Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1978 (Plus-X film)

Kremlin walls from the Moscow River in 1978, Kodak Plus-X film, Leica IIIC, 5cm ƒ/2.0 Summitar lens
Kremlin walls from Bol'shoy Kamennyy Most (bridge)
Vodovzvodnaya Tower, Moscow
A few weeks ago, I had coffee with my karate friend Tatyana. She remembered her childhood in the Soviet Union. When I told her I had visited Moscow and Leningrad in 1978, she immediately asked if she could see my pictures. Well, that led to retrieving my negatives and scanning them. They were on Kodak Plus-X film exposed with the same Leica IIIC that I still presently use. The negatives were scratched and muddy in the low exposure areas. Maybe muddy low tones were a characteristic of Plus-X, but I am not sure. Back then, my technique was haphazard, and I can't recall who developed this roll. The scratches may be my doing. I do not see much grain, and in those days I sometimes used Microdol-X, which was a fine-grain film developer (i.e., it was designed to reduce the visual appearance of grain). But I was staying in Athens in those days, so maybe a Greek lab developed them. Regardless, they required some serious cleaning with the heal tool in Adobe Photoshop CS3 and some adjustment with the curve to improve tonality.
Red Square from the GUM department store
This is the view of Red Square and the Kremlin walls taken from the GUM store. The GUM department store was a giant arcade built during the czarist era. It was reasonably well-stocked when we visited in October of 1978. Tatyana said Moscow and Leningrad were quite cosmopolitan in those days, but small towns in the hinterland had stores with empty shelves. We bought something in the GUM, but I do not remember what. The purchase process was multi-step. First you pointed out what you wanted to a clerk, and she wrote out a ticket for you. Then you took the ticket to the cashier's counter. The cashier took your tickets and added the total amount on an abacus. She accepted your Rubles (definitely no credit cards in the Soviet Union, and regardless, I did not have any cards in those days). Then the lady gave you a receipt in multiple copies, which you took back to the original counter. Upon close examination of the receipt, the lady gave you your merchandise. They were reasonably friendly and did not seem too surprised to see foreigners. That was the era of Perestroika, when the Soviet Union was semi-opening and increasing interaction with the outside world. Tourists were encouraged to come, stay in hotels, and spend foreign currency.

As tourists, we were herded into one of the Beryozka shops. These only accepted foreign currency and catered to tourists, diplomats, government officials, and special people (athletes? ballerinas?). The Beryozka shops sold goods that were hard to get in normal shops, but most local people were forbidden to enter the premises, plus they usually did not have any foreign currency. We saw the normal offerings of liquor, cans of caviar, and some jewelry. I almost bought a Kiev camera but passed.

In the photograph through the arch, the people in the distance are waiting to see Lenin's body. If we tourists wanted to enter the mausoleum, the guards would have put us in front of all those people, but that seemed rude and we did not want to flaunt privilege. So we never did see Lenin's body. Stalin  and other notables are buried at the base of the walls. Notice the gents hanging around in "plain" clothes? We assumed were being tracked, but who knows? Maybe our grumpy Intourist guide was the only official watching our group. In our hotel room, we occasionally said "Hi!" and "How are you today?" to the telephone receiver.
Soviet tourists, bronze Czar Cannon (cast in 1586)
The premier tourist site was the Kremlin, the ancient seat of power of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. We were surprised how open it was. You could not enter the government buildings, but could pretty freely walk around and take pictures. I occasionally looked for First Secretary Brezhnev, but of course, he was nowhere to be seen.
Church of the Nativity, Kremlin 
Several ancient cathedrals and churches are inside the walls of the Kremlin. Although religion was officially discouraged in the communist era, some churches were maintained and, I think, held services. The government preserved others as museums.
St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square
St. Basil's Cathedral, (from Wikipedia: The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Russian: собо́р Васи́лия Блаже́нного, Sobor Vasiliya Blazhennovo)) is an architectural wonder. This, too, was a museum. I recall the inside being rather dark and claustrophobic. The ornate chambers were much more confined than the soaring spaces in Gothic cathedrals in France or Germany.
Smolensk Cathedral
The bell tower of the 1690 Smolensk Cathedral dominates the walls and passages in the ancient Novodevichy Convent. This is now a museum.
Bolchoi, Moscow
We saw the Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione) at the Bolshoi. I recall a superb performance, but cannot remember if it was sung in Italian or Russian. Also, I cannot recall if we went with our tour group or just bought tickets and attended by ourselves.

