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In late 2013 I started looking at the audio book sections of my local libraries for stuff to listen to in the car. I’d never really bothered with this section in the past, being someone who reads a lot of books I thought that listening to someone reading aloud would be second best. Perhaps listening to podcasts in the car brought me around to what an efficient use of time it can be. At first I caught up with a few of the classics – The Aeneid, The Odyssey and the Iliad, as recounted here. Early in 2014 I decided to work through all of Charles Dickens’ novels, realising that although he is regarded as one of the great novelists I had only read one of his novels – Great Expectations, and even that was decades ago. Here is a brief summary of my thoughts regarding both the story and the readings of the first three I listened to.

Hard Times – was written in 1854 and like all Dickens’ novels was published in serial form. It was his tenth novel and also the shortest, being about one quarter the length of his major works. The brevity is a weakness as it doesn’t allow for much character development, which is generally one of his strong points. The characters are a bit one-dimensional and when a couple of them undergo major changes in character it does not feel justified (e.g. when the stern, utilitarian father Thomas Gradgrind becomes kind and empathetic towards his daughter.) The plot is also formulaic and predictable – there were no surprises. An enjoyable enough story but far from a great Dickens. Another aspect that Dickens is known for is having outlandish character names that also describe the characters. Hard Times has some excellent names, such as Josiah Bounderby the swaggering industrialist; Mrs Sparsit the unpleasant snob; and Mr. McChoakumchild the teacher at the utilitarian school. The reading by Martin Jarvis is excellent, he has a warm, rich tone that is suited to Dickens, and comes up with a good range of character voices.

Little Dorrit – was Dickens’ eleventh novel, serialised between 1855 and ’57. My library has it as 28 traditional audio CDs with a playing time of 35 hours; I spend about one hour a day in my car so it took about one month to listen to the complete story. It’s an excellent novel with lots of good characters, complex plotting and character development. The storyline is unpredictable, although the ending is somewhat neat and simple. The main theme is money and how people behave in relation to wealth or the lack of it, and how most people want more, even those who are already well off. In a later reversal we see character changes in poor people who come into wealth, and wealthy people who suffer losses and become poor. One of the great plot devices is the family who live in a debtors prison, with the father so hopeless that they stay there for decades, including a daughter who is born in the prison, the Little Dorrit of the title. Compared to Hard Times, the length of the novel allows Dickens to create believable, three dimensional characters whose changes, both subtle and major are credible and well explained. This book has some of his most interesting characters, such as Miss Wade, the bitter and mysterious woman who lures the proud maid Tattycoram away from her employers; Mr Pancks the superficially hard nosed debt collector who reveals his kinder and more complex nature as the story proceeds; and Arthur Clennam the main character who comes from a wealthy background but is conflicted due to his strict religious upbringing and knowledge that the family fortune was built on money lending that often ruined the borrowers. He is in conflict with his tyrannical mother who despises his empathy towards others as a weakness. The reading by Anton Lesser is superb.

Our Mutual Friend – serialised from 1864 to ’65 was Dickens’ last completed novel. The main theme is identity, with many characters pretending to be someone other than they are. In some cases this is part of a confidence trick to swindle money, in others it is done by wealthy characters to see how others will treat them. The novel is also concerned with social standing and how the different levels of society view themselves and others. Unfortunately the book struggles because the two major characters are dull and annoying, while the main plot line is clunky and predictable. Even on first publication the novel was not hugely popular with readers, with sales figures declining over the course of the serialisation. The best characters and storylines are the minor ones, such as Silas Wegg the street hustler with a wooden leg – barely literate, he hires himself out as a book reader to the even more illiterate Noddy Boffin; Bradley Headstone the schoolteacher who simultaneously lusts after and looks down upon Lizzie Hexam, the beautiful daughter of a Thames boatman. The best scene in the book is when he declares his desire for her in the city one night, and his disbelieving rage and despair when she emphatically rejects him. This is far more interesting than the main romance between the vapid John Harmon and the annoying Bella Wilfer. Another superb reading by Anton Lesser.

Van Gogh At Work

June 29, 2014

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I found this book while browsing the shelves at one of my local libraries. It was published in 2013 to accompany an exhibition at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. The concept of the exhibition was to research the materials Vincent used, why he used them (e.g. availability, cost), in relation to how he developed his technique and style. It’s an interesting approach – the book is well illustrated and enjoyable as a traditional art book, but also packed with fascinating technical information.

