These days, if you happen to get a look inside any item of electronic equipment – a laptop, phone, TV, – all you’ll see is a lot of very small things, with even smaller writing on them. These critters will be inscrutably quiet, mainly cool and odourless, disclosing nothing of their interior machinations.
I became interested in electronics quite young and found myself immersed in the Fritz Lang world of the thermionic valve. There was real danger in these devices; they worked hot and at elevated voltages, both high enough to inflict lasting harm to the careless enquiring hand. Although they were inherently delicate, their thin glass envelopes allowed a view into the world of subatomic particles. They worked by corralling beams of electrons, directing them towards charged elements and interrupting the flow by means of thin, polarised grids. It wasn’t possible to see the electrons but you just knew they were in there, doing their fundamental work.
The soldierly ranks of valves carried a heroic stance. The heat and high voltage produced a distinct smell, the scent of danger barely contained. There was a hum too, as the transformers levered the trifling mains voltage up to alarming levels, supplying the anode’s need for irresistible attraction; little wonder it was called High Tension.
The world of domestic ‘high-fidelity’ is currently nourishing a love affair with the valve, it’s devotees waxing lyrical over the distinct ‘sound’, the lifelike rendition and superior tonal range. In truth, valves were pretty poor performers and needed endless cajoling to overcome their inherent deficiencies and deliver anything like acceptable output. They sound different, not better.
Nevertheless I still have a fascination for their construction and function. The delicate tracery of filament, the vitrified tendrils of lead-in wires, the outer-space appearance of the plates…. all encased in a near vacuum. I wanted to photograph the valve as an aging but dignified hero, still functional but largely unwanted.
When I searched for interesting examples on eBay I was surprised to find I wasn’t alone. There’s a thriving market in antique valves. In fact I instantly regretted my rash decision of twenty years previous to consign many elderly examples to landfill. This is one of the signs of advancing years, the confession to discarding items now valued.
I managed to gather some examples of dubious origin and set about photographing them in a suitably respectful fashion. I don’t have room to do it at home so hired a local village hall for an afternoon. This form of ad hoc studio I have found to be very economical. At just fifteen quid a session I can have five hours studio time with heating, kitchen and changing rooms thrown in. My favorite, the Peek Hall, has almost floor to ceiling north lights and arts and crafts woodwork, is quiet and secluded too (these were done at a different hall). Not being a ‘proper’ studio means I have to import whatever equipment I think I’ll need, but this is a very minor disadvantage.
Anyway, this is what I set up:
Lighting glass, particularly glass which is partly see-through, has its challenges, which are mainly about eliminating and placing reflections. I used a standard setup – the white card aperture with the black background and two main sidelights at 45 degrees. And lots of flags and teeny reflectors.
This is what I ended up with:
I chose a slightly lower camera angle to emphasise the ‘shoulders’ of the valves. The lens was a legacy Olympus 50mm used manually. Camera OM-D E-M1.
These don’t work too well at screen size, they need to be big. I printed them at A3 and they work much better in the hand. Black and white – well if I remember correctly things were black and white in those days. And there is something slightly dark and other-worldly about the valves, suiting a mono presentation. I think.