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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘photography’

The mighty chopper

Or, an eye for detail

Regular readers will know I’m the sort of person who always has an eye for odd little details, odd little quirks of history or mechanical gubbins. You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that this has never really changed much.

Last week I posted photos of my first ever trip to the Ffestiniog Railway, from back when I was still in primary school. I can still remember being intrigued by the “chopper” couplings the Ffestiniog has used as standard since the 1950s (and to some degree since the 1870s—naturally the full details are online). I can’t say it was the first time I had seen them, but it was the first time I had been close enough to notice they were a novelty to me, enough for me to want to take photographs of how they work. So, naturally, I did.

Coupling on Car 100

This is my grainy 110-film photo of the coupling on FfR Car 100. On the far left is its electrical connector, with a hood to shelter it. In the middle is the coupling: a central buffer with a hinged hook fitting into a slot, and a weight (the “bob”) hanging below. Bear in mind that when I took this picture I didn’t know any of this; I was just intrigued by this peculiar metal prong. I’ve learned the technical details since.

Car and loco coupled together

After the loco (Mountaineer) coupled up to the train, this is what it looked like. The hook on each coupling is swung down into the opposite slot, but initially it doesn’t drop all the way; it’s blocked by a camshaft attached to the bob. The bob is swung to one side until the hook drops into its running position, and then swung back; the bob’s camshaft locks the hook into place and prevents it lifting. After that, you can attach the brake hoses.

Nowadays, of course, there are probably a thousand videos of how this works online, that you can go and watch whenever you like. I’m quietly pleased with myself, though, that back in the day when you couldn’t do that, this is the sort of thing I felt worth recording on film.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part three)

Or, some cardboard engineering

Another weekend, more work on the papercraft pinhole camera kit I’ve slowly been working on. If you haven’t seen the previous installments, part one is here and part two is there.

This time, I spent most of the time on some of the cosmetic detailing. I glued on a whole set of fake camera controls: shutter button, wind-on lever, timer lever and lens mount release button. They’re not the neatest job, but they’re only there to make the thing look like a camera, so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t get them quite right. More important is the film take-up spool, which I’m trying to assemble very carefully and slowly because, fundamentally, it has to work mechanically as well as look good.

Camera so far

On that photo you should be able to make out that the take-up spool looks as if it has an extra lamination. That’s a strip of card added and only glued at the ends. The idea is, the leader is slipped between that strip and the main part of the take-up spool, and that (with a few turns of the spool) that should be enough to hold the film in place. I’m intrigued how well it’s going to work.

The other part I made up that is fundamental to the camera’s workings is the camera back

Camera back

Given that if the back comes off at the wrong time the whole thing is useless, and that the integrity of the back relies on four small corner tabs, I thought it worth holding the whole thing together with foldback clips whilst the glue did its thing. Normally I’d just rely on a good firm squeeze between finger and thumb, but this seemed rather more important. I suspect I’ll end up taping the back on with something like washi tape when the camera is loaded in any case, because it’s going to be a fine line between a back that’s too tight to go on properly and a back that’s so slack it falls off.

I’m not sure this camera was really designed to run more than one film through it anyway: as I said last time, the instructions tell you to take the whole thing to your local photography lab rather than try to unload the film yourself. Which would seem a bit of a shame, because how are you supposed to learn from your mistakes with a new camera, and learn how it behaves, if you basically have to throw it away before you get the results back? Hopefully it will cope with at least a couple of films before the back falls apart.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part two)

Or, recovering from mistakes

At the weekend, I did a bit more work on the papercraft pinhole camera I posted about the other week.

Camera, from behind

Can you see the mistake I made near the start, but didn’t realise until everything was set truly firm and solid? The dashed lines marked on the card are a bit of a clue. The entire central portion of the body is upside-down. Because the film passes through the body off-centre, this means that the frame mask is in the wrong place: it’s about 3mm or so too high. The photos this camera takes are going to have their bottom sprocket holes exposed, but (unless I take a scalpel to the frame mask) will have a black band along the top. Oh well: it’s not as if they were ever going to be perfect photos in any case. I did, at least, realise this before sticking on the film guide rails, because if I’d put those the wrong way round, with the fat one at the bottom and the thin one at the top, the camera would be completely unusable. As a 35mm film canister is handed, they have to be the right way round for the film to slot properly into place. Luckily, I decided to measure up the guide rails against the leader of a new film, and immediately realised what I’d already got wrong.

