Monday, October 23, 2006

The Wrong Tools for the Right Job

I've found myself lately engaged in landscape photography of the American Southwest, using a large format pinhole box camera, loaded not with sheet film, but orthochromatic paper negatives. Just ask any conventional large format photographer: pinholes and paper negatives are the playthings of grade school kids just being introduced to the medium; as a teaching aid but nothing more.

One becomes a bit self-conscious here, knowing that these words are indeed public, forever to be memorialized in the archives of some nameless server farm, situated who knows where. What I am carefully tap-dancing around is the confession that I'm really not all that good at photography, at least in the conventional sense. I find myself, through lack of discipline or just plain bone headedness, unable to execute the technical perfection required by my vision.

Take, for example, large format sheet film. I've yet to process a negative completely devoid of scratch or dust fleck, yet I read all the time where most others are able to do this seemingly simple task with little effort.

I can use the excuse that I've worked in obscurity for years, have never taken a real workshop, save for an introductory course in the basics, years ago. I've been a loner, isolated from the mainstream: that's my excuse. And as with most people who've worked in isolation, I've developed my own peculiar working methods and choice of materials.

Once I became obsessively involved in pinhole photography, the strength of the obsession drove me foreword through the difficulties of working with nonstandard materials, to the point where I began to understand how to use these materials in certain specific lighting conditions, to achieve consistent, predictable results. Once this began to happen, pinhole became, not a gimmick or mere curiosity, but a tool to be exploited to achieve specific results.

I'm still not certain if this reliance upon arcane and obtuse materials and methods is a crutch, an excuse, based on earlier failings to master that which others before me have found so satisfying, or whether this chosen path is indeed an open-ended venture of unlimited creative possibilities. I've begun to suspect it's the later, but I'm having too much fun to really bother with worrying about it.

I suppose I've come to the realization that what we now know as the conventional and mainstream in any creative field was, prior to being conventionalized, a highly personal, unique creative exploration into the unknown of endless possibilities. I can dredge up a few examples, most noticeable being the work of A. Adams, who developed a systematic methodology which future adherents came to call the Zone System, in which a photographer previsualized a finished print prior to ever exposing a sheet of film; predetermined his exposure and film developing technique based on the scene's brightness range and his personal vision, and then applied these decisions in a highly structured, precalibrated fashion so as to eliminate as much as possible the inclusion of accident from the process. There's now an entire school of adherents to these principles in the field of large format photography, as well as several alternative interpretations. What surprises me is the implication by some that, prior to Adams' methodology, the world didn't know how to properly expose and print photographs, as if he somehow were responsible for the invention of sensitometry. Which is nonsense; Adam's contribution was the systemization of certain scientific principles into a methodology that he could apply to his personal vision. The importance of Adams is the work that resulted. The fact that many others after him chose to replicate and pursue his working process, almost as a talisman, is to ignore the importance of what he personally achieved with that process.

The importance I place on Adams is that he applied certain principles and practices to solve specific problems related to fulfilling his personal vision. He didn't worry about following the methods of his forbearers, but followed the needs of his personal vision. We can argue about the merits of his vision; what's indisputable is that his pursuit of technical perfection served that vision.

I've lately again taken up the landscape image, using ortho paper in pinhole cameras, after jumping around to various other projects: dioramas, still-lifes, architectural, etc. I walk into some visitors center at a regional National Monument and find displays of old photographs from a hundred years ago, and find that what fascinates me about these photos is not so much the subject matter but the fact that they were obviously captured on orthochromatic film, in large format box cameras. The sky has that distinctive washed out whiteness, devoid of high contrast clouds against the darkened sky; skin tones of Native Americans appear almost Negroid in tone, because of the ortho media's lack of sensitivity to red. And the fact that these old negatives could be blown up to poster-size without degrading into a mass of granularity is testimony to the size of the original negative.

I have not consciously attempted to follow in the footsteps of the early landscape photographers of the west, nor do I even pretend to be mimicking them; nevertheless, I am fascinated that my own personal curiosity to see what things look like when captured on paper via a pinhole lens would somehow end up resembling, to some degree at least, photographs made in the same areas a century earlier. My methods and materials are much different from theirs; my choices are based on personal preference while theirs was not of choice but necessity. Mine is a mere reenactment, a retracing of those who have gone before me.

In that sense, it becomes obvious through my images of the American Southwest that I am capturing evidence of a wilderness that no longer exists. Oh sure, if one were to find oneself stranded in the middle of nowhere, with a broken down vehicle and out of cell phone range, one would soon discover that the wilderness still exists, in at least the physical sense of the word. But we have lost the sense of wilderness as the great-unknown embodiment of the unfathomable. We no longer believe in wilderness; we have come to find ourselves the dominant species over the planet, and now have come to believe that we have conquered all, both inner and outer space.

Meanwhile, it seems that a composite snapshot of the species' behavior would reveal that wilderness is alive and well in the heart of man, inasmuch as man continues to display a level of brutality and cruelty that rivals, perhaps surpassing, that of the natural world itself.

So I have come to find that my landscape images refer obliquely to an inner landscape, as well; and that it is at least as wild and untamed as any the early explorers ever had to encounter. I may happen across a viewpoint or scene that may symbolize a sense of wildness, yet there remains a knowing that true wilderness has been subjugated to the needs of civilization.

This last weekend I clambered over and around the National Monument known as Inscription Rock, in western New Mexico. Knowing that centuries of adventurers, explorers, settlers and travelers of all ilk’s had happened across this hulking outcropping of rock and inscribed in stone evidence of their having been there, I was startled most by the realization that our civilization was the one that fenced and corralled this symbol of man overcoming the wilds, by distilling the essence of what this rock meant to generations past into a petting zoo, a theme park, a carnival ride experience. One no longer happens across Inscription Rock in the midst of some monumental journey; rather, one places a visit, as one would to an ailing relative in convalescence, fenced in, programmed and controlled.

Given that context, it is no wonder that the resulting images, though they may superficially resemble photos made a century ago, really speak of loss, of a wilderness incomplete and desolate, whose desolation is all the more complete because the soul of wilderness is missing.~


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