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Above are two versions of the 1888 bedroom painting. The one on the left is how it appears today, with light blue walls; at the time however Vincent described the walls as being pale violet. The colour changed due to the fading of the cochineal red he used – the image on the right is a digital reconstruction of how the colour would have looked when fresh, based on a cross-section of a paint sample.

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In some of his formal studies at traditional academies he had drawn from plaster casts. He found this useful enough that he ended up owning about eleven by the time he was in Paris, seven of which have survived and are in the collection of the musuem. Here we see one of an écorché, (also known as a flayed man), along with a drawing and a painting made from it.

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Due to limited funds he would often do a new painting on top of an old one. The book has quite a few examples where X-radiography shows the earlier, covered over painting. Above, a still life of flowers painted on top of an academic study of wrestlers. In this case, as he often did, he changed the canvas orientation from horizontal to vertical.

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He had a box that contained sixteen balls of coloured wool which he used to try out colour combinations. Some of the balls were a single colour, while others combined two colours – sometimes complementaries, at other times two shades of the same colour. There are examples in the book of paintings whose colours match those of the wool, showing the direct use he made of this. It is not know when he started this or where he got the idea from, although it might have been from his time in Paris when he was mixing with the Neo-Impressionists.

Overall, I rate this book highly as being informative and enjoyable. It has 300 pages and hundreds of beautifully reproduced illustrations. There are many works by Vincent that I wasn’t familiar with along with the well known masterpieces.

Library books, May 2014

June 29, 2014

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16 items on loan at the end of May, 4 audio books and 12 regular books.

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While doing a darkroom clean-up during the last holidays I was wondering what to do with some old bottles of film developer. There was a one litre container of Ilford DDX with about 200ml left that was first opened five or six years ago when I used it to develop Delta 3200.  I’ve read several times that it doesn’t last well once opened, so the obvious thing to do seemed to be to get rid of it; I certainly wouldn’t risk it on any important film. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting exercise to expose some test sheets of 4×5 to ascertain the state of the dev. I also had a bottle of Aculux 2 that I had opened in 2006, as well as an unopened bottle of the same. My first test showed that the opened Aculux 2 was completely inactive – the film I processed came out clear. This didn’t surprise me as there was a lot of dark sediment in the base of the bottle. The DDX worked very well, it seemed to be full strength and reminded me of what a good developer it is. I tested another film in the previously unopened bottle of Aculux 2 and found that it was working well, the results looked similar to Rodinal in regard to shadow and highlight density.

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The photo above is from the next test. It is a sheet of Tmax 400 that expired in 2007 but is good, with some base fog. The exposed sheet was cut in half and the pieces processed in the separate developers. The bottom half is DDX and the top half Aculux 2. Considering that the exposure was identical it shows how the DDX can increase shadow detail and boost the highlights. These qualities are why DDX is well regarded for push films such as Delta 3200. Not only was this from a bottle that was opened at least 5 years ago, it was the very end of the bottle. I had meant to process it at 1+9 but ended up at 1+12 as the bottle was emptied.  There is no guarantee that all old DDX will keep well but this does show that the keeping properties are not as bad as some people claim. DDX would also probably be a good developer for alternative processes such as salt printing that require a negative with a lot of shadow detail and a long tonal range.

The Aculux 2 was processed for 13 minutes at 1+9 as per the instruction sheet. The results are quite acceptable, perhaps a bit under in the highlights. if I was going to use this dev regularly I would probably develop for a bit longer than the suggested time. Likewise, if I was going to carry on with DDX I would shorten the dev time slightly for normal negatives.

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Four audio books and eighteen print books I had out at the end of March.

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About 25 minutes with Tmax 100, processed in Adonal 1+50 for 14 minutes. I made a frame similar to this on a previous occasion but decided to try again with the pinhole camera a bit closer to the mirror. This is underexposed compared to what I generally get. By chance I showed the camera to my repair guy not long after – he looked at the pinhole through a magnifier, out of curiosity, and saw a small hair stuck across it. He said the relative size would be like holding a pencil across the front of a regular lens. Possibly this blocked enough light to cause the darker exposure.

Library books Feb 2014

April 9, 2014

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Fourteen books out at the end of February, two were audio books.

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