Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 1999/06/25

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Subject: [Leica] HCB
Date: Fri, 25 Jun 1999 22:06:13 EDT

I saw the same exhibit at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark in March. I am 
always impressed at the quality of the prewar material. We should remember 
that films were slow, 40 ASA was a high-speed black/white film. More speed 
could be elicited from these emulsions by having them "fumed" with mercury 
and other hazardous materials. The lenses were a far cry from today's high 
contrast optics. The famous HCB shot of "Man jumping over a puddle" was most 
likely taken with a Leica 1 and the high speed optic of the day, the Elmar 
50/3,5 uncoated or possibly the Hektor 50/2,5 (an optic not renowned for 
sharpness or contrast). HCB's printer George Fevre is one of the masters of 
black and white printing. He probably manages to get as much as possible out 
of these thick, slow films and the difference between the prewar and post-war 
images are very often related to the vast improvements that took place in 
film and emulsion technology. I have never had the opportunity to shoot with 
the prewar emulsions, but I have shot with stuff like Super XX, Ilford's HPS 
and even some of the Ferrania films. Take my word for it, Tri-X was a major 
step forward when it was released in the 50's and today's  Delta 100, Fuji 
Neopan 1600 etc would have been answers to prayers by the likes of HCB, 
Brassai, Kertez and the rest of the pioneers of 35mm shooting.
 If you see the original vintage prints of the 30's you will notice a 
difference though. These papers were very rich in silver, the Varigam, the 
GAF Indiatone etc could hold incredible amounts of information in the shadows 
and still retain good high light values. Today's paper, in most cases, are 
rather starved for silver and you have to manipulate the prints far more to 
get anything like that. 
 Also remember that these photographers and printers mixed their own 
chemicals, they could match a developer to a paper or a film and get far 
better quality than the "store bought" material would give with the same 
material. If you really want to pursue this get Anchell's "Darkroom Cookbook" 
and try out some of these formulas. Maxim Muir's Pyro developer is a stunning 
process for Tri-X, the old Du Pont 54 paper formula will give you blacks that 
are incredible, velvety smooth with multiple tones in the shadows. The 
process of buying premixed chemicals is a fairly recent one - even in the 
60's most commercial shooters mixed their own brew for film and paper. There 
was a lot of "MacBeth witches" in the process, "eye of newt, leg of frog and 
sweat of mare" but after a while you match your developer to your film/paper 
and the result is very satisfying. 
 The missing sprockets on the HCB neg. is probably a result from him having 
trimmed it for storage. According to John Loengard in "Celebrating the 
Negative", Bresson, when asked what happened to the sprockets, exclaimed " I 
ate them!"
 There is a difference in the printing in Europe and USA. Over here we are 
strongly influenced by the darkish prints of Eugene Smith or the Ansel Adams 
school of tonality. In Europe the prints tend to have a bias towards the 
midtones and shadows, rather than black are grey/black. If you have an 
opportunity to see a copy of "The Decisive Moment" you will note this. The 
reproduction is close to the original print tone and it looks flat, but the 
details are there. My library also contains the original "The Europeans" as 
well as the current reprinted book. The new version is darker in tone (as 
well as being much smaller in print size) than the 1955 book. I haven't 
decided yet if I like the new one as well as the original one.
Tom A