Walid Raad has become a well known and sought after international artist who came to prominence in the early 2000s with his Atlas Group Project, which is a documentary archive based on fact and fiction about the Lebanese Civil Wars. The Atlas Group Project was a fascinating exploration of ideas such as who has the right to accumulate historical facts and present them, as well as whether fiction can offer a knowledgeable and insightful account of history. Lately he has lead an artist boycott of the $800 million Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi over the abuse and hazardous conditions for the workers building the museum. A new work called Sweet Talk: Commissions is being exhibited at the Audain Gallery, Simon Fraser University. On opening night he gave an artist talk as an introduction to the exhibition. The talk consisted of Raad reading excerpts from writer Jayce Salloum’s books and showing his own photographs from the 1970s through to his latest digital work. The explanation for reading Salloum’s works was that Raad felt that Salloum had been writing things about photography that Raad himself was thinking of even before he met Salloum.
Raad’s first reading was of Salloum’s attempt to quantify and rank the devastation of wars in terms of a set of criteria based on their long lasting traumatic effects. This struck me to be a rather pointless intellectual exercise, a kind of theory for theory’s sake endeavour. I am not particularly sure how you can begin to tell people who have survived the ordeal of a war that your war was more traumatic than theirs. All wars are horrific and it would surely be a significantly better use of time to think about how to eliminate and prevent them from happening in the future rather than musing over how to rank them.
Raad proceeded to read another questionable text of Salloum’s about a Lebanese photographer whose photographs during the time of the Lebanese Civil War were often out of focus and blurry. Raad explained that this was probably the result of having to take photographs while in the line of fire and thus the photographer often had to move quickly to avoid being hit. Salloum’s account went on to say that the photographer continued to make blurry photographs even after the war, suggesting it was the result of the long lasting effects of the trauma of war. Certainly taking photographs in hostile situations is not easy, but many photographers have been doing it for decades and with perfectly focused results. In fact I can name at least three Lebanese photographers who have taken excellent non-blurry photographs of the Civil Wars: Aline Manoukina, Patrick Baz, and George Azar. I am not saying that taking photographs in a war is easy, only that many photographers have done it, and done it well. Thus the explanation of the blurry photographs as solely the result of war is not a sufficient one. Perhaps Salloum’s photographer was just a bad photographer. In addition, Salloum’s text does not seem to apply to Raad. Some of Raad’s early photographs that he showed were also not well focused, but as the chronology of his photographs progressed, and his skill as a photographer increased, his photographs got technically better and better. There seemed to be no long lasting effects of the trauma of war. But then again, Raad spent many of the Civil War years outside of Lebanon in the safety of the United States going to school.
Overall this was a very disappointing artist talk, which basically turned into a two-hour rationalization of bad photographs through the use of equally bad theory. Raad’s photo and digital work in the gallery exhibition were also disappointing. In the text beside a series of photographs of small shops in central Beirut (see photograph above), Raad compares his photographs that document the shuttering and erasure of the city’s war-ravaged structures with those of 19th and early 20th-century Parisian photographers Charles Marville and Eugéne Atget. It is conceivable that this kind of photography will be of historical interest in a hundred years, like Marville and Atget’s that document what has disappeared, but the interest at the moment is marginal. Gone is the thought provoking work that Raad did with Atlas Group Project and gone is the unique sense of humour that he used to incorporate in his art. No doubt this new seriousness is the result of our humourless times or, more to the point, of an over reliance on bad theory, which can kill the fun out of anything.
Christos Dikeakos’s The Hastings Mill Store Museum is on display at the Hastings Mill Store Museum until September 23, 2017. It is a large ink jet print (157.5 x 193 cm) of an evening meeting of the members of The Native Daughters of British Columbia that run the museum. The Daughters of BC are a secret (maybe not that secret) society of women that were formed in 1919 with the objective to pay tribute to the history and pioneers of British Columbia. You have to be born in BC to be a member. The Daughters saved the Hastings Mill store and post office, which is the oldest building in Vancouver, in 1930 and had it moved from downtown to its current location near Jericho Beach. The museum if filled with a vast array of Vancouver and British Columbia artefacts and an especially impressive collection of First Nations baskets. The fact that the museum is not professionally curated, meaning is not thematically or historically organized, is actually one of its most refreshing aspects. At every turn you find a different and surprising discovery, making the experience very unique and where you do not necessarily feel like you are being led by the hand. While the museum is not large, one can easily spend a day in its crammed quarters revelling in its odd delights.