We stayed in an old hotel called the Berlin. It was on Pushechnaya Street and and within walking distance of Red Square and most tourist sites. It dated back to the Czarist era and looked like it had not received much maintenance or cleaning since the 1917 revolution. Sturdy babushka ladies sat at a desk on each floor and gave you your room key while they glared at you. I am not sure if they worked for the KGB, but they certainly had been instructed to report any suspicious happenings.

This was a quick tourist look at Moscow. I am sorry I did not take more pictures of ordinary life. There are some slides in my boxes, but scanning will wait for "some day" (like so many other mythological projects). These black and white frames were from Kodak Plus-X film, exposed with my dad's Leica IIIC camera and 5cm ƒ/2.0 Summitar lens, which I am still using many decades later.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

1960s Excellence: the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 Leica Thread Mount (ltm) lens

Leica IIIC camera with 1960s-vintage Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm lens


Long-term readers recall that I have used my dad's Leica IIIC rangefinder camera for decades. He bought it at the Post Exchange in Guam in 1949 and used it for family photos in Asia and Europe. It was equipped with a Leitz Summitar 5 cm ƒ/2.0 collapsible-barrel lens. The Summitar was a remarkable 7-element optic of pre-WWII design. My sample has noticeable field curvature and displays a lot of aberrations at ƒ/2.0 and ƒ/2.8. That can be used creatively for certain types of work. By ƒ/4.0 or smaller, the aberrations are barely noticeable.

But I often take pictures of architecture and wanted a lens that was more uniform over the entire field and maybe offered better resolution. But which lens to choose? Tens or hundreds of Leica thread-mount (ltm) lenses were made in the 20th century by German, Russian, and Japanese optical companies.

Alternate lenses

If money were no object (you know that fairy tale), Leica issued a limited production of their superb Type 5 50mm Summicron in 1999 with the 39mm thread mount rather than the bayonet M mount used in their current cameras. I checked eBay and saw copies being sold by Hong Kong companies for over $2000 (Hong Kong is the place to look for unusual collector items like this). The extra-rare Leica 50mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux Type V is $3400. OK, above my budget. (2024 Update: That $2000 now looks pretty reasonable.)

Leica also issued their Type 2 Summicron in thread mount from 1960-1963. But this is another rare collector (= expensive) item. I have a Type 2 Summicron-DR in M mount, but there is no way that an M-mount lens can be fitted to the older thread-mount camera bodies.

I wanted a vintage lens as opposed to one of the modern Voigtlander (= Cosina) or Konica ltm lenses, which meant a 1950s or 1960s optic. It surprised me that the 1950s and 1960s ltm lenses from Minolta (Rokkor), Fujinon, Topcor, Tanaka (Tanar), Yashica, and Konica Hexar sell for hundreds, I suppose because of their rarity.

Soviet ltm lenses physically fit the Leica bodies but often have focusing issues because of a difference in the standard used for the focal length. Many users claim no issues, but I decided to stick with a lens specifically made for the Leica standard. Also, Soviet lenses suffer from highly variable quality control and material selection.

The Canon Camera Company made excellent interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras from the mid-1940s through 1972. The V series were especially innovative, according to Cameraquest. By the late-1960s, the single lens reflex (SLR) camera was dominant in the marketplace and Canon ended production of their innovative Canon 7S rangefinder camera in 1972. Leica and some of the Eastern Block companies continued to make interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras after the late-1960s, but most used bayonet-mount lenses. I remember visiting a camera store in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1976 or 1977, and they still had some new Canon ltm lenses in stock.

