Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Do Something, Man!

There is a feeling one gets, when viewing the results of a creative work that has involved the expenditure of copious amounts of thought, emotion and plain old sweat equity, a feeling of satisfaction tainted with a bit of regret; regret that perhaps the results are not what one would have expected. It is this sense of disappointing lack, of creative urges unfulfilled, that draws me back again and again to that frustrating pursuit. No one who has been passionate about a creative pursuit can say with certainty that they haven't experienced this frustrating lack of satisfaction that draws them back repeatedly, like some illicit drug addiction.

Maybe that's just what it is, this business of pursuing art: a drug addiction.

For myself, the addiction centers on the photographic image. I find the pursuit of elusive imagery to be likened to a sort of hunt, where the game is ever-present yet never obvious, lurking just beyond the next corner, or hidden under the shadows of an overhand, slightly out of sight, never out of mind. I am addicted to the process of photography. The final image that results from the long, drawn-out process of exposure, processing and printing yields satisfaction in so far as it symbolizes, more than representing an artifact, the completion of the process. The photographic print is like a signpost on a highway, signifying the journey is complete; or, rather, that this particular leg of the journey is done for now - for there will, with certainty, be other legs, other photo safaris, other hunts for the elusive image.

Humans, being mortal and finite and frail and flawed, produce a technology, the work of the hand that evidences the characteristics of its maker. I've found that my decade-old work of crafting monochrome images, using the medium of paper negatives exposed within pinhole cameras, has as much inner flaw as it evidences a hidden character. Like some long-dormant disease that just recently surfaced, many of my older negatives are now showing signs of some inner corrosion and discoloration to the inner paper base of the resin coated paper media, a cancer of sorts. The silver gelatin emulsion, coated onto the surface of the plastic-coated paper, seems to be as good as ever. But the inner disease of the paper itself prevents these negatives from ever being contact printed in the traditional manner of illumination, from the reverse side, through the inner fibers of the paper backing. These negatives are like barren wombs, capable of displaying some resemblance to a completed photograph, yet without the benefit of seeing its progeny. At best, these negatives can be scanned and printed using non-silver methods, but the results will be like the love one finds for a step-child: powerful and moving, yet without that sense of genetic continuity that seems as inevitable and as natural as the flow of time itself.

Every artist finds working methods that best suit themselves. The decision-making process is often half-hazard and seemingly semi-random, rather than well thought-out. My journey, which began as a rather conventional photographic hobby, eventually became obsessively focused on the paper negative and pinhole camera as much out of convenience as anything else. Unlike their film counterparts, paper negatives are easy to handle, easy to process and, with just a bit of care, produce images with less artifacts of the dust and lint and specks and detritus of the home darkroom environment. The price to be paid is that these negatives lack the tonal range and light sensitivity of film, and generally cannot be easily enlarged in the traditional manner of optical projection. And then there's the matter of the disease that happens to resin coated photo paper after time.

There comes a moment when the creative person will find impetus to just move on; this may come about as a result of a confluence of many complex factors. I've now begun experiments in the process of using large format sheet film in pinhole cameras, rather than photo paper. The results, so far, yield a greater and subtler tonal range that seems a match to the subtle subject matter that is often the target of my interest. The price to be paid, however, is that I am now dealing with the dual problems of dirt and time; dirt on the film surfaces, dirt on the resulting contact print, both of which must be spotted away. Contact printing of paper negatives, by comparison, was much less prone to these problems. And the process takes much more time, extending the waiting period between exposure and the viewing of a completed print, mainly due to the extended drying time required with film-based media.

I am now at the crossroads period in my creative journey where I can choose one of several options. Time, being the main limitation, prevents me from exploring multiple avenues simultaneously. I can continue to work in the medium of sheet film, and work through the problems of dust and debris - which may involve costly upgrades to my darkroom and equipment to minimize airborne contaminants (think mini-clean room). Alternatively, I can do some experiments in using fiber-based paper negatives, which, although requiring longer rinse times than resin coated, seem to be easier to process to an archival state than do resin coated papers. The big open question that remains with using these materials is if contact prints can be made which do not evidence visual reminders of the interior paper fibers. Or, I may find that such artifacts of the interior of the working materials may, in the end, be a new avenue worth exploring.

The obvious thing to do at this time is to step out in one direction or the other. The biggest obstacle to a creative endeavor is being locked in the vise-like grip of indecision.

"Do something, man!"


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