Dikeakos’s image captures the quirkiness of the museum and the women who comprise the Daughters of BC. Like the museum itself, the Daughters are aging, as there do not seem to be many new younger members. The society has the appearance of something from the past, serving tea and turnovers at its meeting. Although, I can attest to the fact that in speaking with some of the members they relayed stories about a lot more drinking and smoking at the meetings in the “old” days. It is not clear to me how much longer the museum can exist in its current form and that is what makes Dikeakos’s photograph all the more important and timely.
Closing reception is on September 23, 6pm to 8:30pm, 1575 Alma Street.
Vintage folding viewfinder cameras from the 1950s and earlier are most certainly an acquired taste requiring a generous amount of patience. They can be incredibly rewarding, especially the ones with 6×9 cm negatives that give you near large format quality in a camera that you can put in your coat pocket. The 6×6 cm folders are almost the same size as some point and shoot cameras. Their size and portability are some of the main attractions, but the other is their often-overlooked excellent lenses. Despite being old and lacking modern coatings, which result in less contrast than contemporary lenses, most folder lenses are quite sharp and have pleasing rendering qualities that produce very unique photographs.
The problems with folders, especially the ones in my possession, start with being scale focus. There are some vintage folders that are rangefinder coupled, but all mine are the less expensive scale focus kind that can be found for next to nothing these days. Thus instead of looking through the viewfinder and focusing the lens, one has to guess the distance to the subject and dial it in on the lens. As if film photography is not challenging enough, this just adds one more element of complexity. However, all these folders have a red dot on the scale focus and aperture setting so that when chosen give you a “snap-shot” mode where you can just point and shoot and get everything in focus from about 2.5 to 5 meters. Another issue is that there are no meters in these cameras, the exposure must be guessed at, and the shutters most often have old style speeds making modern handheld meters mostly useless. The shutters are typically the Achilles heels of these cameras as they typically need some work to bring them into working order. Finally, the pressure plates that hold the negatives in place can be loose and cause the negatives to be out of focus in places. Remarkably the folding bellows are quite often good and light tight, with the exception of Agfa cameras where they almost always have to be replaced. However, the occasional pinhole in the bellows can be easily repaired with a dab of dark black silicone adhesive sealant. Nevertheless, despite this list of problems when they work they are fantastic, and if you are willing to persevere, you will be pleasantly rewarded.
The Ziess Ikon Ercona above is from the 1950s, made in former East Germany by VEB Pentacon. After WWII Zeiss was made by rival companies both called Zeiss on either side of the Iron Curtain until the West German company won the patent dispute to the name. The Ercona has a Tempor shutter and an exquisite Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar T* 105mm f/3.5 lens. I believe this is quite a rare version as most Erconas have the Novar f/4.5 110mm lens. The Ercona takes 120 film and 6×9 negatives, with an option of 6×6 negatives if you have the insert template that is usually lost.
The Voigtlander Bessa I folding 6×9 viewfinder camera, made by Voigtlander when it was still a German company, was manufactured between 1951 and 1956. The Voigtlander Bessa I and II are beautiful cameras, extremely well made, much nicer in almost all respects than the Ercona, except for one. Mine has a Vaskar 105mm f4.5 lens, which is not nearly the same quality as the Ercona’s Tessar. Apparently the Bessa I also came with a Color-Skopar 105mm f3.5, which is supposedly much nicer if you could find one.
