The return of instantcy

Polaroid – the company that missed the jump from instant photography to instant digital photography died a rather quick death. Within a short span of time, that magical experience of watching your photo develop before your eyes was gone…

Until now. The film is back. An enterprising group called The Impossible Project has redesigned and is producing instant film again. In this digital era, the beauty of one-off images is refreshing. The fragility of having only one copy of an image makes that image all the more special. The energy that comes from seeing an image develop is still here.

Digital images cost virtually nothing: the first image costs as much as the camera; after that, they’re all free. Each image from a Polaroid costs. On a comparative basis to printing digital images, they’re really expensive. But oh so lovely.

I love playing with the box, not just playing outside of it. Polaroid images have inherent restrictions as a result of the medium – square images, no zoom, no ISO adjustments, and on and on. A classic version of what-you-see-is-what-you-get that forces the photographer to really think through the picture before he presses that button and blows a few bucks on one image.

Sitting in attics, garage sales and thrift shops are Polaroid cameras awaiting someone to find them and love them again. I have a couple somewhere (I think in a box in Omaha) but recently ran across an SX-70 and have started shooting Polaroids again.

Instantcy and the world of one-off images is back.

10,000 photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Henri
Cartier-Bresson

I’ve always liked this quote and, while never totaling my collection of negatives, slides, Polaroids and digital images, wonder when I passed my worst photographs. Someday when I’m bored beyond belief, I’ll count them…

Just the other day I picked up Malcom Gladwell’s recent tome “Outliers”, where he discusses the threshold of 10,000 hours of practice for one to be truly proficient, whether it’s for hockey, computer programming or to become a musical virtuoso.

Is it a coincidence that 10,000 is the magical number; that Cartier-Bresson and Gladwell both mentioned this threshold? I suggest not, especially in the heyday of Cartier-Bresson, which consisted of shooting 120 roll film (generally 16 images to a roll). At that count, one needed to shoot 625 rolls to hit 10,000 images – actually not that many rolls when one is shooting professionally on a daily basis. The rhythm of shooting, the routine, the constant learning that came with each roll moved one’s art forward. The key is that with film, every image mattered as every image had to be set up, framed,
focused and then shot – no motor drive or automatic focus back then. Plus, every image had a price associated with it – the cost per frame for the film, the chemicals to develop and the paper and chemicals to print the final image. One did not waste images if at all possible, forcing one to consider every mashing of the shutter release.

In our digital world, one can hit 10,000 images in a couple of days without really trying. What’s the cost? Zero – just the one-time cost for a memory card that can be written over multiple times. No cost to develop, save the one-off for some software. And one needn’t print an image to view it in its final form.

When trying to achieve the 10,000 mark, it’s not enough to hold the trigger down, let the automatic shutter/focus/everything do all the work and reel off tens of images at a time in hope of capturing that one shot. That’s counting on luck, not skill. One must shoot, review and learn from each and every image that’s captured. Like Cartier-Bresson did, only it’s a lot easier today thanks to the helping hand of technology.

The challenge, as always, comes down to seeing – what do you see, what do you capture and why? After 10,000 images I think one knows what to see and why.

When did I pass 10,000 images? I really don’t know, but if those are my worst, bring on the best.

Dad’s flowers

My father was an avid photography hobbyist. It was through his interest that mine was sparked and his initial instruction has served me all of these years.

His favorite media was slides. I’m convinced it was because Kodachrome offered the rich colors that he wanted to capture and slides were a then-version of file sharing. Analog, naturally. With the projector running and the screen set up in the living room, Dad would share his latest works with whoever would happily listen and look. And they were lovely.

I’m convinced were he alive today he’d be sharing his creations on Flickr. But that’s as far as it went then – as far as it could realistically go. No scanners existed 20 years ago nor was there digital file rendering within reach of the amateur. He simply had slides. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them that he (and we) could enjoy when the spirit moved him to convert our home into a screening room.

When he died, the question became what to do with all of these images. Slides and their partner projectors were becoming less and less the norm. After culling through them, I saved his best work that even today largely continues to exist in boxes in storage. Hundreds of images unappreciated by everyone.

One of his favorite subjects was shooting close-ups of flowers. He’d screw his “close-up” rings onto his 55mm lens (a Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic camera that predated the now-standard bayonet mount), mount the assembly onto a tripod and capture the colors and patterns that only bugs crawling around in the flowers could fully appreciate.

