Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Idealism and Imperfection

First light from Joe's newly finished 8"x10" box camera, from a paper negative

They range in size from a large closet to a small bedroom, but you can't live in them. You might, however, be able to squeeze into one, or maybe just get your torso lodged into its innards, painfully contorted amidst a labyrinth of Teflon and stainless steel chemical and gas lines, robotic arms, wires and pneumatics. These are some of the most complex machines ever built, and each one costs a small fortune. Name your biggest Hollywood star, and they might be able to manage, should they first sell off their Bel Air mansion and stable of sports cars, to buy one, maybe two.

The factory that houses hundreds and hundreds of these machines is itself a machine, virtually living and breathing, interconnected by a vast array of chemicals, gasses, computer networks, ultra-pure water and air as its circulatory and limbic systems; multiple levels of robotic delivery systems as its method of providing nutrition and sustenance; populated by a colony of microbe-like human organisms, dressed in cleanroom suits, that do the vital work of keeping the numerous systems organized and in good health, for the purpose of supplying a global market with the hardware components required to access the virtual world of the Internet. These semiconductor manufacturing facilities - chip fabs - require the resources of a small nation-state to construct, outfit and run. You could buy a nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier for what a state-of-the-art chip fab costs.

I know, for I work in one, and have done so for the last 17 years.

What amazes me about this business is the rapidity with which the state-of-the-art becomes obsolete, almost overnight. Think for a moment about the gadgets that fill up our lives, and the pace by which they seem to evaporate into a nebulous obsolescence; their cost of replacement is a mere pittance compared with retooling a chip fab every several years at a cost of billions. Those machines had best be earning their keep, every moment of every hour of every day, nonstop.

What happens to those outdated manufacturing machines after their usefulness is spent? They may be sold off to second-tier chip companies, whose business model is less than state-of-the-art; or, more likely, they are discarded into a salvage economy. Their various components might be found reused in numerous other applications, reconditioned, or sold for scrap.

It seems ironic, therefore, that one particular component, a meniscus lens, could be put to use in a most archaic application, as a primitive lens in a 19th century-style box camera. Swords into plowshares, indeed.

The newly finished camera with a salvaged single-element meniscus lens

This is the ultimate in retro-tech philosophy, repurposing the once-state-of-the-art into the archaic and arcane. The machine this lens came from is one of the most costly and sophisticated of all the chip-making tools, a photo-lithographic "stepper" that exposes the minute circuit patterns onto the silicon wafer. Think the opposite of an enlarger: a photographic reducer that steps across the wafer's surface a grid-like tessellation of identical chip patterns.

The process that I employ in my primitive garage-based darkroom is hardly worthy of comparison to nanometer-scale photo-lithography, except in the general principle of optical projection, via a lens, onto a surface. Take the subject of "defects", those microscopic flaws in a chip's circuit pattern that can render it stillborn. In my case the greatest concern that I have is dust and lint that finds its way onto the negative and/or print, and serves as a reminder of the physical nature of the photographic print as an artifact of an imperfect, artisanal process. This is the single most distinct difference between the so-called "analog" and "digital" imaging methods, the idea of the physical versus the virtual, the imperfect versus the ideal.

The new world of digital imaging differs from its predecessor in its disdain of the flaws and imperfections of a real, physical world. The virtual world of imagery is a constructed fantasy land, with every spot, blemish or flaw seamlessly removed.

The flaws that result from the older, artisanal, processes represent a sign-post signifying that a real human has been here, at work.

This distinction has not always been appreciated, even in the traditional world of silver gelatin photography, where the techniques of spotting negatives and prints, in order to achieve the illusion of a transparent window upon an illusory world, are a virtual lost art; techniques now more efficiently performed in the virtual world of software.

Artifacts of a medium have a life-cycle of their own, progressing from a period of state-of-the-art, where such artifacts are considered anathema, to a period of nostalgia, long past the zenith of the medium's currency, where such once-despised artifacts are held in the warm regard reserved for the treasured heirloom. Scratches in old films, cracks in glass-plate negatives, the peel-apart fingerprints of a Polaroid's border, the static and hiss of old radio programs, the warm, sepia tint of an old glass-plate image, or the scratches in a well-worn vinyl album; these are the once-despised artifacts of now-obsoleted media that are held in high regard for nostalgia's sake alone. Will we hold in equal esteem the "tiling" and pixelation of a poor DTV reception, or the jaggy artifacts of a low-res JPEG image? My gut says "no way", but my brain reminds me that it is virtually inevitable, in the life-cycle of a technology, for a medium's imperfections to be looked back upon through rose-colored glasses.

So it is with my interest in pinhole and adapted optics, used along with paper negatives in handmade cameras: the process is replete with traps, potholes and intrinsic limitations that produce a visual aesthetic whose artifacts are inextricably interwoven with the physical, chemical and optical nature of the medium. The emulsion's tonal range and definition are inherently limiting, its sensitivity low; the lens's optical resolution is poor, replete with aberrations. Yet the results are often aesthetically pleasing because the image's artifacts resonate with a 19th century photographic nostalgia, one that eschews the ultra-sharp in favor of the softly defined, that despises brilliant colors for the limited palette of the orthochromatically monochrome, that uses selective focus, not out of some stylistic concern, but because of the intrinsic limitations of the optics themselves.

In this new-found nostalgia for these antiquated processes, the residue and detritus of the exposure and development process lends a renewed sense of the artisanal to the resulting prints; as if perfection were not the goal, or even a consideration, but rather that the finished print is a record, a document, of a complex but basic sequence of physical interventions upon a sheet of silver gelatin-coated paper. The flaws and imperfections serve to function as the virtual fingerprints of the artisan himself, like a hidden signature, replete with meaning, evidence of a humanity at work, something fundamental and essential revealed.

Perhaps it is in these flawed images, formed by an imperfect process, that we can most clearly see ourselves mirrored, our own natures reflected back at us, as if viewed through a glass darkly.


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