Monday, October 26, 2009

Video Tape Therapy

During the week between Christmas and the end of the year 1998 I took a week's worth of vacation time from work, and holed myself up in my garage/studio to film a short documentary. I actually didn't "film" this short work onto photographic motion picture film, but rather video taped it as a low-fidelity, black-and-white, surveillance-camera-style of production; since video tape is actually a polyester film covered in thin films of metallic particles, the term "film" still stands as technically accurate; but we will use the term "tape" to distinguish the one medium from the other.

During the week of shooting raw scenes onto Hi-8 tape, I employed neither actors nor real sets, but instead created miniature diorama scenes from scraps of discarded paper and cardboard, gluing newspaper images onto stiff card stock to make buildings, cars and other props for the tape that would come to be called "City Central", a story loosely based upon events that happened to my brother in the seedy parts of Albuquerque known as the "combat zone", the eastern portion of the Central Avenue corridor.

In the summer of 1994 we received a phone call informing us of my brother's presence at the regional trauma hospital, in a coma. I was actually at work, on the night shift, when I received word. I took the rest of the night off and hurried down to the hospital. He was indeed in a coma, having been on the receiving end of a severely brutal beating, suffering from head trauma which had pulverized numerous bones in his skull, dramatically injuring his brain and causing his head to swell up to resemble a bruised basketball.

He would awaken from his coma ten days later, severely impaired, and would eventually spend months in a rehabilitation facility in Roswell, New Mexico, in the same building where the supposed crashed UFO aliens' bodies were studied and dissected. There, he had to learn how to be an adult all over again; how to eat and dress himself and take care of all the other aspects of being a sentient, adult person.

We (my wife and I) drove him down to rehab, and months later drove him back, where we made room for him in our home as he continued to mend and heal. Though I was involved in assisting my brother during his lengthy period of healing, and dealing with such things as his personal affects at the apartment where the incident occurred (I could still see the blood stains under the 2nd floor balcony), I really had not processed well the whole event, nor was there a sense of closure in any way healing to the family, since his resulting amnesia at the time prevented him from testifying in court, resulting in charges dropped against the three suspects. By the time his memories did slowly return, years later, the perpetrators would already have died violent deaths themselves. But closure for the family, particularly me, remained elusive.

Thus were the circumstances that led me to spend a week in the garage taping a paper-cutout, puppet-like video production loosely based on my brother's story. The results were not great, or even modestly good, but they served to provide not only a mechanism for my internal processing of the event but also led me to explore further this low-fidelity, black-and-white video approach to what could plausibly be termed "experimental video".

I had been interested in this genre from having seen Eric Saks' experimental Fisher-Price Pixelvision-derived short "Don From Lakewood". The "quality" of the video (here the term is used merely symbolically) was such that a recognizable image was barely evident, but the combined effects of the sound track (a series of phone calls to a furniture store, requesting that a couch be delivered to a house prior to actual purchase) combined with the quirky set style and puppet characters made for a highly entertaining production. I became convinced that, rather than ride the crest of the bleeding edge of avante-garde newness in film and video technology, I would explore the more serene backwaters, the barely-recognizable-as-valid consumer video formats like VHS; crash-editing from one tape to another, using less-than-consumer-grade video sources like miniature board-style surveillance cameras, and micro-cassette recordings for audio, whose ever-present tape hiss and telephone-quality bandwidth provided for a compatible counterpoint to the grunge-like video itself.

I produced, over a period of ten years or so, a drawer-full of tapes, using the moniker of "ad hoc productions", all edited onto S-VHS tape from source material first captured onto Hi-8, employing jump cuts or simple fade-like transitions, (film-making effects equivalent to the silent film era) using consumer-grade analog mixers. Photo Video Box; Shuttle Rider Punch Card; Window; Terra Firma; Mild West; Baby Takes a Ride; 60% Acrylic; Earthenware Psychosis; Video Surveillance One; Locket; First Generation; Least Significant Digit; Trampoline Art; these titles you will never find on Netflix or at Blockbuster Video. And probably for good reason.

