Monday, December 24, 2007

One Camera, One Shot, One Chance

I have embarked upon an experiment that has no predefined outcome, save one; it is as if I were openly defiant of all that I have worked for, during the last decade, with regard to my creative passion that is pinhole photography.

It will be necessary for us to make a brief detour and survey the landscape from whence we have come. Having teethed and honed my rudimentary photographic skills on the manually operated 35mm SLR, and later on a medium format roll-film system, I came to pinhole photography with the bemused misunderstanding that, while a camera, fashioned from a crude cardboard box, might prove to be functional, it was severely limited and far from practical.

Hence the nature of the quest upon which I embarked, to carve out of the jungle of primitiveness a little nook of mechanical complexity sufficient to transform the crude box camera into a working tool of the creative photographer. I began a series of sketch journals, within which I recorded ideas, thoughts, concepts for simple mechanisms that would permit multiple large format negatives to be preloaded into a camera for the purposes of the day-long photo safari, all the while retaining the simplicity and ease of processing that is the photo paper negative.

While my goal might seem a noble one, there is intrinsically a certain amount of naiveté in the notion that one can proceed with a program to advance one’s skill and talent within a field of art, all the while retaining one’s infantile-like fantasies. It’s like graduating from secondary school while hanging onto one’s first-grade lunch box. Which, it should be pointed out, would make a dandy pinhole camera; that, along with a bit of black tape.

I proceeded, during the last decade, to make a series of falling-plate cameras, each of which can be preloaded with a number of large format negatives, and used as a virtual point-and-shoot pinhole camera. There was also a series of large format paper negative roll-film cameras, where strips of photo paper are cut and assembled, within the confines of one’s darkroom, into a large format version of a roll-film camera, complete with a frame counter viewing window. And, not to leave any obtuse thought incomplete, I also fashioned several carousel cameras, where large format negatives are preloaded onto the rotating central carousel of a larger box camera – another unique method for providing the convenience of multiple large format negatives without the expense and bulk of toting around a stack of sheet film holders.

After years of crafting these unique photographic tools, and using them in various settings, it came to my attention that the convenience of having at one’s disposal a stack of large format negatives, ready to go, was in itself a crutch – a handicap, actually – rather than what they were intended to be: a tool for the creation of a noble body of work in the field of pinhole photography. I found myself treating these tools as if they were mere point-and-shoot cameras, blasting off shot after shot, knowing that at least one ought to be good enough. What I discovered was in need of radical surgery was my state of mind, the mental process through which I approached the creation of the photographic image. While I had spent years ruminating on all possible variations on the mechanics of the box camera, very little time was actually spent in deep thought over the art of the image itself, and one’s internal mental state required to achieve the image’s creation.

A behavioral character trait common to many practitioners of the pinhole art is the constant search for objects which may be easily converted to a pinhole camera: discarded suitcases; plethora of cookie and mint tins; craft boxes of all assortments. What has captured my curiosity on a periodic basis, but not until recently has been consummated by actual acquisition, was the variety of photo/video storage boxes, available at numerous craft and dime stores, whose allure was their size being convenient for conversion into a box camera suitable for 8” by 10” photo paper negatives.

Several weeks ago I acquired such a storage box, whose particular attribute that attracted me was the covering material of thick, black felt, which proved to provide a light-tight seal along the box’s lid. The application of black spray paint to the interior, and a simple pinhole aperture and shutter on the box lid, along with the judicious application of some bungee cords to keep the lid tightly secure, has resulted in yet another box camera among a collection that now numbers in the dozens. Ho-hum. Not even a very sophisticated example of camera design, at that.

But this simple one-shot box camera has returned me to the roots of my pinhole art, and has taken me on a little mental journey that has me ruminating on the merits of that most fundamental of photographic handicaps: The One Shot. Whereas the large format photographer, equipped with view camera and a stack of sheet film holders, may be considered pedantic by the contemporary shooter – armed with an arsenal of hi-tech weaponry that can dispense decisive moments at a rate of fire in excess of eight frames per second – the one-shot pinhole box camera by comparison makes the view camera aficionado a rapid-fire machine gunner.

Supplied with but one sheet of photo paper media, the One Shot Artist is treading the very razor’s edge, keenly aware that every step in the process, from loading the paper in the darkroom to its final processing, must be accomplished with exactitude and precision; that there are no second chances to redo the shot; that composition and judgment of the scene’s light – and the minute-long exposure – must be flawless; perfect, even. This is not the snapping of the decisive moment, rather, the creation of the Perfect Minute.

Driving from one’s home-based darkroom to a remote location that promises some photogenic subject matter takes on a more somber note when one considers the price of fuel at three dollars per gallon; adding up the transportation cost required to make the Perfect Minute on one sheet of paper amounts to perhaps another dollar or two, on top of the cost of photo materials and chemistry. This observation provides a heightened tension, like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, making the merely insubstantial fear a more tangible backdrop to the day’s proceedings. One has the idea that everything must go just exactly so; that there can be no error; while simultaneously one must also be entirely focused on the creative inner vision that is able to locate and isolate that most fleeting, ephemeral, pre-visualized subject, complete in all its glory. It’s the walk of the tightrope artist who must not, even for a second, think of the net below. Except, in the case of the One Shot Artist, there is no net.

