The abandoned croft house of Roddy Stewart

Memories rekindled of exploration with a camera on discovering a 40+ year old contact strip at the back of an old photo album.

In a few weeks time my wife and I anticipate celebrating one of the big milestones in married life. We’ve been looking through old photo albums and as we opened one from our student days a contact strip of black and white images fell out the back.

During most of the 1970s I took photographs with a Zenit E, a solid Russian brick of a camera with a 58mm Helios lens. My media of choice was slide film although on rare occasions I would use colour negative. I hardly ever shot on black and white film. Yet here was a black and white contact strip that I immediately recognised.

The original negatives are long gone and I never had any prints made but for whatever reason I had kept the contact strip made by the lab when they had developed my film. As I looked over the tiny pictures I began to remember what they were and why I had taken them, no doubt the reason I had kept the strip as a record.

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The pictures are of the abandoned croft house of Roddy Stewart, the neighbour and cousin of who in due course would become my father-in-law.

Roddy had given up his croft some time before and now lived out his remaining years up the hill and nearer the road in a house overlooking his old croft and Badenscallie Bay beyond. On my first visit to Badenscallie in 1973 the house still had a roof. A year later the roof had partly blown in. Seeing the photographs reminded me of the strong sense I had at the time that the house’s deterioration should be recorded, that by the following year there would be less of it to see. Nature was taking it’s course.

And so I walked across the hill with just my camera and a solitary 24-exposure roll of black and white film for company. The photographs record the sequence of my exploratory footsteps around and through the ruin. Looking back I remember the erie silence, the sense of being in a place where life had been lived, struggling with the challenges of daily living against the elemental forces of nature. A sense of life lived at the pace of the seasons and with the rising and setting of the sun. A hard yet peaceful life. Viewed now, the images recorded then have a beauty and a sense of being about them, reminders of what once was, thas I couldn’t just return them to the back of the album.

Why I didn’t have prints made was probably because at the time prints just weren’t my ‘thing’. It is likely that I had the film in my bag just for something to try on a dull day: most slide film of the time was a mere 64 or 25 ASA and I’m quite sure this black and white film would have been a ‘fast’ 400 ASA. The contact strip was clean so I scanned it and then as it pulled me in I decided to scan each individual frame and look at the story they told in more detail.

Here are all 24 frames, in order, telling the story of my journey some forty years or so ago. Hopefully I’ll return again soon and find out what has become of this place.

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Senior Moments

I took a Trip to Falkirk for an Intrepid photo-outing. But not all went to plan …

The idea was to take The Intrepid and a half a dozen sheets of Harman Direct Positive paper for a walk around The Falkirk Wheel, a unique boat lift between the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal in central Scotland, and then on for a visit to the nearby site of the Antonine Wall and Rough Castle Roman Fort. For a few snapshots along the way I took my Olympus Trip loaded with Kentmere 100 film.

Two cameras, one to be set up on a tripod after careful consideration of the viewpoint then focused, loaded, light measured for calculation of shutter speed and aperture before the exposure could be made. The other in a pocket to be taken out, pointed at the subject and the shutter pressed to take the shot without delay.

Nobody takes a blind bit of notice to the Olympus Trip whereas The Intrepid attracts all manner of attention. People stop to look. They ask questions. They tell of their forebears using cameras like these. Their children have to see what’s going on below the dark cloth and their dogs are attracted to the legs of the tripod!

All of that attention when trying to concentrate on the process of taking a photograph with The Intrepid can lead to confusion for the old codger that I am! I made a complete mess of exposure meter readings and camera settings. Of my six sheets of paper only one came out as I had intended, one of two barges passing each other on the Union Canal above the Wheel.

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The remaining five were all either very under- or very over- exposed. However, one of these, of the entrance to Rough Castle Tunnel, although about three stops overexposed has been growing on me so I count it amongst the ‘keepers’.

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So there it is. Memories of a day out, exposures made, lessons learned and the sense of satisfaction from crafting the images back in the darkroom.

A microscophotography project

Ten glass microscope slides, hand-coated with SE1 print emulsion and exposed in an adapted 35mm camera. This is how it all worked out.

In my last blog post I showed how I made a simple adapter that would enable me to load glass microscope slides instead of film in a 35mm camera.

After my experiments about eight months ago with self-coated glass plates for my large format and pinhole cameras I had a small amount of emulsion left over. Rather than discard it I coated some standard 75mm x 25mm microscope slides. At the time my thought was to build a small pinhole camera to expose them in but I’d also seen some larger slides being fitted in a Rollieflex medium format camera and realised there was potential to perhaps fit my slides in a 35mm camera.

The coated slides have been tucked away at the back of a drawer, securely packed in a light-tight box and wrapped in an opaque black plastic bag. However with the passing of time since the slides were coated and the likelihood that being the end of the batch the emulsion was probably not in the best condition, I knew not to raise my hopes of too much success when exposing them now.