Today my JVC brand S-VHS editing VCR sits on its shelf in my office, adjoining the video monitor on a side table (a Commodore brand intended for use with the Commodore 64 computer), with the mixers on the table in front, all connected via a maze of coaxial cables. I will on occasion dust off the various components, and run a tape through the editing deck to ensure its innards remain in good working order. Down below, on the floor under the desk, is a plastic bin filled with old Hi-8 analog camera gear, board-style surveillance cameras, microphones, micro-cassette recorders and other miscellany of the now-arcane craft of analog video production.

There has been talk as of recent, within my home, of an impending reorganization and redecoration effort targeting my office, which resulting activities will no doubt cause me to reconsider the continued maintenance of this analog video production facility that remains little-used. I need to make a clear decision, whether to relocate said equipment, perhaps out to my unheated, garage-based darkroom, to recommence the outdated art of analog video production, or let it all go, for pennies on the dollar, to someone on Craig's List or Ebay, and call that whole decade of experimental tape production a closed chapter, never to reappear.

Meanwhile, time has passed and my brother, although he's continued to heal and slowly regain his sense of taste, retains some profound handicaps, having permanent double vision, no sense of smell, numbness in his face and Parkinson's syndrome due to the neurological damage; yet he has healed emotionally better than I, such being the power of forgiveness. It is never wise to take on the offense of others, even in a situation as dire as this, with a person as close as a brother can be.

It's hard to turn loose of the past, and its implements, to which one finds oneself so permanently affixed, especially when these implements and artifacts have been the aegis of a process of healing and personal creative growth. Life moves on, and so must I.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mr. Ibarra's Remington

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History in the Making

Photographed off the ground-glass view-screen of a Speed Graphic 4x5 using a Lumix G1

I'm sitting in a favorite coffee shop, looking out the window onto the rain-soaked street, with my Grandson next to me. He's dressed in a brand-new blazer jacket, dress shirt, tie, docker-style pants and white sneakers. No, he's not on his way to church (as my wife's boss commented earlier). We've come from Dillard's, at the Winrock Mall, Albuquerque's first true mall.

There's an old movie titled "The Mayor", starring Anthony Quinn as the mayor of Albuquerque (I think his character resembles the real-life Clyde Tingley, Albuquerque's most historically notable mayor, and later governor and US Senator), wherein there's a scene in the movie (it was filmed in the early 1960's ,when I was a mere tot) showing the then-new Winrock Mall (named after Winthrop Rockefeller, who built the mall and then deeded it to the University of New Mexico). The scene in the movie shows the original part of the mall, a long, high, covered structure open at both ends -- a breezeway more than a true indoor mall. Over the years the mall was enclosed, then expanded, and went through the life-cycle that all cities and neighborhoods endure as they age from the fashionably new, to the well-established, to the decrepitude of the elderly.

As Albuquerque's northeast heights underwent explosive growth in the 1960's and '70's, another mall was built just 1/2 mile away, which was newer and offered a wider variety of stores. The youth migrated to the new mall as the place to hang out, while the older folks liked the quiet of Winrock as a place to take their indoor walk in the morning. Quiet is not a good sign for a mall, especially when the major clientele are slowly dying off. Winrock's slow demise had begun.

There were fleeting signs of new life, periodically, and then another anchor store would depart. Montgomery Wards closed down; J.C. Penny moved up the street to the other mall; little clothing and shoe stores, the standard Mom & Pop fare of any modern mall, one-by-one closed down.

The death knell came when a new, outdoor shopping area was built just across the street from Winrock, drawing another major anchor, Borders Books, away for good. All that's left is Bed, Bath & Beyond, a local sporting goods outfit, and Dillard's. Not just one Dillard's, but two.

In its heyday of explosive grown at Winrock, Dillard's found it necessary to build a larger building on the other side of the mall; but they didn't close down the original location, rather they kept the men's clothing at the older location and the women's in the newer. It is still this way even today.

