Monday, June 28, 2010

Paper and Flame

(Silver gelatin fiber print of half-frame enlargement)

I was once again thinking about the photographic image (a subject my thoughts frequently return to), this time in terms of an art object -- the "objet de art" frequently found in the art-speak-laden writings of reviewers and critics -- and once again return to the conclusion that the art object, as the "finished" form of the abstract photographic image, takes on the attributes of the physical medium within which it is incarnated.

Much, if not all, of the photography that I am privileged to witness is in the form of the self-illuminating screen of a netbook computer, from gallery websites, discussion forums, blogs -- and my own digital photography. I can only imagine how these remote images, teleported into my personal space via the magic of subatomic particles and waves of energy, might appear as silver gelatin prints behind glass, carefully illuminated upon the walls of a gallery space, like I have seen at places such as the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, NM; in contrast to the more primitive attempts at fine art photography that are found to be the product of my own darkroom work.

But the backlit LCD screen of a computer is not the same as the frontally-illuminated surface of a fiber-based silver print. They have different optical properties; they are different media entirely; one of paper, the other of flame.

There remains, within the world of traditional photography (and it may come as a surprise to some to know that such a world still exists), an appreciation for the "fine art" (a term of dubious provenance, but, to quote Bert Reynolds in the film "Semi-Tough", " will know it when you get it...") fiber-based silver gelatin print. This is not mere elite snobbery masquerading as art appreciation, like a pair of shoes or handbag would be esteemed of certain value merely for the brand name affixed there upon. The fiber-based, silver gelatin black and white print is a complete viewing system, when engineered to be coupled to a specific indirect lighting source, such as one would find in a well-engineered gallery space; as complete of a system of image display as that found on an iPad, netbook or laptop computer display, for example.

The darkroom practitioner has the task of achieving a finished print, sufficient to satisfy his artistic vision, within the parameters of the particular quality of light that the finish print will be displayed under. The printer makes test prints during the printing process that, when sufficiently dried (yes, wet prints appear brighter and of different contrast as compared to a fully dried print), will achieve one's desired tonality when viewed under specific lighting conditions. In daylight illumination a print will appear higher in contrast and brighter in appearance than when viewed under incandescent lighting, for example; and fluorescent lighting gives a different effect entirely, considering that some photographic papers incorporate optical brightners that flouresce under UV light.

The photographic print coupled with its source of illumination functions as a complete reflective imaging system; the specific surface properties of the print's support paper, emulsion and the application of chemical toning are modulated by the spectrum and quality of illumination provided by the light source itself.

The photographic print is a mirror, both figuratively and literally; figuratively because the image contained therein subjectively mirrors the objective world from which it was derived; literally because the viewing mechanism of the photographic print involves the reflection of ambient light, from the print's immediate environs, upon the surface of the print. This dual nature of the print-as-mirror represents an intrinsic dilemma to the darkroom craftsman because, while desiring to reflect the photographer's deepest intents fully revealed upon the delicate paper's surface, the types of photographic prints which possess the widest tonality -- glossy-finished papers -- themselves become too-efficient light reflectors, obscuring the emulsion's image contained therein; conversely, prints that posses the least problems with reflectivity and glare -- matte-finished papers -- have the narrowest tonal range, the most subdued dynamic range. The reality of the darkroom craftsman is that the choice of one's materials as a silver gelatin printer are always a compromise between image tonal range and surface reflectivity.

Though subjective differences are as varied as there are individual artists, many printers have come to some sort of ad hoc, common agreement that the air-dried, glossy-finished, fiber-based print represents the finest balance between these competing interests of tonal range, surface finish and reflectivity. There are, however, additional subtleties associated with choosing the right print paper (and the available range of choice in printing papers has steadily diminished in recent years). The weight of paper (single or double weight), the coloration of the background support (brilliant white or a creamier tone), the coloration of the emulsion itself (warm or cold toned) in response to a variety of developers and the degree to which the emulsion's coloration responds to post-development chemical toning (sepia, selenium, gold, etc.) all become available as modulators of one's creative intent.

