Shooting at Mirrors; The Self Portrait in the Modern Age

In more recent years, the autonomous image, the ‘selfie’ has been devalued in the eyes of popular culture, even to the extent of the shortening of the name. It is not something which is given any particular artistic merit, and those who do are often considered to take themselves a little too seriously. The most curious thing is perhaps that although there is no intrinsic difference between the tourist who asks their friend – or even a passing stranger – to take their photograph outside a landmark, and the person who simply acknowledges the progression of modern technology and angles their front facing camera to do it all themselves, I suspect that the latter would attract strange glances and even a touch of mockery from onlookers.

But the self portrait has been an accepted artistic pursuit for centuries previously. As far back as ancient civilisations, people have attempted to represent themselves in the form of artistic media, for reasons which range as broadly as the media used.

The self portrait flips the concept of an artistic gaze on its head. The male artist painting a voluptuous nude holds a very different significance to the young woman talking stark black and white images of her own body. It not only alters the intent of the piece from the outset, it arguably also changes the way we, the viewers, perceive that imagery.

Take the work of Francesca Goodman as example. Incredibly personal, at times painfully blunt and open portraits of herself, but there is that sense of raw intimacy. For me, at least, whilst the work reveals perhaps more than the viewer will ever feel comfortable with, it is a sense more in line with accidentally seeing some private moment, a voyeuristic discomfort rather than the discomfort that might be apparent were we told that these photographs were taken by someone else.

In this photograph, Woodman appears naked, her pose awkward. To the viewer aware of her self portraiture, this presents as a personal and very vulnerable moment, but one which she chooses to commit to film. No matter the circumstances surrounding it (and we can likely assume that little of her work came from the happiest of places given her suicide at 22), she has nevertheless assumed control in some way. This image is hers and hers alone. Her ideas, her choices.

[Nudity ahead]

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Art and Life, Permanency and the Value of Moving On

Should art be transient? Can it? Does the very nature of the piece in question mean that, when it no longer exists, it is no longer art, and that therefore the answer is, no, art cannot be transient because once it has gone, there is no longer any art.

There’s certainly an overarching idea, I think, that permanency adds value to an object. Of course, this is completely true of a broad variety of the things that we might buy, nobody wants to spend money on an object which is going to require replacement too often. A person would almost certainly prefer to pay double the price for an item which will last then five years, than purchase the cheaper item which will only survive for one. That’s simply common sense.

Art, creativity, they don’t always go hand in hand with common sense. I have been at my most creative when I have been at my least logical. When my emotions have raged roughshod through my mind, overtaking any sense of what is best for me versus what I really want, those are the times I have screamed my anger, pain, unhappiness out onto canvas. Metaphorically speaking. From the perspective of a buyer, of course, art is an investment. As a creator, a maker, (and if you remove the obvious necessity to balance creative freedom with the need to pay bills), what you create can be whatever the hell you want it to be.

I adore the contrary indulgence in the idea of creating work which will, in time, fade and disappear. I am drawn to the idea of something intriguing and impressive, or painful and beautiful, which can be viewed only for a limited length of time. Ephemeral pieces, delicate and fragile, or in some other way constrained by the passage of minutes, hours, days.

In life, too, all too often we spend so much time on what has been that we miss so much of what is, and what will be. Time passes by, and whilst we still pick apart that one moment, we miss the opportunities held within the next. Holding on too long to the past, and forgetting to appreciate the here and now.

Life itself is fleeting, transient, and we create things in order to fill our lives with meaning, purpose. We buy objects to fill gaps, in our homes and in our lives. We write stories, create pictures, with the purpose of reaching out for longevity, desperately trying to avoid staring into the void, dodging the subject of our own mortality. For art to mimic this transience is to stare mortality in the face, to give it wide eyes and accept that yes, life is fleeting, and to be comfortable in that. It’s a reminder that nothing will last forever, and that holding on too long to one thing can damage your exploration of the rest.

