Sunday, June 25, 2006

Snapshots, Electrons and Film

Having been involved in a week-long car trip vacation to southern Colorado, and having been involved in that venerable vacation past time called "snap-shot" photography, it perhaps may be an opportune time to make some observations.

One travels, perhaps by car, for long distances, through arid or unmemorable distances, and then happens upon a location or setting that one deems important enough to "capture on film". This becomes an essential categorization process, as if one were sorting memories into various bins.

This one is not worth remembering; we'll toss it out. This other one, however, deserves a special place. We'll mark this special memory with the iconography of the snapshot.

Of course, the phrase "capture on film" has now become a mere turn of a phrase, like the way in which we use the phrase "run of the mill" to denote the average or ordinary, even though few of us have ever seen or worked in a true mill. Phrases such as these are derived from our past, which seems too slow to change with the pace of the present moment. Thus, "capture on film", as a phrase, seems to have been linguistically captured on film, as if it were a specimen under glass, a moth whose wings are delicately pinned to the backing board, for future generations to marvel in its quaintness.

Two photographic processes were at work during our vacation; both similar yet distinct. The first one involved operation of a film-based, point-and-shoot (P/S) camera by my 6-year old grandson. The other involved operation of a P/S digital camera by myself, a long-time film shooter.

It seemed obvious upon direct observation that each and every time my grandson would desire to pull out the camera and take a picture, that it was in direct response to an emotional moment, induced by some physical artifact of the surroundings. The fact is that the camera was limited in controllability over the photographic process, and my grandson untrained and inexperienced to render exact technical control of the image recorded onto film; nevertheless, what he had in fact actually recorded onto film was more akin to an emotional image, or to borrow a phrase from the computer world, an "emoticon" or emotional icon that, when subsequently viewed, would impart an analogous emotional re-response.

What my grandson was partaking in was a time-honored tradition of capturing images as personal icons, within which would be imparted, as if by talisman, the true essence of memory itself.

Interestingly, these memory icons that we call snapshots, as of this writing, do not yet exist. That is, they are only latent images, icons-to-be. We have a sense of hopefulness that they will yet emerge from the larval stage of the photographic process to become images, prints, that can be handled and smudged and mutilated and stored in boxes, and within the pages of seldom-viewed albums become future memories of events past.

For my grandson has discovered the terribly unmerciful laws of physics that, immutably, determine that should the camera back ever be opened mid-roll, all those hoped-for memory icons will be forever erased, as if a final, cruel trick by some unmerciful god.

With the film-based photographic process, the final outcome is always a latent hope that we, almost superstitiously, mix with equal measures of preparation and luck. And then, sometime in the future, we wait on the developing and printing to reveal whether, in fact, our endeavor has been met with success or failure. It's with an almost religious sense of faith that we approach the taking of images via film, by recording an optical wave front as latent electronic disturbances within a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion.

Contrast this with the electronic photographic process, whereby images are immediately previewed, previsualized in their final form, prior to capture. And once captured, can be immediately reviewed and, as if by whim or fancy, immediately deleted forever.

As a process for the capturing of memories, this tendency can seem to border on the insane. For memories seldom achieve a sense of true value without the added benefit of time. Like the aging of fine wine, time is an essential ingredient for the proper mental perspective required to assess the photograph as emotional memory icon. One has to be removed from the milieu of the original setting, far enough displaced, so as to see the forest through the trees, as it were.

There would seem to be, therefore, several points of discipline required when using electronic image-making apparatus for the collection of emotional memories. First and foremost is the essential rule that images not be deleted. There is a necessary gray area here, where images that are obviously so badly composed or ill-illuminated or poorly focused, so as to totally detract from the point at hand, need to be deleted and immediately reshot.

The second rule is that context should not be a determining factor in the deletion of an image, until a considerable distance of time has been placed between the taking of the image and its reconsideration.

This begs the question of adequate short and long term storage capacity. Adequate capacity is needed within which to archive images over a long period of time, until they can be better evaluated, and portable media within which to temporarily capture all the possible images one may encounter during the course of one's travels away from home, which now becomes redefined as the location of permanent, long-term storage.

