Tag: Review (page 1 of 2)

Ragnar Axelsson – Fjallaland

On a visit to Reykjavik in 2018 I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, one of five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum holds a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and around 35,000 of these are accessible online. The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. The museum also has a library of photography books and while browsing these I came across several by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but had never looked closely at his work, so this was still something of a new discovery.

Of the books by Axelsson available in the library Fjallaland was the most striking. The books subject is the annual autumn round up of sheep that have spent the summer grazing in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and are being brought down from this highland region for the winter. Axelsson has followied the farmers who take part in the round up for more than two decades, photographing them and the rugged volcanic landscape of the region. The result is a stunning collection, part documentary and part landscape.

I decided I wanted my own copy but a search on the usuals sources showed only a few new copies available which were selling for $300 and upwards, with used copies not much less and often more. So it seemed best to try to find it locally. One Icelandic retailer did claim to have it in stock on their website but when I visited the bricks and mortar outlet they had never heard of it. Another I tried turned out to a fashionable clothes store that also sold a few photobooks and CDs of Icelandic music on the side. When I asked the sales assistant she started wandering round the store searching on random shelves and bits of old furniture that served as display stands for the clothes but also had a few scattered books. So I joined in. And then I found it. The last copy in stock. Some negotiation on price and it was mine for an acceptable $80.

The book itself starts with a satellite image of the Fjallaland region, then a number of aerial shots that give a sense of the landscape, before bringing us to ground level with the farmers as they go about their work. Apart from the aerial images all the pictures are shot in a punchy monochrome. There is some descriptive text scattered throughout but since mine is the Icelandic version I have no idea what it says. No matter, the pictures are what counts.

What makes this project stand out, I think, from his other books I have seen is the concentrated focus on one community, one event, and one location. The project and the book have a coherence that is often lacking in photobooks of more broadly based projects. That Axelsson has been visiting the same community of farmers year after year for decades must create a sense of familiarity and ease with the photographer and his camera that facilitates great images. There is a certain timelessness to the pictures, as though they could have been taken anytime in the last hundred years. Only the ocasional presence of a Land Rover or a truck reminds you that this is a – more or less – contemporary event.

I would highly recommend this book if the images here appeal to you but you will need to have a sizeable book buying budget since it is out of print. I have not seen my Icelandic version on sale anywhere for some time and the English version, Behind the Mountains, goes for 800 – 900 dollars / pounds / euros when it occasionally comes up for sale.

LINKS
  • A selection of images from the book can be found on Axelsson’s website.
  • There are also interviews with Axelsson herehere and here.
  • There is an 80 minute documentary made by a Greek television company on YouTube. The video covers the subject of this book at around 50 minutes with some spectacular aerial views of the landscape. The documentary is mostly in English though the conversations in Icelandic are subtitled in Greek only.

Featured Collectives

Another day, another street photography book from New York, London, Paris (though perhaps not Paris so much these days given French privacy laws). There’a a big world out there and for all the growth of digital photography and online photo sharing much of it remains hidden. So from time to time it’s a treat to come across a photographer, or in this case a photographers’ collective, showing us someplace or something new or rarely seen. In this case the collective is simple called ‘Featured Collectives’ and the place is (mostly) Myanmar.

I was fortunate enough to visit Myanmar in 2015, at a time when the country was opening up after the years of military dictatorship, and before that same military siezed power again earlier this year. I didn’t take nearly enough photographs, since I was visiting with friends, but Yangon where I stayed was clearly a wonderful photographic subject.

© Aung Win

Back in Manila, where I was living at the time, I later came across ‘Featured Collectives’ and their book of street photography on the Invisible Photographer Asia website and eventually tracked down copies of the book at Riceball in Singapore. So on my next visit to the city I stopped by and picked up one of the two remaining copies.

© Min Zayer Oo

The driving force behind ‘Features Collectives’ is Chit Min Maung. Witnessing the growth of street photography across the region, but aware that Myanmar was getting left behind, he established ‘Featured Collectives’ to help drive the development of street photography by Myanmar photographers. The book was published in 2016 alongside an exhibition in Yangon of work by the collective.

The photographs are an interesting mix. Unlike some street photography groups there is no attempt to enforce a particular style or definition of what consitutes street photography, and the book is all the better for that. There are more than 200 photographs in the book, by at least 20 photographers (I didn’t try to count them all). Most of the images are from Myanmar and Yangon in particular but there are also pictures from Myanmar photographers based in Singapore, Bali and Bangladesh. There are many good pictures in here and plenty of great pictures.

© Yu Yu

The one let down is the quality of the printing, though whether that is a matter of cost or a lack of publishers able to print at sufficiently high quality is not clear. Despite that you can still appreciate the many great images in here and a number of them can also be seen online where they often look better.

