Monday, May 26, 2008

Schrödinger's Cat, slow food and other stories

I know this is a long post but I have included it here because it represents the current state of play in rationalising why anyone would want to do this. I have to write a "Rationale" but only 500 words. Those words may be included here but in the words of Eric Morcambe " Not necessarily in the right order."

The issues of subject, authenticity and technological development are central to photography.

No matter how sophisticated the viewer the first thing you notice when you look at a picture is the subject matter, technique and interpretation may be noticed soon afterwards but they are always secondary. Furthermore it is hard not to be influenced by recognition. A photograph of your child, the Taj Mahal, a landscape in the Lake District is more arrestingly immediate than a similar photograph were the motif is unknown. Photography also has the effect of stopping time, it provides you with an opportunity and an excuse to stare. In life you would never peer closely at the face of a stranger but when invited by photography you can look deep into their eyes.

Presented on the wall the photograph invites you to look and perhaps to see for the first time things you would pass by in your busy life. That is the point of this survey. The entire project has been photographed within 1 mile of the exhibition room and almost everyone who sees the work will be familiar with the locations but this may well be the first time they have had the opportunity or inclination to look.

There is a Chinese proverb/curse "may you live in interesting times" and the current fluorescence of digital media makes these the most interesting photographic times since the invention of film. However I fear that advanced technology now masks the actual photographic process. This is not to raise a question about image quality, or to suggest a mythic nature for film or anything else you could call “geeky” but more that camera automation can give cause an interruption in the process of seeing.

An advanced camera - whether digital or film is very fast, the computers and sensors make sure that the exposure and focus are always correct (although not always where you wanted them) and in principle this leaves you free to interact with the subject and concentrate on image making, but oft-times that freedom is wasted because you forget to think. You are seduced by the technology and end up shooting like a hyperactive child. For this exercise I wanted to take my time.

I am not anti automation - Freckleton Street bridge was a digital project but for this endeavour I wanted to strip away that technical assistance and interact more directly with my motif. To that end I chose to use what may be thought of as an archaic system, something as simple as possible leaving me free to make every decision. In other words a box of indeterminate size and shape with a lens at one end and film at the other: a view camera.

So much for the equipment what about the Cat.

Scientists might have explained the paradox long ago but the underlying contention that the act of observation alters reality remains. In a documentary survey we seek the objective or authentic truth and in doing so we run up against that paradox in that by seeking out authenticity we essentially stage-manage reality and in consequence the results are subjective rather than objective and the staging renders them inauthentic.

This then is an endeavour which is beset by self-imposed rules and conditions.

  • Firstly this is a topographic survey and must therefore seek to document the various types and styles of landscape existing within the very small geographical space encompassed by the orbital route.
  • Secondly whilst this is an urban landscape and hence populated by people and vehicles and the marks of civilisation these are not central to the project and where present in images are there only as part of the scenery.

Then there is the photographic process itself perhaps akin to the slow food movement this is slow photography the camera is large and cumbersome mounted on a tripod and since it is not equipped with a viewfinder its point of view is assessed by looking directly through the instrument and composing the image in that curious upside down and laterally reversed way. The lens is fixed focal length and so the only way to alter the viewpoint is to physically carry the camera around. Once the camera is set up it is possible to adjust its size and shape and thus alter how it “sees” the world that distortion of reality generates images which are in some small ways hyperreal. Tilting the standards results in images which are sharp from the closest to the furthest point and the swing and shifts ensure that the vertical and horizontal remain so. This hyperreality does not make its presence immediately felt. It is only by reference to snapshots and our memory of other photographs that we begin to notice these subtle distortions.

This slow food analogy carries on through the rest of the process. Pressing the shutter after spending time considering the viewpoint, assessing the geometry, monitoring the light and all the other decisions is only the first stage. One of the joys or horrors of film is the dread that something can still go wrong. The film is a physical and delicate object sensitive not only to light but also to the risks of damage by dust and scratching and then subject to the uncertain outcome of chemical development, subsequent drying and physical handling. The risks can be minimised by experience and care but remain omnipresent and several camera exposures did not survive the process and were ruined by various faults.

Whenever you visit a craft fair you always see notices to the effect that faults and flaws are part of the character of handmade items. This is therefore a second conundrum. One of the reasons for the choice of archaic equipment is to achieve the sublime quality it is capable of. However the slight marks and stains caused by uneven development or the traces left of the dust which settled inside the camera at the moment of exposure are all signifiers of the nature of the process and intrinsic to it. An aesthetic/ethical conundrum therefore arises to what extent are those imperfections which demonstrate the authenticity of the process to be permitted to remain in the final image.

The basic nature of the image was determined by the choice of camera equipment. However the exposed film requires further processing. In approaching the project I decided that this was to be an exercise in photographic purity. The only automatic device on the camera is a clockwork shutter which ensures that the exposures are reliable. Similarly I chose a simple type of film Ilford FP4 which comprises solely a transparent plastic sheet coated with a single layer of light-sensitive emulsion. Advances in chemistry mean that the film is more consistent than those used by the pioneers but it remains a material they would have been familiar with. Over the years there have been countless formulations of chemistry for developing film but one of the earliest and one used to such great effect by Paul Strand and Edward Weston was a material known as Pyro.

Pyro is quite a toxic chemical and is not available over the counter of your local camera shop but there are specialist suppliers who can provide the raw materials from which it can be formulated. Taking a small shortcut I purchased a kit containing the various powders and chemicals necessary to mix up the stock solutions.

With proprietary developers the manufacturers have tested them on various types of film and there are tables and charts to tell you what concentration to use,what temperature it should be used at, for how long and in what manner. None of that applies to historical materials such as Pyro. The instructions with the kit simply say that film will develop in something between 4 and 10 minutes at between 20 and 25°C and that the actual time can be determined by experimentation. In other words suck it and see.

Testing just means wasting film so a number of sheets of film were shot at various exposure settings and processed for various times until a result was achieved. In the end the film was exposed for approximately twice the manufacturer's recommendation and then processed for 5 mins at 21oC. This is not fixed however and after each shoot the first sheet of film was processed and examined before the remainder were processed so that any adjustments in time necessary as a result of the shooting conditions could be accommodated.

The final process is the production of printed output. The pyro development process was chosen to produce negatives containing exceptional amounts of detail such that features can be made out in both the whitest parts of the scene and the deepest shadows. This is a range of perception perhaps foreign to natural human vision, a viewer not used to the format will first of all be drawn to the resolution but then notice the second characteristic of the materials chosen and that is their ability to reproduce very fine tonal graduation. The printing process was therefore chosen and adjusted to maximise those two factors.

A lot of very recent black and white photography whether from digital originals or film shows a grainy high contrast aesthetic which owes much to newspaper reproduction of press images. Similarly there is a landscape photography trend to ape the style of Ansell Adams in the 40s and 50s and seek to create false contrast and tonal representations in the interest of drama.

These approaches are at odds with the aims of this project which demands a simple style to allow the viewer to examine and contemplate the landscape and buildings un-moderated by artificial treatment.

The prints were therefore made on fibre-based silver gelatin paper which is renowned for its archival qualities, its hand feel, the nature of the surface and its ability to reproduce delicate tonal changes. Once made the prints were then gently selenium toned to maximise micro-contrast and also to aid archival stability.

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