Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To See the Light

The light comes in, sometimes harsh and direct, sometimes soft and diffused, often from sources distant and mysterious, with names mere abstractions, lacking a more concrete analogy to our humble, private lives. Light is simultaneously both intimately familiar and mysteriously foreign; otherworldly, even.

Light, it's a mysterious thing. We can feel its impact on our skin (in the case of sunlight, or from a heatlamp), yet it has no mass, no physical substance to resemble our own bodies. It touches you, but you can't touch it back. The more one dissects its nature, the more mysterious it seems to become. Is it a wave, or a particle? Yes. And no.

Light seems to travel, in our immediate surroundings, at near instantaneous speeds. Lightning fast, we'd say. And yet, we are told, distances are so vast in our universe that to see the light from some distant star or galaxy of stars is to see far, far backward in time. Light enables us to see, not only our present, but the past from unimaginably vast distances afar, reminding us that our world can be measured, not just in miles or kilometers but, using increments of time interchangeable with those of distance, like the way in which people once spoke of a journey to a distant town being two weeks by horse-drawn wagon. This little outpost of ours, like some lonely backwater settlement, is years from the nearest town -- Alpha Centauri -- as the crow flies.

Sometimes light gets in our eyes, blinding us from some more distant, primal source. There's a street light, mounted to a pole across our street and down one house. It casts a bright shadow of our trees along the driveway at night, providing needed illumination for the weary of foot, yet also casts a glare into the sky around our house that drowns out those feeble rays from long ago, impinging upon our world from afar.

Last week, I set up my binoculars on the back port, shielded a bit from that blaring street light out front, and pointed them upward -- and also outward and backward, I must remind myself-- at those feeble glimmers from long ago. There it was, the Great Nebula in Andromeda, number 101 on Charles Messier's several hundred years old list of faint, fuzzy objects to disregard during comet-hunting searches, a wide oval fuzziness situated in the northeast part of the sky, late in the evening, between the power lines strung over the back wall (the same power lines upon which doves perch like notes on a musical scale, as in that PBS commercial), a fuzziness that appeared, through the lenses of these giant binoculars, to almost fill the field of view, a neighboring galaxy like our very own Milky Way, comprised of hundreds of billions of suns like our own sun, the furthest object in the universe to be seen by the unaided eye, this M101; yet whose more delicate features were obscured by the background light from a half-moon and those incessant city lights that cast a pall overhead, like some burial shroud, obscuring our view of those far away mysteries from long ago.

To see the light -- the primal, essential light -- we need less of that which distracts and obscures our focus. We need the kind of light that pierces the absolute darkness, the kind of sky that's dark enough so as to be brilliantly lit from the edge-on-view of our own galaxy, stretching horizon to horizon like a band of storm clouds overhead. The fuzzy, lukewarm, medium gray mucky soup of a city-lit fogginess lacks the absolute black and white, hard-edged drama of a truly dark night's sky, where dark is dark and light is light, and both are distinct from one another, like the clear contrast between truth and fiction, good and evil. There's some sense of moral certitude provided by standing out at night under the brightly lit, intensely dark sky, as if to remind us, by means of direct contrast with the unfathomable murkiness of present-day politics and the distractions of popular culture, that out here reside the firmament above, staring down upon us with a purity of gaze from a source eternal and true, neither choosing sides or taking favorites, an immutably harsh mistress of objective truth, this universe that gazes back at us in the wee hours of the dark night before dawn.

It is ironic that Charles Messier's list of things to avoid when on the search for new comets in the night's sky has become, in the intervening centuries since its creation, a thing not to be avoided, a virtual roll-call of the most prominent objects of interest easily observable with either small instruments or the unaided eye. Messier's list is a showcase of prominent wonders, a series of stepping stones for the amateur observer to hone one's observing skills, offering a teasing glimpse into new mysteries yet to be revealed, yet satisfying enough in themselves to offer a lifetime's worth of observing pleasure.

I swung the heavy binoculars around on my barely adequate tripod and searched amongst fields of stars, aided by map and chart as a mariner would be bequeathed the priceless gift of navigation from those whom have come before (we prefer old-fashioned paper sky charts to computerized telescope mounts, like navigating by sextant in the age of GPS, here at the Van Cleave Observatory of Celestial Wonders), searching for the small, faint, sphere-like shell of expanding gas from a once exploded star, number 57 on old Messier's list, the Ring Nebula, when there it was, smack in the middle between two bright guide stars: a small, perfectly round ball of gray light, about the same size in appearance as the planet Jupiter, set amidst the velvet background of night. Were there planets orbiting that once bright star? Planets with people like us, perhaps gazing upward and outward at the night sky, in wonder, before it blew itself to dust and gas? I went inside that night after observing a few more such mysterious objects from afar, hit the old sack, my head swimming with visions of nebulae and cluster.