Within the world of silver gelatin printing there are also various opinions on how best to arrive at optimal image contrast (as determined by individual artistic taste, not some objective sensitometric measurement) relative to the dictates of each individual image; some argue that graded papers deliver the widest tonal range, but such a choice locks one in to fixed contrast grades; while others argue that variable-contrast papers offer wider flexibility with nearly the same tonal range (variable contrast papers offer a variety of print contrasts based on the color spectrum of the printing light source being used, modulated using either colored filters or a multi-color printing head). Within the choice of variable contrast papers there are also a variety of methods for achieving the best tonal range, including "split-grade printing," wherein the print's exposure is made up of a combination of two separate timed exposures, one at the lowest contrast grade and the other at the highest contrast grade, achieving a fineness of print contrast unachievable with colored filters of specific contrast grades.

All of this minutiae of information contained within the craft of the silver gelatin print means very little to the uninformed initiate, where the physical qualities of the print medium, and the abstract image contained therein, work together in a unity of purpose as a finished work; they may like the image, or not, but may not know why; it either works, or it doesn't. For the silver gelatin aficionado, a print may be appreciated for its surface finish, dynamic range and tonality, while the subject matter may in fact disappoint; the two aspects of the photograph (as abstract image and physical art object) can coexist yet function separately.

The fact that photography is increasingly being viewed through the electronic display screen is a given; what is perhaps less appreciated is the affect this new photographic media has made upon the appreciation of photography, especially black and white.

There are a variety of electronic display technologies (CRT, LCD, LED, OLED, etc.), and much variation in the quality of implementation of these technologies (including intrinsic manufacturing differences, coupled with local display preferences and individual calibration variations), all of which offer such a variety of viewing experience that the photographer, working strictly within traditional printing methods, may not be prepared for the seeming lack of control over the final image quality that comes with using these new communication tools.

The electronic image is a light source, not a mirror of some physical environ; like primordial fire it is self-illuminating, and therefore as much of a unique medium of display as the light source-coupled reflective print is a unique medium. Just as the silver gelatin printer has to fashion his work to be optimally viewed under a specific spectrum and intensity of light (yet cannot guarantee in actual practice that to be the case, with the exception of those privileged few who work in direct union with a specific gallery), so too the contemporary photographer has to fashion his digital image to be viewed under a wide variety of view-screen settings; yet, too, cannot guarantee the quality of the final results. The effect of this uncertainty has been that, while mainstream, successful photographers have had to rely upon curatorial guidance to guarantee a consistent gallery viewing experience, there are no such guarantees today, unless the viewer go to the trouble of accurate monitor calibration -- which only the aficionado would do.

The net effect of this transition to new display media places much temptation upon the photographer to bypass the subtleties of the finely finished printed image and instead pursue the visual photographic gimmick, subtle sophistication exchanged for loud, bright and shocking. This comes as no surprise to us when we consider the nature of the electronic display is essentially that of a bright light source, fire itself, intrinsically glaring, visually loud and shocking, like television itself, its progenitor.

I enjoy viewing photographic images on my computer's screen; but I also know that this is not the same experience as viewing the subtleties of the photographic print, in person. In some ways, the reflective print disappoints; it does not emit its own light, instead merely reflects that of its environs. Within a dark room it is all but invisible, whereas the computer's screen illuminates the otherwise darkened room, overwhelming in its presence. To illuminate a print such that it is as bright as the well-tuned electronic display would drown out all but the finest of crafted prints in a sea of glare and harshness; it would lose it subtlety. Photographic prints don't shout, they whisper. And sometimes we come to find out that we cannot hear their whisper, for our aesthetic eye has been so attuned to the loudness of the electronic display's visual volume, its blare and glare.

