Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reversed negatives

Photography --at least the pre-digital version-- is rife with reversals and contradictions. First you take a light-proof dark box out into some surrounding light. You open a little hole to let the light go into the dark. On its way into the box, the image physically inverts itself upside down. It superimposes itself on the film as a negative, with the lightest areas the blackest and vice versa. After this business is completed, the whole thing repeats itself backward in the darkroom. In dark room, you fill a small box with light, then let it shine through a small hole backward through the negative to get the reversal of the image by turning white paper black. The whole thing is so backward, it's practically like a snake eating itself.

All of this has been in my mind lately as I adjust to using a new film holder for my scanner. For a variety of reasons not worth going into, the images my scanner creates are now reversed horizontally. It's no real biggie. One click in Photoshop and the image is corrected. But what has really surprised me is how different the images look when horizontally reversed. You wouldn't think this would be the case. It's the same image either way, same subject, composition, color, form. Unless letters are involved, the image should read about the same either way. But it doesn't.

Some images are much stronger one way than the other. It seems to be almost always the case that the "correct" version -- the one which shows the scene's true orientation-- seems stronger. I think a major part of what's going on is that my memory of the scene is effecting my judgement of the photo. It doesn't look "right" unless it looks like my memory. I consider this memory interference the ultimate photographer's sin. Shooting and editing cannot ever be allowed to contaminate each other. So I will work on that.

The other possible factor, which is more interesting, is that perhaps the reason I stopped to photograph the scene originally was that it was more interesting than its horizontal reverse. Perhaps there was something intrinsic to the scene which only worked one way, and if I had walked by the exact same scene reversed I would never have stopped to make a photograph. I find this fascinating because it injects so much fate into things. Perhaps all of the photos I've made to date would've never gotten made, or would've been of completely different objects, if I'd been coming from the other direction, or lived in some bizarre opposite universe. Or the reverse could be true, or false.

Anyway, seeing my images reversed has been a braintwist. It's a bit like trying to judge an image by looking at the negative. The general forms seem to dominate the subject matter.

Can anyone think of a famous photo which has been horizontally reversed?


Brian said...

The first example of a photo that's reversed horizontally that came to my mind is Manuel Alvarez Bravo's Optical Parable -


Anonymous said...

hah, finally someone who understand my rolleiflex (and alike) dilemma.

J. Karanka said...

Hah, the number of times I've printed 6x6 and 6x7 shots inverted... that whole business of never actually seen what is happening in the real world but through an inverted finder really freaks me out. What's the correct image... the one I was looking at or the one I was taking a picture of?

Anonymous said...

Yes, as been said, when I shoot 6x6 I am actually composing backwards, so often the technically reversed image is the stronger composition. Sometimes I let it go, and sometimes I flip it 'round the right way.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating how the building in the second, reversed image just looks "wrong" ie reversed, compared to the upper picture, when in actuality it is "rignt" because it is reversing the reversal in the mirror or window.

Anonymous said...

...and view camera folks look at the world upside down. Don't know how they do that. I knew an architect who use to sketch on yellow trace so he could frequently flip the paper over to see it from the opposite perspective. It helped him with proportions I think, but not sure how.