Sunday, September 11, 2022

Looking Back - The Land of Enchantment - 2003

Abiqui near Ghost Ranch, Argus C3, Ilford Pan-F film

Same scene, Nikon FA, 28mm, Fuji Astia

A few weeks ago, I contracted COVID from a visiting friend. It's as if a couple of weeks went missing, in terms of doing anything.  I was really miserable for several days, and even though I was testing negative after a little over a week, my body was still recovering.  It was during that time that I decided that I needed to do something productive, even if I wasn't up to going out and about.  I'd been going through some of my file boxes of older prints and negatives from 2000-2002, winnowing out the crappy stuff and just keeping what I felt was worthwhile. During that process, I realized that hardly anything from my 2003 trip to New Mexico had ever been printed, and none it had been scanned - other than a random photo or two.  I have three 3-ring binders of images from that trip - two are just 35mm slides, and one was only negatives, mostly black and white.  Nineteen years is quite a long stretch of time, and I figured it was a good time to scan in those long-neglected images and re-discover what I photographed on that trip. The other aspect worth mentioning is that as I have presented before - viewing images far removed from the immediacy of an event means that there is less emotional attachment to them, and one can view more objectively as to their merit.  In other words, the images stand on their own if they are good.  

White Sands National Monument. Nikon FM2N, Aga APX 25, red filter

The trip was a family vacation with my wife Adrienne, and our daughter Marjorie, who had also gotten the photography bug from me, and between the two of us, there were perhaps over a dozen cameras.  Somewhere, I have a photo of a table with all the Nikon gear that I had planned to bring, but without seeing it I know that I packed: Nikon FA (used mostly for E-6), Nikon FM2N (black and white), Nikon N60 (C-41), Rollei 35TE, Contax G1, Holga, Kiev 60, Pentax 6x7, Argus C-3, Argus C-4, and a single-use camera.  Of course, there were lenses, filters, tripod, etc.  I know that Marjorie brought her Kiev 80 (Hasselblad 1000 clone), and at least one Nikon SLR and an Argus or two. In hindsight, I should have only brought one medium format camera - and it appears that I used the Kiev 60 quite a bit. We left Michigan on July 9 and returned around July 19.  For some stupid reason, I stopped entering anything into a daily journal of the trip on July 12. So, anything that happened after that-- exact locations, etc., are now just extrapolations from the photographs. Lesson learned - always keep a journal when traveling!  I am very good about that now, but obviously, wasn't then.   Just as a way to try and piece things together, I typed up the notes that I made in 2003, and realized how much is lost when things are not written down.  Nearly 20 years later, there are things that I remember from that trip - all of which are triggered by seeing the images.  Memories are faulty, which is why journals are important.

near Carlsbad, New Mexico, Kiev 60, Ilford SFX 200

Kiev 60, Ilford Delta 100

As I started scanning in the black and white negatives on my Epson V700, I started to appreciate that I actually did do some pretty good photography on that trip. I'd always considered the two binders of slides to be representative of what I saw, and where we visited, but after seeing the monochrome images, I find that those images are far more impactful in terms of mood, landscape complexity, and more meaningful. I'll post some examples here, of course, to illustrate some points.  One of the reasons that I may not have printed many of these images - other than proof sheets of the negatives - was possibly because of the frame spacing issues with the Kiev 60, and also because at that time, my darkroom skills were still fairly limited.  After all, I had only acquired the darkroom in Dec. 2002, as it was included in the house that we purchased.  So, as time went on, the 2003 negatives were hidden away as I did new work. Anyhow, one of the great things about scanning in those negatives is that post-scan editing allowed me to fix problematic frames that I never would have been happy with in the darkroom.  The Kiev 60 frame-spacing issues were never the same from roll to roll. Some rolls were just fine, others had frames nearly overlapping, or at best with about 1 mm of space between them.  I eventually sold the Kiev 60 - and while the exposures I made with it were very good, I didn't like the unpredictability of the frame spacing.  As 6x6 SLRs go, the Praktisix, Pentacon Six, and the Kiev 60 are all quite similar with the same problems. That's really too bad, because the images from them are quite good.

Bisti Badlands, Kiev 60, Kodak Tri-X

Bisti Badlands, Kiev 60, Kodak Tri-X

We put a lot of miles on our 1999 Plymouth Voyager van on that trip, and we traveled quite a bit each day - made possible by the fact that we mostly took interstates and major highways to reach our destinations.  However, when we took secondary roads, that's where the fun was. Some of my favorite photos are of lesser-known sights.  New Mexico is a fascinating state to explore - the people, the places, and the history, as well as the varied topography and geology present innumerable photographic opportunities, and on that trip, we barely scratched the surface. We entered New Mexico at Clovis, and stayed the first night at the Frontier Motel near Roswell.  After that, the only motel I know that we stayed at was the Travel Lodge motel in Santa Fe.  Not keeping a journal was an error I hope never to repeat.