The Zeiss Ikon Nettar II is a 6×6 cm folder, made by Zeiss in Stuggart, West Germany, in the production period of 1951 to 1957. Extremely compact when folded (13 x 9 x 3 cm) and well made. Mine has a Novar Anastigmat 75mm f/6.3 lens and a Vario shutter. It only cost $20 and worked perfectly from day one.
This a short video on how to adjust the rangefinder on the Plaubel Makina 67. When I first bought my camera it came with the rangefinder out of alignment, it might have been bumped during shipment or the eBay seller was less than honest. The best way to test rangefinder alignment is to look at something on the horizon (something several miles away) like a tower, set focus at infinity, and look through the viewfinder to check if the rangefinder patch is a single image. If it is still slightly a double image, then you know you are out of alignment. Typically if it is aligned correctly at infinity it will be ok at other distances and visa-versa. As you can see in the video it is pretty easy to do, but if your negatives are still out of focus it could be something more serious like the focus mechanism itself, which requires a technician to delve deeper into the focus mechanism under the shutter release.
In 1975 Mr. Kimio Doi of the Japanese Doi Group purchased the rights to produce the Plaubel Makina from Frankfurt based German camera maker Plauble & Co. It was first shown in Photokina in 1978 and released in 1979. Mr. Doi outsourced the production of the new Makina 67’s lens to Nikon and the body to Konica. Chief designer Yasuo Uchida led the design team with assistance from Professor Udo M. Geissler of the industrial design department of the Technical University of Munich. An interview with Uchida can be seen here. The end result was an exceptionally well designed and engineered camera that is capable of producing high quality images.
The Plaubel Makina 67 is a fixed lens rangefinder medium format camera that comes with a very sharp and fast Nikon 80mm f2.8 lens. The fact that the lens can be folded back into the body when not shooting makes the camera ultra portable. It can be carried in a small camera bag or even fit into a large coat pocket. However, the Makina 67 is still quite heavy despite its relatively compact size (for a medium format camera). The rangefinder focus is done with a focus knob around the release button on top of the camera. It takes some getting used to, but focus is easy and accurate. The shutter speed, aperture and ISO rings are all around the lens, which I find somewhat more finicky than the focus knob. There is no way you can adjust these while you are looking through the viewfinder. Street photography is possible, but you will have to set everything up for zone focusing ahead of time. In general, the Plaubel Makina is more of a deliberate set up and shoot type of camera rather than run-and-gun. The fantastic lens, the ability to shoot 6×7 negatives, and its unique design make the Plaubel Makina 67 a true gem of film era cameras.
The one design flaw that the camera suffers from is that it has very thin wires for the meter that run from the lens to the body along the “lazy-tongs” that fold the lens in and out of the body. Over the years, as the lens is folded in and out, these wires inevitably wear and the meter malfunctions. Nevertheless, buying one of these cameras with a malfunctioning meter is a bonus in my opinion because you will no doubt get a discount and it is far better to use “Sunny 16” or a handheld meter for proper exposure rather than the center weight camera meter. Click here to purchase.
Pentaxians love to praise the virtues of mechanical cameras like the Spotmatics, K1000, LX and MX, but while I appreciate their build quality and the fact that they will last forever if properly maintained, I also enjoy the convenience and accuracy of later models such as the previously reviewed MZ-3. Introduced in 1983 the Pentax Super Program is a model that essentially gives you the best of both of these worlds. It is a solid, made of metal body (not the cheap plastic feel of the MZ line), it is relatively small (131 x 86.5 x 47.5mm) and usually comes with a nice detachable grip for added comfort. The main features are electronic shutter, meter, aperture and shutter priority, and auto and manual modes. While it does not have auto-focus capabilities, the upside is that it has a bright beautiful ground-glass pentaprism viewfinder. Thus it has the two most important aspects in a camera for me – a great viewfinder for accurate focusing, and a spot-on shutter speeds. With Pentax A lenses you can have full auto shooting or choose between aperture or shutter priority, and with M and K lenses you can have aperture priority, or manual with either set of lenses. One annoying quirk with the Super Program is that the ‘genius’ Pentax engineers decided to automatically set the shutter speed to 1/1000 sec for all film frames until you reach 1. I guess the thinking behind this was that you would want to quickly advance to the 1 frame and not get a long exposure if you are set to auto. However, for those of us that like to get as many frames as possible out of a roll, the work around is to set the film speed dial to 1/125 and select an appropriate aperture manually to get those first few frames before 1. The Pentax Super Program is an excellent, small, easy to handle, convenient, and fun to shoot camera – my new favourite Pentax. Click here to purchase.
