Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One Just Never Knows

    Steve says that he comes out here several times a week, to paint. When he's done with this painting, he intends to head over to Moab, to paint some more. And here I thought he was a vandal, or worse.
    Life in the west is not like it was, say, a century ago. Plenty of open spaces, and few people to bother you; populating our common mythos with legends of outlaws, thieves and killers, roaming the badlands.
    Per capita, the concentration of law enforcement in the rural outreaches of the west are probably not much less than other, more populous areas. What is certain, however, is that the concentration of law enforcement per square mile is very low. You'd have to drive - or walk - pretty far to come across a lawman in time of need, unless you were on the highway, or state or national park. The cell phone becomes your friend, if you're within reach of a tower, out within the vast wastes of wilderness.
    One happens across small towns and villages in the west, populated sparsely by folks who value their privacy and uninterrupted communion with the vast emptiness. At least, that's the commonly-held belief. The truth is more complex; people find themselves in the hinterlands for various reasons, not all of them romantic or spiritual.
    I happened into a curio shop this week, in Cerrillos, New Mexico, along Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, just down the road a spell from Santa Fe. I hadn't taken the paved road, however, but cut across from I-25, near La Bajada Hill, on a dirt road, scoping out scenic areas to photograph. So I entered town the back way, off the dusty trail - literally - and sauntered into this curio shop (which I already mentioned) after having captured an exposure down the road.

    The shop, it was crowded with dusty shelves of rocks and minerals, and the clutter of thrift shop discards. I half expected to be greeted by a homey, talkative sort, friendly to her potential clientele, if I understand the business model correctly.
    The first thing out of her mouth surprised me. "I can't wait to get out of this place."
    I knew immediately that here was a person dissatisfied, shall we say, with her life. That might be an understatement. True, there's not much going on in the little village of Cerrillos, even on a Friday night. But one doesn't come to these places to live with expectations of a neon-lit urban frenzy. I suppose, in her case, that "this place" might be more a state of mind than a mere geographical description.
    One just never knows what to expect around the next bend in the road, out here in the American west. It's big enough to contain everyone's idea or dream of serenity, and also big enough to disappoint time and time again.
    I drove down the Turquoise Trail a few miles, into the former mining town of Madrid (pronounced mah'-drid, unlike the proper Spanish pronunciation; go figure) and there also found the unexpected.

    First, there was an old Honda motorcycle, obviously had been out in the weather a spell, almost hidden from the road, parked behind one of those mobile food trailers we used to call "roach coaches" in the Navy, only this roach coach, painted bright red, had steel railroad wheels. I maneuvered my tripod, backpack and box camera around behind the roach coach, between the unkempt limbs of a nearby shrub, far enough back to capture a good side-shot of the bike in all of its rustic glory.
    Further down the road in Madrid I stopped for a cup of coffee at Java Junction. There, a young gal I found to be just the opposite of the one up the road in Cerrillos: friendly, outgoing, happy to be working, talkative almost to a fault. She, although at work on a Sunday afternoon, was enjoying her day, and warm, spring-like weather.
    One just never knows what to expect.
    I lived in a rural "community", years ago, east of Albuquerque near the town of Tijeras. An old, battered trailer park, which had seen its heyday in the era of Route 66, before the Interstate highway drove business away. It had the ruins of a former gas station on the property, now used for storage by the owner, and an old cafe, which was rented out as a one-room flat. The rest of the property was populated by ancient, single-wide sheetmetal trailers, bullet-hole-ridden and rusting, and which were well beyond their prime. People came here to live for a variety of reasons. The summers were cooler, in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, than down below in the city, and the rent was cheap. But that's not the main reason; the winters were just as harsh as the summers were pleasant, and the low cost of rent was offset by the high price of propane required to heat the trailer with its paper-thin walls.
    Privacy: people came here to get away. Or hide. Some of my neighbors were hiding, for certain. From the law, or insurance claimsmen, or from some inner demons. The guy next door had three dogs in his small yard, which were perpetually chained up next to their little plywood hovels, and barked constantly, day and night. The fellow, he was okay when the weather was dry, but when it rained, he would put on his military camo fatigues and sit out in his old rusted van, armed with an AR-15 rifle, just watching the rain come down. The rain, it reminded him of Vietnam.
    Other neighbors grew cannabis, over the fence on National Forest property. They'd just throw the seeds out their window, over the fence, and wait until after the summer rains for the next harvest to appear; God's little acre.
    I used to take hikes out in the National Forest, behind the trailer park. I'd come across evidence of people living out here, off-grid, on the edges between things, an interstitial community.
    It takes a certain kind of inner fortitude to handle the vast emptiness, the aloneness, of the great west. Some people need the company of others, can't handle being alone with only one's thoughts to keep them company. One has to be prepared to handle the unexpected; self-sufficiency is of high value out here.
    Today I headed north from Albuquerque, to the town of Bernalillo, then northwest on Highway 550, almost to the town of San Ysidro, where I turned west, off the Highway, onto Cabezon Road and out into the Ojito Wilderness.
    The Ojito is like the west in general, both near and far; near enough to town that help, should one need it, is not that far away; but far enough out to experience the dry, dusty aloneness and dramatic scenery of wilderness up close and personal. Yet, no matter how far out one drives, or hikes off the main road, there are signs that someone else has already been here before you. Bright red, blue or green plastic shotgun shells, tarnished brass shell casings, broken clay pigeons; broken glass or crushed metal beer containers. Trash. Footprints, tire tracks, cattle droppings. From the road, Ojito Wilderness, like many other parts of the west, appear devoid of the human presence, until one stops, gets out, and walks a bit, quiet but observant, up close and personal.

