In Autumn, the tide of bracken on the fells recedes, revealing a scattered Atlantis of forgotten walls, enclosures, and tumbledown buildings from long ago. Over there is a wall built by a landowner to protect his investment in Larch, never realised; here the remains of a small hut, perhaps for a shepherd, caught out at nightfall. In Summer, when the holidaymakers arrive in numbers, and the bracken grows tall, these modest ruins are submerged again. Only the sheep and deer venture into the green shallows. (The bracken is unpleasant against human skin, and besides, is infested with ticks.) I imagine the men who built these walls sleeping out on the fells; their backs stooped, hands toughened by the coarse stones that declare someone else’s ownership. Now these old structures have become sunken reefs, soft with moss, daubed with lichen; alive with birds, insects, delicate lizards. Returning from the stand of pines where I have been taking photographs, I follow a track from a badger sett to where it joins the path that is on the map. The track is strewn with hidden stones from ancient boundary lines. I stumble down the slope to the surface of the world.
Autumn, 2018. Sometimes a landscape can be on a small scale.
The resurgence of film photography over the past couple of years is starting to throw up some new and interesting film stocks, after years of decline. Like the best "craft beer," film is emerging as an interesting, quirky product, and some of it is far removed from the cheap film everyone used on holiday twenty years ago. In some cases, such as this Lomography Color Negative 400, "aged" since 2010, the comparison with beer is crazily close.
One of the most interesting to me is Cinestill, which comes in two flavours: 800T, for use under artificial (specifically tungsten) lights, and 50D, for daylight. I have quite shaky hands at times, so finding enough light for me to use a slow film like 50D isn't easy in the UK. Anyway, I took some of this slow, expensive, film to the brightest, sunniest place in Britain: the Lake District.
These images were taken around Loughrigg Fell, and at Coniston, using a 1960 Leica M2, with a 50mm f/2.8 Elmar lens of a similar vintage, and they are scanned straight from the negative, with no adjustments afterwards. Any issues with exposure in these images are entirely down to me, but I've found that this film is quite sensitive to getting the exposure right. Much more so, for example, than a more widely used film like Kodak Portra. Having said that, Cinestill 50D produces very detailed, fine grained images, and the colours are beautiful. The greens in particular are wonderfully vivid, but the overall look is very gentle and nostalgic.
Beyond the laws of physics there are no rules in photography that can't be broken, but even so, the 50mm lens I used for these images is not an obvious choice for landscape photography. Nevertheless, I'm so pleased with the "look" of Cinestill 50D that I'm hopeful it could work in that context, using more appropriate equipment. As you'll see below, the film is especially good for portraits.
It's been a while since I've used any really old cameras, but in the past few months I've put a few rolls of film through my 1920s Contessa-Nettel Cocarette and have been thinking a bit about where this camera fits in. Unlike modern do it all digital cameras, tools like this have a very limited range of applications, and of course, after almost 100 years of usage and neglect, most of them need to be handled with some care; most are less reliable than they might be. In the case of The Contessa, I've learned to be very careful in loading film to make sure it is flat in the transport system, and that the film door is closed precisely, to make sure the film is parallel with the back of the body.
With the practicalities dealt with, I'm also learning about the lens, and what it can and can't do. The negatives from this camera are 6x9cm in size, a format which on the face of it seems ideal for landscape photography. However, the limitations of the lens mean that's not as straightforward as it might be. In particular it tends towards low contrast, especially at long distance, giving images a washed out look. The picture above is a good example of this. Even allowing for the deep shade under the trees, the middle distance is a lot more contrasty than the background. Another factor is the film. This was taken with 400 ASA black and white film, a film speed unheard of in the 1920s, and I find that the camera produces better results with slower film and longer exposures. In any case, I've learned not to attempt landscape images without a foreground feature, or some sort of shade to shelter the lens.
Contessa-Nettel made cameras independently until 1926, when the company merged with Zeiss. A camera like mine--which has the top of the range F/6.3 Anastigmat lens--would have cost £3 17s 6d in 1924. To put that in context, in 1925 a railway engine driver earned around £4 a week. I imagine the Contessa would be in her element taking group portraits in shady gardens, perhaps in the hands of a twenty-something photographer visiting family in the summer vacation. Imagine the moustaches, waistcoats, and the elaborate hats. Even so, she's done alright with Rydal Water I think.