Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Mississippi Delta 12b: Return to Clarksdale

During an Easter weekend road trip through north Mississippi, my wife and I stopped in Clarksdale.
We stayed at the Shack Up Inn, a blues-oriented inn/motel that houses its guests in cabins, silos, and shotgun shacks. It is quite comfortable, and the shacks have been rebuilt and are well-insulated (which was welcome during the night as a cold front passed).
Shack Up has accumulated a large collection of vintage memorabilia - perfect for the photographer with a Rolleiflex.
An unused warehouse was just north of the property. I looked for barn owls but did not find any.
Jade building on Delta Ave., Clarksdale
Deak's Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, 3rd St., Clarksdale
Art Deco Greyhound Bus terminal, now visitor's center.
I need to return to Clarksdale again and spend more time looking around. There is a wealth of cultural material to record. On my previous visit, wisps of snow and bits of sleet were falling through the gloomy winter sky. Maybe next winter....

The square photographs with brilliant color are from Kodak Ektar 25 film, exposed in a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin lens camera with a Schneider 75mm f/3.5 Xenotar lens.  Click any one of those frames to see the amazing detail. All of the Rolleiflex exposures were tripod-mounted. The duller and more "accurate" photos are from a Moto G5 phone.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

1950s excellence: the Leica 50mm f/2.0 Type 2 Summicron-DR lens

Leitz 50mm f/2.0 dual range Summicron lens in original box. 
Introduction. Leica's 50mm Summicron lenses have been famous for optical and mechanical excellence for over 60 years. Leica's term Summicron means a lens with maximum aperture of f/2.0. They have been improved over the decades and are still in production - how many other consumer products have lasted over a half century? Even more amazing, a new lens will fit on a 50-year-old Leica M body, or a 60-year-old lens will work on a brand new film or digital body. When you consider the longevity, Leica lenses are reasonable price, despite the hatred (or envy) from many modern digital photographers.

A convenient summary with photographs of the different Summicron versions is on Ken Rockwell's site.
5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens in extended (ready to photograph) position
Summitar. The predecessor lens, the 5cm Summitar, was in production from 1939 to 1953, with 170,761 units total. War-time lenses were uncoated, but from 1946 on, they were anti-reflection coated. Eastman Kodak and Zeiss had coated optics for military use during the war, but coating all air-glass surfaces on general civilian optics became widespread only after World War II. The Summitar had a complicated design of 7 elements in 4 groups. Human computers using mechanical calculators and trigonometry tables must have made a heroic effort to compute the ray paths. The Summitar's central sharpness is superb, but the edges fall off, and there is some field curvature. This can be used creatively, and regardless, "sharpness" is not normally the factor that makes a photograph successful. For examples, please look at some of my 2017 Nepal articles. In 1953, the Summitar lens cost $158 in USA.

Summicron Type 1. The first Summicron, the Type 1, was introduced in 1952. It was an update of the Summitar, also mounted in a collapsible barrel. I do not know if the formulation of this new lens benefitted from early-vintage electronic computers. For a German consumer product, I suspect no. The first electronic computers after World War II were used for ballistics analysis, atomic weapons research, rocket trajectories, and military optics. The 1953 USA cost for the Summicron was $183.

A note on collapsible lenses: When E. Leitz company introduced its first camera in 1923, it used perforated cine film but doubled the frame size to 24×36 mm. All other cameras then used much larger roll film or individual sheet film. So the new small image surface became known as miniature format. The cameras were intended for travel or adventures like mountain climbing. Therefore, the manufacturers wanted to make the cameras compact and portable. One way to do that was to build a lens in a barrel that could be collapsed into the body. As the years went by, cameras grew larger and heavier (like automobiles or, most grotesquely, American SUVs). The Zeiss Contarex of 1960 had grown to 910 grams for just the body. The Nikon F with its metering head was a big package, as well. And today, the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) in "full frame" size is an enormous bulbous thing graced with a protruding penile lens that points at its subject like a cannon. Just tell the DSLR fanbois that they really have the miniature format.
Type 2 Summicron lens with single focus range.
Summicron Type 2. E. Leitz introduced their Type 2 Summicron in 1956. It was in production until 1968. To improve the precision of the glass alignment, Leitz mounted Type 2 optics in a rigid barrel. It was a masterpiece of mechanical precision and elegance, but the construction of brushed chrome over brass made it heavy. This lens was also most likely hand designed.

Leitz began computer-aided lens computations after about 1960 at their factory in Midland, Ontario, Canada, under the guidance of Dr. Walter Mandler (from Erwin Puts). It is an interesting history of international competition that about this time, Japanese optical companies such as Canon, Nikon, and Topcon were also exploring new lens designs with the aide of early computers. They were able to market lenses with almost as refined optical characteristics as Leica but at lower price. The brilliance of the Japanese companies was to bring superb optics to a wide audience at reasonable price.

