The Long Path
Sometimes there's a long, convoluted path trailing behind what appears up front to be rather ordinary and nondescript. Like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the intricacies of what's behind the seemingly banal can be astonishingly revealing.
This image is a good example of that. An initial study reveals it to be a rather ordinary black and white landscape, of some rather visually interesting rock formation. But the means and reasons for how it came to be made, how I found myself perched high atop a sandstone bluff overlooking miles and miles of lava fields in western New Mexico with a strange, metallic box camera atop tripod, reveals a story entirely removed from the surface artifacts of the image itself.
I've revealed in previous entries about some of my photographic background, such as having starting as a teenager in the early 1970's with a Vivitar 110 camera, then in the late 1970's with a Minolta SRT101B, and onto the 1980's and early '90's with an assortment of medium and large format cameras; and the start of my own darkroom work with black and white media. This period of fascination with, and pursuit of, the perfect camera kit came to an end in the mid-1990's when I discovered pinhole photography. This immersion into photographic retro-technology was a natural outgrowth from having been deeply involved in printing images onto silver gelatin paper in my home-based darkroom.
The simple fact revealed to me was of a minute aperture in some otherwise light-tight container, projecting and exposing an image upon a sheet of light-sensitive printing paper placed within. The fact that its subsequent development could precede under the darkroom's red lights, permitting visual inspection throughout the process, became a simple but highly effective creative advantage. The further discovery of contact printing these paper negatives onto sheets of gallery-quality silver gelatin paper was a revelation in aesthetic simplicity fulfilled. I became mesmerized that such elegant results could be attained by such simple tools and methods. Pinhole photography became a personal philosophy, a vision quest.
Throughout the later half of the 1990's I pursued the design and construction of a variety of large format pinhole cameras whose chief attribute was somehow being able to carry a number of large negatives, held in reserve inside the confines of the camera's enclosure, permitting a number of images to be captured during a single photo-safari. A day trip camera.
The necessity for this creative ingenuity was a purposeful decision on my part to not use miniature roll film cameras, but to stick with the intentional limitations of large paper negatives, with their limited photographic sensitivity, contact printing them at a 1:1 ratio as finished images. Realistically, a return to the formative years of 19th century photography.
The challenges imposed by these purposeful limitations brought about the reinvention of some 19th century methods, the principal one being the falling plate camera, a practical solution for storing and changing large negatives inside an enclosed camera box. I evolved these camera designs through several versions, leading to a lightweight box, sheathed in aluminum, able to store and expose nearly a dozen 5"x8" paper negatives.
Along with these camera building ventures I also had to improve the tonal range of the resulting negatives, which led to the use of graded contrast paper, preflash exposures, and temperature controlled development methods. There are paragraphs and paragraphs more of intricate detail I could expend in describing the minutiae of the process that resulted, but I will spare the reader further suffering.
As my tools and methods improved I found the resulting orthochromatic images tended to mimic in large part the photographic aesthetic of the 19th century landscape image. Over-exposed, white-smeared skies devoid of any cloud details; motion-blur of moving objects, caused by the necessary lengthy exposure times; an almost painterly-like commanding overlook of the American landscape, like a window opened upon a new world. I began to further explore the areas surrounding central New Mexico, venturing further afield yet limited in capacity by the few sheets of paper available for my photographic survey, and the physical limitations imposed by heavy, bulky box cameras and tripods. I was my own mule.
So it was that I eventually revisited a photographic destination from years earlier, the Sandstone Overlook in the El Malpais National Monument of western New Mexico, (also the subject of the previous blog entry), burdened yet armed with tripod and box camera, backpack and stopwatch. I had been using the 5x8 camera for awhile, having developed a sense of its field of view and perspective, and therefore knew with certainty, even before planting the tripod's legs across the water-filled sandstone crevice atop the overlook, that I had a wonderful image, if I could but complete the technicalities of the process without error.
I fixed the box to the tripod's head, leveled and aligned the box's viewing dots to fix the boundaries of my yet latent image, then examined the quality and intensity of light and determined an exposure time based on many months of constant practice, and many repeated failures, too. Then it was waiting for the wind to die down, to diminish the vibrations and minute movements of the box perched atop the tripod's spidery legs, two hundred feet above the lava fields below, waiting for that still minute -- not a mere moment but many moments, almost forty five seconds -- and the opening of the shutter, the stepping back from the camera to remove my shadow from the setting, the intent focus on the stopwatch's digits and fretting over every tremor of breeze that might dull the sharpness of the resulting image.
I remember capturing several other exposures during that outing, and the expectant drive back to Albuquerque, wondering with excitement what I had captured, fervent but also tempered with the experience that comes from repeated failure. So many things have to happen in sequence with minimal error in order for a good image to result. I remember standing in the red-limned darkroom, the hush of the ventilator fan running, stirring the developer tray with tongs, watching the reversed tones come up in the brown liquid, and knowing with certainty, the certainty that only comes through countless hours of practice and failure and some successes, too, that I had come away from my venture with something of substance.
Now, it's been almost a year since I've done real photographic work in my fallow darkroom that waits, dusty yet patient, in my cold garage. The allure of the instant photograph, the sexy electronic gadget called the Lumix DMC-G1, has torn me away from my first love, who waits patiently for my return. Soon, I promise; soon.