When we showed up at the Dillard's men's store this rainy morning the parking lot was nearly empty; the clerk who helped my Grandson find some fancy duds remarked that we were the first customers of the day. It was almost eleven AM; a two-story department store, stuffed with fine men's and boy's clothing, and no customers save us. This does not bode well for the future of Winrock. But, nevertheless, we spent our money, we did our small part; we could have driven over to the other, busier mall, where we would have had to park further out from the building, on a rainy day, but we saved ourselves a rain-soaked walk; perhaps, in one's deepest fantasy, our small purchase may have also saved the old mall; but I seriously doubt it.

When I was a young lad my step-mom would send us out for the day with just a dollar or two, and I would have to make it last all day, for lunch or whatever. I would walk a diagonal route from our house, several miles away, stopping off at each of several malls for refreshment, cool air-conditioning on a hot day, and a place to rest. First Eastdale Center, with an old one-screen theater playing matinee movies, and a city park behind it to play and run and have fun; then further away would be the Wyoming Mall, via another park, where could be found Duke City Hobbies (now torn down, replaced by a Walmart) and across the street at the Hoffmantown Mall (still open) Campbell's Pharmacy's soda fountain, Pen & Pad Stationary (still open) and the public library. Further walking would lead, via another city park, to Winrock, our ultimate destination. The food court pyramid; Fool's Paradise novelty shop; Toys By Roy; all the fun stores for a young man to enjoy.

I'm getting older now, feeling the effects of middle age, and my Grandson is maturing faster than I can keep up with. But at least he had the opportunity today, to someday share with his kids and grand-kids, when on that rainy morning when he went to Winrock Mall with his grandpa to get a fancy blazer, shirt and tie.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fat Heads & Boob Tubes

Pinhole paper negative

Zorki IV Soviet-era rangefinder, Ilford FP-4 film

The alley behind the old TV Repair Shop

The alley behind the old TV Repair Shop

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Dogs, Old Tricks

Format blending: take an old, dubbya-dubbya-two era Speed Graphic press camera, a modern micro-four-thirds digital camera, a piece of wood, some hardware, and viola, instant digital camera-obscura format blending. I had this crazy idea when the other night's restless sleeplessness afforded me the opportunity to let my mind wander as it so easily does if permitted, and usually it migrates onto some creative subject like photography.

I have been amused over the last few months, while perusing the internet photography discussion forums, that, while there's this concept of a lens's optical properties lending a photograph certain aesthetic qualities that are unique to that particular focal length, lens design and format size, there are whole new generations of people who are just now discovering these basic optical principles that have guided photography since its inception, as if before the era of computers and pixels none of this had existed, as if there is no past, just a perpetually changing present. Retro-tech, like old cameras and basic optical devices, remind me of that past.

I like the convenience aspect of some of the new digital gear, specifically the Lumix G1 I currently use, which seems to be a photographic jack-of-all-trades, being a good street shooter as well as an able landscape camera. But I also like old photographic methods. Large format negatives. Paper negatives. Contact printing on silver gelatin paper. Large format cameras. Adapted optics. Box cameras. The thing with these newer digital cameras is that their format size -- the size of their light-sensitive parts -- are so small that a normal angle of view demands a lens of extremely short focal length, short enough that you can't see the same optical qualities that you can with larger formats of the same angle of view, whose longer focal length lenses exhibit shallower depth of focus and a different perspective. There are also other optical qualities I like to explore with large format, like purposefully aberrant image quality, with out-of-focus, blurry edges, using single-element lenses, plastic fresnel lenses, or pinholes. Many of these alternative optical elements just aren't practical to apply to small digital cameras directly. What to do?

The thought struck me, during my night of tossing and turning, that what I needed is a large-format-box-camera-like device which, instead of projecting a lens's image onto film, would simply project its image onto a ground glass view-screen, enabling the resulting image to be viewed (or rephotographed) directly off the rear of the box. This would function like a test bed for all sorts of alternative refractive optical devices, whose image could be captured using the little G1. A digital camera-obscura.

This morning I thought about my old Speed Graphic, that workhorse of an old camera, stored in my closet along with other camera gear, whose ground glass, though marred and scratched and less than ideal, would make a handy test subject for the concept. I had also already made up a second lens board that uses an objective lens from a set of binoculars, which, operating wide open in aperture, exhibits lots of off-axis blurry optical magic. And the Speed Graphic's bellows permits focus adjustments as well, permitting the G1 to view the focused image on the Speed Graphic's ground glass just like a press photographer during the war would have seen.