    I had stopped in several locations, lugging the paraphernalia of the large-format photographer across dusty, weed-strewn wastes, up and down rocky outcroppings, in search of that illusive image that signifies another aspect of the west in pictorial form. I stopped at one place, a cattle pond that's dry most of the year, and captured three images. At another, a pond that was water-filled last autumn, I found bone dry. One just never knows for sure.
    The last place I stopped at, with just three negatives left unexposed, was down a shallow canyon from the cattle pond. It was obvious, from standing within the canyon, how the pond had been built by damming it downstream, and how a stand of deciduous trees stood bone dry and dead, starved of the water they were once weaned on.
    I was out of sight from my truck, which was on top of the canyon, easily visible from the main road. I'm always conscious, when out alone in the wilderness, of what can go wrong. The truck could get stuck, or break down. Did I bring a shovel, is the spare filled, did I bring enough water?

    I had captured the starkness of a dead tree against the rugged canyon cliffs behind, having used small, flat rocks under each tripod leg to prevent the settling into the soft sand that would have ruined the multi-second exposure, and was lugging my gear further down, scoping out my next shot, when I heard activity up on the cliff, near my out-of-sight truck. I had thought to lock it, I was certain. And my digital camera was pretty well concealed within. But still; one just never knows for sure. I could have taken the digital with me; heck, I could have just used my cell phone's camera and dispensed with this large format gig altogether, but that's not the point, is it?
    I sauntered down the canyon, looking for some vista with dramatic canyon walls in the background and an interesting foreground, but the light just wasn't right; it was too early in the day, the canyon walls were in shadow, which would be pure mud on these finicky paper negatives, and I was still thinking about my truck back there, and what it was that was going on, and would I end up having to hike out of the wilderness, hitch a ride with some stranger, loaded down with tripod, backpack and large box camera? And then there's this shot that I'm trying to set up. Perhaps some interesting object, to isolate. Oh, there's something down here, next to this large boulder. A piece of dried wood, a remnant of an old fence post, perhaps; but it's so old that it looks almost indigenous. Here, let's prop it up against the boulder, that's good. Partly shaded, partly sunny behind it, side-lit by the late morning sun to reveal its interesting textures. It's not like we're breaking any rules, doing this rearranging of the landscape to fit our discerning creative intuition; think of it as Photoshop before there was Photoshop; I didn't move that piece of wood, I cut and pasted it.

    And there's one more negative left to expose, but I now feel for sure like heading back up the slope to my truck. I have this way of lugging my tripod, where the legs are extended and spread apart in their three-point stance, held by the center column - ready to set down, self-supported, should I suddenly slip - with backpack on my shoulders and box camera, in all of its bulkiness, under my left arm, which continually slides down onto my belt, pressing my cell phone that's holstered there, causing little beep-beep-beep noises to emanate as I trudge up the steep hill. I'm wondering what my phone's doing; perhaps the random button presses are dialing some phone number that I shouldn't be dialing. Now there's an interesting idea for a story, a guy whose ... and as I round the top of the hill, there's a silver truck next to mine, and a painter's easel set up behind it, overlooking the canyon I'd just hiked out of, and a man in worn clothing and weathered sun hat, seated behind the easel, dabbing at a pallet loaded with bright pats of paint.
    So much for criminal outlaws.