© Soe Than Htike

‘Featured Collectives’ is still on the go and has a website where members of the group post regularly. Of late, as a result of the political upheavals in the country, the group has been shooting more documentary photography as members have joined the crowds protesting against the military coup. Both the website and their Facebook page are regularly updated with pictures from the protests, and the Facebook page has a strong statement of their opposition to the coup.

These more recent pictures are a reminder that photography is not just a matter of fun, or simply a creative outlet, but that it has an important role to play in revealing what is happening in our world for good or ill, often beyond the reach or interest of the professional media. I once thought I would like to get back to Yangon and spend more time phtographing. That seems like a distant prospect now, but this book is a great reminder of my brief time there and an insight into the big world beyond New York, London (and Paris).

LINKS

Where to buy: This might be a challenge, though the book is still listed for sale on Chit Min Maung’s website and the Featured Collectives website for $35.

DXO Deep Prime

Software powered by AI or machine learning appears to be the coming wave in image processing. Skylum – makers of Aurora and Luminar – Topaz Labs and Corel all emphasise the role of AI in their recent advertising and Adobe, with rather less fanfare, is developing and expanding its library of ‘neural filters’ for Photoshop.

My knowledge of how this technology works is close to zero but as far as my limited understanding goes what makes these apps different from ‘traditional’ approaches to processing is that they are ‘trained’ through analysis of vast numbers of images – Adobe claims their Super Resolution feature is trained on millions of images. (As an aside, this suggest to me that the only ‘intelligence’ at work here is the human intelligence of those creating this technology and that ‘machine learning’ is a much more apposite term.)

Many of the AI powered features highlighted in recent advertising appear to function like slightly more sophisticated versions of existing filters, or are designed to process images in ways that I have no interest in – creating flawless skin, replacing or reshaping eyes, or dropping in a completely new sky. Beyond the headline features, though, machine learning is creating some genuinely interesting and useful capabilities. I’ve already assessed one of these in two previous posts on Adobe’s Super Resolution, and a couple of days ago I downloaded a trial version of DXO’s Deep Prime, an AI powered denoising utility which is part of their PureRAW stand alone program. Here are my impressions.

First, I found a nice noisy photograph. The picture was taken in the evening by the B&O canal in Georgetown in Washington DC. While I intended to work from the original untouched RAW file I did eventually decide to boost the exposure because the original was very dark. The picture was taken with a Sony Rx100 at 1/6th of a second and f4 while stabilised on the handrail of the bridge I was standing on to get the shot. ISO was 3200. The image below is a JPEG exported from the Sony ARW file with no adjustments other than the boost to the exposure and Lightroom’s default colour noise and sharpening settings turned off. As you can see there is plenty of noise in the image. (For a closer look in each case right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’.)

From the original Sony RAW file

Bringing the file (or multiple files) into DXO PureRAW is straightforward though you can’t do it directly from within Lightroom. Either open PureRAW and click on ‘add photos’ or right click directly on any photo in File Explorer and select ‘open with’ DXO PureRAW. The interface is extremely simple:

Once the photo is loaded click to select the photo/s to be processed, click on ‘process photos’ and choose some basic options from the dialogue box. There are two other denoising options available but I can’t think of any reason why you would choose them over Deep Prime. You can also choose to output the processed file as a JPEG rather than DNG, but again I don’t know why you would do that since the whole point of the feature is that you can denoise using DXO technology and still complete the rest of your processing in Lightroom. Choose your detination folder and click on ‘process’. On my laptop (6th gen. i7 2.6Ghz, 16GB RAM, GTX 960M GPU) processing took around 1 minute and 50 seconds and the original 20MB ARW file ended up as a near 72MB DNG file. (I believe the size increase is down to the output file being a linear DNG file, but needless to say I don’t understand what that means.) Once processing is complete you have an ‘export to…’ option which brings up a list of installed compatible editing software.

Make your choice, click on ‘export’ and DXO will launch Lightroom and take you to the import dialogue.

The key question of course is whether it is any good. My answer is a qualified ‘yes’, but I will let you judge for yourself. Below is a JPEG from the DNG created by Deep Prime after processing. I think the programme does an excellent job of removing noise, though it does introduce some softness. That said, I don’t think I could get close to this level of denoising with Lightroom, and certainly not without introducing considerably more softness in the image.

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

Fortunately, PureRAW has another trick up its sleeve which draws on DXO’s more conventional processing for lens correction. The programme downloads DXO lens correction modules and applies these to the image when processing. If you don’t have the appropriate lens module installed you will be asked if you want to download it when you add a new image. In my sample image, applying both the lens module and the denoising produces a largely noise free image which retains, or in this case exceeds, the sharpness of the original. The difference between the images with and without lens correction is clearly visible, particularly in the structure of the crane and the text on the banners attached to it. That said, further editing in Lightroom does require careful use of the sharpening, texture and clarity sliders after lens correction has been applied since I think the lens correction is something of an over-correction. (Again, right click and select ‘open image in new tab’ for a closer look.)