Camera, from the front

The next step is the takeup reel, which worries me because, even more so than the “shutter”, it’s the one part of the camera that’s made from card but needs to function mechanically. It feels as if the tolerances in this part of the machine are quite tight, which should hopefully help, so long as they’re not too tight that it takes a camera-destroying force to turn the wind-on knob. You can see that in these pictures: a hollow card hexagon which I would imagine is quite easily distorted if the wind-on action is a bit stiff.

Incidentally this camera has no sort of rewind mechanism. The instructions suggest you take it to a photography shop to get the film out again after it’s exposed. Luckily, I have a changing bag I can use to do it myself.

The next update on this project is here.

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part one)

Or, going back to the early days

The Child Who Likes Animals is a great devourer of television, particularly documentaries, and can recite great swathes of the hours of television he has watched. Usually this involves things about his usual interests, such as animals, or palaeontology, or Brian Cox talking about planets. Recently, though he’s rediscovered a CBBC series from a few years ago that has recently been repeated: Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, in which said presenters learn about great STEM figures from history. He was rather taken with the episodes on Darwin (naturally), the Herschels, and Delia Derbyshire;* but became particularly obsessed with the inventor of the photographic negative, Henry Fox Talbot. In that one, Dick and Dom build a pinhole camera out of an industrial-size wheelie-bin, making it into a binhole camera; the episode is worth it for that pun alone. The Child Who Likes Animals, naturally, wanted us to build our own.

Making one quite that large, I pointed out, wouldn’t really be practical for taking around the place; but pinhole cameras themselves aren’t that hard to build. In fact, as it turned out, we had a papercraft one already lurking in the rainy-day-activities cupboard. Naturally I would have to do most of the building work, but why not get started?

The starting point

The instructions on the packet said it could be built in as little as two hours. If you use some sort of instant-setting impact glue that might be possible, but with standard PVA (the packaging recommended “white glue”) I suspect it will take rather a lot longer, given how sensible it is to stop and let things set properly between steps.

Folding up the innermost box

As expected, not only did I end up doing all of the building work, but The Children rapidly disappeared to go and watch a film or something. In theory, though, you would think a pinhole camera would be an ideal subject for papercraft, because all cameras are essentially just a black box with a hole (or lens) at one end and something light-sensitive at the other. This build seems largely to consist of folding up a few card boxes, gluing them together, and attaching a fiddly-looking but entirely cosmetic fake pentaprism housing on top. By the time it’s finished, I suspect it will end up 75% PVA by weight.

Folding up the takeup spindle housing, with a lot of excess glue

There are two potential issues I can see with the whole thing. Firstly, building a working and light-tight takeup spindle out of card is going to be a very fiddly exercise which might well prove to be the Achilles Heel of the project. Secondly, there are a couple of card edges that the film has to pass over, emulsion-side down, and I can imagine them scratching the emulsion to buggery. Oh well, I wasn’t exactly expecting it to take pin-sharp perfect results in any case.

The basic carcass of the thing

I have to admit that previous papercraft projects have foundered, incomplete, after one or two building sessions. Hopefully given that this thing is at least intended to produce something usable, I’ll manage to get it finished to the point of being able to put a film through it. Whether anything will be visible on the film afterwards (and whether The Child Who Likes Animals will actually want to use it) is another story. I’ll keep you posted.

The next update on this project is here. Part three is here.

* Personally I rather liked the episode about James Watt, which featured the Newcomen Engine at the Black Country Living Museum, the Crofton Pumping Engine, and a few brief moments of the Severn Valley Railway’s Stanier Mogul 42968 at Kidderminster.

The railway in the woods

Or, some autumnal exploration

Today: we went to wander around Leigh Woods, just outside Bristol on the far bank of the Avon Gorge. It’s not an ancient woodland: it is a mixture of landscapes occupied and used for various purposes for the past few thousand years. A hillfort, quarries, formal parkland, all today merged and swallowed up by woodland of various forms and patterns, although you can see its history if you look closely. I love walking around damp, wet countryside in autumn; although today was dry, everything had a good soaking yesterday and earlier in the week. The dampness brings out such rich colours in photos, even though I didn’t have anything better than the camera on my phone with me.

