by themselves (compare the Greek wedding), but what about the photos I take day-to-day without any connecting thread? These form the bulk of photos I shoot, by a wide margin.
I decided to select 36 out of all the photos I take every quarter year (Jan.-Mar., Apr.-Jun., Jul.-Sept., Oct.-Dec.), purely based on the criterion of which photos I like. These will be printed, presented and archived together. What results over time will be a kind of photographic reflection of the world around me, in the shape of a photographic journal. The focus is smack on the pictures, usually printed one per page with as little captions provided as possible.
Shoko helps me to embed the 36 photos selected into a simple layout using the
software InDesign. After printing the pages, I stitch them together between two
sheets of packaging paper, resulting in a durable booklet of 21cmx21cm. On the
front of this, the most important information about the content is given, as
well as the issue’s number.
Its been awfully quite here for a while. Apart from the tribulations of everyday life, the most important reason for this is me experimenting with my photographic workflow, the final output of which should be prints, not just bits and bytes. Expect more on this here shortly.
After toasting a few films with the “Canon P” rangefinder I got in Japan earlier this year I ran into problems when trying to scan the negatives: The film gate of the Canon is just ever so slightly larger than those of the Pentaxes I usually use, resulting in a ever so slightly larger area of film exposed to light. This made it impossible to leave a border of unexposed film around the picture in the digital file, which I have grown used to.
The solution is to file out the negative holder of the slide copier I use to digitize my 35mm films. This leaves just enough room around the negatives made with the Canon to form a black border. The negatives from the Pentaxes are not affected by this.
Below an example taken with the Canon P, now with proper black border of unexposed film.
And this is what really brought me to China: Photographing old periodicals in the libraries of Shanghai. The main objective this time? Xinwen zhaopian (news photos), a catalog published by the Xinhua News Agency twice every week, for newspapers, magazins and other work units of the media sphere to select and order pictures from. It covers the period from 1958 to 1987 with barely a gap inbetween and is as close to the “photographic mainstream” during those years as you can get.
This is the setup I use to make “digital contact sheets” of the film strips which have been developed. To keep them flat, the negative strips are sandwiched between two sheets of anti-reflective glass on a simple LED-lighttable. A digital camera (Pentax KS-1) is positioned above this on an ancient (“made in West-Germany”) repro column. A spirit level in the acessory shoe of the camera helps to ensure its completely level. The digital camera (with an old but sharp Pentax SMC 1:3,5/35mm lens attached) produces digital pictures of all the negatives on a film in one frame, which can be easily inverted to show positive images and allow a first glimps of the “catch of the day”.
This setup is a reversal of the way traditional — analog — contact sheets are made: Here the film strips would be put on a sheet of photographic paper (the “sensor”) and pressed down (into contact) with a pane of glass, then exposed from above with the enlarger or a simple light bulb. After development of the photographic paper you would be left with the positive images of the negatives on the paper, looking somewhat like the file reproduced below.
Based on these digital contact sheets, better called overviews, it is decided which negatives to digitize using a slide copier, and later continue to work on fine-tuning said pictures. (This part of the process was already explained here)
Apart from selecting the pictures to immediately work on, the overview files serve as a visual catalog of the “photographic stream of consicousness” recorded with the camera. These overviews are printed too, and can later conveniently be leafed through in the folder that is used to store them and keep them in order. Each overview print is inscribed on the back with the catalog number of the corresponding film, for example “n0123”. This is also the corresponding name of the digital file on the computer. When a negative of that film is turned into another digital file, the number of the negative (being one of 36 exposures possible on a standard strip of 35mm film) is added to the catalog number to give the filename of a finished picture, for example “n0123-36”. This makes it equally easy to retrieve a negative from storage (no matter whether digital or on paper) when it is needed at some later point.
The light in Hamburg is still not nearly bright enough for doing photography. This hardly matters, since I don’t have time to roam around outside anyway. What I did have time for was to improve the slide copier setup I’m using to digitize my negatives.
