Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Turquoise Trail Pinhole Camera Tour

In my previous post I offered a small assortment of color photographs taken during a day trip up The Turquoise Trail, through Madrid, Cerrillos and ending in Lamy, New Mexico. I was accompanied by, not only my very portable Lumix G1 digital camera but, the very unportable accouterments of the large format pinhole photographer: box camera, sheet film holders, light meter, dark cloth, aperture stops, calculator, notepad, tripod etc.

I started from here, having cut across from I-25 via a dirt road, onto Highway 14, where this hill, in the Ortiz Mountains just south of Madrid, awaited me, its smooth contours dotted with pinon and juniper. I was parked just off the highway right-of-way, to avoid the wrath of the NM State Police, and when finished with this first image, turned around and noticed the fence behind me.
The box camera itself I designed for use with glass lenses, and thus permits focusing by sliding the rear portion that nests within the front half. But today I had replaced the glass lens with a pinhole, 0.7mm in diameter, offering a focal ratio of F/380. For previewing the scene, the pinhole plate is removed from the front of the camera and a "viewing hole", about 3mm in diameter, is installed in its place. Then, with the aid of a dark cloth over one's head (actually an old shirt), the soft image projected onto the view screen is sufficiently bright to determine one's composition. Here, the triangular composition of the fence posts and shadows struck me as worthy of capture. Once the composition is set by adjusting the hefty Bogen tripod, the rear view screen is removed and a sheet film holder installed in its place. Then it's time to make the exposure, but first I have to determine how long to keep the shutter open; for these first two images I exposed the paper negatives for 70 seconds. Cars sped by on the highway in the first image, but they were recorded as little more than streaks of light against the dark asphalt roadway. The biggest concern of using such a bulky camera (these are sheets of photo paper 8 inches by 10 inches) is vibration from the wind, perched high atop the tripod, causing the image to be softened. I wait expectantly for a lull in the breeze before sliding the shutter open.
I stopped in Madrid, made a series of digital photos, but didn't break out the "big gun" due to the congestion of tourists and cars along the narrow main highway through town; plus, I'd made a series of pinhole images in Madrid previously. So onward, through Cerrillos and into Lamy, the site of an Amtrak station that services Santa Fe.

This dining car serves as a cafe for patrons of the rail service. There's also a small train that makes a run out to Lamy from downtown Santa Fe. Here I was struck by the dichotomy of empty plastic chairs against the mechanical shine and seeming abandonment of this trusty old car that once hosted patrons of the railroad during the classic era of rail travel. Now, it's relegated to sitting at track-side, watching the freight trains and occasional Amtrak shuffle through. A "swamp cooler," the boxy metal affair to the left, is perched atop the dining car to provide air conditioning in the hot, dry summer climate.
This detail of the Amtrak station building itself presents an opportunity to further explain my metering and exposure methods with paper negatives and pinhole lenses. First, I've calibrated my photo paper to determine its "film speed," which I rate at an exposure index of 12. Next, I've given each negative a slight, even exposure of light, prior to being loaded in the sheet film holders; a pre-flash that helps control excess contrast so easily found when using printing paper as an in-camera film. These paper negatives are not red-sensitive, they only respond to exposures from UV and blue light; so the sky appears blown-out white, and browns appear much darker than you'd otherwise expect.

The deep shadows under the porch of the station building presented a problem for me, but I metered the bright light falling on the brickwork, referenced my light meter's recommended exposure time for F/128 (the largest f-number my meter will read), and read an exposure time of 5 seconds. I then set about calculating the conversion to my camera's focal ratio of F/380: (380/128)^2 x 5 = 45 seconds. The calculation was easily made using my old HP-11C scientific calculator, which I've had since the mid-1980s.
Empty chairs fascinate me; I find them to symbolize for me a sense of absence and loss. Chairs were made for people to sit upon; a scene absent of people, with merely empty chairs, makes me wonder what happened, like a story unfinished, not knowing the outcome. They, those now missing, are implicit through their conspicuous absence, as if one could capture an image of emptiness itself through the volume of space left abandoned. An invisible sculpture, molded space itself enclosed by emptiness.

Here, I knew the bright metal roof of the dining car would reflect lots of UV light onto my paper negatives, while the brickwork's tones would remain muddy and dark. My light meter is sensitive to the entire visual spectrum, while my paper negatives are not; this represents a dichotomy between what the meter indicates, and what the developed negatives portray; a dichotomy only resolved through years of experience working with the medium of pinhole cameras and paper negatives.
I wandered from the train station building over to an adjoining grassy park, where I found this freight box car sitting on a dead-end spur track, left to deteriorate in the sometimes harsh climate of northern New Mexico. You can see, in the upper right corner, the motion of tree limbs from a tree behind the car, swaying in the breeze during the eighty second exposure.

I packed up tripod, box camera and backpack filled with sheet film holders and accessories, and headed down the road, not knowing what I had captured, but expectant of good results, which would be proven out only later that evening, in the confines of my humble darkroom, where each paper negative would in turn be put through the various chemical developing baths, wherein the negative image begins to appear, as if by magic; an image in silver upon paper.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This and the colour set are enjoyable. I especially like the last one above, the "box car sitting on a dead-end spur".

1:52 AM  

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