The Frontier Motel in 2003. Nikon N60, 
Kodak Gold 200.

Our visit to Carlsbad Caverns was made even more dramatic by the temperature differential - it was 105°F outside, but mid-50s and high humidity inside the caverns. I actually shot one roll of film inside the caverns - in well-lit examples of the formations. For that I used the Nikon N60 and Agfa Vista 800 color film. I am amazed at how well they came out.  We stayed late to watch the free-tail bats emerge from the mouth of the cavern, and it was quite the experience - thousands and thousands of bats -looking somewhat like a cloud of butterflies.

Inside Carlsbad Caverns - Nikon N60, Agfa Vista 800 film.

We visited Sitting Bull Falls in the Guadeloupe Mountains, and were not disappointed.  The falls was an oasis amidst the Chihuahuan Desert landscape.  While not a roaring waterfall like one might see in the East, the falls cool spray of water created a microclimate of lush vegetation and I'm sure a lot of local wildlife was attracted to the oasis.  At the time, I was really entranced by the Libellula saturata dragonflies that were abundant there. 

Sitting Bull Falls, Nikon FA, Fuji Sensia

Libellula saturata, Nikon FA, Fuji Sensia 

We stopped in the town of Artesia - an area defined by its heavy agricultural use, as well as oil and gas wells. Downtown Artesia features a beautiful city park with fountains, all with historical scenes in ceramics and murals that depict Artesia's history.  

Part of the Heritage Walkway, Artesia. Nikon FA, Fuji Sensia

We drove westward on US 82, went through the amazing mountain village of Cloudcroft, and then after leaving the tunnel through the mountain - came into a completely different desert basin with Alamogordo in the distance. From Alamogordo, we drove N on US-54, and spent some time at Three Rivers Petroglyphs BLM site - incredibly fascinating with its many ancient petroglyphs on the basalt rocks.  The age of these glyphs are thought to be at least 1,000 years old.  

Beetle Yard, Alamogordo, Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64

Bighorn sheep with 3 arrows, Petroglyph. Nikon FM2N,
Ilford Delta 100 film.

From there, we briefly explored the Valley of Fire near Carrizozo - called the Valley of Fire due to the lava flows that were deposited there at a time when indigenous people would have probably seen it happen - about 7000-10000 years ago.  The black flows look quite similar to what one would find on Hawaii. Of course, beyond the black rocks of the Valley of Fire is the Tularosa Valley with the White Sands Missile Range, and White Sands National Monument - which we spent a morning exploring.  I shot a lot of images there with the Kiev 60, and came away with a few really good shots.   It's definitely a place where one should get there either early in the morning or late in the day to take advantage of the lower sun angle over the gypsum dunes.

White Sands NM, Nikon FA, Chromex film

Petroglyphs, Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64

Valley of Fire, Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64

Valley of Fire, Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64

We spent several nights in Santa Fe, making day trips around the area.  Santa Fe remains one of my favorite places due to the adobe architecture, the arts, and the general laid-back atmosphere there.  One of the reasons for going to Santa Fe was a photography-themed month that featured work by many notable photographers.  The Stieglitz exhibit at the Georgia O'keeffe Museum was wonderful, and while I know we visited other galleries there, I don't recall a single one now - and of course, I didn't write it down!  During our stay, we visited Bandelier National Monument, Taos, Ranchos De Taos, Rio Grande Gorge, Abiquiu, and the Ghost Ranch perimeter.  

Santa Fe, Contax G1, Fuji Sensia

San Miguel Mission, Contax G1, Fuji Sensia

Santa Fe, Contax G1, Fuji Sensia

Santa Fe, Contax G1, Fuji Sensia

Santa Fe, Contax G1, Fuji Sensia

A harmonious McD's in Taos, NM. Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64.

the Rio Grande Gorge, Nikon FA, Kodachrome 64.

After we left the Santa Fe area, we traveled NW to the Bisti Wilderness Area.  I'd seen some photos of the Bisti Badlands in an issue of Outdoor Photography, and they were as intriguing and and wonderful as I had hoped. They really looked other-worldly, and would make a great spot for a science-fiction setting.  We didn't see another soul while walking/driving around there, which gave it an even more desolate feeling.  We then drove to the Four Corners monument - which is where CO, UT, AZ and NM meet.  I had been there once before in 1980, and in the 20+ years since, the visitor center and other amenities had sprung up.  The area is within the Navajo Reservation and I think the tribe runs the visitor center.  Since Marjorie had her Kiev 80 with her, people asked her to take their photographs with their cameras - this is well before the iPhone changed how many people took photographs. I, on the other hand, just had a Nikon around my neck, so I guess I didn't look professional enough!   