Leitz made two version of the Type 2 lens. One had a single focus range covering 1m to infinity. The photograph above shows a 1963 lens that I bought from a friend in town. It was available in M-mount  (63,055 units) as well as the 39mm thread mount (1160 units; now a rare collector item).
Dual range Summicron without goggles.
Dual range Summicron with goggles attached on the flat plate. The lens has been extended to its closest focus distance.
The second version had a dual focus range and is known as the DR. The normal range was 1m to infinity. But if you wanted to focus on a closer object, you slid a spectacle viewfinder attachment onto a flat plate on the top of the lens. The goggles depressed a button, which let the lens focus from 0.48 to 0.88 m. The goggles correct the parallax of the rangefinder view. It was a clever way to let a rangefinder camera focus more closely than the normal 0.8 or 1.0 meter. A reflex camera does not have these limitations, but in the 1950s, most miniature camera photographers were still using rangefinders. Total production was 55,145 units.

My stepdad bought the DR in the pictures above in 1962. This lens and M2 camera took family pictures in Greece and traveled to Asia, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and North America. Now it photographs urban decay in Mississippi. This one has pristine coating.

I could not find a complete Leica price booklet from the 1960s, but I found a few prices in US $ for M2 and lenses:
  • M2 w/50mm f/2 rigid Summicron 423.00
  • M2 w/50mm f/2 DR Summicron 465.00
Optical unit and focus mount of Summicon-DR lens. Serial numbers must match.
Special note: the optical unit can be unscrewed from the focus unit. If you buy a used DR lens, the serial numbers must match. Do not accept an unmatched lens.

I also have a Type 4 50mm Summicron from 1984 or 1985 production. I will write about it in a future article. It is mounted in a lighter weight alloy barrel as opposed to the gorgeous brushed chrome of my DR unit.

Test with Kodak BW400CN film. On a recent day trip through rural Mississippi south of I-20, I grabbed a roll of Kodak BW400CN. I have had mixed results in the past. Sometimes it looks muddy, but sometimes I like the tonality. Could there be differences in the C-41 chemistry? Regardless, here are a few samples exposed through my Leica M2 and the 50mm Summicron-DR. I was surprised how the film renders green as quite light, but only for long exposures in settings such as dense underbrush. I do not recall seeing this before. The BW is pretty grainy, but I like the effect.
Abandoned farm house, Rte 18 in Brandon, MS.
Remains of a gasoline station, Raleigh. Taken with polarizer filter.
Big Smittys, Hwy 149, Mendenhall, MS. This is a former Pan-Am filling station. 
Main Street, Mendenhall, MS. Polarizer used to darken sky.
Shop on MS 28 east of Georgetown.
Historic Crossroads Store on Old Port Gibson Road, Reganton, MS.

Laney, D. 1994. Leica Camera and Lens Pocket Book, 6th Edition revised and updated, Hove Collectors' Books, East Sussux, UK, 142 p.


An interesting 2007 article about Leica cameras is in The New Yorker, September 24, 2007 Issue, Candid Camera, The cult of Leica.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Small Towns in Mississippi: Bolton

Old US 80, Bolton, Mississippi
Bolton is an old agricultural town in Hinds County on the east-west Kansas City Southern railroad line between Jackson and Vicksburg. Many Vicksburgers who go to school in Raymond take the exit from I-20 and pass through Bolton in a hurry, likely not paying much attention. Like many other small towns, Bolton has faded. The small commercial strip is mostly empty, the shops and nearby houses rather run-down. It is sad.
The gas station at the corner of Old US 80 and Bolton-Raymond Road is now a fast food joint.
I do not know if Bolton had a passenger Depot. This old railroad warehouse or shed is at the crossing of the Bolton-Raymond Road. I have photographed it several times over the years. The tracks and bedding are in good maintenance because this is the main Kansas City Southern east-west line.
Jackie's Beauty Boutique is just a few steps from the railroad warehouse.
East of Bolton, Old US 80 runs through woods interspersed with farm fields. I am not sure how much of the route is the real 80, the old Dixie Overland Highway, and how much is 1970s-vintage frontage road.
Proceed west on Madison Street, which is also Old US 80, and you reach the police station in a tiny modern office. Across the street is a closed gas station.
Continue west, and we have cottages and shotgun houses in various states of habitation and maintenance. I like the symmetry of these older cottages. Unfortunately, there is not much more to see in Bolton.

Most of the black and white photographs were taken with an Olympus Trip 35 compact 35mm camera.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Country Fair - gambling, food, drinking, and fun (Nepal 2017-16)