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime with lens module corrections

So, why a qualified yes? Two reasons – one minor, one major. The minor one is cost. In the current offer period which runs until the end of May you can get DXO PureRAW for $89.99 / €89.99 / £79.99 but after that it reverts to the full price of $129 / €129 / £115. That’s quite expensive. For comparison, Topaz Labs standalone AI tools are mostly between $80-100 full price. Given that PureRAW is clearly aimed at the vast number of Lightroom users I suspect they could drop the price and sell many more licences than they will at the current price.

The major reason is that DXO PureRAW does not work with Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. It is possible to add a Fujifilm RAF X-Trans file and run the programme but the result is an image that looks like it was taken with a lens smeared with grease, as with the image below shot with a Fujifilm X-E2 at ISO 6400. Since processing this file – which is more than 50 percent bigger than the RX100 file – only takes around ten seconds I imagine it is just running it through some bog standard, default noise reduction process.

I have seen some reviews expressing a preference for more control over how the denoising is applied. I can understand why, but I’m happy to have something that doesn’t require yet more choices and decisions from me before I run it. If anything, I would prefer to have an option to dial back the impact of the lens correction which seems (in this module for the Sony RX100) to be a little aggressive.

From the original Fujifilm RAF file
From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

If you don’t use Fujifilm cameras with X-Trans sensors, or if you have a lot of images shot on older less capable sensors, then DXO PureRAW might be worth it for you, despite the price. For people like me, who mostly shoot Fujifilm X-Trans, the calculation is different. Do I have enough noisy images from older non-Fuji sensors I want to clean up? Do I shoot enough with non-Fujifilm cameras? I like the program but I’m not quite convinced I need it.

Finally, here is the first image after processing in Deep Prime and some further processing in Lightroom.

Nikon F2A

I have now gone an entire year without buying a camera – impressive. My last purchase, almost a year ago to the day, was something of an impulse buy. We had visitors in town at the time and I and some of my colleagues were assigned as their minders. On the agenda was a courtesy call with some VIPs. Naturally, we were not in the room and as time passed it became clear that the VIPs and and our guests were getting along nicely. We drank coffee and played with our phones. I happened to take a look at the Used Photo Pro website, something I do most days.

From time to time a camera shows up there that I’m convinced I must have. I’m sure I’ve hit the ‘buy’ button and started filling in my details half a dozen times before talking myself back from the edge. This time I jumped. A Nikon F2A, black, and in great condition. Who could resist?

Nico van Dijk’s F2 serial number matrix dates my camera to 1974, between August and October. This would imply that the head that came with the camera is  not the original, since the DP-11 head that makes this an F2A was designed to work with AI lenses which only appeared in 1977. The DP-11 uses CdS cells for metering and has a simple swinging needle display. I had read, while waiting impatiently for the camera to arrive, that the needle in these heads can sometimes be quite jumpy but on mine it moves very smoothly. I also noticed that the light seals, while not perfect, are in better condition than I would have expected for a 45 year old camera. I suspect that either the camera has been very well looked after or has been serviced at some point. I didn’t need another camera but sitting next to my FM2n and collection of Nikkor lenses it looks rather well.

Unfortunately the dark nights, work and then COVID-19 conspired to keep the camera on the shelf most of the time, but here are some shots from the first roll I put through it back in March last year. I happened to have a couple of rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400, a film I had never previously used, so it was also an opportunity to try it out. I brought my 24 and 105 Nikkors, starting with the former and swapping half way through.

With limited time and a primary goal of ensuring that my F2 was in full working order I chose to visit familiar and favourite sites in downtown Sofia. First, the former Royal Palace, now the National Gallery. I managed to forget that I was shooting with a manual camera, so put the camera to my eye, framed and pressed the button. Once it dawned on my what I had done and I finished cursing my own stupidity I reframed, adjusted exposure and took another shot.

Just past the National Gallery is the Russian Orthodox Church, properly known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker. It’s highly photogenic but I have yet to get a picture of it that I think does it justice. The first one below was taken with the 24mm lens, the second one with the 105mm.

Next up is the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This is another building I photograph a lot with out ever being entirely happy with the results, but I keep trying. I used around one third of the roll shooting the cathedral. Here is a wide shot of the whole building and some detail from the beautifully elaborate roof.

