Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On A Protestant Technocracy

Among the many changes that have happened in the historically recent transition from traditional to electronic photography is a subtle but fundamental shift in the visual nuances of the resulting images. This shift can be traced, at its root, to differences in the physical natures of the respective image-recording media.

Specific to traditional silver-gelatin emulsion technology, we find the light-sensitive halide crystals in such emulsions to be distributed in a manner consistent with real-world physical phenomena. First, the sizes of such halide crystals vary widely within the emulsion, yet are found to be ordered in a normalized statistical distribution.

Second, the physical distributions of such halide crystals, rather than being ordered around a fixed, orthogonal grid system, are distributed in a random fashion within the plane of the gelatin film support.

Third, the gelatin emulsion has depth, within which the silver halide crystals are suspended in a three-dimensional fashion. One has to imagine light energy impinging upon not some two-dimensional surface but interpenetrating the three-dimensional volume of the matrix. This, combined with the various chemical reactions of the numerous developing agents at our disposal upon the numerous sized distributions of crystals, and with a variety of agitation methods employed, provide for a variety of enhanced edge effects, granularities and other physical phenomena that has come to be characterized as the "film-like look".

Contrast this with a typical digital image sensor, whose light-sensitive phototransistors are identically sized, laid out in an orthogonal grid of precise dimensions, using state of the art, sub-micron photolithography techniques. Such transistor grids, while in cross-section are a complex layer-cake of thin films etched and patterned, as viewed from an imaging lens are, in fact, two-dimensional constructs, insomuch as their light-sensitive top surfaces are engineered to be, ideally, optically flat.

Think of a city of large high-rise buildings. Each building is identical in height and floor plan, laid out in regular city block intervals, the roofs being at the same altitude above ground level, representing an elevated plane. If the city were, in fact, an image sensor, the ground level would represent the silicon wafer chip, upon which the transistor grid is fashioned. Each high-rise building would represent the three-dimensional structure of an individual transistor's internal architecture, while the top roof surface of each building would be the light-sensitive gate upon which external light energy is collected. The imaginary, elevated plane composed of the grid of high-rise roofs becomes the light-sensitive image sensor, upon which the image from a lens or pinhole optic are focused.

While the resulting image from an electronic sensor can tend to represent, to some degree of fidelity, the kind of image as rendered by silver-gelatin films, we can see that this similarity is only superficial, at best. The ordered distribution of equally-sized sensor cells, and their resulting output signal of precisely oriented picture elements, belies the real-world complexity that is the distribution of random crystals of silver halide within a sea of optically transparent gelatin.

As we ponder this specific example of highly engineered, technological oversimplification of complex real world phenomena, we come to the point where it becomes evident that electronic media - in its base technology as well as usage modes - represent an over-simplification of a world whose complexity increases, without limit, as one's point of view and dimension of scale is modulated into both the macro as well as the micro.

As matter of opinion, it seems that the entire sphere of popular culture that has developed from the rise of techno-simplification (among which is the arena of the news media) operates within this zone of over-simplification, where complex real-world issues are distilled down into simplistic categorizations and labels. What are, in fact, issues with a continuously distributed spectrum of levels of intensely human complexity are merely packaged, manufactured, into discrete, ordered boxes of understanding. Categories. Cells. Pixels. Bits. Human perception, on a global scale, seems to have taken an historic shift, as opinion is substituted for knowledge, and categorization is substituted for understanding.

With this understanding that human perception has been pixilated into discrete packets of marketable quanta, it seems reasonable to construct a photographic image-making device that mimics the pixilated appearance that is the hallmark of electronic imaging, while at the same time using only the rudiments of the pinhole aperture and the silver-gelatin emulsion. This device I have come to call the Pixellator, for that precisely is its intended effect: to take complex, real-world optical wave front phenomena and simplify them into a regular, ordered array of discrete cells.

The manner in which the Pixellator gives the appearance of an electronically generated image is through the use of a gridded, multi-layer transmission screen, the front side of which is a translucent projection screen, upon whose front surface is projected a coherent optical image from a pinhole or glass lens. Light from this projected, coherent image is forward-scattered through the translucent media into a grid of discrete, hollow cells, each of which, optically isolated from its neighboring cells, functions as an incoherent waveguide; the combined effect being to reduce the detailed, real-world optical image at the front of the screen into a grid of discrete picture elements onto a sheet of light-sensitive silver-gelatin film or paper sandwiched to the rear face of the pixel grid screen.

The maximum resolution of such an optical system is limited by the 'grid pitch' - the size of each picture element. Additionally, the optical throughput of the system is limited by the translucency of the front screen, and the reflectivity of the inner surfaces of each grid cell.

In actual practice, with rudimentary models of the Pixellator camera, a 2-stop loss of light is seen in transmitting a coherent optical image through the layer of screens, onto monochrome silver-gelatin paper media.

It is expected that this figure can be improved: first by using an improved grid, whose inner cell walls are more highly reflective, while still maintaining optical isolation between neighboring cells; and second by finding a translucent front screen material that will pass more light from the optical wave front, while still disrupting the optical image and forward-scattering its light into the grid screen.

As a device intended to demonstrate a disruption to the image-making status quo, the Pixellator pinhole camera can be seen to be little more than an optical gimmick or trick. Its importance is more in the realm of the symbolic. It seems to function on the level of the street protestor, marching in circles around some building proclaiming "we won't take this crap any longer". And yet, it remains visually of intense interest that an optical, analog device could be constructed that would mimic some visual elements of the artifice of electronic image making.

As knowledge becomes further quantized and atomized into discrete packets of intellectual presumption, it becomes increasingly likely that we will see more examples of this sort, which can be loosely categorized as, not merely 'Alternative Technology', but rather, 'Protestant Technology'; not intended as a mere temporarily expedient agency of protest, but a permanent, fully functioning creative replacement.


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