The limitations imposed by such truly primitive ‘equipment’ – even the term itself seems an exaggeration – make the successful outcome all that more rewarding to the artist, although few others are able to appreciate the results with the same celebratory sense of satisfaction.

Thus I find myself, at this late date in the final week of 2007, embarked upon an experiment in photographic minimalism, whose solitary rule is to return from the image-hunting sojourn with the One Good Shot. That’s it. I would like to think of it as the Tortoise approach, rather than that of the Hare: a slow, pedantic yet purposeful march toward a steady realization of a consistent body of photographic work.

To be sure, my volume of future work will be diminished in intensity, but that is a minor trade-off for the opportunity to revolutionize my photographic vision by an intense, quiet, internalized vision quest. Within the shadow of the cacophony of contemporary photographic media, a quiet, slow, thoughtful approach is, in itself, revolutionary.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Pursuit of the Magic Lantern

An artist cannot succeed – cannot live, even – as an isolated entity unto oneself, without the fertile cross-pollination that comes from co-mingling in the creative juices of a larger cultural context. I am currently reading a biography of the assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, along with a parallel novel, ‘Celestial Navigation’, by Anne Tyler. Cornell, the true-to-life artist, and Jeremy Pauling, the fictional artist in ‘Celestial Navigation’, both live reclusive lives, their seeming only outlet being their peculiar field of art that has become a catharsis for some inner struggle. Though Cornell lived a secluded life, his life’s work spanned the temporal and stylistic influences of at least three art generations: Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. He was an influencer of, and influenced by, art and popular culture of his time.

This last weekend I attended a meeting of a local film and video arts organization, and had the opportunity to rub elbows with many people whose passion is the art and craft of storytelling through the moving image. Though I have dabbled in some low quality ‘experimental’ video work some years ago, my recent creative focus has been in the area of pinhole and silver gelatin photography. Conversations with individuals at this meeting have rekindled some long-forgotten passion I once felt toward a method of employing still photography as an image source for the purposes of experimental and documentary film.

Conceptually, what has interested me takes the form of a montage of still images that are ordered and sequenced in what we will refer to as a Magic Lantern or slide show, with a sound track accompaniment. There is nothing at all revolutionary about this technique; what seems to be its most striking attribute is the sense that the Magic Lantern – an ordered sequence of still images – can function as a mature storytelling medium, rather than being a mere transitional form or technological footnote on the long road from Greek Tragedy to Virtual Reality.

The Magic Lantern seems to function as a hybrid media, transgressing that middle ground between still imagery and motion picture; a staccato, slow-motion cinema of sequentially ordered decisive moments, each carefully extracted from the larger continuum of real events, and isolated with the introspective gaze of the camera’s four walls, the frame’s edge.

If photography can be said to take out of their original context the bits and pieces of the visual cortex that is the world of light, then the Magic Lantern is a restructuring of those elements, an amalgamation whose purpose is the creation of a wholly new and original context; a transformation.

The power of still imagery lies in its fundamental quality to not only arrest the flow of time but also stretch out and dissect those very elements that make up each moment. When we view an image by Garry Winogrand, for instance, we see the frozen remnants of a convulsive and dynamic street scene, dissected with the precision of a surgeon, enabling an astute viewer to sense the invisible lines of force that enliven the interrelationships between the various characters in the scene, as if we are witness to a line of street theatre by actors dressed in the nonchalant garb of the every man. We are left with the sense that had the very same scene been recorded in a medium of moving images – film or video – we would be entirely oblivious to the hidden drama unfolding between each frame of film, as if we were undertaking the elusive goal of capturing fairies, requiring each frame be carefully examined in exquisite detail for that elusive, telltale sign.

The process of montage presents to the artist an opportunity to construct a series of still images, frozen moments, such that they interrelate and thus present the sequential structure of a story, but without the frantic pace evident with the moving image. The Magic Lantern presents the dichotomy of the stationary image operating within the sequential flow of montage that resembles the storytelling quality of cinema, but without the distraction of motion. In the ordered sequence of still images we can grasp the flow of time and arc of story, yet we never actually see the motion of objects in space. The viewer is presented with the opportunity to decode both spatial and temporal clues presented by the filmmaker in ways that are entirely elusive in the realm of motion picture.

What excites me is the possibility to begin using the art of still photography as a source of imagery for the Magic Lantern, especially the vast archive of pinhole and alternative lens imagery that I have created in the last decade. Not only is the contemporary technology of the computer-edited movie to be employed in this project, but also I have alternative methods at my disposal, such as the ability to create and project filmstrips, using an Olympus Pen D half-frame camera and filmstrip projector. I look forward to being witness to the coming together of multitudes of individual still images for the purpose of creating an entirely new context in storytelling, completely outside of the boundaries of convention. I impatiently await the magic that is the Magic Lantern.