Twisted roots

Twisted trunks

Part of the woods, “Paradise Bottom”, belonged to the Leigh Court estate and was laid out by Humphry Repton, the garden and landscape designer who should not be confused with Boulder Dash. It includes a chain of ponds which are now very much overgrown, their water brown and their bottoms thick with silt; and some of the first giant redwood trees planted in Britain, around 160 years ago now.

Redwood, of not inconsiderable size

The ponds drain into a sluggish, silty stream which trickles through the woods down into the Avon, the final salt-tinged part of the stream running under a handsome three-arched viaduct built by the Bristol & Portishead Railway, back when when the redwoods were newly-planted.

Railway viaduct

Railway viaduct

If you’ve heard of the Bristol & Portishead, it may be because of the ongoing saga of when (if ever) it will reopen to passengers again. It closed to passenger traffic back in the 1960s, freight in the early 1980s, but unusually was mothballed rather than pulled up and scrapped. At the start of the 21st century it was refurbished and reopened for freight trains, but not to full passenger standards. Although there have been plans on the table for ten or fifteen years now to reopen it to passenger traffic, years have passed, the leaves in the wood have fallen and grown again, and nothing keeps on resolutely happening. The main issues are the signalling along the line (token worked, I understand, with traincrew-operated instruments) and its single track, which limits maximum capacity to one train each way per hour at the very most. Aside from putting in a station or two, these are the main factors which at present prevent it from being reopened to passengers.

When I moved to Bristol, over ten years ago now, the Bristol & Portishead line was busy every day with imported coal traffic. Now that that is fading away, the line itself is much quieter, and indeed can go for days at a time with no trains at all. Its railheads are dull, not shiny, as it curves through the lush green woodland. I walked up to the top of one of its tunnel mouths, and looked down upon it silently.

The railway in the woods

Photo post of the (insert arbitrary time period here)

Or, back to the railway

Back to the railway and the quiet post-viral timetable it is running at the moment. One nice thing about this timetable is that it gives me the opportunity to take my camera along and photograph the trains when they’re stood still, and the station when there’s no trains about. Normally you’re too busy to have chance for that sort of thing.

Bewdley station

Pannier tank

Bewdley North signalbox

2857 at Bewdley

Photo Post Of The Week

In which things are square, and vintage

Back in August, I talked about photo framing, and the use of square frames. In fact, if you’re viewing this on the main page, there’s a good chance it’s down below somewhere, I’ve been writing so few posts lately. In essence: nowadays you get a rectangular photo, and it’s very, very easy to crop your photo to whatever aspect ratio you like. Back in the day, you got a square photo,* and if you wanted to crop it you had to take a guillotine to your print.

I’ve been trying for a while to be more disciplined with my aspect ratios, and either keep all my shots to the same aspect ratio as the camera uses - 121:81, in case you were wondering - or crop them to square. And, moreover, I’ve had the vintage cameras out. Back in August, I posted a test shot I took to check exposure. Today: the actual shot I was trying to take!

Harbour and lighthouse, Watchet

This was taken on an Ensign Selfix 420. The one big problem I have with it: getting the camera straight. It has two viewfinders: a glassless frame finder on the body, and a small brilliant finder attached to the lens. The former doesn’t really tell you if you’re pointing it in the right direction, and the latter is too small to see if you’ve got it properly upright. The light leak, on the other hand, I rather like; it’s only noticeable in bright sunlight in any case.

* Bear in mind that right through the 1950s 35mm cameras were a relatively rare thing, and the majority of the photo market used 6cm film such as the 120 format. It wasn’t until the 60s that the 35mm camera really started to take over the market, even though they had been around earlier.

Photo Post Of The Week

In which things are squared

Hot weather is not very nice. How people manage with it, never mind enjoy it, I’ll never know. The brightness of the sunlight is something; but even then, winter sunshine is much better for photography. Midsummer sunshine, in the middle of a clear-skies day, is just that bit too harsh.