    We have a bit of a chat, as I set up and capture my last image, of him painting, during which, about midway through the 4 second exposure, the wind takes his canvas and dumps it off the easel, into his lap. I'm thinking that this was my last negative, I have no more; of all the times I've been out to Ojito Wilderness I've never happened across a plein air painter before, this was a one of a kind event, surely that shot isn't ruined because the painting goes flying off the easel, mid-way through the exposure, is it?
    One just never knows, does one?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sophia Tolstoy, Photographer

"Joe's Bench" paper negative image by Joe Van Cleave

I'm studying a book about Countess Sophia (Sonya, to her family) Tolstoy, wife of author Leo Tolstoy. I say "studying," versus reading, because my interest is bound to the fact that the Countess was an accomplished amateur photographer, producing a body of work comprising about a thousand prints.

She produced her work using a wooden Kodak bellows plate camera, exposing 13 x 18 cm. glass plates, a "dry" emulsion much like modern black and white films, except its tonal range was actinic, blue sensitive only. This resemblance to my field of interest in paper negative photography is rather striking, one of the attractions that drew me to this book.

The countess was a busy woman, with 13 children and a husband in constant need of attention. Yet she managed to pursue her photography as an interstitial passion, between everything else.

I've struggled with finding the time, or rather the motivation, to pursue my photography with greater passion. Perhaps it's because my interests are so diluted amongst so many disparate activities. Jack of all trades, master of none. There's something to be said for a narrow focus upon a particular interest, pursuing it to the nth degree, mastering it with all of one's energy.

An excerpt from Sonya's diary of 14 July 1897: "I have been developing photographs all day, and making prints of the ones people have asked for..."

She developed her glass plates herself, then found time later to contact print them. She didn't have the formal dedicated darkroom space of the modern hobbiest, her's was found fitted in a closet under a stairwell, or other secluded location, makeshift and make do. Her photography, however, was a source of both inspiration and frustration, as are all things in life that inspire passion.

Diary entry 15 July 1897: "I got up late, developed some prints, then went swimming with Sasha and the governesses. Afterwards I did some more developing..."

Diary entry 16 July 1897: "I spent the evening pasting photographs into the album. I shall give them all away tomorrow, and shan't waste any more of my time on my photography. I did about 80."

Diary entry 17 July 1897: "I did more copying [of Tolstoy's manuscripts] and developed more photographs. I gave them all away today, and shall soon give up this hobby."

Diary entry 20 July 1897: "I stayed up late working on some photographs which had come out unsuccessfully..."

Diary entry 21 August 1897: "I took photographs all yesterday and today - flowers, the apple harvest, the apple trees, a hut and so on."

Diary entry 23 August 1897: "I waste my time on unsuccessful photographs ... which makes me feel very guilty ..."

It's evident from this chronology that she was both drawn to, and frustrated by, this creative passion that rewarded her successes as it reinforced her seeming lack of talent through every failure. Anyone who has attempted to do silver gelatin photography, and do it well, will instantly relate to these cycles of animated passion followed by forlorn doubts of one's skills.

In the shadow of contemporary imaging technology whose methods are designed, it seems, to cater to every whim of convenience for the photographer, continuing to pursue contact printing of large format, silver gelatin negatives seems not only anachronistic, but downright unnecessary, especially given the reality of Sonya's time when there were no alternatives. She can be forgiven for her employment of such crude methods, but we are left with no excuse, or so it would seem.

I still have more studying to do of this remarkable woman's life and photographic work. What I find remarkable about her work is her dedication and passion to her hobby, all the while taking care of her domestic affairs; and the uncanny technical resemblance her photographs have to the paper negative images that I create; the washed out whiteness of the skies, the tunnel-like central zone of sharp focus, the off-axis optical aberrations of her camera's lens. What is also striking, in comparison, is my obvious lack of talent. Another striking observation, from having studied many of her photographs, is the universality of her compositions. All of the usual "rules" seem to be observed, with an innate sophistication that seems derived from an inner aesthetic sensibility. For instance, in many of her outdoor group portraits she composes the image based on logical structural elements of the environs - nearby trees, columns of buildings, etc. - then places her subjects within this setting. A mere novice would be interested in only centering the group within the camera's frame, ignoring the surrounding environment, but Sonya takes into account the entire periphery of the scene in her pictures. The subjects are placed within a setting, rather than the setting being mere distractive background. This serves as reminder, in our time of inundation within digital media, that the basic elements of pictorial composition have been with us for millennia, predating the technical arts, and implies that we have much to learn in this regard from the study, rather than the destruction, of past culture.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Safari

It was a cool, cloudy morning, the sky as hazy and indistinct as my consciousness, clouded by a short, restless sleep the night before. I had stayed up late, almost to midnight, completing the finishing touches on the viewscreen of my 8"x10" box camera, and now it was time to take it out, "in the field," as it were.

