Monday, October 29, 2007

Embracing Change

Okay, I’m game.

I’ve decided that, rather than being merely presumptive or highly opinionated about certain aspects of photography, I’d try the new technology on for size.

See how they fit, as it were.

What I am talking about is this: that there are other technological usage modes, photographic paradigms, to the genre of image making known as ‘street photography’ – documentary photojournalism – than the rangefinder 35mm film camera.

Blasphemy, I know.

I am known to a small circle of intimates and acquaintances as a traditionalist, even a borderline practitioner of alternative photographic processes.

So, why now? Why step off the deep end, into the no-man’s land of the digital point-and-shoot? Well, for one, I was out of film; or rather, my traditional camera of choice for street photography, a Retina IIIC, only had two shots left, and finding silver gelatin, B/W film would involve a trip across town. Too, I wanted to explore new usage modes of modern camera technology, which in my case was a several years old Sony DSC-S90.

This camera has become our standby family camera for snapshot events: parties, gatherings, doing, and outings. It replaced our Olympus Stylus; not for any valid reason, like the Oly was broken, - although it was battered and scratched and had seen better days – but had served us well and faithfully, and was now relegated to some dusty drawer.

I’m certain that my Retina went through a similar life cycle, but is now old enough so as to be better appreciated for its precision optics and Swiss-watch-like mechanical precision. Not so the plastic-bodied, instantly disposable products marketed under the rubric of an immediately accessible, ever changing, perpetually behind the state-of-the-art by five minutes, consumerist ethic.

I am not embarrassed to say that my most up to date photographic tool is at least ten minutes behind the state-of-the-art.

New tools find new working methods. The older tools, the ones with which I am most comfortable, required the camera to be placed up to one’s face in order for the photographer to make informed composition and focus decisions. That gesture – the camera momentarily placed up to one’s face – seems as disjointed and obsolete as the deft-wristed flickings of a barber’s straight razor against the leather strap.

The liquid crystal display has changed the way in which cameras can interface with the biomechanics of the human body. For street photography, this is a great thing, because it offers the possibility of a candid approach to photographing people in public unrivalled by traditional gear. I find a useful technique in gripping the camera in a kind of palmed curl, the camera concealed behind the forearm, ready to be raised into action in one deft movement that simultaneously half-presses the shutter button, permitting the camera’s automatic exposure and focus systems to adjust to the scene at hand, while a quick glance at the view screen offers a brief moment for compositional adjustments before the exposure is made, and the camera is again concealed in its one-handed wrist curl. Sometimes this action is so quick that, when accompanied by a kind of mimicked mental confusion that resembles the wanderings of a tourist, the photographic subject has little or no clue to the intended target of the wandering photographer.

The action of image making now is no longer required to be directly connected to a specifically identifiable and predictable set of gestures.

The principles that describe how humans create, interface and react to new tools dictate that each specific tool will have unique attributes, some good and some wanting. In the case of the new digital cameras this is all too true. My Sony, for instance, possesses a pretty good optical viewfinder, useful under bright sun when LCD screens can be washed out, one that zooms with the camera’s lens; but its framing and parallax are so far off as to be practically useless. And like most small cameras, its performance under low light conditions is less than optimal, as is the delay in the action of the shutter.

It is this matter of instantaneous shutter response, and having ergonomic, mechanical controls at hand, instead of tiny buttons and software menus, that will keep the traditional mechanical film camera alive for a few more years; that, and the superior tonal range of black and white, silver gelatin film.

Hand-operated tools, of which cameras are, work best when optimally designed to interface with the human hand. Many modern cameras seem instead like they were designed for titanium cyborgs, rather than flesh and blood people.

Yet I am embracing the new technology with curiosity, exploring the possibilities with an open mind.

Now, if only I could get a good black and white print from a digital file without sacrificing my first-born son. I am reminded that one can purchase a 100-sheet box of the finest gallery-quality, silver gelatin print paper for about the same cost as several ink cartridges. But that’s another story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Physical and the Transcendent

I’ve returned to the darkroom, after a period of inactivity, with the intent of crafting fine silver gelatin, fiber-based contact prints from pinhole camera paper negatives.

Having worked in various silver-based photographic formats and media, I seem to continually return to that specific combination of materials that seem to deliver the clearest translation of my creative intent, with the most consistent results.

In my experience, the paper negative yields a raw image the most readily of any of the traditional, silver-based media. It requires only dim red lighting for its safe handling. It shows little or no dust, the bane of the photo-traditionalist. It possesses a built-in diffusion filter for the contact printing of its negative image: the paper backing itself. Its post-camera processing can be visually monitored real time, and adjusted in situ, to produce an optimal negative image.