Bisti Badlands, Nikon FA, Fuji Sensia

Bisti Badlands, Nikon FA, Fuji Sensia

From the four corners, I think we went past Shiprock, to Farmington, and then into Colorado, where we drove on the "Million Dollar" highway from Durango to Silverton.  We eventually went through Monarch Pass, where we took the cable car to the top.  From there, it was a quick trip through Rocky Mountain National Park.  What impressed me most was the afternoon thunder storms - and I did get some good lightning shots with my Rollei 35, until I could hear the car antenna buzzing, at which point I quickly loaded my gear into the van and hoped that we wouldn't get a strike.  

Rollei 35 TE, Kodachrome 64.

We made our way up to Nebraska, to visit Carhenge in Alliance, and drove through the Sand Hills region and after that, it was a dash home on interstate 80.  People talk about "flyover country" and we certainly drove through it.  All the places we went had their own kind of beauty, and whether it was the rolling sand hills of Nebraska, the prairies, the Rockies, the Chihuahuan Desert, or the gypsum flats of New Mexico, there is something to be seen and appreciated. Simply flying in to a city and making day trips to the highlight places does not give you a sense of scale or the same sense of place.  To drive there is to have a much richer experience.  The journey is the reward, said Steve Jobs. He was right.

Carhenge, Alliance, NE. Kiev 60, Ilford HP-5

Carhenge, Nikon FA, Fuji Astia

Carhenge, Nikon FA, Fuji Astia

I just finished digitizing the slides that I shot on that trip, and used my Nikon Df with a Nikon PB-4 bellows and slide copying adapter. The lens, the old 45mm GN F-mount did a great job with the slides.  I'd say that for every sheet of 20 slides, the average number selected to be scanned was 4 per page. Of the slide films used, Kodachome 64, Fujifilm Astia 100 and Sensia 100 were well-represented. 

Somewhere near Carlsbad, NM. Argus C-4, Kodachrome 64.

We have since been through NM several times, and I'd like to go again next year and spend a week on the east side of the state, starting with Las Cruces and working my way north until the Gallup area.  New Mexico is an enchanting place, and to go with my Fujica GL690 and my Horizon 202 would be a lot of fun.  Secondary roads all the way!

Rollei 35TE, Ilford HP-5

Rockies, Nikon FM2N, Ilford Delta 100

 Looking back through the photographs - of which there are hundreds, I have to say that the little Rollei 35TE performed very well.  Of all of the cameras that I used on that trip, the only ones that I still have are the Rolle 35TE, Nikon FM2N, and Pentax 6x7 (though a different body since then), and of course, the Holga,  Argus C4, and C-3.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Contax IIa - a gem from Zeiss Ikon

Contax IIa (1950-1961)

At one time, if you wanted to shoot with the best 35mm rangefinder cameras, there were two choices - the Barnack Leicas from Leitz, or the Contax cameras from Zeiss Ikon. (A third choice would be a Kodak Retina, which I have already discussed here on RCB.)  While both choices were the top of the line, each manufacturer approached the design for a 35mm rangefinder quite differently.  I have shot with several different Leica models, and found that the eyepiece for a Leica IIIc is barely more usable to a glasses-wearer than an Argus C3 viewfinder. The Contax, however, has a larger viewfinder with a wider baseline for the rangefinder, making rangefinder focus more accurate, and without having to look through a separate window.  The design for the Contax II was so good, that it was essentially copied by Nippon Kokagu as the basis for the Nikon S series rangefinder cameras. 

The Contax has a unique shutter design - and the Kiev copies made in Ukraine from 1947-87 share the same type of shutter, which is vertically traveling.  Comprised of thin aluminum slats bound with nylon ribbon, the shutter looks like a set of closed venetian blinds. The Nikon S series use a horizontal-traveling rubberized silk shutter, with the later SP using a Titanium foil horizontal shutter, just like the Nikon F.  So, while a Nikon S series may have a similar appearance to the Contax IIa, only the rangefinder, removable back, and lens mount are really the same.  The Kiev copies of the Contax are remarkably similar, but not manufactured with the same quality as the Contax models.  The best writeup on the Contax IIa is on the Casual Photophile site, and I concur with that author on the quality of the IIa and how it's really one of the best classic 35mm rangefinder cameras ever made.  

Kiev 4a - a copy of Contax IIa

Nikon S front

Nikon S top deck

These cameras are getting on in years, and if you acquire a real Contax model, it may be worth getting it serviced to make sure you get the best from these cameras. While a Contax IIa certainly is a great camera to use, the prices tend to be much lower than a Leica from the same time period.  Nikon S series rangefinder cameras improved on the Zeiss Ikon design, and give the same experience as the Contax IIa. However, prices for a Nikon S, S2, SP, and S3 are really high these days, but certainly worth looking into.  That leaves the Kiev copies in the very affordable range, and the only Kiev Contax copy I ever owned was a Kiev 4a, and the brass used for the film advance spindle broke shortly after I acquired it.  I decided that was enough of an experience with the Soviet copies.