I had loaded up two film holders with a total of four paper negatives. I have more film holders available, but figured it would be a challenge, not knowing my ultimate destination, to complete just these four. I had thought about driving up the Turquoise Trail to Madrid, an old mining town, but decided against it due to incoming weather, and instead decided to search the environs of town for possibilities. Going on a photo safari is somewhat similar to big game hunting, with the exception that you don't know what the beast will end up looking like until you come upon it, passing it in your haste to get down the road, then hurriedly stop, back up and park, and unload the big game paraphernalia.

I drove through town, aimless wanderings that brought me through the south valley of Albuquerque and up onto Nine Mile Hill, the bluff along the city's western edge that overlooks the valley and mountains to the east. Sandy wastes of trailer homes, decrepit ranch houses, tracts of newly built sprawl, plopped down upon the dry scrub like some Monopoly player's gambit.

I ended up at the very western terminus of Rio Bravo Blvd, where it meets up with Paseo Del Vulcan, at the very southwest corner of the metro area. There, in a rough clearing of gravel, asphalt and trash was a corner where two fence lines meet. Beyond them just rangeland and a line of high-tension power line towers, drawing themselves into the distance toward the south.

I parked, popped the trunk open and began unloading tripod, box camera and backpack. It was windy, the incoming storm front in the distance, and a mist-like veil of rain drifting with the wind up the valley below. I positioned the camera and tripod near the fence, reconsidered the composition, then moved the rig a few yards to the east, capturing in the foreground a nearby cross, erected to memorialize some lost soul. In the distance, past the barbed wire fence, the line of towers receded into the distant landscape. I made the 4 second exposure, fretting the camera's vibration from the wind, certain that the image would consequently be softer as a result, but was impelled to proceed nonetheless; when the Muse strikes, one must respond accordingly.

I drove through the north valley of Albuquerque, through old neighborhoods whose landscape was gray with the fallowness of late winter. I found my way to Guadalupe Trail, between 4th street and the Rio Grande, and drove the slow, winding lane through neighborhoods quaint and quiet. There I found an old, abandoned house that beckoned to be captured on silver gelatin paper, whose allure caused me to suddenly stop, back up several yards and park along the lane's dirt edging.

I'm constantly aware, when photographing in residential areas, of people's curiosity and potential for offense at my interloping. I make a point to stay on the public road's right-of-way, avoiding private property, yet am also aware that my camera's gaze points into someone else's life and property. There's a history to this old, abandoned relic from a previous era; a reason why it stands as it does, hasn't yet been torn down to make way for a standalone garage or other improvement to the property. I set up the tripod, then mount the camera, and begin to fiddle with the tripod's position when a neighbor, taking a walk from a nearby street, inquires as to the camera. It's an inquiry that I immediately realize is not motivated out of fear, but curiosity. He asks me why I take these pictures, if it's for my own purpose. We exchange smalltalk, then he proceeds on his walk. I'm thinking that this gentrified, affluent area of the north valley inspires a more aesthetically cognizant resident; what in other parts of town would be a sharp inquiry as to what I'm doing - I was once even accused of carrying an animal trap, when hiking in the Sandia foothills with a box camera and tripod - instead I'm adorned with curious inquiry.

I take a wide shot of the house from across the road, then decide a closer view is warranted, and so pick up stakes and move the heft of tripod-mounted box camera across the road, staying clear of the driveway entrance and the road itself, self-consciously aware of my vulnerability, a potential target of curiosity or venom, then purposefully push those thoughts out of my mind. I've done this enough so that I've disciplined myself, knowing that the more I appear to be doing some purposeful activity, the less likely an interruption.

I use a black shirt as darkcloth, placed around my neck backwards, collar down. Once I have the camera positioned about where I think I want it, camera level with horizon, f/8 aperture stop in place, I pull the shirt up over my head and wrap it around the rear panel of the camera, shielding the viewscreen from the surrounding glare. The vista from the bright viewscreen I'm still amazed at. Though upside-down (as are all in-camera images) I can distinctly see the plane of best focus move in and out with my adjustments to the box's length, as I decide to focus most sharply upon the worn, wooden door of the shack, its framing making the appearance of a cross. I fiddle with the lateral position of the tripod head, do a final level to the horizon, then pull the shirt off my head, swap out film holder for view screen, replace the f/8 with the f/90 plate, and make the 3-second exposure, the wind now calmed to a barely recognizable breeze.

Part of the process of capturing images onto silver-coated paper is that you don't know what you have until later, when the image comes up (or doesn't) in the developer tray; much too late to do anything about it, not like with an electronic camera that plays back pictures for you instantly, permitting a second (or third) chance. There's no chimping here, no second chances, everything has to proceed exactly as required for the results to turn out acceptable. Regardless, I will get what I get; the resulting images (or lack thereof) a document of the process, just as much as writing about it is, too, a document of the process.