Yet, I have found that for the paper negative to function as an optimal image-collecting medium it requires a peculiarly specialized process regimen. Because of its slight photographic sensitivity, a faint pre-exposure of light must be given, in order to raise its sensitivity to the faint shadow details in the scene. This is found to be especially important when used with pinhole cameras, where the intensity of light striking the paper from the scene’s shadow areas can be very low.

It is also important to control the negative’s contrast by the use of graded papers, which possess a predetermined contrast to daylight exposures. So-called multi-contrast papers have a high-contrast emulsion that is activated by the predominately blue lighting of daylight exposures, resulting in negatives impossible to print.

Paper negatives are spectrally sensitive to blue, or blue-green, light, hence their tonal response to scenic landscapes is very reminiscent of the early silver emulsion technology of the 19th century. Blue skies appear almost paper-white in the final print. Earth tones, and the brown tones of people of ethnic descent, appear darker than they would otherwise.

I have found a favorite companion to the paper negative in the warm tone, fiber-based silver gelatin contact print. The process of crafting such a finished print from a paper negative involves a careful application of hard-won lessons, gleaned from years of struggle with these materials. Consistency in process and materials, care in the control of the exposure and development steps involved, are all-crucial to the success of the endeavor. The paper negative has to retain both shadow and highlight details, as judged by viewing backlit through its paper base. This is achieved by a combination of adequate pre-exposure, careful in-camera scene exposure, and slow, controlled development. The contact print similarly must be carefully exposed and sufficiently developed, using an adequate volume of dilute paper chemistry, whose development time is constantly adjusted to yield a finished print that, when selenium toned and dried, retains both shadow and highlight detail.

The step of selenium toning the print not only improves the archival properties of the silver emulsion, but is calibrated to cause a partial tonal shift in the image; one that tints the shadows with a slight ruddy complexion, while retaining the paper’s native greenish tint in the lighter areas; this also has the effect of increasing the contrast between the shadows and midtones.

Finally, the dry-down phenomenon peculiar to fiber-based paper media is also accounted for in the process, such that the finished print retains sufficient shadow detail.

Interestingly, the quality of the camera’s optical system has a large effect on the type of processing the materials require. A regimen of paper negative exposure and development that would yield a contrast range impossible to print from a pinhole camera can look beautiful when exposed by a narrow depth-of-focus, refractive optical system like a single element lens operating wide open. The soft bokeh and off-axis aberrations of such improvised optics serves to soften the otherwise excessive contrast, to produce a negative whose tonal range mates well with the fiber-based contact print.

Having spent considerable time working with such improvised refractive optics, I find the narrowly focused images intrinsic to these kinds of lens systems possess a unique photographic quality, one that deserves to be considered as a genre totally different from the pinhole aesthetic, and unique unto itself.

There is found to be a fascinating and complimentary set of photographic qualities to the resulting set of pinhole-generated and lens-generated prints. The pinhole sees the scene as a flat field of abstract shapes, lines and tones; flattening the perspective with mathematical certainty. This is complimented by the deeply expanded, narrowly focused image provided by crude refractive optics operating wide open. Whereas the pinhole renders elements throughout the scene as a two-dimensional projection of consistent sharpness, the spyglass isolates subject elements in the center of the field, while diffusing and softening the periphery, near and far grounds into swirls and zones of bokeh-clouds and dream-like fog.

These two optical processes yield images that possess entirely different and unique qualities, whose interest continues to dominate my personal photographic vision. I find myself immersed within the boundary zone where art and craft are inseparable, a dialog between physical materials and transcendent vision.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Squaring the Circle: In Praise of the Square Format

I have a rather nascent interest in the subject of audio recording technology, and as a result subscribe to several periodicals dedicated to the subject. While perusing one of these magazines of recent, I happened across an illustration of an album cover. I was reminded, when studying the square-format photograph on the front of the album cover, how the technology of square, 120-format film has probably been kept alive, decades after it should have been relegated to the dusty shelves of archaic photographic museums, simply to fulfill the demands for commercial album cover art.

Interestingly, when Compact Disc technology was developed in the early 1980’s, the CD cover shape decided upon was also square, helping to, once again, extend the life of this venerable film format.

The square format is interesting – and a shade illusive. One can’t easily wander into the neighborhood store, for instance, and find square picture frames. And for those hopeful up-and-coming photographers, hopes of getting a cover shot published on any magazine in print is even less certain were one to submit the picture in square format.

It seems like a fundamental law of nature, that magazine periodicals have to be printed in rectangular, upright, so-called ‘portrait’ orientation. Yet we recall that the 120-rollfilm, square-image camera dominated the fashion photography scene for decades. Its larger film size yielded a square image that could be cropped to fit either a horizontally or vertically oriented, rectangular magazine spread.

