If ever I had a dream assignment, this has got to have been one of them. (And the job isn’t quite finished yet; there are a few other outstanding items that need to be taken care of.) Imagine being presented with a scene of near-infinite photographic opportunity by a client who says ‘I hired you because I like your work, and I don’t want to restrict your artistic vision – so go ahead and shoot as you see fit.’ Then throw in the ability to shoot with the system(s) of your choice – including film – and a couple of good lunches to boot. And a chauffeured 7-series to and from the location. I swear a) I’m not joking, and b) this doesn’t happen often, but hey: if it did, we certainly wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.
The client is a local heavy-engineering company that supplies heat exchanger assemblies, process vessels and other pressure equipment to power stations, chemical manufacturers and oil and gas concerns; they were in need of a new corporate profile, and images which showed a few things: the intensely manual and specialized (but at the same time, physically immense) nature of the work, the precision of the outcome, and the pride of the team behind it. also being involved in the creation of the final materials meant that I had a lot of creative freedom with the imagery; there’s a mix of clean, cinematic corporate stuff and a more artistic component strongly influenced by Salgado’s Workers. What takes place in the factory is undoubtedly industrial manufacturing, but having spent a good amount of time there, I can say there’s equal components of megineering and art involved. This is very much something I wanted to capture and convey in my images. In the end, I landed up with a mixture of classical documentary images of people, and abstract art in metal. I think it covered both worlds nicely.
Let’s start with the obvious: it’s a very hazardous environment to work in; there are arc welders, sparks, grinders, heavy objects, hot objects, things to get your fingers caught in, cranes moving overhead, sharp bits of metal (a careless step resulted in a cut boot; I’m just glad I was wearing thick leather ones) and various chemical hazards. I had a chaperone at all times for my own safety, and I definitely felt better with than without. You of course have to be careful where you place anything, and not leave any optical elements exposed for longer than necessary – the dust in the air could potentially be very harmful to lenses and sensors, especially if inadvertently polished in while trying to clean something. I even worked out of a top-loading bag (a Billingham 555) to avoid having to open a roller suitcase on the floor where things might fall into it or it might get tripped over. It also has the benefit of being able to be moved quickly if it’s in the way.
Since I typed this at the normal speed, you can probably conclude that I didn’t lose any fingers. The only minor injury I sustained was when carelessly collapsing my tripod, I clipped a finger between two of the leg locks – let me tell you, the leg locks on a Gitzo 5 series are seriously chunky…and painful. That aside, my equipment performed flawlessly. What did I bring? Over the course of several sessions, I was carrying varying combinations of:
- Hasselblad system – 501C, 50/4 CF FLE, 80/2.8 CF, 120/4 CF lenses (this was before my digital back or 150mm arrived; I’d definitely have liked a bit more working room between me and some of the hotter areas than the 120 could give). Also a cable release, my Voigtlander VC-Meter II and three film magazines – one loaded with 100, one loaded with something faster (400 or 800) and a spare.
- Film: started off with Delta 100 and 400, then moved to Acros and pushed Acros
- Nikon system – D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 85/1.8, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon and a couple of SB900s (you never know when you might need them)
- Olympus system – OM-D and either the 60/2.8 Macro or 75/1.8
- The aforementioned Gitzo GT5562 6x carbon systematic tripod and my usual Manfrotto 410 geared head.
Interestingly, this was the first assignment where I seriously shot film – that is to say, with intention for final client delivery and output. The first session was done with me duplicating every single film image with digital ‘insurance’ from the D800E – just in case – but after seeing the results, I was happy to do most of the remaining B&W work on film. I admit that I was very nervous right up to the ‘scanning’ (again with the D800E) step – at that point, you’re very conscious that there’s only one copy of your image anywhere in existence, and all changes are destructive. There are no backups, do-overs or redevelopments. Even if you shoot two on the same roll, if you mess up developing, you’re going to toast both of them. I can’t imagine how pros did it back in the day, but in hindsight, I suppose shooting duplicates on alternate backs could be an option (though a really good way to screw something up when forget the dark slide, or remove it before putting the back on the camera).
There isn’t a lot to say about the digital gear: the D800E is a workhorse with known (and exceedingly high) capabilities; the OM-D and 75/1.8 notably performing beyond expectations. The 75/1.8 was a loan unit from Olympus (along with the final production E-P5 at the time); I landed up purchasing my own after this shoot – and yes, I got the black one. Aside from the combination delivering the goods optically and working intuitively as usual (there’s a reason why the OM-D is still my travel camera of choice) – it allowed me to frame tight without getting too close, which as you can imagine is very important in a hazardous environment.
I think more importantly though, my client was pleased with the outcome from the film cameras; more so than digital, and surprisingly, the visual difference between the two media was instantly visible, too. (Two large prints on baryta probably didn’t do any harm either.) In fact, he landed up buying a vintage Hasselblad of his own shortly afterwards – though more to admire as a piece of art and engineering rather than shoot in anger with. This very much reaffirms my philosophy of using the right tool for the job, and also makes me wonder if there’s a market for B&W work done specifically on film and film only. I suppose weddings would be an obvious application, but then we run into the ‘local mentality bias’: if you shoot weddings, you simply don’t get taken seriously as a commercial photographer. Sad, because doing a wedding well is actually exceedingly challenging, and also immensely rewarding. I have one final session at the factory, and I’m very much looking forward to using the CFV-39…it’s probably about as close to a practical-application A-B comparison as I’m likely to get. MT
To be continued in part two…
One last seat has opened up for the Prague workshop (2-5 Oct) due to a participant’s conflicting work commitments. Now available at the special price of $1,900 instead of $2,150!For full details and to make a booking, click here. Thanks! MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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