This sculpture below commemorates Stefan Stambolov who fought for Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire and went on to become the country’s ninth Prime Minister. The cleavage in the upper part of the sculpture references Stambolov’s assassination when his killers, knowing that Stambolov wore an armoured vest, struck his head repeatedly with knives and fractured his skull. Stambolov died a few days later.

Probably my favourite building in the city is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre which stands in a pedestrianised square by a small park known as the City Garden – a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. I took six pictures of the theatre. Here they are.

On to the City Museum, formerly the public baths, and the nearby mineral springs. This is the point at which I switched from the 24 to the 105 with the first two shots taken with the former. I used the 105 for a closer look at the beautiful detail on the exterior of the building and for the two candid shots.

And finally, this is the head of a large sculpture of a lion at the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier which is visible in the background. This is quite a tricky shot to get because normally Sofia’s kids are clambering all over the lion. I think I waited about fifteen minutes before there was a brief lull. I wasn’t convinced at the time that it was worth the wait but I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out.

The F2 performed perfectly throughout and the results suggest the metering and shutter speeds are accurate. While it is a big, heavy camera I did not find it to be uncomfortable to carry or handle. I appreciated the large, clear viewfinder and the simple but functional and uncluttered display – shutter speed, aperture and simple swinging needle.

As for Kodak Ultramax, this film was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not nearly as grainy as I expected and the colours are nicely saturated without being excessive. It does have a tendency towards a certain ‘creaminess’, particularly with white tones, but it’s not unpleasant. I tend to view white balance as an aesthetic rather than a technical criterion being primarily a matter of taste. My own personal taste tends towards a more neutral rendering so the only real adjustments I made to these images in Lightroom was to tweak the white balance. Most of the images above got a minus adjustment on temperature (mostly in the -4 to -8 range) and a plus adjustment on tint (between +6 and +12). Overall, though, for a consumer grade and very affordable film it delivered impressive results. This is definitely one I will use again.

For more on the F2 here are a few reviews from Casual Photophile, Emulsive, Dan Schneider and Jim Grey. And here is a video walk through with Travis Mortz. Finally, here is Nikon’s own brief history of the F2’s development and launch.

Wolf Suschitzky – Seven Decades of Photography

Some books grow on you. This is one of them.

I don’t recall where or how I first came across Wolf Suschitzky but I do like those photographers who have documented life in the UK over the decades and Suschitzky is one such with a career stretching from the 1930’s into the 21st century. This book, Seven Decades of Photography, published in 2014 when Suschitzky was already 102 years old collects a selection of images from his long career.

Quite apart from his photography the man himself is fascinating. He was born in Vienna in 1912 to a Jewish atheist father who ran a bookshop and later a socialist publishing house. Originally wanting to study zoology Suschitzky ended up studying photography influenced by his sister Edith, herself a photographer. Observing political developments in Austria in the 1930’s he concluded that Vienna was not a good place for a Jewish socialist and moved to London.

Shortly after arriving he landed a job as a cinematographer working on documentaries before moving into feature films. Cinematography paid the bills and enabled him to continue with his photography on his own terms. Throughout the book there are portrait shots of some of the actors he worked with as well as animal shots and portraits reflecting his interest in zoology.

The first time I browsed this book I liked many of the images but there were few that really stood out. It was a pleasant browse but not much more. When I pulled the book off the shelf for the first time in almost two years my appreciation of his work was transformed. Now I see many great images and some that are truly outstanding. Perhaps it is just me responding differently after two more years of looking at and thinking about photography but I think it is also about the photographs. They demand and deserve a lingering look to fully appreciate them and I don’t think I paid enough attention previously.

What stands out now is Suschitzky’s wonderful use light and strong structural elements, something that was perhaps influenced by his work as a cinematographer. Yet he was happier to be known as a craftsman than an artist and an observer rather than a creator.

Suschitzky died in 2016 at the age of 104 and the book is an excellent testament to his work. It was originally published by SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien in Austria and unfortunately like so many photobooks is now out of print and expensive.

LINKS

A short film on Suschitzky from FOTOHOF Gallery in Vienna released as part of their exhibition of Suschitzky’s work ‘No Resting Place’. You can also take a virtual tour of the exhibition.

Fujinon XF 55–200

I think of it as my panda lens. Out of the 171 images I shot with this lens while I owned it no fewer than 72 of them are of pandas, specifically Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Bao Bao at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

To some photographers 171 images many not sound like a lot and since I had the lens for a couple of years that’s a reasonable conclusion but I’m not really a telephoto user. That said it’s nice to have a little bit of extra reach from time to time when the occasion calls for it, an occasion for example like a visit to Washington DC to see the pandas.

So I’m never going to be in the market for one of those fast 70–200 drainpipes but I’ve always ended up whatever the system with one of the cheap(ish) 55–200 type lenses. I had the Sony A and E mount versions when I was a Sony user and it seemed an obvious choice when I switched to Fujifilm.