The Pictures From Here exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery looks at Vancouver as a place from which numerous lens-based artist burst onto the art scene in the last forty or so years. All the usual suspects are represented: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Christos Dikeakos. Many other photographers are there as well, which is both a good thing and a problem. While there is a lot to see and choose from, ultimately there is little coherence in terms of why Vancouver and what made it so synonymous with photo-conceptualism. There is little satisfactory exploration of these questions and the result is a collection of different photographers with a variety of approaches to diverse issues. Nevertheless, there are plenty of good things to see here for those interested in photography. In particular, it is hard not to be enthralled by the many large-scale photographs on display. The monumentalism of these works, often eight by ten feet or larger, magnify their rich detail and colours. Roy Arden’s Landfill, Richmond BC, 1991, a photograph of an ordinary landfill, really of nothing interesting, becomes riveting because of the huge clear graduated blue sky. The socially engaged conscience in the back of my mind kept saying “you cannot stand here enjoying these works when there are so many injustices happening in the world,” but I think that it is ok to occasionally indulge in the simple joy of looking. One can argue that the melancholic pleasure of these works undermines their ability to function critically, but I think a counter argument can be made that the activation of the senses and non-cognitive forms of thought also have a role in promoting resistance to the craziness of our world. The fact that Arden’s photograph is of nothing in particular is perhaps what makes it so interesting, one can’t stop looking and thinking about why it is so captivating. Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour,* 2012-13, is similarly of nothing special, but is equally spectacular. The photograph’s nod to Thomas Eakins 1871 painting The Champion Single Skulls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) appears to be more of a conceptual excuse to make a photograph rather than any attempt to recreate or advance meaning. Graham’s ridiculous portrayal of himself as the paddler is what makes the work so absorbing. The sheer absurdity of his white beard and garnet toque inadvertently forces one into a prolonged stare of disbelief. Of course, the illumination of the light box enhances the detail and clarity of the river bank scene to add to the viewing pleasure, much like a giant projection of a Fuji Velvia slide with its saturated colours. The reference to painting is a good reminder that it was how Jeff Wall’s original practice of large light box photographs in the style of nineteenth-century history painting emerged in the late 1970s. However, whereas Wall tried to infuse his works with meaning, Graham’s absurd lack of meaning is in many ways more suitable to our contemporary moment. Among the many other photographers on display, Greg Girard’s photographs of a dingy dockside Vancouver in the 1970s is another pleasant surprise. Pictures From Here continues to September 4, 2017 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
* Featured image above is Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012-13, from the Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
I purchased a Panasonic GX85 when it was first released because it seemed like a very inexpensive way to get into M4/3s cameras for the first time. To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be an all round excellent interchangeable lens camera. It was an optimal size for me, not too small, comfortable to grip, not too large so it cannot fit into a coat pocket, and it had all the features that I had come to expect from the latest cameras. Originally I thought of using the GX85 as a kind of note taking camera for ideas that I can then later use to put the ‘big’ cameras to work for. However, it has become the camera that I carry around and use the most and that produces high quality images which are more than just ‘notes.’ While only sporting a 16MB sensor, the GX85 images are very sharp as it has no anti-aliasing filter, and it has a great sensor-based image stabilizing system as well as excellent autofocusing that together make for near foolproof image capture. Additionally there is a face/eye autofocus feature for perfect portraiture and street shooting. These are the main features that I find useful, but there is much more such as a built in flash, 4K video, time lapse, etc. My GX85 came with a much maligned kit lens, a tiny pancake 12-32mm f3.5-5.6, which I happen to really like. It is small and lets me tuck the GX85 in my pocket or in a bag with other stuff without taking too much room. As far as its optics are concerned, 12-32mm is just as sharp in the middle as many prime lenses and while it is a little softer in the corners, not by much. Of course there is a plethora of other lenses to choose from for M4/3s. I decided to stick with Panasonic lenses since I read (rightly or wrongly) that they work best with Panasonic’s image stabilization system. I also chose smaller sized lenses since I did not see the point of having a small camera with a giant lens attached to it. The Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f1.7 lens is a great wide angle lens, super sharp and small, as is the more normal focal length Panasonic 20mm f1.7, which is about the same size as the pancake kit lens. The Panasonic 20mm lens is said to be slow to autofocus, but on the GX85 I have had no issues, seems speedy enough to me. Finally the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 is an excellent portrait and short tele lens that has gorgeous bokeh and with its close focus feature it can double as a macro lens. Some day I would like to add a good telephoto lens for wildlife/bird photography, that would mean a bigger lens, but it would still be considerably smaller than the full frame equivalent kit. About the only negative comment I have about the GX85 is that I am a little disappointed with the electronic viewfinder, it seems too small and a bit finicky, however, it does the job, plus I often just use the LCD for quick shots anyway. Purchase the Panasonic GX85 here.
There has been a great deal of hoopla created by the announcement of two new medium format mirrorless cameras from Fuji and Hasselblad. Having shot medium and large format film for some time, I too was excited at the prospect of medium format digital in a compact format and at a more reasonable price than the traditional Phase One or Hasselblad offerings. My previous foray into digital was primarily with Sony A7 series cameras that allowed me to use my existing collection of film era lenses as well as some of the new Sony/Zeiss lenses. I hesitated to upgrade my A7r because of the expense of moving to a A7r II and how physically large and expensive the new Sony lenses had become. For a change of pace I decided to dip my toe into micro 4/3s with the modestly priced Panasonic GX85 that came with a compact 12-35mm lens. The quality of the images from that camera really surprised me and I quickly added a Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm 1.7 and 25mm 1.4. It was a revelation that in some cases there was very little difference between the images taken on the GX85 versus the A7r. Of course if you pixel peeped, you could see more resolution at 100% on the A7r, but the quality of especially the Summilux lenses was equal to the Sony/Zeiss lenses. The major difference, as far as I could tell, was only how large you could print, but more on this later. The GX85 became my preferred walking around camera, and the Sony A7r was relegated to more serious landscape work. However, with the announcement of the new mirrorless medium format cameras I started to think about getting the look that I loved in medium and large format film that was still missing from my 35mm digital experience.
Since I had a film Pentax 645N film camera with some very nice 645 lenses, it dawned on me that I could try out digital medium format in a relatively economical manner. I purchased a Pentax 645D and although it was 5 years old and came with a 40MB CCD sensor, many Pentaxians claimed there was very little resolution difference between it and the newer Pentax 645Z’s 50MB CMOS sensor (the same one that the new Fuji and Hasselblad are using). Additionally there was talk about how the CCD sensor produced better color than the new CMOS sensor. The real big difference between the 645D and Z is better high ISO performance with the Z. But buying a 645D seemed like a good idea since I was going to use it mainly for landscape photos on a tripod, thus high ISO was not an issue and I already owned some highly rated Pentax lenses such as the SMC-A 645 35mm, an A 75mm, and an A 120mm lens. The results I got from the 645D were great, definitely better than the A7r in terms of resolution, color and a more subtle graduated tonality. Nevertheless, while I was in a forest shooting one of my favourite trees, I decided to do a little experiment as I had both my Pentax 645D with a 35mm lens as well as my GX85 with the 15mm Summilux, each having a roughly similar 28mm focal length in 35mm terms. I took some images with each camera using a tripod from the same spot and compared them in Photoshop. To my great surprise, I again did not really see that much of a difference, obviously as one would expect, the 645D image had far more resolution if you pixel-peeped at 100%. However, as you can see below there is little visible difference between the digital images, especially at Internet resolution. Oddly, the GX85 appeared to have more of a 3 dimensional appearance than the 645D image.