Thankfully, Canon's 50mm lenses were designed for the exact same mount and focus design as the Leica thread cameras, so they would work correctly on my IIIC. Canon offered 50mm lenses in ƒ/3.5, 2.8, 2.2, 2.0, 1.9, 1.8, 1.5, 1.4, and 1.2 maximum apertures. A remarkable ƒ/0.95 version only fit on the Canon 7 bodies. The early post-war lenses were very heavy, with chrome-plated brass bodies. I wanted one of the later and lighter-weight versions, so that meant theType 2 ƒ/2.2, ƒ/1.8, or ƒ/1.4 models.

For more information about ltm lenses:
The ƒ/1.8 and ƒ/1.4 models were by far the most common, which directed my search. But I learned that a majority of the Type 2 ƒ/1.8 lenses suffer from haze on the glass element behind the aperture. No one has a solid answer why this develops, but the haze or scum etches the coating and even the glass. That left one choice: the gorgeous and well-regarded ƒ/1.4 lens. Japanese and Hong Kong eBay vendors offer these lenses in varying conditions.

After a bit of searching, I bought this beauty from a Japanese eBay seller. He claimed there were some scratches on the coating, but I cannot see them. The coating is single layer, not multi as in 1970s and newer lenses. Mine is a Type 2, but I do not know the exact date because I have been unable to find a chronology of older Canon lens serial numbers. The lens is a modified Gaussian design with six elements in four groups. The aperture ranges from ƒ/1.4 to f/22 with nice precise clicks. The filter size is 48mm. I ordered a vented hood from one of the Chinese eBay vendors (about $3) as well as some filters, and I was ready to take pictures.

Some other reviews of the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4:
It is difficult to tell what the 1.4 lens cost when it was current. A 1963 Modern Photography showed $210. But a 1968 Modern showed only $126.

Note: As of 2019, Leica is still making their superb M-A film rangefinder camera, and sales have increased with the revival of film. In 2023, Leica reintroduced their Leica M6 camera.  

Initial test film

Wow, new lens, so exciting. I loaded some Kodak BW400CN film in the IIIC and headed to the countryside south of Interstate 20 in central Mississippi.

Front porch, April 14, 2019, Sontag, Mississippi (hand-held, approx. ƒ/8)
Abandoned mid-century cottage, Sontag-Nola Road, Mississippi
Truck and farm yard, Sontag-Nola Road, Mississippi
Former filling station, Beauregard, Mississippi
Closed gasoline station on Hwy 27 near Utica (ƒ/11 or ƒ/16); note detail foreground and back
Apartment complex with unusual architecture between Clay Street and Baldwin Ferry Road, Vicksburg (medium yellow filter)
Detail (original size) of sign on left center of the previous photograph.
Holly Beach, Louisiana. I hope that truck has large enough tires to impress the ladies.
Old Country Store, Lorman, Mississippi (Fuji Acros 100 film, long exposure braced on ledge)
Historic cottage at 706 Harris Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi (with med. yellow filter)
Minister on Washington Street, Vicksburg (Fuji Acros film)


This is a beautiful optic with nice rendering, even on BW400CN film. This was a top-grade lens in the 1960s, an example of Japanese optical and mechanical excellence. I will test it with fine-grain film; if I can find some 135 size Panatomic-X, that would give a genuine old-school appearance to my negatives. This lens is large enough to block some of the viewfinder, and I need to compose carefully. One solution is to use a 50 mm auxiliary finder. I just bought a Canon version.  

