Monday, October 09, 2006

Pursuing an Alternative Vision

Sometimes, I find myself motivated to do a certain thing just because I can. Like the legendary response to "why climb a mountain", I find myself tackling certain challenges "just because they're there".

Take, for instance, my continued interest in appropriating non-photographic technology for the cause of serving my DIY appetite. I've become entranced at times over the prospect of making truly breath-taking photographic images, using lenses whose original purpose was for something other than the pursuit of the visual arts.

I started doing this years ago with a homemade lens, made from a credit card sized plastic fresnel magnifier, attached to the front of my Anniversary Speed Graphic using a cardboard lensboard. The Speed is a great camera for doing just this sort of thing, because of its one unique feature: the curtain shutter. Even though my particular camera is over 60 years old, the curtain shutter seems to still be in an adequate state of service.

I've pretended that I am a mainstream Large Format photographer at times, driven by the perception that I own a Speed Graphic with a functioning lens/shutter, and a handful of film holders in various states of service. I've pursued the approach of capturing images onto 4"x5" sheet film, and understand many of the technicalities of the medium. However, I really have not found a comfort zone in that particular working methodology. First, my one lens/shutter, the Kodak Ektar 127mm, is a good lens for B/W, but it's an uncoated lens, meaning that it's not immune to flare and haze effects. Additionally, I've yet to master the nagging little defects that occur with handling LF sheet film: the dust particles and processing-related scratches that seem virtually inevitable.

Contrast this with the deep satisfaction that I've achieved in the last few years in creative pursuits centered around the pinhole-formed image. In particular, I've found a way to work with certain non-standard photographic materials, specifically graded RC photo paper as a form of orthochromatic sheet film, that gives me a degree of control equivalent to sheet film, yet minus the process difficulties and inevitable defects and artifacts. Paper negatives, for me, are just a more forgiving medium.

Last week, therefore, seemed to be providential. I realized only afterwards that the achievements realized were the result of the coming together of many individual, personal discoveries I had made in recent years. For instance, several years ago I had made a telescoping box camera from black foamcore, and proceeded to see what would happen if I unscrewed one of the front objective lenses from my 7x50 binoculars and attached it to the front of the box. Stopped down to around f/50, I was surprised that this humble lens would easily cover a 5"x8" format. That was one data point.

Another data point was the result of work I have done with orthochromatic paper media, specifically using a precalibrated pre-exposure to elevate the density of shadow detail and overcome a bit of photographic 'inertia' in the slow emulsion's response to dim light. In combination with using a paper emulsion of fixed contrast grade, these techniques provide for a light sensitive system more in tune with the kind of high-contrast scenes that I'm apt to be exposed to, here in the high desert of the southwest US.

I became hopeful, therefore, that putting a binocular lens onto the front of the Anny Speed Graphic, and loading sheet film holders with 'preflashed' paper negatives, would provide me with an opportunity to witness a coming together of these building blocks into a new, synergistic union. What I experienced was nothing less than pure photographic joy.

First, I chose to visit the Old Town section of Albuquerque for a test run of the new system. This, the oldest part of the city, was founded 300 years ago, and provides ample opportunity for photographic image-seekers of any ilk.

My new system has some unique limitations that warranted exploring. For one, I had to rely on the curtain shutter to time the exposures, since the binocular lens is sans shutter. Second, I had an intuition that this lens should first be used wide-open, to explore the possibilities of narrow depth of focus images, something that I've recently been interested in exploring, perhaps as a counter to the years of working with an almost infinite depth of focus with pinhole lenses. Third, I know that I would be limited to using the outfit while anchored to my hefty Bogen tripod.

What surprised me was how easy it was to preview the image projected onto the groundglass viewscreen. Wide open, the binocular lens operates at f/3, providing adequate light input for this old screen. Another surprise was my ability to exactly preview the depth of focus that would be recorded onto paper, since my previewing lens aperture would be the same as the taking aperture.

What I was not prepared for was how well the images turned out. The extremely narrow depth of focus tends to isolate the visual field into a narrow zone of sharp definition, where subtle textures and details are recorded with an exacting precision. Surrounding this is a continually softening effect that proceeds outward from the central plane of sharp focus in a manner that soon renders fore and background details at first indistinct, then transformed into totally abstract fields of soft tones. These peripheral areas are no longer distinct as indicative of photographic reality; rather, they become total abstraction, lending the reality of the middle ground a framing aura that buffers the harsh reality of the image's edge. I have also come to appreciate this visual effect less as a gimmick and more as a visual metaphor that references the way in which human vision seems to proceed from extreme detail in the middle ground to indistinct zones of softness in the periphery.

What most satisfies me is that these wonderful images were created in direct opposition to the highly engineered approach taken by many LF practitioners. Everything about this project is a reproach to such sophisticates: a beat-up old WWII-era box camera, an antiquated curtain shutter mechanism, a binocular lens off of a thrift-store quality binocular, and paper negatives of the type used by children in their first pinhole camera.

Everything about this project says: "I did this". Me. It wasn't the gear, the kit. It was the coming together of distinct learnings had over years of struggling to find a truly alternative photographic vernacular. And last week, it spoke for the first time.~


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