Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Technological Resurrection: New Usage Models


I have this idea I want to discuss. Well, actually, blogs don't really discuss things very well, since a discussion is implicitly two-way communication. I'll rephrase: I have an idea I want to write about, and you're going to sit there and read. Ok, fine.

The idea is this: new usage models only happen when used articles are recycled. Revolutionary, I know; about like saying that the world is round. Rather obvious sounding, perhaps?

First, I would like to talk about the word "articles". Here, I don't mean to refer to pieces of clothing. I'm really talking obliquely about individual items of technology, such as tape recorders, video cameras, old computers. And cameras.

Take, for instance, a Polaroid Model 800. Well, fancy that; I just happen to have one here with me. It was a gift, really. From some well-meaning but photographically - how shall we say it? - naive relatives, who thought I could find some practical use out of it.

Now, before we get into the details of the camera, let's (actually, that's 'let me') discuss the use of the term "recycled". Again, this is a turn of a phrase, since I don't actually plan to package the camera and its accessories (did I mention accessories?) into a recycle bag and drop it off on the curb. Actually, I at one time thought of that very deed, but repented, certain that my innate ability to reuse and cobble together would come in handy someday. No. To me, the phrase "recycle" really means that the product or item no longer is useful for its originally intended purpose. Meaning that, by the standards of the marketing universe, the item has passed into what is obliquely referred to as "obsolescence", a polite term that really implies "product death".

However, implicit in the term "recycle" is the concept that, somehow, the item has been recovered or rescued from a certain death in a landfill, and has found new life, a second life (we may open up at this time various spiritual references to resurrection), implying that a new use for the item has been discovered.

This is perhaps a good place to touch on the concept of the "product life-cycle". This concept is the clever creation of the manufacturing industry, whose primary job it is to convince us, its intended victims, that products have specific, pre-defined usage modes, and a specific product life-cycle, after which it is incumbent that we participate in the Renewal of the Annual Corporate Ingathering of Revenue, by the purchase of a new product, thereby perpetuating ad infinitum the product life-cycle, a tradition dating back into the dark recesses of the industrial revolution.

A bit arrogant of these chaps, to think that we're not clever enough to figure out new and creative uses for things. Which touches on the main point of this writing: that only through the process of reuse can creative uses be found. Or, to rephrase: creative uses for items of technology are found only if they are broken out of the product life-cycle, unchained from the technology treadmill.

Think of it this way: these are mere tools, that's all. Just tools. But somebody who makes and sells these tools is telling us that we can only use the tool for so long, after which we have to buy a new tool from him, and we can only do certain, predefined things with the tool.

Really. It sounds like what we're being told is that we really are no longer human beings. That homo sapiens has been extincted, replaced by homo consumerus, a creature no longer capable of being a tool-making, tool-using, sentient creative individual.

Okay, so back to the camera. It's a large, grayish, off-white contraption, folded down to about the size of a medium hardback book. Once opened, the gray colored bellows is slid forward until the front lens board clicks into position. The lens, with built in shutter, is calibrated in "EV", or exposure values. There's a shutter button, with a little switch labeled "B" and "I", and a hot-synch connector, for use with an external flash. On the back of the camera there's a viewfinder, next to which is a split-image type of rangefinder focuser. Below the bellows, under the base that serves as the camera's door when closed, is a focusing knob and distance scale, which not only focuses the lens, by expanding and contracting the bellows, but is coupled to the split-image rangefinder. There's also the obligatory hot-shoe flash connector on the top of the camera.

Which gets us to the subject of the accessories, of which were included two: a flash-bulb reflector, and a battery-powered "wink light". I like the sound of that: wink light. Kind of friendly sounding, like it's just kidding around, having a good time, not trying to be too pretentious, knowing it's not really about serious art photography. Wink. There, that's all. Didn't hurt a bit. Kind of fun, no? It doesn't sound nearly as violent as the flash, which seems a bit too serious and focused, too intent on getting the shot, come hell or high water. Flash. Which reminds me of the moment in time when a nuclear explosive is detonated. (To be precise, it would have to be a double-flash for that to occur, but let's not quibble.)