There's one more image to be found, one more paper negative awaiting exposure. The hunt, although interrupted by a pot of afternoon tea at Winning Coffee, is not yet completed.

No More Excuses

There I sat, in the afternoon warmth of the front porch, the jazz coming through from the local NPR station via my solar-powered shortwave radio that sits in the ever-shifting shade of my patio table's umbrella, shaded against some creeping internal weakness that renders its LCD display opaque and useless after being subjected to the relentless onslaught of direct southwest sun.

Beg-a-thon was in full swing on both NPR stations, the periodic fundraiser that serves as a substitute for the incessant drivel of commercials on other stations.

I was pausing from reading an older William Gibson novel, "All Tomorrow's Parties," looking at the cedar trees that line my driveway, wondering why one is tinged ochre with the dust of its springtime reproductive urgings, whereas its larger sibling, though free from the orange tinge, sports clusters of seed-balls on nearly every branch, all the way up to the top, where they shone in the afternoon sun. Perhaps they're male and female, these trees. A married couple, conjoined at the roots, deep under the hardpacked soil.

Then I heard the diesel clatter of a truck out front, coming to a stop, its door clunk open then shut. I knew it was the UPS van, delivering what I had been impatiently waiting days for. I heard the footsteps of the driver across the swath of xeroscaped gravel in my front yard, then the gate latch clank open.

She, the driver, sported dreadlocks and a cheery smile. She held a box in her hand, along with the digital clipboard device, where I recorded a pixellated scrawl that barely resembles my real signature.

I wonder if someone back in the corporate office reviews those chicken-scratched, pixellated signatures. Maybe some special mainframe software, a handwriting analysis program from some university with a secret contract with some three-letter government agency, that's able to plumb the depths of my psyche just by the subtle nuances of my LCD pixel signature.

We exchanged the polite chatter of strangers meeting for a common purpose, and then she was gone. I hurriedly retrieved the serrated letter opener from the kitchen and slit the strips of tape that sealed the package, carefully unearthing the treasure from within. An AlphaSmart Neo, grayish-green, with accessories.

It sits in my lap, upon the open box with bubble wrap envelop, CDs, USB cable and manual, and I can tell that this is going to be fun.

I place my fingers at the home position and begin to type. The keyboard, it's not just merely adequate, it's really good. As in, better than the keyboard for my desktop computer back inside the office. I haven't felt such a naturally easy typing device since I don't know when. It's like the best typing experience I've ever had. And the LCD display, it's large and easy to read at the default setting. So far, in the first ten minutes of using it, it seems to be everything, or more, I had expected. There's got to be some catch somewhere; like any other electronic gadget, after the initial infatuation is over, the honeymoon spent, the charm looses its luster. I hope not, in this case. The Neo doesn't offer much in the way of gadgetry and geekery; it doesn't surf the internet while permiting text messaging and cell phone chatter while playing music, for instance. It's not an iPad. It's just a keyboard, screen and word processor; neat, efficient and does its few dedicated tasks with amazing efficiency. So there's not much to fall out of love with. If I want to write, it's there for me, waiting to press the "on/off" key and begin writing.

I suppose there's no more excuse, now. I've got to write, incessantly.

PS: As I set up the title shot, I compared both the Neo's and my desktop computer's keyboards, side-by-side. The Neo has larger keys. Go figure; no wonder it's so comfortable to type on.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Impractical Yet Indispensible

Practically speaking, I really have no justifiable reason to be doing this. Spending several weeks, that is, crafting a large-format box camera from foamcore, wood, salvaged optics and other bits and pieces, fashioning it into a workable camera that functions to project a focused image onto a paper negative; lugging said box camera along the rugged foothills of the Sandia Mountains, backpack filled with large-format sheet film holders, light meter, timer, darkcloth and other miscellany; heavy tripod over one shoulder, bulky box camera under the opposite arm; no way to catch myself, should I slip on the hard-packed sandy trail, except drop the tripod or camera first.

This is crazy. I have a Lumix G1, micro-4/3 format digital camera, equipped with a state-of-the-art, software-corrected lens, sitting on my office table at home. It can out-resolve and out-perform anything that this primitive lens/paper negative contraption can offer. It has automatic everything, capturing images in virtually any lighting condition, from the brightest sun to the darkest room, handheld, no tripod required, and in vivid color; things that this crude box camera couldn't possibly do.

So what's the point? Why go to all this trouble for results that are so ... limited?