Pentax 645D, Pentax SMC-A 645 35mm, ISO 200, f16 and 2 seconds:
Panasonic GX85, Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f/1.7, ISO 200, f5.6 and 1/6 of a second:
Next I decided to do a print comparison because the real test, in my opinion, is how things look in print. My go-to paper is Canson Baryta and since that largest size that I can print on my Epson P800 is 17” x 22,” I printed the images with a small border at 16” x 20” each. Looking at the printed images was more surprising to me than looking at them on the computer as there was even a less discernable difference. Below are some close ups of the prints taken with a 120mm macro lens on the 645D. It is roughly the equivalent of having your eyeball about one inch away from the print, an unrealistic real life situation and a distance at which I certainly cannot focus my eyes. As you can see, the 645D print is a bit better at this close range than the GX85. But at a more comfortable viewing distance, as close as one foot, there is no discernable difference between the two. When I used to wet print, even in a small 8×10 print, I was almost always able to see the difference between a 35mm print and a medium format print. The fact that a M4/3’s print at a fairly good size of 16” x 20” can stand up to a medium format digital print is a testament to the quality of the M4/3 sensor of the GX85 with a PanLeica Summilux 15mm lens.
Given the largest print size that I can produce on the printer that I own, and the fact that there is such little difference between the prints, I really don’t see the point of the extra expense and weight. I haven’t mentioned the other advantages of the GX85 such as sensor stabilization, a smaller sensor that gives more depth of field for landscapes, and lets not forget eye sensing technology that helped produce my perfect Christmas portraits, as well as 4K video to top things off. The cameras and lenses available for micro 4/3s are so outstanding, that unless you are printing really big, there is little or no reason to go to APC or full frame, let alone medium format. There are many professional fine art photographers that print in sizes less than 17” x 22” so it is not as much of a limitation as it is may seem. If money were not an object, then I too would love to have one of the new Fuji or Hasselblad cameras. But since that is not the case, it is important think about the end product that one is actually producing, which is usually a print of a particular size, and what is the best way for one to effectively and creatively produce it.
The Pentax 645 medium format line of film cameras includes the 645, the 645N and the 645Nii. Since they use 6 cm x 4.5 cm negatives the cameras themselves are smaller than the Pentax 67 line, but considerably larger than 35mm SLR bodies. Thus, in effect you still get a SLR on steroids like the Pentax 67, but unfortunately lacking the large negatives of the 67. Although the 645 format negative is about twice the size of a 35mm negative, it remains only be a hop-skip-and-jump away from 35mm and not the dramatic improvement in tonality and resolution one sees with a 67 format negative. Like the Pentax 67 cameras, there is a complete line of lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto, and there is the option to use Pentax 67 lenses with an adapter. Outstanding lenses include the Pentax-A 645 35mm f3.5, the Pentax-A 645 75mm f2.8, and the Pentax-A 645 120mm f4 macro. The 45mm and 55mm lenses are disappointing, not very sharp, in fact the Pentax-FA 45-85 zoom lens is much better than the either the 45 or 55mm. This is the only zoom lens that I have ever used that was better than the primes in its focal range. Not sure if this is because the zoom is that good or the primes that bad. Although the Pentax 645 is smaller than a Pentax 67, the fact that it takes six AA batteries actually makes the camera body heavier than a Pentax 67 with a waist level finder. The 645 auto film advance sounds like a loud sewing machine, consequently making you the centre of attention wherever you shoot. I think the only reason to get one of the 645 film cameras is if you are using a 645D or Z digital camera and can thus share lenses between a film and digital camera, otherwise there are too many other medium format film cameras like Rollies or Hasselblads that are far more rewarding to use. Or just use one of the many great Pentax 35mm cameras that are lighter, smaller, and more fun to use. Click to purchase: Pentax 645, Pentax 645N, Pentax 645Nii.