Like most Fuji lenses this one is a cut above what’s on offer from most of the other camera and lens manufacturers. The quality of construction is much better (something confirmed by the people at Lens Rentals recently when they took one apart). It feels much more solid and substantial than the lightweight and somewhat creaky competitors. It’s also a little bit faster than the opposition — f3.5–4.8 compared to the usual f4–5.6. It’s not a lot but at the longer focal lengths every little helps. It also helps that this lens comes with Fuji’s OIS system.

Image quality is excellent, vastly better than either of the Sony’s I’ve owned and on the basis of what I’ve read and heard better than anything else out there in this sector. Previous lenses I’ve used were generally fine until around 160–170mm when the image quality took a real hit. They were also noticeably weaker wide open. By contrast the Fuji is good all the way to 200mm and at all apertures. The only weakness I’ve found is at 200mm wide open in the corners where it’s not great, but it’s the corners so it’s usually no big deal.

Also gratifying is the degree of resistance while zooming. Sometimes it almost seems like it’s a little too much but this for me is preferable to too little resistance. The one dislike I have with this lens is that unlike the zoom ring the aperture ring is far too easily rotated and I do find myself shooting at entirely unexpected apertures because the lens gently brushed my shirt and shifted from f4 to f16. Perhaps it’s just my copy but it is noticeably looser than the aperture rings on my other Fuji lenses.

All of this goodness does come at a price. The Fuji lens is more expensive that the typical 55–200 lenses which tend to come in at around $350 at most and are often much less. The Fuji’s recommended retail price is $700 — not exactly a bargain — but it usually goes for $500 during Fuji’s regular sales. For an occasional user like me $500 is an acceptable price given that this is in every respect a better lens than anything from the competition.

If you are a regular telephoto shooter or need the extra speed you will undoubtedly prefer the XF50–140 f2.8, but for the occasional user this lens is definitely worth getting hold of, particularly if you wait for the price drop.

A lens review without pictures is a bit pointless so here are a few images from my very small collection taken with this lens including of course some pandas.

These first two shots were taken at Manila American Cemetery, the first at 110mm and f8 and the second at 55mm and also f8.

The next two shots are looking across the Pasig River from the Makati side towards the Pasig side. Both were shot at 200mm and f5.6. The third image is a crop from the top left of the second shot showing how well the lens performs at this focal length.

This next one of a rapidly moving boat was taken from the back of somewhat slower moving boat. I was impressed with both the sharpness and the ability of my X-E2’s rather rudimentary focus tracking together with the lens’s less than state-of-the-art autofocus capabilities to keep up. This one was taken at 55mm and f8.

Now for the zoo. First up is Mei Xiang relaxing in her yard. Considering that this was shot at 200mm wide open I was impressed by the detail and sharpness in her fur and whiskers.

Next, it’s Tian Tian relaxing in his yard — pandas do a lot of relaxing. I thought this was a great pose, propped up on one elbow leaning on a tree trunk. Again this is at 200mm and wide open and again there is decent sharpness and detail throughout even down to the fly that has landed on his back.

Finally just to prove that pandas aren’t the only inhabitants of the zoo here is one of the male lions relaxing while keeping an eye out and one of the tigers having fun in the pool. Both were shot at 200mm wide open and both also cropped a little because you can’t get that close.

So a good lens which is well worth the higher cost for the superior mechanical and optical quality and the extra half stop. In the end I sold this lens because I didn’t feel I was putting it to use enough but I still do keep an eye out from time to time for Fujifilm sales or used deals. I suspect I may own it again at some point.

Niall McDiarmid – Town to Town

I don’t read or watch the news any more. Somewhere along the way the news media lost their integrity and reduced the world to an endless cycle of win-lose conflicts between extremists. When I was a kid newspapers printed one edition a day and there were four news bulletins – morning, lunchtime, early evening and late evening. Time and space were limited, valuable, so editors had to think carefully about which stories to cover. Journalists had to make phone calls, talk to people, write up stories – they had to do journalism.

Now? With 24/7 news channels and newspapers reduced to mere websites with near endless pages, discernment or editorial judgement is no longer required. News organisations could use all that available time and space to dig deeper, to widen their outlook on the world, but that would take time and money. Easier to fill the space with celebrity gossip and the latest Twitter spat. That brings in the numbers and numbers bring in advertising and advertising bring in money which ultimately is what it is all about.

The news media inhabit an alternative reality where the 2 percent of Twittering fanatics are representative of the nation, where every social or political issue is reducible to either / or or them / us. And if at times it seems like our societies have taken leave of their senses then the news media is culpable of driving that process.

