Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Cybernetics of Antiquated Technology

I like using mechanical cameras. For that matter, most any well designed, hand operated mechanical device or tool I find interesting. Although it may be simply enough to accept my personal likes and dislikes on face value (since, after all, I’m the one who has to live with myself), it interests me enough to warrant further thinking on the subject.

Aside from the uses put to such mechanical devices for the purposes of creative expression – here I’m referring to devices such as the mechanical typewriter and the manual 35mm rangefinder camera – the tactile feel of a well designed and sturdily constructed machine lends a carnal sense of satisfaction that borders on the sensuous.

The experience of pounding away on a mechanical typewriter, whose staccato rhythm is periodically interrupted by the decisive act of the carriage return, is a classically sensuous interaction between man and machine. The force required to make a definite imprint of ink upon paper is not the slight, delicate snickings of the computer keyboard; rather, it is forceful enough so as to resemble the stern-minded absoluteness of a well-made decision, yet not so extreme as to tax the physical limits of the operator.

A series of words or whole sentences or entire paragraphs thus rendered represent a sequence of forceful, decisive acts of creative expression. The machine requires that degree of forceful intent; in turn, the act of forcefully hammering away with fingertips upon keys places a requirement on the operator that there also be an equivalent degree of forceful intent put into the thoughts that those words represent.

It is an act of severity, this business of typing on a manual. With it comes an historic sense of urgency, knowing, perhaps not consciously, that this is a noble act, in a long line that threads its way back to when Guttenberg was first printing with movable type. How easy it is now – too easy, it seems – to put endless chains of words together on the computer screen and, with a few clicks of the mouse, make them available to anyone; and everyone; and no one. This business of blogging and posting and blogging and posting seems to flow as effortlessly as do the constant drizzle of thoughts that make up one’s internal dialog, the mind’s inner voice. The problem is that no one should be permitted exposed to the never-ending eruption of one’s inner dialog.

Fortunately, the Internet is a voluntary activity.

We require a mechanical contrivance that purposely places limits on the ability to record printed words, to allow the mind the time necessary to clean it all up, as it were, to edit and pare down, to make it succinct. We need the severity of the mechanical typewriter.

The mechanical rangefinder camera, rather than being a severe but noble enabler of succinctness, resembles more a spring-driven clockwork, coupled to a gun sight. The end result of one’s careful machinations and adjustments is the delightful ‘snick’ of the shutter. The sensuousness of the shutter release is the reward given for the careful analysis of the scene’s light, and the thoughtful adjustment made to the F-stop, shutter speed and focus ring. And, as if the strained release of the shutter curtain weren’t reward enough, there is the additional treat of the resulting photographs themselves, whether picked up from the corner store, or developed and printed, by hand, in one’s home studio.

Stalking images, armed only with an all-mechanical rangefinder camera, is a quick succession of compositional assessments, constant adjustments to the camera’s controls to compensate for the scene’s changing light, and creative control of the critical plane of focus, all culminated by the delightful ‘snick’ of the shutter, followed by a quick wind of the shutter; and the cycle is repeated.

The rangefinder photographer is a hunter armed with, not a cannon but, a far more elegant weapon; a solidly built, precise, intricate instrument that appears to be the pinnacle of a previous era’s ability to design a tool that conforms ideally to the hand and the eye; the gateway to the soul.

Futurists have repeatedly predicted that the evolution of the human species will be in the direction of the cybernetic, a hybrid conjoinment of tissue and electro-mechanics. Many have already made the assumption that in the computer will we see the fulfillment of this cybernetic vision. I would like to propose that the best example yet seen of a cyborg-like relationship between man and machine are in the finely engineered, mechanical marvels that we call the manual typewriter and the rangefinder camera. These are tools meant to be fondled, designed for one’s hands to grip and hold and press and turn, whose operation is intuitive, and gives back to the user immediate physical feedback. We like these tools because they seem engineered to the human scale; they seem docile and compliant, ever-willing to obey our command, never demanding of us more than our minds and fingers and feeble eyes can easily see and handle and control. As any faithful servant would, they make us feel in charge of things, in control, even when, down deep, we known that isn’t quite so.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Terminology Quagmire

I am slowly coming around. Changing some fundamental beliefs – perhaps it’s more accurate to say ‘preconceptions’ – about photographic art. I have been known to be opinionated about the technology of photography, being biased toward the traditional film-based formats. Like most opinions, they are usually found to be uninformed; mine certainly have been.