Earlier this afternoon, while waiting for some glued pieces of wood to cure, I went for a motorcycle ride. It was a beautiful, late-winter day, after the previous day's snowfall. New Mexico's weather can change dramatically in just a few hours or days, and today was no exception. People were out on their Sunday drives, or riding their bikes, or jogging. As if, finally, winter were over, enough to permit breaking away from the nest, stretching one's wings.

My bike is an older cruiser, mid-1990s, with coarse, clunky shifting and hard, primitive suspension. The brakes aren't that good; engine braking is required for a sudden stop. The carburetor has a manual choke, and starts rough on a cold day. You have to work at riding it. This isn't like taking the Grand Marquis out on the highway, sinking back in its leather upholstery, opening her up and letting the miles pass by in quiet, gentle, luxurious splendor.

While cruising up Tramway Blvd this afternoon, I passed an old Model T Ford, out for a Sunday spin. It reminds me a lot of my bike. Manual transmission, primitive suspension and brakes, finicky carburetor. You have to work at it; a Sunday drive is an adventure, an accomplishment.

Later this afternoon, after I had returned from my ride, I loaded up several sheet film holders with pre-flashed grade 2 photo paper, and packed the truck with box camera, tripod and backpack filled with stuff. I drove up to the foothills of the Sandias, parked, and lugged the gear across hiking and biking trails until I came to a vantage point permitting a view of Sandia Peak, and the nearby foothills. I could have brought the Lumix G1, smooth and easy like the Grand Marquis; but instead I brought the box camera, like driving the old bike, or Model T; working at it.

Later in the evening, after processing and scanning the negatives, I set up a still-life composition in my garage, lit by a dim work lamp, and exposed a few more images, once more pouring up chemicals in trays, standing in the red-limned darkroom watching the images come up in the magic solution. They're not great pictures, by any stretch of the imagination, but I worked at them, coming away with a sense of accomplishment. I think it's the process itself that satisfies me, knowing that, a century previous, people more skilled and daring than I lugged similar wooden box cameras across near-identical trails and exposed their fresh vision onto salted papers and glass-plate negatives. It feels like a continuum, a thread linking the past, through the present, into the future, this business of projecting optical images onto surfaces of silver gelatin emulsions.

We take for granted the magic that surrounds us. Like the magic of a little metal and plastic box that produces splendid images onto light-emitting electric view screens. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's quip about any technology sufficiently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic. I think the reverse is also true: any technology sufficiently primitive, be it manual typewriter, fountain pen or paper negative box camera, will also be indistinguishable from magic, if for no other reason than the simplicity of the process belies the sophistication of the results. Like, how does it do that? How do you get such a cool image from an empty box and simple lens? Standing behind the large box camera perched atop its hefty tripod, gazing into the inverted image on the primitive view screen, watching the plane of sharpness drift in and out as I adjust focus, quietly pondering the magic that is light itself; I must not take this for granted, this magic that is indispensable to a full and satisfying life.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bovine Scatology

(Photo courtesy of Toyota's website, where I invite y'all to come down now and checkout the new third generation Prius)

"If there were some kind of electronic problem, you would think it might actually stay permanent," Michels said. "When your TV goes on the fritz, when electronic stuff goes on the fritz, it doesn't just do it once and never do it again."

That was a quote from Mr. Mike Michels, Toyota spokesman, referring to the company's conclusion that the runaway Prius in California was not caused by a hardware problem. The full article is here.

I call B.S.

I'm not ordinarily in the business of populating my blog with invective and emotional commentary about the day's events, I'd like to think of this discourse as rising above the fray; but in this case I couldn't help myself. You see, I was a TV repairman for many years; and still repair electronic equipment in the semiconductor manufacturing field. I've been a troubleshooter of electronic systems since the mid-1970s, when I was trained in the US Navy.

There, those are my credentials. I'd like to see Mr. Michels'. Just because he's never heard of intermittent problems happening with electronics doesn't mean they don't. Far from it, in fact.

In all the time I've spent troubleshooting problems electronic in nature, from naval shipboard systems to miniature VCR and camcorder technology to projection televisions and industrial manufacturing equipment, there's one word that sends a shiver down the spine of any competent technician: "intermittents". Intermittent problems, ones that come and go, and often disappear just when the technician has his meter out, ready to probe and analyze, are the normal reality in the business, and are also the most difficult ones to successfully diagnose.

Mr. Michel's statement, if it be accurate, is pure and utter hogwash of the lowest caliber. It is a lie whose peculiar caliber of evil is intrinsic to the boldness with which he delivered it; the best lies are always delivered with the utmost in conviction.

I'm not buying.