Prints are a medium of the past, as much as typewritten pages are to the written word. Kodak, the Great Yellow Father of modern photographic materials, ceased manufacture of black & white silver gelatin print paper in 2005, including Azo, the silver-chloride contact printing paper that had been in continual production since 1895. As their choice of offerings becomes thinner, we are reminded that there is a quietness required for the silver gelatin print's fullest appreciation, like sitting meditatively at lakeshore's edge, devoid of the distractions of the mechanical and manmade, listening for the invisible hand of the wind upon the water, the sound of birds distant or insects nearby, quiet enough to hear one's own heartbeat, the rhythm of life itself. We are required to linger, for a time, in order for the print's fullest effect to be absorbed. A quick scan, say 1/30 of a second, as one would view an electronic display, is entirely insufficient. The photographic print is not the supernatural-like fire of the TV or computer screen, thrown into one's immediacy for quick reaction, like fire upon the back wall of some primordial cave, but rather becomes part of one's immediate personal space, requiring not a visceral, physical spasm, but an internal, contemplative, emotive response. It is within this context that photography, its tools and accoutrements, has fundamentally changed; it is a new medium entirely, distinct from the past, truly a brave new world.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I Miss My Dad

(My Dad, on the right, with his best buddy Dino Lamori, in Egypt during WWII)

My Dad passed away three years ago, at age 90; this was the eulogy I read at his funeral. I still miss him.

    I called him ‘Dad’; others had called him ‘Chet’, or ‘Van’, or, in his younger days ‘Buffalo’, for his generous head of hair.
    He was born on the east mesa of Albuquerque, on the Van Cleave Homestead, in 1917, at the tail end of The Great War. His dad had been a rancher, and was thus exempt from the draft.
    Dad was 12 when the well broke, and the family moved back into town.
    From what he’s told us, Dad had a restless youth, and a somewhat troubled relationship with his dad. As a teenager he decided to leave home, and ended up in the Estancia Valley, on a farm of his Uncle’s.
    Later in his teens Dad worked various jobs; like many young men during the Great Depression he did whatever he could, and understood the value of a day’s wage, and how important it was to work a job.
    When the war broke out Dad was able to enlist in the Army Air Corp, and was trained as an aircraft mechanic. After moving around to various training assignments, he shipped out on a troop ship to Alexandria, Egypt, where his unit – an American fighter squadron – was assigned to the British 8th Army under General Montgomery, and fought General Rommel’s forces in North Africa, then up through Sicily into Italy.
    Dad turned sick in the war, and was finally transferred back to the States, where he spent the remainder of the war recuperating.
    After the war Dad worked for H.S. Kress, and then moved out to San Francisco in the late 1940s and worked for Woolworth’s. This was the same time that the Beats were starting their thing, the same time that Jack Kerouac was literally ‘on the road.’
    Dad returned to Albuquerque from ‘on the road’ a few years later, and got a job on Sandia Base with the Base Engineers, where the secret Manzano Base was being built into the hard granite of the mountain. Dad helped set up the first warehouse system.
    From that job Dad became a civil servant and worked the rest of his career with the Defense Atomic Support Agency, later renamed Defense Nuclear Agency. He set up and maintained the cataloging system used to maintain the inventory of parts for the nation’s strategic forces.
    That was what Dad did. Now, who was he?
    He was married, a father with three young and energetic boys, when his wife died, just before Christmas of 1962. Suddenly a widower and with the responsibility for three young boys, and a full time career, Dad struggled to make it work, finally remarrying.
    And here’s the thing: Dad was a rock for his family. He was provider and father, and faithful husband, through trials and problems of all kinds.
    And he didn’t permit the sort of trouble he had with his dad to interfere with his relationship with us boys. Dad turned it around, he was always patient and accepting of us, willing to give us advice but also permitting us to learn our lessons the hard way, like he had.
    Dad had a strong faith but was not outwardly religious; he was patriotic but also skeptical of the empty talk of politicians.
    Dad wasn’t perfect, of course; none of us are. But he didn’t permit his imperfections to get in the way, to compromise the things that were vital and important in life.
    Dad was a rock; he fought the good fight; he was the solid foundation of his family.
    Now we’ll have to get by with only our memories of him to shore us up. But even though we’ll miss his quiet, strong, gentle physical presence, the things that he helped build into us will carry us through the remainder of our lives. And in a sense, he’ll still be there, by what he imparted in us. And that’s the best legacy a man could hope for.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dial Tone

Unintentional collecting, it's kind of like waking up and finding oneself with some incurable disease, as if something had been stalking you, unseen, for years, decades even, and it eventually caught up with you. Well, not really that dramatic. It's more like a sense of self-discovery; as if the discovery itself is an act of self-discovery.