The funny, and sad, part is that, for all of its friendly soundingness, Mr. Wink Light won't work, not without replacing an archaic 48 volt battery inside the light housing. Sure, I'll just hop on down to the corner store and pick me up one of them 48 volt batteries.

Opening the camera, one finds a rather strange arrangement of multiple hinged light-proof panels, with metal rollers. One has to keep in mind that this is a Polaroid camera, although not of the variety seen in recent years. No, this camera is from the early days of instant film technology, where the resulting prints were black and white, and one had to coat the completed print with a gooey, clear gel of fixer, before the picture faded. This camera uses two spools, one for the paper negative film, and the other for the print paper with incorporated chemical developing agents. Both were loaded in the camera, with the paper film roll going over the film platen, around a roller and behind, where it was sandwiched with the print paper from the other roller. Together, both layers exited the camera in a sandwich.

After exposure, the user pulled the dual-layer sandwich out of the slot in the side of the camera body, and tore off the end of the leader. The action of pulling the film caused the chemical pods in the print paper roll to be squeezed through metal rollers, which had the effect of smearing this gel-like chemical into the space between both layers. Film in hand, one waited the appropriate amount of time, during which the gel developed the negative image on the inside surface of the paper negative, and also transferred a positive version over to the print paper side of the sandwich. The operation was complete after both halves were peeled apart, and a gel-stick of gooey fixer was applied to the print, making it permanent.

Of course, it is important to remember that this is all technological antiquity, of the sort one encounters when visiting the Amish in eastern Ohio and learns of the finer points of properly dressing a horse-drawn buggy. Interesting, but perhaps less than useful.

But my intention this fine day was to take this relic into the darkroom, open her up, and tape a 4" by 5" rectangle of black and white photo paper to the inside surface of the film platen, pointing towards the lens. Then, once closed up, I would take the camera out into the daylight, affix it to a sturdy tripod, set the shutter to bulb (remember the "B"?), and make a timed exposure onto the extremely slow, orthochromatic (i.e. blue sensitive) paper negative. Which is exactly what I did. Not once, but many times over.

Taking careful notes, and light readings with my meter, I was able to calibrate timed exposures in both direct daylight, and shaded daylight settings. Portraits done of my wife and grandson, in the afternoon shade of the north-facing porch, were timed for 8 seconds. I thought about those 8 seconds, during which time the sitter (quaint term, is it not?) had to do so in perfect stillness, unless one's countenance be blurred and indistinct. This is no longer the domain of 1960's era instant photography; rather, this is historic, bringing us back to the post-civil war era, when such ortho emulsions were coated on paper and also glass plates. Sitters of that day needed head braces to keep them still enough so as to render their finer features distinct.

I don't think they sell head braces in Walmart's photo department.

The resulting portrait images taken with the reused Polaroid Model 800 camera, loaded with paper negative media, are very nice. The orthochromatic tonal range provided by the paper delivers a, shall we say, "tropical" skin tone, which reminds me of why, back in the early days of cinema, filmmakers who were limited to ortho film stock would paint up the actor's faces with white powder, no doubt some indirect allusion to some subconscious racial stereotype.

I thought of those "tropical" skin tones rendered by the paper media. Were the techniques of this project to become popularized, the fashion industry would be abuzz with this new-found cultural metaphor. Need to look beach-tanned for that next portrait session? Why risk skin cancer when all you need do is sit under the all-seeing eye of the orthochromatic paper negative.

In retrospect, what I find most fascinating about this project is how two distinctly dissimilar yet antiquated technologies - early Polaroid cameras and black & white photo paper - when creatively combined can bring new life to both. There is no evidence that the engineers and designers of either technology ever foresaw the merging of their respective diverse areas of photo science. Instant cameras and darkroom paper have little in common. In fact, they are - or were - supposed to be sworn enemies of each other in the marketplace, with Polaroid's intentional business model to make obsolete altogether the conventional darkroom.

Somehow a truce was signed between the warring parties, peace was made, and creativity once again flourishes. A new usage model has formed from discarded technology, and I am the better for it.

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~Joe

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