The result is this collaboration between two entirely distinct generations of camera technology, cobbled together for some common purpose. The results are interesting, though not perfect. The ground glass is scratched and is less than ideal for the purpose, as it has a central hot-spot of overly-bright exposure; a modern fresnel lens view-screen would solve this problem, something I should perhaps consider upgrading to, but then I wonder what the old Speed Graphic would think of a new view-screen. Wouldn't want to get its hopes up. Although I do suppose it's taken notice of the old typewriters in the same closet that seem to get a lot of use lately, so perhaps it's onto me.

In the future I hope to finish a better version of this concept, with a fresnel screen brighter and of more even light distribution, such as a tail-board-style nested box structure with built-in camera mount in the back for the G1. Think of all the old magnifying glasses, and other refractive elements such as enlarger lenses, salvaged optical elements from industry, zone plates, etc., just waiting to be put into service as camera-obscura lenses, and all their goofy, swirly optical magic they have to offer. What they have to offer, technically, is far from the optical engineer's ideal; but what they seem to do well is project a little bit of magic, the kind you just can't measure with numbers, charts and graphs; the kind of magic where you know it when you see it and feel it deep down inside.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

DFW and Retrograde Transcendence

Paper negative exposed in handmade box camera using a 150mm binocular lens wide open at F/3

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

One Tenth of 'Infinite Jest'

Note: lurkers of this blog know that I post a photo along with written text; I'm not claiming exact correspondence between the title photo and the body of text included herein, but I like this shot nonetheless, and that's all that matters.

The Silver Way

"Negative/Positive Crabgrass"; a 4"x5" paper negative rephotographed using a Lumix G1 and the tones inverted.

(Note: This continues a theme of revisiting silver gelatin black & white photography, after an extended hiatus in The Digital Way.)

Sunday, in a fit of supreme boredom (why does it seem to take some extreme emotional fit to break oneself out of the trance-like miasma of boredom?) I dusted off a few of the implements of my silver gelatin, black & white (actually a continuous spectrum of gray) photography.

Just for the sake of the uninformed, I’ll add that at the beginning of twenty-oh-nine I began using a Lumix G1 camera for the satisfaction of my creative urges, and since, having begun the walk of The Digital Way, left my silver gelatin apparatuses to founder amidst a sea of disuse.

The alchemic silver gelatin process that I’ve come to favor I developed (no pun intended) over a period of years to include the use of red-light-insensitive black & white photo paper as an in-camera, large format, sheet film (less expensive and easier to process than film itself); pre-exposed with a faint, even dose of light (to improve the tonal range); and exposed in an old WWII-era Speed Graphic press camera (think Weegee) using a cobbled-together lens improvised from a pair of binoculars (well, one binocular; a pair would require either four arms, or a roll of duct tape, or both; and don’t get me started on the phrase “a pair of scissors”), using waterhouse stops (mere pieces of black card with holes of various sizes) placed behind the lens to control the diameter of the aperture. Due to the “slowness” of the photo-paper film, if the lens is stopped down to F/50 or so (a 3mm aperture on a 150mm focal length lens) it permits exposure times well over a second under indoor illumination, able to be timed handheld using the lens cap as a shutter (for accurate exposure using a hand-operated lens cap the times must be adequately long for good repeatability). For the requirements of shorter exposure times in brighter light, the rear curtain shutter of the Speed Graphic can be employed instead.

The resulting paper negative, after development, can either be scanned and Photoshopped into a positive, finished image, or contact printed in the darkroom onto fine, gallery-quality paper. The scanning process yields a graphic image file which could, theoretically, be printed to almost any size desired, limited only by the resolution of the scanner itself, whereas the contact print is limited in size to that of the original in-camera negative. This is the primary trade-off with the process: the ultimate print quality – the contact print (the term “quality” being entirely subjective, it being generally understood that the contact print on fiber-based silver gelatin paper is the gold standard by which all other photo printing methods are measured) – is spatially limited in size in a 1:1 ratio with the negative size; whereas the scanned negative can be printed, with much less quality, to almost any size. Choose your poison carefully.

