Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lumière on the Lake...

     ...from a photographer's notebook

Whether an homage to photography pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, or simply named after the French word for light, I suppose we'll never know, now that Kodak has pulled the plug on all its color slide films, consigning them in their corporate memory to an inglorious dustbin. But, once upon a time (early to mid-'90s to be exact), there was a variety of Ektachrome called "Lumière."

"Lumière" (also called LPP) was a fine grain 100 ISO entry in the Ektachrome line of slide films with an exquisite warm palette.

I've written elsewhere about the "boutique" approach both Kodak and Fuji offered in their lines of slide films. It made buying one's slide film something of a "challenge," but such a delicious one! It was so much more than choosing between manufacturers like Kodak or Fuji or others (anyone remember Agfachrome?). More than selecting between low or high ISO. There were films with a warm bias (often preferable if shooting on cloudy or overcast days)...films touted for their natural skin tones...films with higher saturation (more intense colors)...even films billed as "neutral" (read: accurate) in their palettes.

These days, of course, one cannot help but note the irony of such...choice! At a time when slide films are marching off the shelves, out of remaining inventories, leaving an uncertain future of availability ultimately of any slide films replacing them. Much less, that bazaar of varieties!

The die-hard slide shooters among us will scour ebay for slide films that expired sometime within our generation - hopefully well and truly refrigerated before that happened - in hopes of enjoying some remaining taste of the aforementioned smorgasbord of color palettes.

OK, ye of cynical bent, I hear you muttering "Why bother with film?" I mean, even if you still favor that classic "film look," you can easily find plug-ins for your editing program that allow your digital images to emulate the "look" of specific films - even Kodachrome, the earliest casualty of Kodak's discontinuance of slide films.

Ah, but there is just so much more to creating original images on film, including the attention to technique. Because there's just no viewing screen on the back of a film camera to tell you that you got it right. As Max von Sydow says to Robert Redford in "Three Days of the Condor" - in an entirely different "shooting" context - "It's the belief in your own precision." Dang, I love that line...

Am I saying film photographers have some sort of monopoly on technique?

Of course not!

I think what it really comes down to, for me, is a stubborn resolve not to forget one's "roots." The process of really learning photography, from the basics onward, long before cameras did all the "thinking" for you. And I know this is going to sound "quaint" to those who came to photography in the digital age: There is just something deliciously comfort food-y about taking out that fully manual Nikon FM that still rides along in my pack, removing the power-winder, and then...turning the focusing ring on the lens, setting the shutter speed and f-stop, pressing the shutter release, hearing that classic SLR shutter/mirror movement, and then...actually flipping that manual film winding crank with your right thumb, after taking each of those 36 exposures you did your very best to make count...

It's a sensation - and a state of mind - that I want to hold on to for as long as I can.

Perhaps this will also sound "quaint." In this age of instant messaging and instant gratification, there is also the element of "An-ti-ci-pation" (thank you, Carly Simon!). Let's be clear: When I'm scrambling about in the Alps, and that special motif appears, especially if fleeting, I'll certainly use my digital SLR to ensure a capture with confirmed results. But that will often be followed by a (more deliberate) go at the same motif with slide film. Depending on the subject and the lighting, I might also pull out the camera with the fine-grain black and white film.

But, long before digital was an option, there was that element of anticipation. Film - especially slide film - made you invest real time and attention in the shooting process, as this type of film is far less forgiving of exposure errors than print film. Then, it was the processing lab's turn. I'd even mail my film to the labs as I traveled, just as a hedge against loss, or the possibility of an uncooperative person at the X-ray checkpoint.

And there was this very special kind of "re-living" of those treasured moments as those boxes of slides began to arrive in the mail after I returned from a trip. Why, sometimes, some of the earliest-shot slides would even be waiting for me! I know, "quaint" in today's instant-everything...but is it not still true that - sometimes at least - good things are worth waiting for...if only for the joys of anticipating their arrival?

I came a bit late to digital for "serious" work, at least in terms of buying my first digital SLR. I did so in 2008, just before a winter trip to Europe, and I still love it. Indeed, there are types of shooting for which I no longer even consider using film. But, as long as there is a stash of film (of many varieties!) sharing space in my freezer with the Häagen-Dazs, film will go along with me on every single photo trip. And, yes, I will buy more film, as long as I can, when that current stash is used up.

I do sometimes envy those who casually plop their (digital) camera bags on the conveyor, while I go through the lengthy procedure of hand inspection of my many rolls of precious slide and black and white film, all the while being sure to  thank the security folks for patiently and courteously taking time to examine my dozens of rolls.

Fortunately, I've never had to argue with a security person about that business of X-rays not being harmful to films slower than 1000 ISO. Usually, if the topic does come up, it is sufficient to explain that - largely for the "boutique" reasons described earlier - one is never sure which varieties of film are going to be shot at one's various destinations, along with the fact that cumulative passes through X-ray machines can fog film of any speed.

Indeed, the only "battle" I've ever lost had to do with a few rolls of Kodak HIE infra-red black and white film. That's the finicky stuff that turns leafy trees into ethereal whites, but has to be loaded and unloaded in complete darkness, including taking it out of its little plastic canister. So, the remaining HIE doesn't fly on airplanes anymore, at least not with me...

Oh goodness, what started this ramble?

And what about that photo?

If you're still reading, you recall my mentioning the Kodak Ektachrome film known as "Lumière."

Earlier this week, I had occasion to work with some Italian images I shot along Lake Como several years ago. I've long held fond memories of a very special autumn afternoon visit to Nesso. The late afternoon sunshine could not have been more inviting in terms of capturing the textures and vibrant colors of this old village that rises steeply along its cobblestone ways from the shore of the lake.

There was lots of Ilford black and white beckoning to be shot in that good old Nikon FM. And my two Canons, the EOS-1 and the RT were busy shooting color slide film. Well, of course, they needed me to point them, turn the dials, and press the buttons, but that wasn't difficult, as everywhere there beckoned inviting motifs.

While I did get several images from Nesso printed for exhibit upon my return, somehow, most of the images from those lovely few days on Lake Como had not been "revisited" in years. But the need to turn up a particular image from Nesso sent me on a search through the old image bank this week.

I found the slide - it's the photo up top - and with its "re-discovery" came a flood of memories, including the somewhat bittersweet re-acquaintance with the lovely palette of Ektachrome Lumière. Perhaps it was a casualty of that film smorgasbord described above, but I guess I didn't pay enough attention to Lumière in its day in the sun. If I recall correctly, I was doing much more shooting at the time with Fujichrome films; and perhaps it was just the inviting and evocative name that prompted me to buy some rolls of Lumière to try out on my Europe trip.

But, in revisiting those images from that enchanting afternoon in Nesso, I kinda wish I had stockpiled a few bricks of Lumière - or, at least more recently, scrounged up a bunch of it on ebay. Still lots of room in the freezer...even without displacing the Häagen-Dazs.

Meantime, I hope the photo allows you to imagine the intoxicating warm Italian sunshine -  and low humidity! - of that autumn afternoon on the lake. Imagine up a nice lemon-y gelato while you're at it...and let your gustatory "An-ti-ci-pation" stray to which piatti we shall enjoy at the end of the day, looking out over Lago di Como at twilight, as the lights of the neighboring villages twinkle below along the shoreline.

If you'd like to take a higher definition look at "Nesso, Lago di Como," please follow this link

The image is available in gallery prints, and as a custom printed Photo Note Card. If interested, please contact me at emberphoto(at)


et bon soir, Lumière. I shall miss you.

Photo and text ©2012 Steve Ember

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