I have, on my desk, opposite from the Underwood Universal typewriter, a black, rotary-dial desktop telephone. The real deal, not a reproduction. Bought it, years ago, from a local telephone repair shop, new in the box, as a curiosity. It's a 2-line phone, with a clear, crystal-like rotary switch on the lower left front corner. Makes a good counterpoint to the black typewriter on the other corner of my desk, as if straddling, like two bookends, either extreme of 20th century technology.

I also have an even older, Bakelite rotary dial telephone, that we purchased from an antique store; on it's escutcheon is the name and number to the hotel in Mexico from where it originated. It, too, is still operationally functional.

I didn't mean, intentionally, to collect telephones; but I have almost as many (2) as I do typewriters (3).

I was a telephone man, in the US Navy, back in the late 1970s. Actually, my rating was called "Interior Communications Technician," but we were commonly known as the "telephone man" onboard ship because that was among the many other shipboard communications and signal systems that we maintained.

There was a three-digit dial telephone system that was wired throughout the ship, whose terminus was the Aft IC Compartment, which also housed the ship's aft gyroscope, and a 60-400 hz motor-generator set. The telephone exchange was a series of cabinets, each housing stacks of so-called "X-Y switches," manufactured by Stromberg-Carlson.

(I saw some of these recently, while visiting a local telephone museum in Albuquerque, that brought back many memories.)

We would perform PMs - preventative maintenance - on the X-Y switches, pulling each one and soaking it in a tub of "trichlor", a now-banned solvent that's harmful to both the ozone layer and one's health.

In actual operation, when a 3-digit number was dialed, the first digit connected to one of the ten switch cabinets, the second number connected to a particular X-Y switch in that cabinet, and the third number determined how many steps out into the cable run behind the switch module the solenoid-powered electrical contacts would move, in order to complete the call's circuit. One reason why this was important was because we had the ability to trace calls. This was the late 1970s, the "New Navy," just after the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam era, and there was the usual anti-military, anti-authoritarian attitudes swarming around the youthful crew of our ship, just enough such that, on occasion, some senior enlisted man or officer would receive a crank call. Provided they did not hang up their end of the line, and notified us in time, we could trace the caller's number by back-tracking through the equipment cabinets and X-Y switches, one for the caller's number and the other for the called number, each of which would still be "hung" into their closed circuit positions.

I'm not certain if anyone was ever caught red-handed; certainly any half-intelligent prankster would call from someone else's number. But still, it gave us IC Technicians some sense of satisfation in knowing that we were able to exercise a degree of secretiveness over the rest of the crew.

Since we were familiar with the innards of telephones, we were able to fashion the guts of used telephones into test sets, of which we lacked enough commercially-made units, enabling us to address the constant clipboard-mounted list of trouble calls from the ship's hundreds of numbers.

The IC crew was assigned to Engineering Department's E-Division, which also included the complement of shipboard electricians. When the ship was entering or leaving harbor, the electricians' role as part of the "sea and anchor detail" was the grueling task of pulling, by hand, the dozens of heavy shore-power cables that provided power to the huge aircraft carrier once alongside the pier and its own steam-powered generators were shut down. The IC techs, on the other hand, had merely to pull and connect the ship's telephone lines to the pier; a much less physically demanding job. This dichotomy between job rolls provided an endless source of resentment between the ship's Electricians Mates and IC Technicians.

Several years after my initial assignment to the ship, the telephone system was upgraded to four digits. This meant that, once alongside the pier, we could be assigned a prefix, and the ship could then receive calls to and from the "outside world." This also meant that someone (an IC Technician) had to man the telephone operator's station in the Aft IC room, a duty that rotated once every 6 days between the men. You would receive an incoming call, and would have to patch it to an interior number. This operator interface was more for security reasons, I figured, since it was possible to bypass the operator all together and let our switchboard system talk directly to "Ma Bell."