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Instant Photography: Keeping a Classic Process Alive

The name for this blog originally came about when I was naming a Tumblr account specifically to post my instant photography. I started using the name for Twitter, and then when I started to get into writing again, and wanted somewhere to post some of my thoughts and opinions, the name also fit with that. The blank borders framing an instant photograph, the blank borders around a piece of printed text. This post combines the two interests in that I want to write a little about my love for instant film.

When you have an interest in something, there is a tendency to assume that everyone else is at least aware of the basics of it. You often don’t realise that what you are doing is quite a niche thing, and so that was for me up until I went from ‘interested’ to ‘immersed’. Once I got involved with the community of instant film users, I began to see the same names popping up quite a lot. In a way, that’s nice, because you can quite easily get to know other people who share your interest, and get to know the kind of work they’re producing, as well as how they’re producing it. Within a lot of smaller art movements, I’ve noticed, there is much more of an inclination towards not only sharing the work you’re producing, but also sharing your methods and tips, which of course makes the community feel much closer and more approachable. I think that this is hugely important for something fairly small, because it’s those movements which desperately need more people to develop an interest. Sure, there will be a handful of people who always want a small community to stay small and exclusive, but it needs to be sustainable, particularly when there is a marketable product steering it.

In this case, the shrinking instant film industry.

Polaroid closed its production around 2008, much to the dismay of a great many people, and the future of many Polaroid cameras seemed, at best, uncertain. There are two manufacturers at present who are still producing film. Fujifilm are manufacturing their own brand Instax cameras and film, and for the time being, the security of those seems stable. They are also producing a peel apart film, the FP-series, as a replacement for Polaroid to fit in the older Polaroid cameras, although the future of this seems uncertain. They have discontinued the gorgeous FP-3000b, a high speed black and white emulsion that I have found to be a beautiful partner for pinhole work, and am quite devastated to see the end of, as well as the FP-100B standard speed black and white, and the 5×4 large format version. They are still producing the FP-100C, a colour emulsion, for the time being, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll be before we see an end to that also.

In part, I suspect, the decreased production it this  case has a lot to do with the availability of functioning cameras of the type which use the peel apart. I have two, one in full working condition, and one which had faulty electronics and has now been gutted and converted to pinhole. J has bought two from Ebay, one which  had faulty electronics and was returned, and the other which works fine. Based then on our limited experience alone, it’s a 50/50 chance of getting one in fully working condition, and even then, there’s a few (very easy) mods you’ll need to make to the battery compartment to run it on cheaper modern batteries.

The second company producing film is The Impossible Project. Based in the Netherlands, this small company began research and production of integrated instant film back in 2010, about two years after Polaroid ceased production. Using only the last of the Polaroid production plants, the Polaroid dyes were lost along with their patents, and Impossible had to begin from scratch, producing the new emulsions via a system of trial and error.

The very first batches were well known for their instability, and Impossible always released them with this in mind. They were essentially beta versions, and came with instructions for shielding from light upon ejection, and generally taking great care with storage. A lot of people reported drop offs in colour over the coming months, and they weren’t generally regarded as being permanent.

Fast forward to 2012, only three years after they began, and the release of their latest emulsions. Dubbed ‘Colour Protect’, it required less shielding (although shielding for the first seconds in bright light was still a recommendation), and developed fully in about 45 minutes. Still a way off the five minutes of the old Polaroid, the progress was undeniably impressive.

The price has been steadily dropping, too. Whilst still expensive at around £17 for 8 shots, compared to the Polaroid (and I keep using that phrase, but I do need to state for the record that I feel it’s unfair to directly compare a chemical process developed to perfection over 75 years and marketed to a world without modern digital cameras, to one still in relative infancy and marketed to a far smaller community of artists, enthusiasts and hobbyists), I remember the price originally being closer to the £25 mark, for a lower quality, mostly untested, emulsion. For me, it’s worth the cost to not only continue to shoot cameras I adore using, but also to support a small company in the continued research and production of this film.