Recently, our burgeoning vintage camera collection has made me reassess the use of square photos. They’ve often been a bit of an unpopular photography style, seen as a bit awkward, a bit ungainly, and hard to make interesting. Generally, I suppose this is all down to even numbers: they make it rather harder to make a composition interesting, and a square frame is as even-numbered as you can get. With lots of 120-film cameras, though, you don’t get a choice: square or nothing.

Harbour and lighthouse, Watchet

This photo started out as a test shot for one of the 120 cameras. So far the film in question hasn’t left the camera, so I’ve no idea how successful it was. As a digital photo, cropped down to square, I think it works rather well, though. Despite the sunshine.

Update, October 2011: the 120-version of this shot is now out of the camera and back from the processors, complete with some interesting light leaks which make me worry there might be a hole in the camera’s bellows. I will have to try to get it scanned some time.

Update, November 2011: well, I scanned it, and it is in my queue of things to upload to the internets. Which might happen some time this year.

Collodion

In which we go to London for the photography

Back in the mists of time, I used to think it would be a nice idea to move to London. There’s always something going on, of course. Always plenty to do, and always plenty to keep me entertained.

When I lived in a remoter part of the country, with not much to fill my spare time, this seemed like a Good Plan. Now that we live in a reasonably-civilised city, though, we have far too much to do as it is. And I just know that, if we did live in London, it would go one of two ways. Either we would spend all our time feeling sad about the events that we just didn’t get chance to make it to, or we’d retreat into a bubble and never do much at all. When we do visit, we can easily manage to fill a day and have plenty of things left over that we could have done.

Yesterday, for example: we almost managed to avoid the day’s main event and tourist attraction, the Pride March.* We did have to scoot around a few barriers, though, and avoid a few crowds of pre-march spectators, because the main reason we wanted to go to London was for the current exhibition at The Photographers Gallery: *The Family And The Land, a retrospective on the American photographer Sally Mann. Mann became well-known\* for a series of photos she took of her children, growing up, twenty-five years ago. From there, as the exhibition title suggests, she moved on to the past of her homeland, taking landscapes of American Civil War locations, before, more recently, producing a series on death and decay, literally: decaying bodies, outdoors, at a forensics research lab. Much of her work has been produced using 19th-century techniques: the wet-plate process, which requires its own portable darkroom. The photographer dips a glass plate firstly in a solution of nitrocellulose, then in one of the usual photographic silver salt solutions; then it is exposed, quickly, before it dries.

When we look at a photograph, we respond to subconscious cues as much as we do to our conscious view of the image. That’s why photos taken with tilt-shift lenses, or fiddled to look like they have been, look like photos of tiny models. Moreover, wet-plate photographs have a very particular look to them: a sharpness of grain but a softness from the antique lens; a time-exposure blur and a particular tonal range. So, if you know a little photography and you look at a Sally Mann photograph, it looks like something that has jumped out of the past. A valley whose river is time-blurred to mercury smoothness looks like something produced by a 19th-century war reporter; and a decaying corpse could have died decade after decade ago.

After visiting the Photographers Gallery, we wandered across London to the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, to see the Free Range graduation art show, collecting new art graduates from all over the country. It is an utterly massive show, its displays changing weekly, and each display enormous in itself. We were amused to see places we recognised in a handful of the works: line-drawings of buildings in Bristol, and photos of UFOs over Inverkeithing.*** Being a graduation show, it did seem slightly discordant and mixed-together; possibly even patchy in parts. I found myself wondering, at one point, what art students do when their ideas don’t match their budget, and if any of them ever felt constrained by the limits of their budget and their courses’ deadlines. I wondered what the photography graduates would have done with a wet-plate camera, and whether modern photography is the better for being less of a craft.

By the time we left Free Range, we were, I have to say, almost entirely arted out. We did manage to fit in another couple of smaller shows; but the amount of art we’d seen had filled our heads up to the brim. We filled the rest of our evening by ambling around on London buses; again, avoiding the crowds. London might be a nice place to visit; but if we lived there, we’d end up always finding too much to do. Best to keep it at a distance: we can always pop over for a day, when we want to be inspired

* although we did spot one butch lesbian in bondage gear and rubber hotpants having her photo taken by a passing tourist.

** indeed, infamous.

*** The UFOs over Inverkeithing were by an Edinburgh College of Art graduate called Andrew Jay Harvey; and we think the Bristol buildings were by Emily Ejderos.