Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Ode to the Lowly Sprocket Hole
One of the overlooked casualties of photography's digital age is the death of the sprocket hole. Just a few short years ago sprocket holes roamed the world of photography in multitudes like the great buffalo herds of pre-colonial America. Now they are an endangered species. Digital technology has rendered them obsolete. In one sense this is nothing new, since sprocket holes have always been superfluous in still photography. When Edison's lab developed 35 mm film from 70 mm film stock by splitting it down the center, perforations were added to aid film advance. They were a functional byproduct necessary for film to function, a bit like the dissolvable cap surrounding a pharmaceutical. They were not meant as part of the image. But the lowly sprocket hole wasn't content as a background figure. Even as byproducts they worked their way into final production. If film is agitated excessively during development, sprocket holes will ghost into the frame.
Salish Park Blog
Even with proper agitation, sprocket holes can manifest in unexpected ways.
Sprocket Hole Allison, 2005, Patrick Power
But these were accidents and deadends. In the early days of 35 mm photography, the main path to glory for sprocket holes was more straightforward. The first Leica models were not always well centered. Sometimes they exposed frames up to and across the sprocket holes. When printed full-frame, these photos helped sprocket holes gain widespread recognition, or at least potential visibility.
India, 1948, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Closeup showing sprocket holes lower right
Sometime sprocket holes made even more serious incursions into the frame. Looking at the contact sheet below, Robert Frank's choice not to print The Americans full-frame is perhaps more understandable.
from The Americans, Robert Frank
And the effects weren't limited to film. With enough use, the camera itself could become indelibly sprocketed.
Garry Winogrand's M4 with pressure plate sprocket hole marks
In the 1960s Barbara Crane was among the first to intentionally integrate sprocket holes into finished work as a formal compositional device, through her Whole Roll series.
Cosmic Forms II, 1968, Barbara Crane
This method has been carried into the present by photographers like Thomas Kellner and Martin Wilson.
Washington, Capitol I, 2004, Thomas KellnerA Message From The Bears, Martin Wilson
Although the actual holes are difficult to see in these small web jpgs, they are there. Perhaps more important is the idea of film being integral to the image. Instead of cropping out holes and frame counts, these artists consciously include them. Today's digital equivalent might be a photograph with Metadata information printed along the border. Can you imagine the cover of The Yes Album
The Yes Album, 1970
Converted to this?
The Yes Album with Metadata
Not quite the same. No, there's a romantic quality to film and sprockets that seems lacking in digital. Even though most modern 35 mm cameras expose the frame far clear of the sprocket holes, some folks still go to great lengths to include them. It's part of what makes film look like film.
Self Portrait, Faulkner Short
Lately this urge has gotten a boost from the toy camera craze. There's a movement to load 35 mm cartridges into Holgas designed for 120 film.
The entire emulsion is exposed, sprocket holes and all. Sometimes the holes interact with the image in unexpected ways.
Lundi Matin, Flickr
Slimmer Jimmer, Flickr
Lomo has embraced this technique and incorporated it into their latest model, The Spinner. The camera uses 35 mm film in a wide body, and is perhaps the first camera intentionally designed to incorporate sprocket holes in the final image.
from Spinner Lomo Promo
Despite these countertrends, the main path of photography is running fullspeed the other direction. If sprocket holes were at one point extraneous, with digital they are completely obsolete, although attempts have been made to emulate them. To me, the results seem as soulless as intentionally distressed furniture.
For me, sprocket holes symbolizes one thing: Imperfection. This is ironic considering their precise mechanical nature. But in a photo they are the opposite of precision. They signify sloppiness, excess, or accident. Perfectionists (if they bother with 35 mm film at all) will always crop them out. So when I see those lovely holes in an image, it's a reminder that reality is imperfect and that any visual record of reality should probably follow suit.