I remember once, when in port, I had to go down to the pier and troubleshoot a bad phone connection; the ship had dozens of outside lines, some of them assigned directly to senior officers. I had a handmade test set with me, made from the guts of an old phone inside a project box, with a handset and alligator cliplead-terminated cord, along with my green canvas tool pouch. There was a switch on the box that would mute the mouthpiece on my handset, so I could test the circuits without interjecting unwanted background noise into the system. On this particular occasion I didn't know which connection was the one in question, so I proceeded to connect the clip-leads to each pair of incoming lines, testing them for dial tone. I happened across one line that had a live call underway. I made the mistake, out of a young man's curiosity, to stay connected for just a second or two longer than I should have, for I realized that it was our ship's Commanding Officer talking to some Pentagon brass about nuclear weapons. I disconnected immediately, then looked up to the massive ship alongside the pier and realized that the Captain's cabin was directly across from me, the round portholes that served as windows clearly overseeing my position down on the pier. I hurried away with my tool pouch, a bit shaken for having inadvertently overheard something I shouldn't have; a reluctant, unintentional spy.

Years later, after I was out of the Navy and working as a TV Repairman (a trade I later learned on the same ship, after I was assigned to the TV Repair Shop, another of the IC Technician's duties) that I read Howard Blum's book "I Pledge Allegiance," about the John Walker spy ring. In this book I found out about Walker's co-conspirator, Jerry Whitworth. The name range a bell (no pun intended) because I remembered a Senior Chief Whitworth was on the same ship as I, at the same time. He was a Chief Radioman, and had been stealing crypto secrets, giving them up to Walker, who sold them to the Soviets. It kind of shook me up, thinking about those days as a sailor, in the Cold War, and how serious and determined we were to actually fight -- and win -- a possible nuclear conflict, and how, in retrospect, knowing our entire military's communications had been compromised; what a waste it had all been.

Now, looking back on it all, it seems so quaint, this black, rotary-dial telephone, sitting adjacent to my netbook computer, that brings with it so many of those old memories that seem like just a few years ago. But it has dial tone, this black phone, and still works. The local phone company, Quest, still supports pulse code on our phone line, so I've been able to show my grandson how to actually "dial" a telephone call.

Somehow, it feels fitting to bring up these old memories, talk a bit about antiquated technology that's only decades old, now that we're awash in a sea of wireless digital communications. And across the desk, on the other side, sits my Underwood, with a note card threaded in the platen, a to-do list half in the making, eager as always to do my bidding, imprinting inked letters onto paper, as it has done since before the Second and First Gulf Wars, since before the Cold War, since before Vietnam and Korea, since before the Second World War, mechanically programmed to do but one thing, and to do it well.

(Via Alphasmart Neo.)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


It suddenly occurs to me that I am in the middle of a transformation. Such an insight does not become obvious to the person undergoing transformation because the rate of change is so gradual; until there is sufficient change in order for one's long and short-term memories to collude and come to some sort of agreement, such self-awareness is impossible.

Change in one's life can be seasonal, as much in tune with the cycles of the natural world as are all denizens of the biosphere. It surprises us, this insight that we are but members of a much larger sphere of living organisms. We build shelters and artificial environments out of the raw materials of the physical world, cocoon-like in our self-enwrapment, thinking we are immune to the rhythms of the universe; and then we must encounter weather and storms not of our own choosing, have the orderliness and structure of our lives upended by complex energies far outside of our control, and then we are once again reminded of our frailties as mere evolved primates, barely removed from the jungles, steppes or plains of antiquity; just recently, in the scale of things geologic, becoming both self-aware and omni-aware.

Local changes, if left to accumulate sufficiently over an interminable period of time, can have the effect of macro-evolution, the transformation of a species. So it is, I believe, in one's personal psyche; small pressures and stresses accumulate, like the rumbles of fractured earth an indicator of something of significance happening deep under the surface; a chrysalis, some caterpillar-to-moth transformation slowly, inexorably working its way out.

