Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Framing an Image

here you point the camera is the most crucial decision in photography. This may seem, on the surface, to be an over-statement of the obvious; but in fact, the mere act of pointing the camera, regardless of subject matter, is at the very heart of the photographic process.

etting aside the commonly considered issues of contemporary photography such as camera brands and formats, lens resolution charts and focal lengths, exposure settings, megapixels, dynamic range, post-processing workflow, printer output and other technical minutiae, the essential act of photography is, in its purest state, the process of selectively isolating a solitary image upon a screen within the camera.

istorically, the device first used for this purpose was known as the camera obscura, or dark chamber, and had been developed centuries before the advent of light-sensitive chemical photography. At its heart are three components: a lens to project an optical image, a screen to receive a projected optical image, and an enclosure to shield the screen from stray light. Substitute any type of light-sensitive surface for the view screen, whether of silver gelatin emulsion or photo-electric sensor array, and the ancient camera obscura becomes any possible iteration of modern photographic camera technology; yet the essential camera obscura principle remains unchanged.

etting aside a dizzying variety of contemporary technical issues that serve to merely obscure a deeper understanding of photography, the prototypical camera obscura shares with its progeny the basic operating principle of selective framing, differentiating what is to be viewed upon the screen from what is not through selectively choosing a particular image from a multitude of diverse options. Among an almost infinite assortment of possible photographic viewpoints from which to choose from, the photographer uses the frame of the camera to select one image at a time, to the exclusion of all others.

ow the photographer works with the camera device to frame an image varies with the type of viewfinding mechanism employed, with the various types having their strict adherents. One device used in some cameras to overcome the inevitable optical interpretation of a lens is to view a scene strictly through the borders of an open framing device -- the so-called wire frame viewfinder -- or the field lens of a rangefinder type of viewfinder. These devices have been used extensively throughout the history of photographic technology as an alternative to the through-the-lens viewfinding approach, promising the photographer a more untainted view of the scene at hand. Although such devices function as clear windows, offering a view interpreted solely through the photographer's vision, their photographic utility appears to be less accurate than the through-the-lens approach because the recording process intrinsic to photography inevitably imprints the image with the optical peculiarities of the camera's projecting lens, whose effects remain invisible to the wire frame or rangefinder style of viewfinders. However accidentally or intentionally the photographer's previsualization of the scene through the viewfinder matches the recorded image at the film plane within the camera, the net affect is that photographs function as mechanical interpretations of visual reality strictly through the framing offered by the image's border, along with the optical projection of lens upon viewscreen.

his process of framing an image is not merely one step among many others within the photographic process, but rather is at the very crux of photography, for the lines that define the edges of the image do so by discarding all other possibilities. Prior to aiming the camera intently upon some specific subject matter or viewpoint, an indeterminably large set of photographic images simultaneously exists as a theoretical field of probability. The photographer can muse on these innumerable possibilities ahead of time, wondering whether the light or the subject matter will cooperate just so, pondering their potential significance as any artist would prepare himself for the work ahead. All of these possibilities simultaneously coexist until the moment that the lens of the camera is turned upon a specific subject matter or viewpoint, at which time all other possible images are discarded except for the one under examination. Because the photographic process is essentially subtractive, removing all other possible viewpoints except the one currently being framed, it is just as much about what was excluded from the image as what was included.

he rectangle of the camera's viewscreen can be thought of as the boundaries of a mathematically closed set. The external objective world, that which encompasses all else excluded from the camera's gaze, is an open set of all possible photographic vantage points, while within the closed boundaries of the frame's edge is a closed set of only one specific perspective, to the exclusion of all others. Over time, as the camera's aim is shifted and moved by the photographer, countless other possible scenes are permitted to enter the closed set of the frame, one at a time, while those fleeting moments once framed and drawn in light upon the screen now disappear from view, evaporating back into that indeterminably large, amorphous set of hypothetical imagery. The photographer works to constantly bring new vantage points into focus upon the view screen, if but for a brief moment, then release them to vanish once more back into the flux that is the sum totality of our visual experience, a continuous process of selective exclusion. The sequence of images recorded by the camera serve as a testimony to that sequential process of selective isolation.

