Portland (OR) After Dark: A Film Photo Project

Learning is an interesting animal.  There are times when one spends considerable time learning new things in bits and pieces over the course of many months.  Then, there comes the time when one must draw from what they've learned to achieve a desired result in a far shorter period of time.

In the past several months, I've been able to learn a lot about film photography at a leisurely pace, and to apply bits of this newly found knowledge at an incremental rate.  Usually, as I've taken photos in the region, I've been able to experiment on my own time and pace, knowing that if I made a technical error in my photos, I could return to the same site at a later date without too much in the way of inconvenience.  Unique or rare lighting and weather conditions were about the only factors that created much of a sense of urgency to "get the shot right," but even then, there was always some possibility of a return visit to get a better photo if needed.

In the world away from my home in the mid-Atlantic, those same rules of forgiveness do not readily apply.  So when I had to book a trip to Portland, Oregon to assist with some family business, I realized I could (and should) take along some film to shoot as a means of decompressing from the business at hand.  If I had any free time, it would be in the evenings, and since I remembered some cool old neon signs that I loved in the City of Roses, it seemed this would make the ideal setting for some classic film photos.

Given that I've worked with several kinds of film as well as numerous cameras over the past few months, the possibilities of what cameras to take, what film to shoot, as well as what combinations of film and camera would work most ideally seemed pretty daunting.  I was looking at two evenings at most with which to do this, with no idea when I might be returning, so it was time to pull all I'd learned together to achieve the most of this opportunity.

First, I had to do a little reconnaissance with Google Image searches and Street View to map out photo opportunities.  I'd remembered a few signs from previous visits to the Rose City, but as I looked deeper, I discovered many more worthy photo subjects awaited me.  Some were spectacular, some were quite nice, and a few were a bit more basic, but still worthy of my time.  I took to Excel to list these sites, their locations in the area, and try to prioritize them by interest level.

Given that, I then had to make the decision of the cameras I would take as well as the films I'd use. This proved to offer some challenge, but as I had managed to get a good degree of experience with each, the choices I ultimately made gave me no heartburn.  I got obsessive to the point of looking at each possible visit site to determine if there was any special film or camera that I'd specifically want to use for any of them.

Ultimately, I took along about a dozen rolls of film of at least 6 varieties, as well as cameras to capture results in a range of formats.  Though I'd hoped to give all the cameras use for this project, some, such as the Franka Solida, were never loaded with film at all during my stay, while others were also used at other parts of the journey back.

Ultimately, the lit neon photos were captured on Velvia 50, Provia 100, and Agfa Crossbird 200 using the Balda Pontina, Zeiss Ikonta 521/2, Zeiss Super Ikonta 531/2, and the Kodak Autographic 1A 116 format camera.  I began adhering to a pre-planned regimen of taking specific scenes with specific cameras and film, but had to abandon this notion as the whole process of unmounting and remounting various cameras on my single cheesy tripod proved to be extremely infuriating in the limited amount of time I had at my disposal, and the increasingly limited patience.  I had expected to be recording exposures on my exposure notes, but that too went by the wayside quickly, as I interacted with my brother during our ride along through the streets of Portland.

With all that was going on, I began to realize that I might be overexposing the shots by the end of the first evening of shooting, and had generally corrected this by the second night, though both the Pontina and Super Ikonta had some quirk of their own regarding the shutter closing after bulb exposures that I had to continually catch and correct.  Upon returning home and sending off the four rolls of film for processing, my initially high expectations started to wane a bit with worry between exposure issues, and some of the equipment quirks.

Quite fortunately, most of those worries proved to be unfounded, and the results that arrived just a week later from Old School Photo Lab were quite nicely done.  Even one of the flub shots turned out to give a very interesting, and usable result.  Though framing issues hindered the results I got from the Autographic 1A, I was elated to find that the Super Ikonta 531, a camera which had previously provided me some very disappointing results on its initial test roll, delivered some very good shots this time.  Perhaps some of this had to do with me foregoing the use of the rangefinder, and relying instead on my distance estimates.

Results from the Trioplan equipped Pontina were generally wonderful, though some of my favorites came from the more humble Ikonta 521, into which I fed a roll of Crossbird 200, processed simply in E6 chemistry.  But enough with my jabbering already.  It's time to let the photos do the talking.  Enjoy! 