While at my parents home during the Christmas holidays, I rediscovered an old enlarger lens (Schneider-Kreuznach Componon 1:5,6/80) that I had bought a few years ago attached to an enlarger. Turns out it has just the right focal length to work with the camera in this setup. Having determined this, it was just a minor hassle to attach the lens to a M25 to M42 adaptor and that one to a M42 to Pentax-K adaptor which allowed me to connect it to this bellows unit. The distance between the lens and the slide-attachement was still too long to cover with the included bellows, so I had to cut a section of drainpipe to the right length, to act as a shade keeping stray light out. It looks a bit rustic, but it gets the job done. To avoid reflections on the inside of the pipe I used matte-black spraypaint.
Even though the Componon lens is already in quite bad shape (no way around that, new ones are prohibitively expensive), the optical quality still easily beats the zoom lens I was using before.
In the last few days and weeks I have been too busy to get much real photography done, but I was able to at least improve the speed of my workflow, using a slide copier attached to a digital slr.
Until now, it took me a long time to get the photos I made into a presentable form. One of the reasons for this was my trusty “Epson Perfection V370 Photo” flatbed scanner. While I cannot fault the quality of its output, it takes about three minutes to scan a negative, which for the usual film strip of 36 negatives quickly adds up to serious time. Furthermore, this is not even counting the time needed to clean up the resulting files (removing dust spots from the pictures, adjusting the grey values, etc.).
I decided to try a different approach, using a digital slr to photograph my negatives and thus reduce the time to get digital files. For this, I now use a slide copier, a machine originally used to make copies of slide film (or negatives) with a normal camera. It basically just consists of rails to keep the film to be copied at a precise distance from the camera and provisions to adjust this distance as needed. The one I got was manufactured by Pentax as an accessory for their cameras sometime in the 1980s. Thanks to Pentax still utilising the same lens mount (the infamous K-mount) on today’s digital cameras, it is no problem to seamlessly connect it to a modern camera for producing digital copies of the negatives.
This is how I do it: The slide copier is connected to a tripod and the camera is attached to its back. The adjustments needed to set the right distance between the negative, lens and camera are done in advance, based on measurements I took before with a test negative. Then the whole apparatus is aimed at a white curtain in direct sunlight, to provide a uniform, strong lightsource to illuminate the negative. After the right exposure setting for the negative has been set on the camera (the histogram displayed by the camera is extremely helpful for this), a full film can be quickly “scanned” with little need for further adjustments. (Perhaps a slightly dense or thin negative might require some exposure compensation, again, I keep an eye on the histogram provided by the camera.) After about a quarter of an hour, the digital files are ready to be uploaded to the computer.
The advantages to this process are manyfold. Speed is first and foremost. Using the time saved on digitizing the film for doing the digital darkroom work, I can finish the photos much faster. Secondly, the direct manual settings on the digital camera allow for much more control of the scanning process (at least compared to a consumer-level scanner).
Since this is a “lo-tech” approach, it can also be easily upgraded and used for a long time: Just connect the latest digital camera to the back and the quality of the digital files will keep up with the latest technological advancements. (Or the advancements of second-hand gear, one or two generations behind…)
Finally, while the principle of capturing light shining through the negative with a digital photo-sensor is the same as with the scanner, the files produced by the camera seem to have much more “bite”.
Disadvantages (or room for improvements)
Of course there are disadvantages to this process, too. Most obviously, the slide copier was designed to be used with film cameras, in other words, to use the “full frame” sensor format. Because the digital cameras at my disposal all use the cropped sensor format (APS-C), the scales and measurements on the slide copier change in relation to each other. This for example precludes the use of most of the excellent macro lenses designed for it. I had to make do with a SMC Pentax-M 40-80mm F2.8-4 Zoom lens, set to a focal length of somewhere around 70mm. Of course this lens is a far cry from the optical quality needed for precise reproduction, but for now, the quality is acceptable. Maybe in the (far) future I will invest in a prime lens of around 70mm focal length (perhaps an enlarger lens?), or even (gasp!) a full frame digital slr to bring all the measurements back into their normal range.
But there is no urgency. For now, I am happy with the results. Of course, when using 35mm film it also seems a bit pointless to engage in pixel peeping like this.
Addendum 31.01.2017: Later on I improved the slide copier setup somewhat, you can see it here.