ecause the camera's grasp is finite and limited by physical laws, this Exclusionary Principle results in photographic imagery containing much less information than the surrounding open field of visual context from which it was derived. It is as if we could gain a more complete understanding of the photographic image strictly by examining the surrounding contextual field from which it was excised, rather than the photograph itself.

he conclusion we find inescapably obvious yet paradoxical is that photographic imagery entirely lacks context because the very visual elements which would provide such context are by definition excluded from the image by the very borders that define the image. This paradox operates simultaneously with the process of framing the image, as the photographer chooses which elements to keep and which to discard from the camera's gaze.

model boat, a man, a police car. Enigmatic, logically troublesome, problematic. We don't know who the man is. Could he be the police officer, off-duty, engaged in a pastime? Or perhaps the police officer is elsewhere, behind the photographer, addressing some trouble up ahead. We just don't know. What about the model boat? We don't actually see evidence of water, merely dirt and trees in the background. Maybe the man stole the boat, maybe he's posing for someone else's' camera, maybe it's a movie prop; we just don't know. Further examination of the image reveals a pair of shadows, as if someone else is lurking behind the man with the model boat. There's something unsettling about this juxtaposition of discordant elements, composed upon the camera's square frame. What we lack within the borders of this image is context, the deeper understanding; instead, we are relegated to mere supposition and inference.

ecause photographic imagery lacks intrinsic context, both the photographer and the viewer supply their own purpose and meaning through shared norms of popular culture, and personal and historic contextual understanding; often these respective implicit contexts operate at cross-purposes, this disconnect between creative intent and viewer receptiveness being purposefully exploited for the purposes of power, control, manipulation or propaganda. The crystal-clarity of the photograph's visual acuity, its power to render objective reality with an appearance of total validity, lends reinforcement to the deceptive power of the medium to present what appears to be an objectively accurate portrayal of reality, while in fact offering little of the more important contextual clues necessary for creating informed judgement.

he photographer Garry Winogrand understood this dichotomy when he stated that he created photographs "in order to see what things look like when photographed." In Winogrand's view, seeing the world merely with one's eyes was not the same as seeing it through the eyes of the camera, because the camera's view, though appearing to be optically faithful to one's intrinsic biological perspective, operates upon entirely different aesthetic principles. His body of photographic work bears testimony to a deep understanding of the Exclusionary Principle which, while upon a cursory glance appear to be snapshots of ordinary life exposed on black and white film, upon closer inspection reveal a Master's ability to excise a peculiarly personal interpretation of otherwise objective reality; place any other photographer within the same venue at the same time and an entirely different aesthetic would have emerged.

usan Sontag, in her seminal work "On Photography", gives us a sense of the medium's power to accede to the photographer's will, wherein she writes "Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context within which it is seen".

he camera obscura's viewscreen intercepts optical wavefronts at a particular distance from the projecting lens, translating three-dimensional data into a two-dimensional facsimile. This projection technique serves to interpret optical data through the mechanical interface of the lens/aperture device, inscribing the fingerprint of the optical device's characteristics upon the scene. Thus, the same scene, viewed from the same perspective, can be rendered with a multiplicity of various interpretations, depending upon the optical characteristics of the particular lens and aperture in use. These affects are uniquely photographic in nature, yet have become ingrained within the nomenclature of our visual culture so as to become virtually invisible to an all but purposeful deconstruction of the process of photographic seeing.

egardless of the evolution of photographic technology, its essential modus operandi remains little changed since Plato wrote of the fire projecting shadow-like images upon the cave's walls, the essence of which is to abstract from the temporal continuum a moment, or moments, from that which we call time, while in the spatial dimension it is to collapse three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional facsimile, leaving us a mere image of objective reality. It is therefore the power of imagery itself that is at the heart of photography's ability to captivate and hold our interest, mapped upon the internal film plane of our imagination, and which also implies the necessity on our part to seek a deeper understanding of the power of visual art, in an age when we can anticipate greater and greater manipulation of visual imagery for purposes ulterior to our own.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Imperfect Perfection

The real world is physical. Made of stuff, star stuff, the astrophysicists tell us, forged in the crucibles of exploding stars, aeons ago. Dust, most of it; interstellar, intergalactic. We are made from dust, Scripture reminds us; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We are reminded of this when sunbeams shine through a window, illuminating a darkened interior, wherein we can glimpse a myriad of dust motes, borne on the air by the minute forces of electrostatic attraction and thermal air currents. Enlarged a thousandfold, they would fail to float at all, but the Scale Effect ensures that the forces acting on their surface area are out of proportion to the mass of their volume.