Nonetheless, I was keen to use them and decided to do so as a series. I could only expose one slide at a time and rather than carry a cumbersome changing bag my decision was to expose just one slide per day over the period of two working weeks, changing the slide at home each evening. My daily commute to work takes me to the seaside town of North Berwick and for years my lunchtime walk around the town and beaches has been with a camera of some sort over my shoulder or in my pocket. With a digital camera I can easily clock up fifty or more shots over the course of a half-hour wander, with a film camera I am more choosy but with just one opportunity this time to make an exposure I would have to be particularly careful to pick my subject.

I focussed my attention on the views of North Berwick that I have known since childhood when we came twice-yearly for family holidays continuing a tradition going back to my grandparents’ generation. Quite by coincidence, about midway through the second week I was asked if I would agree to my photograph being taken for a recently launched ‘Humans of North Berwick’ Facebook page. My initial response was that I am not a North Berwick resident but I was assured that the page was intended to feature all who contribute to the community which I do as one of the local opticians. I had my photo taken, camera in hand, on the last day of shooting for my series.

The encounter made me think. Although I know North Berwick very well and for the past twenty years have commuted to the town for work, I have never really considered moving to the town to live! For me it has always been a place to visit. My grandparents visited here for holidays, as did my parents with my sister and me. My parents moved here in the 1970s in anticipation of retirement (instead of which my father set up the optical practice that my sister and I now run) after I was married, and I visited the town to visit them. All of the locations that I was choosing for my series were in fact locations which held special memories for me and that in some strange way mark out North Berwick in my mind as a place for me to visit rather than to live.

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The developed slides drying in a blotting paper lined tray

Developing the slides was quite straightforward. SE1 Emulsion is an orthochromatic print emulsion so it can be handled in a darkroom under a red safelight and processed in much the same way as developing a print on photographic paper. It is gelatin based and so care has to be taken with temperature control of the chemicals and with handling the slides as once wet the gelatin swells and becomes quite fragile until processing is complete and the emulsion is fully dry.

The developed slides looked quite dense suggesting that I may have overexposed them a bit but I could see good detail in them.

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setting up my temporary darkroom

With the stronger sense of purpose to the series that I had found I was keen to make the best of them and so decided to make prints using a 35mm enlarger. I spent a frustratingly enjoyable day setting up my small dark space and engrossing myself in the black art of producing prints with combinations of filters, time and chemistry. SE1 emulsion has very little exposure range and I found it extremely tricky obtaining good highlight detail without loss of shadow detail and vice versa. In fact for most of the prints I had to decide between one or other. However I finally emerged from the dark of my room into the dark of the late evening with a set of prints that I was more or less happy with. I laid them out to dry overnight, tidied up and went to bed.

In the morning I reviewed my work of the previous day and picked a set of ten prints to mount on card for protection and presentation.

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The final set of ten mounted prints

The final mounted prints are actually quite pleasing to me. The emulsion has clearly deteriorated a little over time with signs of contamination and incomplete coating that are magnified in the enlarged prints. But those imperfections in the prints are their charm and what makes each image unique. I need to decide now what I will do with this little set of memories and there is a story to tell with each one.

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Raising the slides off the scanner bed to avoid Newton Rings

Just for the record, with the print set made I also scanned the slides to computer and edited the digitised images by setting black and white points and tweaking the levels a tad. For the nerdy, I used strips of 35mm negs to lift the slides off the scanner bed to avoid Newton Rings. It worked a treat!

The edited files certainly show more detail than I’ve managed to bring out in the prints but I have to say the digital images just don’t have the ‘feel’ of the prints.

Here are the scanned images. Click to see them full size.

35mm Camera conversion to glass plate

A support tray to expose emulsion-coated glass microscope slides in a 35mm camera

Inside a 35mm film camera, raised rails 24mm apart support the film between guide rails which in turn support the sprung pressure plate which when the camera back is closed hold the film flat while allowing just enough space for it to be wound on between exposures.

I have ten glass microscope slides that were coated with SE1 Emulsion left-over from large format glass plate preparation last July. The 1mm thick slides measure 75mm x 25mm and I decided to make an adapter that would enable me to expose them in a 35mm camera.

There were two main problems to overcome: the 25mm wide slides would have to be held centrally above the 24mm wide film-support rails without slipping out of position, and there would have to be a way of locating the slides in position in the dark. My solution was to make a tray from mountboard and stiff card using screws protruding from the camera as locating pins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe microscope slides have at one end an opaque matt surface for writing on. It provides a textured area that enables identification by touch of which side is which. I have coated the textured side with emulsion and so this side will be placed down, i.e. facing towards the camera lens.

The mountboard was cut to the width of the film chamber and with rebates to locate the protruding screw-heads at the ends of the film transport guide rails. A hole to accommodate the glass slide was cut such that the emulsioned area of the slide would be located directly above the shutter mask. A piece of card cut to fit between the film guide rails and with an aperture just longer and wider than the shutter mask was fixed to the underside of the mountboard with double-sided adhesive tape.

The camera I have used is an Olympus OM1. I have other cameras but the layout in the back differs from one to another so my support tray will only fit the OM1. The reason for using the OM1 was that it takes the full length of the slide in position without placing it under undue stress and so reduces the risk of breaking the glass when the back is closed.