Tuesday, November 19, 2013


There's a river in Central Oregon called the Metolius which is strangely charged and magical. Unlike most rivers which build themselves gradually from tributaries, the Metolius erupts full-sized from the base an ancient cindercone volcano called Black Butte. Then it wanders for just a few miles and feeds into a lake.

The beginning of the roll can also be a strangely charged and magical place. When film is shot with certain cameras the photo river comes charging out of the blackness fully formed and ready to take on the world, but with one foot still in the void.

This effect only occurs with older manual cameras. The motor drives of the 1990s and 2000s were programmed to advance film automatically past the blackness. With those cameras the first frame is safely ensconced in a blank womb.

But I like coming out of blackness better, or perhaps I'm just more used to it. The photos hit the ground running with no warm up. And usually that first frame shows it, twisted and ugly and half cocked, and half buried in a lightleak. Sometimes strange interactions occur between the black and the subject matter. Usually not, but sometimes. And even when it amounts to nothing, that first frame is a constant reminder that some things are beyond control. Maybe the most important things.

I think Jason Eskenazi must be a fan too. He's collected a series of his interrupted first frames into a video, with interesting results. 

Watching this video, one wonders why more photographers don't scan their mangled half frames and present them in a video accompanied by Wagner.

Maybe it's catching on. Nick DeWolf archivist Steve Lundeen has created an entire category called endofroll. Wayne Bremser's recent essay on these photos (for LPV 7) is worth reading. He calls them "misfires" and I suppose in a technical sense that's accurate. But there's something to them, especially when viewed as a series. They look more like bonfires to me.

Endofroll is the key word here. At first I couldn't wrap my head around the mechanics of  a lightleak occurring at the end of a roll. With 35 mm film it would be almost impossible. But with medium format film, lightleaks like the ones above are not only possible but quite common. In fact some photographers impose on purpose by loosening up the exposed spool. Playing with fire there, or misfire.

Jean Christophe Bechet addresses the misfire issue head on, calling his series of lightleaked film frames Accidents. "The leak of light fixes the images in another documentary dimension," says Bechet. "The accident reveals a specifically photographic blend of narrative and documents, poetry and the truth of the moment..." I don't know about all of that but some of his juxtapositions are definitely poetic, and definitely from the beginning of the roll and not the end.

"The accident happens when one is totally open to those happy flukes that arise from disorder," says Bechet. "It thwarts any sense of security, repetition, or control. And it is particularly necessary in real-life photography." Amen.

Photographers, listen up. Control is not your friend. Control is sometimes the enemy. Own your accidents. Take some pride in them.

Bechet's photos are very good specimens for describing the intersection of lightleak and image (Eskenazi's photos also show it well). The intersection rarely manifests as a straight line. Instead it's a fuzzy strip of mottled light which looks almost painterly.

This effect is created by the thin fur lining on 35 mm cartridges. Here's what it looks like from the inside after dissection.

Just as with animals and rivers, film does not enter the world through a clean doorway. It comes instead through the strip of artificial fur shown above, a bizarre but effective solution to the quandary of keeping film dark while allowing it to escape unscratched. Until now that fur has received scant attention, but what Bechet knows better than most is that fur is just another tool in the photographer's toolbox, a paintbrush of light ready to be applied to every first OO frame. 

Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think that fur inside the cartridge has a name yet. At this point it's just called fur inside the cartridge. Well, as Dan Savage knows, there aren't many opportunities in this world to name new objects, especially when it comes to photography tools. You've got to grab that chance whenever it comes along. And since I've lingered this long on the topic, I'm going to name that fur inside the cartridge. 

I hereby christen it Metolius. Plural: MetoliaMaybe my neologism will catch on or maybe it won't. That's up to you Metolius users to decide. No need to go out of your way, but it would be helpful to me if you could introduce it here and there in casual conversation. Did you see the metolius on that Tri-X 400? or That beautiful sunset over there reminds me of my last metolius. Nothing fancy. Just use it when it applies here and there, and with practice the word can be expanded into metaphorical territory. I'm going to get my metolius waxed today. Don't look now but I think that person's metolius is sho                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

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