Light can enact change amongst that which it shines upon. Bugs, they scatter for the shadows when a lone bulb suddenly illuminates a dark, infested domicile; or one's skin reddens and blisters from prolonged exposure to the sun's intense rays; or the verdant leaves of one's shrubbery thrive by that same light, converting sunlight's energy into food, and exhaling life-giving oxygen to those round about.

And then there's this other thing that light can do, dislodging minuscule electrons from their bound orbits within the lattice of certain metal salt crystals, rendering them sensitive to oxidation, causing an image to be formed within a thin, transparent layer of such crystals coated onto some photographic film or paper. It is no mere coincidence that the first recorded discovery of this photographic phenomenon (cyanotype, using iron salts) was by a man (William Herschel), in the late 18th century, who himself was an accomplished astronomer, who had fashioned telescope mirrors from speculum metal so enormous that they would not be superseded in size by silver-on-glass mirrors until early in the 20th century. This forming of an image, being the vestigial remnants of light's transit from source to destination, photography is quite literally "writing with light."

I set up my fragile apparatus to capture the diffuse rays from the north-facing window of my kitchen upon some tableau of my own choosing, a handful of little glass bottles perhaps, or a decorative gourd placed inside a metal bowl. Situated in the right orientation, those distant rays reflect off, and through, and onto; a journey from sun through intervening space to earth, through diffused sky, through glass window upon humble setting, then off again, refracted through camera's glass lens or pinhole's minute aperture onto thin film of photographic emulsion, writing with the light of a fusion furnace, eight minutes distant, upon silver emulsions whose elements were once mined from inside some lonely hill, the print's paper comprised of the pulp from some tree itself made up of the minerals in the soil round about that were formed within the crucible of stars exploded long ago, all of it, standing here now in the darkroom watching the image come up in the developer, or standing out under the stars on some stark, clear night, the universe gazing back at itself.

(Via AlphaSmart Neo)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Season's Turning

(Typecast via Olivetti Lettera 22, image via Lumix G1)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program

{Typecast via Olivetti Lettera 22)

The new blog can be found here, and also a link is provided on the main page of my writing blog.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Ubiquitous Eye

We, a buddy and myself, just finished a technical rehearsal for our independent short film project. He's the writer, director and sound man, I'm the camera guy. On a project such as this, life gets a whole lot more complicated when you purposefully impose further limitations upon the technical parameters of one's craft. In this case, we've imposed the limitation of shooting the entire film on Flip video. That's right, Flip -- those little cell phone-sized, fixed focus, diminutive cameras that Cisco (the manufacturer's current owner) recently decided to kill off. This is not the way you're supposed to make a movie.

Back in the mid-1990s, the independent film revolution hit in full stride with the advent of consumer-grade digital video cameras of sufficient technical quality to not totally suck when edited and displayed. All of a sudden, it seemed as if the corporate, studio model of film production, that had dominated for decades, had finally been broken by the seemingly universal democracy of an easily accessible video technology of adequate quality. This new spirit of independent film was accompanied by an idealism that seemed limited only by the state of the technical arts.

The Holy Grail of independent film technology has been a camera system that delivers cinema-quality imagery at Walmart prices. The quest for this goal has up to now been a futile fantasy, and here's why. Equipment manufacturers, and the tech press that markets their products, have for decades played this subtle game of implying that state-of-the-art, consumer-grade video technology (an oxymoron of a term) would empower the would-be film maker as the next Spielberg, while at the same time siloing advanced hardware features into various price/feature strata, in affect perpetuating the money-buys-you-access paradigm of mainstream media. Instead of the idealism of some new media democracy, we've been witness to the trickle-down economics of pay-to-play that uses as its prime motivator the Technology Treadmill, an endless cycle of just-around-the-corner technology break-through promises, coming soon to a retailer near you. This Media-Manufacturer Complex (a term coined in purposeful reference to Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex) has, in the intervening decades since Ike's warning, served to reinforce a top-down hierarchy of information flow within media and culture. Fortunately, there are promising signs on the horizon of breaks in the monotheism of dominant corporate media; but also new warning signs.

The result is that, while many would-be film makers fixate on the bleeding-edge of technology, plodding along on the Technology Treadmill (an approach that continues to limit access to those of considerable financial means), the technology has been found to be continually progressing to the point where the bottom floor of adequate technical quality has become ubiquitous in availability. True grass-roots video has sprung up like weeds on the Internet, at places like You Tube and Vimeo. And so, although there remains a hierarchy of technical sophistication in video equipment, recent advances in the technology have resulted in the bottom floor of the Adequately Good suddenly becoming accessible by the masses.