All of which is a rather long introduction to a photobook review. The connection being that photobooks can tell us a lot more about our societies and their people and can portray the irreducible complexity of society in a way that the news media are no longer able or willing to do.

In the UK context which I’m most familiar with I think of Mahtab Hussain whose photography project, You Get Me?, documenting the lives of young British Muslim men was published a couple of years ago. Hussain described the series as ‘an intimate portrait on negotiating masculinity, self-esteem, social identity, and religion in a multicultural society faced with high unemployment, discrimination in the workplace, and racism’. At the same time he noted that his subjects ‘identify with Britain and they have a strong sense of Britishness’. (In fact research published in 2014 showed that British citizens of Pakistani origin have a stronger sense of British identity than any other group.)

I also think of the recently published work by Chris Steele-Perkins, The New Londoners, which I am patiently waiting on arriving. Steele-Perkins photographed 165 families in London who between them represent more that 200 countries, emphasising again the wonderful complexity of society that defies the reductionist and divisive vision of the news media.

And then there is Niall McDiarmid. Town to Town collects some of the pictures McDiarmid took as part of a project to create a portrait of contemporary Britain. McDiarmid, Scottish but based in London, started out in his adopted city but then started travelling across Britain: ‘I’d search for cheap tickets available online and catch a train out of London early every Saturday. Then, because it’s expensive to stay away, I’d come back on a really late night train crawling into London after a day somewhere up North’. He ended up visiting over 200 towns wandering the streets and approaching random people who caught his eye.

McDiarmid wanted his street portraits to have a distinctive style and he defines that style as focusing on colour, shape and pattern. His use of colour is particularly striking. Not just in the bright, vivid colours of many of his diverse subjects but also in the way McDiarmid photographs them against backgrounds that echo these. This is real Britain beyond the warped world of the news media, and the 120 pages of this book will show you more about Britain than the endless pages of dross that fill the news websites.

The book itself is published by RBB Photobooks and the quality of the binding, the paper and the reproductions is excellent. There are no introductory essays, no attempts to shape or steer the viewer’s encounter with the image. There isn’t even a blurb about the photographer. It’s all about the images. Originally published in 2018 it’s starting to get a little harder to find now and no doubt will be out of stock everywhere very soon.

LINKS

There is also a video of McDiarmid in conversation with fellow photographer Daniel Meadows during preparations for the opening of the ‘Town to Town’ exhibition. (For some reason the YouTube video will not embed but the link will take you there.)

The Minolta 24mm…

…or to give it its full designation the Minolta MD W.Rokkor-X 24mm 1:2.8.

This is an SR mount lens. The SR mount was introduced with Minolta’s first SLR, the SR-2, in 1958. (Strangely there was an SR-1 but it was released after the SR-2). All manual focus Minolta SLRs used the SR mount but when Minolta switched to autofocus cameras the company developed a new mount. This mount known as the Alpha mount is still in use on Sony’s DSLRs. The MD designation identifies this as a lens specifically designed to work with the Minolta XD camera introduced in 1977.

The XD offered both aperture priority and shutter priority semi automatic exposure modes and required the use of MD lenses to make use of the shutter priority option. While earlier generations of SR lenses could be used on the XD in manual or aperture priority mode they would not work properly in shutter speed mode. The ‘W’ indicates that this is a wide angle lens. With a handful of exceptions all Rokkor lenses between 17mm and 35mm had the W.Rokkor designation. Those over 100mm were known as Tele Rokkors, while zooms, obviously enough, were Zoom Rokkors.

I believe Minolta was the first of the major Japanese companies to give their lenses an additional brand identity when they introduced the first ‘Rokkor’ lens in 1940. Others followed suit and gave us Nikkors, Hexanons, Fujinons and the rest. More recently South Korean lens maker Samyang has sold lenses under its Rokinon brand which sounds like an attempt to associate its lenses with the Rokkor name and identity.

Supposedly the name is derived from the Rokko mountain range near Osaka where the company was founded and maintained its headquarters until the merger with Konica. Minolta’s founder Kazuo Tashima was an admirer of German photographic equipment and the company was initially known as Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten (Japan-Germany Camera Company). Given this perhaps Tashima was influenced by the practice of German companies like Zeiss and Leica who gave their lenses additional branding — the Zeiss Planar and Tessar or the Leica Elmar for example. The Rokkor branding finally disappeared around 1980. My 50mm f1.7, for example, is simply a Minolta. Despite this, ‘Rokkor’ is still often used as a generic name for all Minolta lenses. The ‘X’ seems to be largely a marketing exercise. There appears to be no difference between Rokkor and Rokkor-X other than the X.

