Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Artless Art

I had the opportunity recently to read a book about the famed photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, titled 'The Artless Art'. This phrase 'The Artless Art' comes from Buddhist writings and refers to a manner of approaching the making of a work of art in such a way that the work in question becomes an almost automatic response between the photographer's unmediated openness and the subject matter before him.

It is of significance that HCB was interested in Buddhist thought, the techniques of which affected his approach to creativity.

What I found in this book to be troublesome, what I've observed before in the words of other art critics and art historians, is an after-the-fact analysis of the motivations and intentions of the artist at a level of superficial intellectualism and depth that is out of proportion to the thinking process and working methods applied to the actual creation of the work.

HCB worked in what could be termed a 'style' of photographic technique that combined a highly sensitive openness to the immediacy of the surrounding visual world with an almost subconscious automatic control of the technical parameters of the camera's controls. Such a style of photography has since come to be known as 'street photography', although it often takes place in venues other than the public thoroughfare.

Another famed worker of the street ethic was Garry Winogrand, who, like HCB, employed a working technique that so finely melded the open sensitivity to visual surroundings with an automatic, gesture-like response of the camera's controls as to be uncannily able to capture that all-elusive fleeting moment. When viewed in retrospect these fleeting moments, captured on film, seem to have been created out of thin air, as if they occurred in the moments between the blink of an eye. The sense of motion and spontaneity implicit in Winogrand's works especially tend to negate any assumptions that these images could possibly have been staged. They are too obviously fleeting glimpses, captured out of the ether as if by wireless, evoking memories common to the larger culture.

How then are we to accept the hyper-intellectual ramblings of the arte-illuminati that are so obviously out of character when compared to the artists' actual working methods? To be sure, both HCB and Winogrand shared a deep knowledge of art history and the techniques of drawing and composition; this served as background preparation that informed their seemingly automatic response to the fleeting moment. Yet the very act of capturing the fleeting moment, through a carefully prepared artistic sensibility combined with a masterfully tuned control over the technical aspects of picture-making, preclude the possibility that such images were premeditated and pondered over prior to exposure.

One is reminded of the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock, involving a high degree of improvisation, and reliance upon the accidental. Whatever one may say about the resulting visual complexity of his paint-splattered canvasses, it would be in error for one to presume a degree of complexity and meaning behind these works that did not, in actuality, inform the artist at the time of the work's creation.

Art theory remains, in the final analysis, merely theoretical. In using the terminology of the scientific method to describe works whose creative origins are intrinsically subjective is to open up such ponderings to the rigor of the same scientific method; the results are often proven to be either patently false or irrelevant.

Artists directly influence one another; this is how all true art movements originate: through the milieu of a vital and dynamic culture of artists. Since the rise of professional art criticism this dynamic of pure artistic culture has given way to the phenomenon whereby the critic serves as interlocutor and intermediary of the artistic culture. The result has been the lack of any truly novel artistic movement since modernism.

Ironically, art critics themselves, lacking the ability to see the forest through the trees, tend to label the period following modernism as 'post-modernism'; an affectation which conveniently serves to conceal the obviously historic change in art culture under the guise of another 'ism'.

My final thought is that perhaps this should have been expected all along. Was it not Mr. Heisenberg who dutifully informed us, through the complexity of advanced mathematics, that the mere act of observation itself changes the very nature of that being observed? Perhaps we need less drivel and more dialog.~

Two Steps Backward

It may seem odd, given the fact that silver gelatin photographic technology is only, oh, say, 150 years old, that I would be experimenting with this form of image making in the 21st century.

Luditte? Perhaps. I've been called worse.

While most reasonable folks are making pretty pictures with ones and zeros, or at least using store-bought film in the little yellow or green boxes, I've found myself purposefully exploring the arcane corners of photography. For one, I try to avoid using a lens on my cameras. Just a pinhole. And if I have to use glass, it's something originally non-photographic, like a magnifying glass or an optical part borrowed from a binocular. Too, I've found using print paper works better as film in my homemade cameras than does film itself.

I had an experience just this last week that drove home for me the simple lesson that I often forget: follow your heart, do what works best for you.

I've worked the last few years to fine-tune a process of using B & W print paper as an in-camera film, and this has started to pay off in terms of images that exhibit a very film-like tonal range, with the processing convenience of orthochromatic paper. Producing finished prints is a relatively simple task of contact printing the paper negative, face-to-face with the print paper; yielding images of fine detail and delicate tones.

But, no; I had to go off and decide that I would start shooting sheet film, in order to enlarge these images in the darkroom. And I had to choose a type of sheet film notoriously difficult for achieving a good tonal range in scenic lighting - ortho lithographic film.

So I borrowed on my experience with paper negatives and developed a technique involving preflashing the film, then a water-bath development technique following the in-camera exposure. The result is good contrast and tonal range from a film normally intended to reproduce line art in the graphic arts field.

Then it was onto the task of enlarging these negatives by projection onto fine art print paper. This is where I was, once again, reminded of the joy that comes with enlarging all the dust and lint spots on the film and negative holder of the enlarger. In short, it was a bust. My darkroom facilities lack the cleanliness required for quality projection enlargement. And the bigger the negative is to begin with, the more chance that there will be stray debris on the optical surfaces.

Which is another good reminder of why I love contact printing from paper negatives: there're only two optical surfaces requiring cleanliness: the emulsion sides of the negative and print. Plus, when contact printing there is no optical enlargement of whatever dust remains on these surfaces. Contrast this with using a glass negative carrier with film, which has 6 optical surfaces needing to be kept clean - 4 of the glass negative carrier and 2 of the film negative itself.

Then I asked a crucial question: why do we make prints on a media - photo paper - that is problematic as far as permanence, and then have to jump through hoops to process it to archival standards? The film base itself - polyester film - can last upwards of 500 years. Why can't the print?

So I decided to mate my personal photographic strength - paper negatives, with a film-based printing technique. The result is a process that creates in-camera negatives on photo paper, and then contact prints these to sheet film. When properly exposed and developed, the positive film transparencies are then mounted in contact against a backing of acid-free white paper. This results in a sandwich of film and support paper that yields a very good quality print-like display. And if the backing paper should fade or show signs of deterioration, it can be easily replaced. Also, various paper textures and colors can be used to give a selection of tonal effects to the image's highlights. This two-layer display technique works by allowing the image's shadow detail, as represented by the dense parts of the film positive, to stand as-is, but the image's highlights are represented by light transmitted through the clear parts of the film positive and reflected off the white backing paper.

I have found it a valuable experience to gain an intimate knowledge of the materials of the craft, and then to challenge the usual assumptions concerning how these methods, materials and techniques are used in crafting a finished photographic print. In this case, the result of this process has been the use of the paper silver gelatin negative as an intermediary to the completion of the photographic image using film-based media.

Unconventional? Perhaps. But immensely rewarding, seeing the results of using conventional materials in an entirely fresh way, yielding new insights into the long-existing genre of silver gelatin photography.~