The real world is physical, far less perfect than some idealized Platonic solid, yet far more perfect than we can imagine. Magnified up close, we can glimpse the seeming randomness of a surface's microscopic crazing, within which, if our microscope permitted, would be revealed further details to dazzle our imaginations. Inward we go, through one dimension after another, wherein patterns of detail seem to be replicated at multiple dimensions of scale; complexity, nonlinearity, chaos.

Contrasted to the seeming theoretical perfection of an abstract data file, the real, physical world of material substance reeks of the dust from creation. Real lines aren't straight, real planes aren't flat, real empty space is anything but. Clean air is an idealized abstraction; real air, regardless of how clean, is saturated with pollens and grains and motes and fibers from sources natural and manmade. This is reality, in all its messy sordidness.

Information in its purest form is abstract and nonphysical. Because it doesn't exist in Einsteinian Space-Time as matter or energy, it therefore is exempt from the limits imposed by physical laws. However, information - pure information - cannot be interacted with unless it modulate some physical parameter of matter or energy. Electromagnetic radiation is imposed upon by the limits of Space-Time, represented as quantized wave phenomenon whose limits of propagation are defined by the Speed of Light and discrete quantized energy levels. Information, once encoded into the matrix of Space-Time, takes on the limits of the medium within which it is bound, regardless of its idealized initial state. There is found therefore a dichotomy between the ideal state of pure information and its real-world actualization. We experience limits on how fast data can be transferred, or how clear one's intent can be understood. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Within the messiness of the real world, within the sordid unkemptness of life in all of its incongruity, I've attempted to carve out a small niche of creativity, an internal place wherein I can unfold myself, unguarded and unprotected, sheltered from the storm, to find direct contact between my deepest self and external reality. Some people have called this place "art", although I find the term too burdened with cultural baggage for my comfort. Creativity is a condition of the spirit that is quiet, nonjudgmental, uncritical and life-affirming. It is a journey, an ever-present practice, rather than a skill or accomplishment. Creativity is impossible to measure on the merits of competitiveness; it is qualitative rather than quantitative. Creativity doesn't keep score.

Contrasted with true creativity, there is the messy business of contemporary media and technology, within whose maw more and more of the totality of our lives are being subsumed. Where once a letter would be penned to a relative or friend replete with the unique attributes of one's hand, pen and stationary, we have now substituted the impersonal perfection of email, in all of its sterile glory. Even the words themselves carry less and less meaning, the rules of diction and grammar once deemed inviolable are now being substituted by 140-character sound-bytes and impromptu acronyms. We seem to be led down a path of conviction whose end state resembles an idealized Platonic solid that remains merely theoretical in the real world. The process of social and technological evolution we are experiencing seems to resemble the spell of some dream state that is far removed for actual reality. It is as if the culture were, en mass, falling asleep.

The place of creative art-making that I have explored most deeply is that of the photographic image. No form of mediation is closer to the front lines of social change than is photography, yet no form of mediation is lesser understood. Humankind for millenia has demonstrated a remarkable propensity for image-making, such that it is no mere coincidence that the power of imagery and image-making is intrinsic to many historic systems of politics, religion and spirituality; the term idolatry itself is a homage to the power of art to reveal and transform; a power not always accepted openly, but guarded and protected for the culture's power elite. In the era contemporary to the Industrial Revolution, the rise of photography paralleled the rise of the Nation-State, protected by the discovery of managed information flow, embedded media, propaganda. It is no mere coincidence that, in this era of idealized image-making symbolized by the dominance of digital photography, the control of information by governments has never been more crucial to their sustenance. Photography, rather than representing objective truth, disguises the ulterior motives of the Propaganda State within an exterior sheen of pseudo-objectivity. The medium's power lies in its ability to simulate objective reality through an optical mapping of the external world into a subjective image plane. The camera's lens casts an image; however, an image is but a mere symbolization for the real, a lesser-than thing, like seeing through a glass darkly. The complexity of the real world is collapsed within the camera into a flattened shadow-like plane, a third and fourth dimension represented by mere geometric projection from a narrow sliver of time, as if objective truth could be mapped and charted by some convenient spreadsheet. The veracity by which photography performs this trick of simulating objective reality is at the heart of its power to manipulate and propagandize.