The result is that, were one to desire a larger print size of excellent, contact print quality, it would necessitate a larger sized negative, implying the use of a larger camera system. I’ve recently been in the process of acquiring the implements of such a larger system, having just acquired a set of 8”x10” sheet film holders. I have several salvaged single-element large diameter lenses of sufficient focal length to work as the objective lens of an 8”x10” camera, but the resulting wide-open apertures will necessitate a large, fast mechanical shutter be employed to time the sub-second exposure times. This implies either the acquisition of some generic large-format-compatible leaf shutter, or the design and manufacture of my own, hand-built mechanical shutter.

The alternative would be to permanently stop down the lens to a small enough aperture such that the hand operated lens cap shutter can be used (for longer-than-one-second exposures), even in bright daylight – a fixed focus, “hyperfocal” box camera – mechanically much simpler to build, but without the ability to render narrow depth-of-focus (selective focus) effects (which are useful for the making of portraits and other artsy still-lifes). So, why all this folderol around making photographs; why not just break out the Lumix G1 and snap away? Well, the answer is both simple and complex. The process of going from snapping a scene with the digicam to getting a finished print of adequate quality – for me – is more convoluted than doing it myself onto silver gelatin, since I don’t own – refuse to own – a digi-printer of sufficient quality for black & white images, I must farm out the printing to a local lab. This less-than-adequate answer has, embedded within it, the seeds of another reason: the “doing it myself”. There’s an internally satisfying sensation, which I’ve yet to experience with the Digital Way, of pulling a fine print out of a developer tray.

There’s also a third reason: cost. Consider those all-too-easily-clogged inkjet cartridges; what it would cost to resupply even a lowly two-cartridge printer (delivering poor black & white image quality by comparison) costs as much or more than a one-hundred sheet box of gallery-quality, fiber-based 8”x10” silver gelatin photo paper.

The cost in going The Silver Way is convenience. Large format cameras are heavy, bulky, and ungainly. Their lenses (unless one is using adapted optics like my binocular lens, or a pinhole) are rare and often expensive. Their depth of focus is narrow. Their shutter speeds are too slow to capture elusive, fast-moving action. You can’t easily do street photography (unless you’re Weegee with a Speed Graphic and a bright flash). Their materials are slowly yet inexorably dwindling in choice and availability. Yet there is something inexplicably rewarding about the process; that, despite the obvious “advantages” and conveniences of The Digital Way the results one can achieve with The Silver Way are uniquely satisfying, the end result being a physical object – the silver gelatin print – that stands self-supported as an object of art, an artifact of an artisanal process whose roots extend back into the early period of the nineteenth century, before the automobile or the aeroplane, back to the formative years of the Industrial Revolution itself.

So, I’ve only taken one small step back onto the path of the Silver Way. The direction ahead is uncertainty and lack of faith in my own resolve and talent, despite having spent years dabbling at this. Yet the allure of The Silver Way is inexplicable yet real. I must follow my heart.

Postscript: While I was keyboarding this fountain pen-written piece into my computer I was listening to NPR radio; the show was talking about the resurgence of interest in craft, and the merging of craft and art (or, at least, the blurring of the lines of distinction between the two -- something I've written about at length in the past) whereby it was mentioned that there's a physiological factor to the enjoyment of craft, the release of endorphins; that, decades ago, women with psychological problems often found real comfort in knitting, the repetitive motion of which helped in the release of these hormones. This may help to explain the real sense of pleasure people like me find in the mechanics of craft versus the newer imaging methods, which seem to lack a tangible sense of pleasure. Not that I'm an anti-technologist (I work in the world's largest semiconductor factory) but marketers of the new technology would do well in taking to heart these studies, how to best take advantage of the features unique to the new technology while simultaneously permitting the pleasure-inducing release of endorphins in the operation of the technology. - Joe

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Not So Silent Type

A cozy Sunday morning, after having slept late, after a long, arduous work week at the chip-making factory (silicon, not chocolate); a warm, creamy latte, accompanied by bacon, over-easy eggs and pan-fried taters. I'm sitting at the computer, struggling with new anti-virus software, and some binary infection that seems persistently evil, rendering my desktop computer usable but nevertheless ailing, like some inevitable infection that you know won't end well, despite how one feels at the present, like some god-forsaken solder about to lose a leg.