The most recent generation of colour emulsion is the recently beta-released Gen2, which holds claim to a much reduced development time. This gentleman has posted a very good, in depth review of the film, so I won’t bother writing too much more on it here. Even as a beta version, it’s proof that Impossible are really getting somewhere with their products, and have made impressive progress given the limited market and short timeframe.

The Gen2 has only been released as a small batch so far, and has sold out very quickly. I have a pack of it, which I’m extremely excited about, and will be writing more on that subject following the week away in Cornwall when I intend to shoot it.

With all this in mind, I’d urge anybody who still has a Polaroid camera lying around anywhere, and who has ever enjoyed the use of them, to pick up a box of film, either from Fuji, or from The Impossible Project, and have a go, even if it’s just the once. The absolute beauty of these cameras is that you don’t need a mass of expertise to produce a lovely shot, you just need a little basic knowledge of the camera you’re using (minimum focussing distance, approximate lighting conditions – information which is readily available with a quick Google search) and something to point the camera at. The more people who continue to buy and use these films, the longer they will be available for production. It would be such a shame to see such a huge part of photographic history die out entirely.

The Effect of Technological Advancement on the Historical Record

Recently, I’ve been researching my family history, an endeavour which has so far been facilitated by the fact that my relatives appear to have been reasonably good at both record keeping, and maintaining physical artefacts of their existence.

My family has always been ‘photographic’. In a large drawer, in an antique bureau, downstairs lives a collection of family photographs which I can reliably date back to 1910, and quite probably slightly further than even that. I organised those a couple of years back, although I’ll shortly be going back through them to see if I am able to put any faces to the names on my family tree.

On top of those, I have more recently found letters and postcards from the 1950s, entries recording family members birthdates and marriages between 1860 and 1890, and various original birth, marriage and death certificates. All of this has meant that, in the space of a week, I’ve been able to reliably trace back as far as 1830, with a further generation still undergoing research.

Around the same time, a magazine I read regularly began to publish a series of articles related to genealogical research. In the first, the writer talks about an article she read about the 2013 discovery of artifacts preserved in the Antarctic for 100 years.

“When I saw these remarkable photos for the first time, I wondered what would happen if a smartphone was left in the ice for 100 years. Would someone still be able to retrieve the images? I think not”

This statement echoes something that I have been saying for a few years in response to one of the reasons I still choose to shoot film, despite the rising cost of doing so, and the time consuming process of developing the images and digitizing them for online sharing. That is, that if someone – even the least historically curious person – were to be clearing out, say, an attic, and came across a folder of old negatives, what would they do with them? I’d wager that most people would at least have a flick through, and many would keep the folder, maybe scan them to see the photographs better. A better analogy given the present time period, and the rapid advancement of technology over the past twenty years might be a box of letters and postcards. Wouldn’t you have a look through, read at least some of them, maybe show them to your parents, siblings? Now, apply that same thought to the discovery of a box of old floppy discs. Are you going to go to the effort of locating a system on which to read them? I’m sure that a handful of people would at least consider it, but I’m equally sure the vast majority would simply place them directly into the rubbish sack.

Of those family photographs I spoke about earlier, the bulk were of course taken within the last fifty or so years, and document my grandparents youth and marriage, then my mothers childhood and teenage years, followed by the birth of first myself, and then my sister, and our own lives throughout childhood, and into our teens. Somewhere around 2000, though, they drop off. In part, I expect, that’s because I turned 18, and a year later moved out to dramatically screw up my life for a few years, and so there weren’t a whole lot of occasions when taking pictures will have appealed to anyone. There’s a few family events, weddings and such, but nothing of the ‘snippets of everyday life’ which appear regularly before that.