There are two calibers of technician, and I've seen and worked with them both: the first type is the one who denies the problem exists ("must be the ding-bat customer," they'll say) and tell them "we couldn't get it to repeat the problem here, sorry"; and the second type, the real technician, who knows it's not in the customer's interests to invent a problem, because the repair process is a great inconvenience to them; this latter type of technician knows there's a problem, and has developed strategies for making the problem show itself.

Many of these problems are thermal in nature; due to either a sensitivity to heat or cold, some component or solder connections will fail thermally. The strategy here is to apply heat to a component or circuit board, or cool individual components or modules, using a variety of methods available. Other causes of intermittents are caused by vibration, which can be found out by application of a variety of methods to apply a controlled vibration to a circuit board or module. Sometimes, a meter or other diagnostic test equipment has to be connected to a particular test point in a circuit and data recorded over time, in order to trace down the culprit. These strategies I've listed work for consumer electronics products, my field of specialty. I'll be the first to admit, however, that I'm no automotive systems expert, and don't pretend to know as much about the Prius as do the technicians and engineers at Toyota; that's their field of specialty. But I do know when I'm being lied to.

Cars are different from TVs and DVD players, but the underlying physical principles are grounded in a common science; and the failure methods of complex systems (a field of study in itself) are often similar. I'm certain there are special test methods available to these automotive engineers to resolve such problems; we need to get the politicians and bureaucrats out of the way and let the engineers do their jobs. But, I know electronics systems, and the way they behave; and I know bureaucrats, and the way they behave; intermittents are a reality in any complex system, and for a company representative to state otherwise does a disservice to the company he represents, and the company's customers.

I do not know the details of the incident on the highway in California, other than what's been mentioned in the press (and not all of that can be trusted, either); I have no comment as to the driver's motive, or veracity. I really don't care. It's actually incidental to the heart of this problem, which is not about the customer, but about Toyota's behavior. You'll notice, in the latest stories, how our attention is being redirected, away from Toyota and onto the car's driver. He may have done something completely wrong; he may be outright lying, covering his ass because he was speeding. Doesn't matter to me; he's not the issue. The issue is Toyota. The issue is about a relationship of trust between a company and its customers; it's about reputation.

I have no axe to grind when it comes to Toyota; I've owned two in my lifetime. I've had worse cars, and I've had better. My 1986 Toyota pickup blew a head gasket after 4 years; the legendary 22R engine had its problems, it seems. Later, I knew a person who worked at a local Toyota dealership in the early 1990s, and explained to me that Toyota also had lots of head gasket problems when they were first introducing their V6 engine into their pickups. I cannot verify this, it's just word of mouth, urban legend. But I would like to think that the laws of physics and thermodynamics apply to Toyota Motor Corporation, just as they do to every other company on the planet. To imply otherwise is being dishonest; these corporate spokesmen who lie to us are just blowing smoke if they want us to believe otherwise; and we lie to ourselves if we think one particular brand of car somehow violates the laws of nature.

The mistake Toyota made (and continues to make) is not an engineering mistake, for such problems happen to all brands and types of vehicles; that's just the nature of complex systems. No, the problem Toyota made for themselves (and their customers) is political, and it's of their own doing, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Now is the time for them to admit their responsibility to their customers, and quit lying to us, and to themselves. Maybe it's cultural, or even racial. Maybe we're just Gaijin. Even so, mighty Toyota cannot violate the laws of nature. It's time for a little humility.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Idealism and Imperfection

First light from Joe's newly finished 8"x10" box camera, from a paper negative

They range in size from a large closet to a small bedroom, but you can't live in them. You might, however, be able to squeeze into one, or maybe just get your torso lodged into its innards, painfully contorted amidst a labyrinth of Teflon and stainless steel chemical and gas lines, robotic arms, wires and pneumatics. These are some of the most complex machines ever built, and each one costs a small fortune. Name your biggest Hollywood star, and they might be able to manage, should they first sell off their Bel Air mansion and stable of sports cars, to buy one, maybe two.

The factory that houses hundreds and hundreds of these machines is itself a machine, virtually living and breathing, interconnected by a vast array of chemicals, gasses, computer networks, ultra-pure water and air as its circulatory and limbic systems; multiple levels of robotic delivery systems as its method of providing nutrition and sustenance; populated by a colony of microbe-like human organisms, dressed in cleanroom suits, that do the vital work of keeping the numerous systems organized and in good health, for the purpose of supplying a global market with the hardware components required to access the virtual world of the Internet. These semiconductor manufacturing facilities - chip fabs - require the resources of a small nation-state to construct, outfit and run. You could buy a nuclear-powered, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier for what a state-of-the-art chip fab costs.

I know, for I work in one, and have done so for the last 17 years.

