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.


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