I once tried out a Nikon S that I was selling for an estate, and the user experience was even better than the Contax IIa.  Zeiss Ikon made the decision to drop their Contax rangefinder line and instead concentrate on making SLRs, and I have to say that was a big mistake. Nippon Kokagu improved their versions of the Nikon S series, and the Nikon SP became a professional's choice.  Those cameras paved the way for the Nikon F SLR, which is based on a Nikon SP with a prism and mirror box, all other characteristics being the same.  Meanwhile, the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex, a lens-shutter SLR, was no match for the better engineered Nikon F with a proven focal-plane shutter and excellent array of lenses.  In a nutshell, one could argue that the Contax IIa was the zenith of Zeiss Ikon. Used by photo-journalists, the Contax gave up ground to its successor, the Nikon SP, and once they had those in their hands, it was an easy transition to the Nikon F, sealing the fate of Zeiss Ikon as a lumbering producer of cameras that while broad, was very shallow, with only a few really successful models.  The nimble and innovative camera industry of Japan gave us the Spotmatics, Nikon Fs, Topcons, Minolta SRs, Canon Ps, and others, which pretty much buried most of the European and American competitors in the consumer marketplace.  Leica, Hasselblad and Rollei stand out because they catered to professionals and are quality tools.  However, the various German companies that were NOT Leitz, or Rollei eventually succumbed to market forces, and by the 1970s, had largely died out. The Contax name was purchased by Yashica (and eventually Kyocera), and while the name went on, Zeiss Ikon was no longer a camera manufacturer.  

The Argus C-3 is the poor man's Contax 1.  There are many superficial 
similarities, no doubt because Vershoor saw the Contax 1 at a
camera show in the early 1930s. However, it's a blunt instrument compared
to the Contax I. The Argus C3 sold well in the USA, at a price the
average American could afford. 

Today, you can buy a Contax IIa or IIIa for a modest price, and certainly pay far less than one might purchase a Leica M2, which I would consider to be the approximate equal to a Contax IIa.  Neither camera has a meter, and both are fully mechanical. While the Contax has a better film-loading system, the Leica M2 has different frame lines for 35, 50, and 90mm lenses.  I would recommend that if you are in the market for a classic Contax, purchase a post-WWII Contax IIa with the 50mm f/2 Zeiss-Opton Sonnar lens. With one of the new external light meters in the accessory shoe, you'll have a camera that is a pleasure to use with extremely good optics.

In using a Contax IIa, you'll note that there is no advance lever, but a knob wind.  Film speeds are all adjusted beneath the film wind knob, and they range from T & B to 1-1/1250 sec. That was the fastest shutter speed for any 35mm camera for quite some time. Adjusting the focus with the front focus wheel via your index finger makes it quite easy to focus and make an exposure with the shutter release in the center of the film advance knob.  It's obvious that Charles Vershoor of the International Research Corp. saw the Contax I in the early 1930s, and the resulting Argus C3 has a similar control, it's nowhere as refined or smooth as the Contax! In fact the squared-off appearance of the Contax I must have inspired the brick-like Argus C.

There is a lot of information about the Contax rangefinder cameras available online, but the best overview of these cameras is found in the book "Collecting and Using Classic Cameras" by Ivor Matanle.(1986, Thames & Hudson, 224 pp., ISBN #0-500-27656-0).  Matanle's book is profusely illustrated with more than 300 photos, and his insights on the various cameras are really helpful.  It's certainly a book that anyone collecting/using classic cameras should own.  While there are many versions of the pre-war Contax rangefinders, starting with the Contax I, The post-war Contax IIa is going to be the one that is likely to work as it should.  The Contax IIIa differs in having an uncoupled Selenium light meter, which is most likely not going to work, and modern light meters are so much better.

It's one thing to own a Contax rangefinder, and acquiring accessories for it is another exercise and rabbit hole.  The filter thread diameter of the 50mm f/2 Sonnar is 40.5mm, and I have a Zeiss red filter that was made for my camera.  If you decide that you would like to use other focal lengths, you would also need to find the viewfinders that match the focal lengths. However, sometimes the fun is in the hunt! Of course, of you wanted to use other filters, you could look for a 40.5mm to 46mm thread adapter.

Contax IIa with red filter. Results below.

I found the Contax IIa a pleasure to use - easy to focus and while a lever film advance would be nice - it's not a big deal.  For that bit of improvement, a Nikon SP is what you would be looking for, at a lot more $$!  

Some images:  All taken with Ultrafine Extreme 400 film, May, 2022.

red filter

red filter

red filter

Right now, I have a roll of Kodak Color Plus 100 in the Contax, and am looking forward to the results.