And so these images have sat – until recently. I’ve wanted to do something with them to preserve the images and make them more accessible – make that more visible – to those of us who appreciated his eye.I’ve just completed transferring the
first of these images to Polaroid film for the purpose of making Polaroid emulsion transfers that can then be displayed and enjoyed. Here are the first three in what I hope becomes a nice series of his images. Through the tools available today and mixing media, these images have a new life.

As I share these with you I toast my father for his creativity, his curiosity and his willingness to cultivate those characteristics in others. Thanks, Dad.

Between two worlds

I moved to shooting digitally a few years ago. That said, I still shoot “analog” or film for a couple of the processes that get me that certain image with that certain feel to it, including Polaroid emulsion transfers. To refresh your memory, emulsion transfers begin their lives as slides which I then copy to Polaroid film which is then transferred to watercolor paper, etc.

Recently Polaroid announced that it would cease production of its film at the end of 2008. (Not to digress too far, but I have to note I find it fascinating that Polaroid, who owned the category of instant photography, completely missed the transition to instant digital photography…) Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, their film is going away. Then just the other day I popped into the photo store where I’ve been buying slide mounts for several years to pick up some more, only to be informed that they no longer carry them due to lack of demand.

I am, as Andy Garcia said to George Clooney in one of the “Ocean’s” films, “an analog player in a digital world.”

It’s not that I don’t enjoy digital photography but rather it’s that some processes, and specifically the emulsion transfer process, involve a significant amount of handwork to render an image “just so”. While a digital photo can be “Photoshopped” to look like an emulsion transfer, it’s just not the same. First, copying the slide to Polaroid is absolute, as in there’s no possibility to crop an image, so all composition has to happen in the camera when the slide is shot. Nice creative constraints to have to work under.

Second, the transfer from slide to Polaroid alters the colors in unpredictable ways – sometimes enhancing them; other times washing them out – due to the nature of Polaroid film. Always interesting to see how the images come out. Finally, transferring the emulsion to watercolor paper is a delicate operation. If I’m too aggressive the gelatin will tear, destroying the image and requiring me to start all over again. As a result, while I may make multiple copies of a given image, they are all different from each other due to the fact they are all individually hand made and how the images lay out on the watercolor paper is necessarily different as they always wrinkle just a little bit differently.

We’ll see what happens. I’ve found slide mounts and can still buy slide film – for how much longer I don’t know. I’ve laid in a supply of Polaroid film that will get me through my most recent work and allow me to make a few very limited editions of some photos (3 max), but after that? I’m hoping someone will pick up the rights to produce the film, but if not, it’ll be time to set this equipment on the shelf next to my collection of other old photo equipment and find a new process to explore and play with.

Sad on the one hand, but exciting on the other.

Andre Kertesz

I’ve been a huge fan (doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but it’s genuine) of Andre Kertesz since I first saw a book of his images when I was about 20. His work has been a significant influence on mine; in particular that he taught me to look up and to look down – at least more than I used to.

I recently picked up a copy of The Polaroids, a collection of images he made with his SX-70 in the waning years of his life. The images are pure Kertesz, albeit in color. A lot of sadness in them as well as they were shot after the death of his wife.

Beyond the photos, though, is the introduction that gives a short history of the artist and how his career progressed throughout his life.  Not sure how I’ve missed it all of these years, but the book recounts that his career – the world-recognized creative part anyway – took a nearly 25-year hiatus from 1936 to 1962. For 25 years mid-career he was relatively unknown.

This news has completely floored me.

How could that happen? How could a world-renowned artist have his art misunderstood and fall into relative obscurity for so long? The answers, in part, are in the story: he moved to NYC and his faltering command of English combined with an indifferent marketplace created the trough. I’ve always assumed that he was producing, exhibiting and appreciated from the time he was first recognized until today, many years after his death, but I’m wrong on the exhibiting and appreciated parts.

Aside from the surprise, this is so inspirational to me. Through those many, many years where he was working as a staff photographer for Conde Nast’s House and Garden magazine he still was crafting his real art. Shooting around his adopted city of New York he kept creating. Frustrated, I’m sure, but he persevered. Finally, in 1964, at the age of 75 he got his due with a one-man show at MOMA and spent his remaining years at the forefront of the craft.

There are several messages in this story for me but one is simple and clear: never stop creating; feed your creative fire at all times.

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