During the first couple of days in Bhachchek, we kept hearing that schools would be closed on Wednesday. It was not a national holiday, so what was going on? Well, a country fair would be held at a bridge crossing over the Chepe Khola (river) at an elevation of about 900m. From Bhachchek, we had to descend about 900m to reach the crossing. (Note, click any picture to enlarge it.)
Rice fields below Bhachchek, approx. 1500m elevation. Exposed with a med. yellow filter to enhance contrast.
Vertical change in Nepal is especially interesting because you pass through different botanical zones. Near Bhachchek, the forest was thick with hardwoods and Rhododendron. Then about half way down into the valley, terraces with rice fields appeared. The villagers labor heroically on these terraced platforms carved out of the hillsides by generations of farmers.
Finally, we reached the Chepe Khola and crossed the suspension bridge. Nepal has many bridges like this. They are not suited for vehicles, but local folks often push motor scooters over them, along with the occasional goat and donkey. This bridge was packed with people from the surrounding towns coming to enjoy the fair.
The tents were set up on the right bank of the river below some rice fields. The boulders show that occasionally, an immense flood roars down this valley, carrying along bus-sized boulders. The river runs clear here, showing that it has descended from a rocky mountainous area.
The gents love to gamble at these gatherings. In the upper photograph, they throw rings and win prizes. In the lower picture, the fellow rolls cubes with the same symbols as are on the mat. I gave him a few rupees and lost (surprise!).
The food vendors do a roaring business. They use portable propane stoves. I am not sure how they get all the supplies to the site.
The young ladies show up in their city clothes, checking out the scene.
Finally, for our return to Bhachchek, we took a jeep uphill, loaded with not only with our group but also some village ladies. In rural Nepal, jeep rented by foreigners = free transportation. We lurched, banged, and sloshed our way uphill, getting out at the worst mud pits while the driver negotiated his way through the muck. These Mahindra Bolero jeeps are rugged. One of our soft, sissified, leather-seated play-SUVs would not last more than a couple of kilometers on a Nepali mountain road. Mahindra almost totally dominates the market for pickups and jeeps, along with an occasional Suzuki and Toyota.
On Friday, we loaded into the Boleros and ground downhill on the spine-jarring track. Oops, a siren. Some Nepali soldiers were heading downhill in a hurry in a rather nice pickup. In a couple of minutes, there they were, axle deep in mud, rear wheels spinning vigorously. The soldiers got out with their guns, looking on as the driver continued to spin rear wheels. We suggested he engage 4WD. He said it was. No, the front wheels were not pulling at all. Perhaps he didn't turn the locking hubs? While the soldiers watched, the American tourists carried gravel and rocks to the puddle. There was no effort among the seven idle soldiers to push in a coordinated manner, as a US team would. We asked our Nepali school construction coordinator what they would do if they had to go to war? "They don't have the capacity."

Eight hours later, we beat our way into Kathmandu through the dense traffic. The mud was easier.

I took the black and white photographs with Ilford Delta 100 film using a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera and a 5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens (in the family since 1949). This little Leica is a handy and reliable travel camera, and is inconspicuous and un-intimidating compared to a monstrous contemporary DSLR cameras.

Dear Readers, this  is the last of my 2017 Nepal entries. I hope they were of interest. On to other topics, other places, other adventures....

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Schools in rural Gorkha (Nepal 2017-15)

The Gorkha District of Nepal was the epicenter of the 2015 earthquake. Thousands of homes, shops, schools, and other structures were knocked down. They were especially vulnerable because many were built of un-mortared brick or stone with no reinforcing. The walls simply crumbled in he shaking.

One of our projects in the area around the town of Bhachchek was to visit schools that had been rebuilt after the earthquake. Some of the reconstruction was funded by the Gorkha Foundation, which developed innovative school buildings with translucent fiberglass walls. We also visited some schools to donate dental supplies to the children and teachers.
At the elementary school in Bhachchek, the children line up and do some exercises before class starts. The children we saw were well-behaved and cheerful.
We tried to instruct the children about dental hygiene. They were familiar with the concept of tooth brushing, but flossing was a bit too complicated for the little kids. But they were thrilled with their packets of tooth supplies.
While hiking uphill to the village of Siran Danda, we saw children in gray uniforms and neckties. These children go to a private school, not the elementary school in the previous pictures. These students were also fascinated by the odd lumpy Westerners.
The second day, we walked to a construction site in the town of Birauta, where the Gorkha Foundation had built one of their buildings. The village elders fed us a hearty mid-morning snack. Our host was a former UK army officer, Sub. Gobinda Gurung. He had been very organized and effective in 2015 when the earthquake struck, and lobbied the government effectively for relief supplies and other assistance for his townspeople. The children thought we were very odd (well, we are).
Courtesy of the Gorkha Foundation, April 2018
This is a construction photograph from Birauta. The bottom part of each wall is made of stone held together with concrete. A steel framework supports the fiberglas roof panels and translucent walls. In an earthquake, the upper portion of the building has some flex. One problem: we were told that at lower altitude, the buildings are hot in the midday sun.
Telling the students in Nepani about tooth hygiene. The guys responded to a hint that girls like fellows with good clean teeth. 
Talking to the teachers about kits that let young ladies continue to attend school when they have their periods. This is a Gorkha Foundation building with translucent sides.
From Birauta,we descended steeply through the forest/jungle to the Shree Nepane Secondary School in Siranchok.
I was impressed by the range of ages. It is a secondary school, but the teachers bring their little ones to work with them. The older students learn English and high school-level material. Mixing all ages reminds me of some Montessori schools, where older students help instruct the younger ones.

The last photograph, of the young laughing ladies, is my favorite frame from the 2017 Nepal trip. I took it with a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera and 5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens on Ilford Delta 100 film, exposed at E.I of 80. The Leica is small and unobtrusive, and the shutter release makes a subtle "click." I think it is much less intimidating than a modern DSLR, which looks like the photographer is pointing a cannon at its victims.