Bob Bittner is doing his part to save a once-commonplace art from becoming lost.
The retired office manager for the state of California has practiced black-and-white film photography for decades with a 1953 Rolloflex twin-lens camera and a 1978 Pentax 35-millimeter, and some of his best is now on display at the Merced County Library’s Los Banos branch.
“It’s becoming a lost art, but I’ve found looking at forums and whatnot, there’s a lot of people who are going back to film, and there’s a lot of people who have never worked in film who find it interesting, so I kind of sense a little bit of interest,” Bittner said. “Whether that will last or not, I don’t know.”
The exhibit features a few macro photos (pictures of small things close up) and plenty of landscapes, with the theme being places that can be reached in a day’s drive from Los Banos.
“We liked that concept, because it’s summer when people travel, and Bob and I were talking about that,” said Patti Ryan of the Friends of the Library, the coordinator of the library’s local artist program. “There’s a lot of places you can go from here. Not a lot of people realize that sometimes.”
The photos feature scenes from water running over rocks at Bridal Veil Creek in Yosemite to the curve of a canal bank that reminds him of a swan’s neck to a table painted with sunlight in an abandoned building at Bodie, a ghost town near the California-Nevada border.
“I like to go to things that are interesting and beautiful, and in some cases, not that easy to get to, or not that easy to accomplish,” Bittner said. “Some of the closeups, like the skull there, it’s just a little mouse skull, it’s about that big (about an inch). That’s a big closeup.”
Observers won’t find studio-quality lighting in these photos – Bittner works with all natural light. For the closeups, he placed the items on a curved black sheet of paper on a chair in his kitchen, painting one side of the object with light from the window and filling in the shadows with a reflector sheet.
Bittner takes much of his inspiration from Ansel Adams, as well as lesser-known photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. He attended a workshop in Yosemite in the mid-1990s, where he learned from one of Adams’ assistants.
“He did large format, 8-by-10 camera, hiked up in the mountains like Ansel Adams did. He had all-zone system, exposure development, so that was inspirational to me,” Bittner said. “I was already trying to do it, but not succeeding very well, but I straightened out and got a lot of good advice.”
While Bittner dabbles in digital photography with a point-and-shoot for family photos, he’s trying to keep the film world alive. It’s getting harder, though – ever since Boots Camera in Fresno closed about three years ago, he’s gotten his film and chemicals online.
“It’s a different experience to get a finished photograph from the darkroom, especially with black and white, because there’s so much flexibility in the way you take a picture, the way you expose it, the way you develop the film,” Bittner said. “Even with color photos with film, there’s no flexibility. There’s a formula, exact amount of chemicals and exact temperature, and you get what you get. With black and white, you can vary the temperature, you can vary the time that it’s in the developer, you can vary things like agitation, and you get all the results.”