It becomes obvious, upon comparing film-based and electronic image capture processes, that the film-based process provides a natural time-shift, required by the nature of the media for processing and printing, that offers an adequate interval of time so as to facilitate the objectivity that emotional memory icons require. On the other hand, it is also obvious that electronic image capture devices must purposely be retuned in their usage modalities, so as to mimic the film-like process, in order to function properly as an instrument for the capture of emotional memory icons. Their immediacy of use, and misuse, renders them fundamentally inadequate for the capture of the ephemeral, without a more thoughtful approach. ~

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Message is the Message

Formats. Artifacts of the medium. Hi-end, lo-end. High fidelity, low fidelity. These thoughts were bouncing around in my head this weekend as I revisited some of my older work, a series of short experimental videos.

Back in the mid-1990's, I had the opportunity to rent a tape by Eric Sachs, called "Don From Lakewood". It was revolutionary (to me, at least) in its use of low-fidelity (read: bottom-sucking quality) via the despised format of Fisher-Price Pixelvision video. Think of a pixelated, black and white video, with a blurry, flickering kind of shutter speed, and hiss-laden monaural audio. Think 5 minutes of this, fit onto a single 90 minute, Type-II audio cassette tape.

"Don From Lakewood" awoke in me a long-standing interest in lo-fi, despised formats, from consumer video (Beta and VHS) to microcassette audio. If, as Marshall McLuhan posited, the medium is the message, then what kind of message does one get out of lo-fi, despised formats?

I sought to explore this question in a series of rather introspective, personal video productions, which were used as vehicles to grow a vision and style in the field of video art, and attempt to tell a few simple stories along the way. I did a 35 minute piece, "City Central", loosely based on a tragic event in the life of a family member. This video used paper cutouts, cardboard diorama sets and surveillance camera video. The production value was decidedly not ready for prime time. Which was, to a point, part of the reason for embarking on the project in the first place.

I've come to realize that the commercial media products that we consume on a daily basis -TV news, entertainment, movies, dramas, reality shows, online advertising - are solely the result of the application of commercial interests to a mediated culture. Meaning that the slick production values and never-ending quest for better, faster, slicker, glossier are mere window dressing on what's really a commercial business venture to sell us, the viewer, to the client, the advertiser.

In truth, the art of video has little or nothing to do with this current mess. And the desire for slick production value is little removed from the glossy qualities of a men's magazine centerfold. Although video art spans a much wider field of view than mere commercial television, the sad fact is most people have never seen video art, or are incapable of being receptive to video art, primarily as a result of years of commercial mediation via broadcast TV and cinema.

The good news is that the internet, at least in its present manifestation, is still a "new medium", receptive to differing standards of production value and perceived quality. The bad news is that there are millions of videos being posted online each day. Getting one's voice heard above the roar of the crowd - not getting lost in a sea of anonymity - is the present challenge.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Art and the Human Spirit

I just finished reading "In the Land of Temple Caves", by Frederick Turner. In this little gem of a book, Turner explores the role of Art as a fundamental process to the human condition, one that elevates man above the rubble and detritus of man's cruelty and selfishness.

His argument is provocative, in that his exploration of the paleolithic cave art of France and Spain reveals a sophistication and emplacement of Art as of central importance to the societies of early man. So important as to suggest that Art itself may have been - perhaps still is - the prime gesture that man uses to express his desire for all things spiritual, and may have been central to the evolution of the species.

Turner goes on to suggest that the carnage and cruelty of recent history is symptomatic of a species totally out of communion with its primal, earth-centric, Art-focussed roots. He goes further, to indict the phenomenon of the "art world" in western culture, which tends to seperate and further alienate Every Man from true Art through the aegis of a caste system that rewards insiders with access and shuns the non-professional, outsider Artist.

If I am to take away some gleanings from this book that are applicable to my daily life, it would be that the idea of 'folk-art' is not a mere marginalized sub-category, used by the elite of the professional art world to speak down to those who are not well-connected. Rather, the idea that folk-art is, literally, the Art of the People. Its the only True Art, in the sense that it's a most genuine byproduct of a life given over to an honest dialog and communion with the spiritual.