But in part, too, 2000 was around the time when the digital camera as a potentially affordable consumer gadget began to pick up momentum, and despite the fact that the quality was terrible, this was offset by the sheer convenience. No more buying film, no more paying for it to be developed, and finding that a third of the shots contain thumbs, cut off heads, or absolutely no image at all.  Sure, the memory cards cost a lot compared to the cost of storage media in 2014, but you only needed one or two. Most point and shoot digital cameras back then barely hit 1mpx, and even on a tiny 32mb storage card, that’s around 80-90 photos. The capacity of between 2 and 3 rolls of 35mm film. If you had a few that didn’t work out, you knew right away, and could delete those to make space for more.

In the decade and a half since then, digital photography has developed to the point where we now have mobile phones capable of better image quality than those point and shoots which all but replaced our film cameras. Arguably, the rapid evolution of this technology has completely revolutionised the photographic industry – certainly within the commercial, news and editorial sectors. The quality of even an entry level DSLR produced within the last couple of years is a rival for some of the highest performing film emulsions (at least in terms of the 35mm/APS formats), in many ways (and as a fervent and unrelenting lover of film, it does slightly pain me to type that).

Process and share within minutes (even faster if you’re using a camera phone or a camera with connectivity), no extra costs after the initial purchase, high quality, prices dropping all the time, no bulky photo albums to store, no wasting reams of paper on pictures you’re not too fussed about. What’s not to like?

How about this.  In twenty or thirty years, what will you be able to show to your kids/nieces and nephews/anyone at all? In one hundred years time, what evidence besides the one day in a decade facts within the census will remain that you ever existed? I’m sure that a lot of people assume that in the future, nobody will care about Mr Smith or Mrs Jones from Wherever, who worked as a secretary/shopkeeper. But we surely gain a rounded perspective on history from ordinary people, and not just celebrities of the day, whose lives will not have been representative of the whole. If I’m sitting here in 2014, looking at the earliest discovery of my lineage, and wondering what my great grandmother’s great grandmother, Leah, was like, and what life was like for her and her family in the mid 1800s, then I am certain that in 2170 or so, there will be people wondering the same things about their own ancestors, people in my generation now. Technology, no matter how capable, will never eliminate simple human curiosity.

“If things don’t change, in a hundred years from now, the only information about our lives will be the basic facts recorded in the national census. Recent censuses have included other questions, so you’ll have snapshots of a persons life taken one day every ten years.”

But, as I have discovered early on in my research, one day every ten years just isn’t adequate. Cold hard facts are useful, of course, but only as a starting point. Had I not seen the notations made in the family bible, I would not have known that relatives of mine a few generations ago had not one, but two children. The daughter, rather sadly, lived only a month, and whilst it is recorded in the next census that they had parented two live children, and one remained, this is quite literally expressed as a small number in a column. It might even have been missed had I not been half-looking for it as partial confirmation that I was looking at the correct records. I certainly wouldn’t have known that this was a family who cared enough to record themselves in what must have been a family treasure (even given my opposition to organised religion, I treat this huge bible with reverence, not for what it represents religiously, but for it’s historical significance). There, in the mid to late 1800s, somebody carefully recorded their names, and the name of a daughter. Later on (there’s a slight change to the writing style), presumably that daughter recorded the details of her marriage, and her two children. On the deaths page is recorded the name of the original male head, and, heartbreakingly, the newest daughter just a month after the recorded date of birth. No census could give me the wealth of information that these simple few pages have. What that family must have gone through as their child was brought living into the world, only to be taken from it mere weeks later. This kind of personal record tells me that this family cared enough to record these events, and offers some kind of insight into their real, personal lives. Not only does this give me important factual  information and allow me to take my research further, connecting the dots between them, in 1889, and me now in 2014, but it also influences me on a personal level, to find out more about these people, and to tell their story.

History is undoubtedly important and intriguing, but there’s also a significant responsibility to ensure that we are not right now wiping our metaphorical tracks as we go, and leaving a historical blank for future generations.

 

[The full article from which I have quoted sections was published in the March 2014 issue of Writing Magazine, and written by Nicci Fletcher.]