And then my dear wife walks into the office, amidst my inner despair, and announces "Oh, I forgot to tell you -- this came in the mail the other day". A yellow envelope, of which I immediately knew the contents: Strikethru's "Silent Type Journal". It did not matter how the day would end, nor what would happen to my stricken machine in the office. My weekend was set.

I gently rubbed the delicate surfaces of the printed pages. I inhaled deeply the aroma of fresh print on paper, that only a book-lover can appreciate. I pushed back the guilt I'd been feeling lately over having addicted my 10-years old grandson into a hopeless office-supply junkie habit (despite having difficulty getting another typecast blog entry out of him for his "Line Writer" blog); it did not matter, all that could be pushed to the back of my mind. This was the Real Deal, the Whole Enchilada, the Big Kahuna of the gentle art of retro-tech. Proof that, despite the turmoil and despair in the world, at least a little corner of it was all right, if measured by the fact that a disparate assortment of Luddites and pseudo-Luddites had achieved the unlikely feat, well into the 21st century, of creating, publishing and distributing via US Postal Service a journal of typewritten works. Yes, typewritten. As in "kerthunk", "ding".

It is only fitting, in some sort of ad hoc spiritual reverence, that the publication of Volume 1, Issue 1 of "Silent Type" be celebrated in solemn yet lighthearted observance. Thus I went out to my garage, turned on the switch and opened the door to my small but fallow darkroom, cluttered with a collection of box cameras, sheet film holder, miscellaneous processing chemicals and a sizable layer of dust, evidence of a despairing drama silently playing itself out in my subconscious, whereby I've found it difficult to return to my silver gelatin photographic roots. It's high time, and now's as good a day as any.

I located a storage box of precut 4"x5" paper negatives within the dank clutter of the darkroom (Freestyle's Arista RC grade 2 for you sticklers out there) and proceeded to preflash said negatives in my usual manner (under a dim light source for a predetermined time), which has the effect of increasing shadow detail, helping to render a more pleasing tonal range; I loaded said paper negatives in Riteway cut film holders and proceeded to expose a still-life composition in the afternoon light of the living room using a 150mm focal length binocular lens, via a handmade lens board, on my old WWII-era Speed Graphic. One minute exposure at F/57; the 3.5mm aperture behind the lens projecting an image 200mm behind to the focal plane. If this sounds contradictory, it's because the lens that focuses to infinity at 150mm needs to be drawn out to 200mm to sharply render close-in subjects like the afternoon composition in the living room, thus the F/50 focal ratio for distant subjects becomes F/57 close-in, necessitating increased exposure. The so-called bellows extension factor. The way I deal with this is simply with a metric scale. After having focused on the scene, I remove the lens board and measure the distance from the ground glass to the lens mount, then divide this number by the diameter of the aperture stop, also in millimeters. Meter the scene, reference the working focal ratio on the scale and viola, one has their recommended exposure time. FYI, I rate the Arista paper negatives at an exposure index of 12, with the proviso that one is using freshly mixed paper developer at 68 degrees F.

So here's the deal. It may not be the most original, striking or beloved photograph ever made. That's not the point. The point is that, in celebration of Strikethru's accomplishment, I can take this paper negative and within the dank recesses of same said darkroom create a large number of black and white contact prints, one at a time, onto fine gallery-quality paper. Four by five inch contact prints. Nothing binary, no abstract image files, no viruses or trojans, just a few bits of dust and maybe a tiny scratch or three, the kind of things that happen in the real world, especially in dusty garage-based darkrooms. And whoever wants to receive an original contact print needs to email me with your postal address to "jvcabacus at yahoo dot com". Make sure the subject matter of your message says something about the Silent Type contact print. Give me a few weeks, after which I'll start to get these out in the mail.