Enter the Flip video camera and their ilk. The Flip represents everything that the high-end HD camera isn't. Forget interchangeable, variable focal length zoom lenses. Forget manual exposure and focus control. These little cell phone-sized marvels were suddenly found flooding the market with HD-quality video, extremely wide depth-of-focus, fixed lenses, stereo audio, simple one-button stop/start recording and easy upload to one's computer, using internal software to permit simple editing of one's footage and upload to the Internet.

The thing is, fledgling film makers (such as ourselves) soon discovered that, due to its size and wide depth-of-focus, you could shoehorn these little dudes into almost anywhere. The art of film making was no longer fixated around the altar of a large, heavy, extremely expensive single camera. Now, you could afford to buy several and place them around a set and do multi-camera shots, on the cheap. The promise of a universal media democracy, fueled by easily accessible technology of adequate quality and the Internet, seemed inevitable.

Then, at the height of its popularity and steep growth curve, Cisco killed Flip. Conspiracy Theories abound. There were stories that Flip was about to unveil some marvelous new technology, or that Cisco purchased Flip in order to acquire the intellectual property rights and use it for other purposes. Whatever the reasons, there were and remain to this day competing point-and-shoot video cameras on the market while, as of this writing, Flips can still be purchased for deeply discounted prices at various online and retail outlets.

And then there are the iPhone and its smart-phone variants, promising to further extend the availability of personal communication via instantly available, ubiquitous video technology. With this in mind, we should also not forget the recent events within the Middle East and North Africa, of authoritarian regimes under attack, not by means of external conquest but, through a series of social awakenings from within, fueled in large measure by ubiquitous communication tools like cell phones and portable video cameras. The forerunner of these events was the humble camcorder of the 1980s, whose seminal moment as a tool for enabling social change being the L.A. riots of 1992, spurred on by amateur camcorder footage of the Los Angeles Police Department's encounter with Rodney King the previous year, and the subsequent acquittal of the LAPD officers involved in the incident. I was reminded of this again several years ago during the time of the Iranian election protests of 2009, a precursor to the Arab Spring movement that continues to unfold, when we witnessed first-hand the effect on social change of new communication tools in the hands of a newly-emerging generation of young adults dissatisfied with the status quo.

Meanwhile, there's our little film project, and we're struggling with keeping to a shooting schedule, ironing out the bugs and getting adequate crew support to fill all of the required roles. It is perhaps ironic that, given the use of Flip video, the quality of our imagery is the least of our concerns, which is as it should be, given the nature of this ubiquitous medium to diminish the superficial distracting problems of technical film making, only to reveal the more important issues that remain, which are in the realm of the creative arts. Many of us engaged in these technical arts are tempted to fixate on the technical issues at the expense of the creative concerns, to live under the false assumption that "if only we had upgraded, then would our project finally succeed". Computer technology can do this to us, distract us from our real work.

The hard truth is that, if your film sucks using Flip video, then the problem isn't your camera. Although Flip minimizes those annoying distractions, you can't spend yourself out of a lack of creative talent or vision, you can't install an upgrade that delivers instant creative genius. Fancy camera work, like the over-used gimmicks of shallow depth-of-focus and slow-motion tracking, won't fix a lack of talent and vision. Great writing and acting are essential, everything else being secondary to that. You either have it, or you don't.

Meanwhile, we're still hopeful and optimistic about our project. We have a good script, and our actors are talented and eager. Today, we were witness to our two actors truly becoming one with their roles, and we're excited about that. I think we may have something good here.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

I'm liking working with the new Harman Direct Positive photo paper more and more. It has that classic heavy thickness, fiber-based silver gelatin glossy print feel and finish, the results directly out of the camera and after processing just as if you'd contact printed a large format film negative onto the equivalent Ilford print paper.

It's slow, in terms of light sensitivity, almost glacially slow. ISO 1.6 is my working exposure index. And, like most other print papers, it's only sensitive to blue and UV light, so you're not going to be exposing images under artificial lighting unless you have a sturdy tripod, a still-life subject matter and plenty of time on your hands. As it is, these direct positive images were made under the indirect daylight of my north-facing porch, the Speed Graphic mounted on a sturdy Bogen tripod. The exposure times were around 3-5 seconds.

I'm starting to think of it in terms of a new photographic medium, working with this paper. As if the intermediary steps of exposing and processing a film negative, prior to the printing phase, is now obsolete. Like a slow Polaroid? Conceptually, perhaps.

Of course, it's all obsolete, this working with light-sensitive emulsions. Or, at least, it's not "bleeding edge." It's been around now almost two centuries, having plenty of time, like a good vintage, to mature. We (those of us few still working in these wet photographic processes) should commend Harman/Ilford for bringing this new paper to market, and should lodge our vote of approval with our pocketbooks.

(Typecast poem via Olivetti Lettera 22)