The MD lenses were modified from time to time during the years of production and based on the information provided in Dennis Lohmann’s very detailed database my copy is a late example of the MD series II from around 1980. Like most Minolta lenses of that era it’s well made, solid and mostly of metal construction. Both the focus ring and the aperture ring are smooth and consistent with appropriate resistance. The lens elements appear clean and the aperture blades operate smoothly.

I wasn’t planning to buy this lens. It’s among the more expensive Minolta lenses ($220–250 in good condition from reputable dealers) and I only occasionally go wider than 35mm. Besides, I already had a 24mm lens for my Nikon FM2n if I needed one. However, while making my near daily check of a couple of online dealers recently this lens appeared on one of them for only $149. I assumed at that price it would be in very poor shape but it was listed as ‘Excellent’ and the reason given for the low price was some damage to the front filter ring which you can see in the photograph at the top. Since I don’t use filters a damaged filter ring makes no odds to me so I ended up with a bargain.

The pictures were taken around Washington DC with the XD and 24mm combination on Kodak Ektar. Everything is nice and sharp and the colours look good to me. The only downside is that it is susceptible to flare though I was shooting on a very bright and sunny day. I think I’ll need to pick up a push on lens hood for this one. Overall though, this is a very nice lens and it’s well worth the bargain price.

Martin Parr – The Non-Conformists

Think of Martin Parr and what comes to mind are vibrant and richly saturated colour images. But it was not always so. Early in his career Parr shot in black and white and this book, The Non-Conformists, presents some of that early work. Just out of art school in the mid 1970’s Parr moved to the mill town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and began documenting the everyday lives of the people of the area together with his friend, and later wife, Susie Mitchell.

The area was historically a stronghold of non-conformists, Christians who had rejected the dominant Church of England, and there were Baptist and Methodist chapels in many of the towns and villages. Parr’s father had been a Methodist lay preacher and he was drawn to the chapels, eventually developing a strong relationship with the elderly members of one particular Methodist chapel in the village of Crimsworth Dean. Over the course of what became a five year project Parr photographed everyday life in the chapel and the community and this book brings together those images together with notes and commentary taken by Susie at the time.

While these black and white images seem superficially a world apart from Parr’s later work it only takes a moment of looking to see the continuity. There is the same observation of detail, the same ability to pick the moment, the same quirkiness, the same dry humour, but there is also a gentleness, even melancholy, in these pictures that sets them apart from his later work. Parr covers everything: chapel life, business and commerce, farming, parties and celebrations, recreation, cricket, auctions, grouse shooting, mining. Nothing is too insignificant. And out of each setting and situation he manages to find images that provoke both emotion and reflection.

Like Parr, I grew up in these non-conformist traditions, in my case among the Baptists and the Brethren in Northern Ireland, and many of his images reflect my own memories of visiting my grandfather who was a member of the gospel hall in the small village of Ballyhalbert 25 miles from Belfast. Susie Parr notes in the book that at that time the chapels were in decline, as were many of the towns and villages as traditional industries disappeared or shrank. The same was true in Northern Ireland though perhaps there it took a little longer, and when I return from time to time I’m aware of passing a spot where a gospel hall or mission hall once stood. Some are gone completely, some have fallen into disrepair, some have been converted for other uses, but I do think it is sad that there is little or no record of their existence and of the communities that worshipped there. The chapel at Crimsworth Dean that Parr photographed is also gone, closed in 1997 and converted into a private house a few years later, but thanks to Parr a record remains of the place and the people.

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite photobooks with the superb pictures complemented by Susie Parr’s contemporary notes on the places they visited and photographed. Paper, printing and binding are all high quality and copies are still available either in the US direct from the publishers, Aperture, for $36 or from the usual sources for a similar price. In the UK you can get it for around £27 at Blackwells or for the same price you can have a signed copy from Beyond Words.

Links

On Safari

My left hand doesn’t work as well as it should, which is unfortunate as I’m left handed. It’s a long story involving a metal gate, a torn ligament, hundreds of hours of physiotherapy, more injections than I can recall and two surgeries, which I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that my hand is ‘good enough’ though subject to aches and pains. About a year ago I started working full time after a gap of almost fifteen years (another long story). Since the job involved a lot of writing andtyping, and since I’m old school and prefer to do a lot of actual pen and paper writing, I was concerned about how my hand would hold up.

A chunky pen with a squishy grip might be a good investment I thought. At which point my simple quest turned into an epic exploration of the internet universe of pens. It turns out the Japanese are very good at pens as a result it seems of complex character sets and an emphasis on handwriting and calligraphy. I ended up with a collection of smooth writing, fine-nibbed gel pens from Pentel, Pilot, Uni-ball and Zebra. I added a bunch of Muji pens, because you can never have enough stuff from Muji, and rounded my collection off with a couple of ingenious mechanical pencils.