Several weeks ago I was the recipient of a fine art, black and white digital print, from a contributor to the F295 Print Exchange. I now have tangible, physical evidence in hand that contradicts many of my past presumptions. The print in question was made from a scan of a medium format film negative that had been exposed in a pinhole camera. The quality of the paper is what I would term ‘museum quality’; a thick paper stock, very fiber-based on the reverse side, with a semi-matte finish on the front that resembles a nice RC silver gelatin photo paper. The tonal range of the image is very subtle and sophisticated.

I am impressed.

This experience has led me back to one of the essential principles of art appreciation: each work should be judged by its own merits, and that judgment is best made when the work is experienced in person; preferably in hand. Categories, abstract notions of a hierarchy of values based on intellectual assertions, matter little in comparison to the experience of being an art participant. The work functions as a vehicle through which the artist’s intent is transplanted, via the interaction between the physical media and the participant’s senses.

This particular print impressed me with certain qualities that I would characterize as being artistic in execution.

Notice how I have, up to now, avoided the inevitable comparison between the current state of the art, and older technologies. Making images in silver gelatin does not automatically equate the creation of a work of art; the same is true with the current image making processes, and for that matter any technology of craft.

The time has now come when we see the need to make careful linguistic distinctions between these various methods of image making. Just as silver gelatin printing can be seen as a subset of a larger field of print making, so too is droplet-applied, computer-controlled printing an entirely distinct form of print making. Many examples of this technology are seen to be photographic in origin, as the original image is derived from a light-sensitive capture medium: film or electronic. But the essence of the new printing technology is not a process that relies on light sensitive materials. In that sense it is not a photographic process, unlike a darkroom produced print that would be made from an optical image projected, or contact printed, onto silver gelatin or other light sensitive paper.

I suspect a lot of the confusion over terminology is the result of the Internet, where electronic facsimile of imagery can be exchanged and discussed as if they were the art objects themselves. We have gotten so used to this form of art appreciation that we tend to lose sight of the finished print.

Terminology, the names we give to things, in large measure determine what we think, and therefore affect our relationship to the named world. The difficulty in refining our terminology is that ‘writing with light’ – as photography literally implies – can be done at the front-end of the process, using film cameras, digital cameras or scanners, or can also be done at the back-end of the process, using a transparent, image-bearing medium with which to print onto light sensitive paper a photographic image. Our problem is that both processes can be deemed ‘photographic’ in nature. What we lack is a carefully defined set of terminologies that keeps explicitly distinct each method’s peculiarities.

The language of culture has not kept pace with the rate of change in technology itself, with change occurring so rapidly that we have lost the ability to accurately describe it. This phenomenon I suspect to be at the root of the ever-present arguments over the merits and distinctions between what has been termed “digital photography” and “analog photography.”

One possible way out of the terminology quagmire is to take up a practice employed in the early days of the Compact Disc digital audio format: use a series of letters to denote whether each step of the process was analog or digital. For instance, a film negative, exposed in a film camera, conventionally processed and darkroom printed onto silver gelatin paper might be given the code letters “AA”, to indicate analog at both the image capture and printing stages. Conversely, an image derived from a digital camera, then manipulated in Photoshop and digitally printed, would be denoted as “DDD.”

Hybrid workflow can also be accurately described using this abbreviated terminology; for instance, an image from a digital camera, printed onto a transparency as a ‘digital negative’ and contact printed using a wet process would be labeled “DDA.” Or a paper negative from a pinhole camera can be scanned, manipulated and then printed digitally as a type “ADD.”

As a final note, I should mention that, while perusing magazines recently, I noticed the venerable “Popular Photography” periodical now has a subtitle: “…and Imaging.” It seems that other folks than just me have observed the need to clarify the terminology of the art of image making. In the case of Pop Photo, are we to assume that recent technological changes imply a method of image making other than photographic? Hmm, interesting. Who would have thunk that Pop Photo would make editorial assumptions that imply digital photography is “imaging”, rather than photography? Does that mean it is something other than photography?

I think that we have not yet left the terminology quagmire.