As such, I should reconsider my work in pinhole photography in the light of the folk-artist. To approach the role of the creative in our private lives is to bend, like gentle grasses against the oncoming breeze, yet not break; to search for the spiritual through creativity, and not permit predefined categories and genres to stifle or limit the possibilities.

For the possibilities, they are endless, as is the wind or the sea.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Pinhole Photography

Pinhole photography. That's the past-time I'm the most passionate about.

The image displayed here was made using a cardboard craft box, converted to a camera by the application of black spray paint inside the box, a thin brass sheet perforated with a minute pinhole, and a light-tight fitting lid. The sheet-film used was Ilford's FP-4 in 4"X5" format, developed in Kodak's HC-110, using dilution "B".

You can see more of my pinhole images at:

I've been "doing" pinhole photography for about 10 or 12 years. Doing, because pinhole is not just about the resulting image; rather, its about the whole process. Or rather, its a holistic process, in the sense that the process itself is perhaps just as important as the results. And my lack of precision regarding the inception date seems to derive from the effect that the process of pinhole has on one's personal recollection of the history involved. You get so tied up in the whole affair that it seems like you've been doing it practically forever.

Pinhole, in the manner in which I practice it, is a direct off-shoot of the craft of the silver-based traditional black and white darkroom. Its one step away from the photogram, which is the direct tranference of an object's optical properties onto a light sensitive surface, without the intervening medium of an optical gear-train.

The pinhole camera is a camera obscura with a light-sensitive medium placed at the projection plane.

Some of the limitations of hand-crafted box cameras I have come to discover can be the greatest strength of the medium. You have no accurate viewfinder within which to visualize the composition, in all its glory. At best, perhaps guide lines or viewing dots on the sides and top of the box, as an aid to aiming. And at the small working apertures used in pinhole, most photographic media operate beyond their linear light sensitivity response. Meaning you've got to deal with what's called reciprocity failure; each camera, film type and lighting condition has to be calibrated before hand. Light meters are therefore practically useless. And you find yourself using media such as black and white photo paper in applications it was not intended for, such as a form of inexpensive orthochromatic film.

But these limitations are its strength. Your imagination, and serendipity, become the modus operandi. You never know what image will result until you see it slowly begin to tarnish in the red illumination of the developer tray. And unless your eye is carefully trained to recognize the resulting positive print from a mere negative, you really don't know what you have until it's either printed in the darkroom, or scanned and inverted to a positive on a monitor screen.

My personal vision of the craft of pinhole photography is that the end goal in mind is always a finely crafted silver gelatin print, archivally processed onto fine fiber-based paper. Although I do frquently revert to the convenience of the scan, invert and post online. But nothing beats a fine contact print on fiber paper.

I hope you'll take the time to enjoy some of these images.

Welcome To Joe's Blog

Like many folks who now blog as a pasttime, our once paper-only habit of journalling has now arrived full force into the future that is now. Once there was the Diary. A personal, private matter, intended only for one's inner Muse. Then came the Journal. Personal, yes, but intended for thoughtful perusal by historians, or others of interest, in the future.

I have a scattered assortment of journals. Sketch journals, documenting an internal thought-life of varied interests, scattered between various notebooks, PDA records and file cards, in some semi-abstract assortment, the kind of careless disorganization that only a schooled historian would find interest in deciphering.

Its not that I'm inherently disorganized. Its just that I find fascination with the physicality of a new-found journal notebook, or PDA system, or filecard journalling system, and stick with it for a time. Until my interest moves on to another journalling system. Attempting a chronology of my journals would therefore find one flipping back and forth between the pages of various journalling systems.

So perhaps this initial entry into my blog will mark a new era in my personal journalling history, where I can begin to refer back to some repetitive themes of my past. And perhaps you, the reader, will find some interest here, too.

Ultimately, I suspect the popularity of blogs (or journals) has more to do with the interest most of us secretly harbor in seeing our inner thought life outwardly displayed, for others to read and ponder.