Today I trudged out into the real world in search of a photographic image that reveals some pattern of objectivity, while simultaneously refusing to mask the imperfect reality of the process of image-making within some supra-real veneer of fantasy-like perfection. I'm interested in seeing what things within the complexity of the real world look like when represented in an imperfect media, exploring the cusp between the idealization of fantasy and hard, cold reality. My media of choice for the last several decades has been pinhole photography, collapsing multi-dimensional reality into softly-focused imagery onto black and white silver gelatin paper. A mere glimpse into the heart of things, a flicker of the candle against some invisible current, as if seen through a glass darkly.

The process remains entirely physical: a paper's surface, coated with a thin layer of optically transparent gelatin, suspended within are multitudes of minute, light-sensitive silver halide crystals, is exposed to a phase-limited optical wavefront from a pinhole aperture. An image is formed, latent and unseen, of dislodged electrons within these minute metallic crystals. Being entirely physical, the process reveals the artifacts of its environment. Dust motes spot the paper's surface, rendering the otherwise pristine image spot-laden and flawed. The heat from one's fingers, handling the paper in the developing bath, can locally accelerate the process, and scratches can crease the paper's surface, such that a blemish or flaw is revealed in the otherwise dream-like fantasy of an idealized photographic image, reminding me through the less-than-perfect character of the finished image that information is limited to the conditions of the materials and process within which it is embedded, an imperfect perfection, a mere reflection of objective reality in this imperfect world, a bastion of sanity revealed through the very flaws in the materials and process used, like a splash of cold water upon one's face, awakening and revitalizing me from the dream-like spell of our over-mediated information world. It is real and physical, this finished image, unperfect and flawed yet perfectly replete with character, reminding me that the totality of the process is embedded within a real world that is messy and unforgiving, but ever-present and real.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Travelling Light

This last weekend I returned from a week-long business trip, during which I brought with me a netbook computer with charger and accessory cables, a GPS with accessory cables, and two cell phones (one for work and the other for personal use), both with charger cables. I also brought with me a camera. But, because I was already weighed down with electronica of all sorts, I thought it necessary to compensate, by bringing along a mere film camera; no charger or cables needed. But, no immediately gratifying pictures, either.

I was recently given this point-and-shoot film camera, a Yashica T4 Super, which I loaded with Ilford's FP4 Plus, black and white film. No convenient 1-hour photo lab processing for me, no sir. I won't be able to hold prints in hand until the film is loaded into a developing tank, processed, rinsed, squeegeed, dried, cut into strips and mounted in sleeves, examined over a light table, then the select few choice or promising frames loaded into a Negatrans and projected through my enlarger onto silver gelatin printing paper, which after several test exposures are developed, rinsed, squeegeed and dried.

Whew; sounds like a lot of work. Well, it is time consuming, but it's really not laborious, more a labor of love. What keeps a person like me continuing with this arcane craft is -- other than pure stubbornness -- the promise of real silver prints in hand, a connecting thread from the formative years of photography, through the present, into an indeterminate future, through which a well-processed print should last for centuries.

I keep wondering why this should be of any concern to me, regarding the archivability of my photographs and what happens to them once I'm gone. Perhaps there's a desire to obtain some degree of immortality, or at least notoriety, after passing on. There is also the egoism surrounding the need to gain some fame or recognition for one's efforts, some conformation that what one has achieved has an intrinsic value, of comparative merit to what others of fame or notoriety have achieved.

It is a dangerous thing, this desire or wanting of recognition; it is best laid aside, left to die its own quiet death. The pictures, they remain as a document of what some scene appeared to look like when photographed at a specific place and time; they quietly speak for themselves, better than any words I could add.