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Among my first sign captures were images of one of the best of the batch, the Palms Motor Hotel on Interstate Avenue.  While my first shot, above, shows some tripod movement, that while not bad, is a little odd, the second capture seen below manages to render this lovely classic sign in its best light, both literally and figuratively. 

East of Downtown sits another gem, far simpler than the Palms sign, but still very lovely with a nice use of colors.  The glint in the foreground is reflection from the streetcar rails along this street. 

Happy accident or hot mess?  You decide.  I took two photos of the simple, yet gorgeous signage adorning Stark's Vacuums.  The first image was taken with the Pontina's lens board not fully anchored to create some distortions along the side, while the second with the lens board anchored creates a sharper image.  However, in my haste to break down, I left the shutter open for some time after the time exposure, resulting in a zany stream of lights throughout the image.  Analog madness at its best! 

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If there was a favorite roll in the batch, it would certainly be the roll of Agfa Crossbird that I shot in the Zeiss Ikonta 521/2.  This film really handles night scenes in a very warm and nostalgic manner, perfect for this subject matter.  This was one of a few shots taken of the beautiful Laurelhurst Theater on Burnside, and easily the best of these shots.

Around the corner from the Laurelhurst is Holman's Restaurant, which has a simple but very pleasing neon sign to mark it.  Though the shadows are a bit dark in this scene, the film did a great job in rendering color for this shot.

A few blocks west of the Laurelhurst sits this lovely sign for Tip Top Cleaners. Though some of the lower chevrons are out, the sign still gives off a wonderful vibe, complete with authentic lettering of the period, beckoning travelers along Burnside.

Slightly west of Downtown sits this simple, yet beautiful sign, glowing in red neon.  It provided me with what I'd consider to be my most effectively nostalgic image of the trip.  The sign provides a rich red glow onto the hall that was readily picked up by the Ikonta.

Along Sandy Blvd sits the lovely Hollywood Theater, with both a vertical sign and a lovely incandescent marquee.  Just as lovely is the theater building itself, which is rather obscured in the darkly lit environment.  

Around the corner from the Hollywood is Chin's Kitchen, offering not only Chinese food to go, but also a phenomenal neon sign using several colors.  Definitely one of the best signs to be spotted! 

A second Laurelhurst shot doesn't seem to do justice to the size and reach of this vertical behemoth.  As well, the fancy neon splayed along the front is compressed from this perspective.

Maybe not night, but on passing this scene, how could I resist the temptation to capture it, and I'm really liking how the Crossbird responded to the scene, as well as how the Ikonta put focus on exactly the right spot at f/3.5.

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It was a great feeling to look at these results and realize that the Super Ikonta can be just that.  Ultimately, I found it easier to guess focus, and I still had to follow a few rules in cocking the shutter to prevent accidental exposure, but the Tessar lens proved itself to be a gem, rendering this amazing neon of the West Moreland Hardware in a very true to life form on Velvia 50.

Another Super Ikonta image shows a little wash out in the signboard lettering, but still a wonderful image as a result.  The Moreland sits about a block south of the West Moreland Hardware store.

The Aladdin provides a very classic 1950's look, which the Super Ikonta readily captured.  Were it not for the contemporary car at left and the McDonald's billboard in the distance, the era of this image would be tough to discern.

One of a few neon signs in Old Town is this one for the Oregon Leather Company, which I snapped on the way in one evening.  Many of the signs in Portland show a flair for the flared shape of the vertical elements

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The let down of the batch were the handful of shots run through the 1929 vintage Kodak Autographic 116 camera.  On a few of these, such as this shot of the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorn, something was amiss with the horizontal alignment, despite all seeing well in the tiny "brilliant finder."  

Another one with horizon issues, which I clearly recall doing an excessive amount of jockeying of the tripod legs to get properly situated in the brilliant finder.  I tried to correct this issue in the image below, but the lack of street kills any sense of context to be seen in the image. 

The Laurelhurst is at least better aligned than the previous tries, but is missing foreground context, as does the extra shot of Holman's.  As a result, both images come off feeling overly claustrophobic.