Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Organic Photography

There have been hints and inklings of this over the last decade, of a new photographic aesthetic beginning to develop, one that, like all fashions and trends, appear momentarily as a mere fad, discarded by the adherents to tradition as a temporary anomaly, but then refuse to go away, becoming etched into the edifice of culture, adding to the language of creativity new phrases, new tools.

I am referring to the techniques of using primitive lenses and shallow depth of field. Bokeh. Holga cameras. Lens Babies. You've most likely seen these methods used, at one time or another, if you are any kind of a photo enthusiast. Or, you may not even be aware of the presence of these techniques in photographic images that, somehow, engage your interest in ways that you can't quite put into words.

Even before photographic images could be recorded onto chemically sensitized plates, people have had some understanding of the properties of optical images projected, via lenses, onto flat screens or other surfaces. The most common representation of this technique came in the form of the camera obscura, either a room-sized affair or a portable box-like contraption. The lenses used in many of these early devices were simple designs employing single elements of polished glass, whose optical properties were such that, while the center of the projected image could be quite sharp, the periphery were often obscured and blurred by aberrations intrinsic to their primitive design. It came to be known that installing an aperture stop -- a restriction in the size of the lens opening -- would have the effect of reducing the intensity of these off-axis optical flaws, increasing the useably sharp central region of the projected image. There were found two consequences to the use of aperture stops, the first being a decrease in the brightness of the projected image, and the second being a widening of the distance range wherein objects could be observed in sharp focus.

It was this property of aperture stops to widen the range of distances in sharp focus that eventually gave rise to Lord Rayleigh's mathematical observation that, given a sufficiently small aperture, the sharpness of the projected image would be no better than that from a bare pinhole opening of the same size. The Rayleigh Limit not only defines a limit for a lenses maximum depth of focus, but also informs pinhole photographers of the optimally sharp pinhole size for any camera's focal length.

Over the intervening centuries, optical designs evolved to become ever more complex and sophisticated affairs of multiple lens elements combined to reduce or eliminate virtually all of the known optical aberrations until, in our present time, photographic images of virtually corner-to-corner perfection are produced by the millions every day, through the use of inexpensive, mass-produced optics of elegant sophistication and at massive economies of scale.

And yet, despite these advances, cameras like Holgas and Dianas, with their rather primitive lenses, continue to keep roll-film use alive in this digital age. More and more photographers are on a quest in search of some photographic aesthetic that makes a direct connection to the past, to the legacy of the medium's history, like affixing a primitive Lens Baby in place of a DSLR's state-of-the-art optic.

So then, why, might one ask, are more and more people, in full, intentional awareness, becoming fascinated with these photographic images that exhibit degrees of optical aberrations so excessive as to seemingly violate centuries of continuous improvement in lens design? Large format portraitists, photographic artists - even cell phone camera users with apps like Hipstamatic -- all seem to have suddenly discovered that the less-than-perfect photo (darkened corners, off-axis blurriness, extremely shallow depth of focus) to be somehow more interesting, less mundane and boring, than the perfectly exposed, fault-free image delivered by virtually any modern photographic device. Is it that we have been overwhelmed by The Perfect Picture of cinema, television, newsprint and the Internet? Or are we merely bored, in search of that Next Great Fad? Perhaps.

I have this alternate theory, which is that we are deeply attracted to, and affected by, imagery that, perhaps only subconsciously, reminds us of our own biological vision. The appearance of visual reality with its seemingly optical perfection we take for granted; in actual fact, our biological lenses, though marvelously equipped to change focus by warping the lens curvature using the surrounding musculature, remain single-element cameras, no more sophisticated in that regard than the earliest camera obscura optic. The trick that is able to transform such crude images into the perfect rendition of visual reality that we commonly take for granted is done in software, in post-processing, by our visual cortex. My suspicion is that our brains subtly recognize photographic images that mimic the raw data feed from our optic nerve, striking some inner chord of harmony.

Perhaps there is come credence to the suspicion that the post-natal, infant brain sees its world as uncorrected, raw visual data, in all of its fuzzy-edged, Holga-like glory, and that only through weeks and months of constant use is the complex visual processing system slowly able to figure out how to perform the image correction algorithm automatically, seamlessly, until we leave our infant vision behind as mere vestigial memories, ones that can suddenly be reawakened at the striking intervention of a soft-edged, shallow-depth-of-focus image.

If my suspicion is correct, then we will continue to see shallow depth-of-focus and primitive lens imagery dominate creative photography. It will continue to be developed and further refined as a formal photographic aesthetic, rather than a temporary fad, becoming a permanent creative alternative to the ultra-sharply-rendered expectations of contemporary photography, because its origins are built into the very foundations of our biological vision.

What is still lacking is an elegantly descriptive term for the new aesthetic. The term "bokeh" immediately comes to mind, yet with its emphasis solely on the quality of the out-of-focus image, rather than the image's off-axis aberrations, still lacks precision. I'm chewing on the idea of "Organic Photography," a term referring to our marvelous single-element lenses that enable us to see all this visual off-axis loveliness in the first place.

(Typecast via Olivetti Lettera 22)

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Blogger Ton S. said...

Just found my way to your blog.

Thanks for sharing about organic photography, much appreciated.

11:15 AM  
Blogger MTCoalhopper said...

A further puzzlement is that these optical aberations are "artistic" only when done in black and white. If you tried these images in color, they would seem to look terrible. Something in our brain makes that distinction.

I know this because I machined a pinhole lens body for my DSLR. The resulting images only looked "right" after running them through Photoshop into black and white (sepia tone, actually).

Another thought: this "new" appreciation for artistic imagery gives cel phones another excuse for being terrible cameras; those aren't aweful pictures, they're art.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Richard P said...

Very interesting, and the photos here are wonderful. I think you're onto something: these "organic" images halt our unconscious process of correcting raw visual imagery, prevent us from forming a crisp mental scene, and in this way draw attention to visual experience itself in a more intimate, lived way than "picture-perfect" photos do. The effect is similar to that of Impressionist and Cubist paintings (at least before they became clich├ęd).

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a pinhole and Holga user I feel "organic" photography is a perfect discription for the simplistic mechanics of the tools and the subtle beauty of the images that can be captured

10:39 PM  

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