Arena site re-visit

Although it’s not as much fun when one is LEGALLY photographing something, it does make for a more leisurely workflow. Thus did I return yet again to the Arena construction site downtown to try to make something of the detritus there.

This time I was better equipped: tripod, Contax 645 and Mamiya 7 with two lenses each, and a couple of rolls of film for each camera. I decided to shoot from the only convenient publicly-accessible higher ground nearby, the sidewalk on the Clark Memorial Bridge, whose feeder street—2nd Street—bounds the site to the east. Best I can figure, this spot offers the only unobstructed line of sight from pedestrian level to the floor of the pit. It also means facing west while one is shooting, which is a potential problem if the sun is over there, as it is wont to be at 5 pm.

In the Mamiya, I finished up a roll of Velvia 100, which will have to go off to the lab, so nothing there for a week. (I am torn about whether it’s worthwhile to buy an E-6 kit for the remaining few rolls of slide film moldering in my freezer, or just send them to Dwayne’s; the turnkey solution currently appeals, at the expense of instant gratification.) I have shot but little Velvia in my time, so I don’t have a real feel for what this film can do, but I do know I’d like to use it up. Its reputation for vibrant color will be of little use in rendering the monochromatic palette of the site, so it’ll likely wind up serving as a fine-grained B&W film with blown highlights. Not much choice, as the Mamiya has no interchangeable backs; load a roll, and you’re committed (short of unloading and re-rolling the film in a changing bag.)

I also shot two rolls with the Contax: a roll of Maco ORT25c, and one of T-Max 100. The Maco is a slow (ISO 25), fine-grained film similar to the discontinued Kodak Technical Pan in its sharpness and ultra fine grain. It shares, however, that film’s extreme contrastiness, and this behavior was in evidence even in the moderate-contrast scenes I photographed. Processed in undiluted Xtol (my standard developer), it was blindingly sharp, its grain was invisible—and it was too contrasty, with important highlights gone. And the sky—already the hazy pale blue-gray of a sweltering late-summer Louisville day—went completely white, though there was little sky in the shots overall, as I was looking downward onto the site:

I should have expected these results from this combination of subject matter, film, and development. Ordinarily, a relatively red-insensitive film like the Maco would tend to render redder subjects as darker gray in the final positive image, and bluer subjects as lighter. That’s why it is a neat film for, say, portraits of darker-skinned subjects. Dark skin, especially lips, contains a higher proportion of red, so those areas render dark or even black, giving that 1950’s-matinee-idol look. (Think Elvis in the lobby-card photos for Flaming Star, the movie in which he played an Indian, er, Native American—yeah, a white guy could get away with that in 1960….)

In these scenes, there was a hazy, wan blue sky, already quite bright relative to the rest of the scene. Furthermore, haze tends to be bluish, so the film saw a lot of bright blue-ness, which it loves, and so the sky areas of the negative went densely black. Final result–featureless white skies. I could have salvaged this, maybe, with a neutral-density grad over the sky areas of the scene, except I don’t own one; or maybe with a polarizer, though shooting along the axis of the sun means the polarizer will be at its least effective in darkening the sky. I also could have cut back development time by 10-15% or more to rein in the highlights, but at the risk of insufficient development for other areas of the film. Bottom line: wrong film for this job, a high-contrast-range subject matter shot with a film that has a poor (relatively speaking) ability to capture it.

I had more success, at least technically, with the T-Max 100:

Downtown Arena demolition/construction site, Main and Second Streets, Louisville KY, 9/2/08, shot from Clark Memorial Bridge westward.

Also processed in undiluted Xtol (in the same batch as the Maco, as my testing has indicated their development times are nearly identical), this film shows good shadow detail and much more restrained highlights than the Maco. It is similarly sharp, and nearly as fine-grained. From a pure materials-and-methods standpoint, I’m satisfied with the result.

If you’re thinking, my, he sure uses a wide variety of films, he must be some kinda film connoisseur—let me disabuse you of the notion. I’m simply trying to use up the dog’s-breakfast array of film in the freezer, and standardize on a small core group of films, before my wife cleans me out to make room for more heat-and-eat eggrolls. Like many film shooters, especially those like me with short attention spans, I have tried just about every film ever made, looking for “the” film that would turn me into Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Art Sinsabaugh, or [insert famous photographer’s name here]. In my case this means buying five rolls (takes at least two to nail down one’s personal film speed and development times) and losing interest after the third. So my freezer looks like the film closeout section at any camera store in North America.

Among the ISO 400 films, I’ve grown to like T-Max 400 so much that it may just wind up as my go-to film for 90% of my shooting (mini-paean to 400TMY2 here.) Also in the ISO-400-and-up weight class, I like Tri-X Pan Professional (well, it’s ISO 320, but close enough), though I’m still learning it; and, with diminishing fondness, plain old Tri-X classic. I say this with sadness; after all, 400TX in its various iterations over time is the best-selling black and white film in history, if not the best-selling film, period. I’ve shot hundreds (?thousands) of rolls, and processed it in just about every developer out there; I know it well. I just find, more and more, I like the look of 400TMY2 better. So that gives me one tabular-grain film and two “traditional” emulsions to choose from among the higher-speed films.

It’s the ISO-100-and-slower group that has me in a bit of a quandary. The Maco I mentioned above is a slow-group orphan from a previous experiment, along with my few remaining rolls of Efke 50 (poor quality control, impossibly-resilient curl, making wrestling it into the scanner’s film holder like wrangling an anaconda); some long-outdated infrared; and maybe a Delta 100 or two. I finally shot up the FP-4+, with predictably unimpressive results (I’ve never really figured out how to make the most of this film; never gotten close to box speed—50 or 64 is more realistic than Ilford’s claimed 125—and I just don’t like its look.) Ditto Delta 100; I’ve had some success with it in dilute Xtol or HC-110, but overall I’ve never been blown away. Why mess with these guys, since they do nothing special for me, and since I can get spectacular results with far less bother using others?

I’m no Kodak chauvinist; I’ve used Ilford products extensively, and I like HP5+ in just about any developer. But I find annoying the notion that Ilford is somehow more noble than Kodak because of its “commitment” to traditional photography—which commitment led to its sojourn into and out of (for now) bankruptcy. In this school of thought, we should buy only Ilford to “punish” Kodak for its “lack of commitment” (=refusal to sell traditional photographic materials at a loss to digital-loving customers who wouldn’t buy them at any price) to film-based photography. Perhaps someone could explain to me how boycotting Kodak is supposed to send them a market signal to make more of the products that the boycotters have eschewed, or otherwise encourage them to keep making film in a digital world. Even if Kodak’s products were not of world-class quality and consistency, this attitude alone would push me towards the Great Yellow Father. I like Kodak’s “commitment” to its shareholders to run a profitable company, since a bankrupt Kodak won’t be making much film either.

So among ISO 100 films, that leaves T-Max 100 and Plus-X to choose from. Plus-X in D76 is a joy to behold, so I’ll probably keep some around. It is quite good for portraiture in not-too-contrasty light, and I do a lot of portraiture. But it’s tough to beat T-Max 100, though it does take care and effort to get the most out of it. Even more so than its 400-speed brother, it does not like overdevelopment. Being slower, and thus inherently shorter-scale, it is ever-ready to have its highlights blown like its cousin Maco. It looks great in HC-110 at 1+50, with a minor loss of speed; but so far I like it best in undiluted Xtol. I’m just not sure how often its finer grain is going to trump 400TMY2’s advantages. Like the Plus-X, I’ll keep a little on hand for those few occasions.

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