We mask these signs of personal change, unaware perhaps of their importance and inevitability, by playing back with even greater intensity the memes we've programmed into our personalities as coping mechanisms, self-defense strategies intended to protect our inner person from the pain of further hurt.

For myself, I am aware of several seasonally-affected changes that are as predictable as the sun's rising and setting. I know, for instance, that springtime unfolds new energy and opportunity for me, yet the inevitable and all-too-sudden onslaught of June's summer heat in New Mexico brings with it a creative malaise that lingers in the shimmer of the horizon's heat mirage until the cool and chill of autumn, when the smell of pinon firewood smoke and roasting green chiles, and the sight of limp folds of delicately colored fabric being inflated by the air's invisible energies into hot air balloons, brings new creative energy, fermented in summer's lackadaisical heat, suddenly ripening into maturity; my best writings have been penned in the autumn, and the impending chill of winter seems to suddenly reawaken me, as if unexpectedly breaking out of a months-long malarial decline, that had smothered one's creative energy, and which one is not even aware of until after the fever is broken. I would like for this cycle of seasons to be different, for some creative stretch to remain unbroken throughout the duration of summer's heat.

I am reminded that the seasonal cycles in New Mexico come to resemble a period of but one single day, when the coolness of the morning, bringing a latent chill from the high-desert night before, becomes an analogy of springtime when we do our best yard-work, prior to the heat of the day, summer-like, arising and we retreat indoors to do our house or office work or take a siesta, during which we expectantly await the coolness of the evening following the sun's decline, as the day's heat quickly evaporates into the thin, high air and we slowly reemerge onto our porches and yards to enjoy the autumn-like coolness of the evening air.

In the sudden awareness of a personal transformation in progress, I find myself discarding or otherwise riding myself of accouterments I had once deemed of immense personal value, stashed away in the hopes of satisfying some future creative need but now an obvious burden to my personal journey. One's values change; things that once seemed important are now reassessed in the light of that change, when it becomes obvious that they will no longer serve any usefulness to one's immediate and future needs. This is one essential and priceless outcome of the transformation process - revaluation - which if made permanent has the affect of radically altering our personal morality, realigning our priorities.

But then we find there are those old, familiar memes, those programs of Old-Think that lurk behind the scenes, rogue lines of code waiting to be executed at the most inopportune moment, reminding us in that all-too-familiar voice of the hopelessness and futility of personal change, that it is in the nature of things to remain the same, that all things possess some inner essence that is self-defining; you are who you are, the hope of change is a fool's dream, alchemy and magic, folk legends and fables with which we amuse ourselves, but nothing more.

The most essential work of personal transformation is the reprogramming process, whereby we permanently retire those now rogue lines of code, mimetic-like, and begin to write new ones, defined by our new-found insights, hopes and dreams. We come to realize that there are two aspects of our personality, there is the true self, our spirit, and then there is an icon of our true self, a psychological template upon which we build our self-image and public persona, and which we all too often mistake for our true self. The process of transformation brings with it the inevitable necessity of dispensing with our self-erected persona, our icon of self, and instead begin to permit our true inner person to emerge, without self-defense mechanisms and concealment devices in place, shields and masks set aside, and start to be real people for once.

One does not find themselves in the process of transformation volitionally; it is not a program one consciously embarks upon, arising one morning with the sudden thought that this would be a good day to change. We resist change; why would it be otherwise? Ripping apart the very essence of one's persona, discarding and rebuilding, is painful business, not for the faint of heart, and something which cannot be artificially manufactured; it is but a season of time, a cycle of life, an opportunity that we either take advantage of, or take for granted.

This opportunity for change, it may not come around again. One may find oneself fossilized into place for the remainder of one's days, always hoping but never able; the season to cultivate, plant and harvest being of limited duration and now past, never to return. It is serious business, this thing of riding the crest of disorder and disharmony in one's life, when things seem less certain with the passing of each day. One requires faith in order to proceed, an inner vision for the eventual outcome, which though yet invisible, remains an inevitable certainty, the evidence of things unseen.

(Posted via Alphasmart Neo)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Mountains of Paperwork