It interests me that the music reproduction formats most closely associated with high-quality – the vinyl LP and plastic CD – both use a round, rotating disc technology whose most efficient packaging would therefore dictate that the circle be squared, so to speak. Compact disc packaging seems to still be focused on square boxes, whose external surfaces present an opportunity for the display of square-format photographic images.

We are reminded of George Eastman’s revolutionary device known as the Brownie Box Camera, whose initial version used a roll of photographic paper, onto which round images were exposed. We also may recall from grade-school optics that a pinhole aperture will project onto the reflective surface of a darkened chamber an image whose limits of extent fade into the darkened edges of a circular field. For that matter, any round lens will project an image whose limits trace a round field of view. It is the choice of the camera designer to fit within that round field of view the artificial borders of a seemingly arbitrary square or (usually) rectangular film format. Of all possible film formats to choose from, the square format fills this round image field most efficiently.

As a two-dimensional visual image, the square painting brings with it neither the heritage of the horizontally biased landscape, nor that of the vertically biased portrait.

The square format is a box, a container; a vessel, within which can be simultaneously placed the heart, the eye, the brain and the hand.

We begin to suspect that Pandora’s box was probably also square.

To square something up is to make it straight, to correct its posture. There is the sense of universal justice: to square up accounts; to settle debts, to make right.

With the square we find that all sides are equal, or at least equivalent. Within the square can be inscribed a circle, which touches on all four sides equally. So too, can the square be inscribed inside a larger circle that touches the square’s four corners. These two circles – the one inscribed, the other super scribed – relate to each other in size as the square root of two, and in area as the larger being twice that of the smaller.

Pythagoras understood this business of the squaring of the circle, too. Were he alive, Pythagoras would probably be taking pictures with a Rolleiflex, onto square-format, 120 film.

Photographically, the square format is most commonly seen in that most venerable of camera designs, the twin lens reflex. TLR’s, as they are often referred to by aficionados, seem as archaic and outdated in today’s digital world as buggy whips. In fact, buggy whips can still be purchased from suppliers of specialty equipment for the equestrian crowd; TLR’s, on the other hand, can only be purchased new from Rollei, the high-end German camera maker, and Seagull, the Chinese-based, low-end manufacturer.

A recent issue of Robert Redford’s trendy ‘Sundance’ clothing and accessory catalog featured a Seagull TLR, held by some waifish catalog model that, we are most certain, would have not an inkling of the difference between an f/stop and an f-sharp.

Lest we be accused of mere bad research, or worse, it must be mentioned that there exists a whole other sub-category of camera, the so-called ‘toy’ camera, like the legendary Diana and Holga, and other variants, known for their user-friendliness, plastic-bodied klutziness and unpredictable behavior, that employ square format images using 120 roll film. From a marketing perspective these essentially disposable junk cameras are a convenient vehicle with which camera stores can increase their sales of slow-moving medium format film. An entire sub-culture of artsy proponents have arisen, with dedicated online discussion forums and internet-published books of images.

The Twin Lens Reflex camera is most commonly employed hanging at waist level from a neck strap, the user having to peer downward, toward one’s shoes, to see the horizontally-reversed image on the bright, square view screen. Cartier Bresson, the legendary user of the Leica rangefinder, eschewed the TLR camera, most likely because it did not work well with his working style, which was to compose the image within the imaginary frame lines of his mind, as the elements of the scene came together; only at the last possible second would the camera be rapidly placed to eye level for the exposure. The rangefinder, for HCB, was an extension of his vision. One doesn’t record the scene with a TLR as a participant; instead, one is a distant and removed observer, like a U-Boat captain peering through the periscope at a line of Allied shipping, stalking his prey, waiting to take the shot. One never has to place the TLR up on one’s face in order to record the square-format image. Its presence remains stealthy, concealed, and submarine-like.

Like our hypothetical U-Boat captain, the horizon –a circle – and the round dome of the sky and the cosmos above proscribe our sense of the immediate universe around us. We place the circle of the horizon within the square of our mental understanding of the four cardinal directions, our mental mapping of the universe – the square – overlaid upon our visual understanding.

The circle squared is the most essentially pure photographic format available. It does not demand a horizon line, but eschews the tug of gravity; it refuses any referential association with cinema or television or the ubiquitous computer screen. It is a window of a different kind, a border encompassing the all-seeing eye, whose sides imply a simultaneous view; as if the resulting image were a map of a broader country, some universal terrain, as seen from above, from on high; from a higher dimension.