Final conclusion: if you want a classic lens for a Leica ltm rangefinder camera, definitely consider the Canon thread-mount lenses.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Quick drive on North Washington Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Washington Street view north. Undated, from Cooper Postcard Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Washington Street: a distinguished name that honors our first president. Almost every city or town in the USA has a Washington Street, and Vicksburg is no exception. North Washington Street extends from approximately Grove Street to the junction with US 61 Bypass, a few miles south of the community of Redwood. At one time, US 61 ran through downtown Vicksburg along Washington Street, but the bypass was built in the 1970s to let heavy truck traffic avoid driving through downtown. We will take a quick look at N. Washington Street starting at Grove Street and move north.
North Washington Street from 61 Coffeehouse, Fuji Acros 100 film, Vito BL camera
Before our short exploration, a stop at the 61 Coffeehouse at 1101 Washington Street yields an excellent espresso and conversation with the barista ladies. The block just north of Grove Street (see the field in the photograph above) has been bare since before 1985. It probably fell prey to the "urban renewal" plague that hit Vicksburg in the 1970s.
Warehouse, corner of 1st East and N. Washington Street, Tri-X film
Some nondescript warehouses are at the corner of N. Washington Street and 1st East. From here north, Washington Street is reasonably flat and easy for bike riding.
Jo-Anna Motel, from the Cooper Postcard Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
The Jo-Anna Motel (click the link to my 2011 article) was near the intersection where Haining Road turns off to the Port of Vicksburg. The Jo-Anna was torn down in the 2000s when the National Park Service bought the land. The land today is untended and a mess of weeds, mud, and scrubby trees.
Vicksburg Forest Products from Haining Road bridge over railroad, Vito BL camera, Acros 100 film, polarizing filter
The first big business that is visible from Washington Street is Vicksburg Forest Products (formerly Anderson-Tully Company). The tracks in the foreground continue as far north as the International Paper mill north of Redwood.
Corner of Hutson and N. Washington Streets, Olympus Trip 35, TMax 100 film, yellow filter
3112 N. Washington Street, Olympus Trip 35, TMax 100 film, yellow filter
3950 N. Washington Street, Olympus Trip 35, TMax 100 film, yellow filter
Heading north from Haining Road (Port of Vicksburg), you pass small cottages, mobile homes, and churches.
Former detail shop at corner of Chicasaw Road (digital file)
Exact location unknown, N. Washington Street, Kodachrome film
This sign describing the Chicasaw Bayou battle has been moved, so I am not sure where I took this photograph. I have looked for the Corvair junk yard, but never found any remnants. The houses near the present sign are different.
Spouts Spring Road, Vicksburg, Hasselblad, 80mm Planar lens, expired Kodak Ektar 25 film
Cottages on Spouts Spring Road, Olympus Trip 35, TMax 100 film, yellow filter
Spouts Spring Road is a U-shaped road that runs east of N. Washington Street. There is a spring that has been channeled into a creek. I wonder if the water is drinkable and could be used rather than wasted? I sometimes ride here to avoid some of the truck traffic on the main road.
Margaret's Gro in 1985, 4535 N. Washington Street, Kodachrome 25 slide, Pentax Spotmatic, 28mm lens
Margaret's Gro & Market was a small market in the early 1980s. Then Reverend Dennis married Margaret and started to convert the grocery into his Temple to the Lord. Through the early 2000s, it was an amazing and unique example of folk art with vibrant paint and hand-made sculpture.
Margaret's Gro, Fuji Reala film, converted to black and white.
Reverend Dennis learned about brick work from German prisoners of war in World War II. His visitor book had signatures from hundreds of German tourists. The photographer, Suzi Altman, has many pictures of Margaret's Gro on her site. I have also written about it before (type Margaret's Gro in the search box).
Road from sand quarry, Rolleiflex 3.5E camera, Kodak Panatomic-X film
A sand or gravel quarry is east of N. Washington street, just a short distance south of the intersection with the 4-lane 61 Bypass. I recently noticed that a couple of old farm houses had been demolished (visible to the left in the picture above).

This ends out short ride down North Washington Street. Thank you for reading.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Small towns in Mississippi: Utica (B&W film)

Gasoline station, White Oak Street, Utica (Kodak BW400CN film, Leica IIIC camera, Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens)
Utica is a small town southwest of Jackson, Mississippi. Many people bypass it while driving on Highway 27 as they go from Vicksburg to Interstate 55 near Crystal Spring. Utica has fallen on hard times. My friends, who grew up there, told me that a clothing factory formerly sewed Izod sports clothing, but when the factory closed, the town's economy largely collapsed.