I never even considered fountain pens, having bad childhood memories of scratchy, leaky pens and assuming as a lefty that they were were a recipe for smudgy pages and ink stained hands. It turned out that one of my new colleagues was a fountain pen user and out of curiosity I asked if I could try his pen. I wrote some random words. The nib glided smoothly over the paper, the ink flowed evenly to the nib and there was not a smudge to be seen. The real revelation was the ease of writing. I thought my gel pens were great writers requiring very little pressure and needing only a light grip, important when trying to take the strain off the hand when writing for extended periods, but this fountain pen was in another league. And so I plunged back into the pen universe and headed straight for the black hole of fountain pens.

Initially overwhelmed, I eventually ordered a cheery yellow Lamy Safari. Since then I’ve ordered two more, one in ‘blue macaron’ and the most recent in ‘violet’. Lamy introduced the Safari in 1980 and the striking design caused quite a stir. The pen was oringally aimed at 10 to 15 year old schoolkids and the designer Wolfgang Fabian worked with psychologists to develop the pen, a process that took five years. The ‘Safari’ name and the initial colours of ‘savannah green’ and ‘terracotta red’ were also shaped by the psychologists’ suggestion that children were interested in travel and faraway places.

The general idea was that if Lamy could get kids using the Safari then those kids might stick with the brand as adults. In the event the strategy, despite – or possibly because of – the psychological advice, was a failure. The kids weren’t impressed but it turned out that some adults were. So Lamy asked Fabian to come up with some new colour schemes that would appeal to a more mature audience.

Fabian said that his approach to designing the Safari was driven by his own childhood experience of awkward grips and inky fingers. As a young designer with no presuppositions about how a fountain pen should look he was free to take a different approach to achieve his goal – a fountain pen that would sit comfortably in the hand. That approach resulted in the most distinctive feature of the pen, the three sided, recessed grip designed to teach young people the ‘correct’ way to hold a pen.

Fabian’s work has stood the test of time with the Safari still in production after 40 years and now one of the world’s best selling pens, popular with kids and adults, casual users and collectors. Fabian modestly rejects the idea that the Safari’s longevity is down to his design, noting that the pen has received plenty of criticism alongside the praise. Instead he attributes it to Lamy’s willingness to persevere with the pen in the early years when it was a lot less popular than today, and the marketing department’s decision to produce an annual special edition usually in a new colour with matching ink. The first of these appeared in 2004 and this has now become an annual event with multiple themed releases in more recent years. So every year with the special edition the Safari gets a big marketing push and the pens become collectors’ items for the enthusiasts in pursuit of a complete set. Two of my pens are special editions with the ‘blue macaron’ from 2019’s ‘pastel’ range and the ‘violet’ from 2020’s ‘candy’ range. You can of course get it in black if you want.

The pen itself is made from ABS plastic, the same material Lego is made from and if you have ever stepped on Lego in your bare feet you will know how tough that stuff is. The design though it has its critics is very distinctive. Put it in a tray alongside a dozen other fountain pens that only an expert could tell apart and even a complete fountain pen novice could pick out the Safari. The grip does seem to get some people worked up but even as a lefty writing sometimes at very odd angles I have never had a problem with it. As with most Lamy pens the nib is easily changed for any of the wide selection of widths and styles available. If you wish you can even mount one of the company’s gold nibs. Since I write small all my nibs are ‘extra fine’.

Many fountain pens take standard international cartridges giving you a wide range of ink options from multiple producers but Lamy is one of the makers using proprietary cartridges so your colour options are a little limited. Alternatively, install a converter and you can explore the thousands of bottled ink options available. Right now my yellow and blue macaron pens are using converters with iroshizuku syo-ro ink in the former and shikiori shigure in the latter. The violet, my most recent purchase, is still using the blue cartridge that came with it.

Over time Lamy has produced several variants of the Safari including the AL-star in aluminium, the transparent Vista, and the slightly more upmarket Lx. There is nothing about the Safari I dislike which is probably why I have three of them. They are also as fountain pens go very cheap, typically around $25 in the US and £20 in the UK. This means you can collect them without breaking the bank and if you do happen to leave one behind somewhere it’s going to be a little less painful than if you left your $1,000 Montblanc.

Enough from me but if you would like to read more, Lamy’s beautifully designed website has lots of information and great product photographs, while Swedish based German blogger Michael Waltinger at Scrively has an insightful interview with Wolfgang Fabian (from which I have borrowed) which includes pictures of the earliest Safaris and their themed packaging. If you do take a notion to buy a fountain pen please shop at an independent retailer and give Amazon a miss. I have bought from Goulet Pens, JetPens and Endless Pens and had great service from them all.