What amazes me about this business is the rapidity with which the state-of-the-art becomes obsolete, almost overnight. Think for a moment about the gadgets that fill up our lives, and the pace by which they seem to evaporate into a nebulous obsolescence; their cost of replacement is a mere pittance compared with retooling a chip fab every several years at a cost of billions. Those machines had best be earning their keep, every moment of every hour of every day, nonstop.

What happens to those outdated manufacturing machines after their usefulness is spent? They may be sold off to second-tier chip companies, whose business model is less than state-of-the-art; or, more likely, they are discarded into a salvage economy. Their various components might be found reused in numerous other applications, reconditioned, or sold for scrap.

It seems ironic, therefore, that one particular component, a meniscus lens, could be put to use in a most archaic application, as a primitive lens in a 19th century-style box camera. Swords into plowshares, indeed.

The newly finished camera with a salvaged single-element meniscus lens

This is the ultimate in retro-tech philosophy, repurposing the once-state-of-the-art into the archaic and arcane. The machine this lens came from is one of the most costly and sophisticated of all the chip-making tools, a photo-lithographic "stepper" that exposes the minute circuit patterns onto the silicon wafer. Think the opposite of an enlarger: a photographic reducer that steps across the wafer's surface a grid-like tessellation of identical chip patterns.

The process that I employ in my primitive garage-based darkroom is hardly worthy of comparison to nanometer-scale photo-lithography, except in the general principle of optical projection, via a lens, onto a surface. Take the subject of "defects", those microscopic flaws in a chip's circuit pattern that can render it stillborn. In my case the greatest concern that I have is dust and lint that finds its way onto the negative and/or print, and serves as a reminder of the physical nature of the photographic print as an artifact of an imperfect, artisanal process. This is the single most distinct difference between the so-called "analog" and "digital" imaging methods, the idea of the physical versus the virtual, the imperfect versus the ideal.

The new world of digital imaging differs from its predecessor in its disdain of the flaws and imperfections of a real, physical world. The virtual world of imagery is a constructed fantasy land, with every spot, blemish or flaw seamlessly removed.

The flaws that result from the older, artisanal, processes represent a sign-post signifying that a real human has been here, at work.

This distinction has not always been appreciated, even in the traditional world of silver gelatin photography, where the techniques of spotting negatives and prints, in order to achieve the illusion of a transparent window upon an illusory world, are a virtual lost art; techniques now more efficiently performed in the virtual world of software.

Artifacts of a medium have a life-cycle of their own, progressing from a period of state-of-the-art, where such artifacts are considered anathema, to a period of nostalgia, long past the zenith of the medium's currency, where such once-despised artifacts are held in the warm regard reserved for the treasured heirloom. Scratches in old films, cracks in glass-plate negatives, the peel-apart fingerprints of a Polaroid's border, the static and hiss of old radio programs, the warm, sepia tint of an old glass-plate image, or the scratches in a well-worn vinyl album; these are the once-despised artifacts of now-obsoleted media that are held in high regard for nostalgia's sake alone. Will we hold in equal esteem the "tiling" and pixelation of a poor DTV reception, or the jaggy artifacts of a low-res JPEG image? My gut says "no way", but my brain reminds me that it is virtually inevitable, in the life-cycle of a technology, for a medium's imperfections to be looked back upon through rose-colored glasses.

So it is with my interest in pinhole and adapted optics, used along with paper negatives in handmade cameras: the process is replete with traps, potholes and intrinsic limitations that produce a visual aesthetic whose artifacts are inextricably interwoven with the physical, chemical and optical nature of the medium. The emulsion's tonal range and definition are inherently limiting, its sensitivity low; the lens's optical resolution is poor, replete with aberrations. Yet the results are often aesthetically pleasing because the image's artifacts resonate with a 19th century photographic nostalgia, one that eschews the ultra-sharp in favor of the softly defined, that despises brilliant colors for the limited palette of the orthochromatically monochrome, that uses selective focus, not out of some stylistic concern, but because of the intrinsic limitations of the optics themselves.

In this new-found nostalgia for these antiquated processes, the residue and detritus of the exposure and development process lends a renewed sense of the artisanal to the resulting prints; as if perfection were not the goal, or even a consideration, but rather that the finished print is a record, a document, of a complex but basic sequence of physical interventions upon a sheet of silver gelatin-coated paper. The flaws and imperfections serve to function as the virtual fingerprints of the artisan himself, like a hidden signature, replete with meaning, evidence of a humanity at work, something fundamental and essential revealed.

Perhaps it is in these flawed images, formed by an imperfect process, that we can most clearly see ourselves mirrored, our own natures reflected back at us, as if viewed through a glass darkly.