I passed through Utica a few weeks ago and stopped to take some pictures with a new (to me) 1960s 50mm ƒ/1.4 Canon lens.
Bible Barn, West Oak Drive, Utica
I am not sure what Bible Barn once sold, but it looked closed.
Main Street was once lined with turn of the (previous) century shops and commercial buildings. Some of these featured cast iron fronts that supported the weight of the upper facades and roofs while allowing large plate glass windows to display merchandise inside. Top grade construction over 100 years ago, in contrast to the crappy built-it-cheap structures that go up now.
Gas station, Hwy 27 and Ernie Martin Road, Utica
I came across another closed filling station at the corner of Highway MS 27 and Ernie Martin Road. Truck traffic regularly passes here, so I am surprised they were not profitable. A few miles west on Hwy 27, I photographed the Betigheimer Store many years ago. It has been gone for over 20 years.
Jack Road, Utica, Leica M2 camera (Leica M2 camera, 50mm f/2.0 Summicron-DR lens)
In 2018, I drove on Jack Road, which is really out of the way. I saw this interesting old house or possibly country store.

There may be more to explore in Utica. The old high school is still abandoned. I am not sure of the status of the unused Hinds County School.
The 2018 and 2019 photographs are from Kodak BW400CN film. This year, I was testing my new 1960s-vintage Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm (Leica Thread Mount) lens, and so far, it is fantastic. What beautiful, traditional craftsmanship.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Mississippi Delta 31: the Onward Country Store, Onward

Onward Country Store, September 1996 (4×5" Tri-X film, Tachihara camera, 75mm ƒ/8.0 Super-Angulon lens)
Onward is an unincorporated community in Sharkey County, Mississippi. The modest country store at the corner of US 61 (the Blues Highway) and Mississippi Highway 1 has been a fixture of the community since 1913. In its time, it sold various goods to farmers and travelers, provided quick lunches, and housed a post office. I previously wrote about the flooding in the area during the great flood of 2019.
Interior of Onward Store, September 1996 (75mm ƒ/8.0 Super-Angulon lens)
Mechanical bears, Onward Store, September 1996
I visited the store in 1996, and the proprietor generously let me take some 4×5" Tri-X frames with my wood field camera. The two mechanical bears would move on their pedestal. Some time after that, the store was burglarized and the antique electric bears stolen. It is amazing how low some people are. The bears commemorated the legend of the Teddy Bear, which was created by The Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. based on Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a tied-up baby bear during a November, 1902, hunting trip.
Steiff Teddy Bear, approx. 1953 or 1954 vintage (Polaroid Sepia film, Tachihara 4×5" camera, 180mm Caltar IIN lens)
This is my Steiff bear. He traveled from Greece to Burma to Ceylon and destinations in between, ending up in Vicksburg. Oddly, no one in the family told me the story about Teddy Roosevelt.
Onward Store, October 2002 (Kodachrome 25 slide, Nikon F3, 35mm ƒ/2.8 PC-Nikkor lens)
Onward Store, October 2002 (Kodachrome 25)
It was difficult to photograph the store because an ugly modern canopy over the gasoline pumps obscured the front unless you were way off to the side. The two Kodachrome color photographs above are from 2002. It was not possible then to take a straight-on view
Onward Store front porch, March 2019
Onward Store, March 29, 2019 (Fuji Acros 100 film, Voigtländer Vito BL camera, 50mm ƒ/3.5 Color-Skopar lens, 1 sec. exposure)
Onward Store, March 29, 2019
I checked in at the Onward Store in March of 2019 when I was exploring the flood in the southern Delta. The ugly steel canopy was gone, cleaning up the appearance of the front. The store had been largely converted into a restaurant, and it looked like business was brisk. I chatted with some British tourists who were on a Blues exploration. I took two pictures inside.

My friends and I ate at the Onward Store on April 11. The catfish was excellent. Then in about a week, an announcement on Facebook stated that the Onward Store had closed. I do not know the story. We must have been among the last customers. I hope someone can purchase the old store and continue the tradition of southern cuisine.
Farm house, Onward (Fuji Acros 100 film, Voigtländer Vito BL camera, 50mm ƒ/3.5 Color-Skopar lens)
There are not many houses near the store. This cottage on the east side of US 61 was closed and unoccupied. The vines and jungle are taking over.