Saturday, November 2, 2013

Upside Down Hunter

Photoland seems enamored with process lately. There's the return of bygone methods like wet collodion, platinum, tintype, and so on. And beyond that a the wider resurgence of alt-everything. People folding and tearing and cutting up and repasting and rephotographing and soaking and mixing darkroom and Lightroom and so on. I saw an amazing show a few weeks ago using daguerrotypes which had been scanned, converted into a weaving algorithm, and displayed as wall-sized pointillist tapestries. Wow! Photographers will try just about anything to get around shooting a straight photo. 

That's all fine and dandy. But what about the central process: pushing the shutter button? In recent years that simple act has been altered, with a general shift in shooting style from deliberate to scattered. In simple terms, film imposed a physical limitation on shooting volume. Digital doesn't. Forget all the other film/digital comparisons for a moment. To me that's the huge change, one whose ramifications we're just beginning to evaluate. It's what I think of when I look at old contact sheets like this one by Jonas Bendiksen. Thirty-eight frames, then hope nothing happens while you reload.

Says Bendiksen, "From the basic angle and composition from which I got the final selection, I clicked the shutter three times. That would not have happened today.” Perhaps today he'd set the camera on burst mode, shoot 300 frames, then select the best later after viewing on a large monitor. And who knows, maybe he would've gotten a better image that way, although I think the one he wound up with is pretty darned good.

Nick Waplington bumped up against the film limit one day in 1986. He tried to document the aftermath of a plane crash with just one roll of film. A photographer's nightmare, and worse it was only 24-exposures. But hey, it was Nick Waplington. The guy's a stud and he nailed it. An exhibit of all 25 frames opened last night at Little Big Man in San Francisco.

Waplington's situation may have been circumstantial, but some have imposed a one-roll limit on purpose, just to see what happens. Pace yourself. Dispose Magazine stakes its outlook on the premise, with very interesting results. And many others have explored the idea. Ola Billmont, for example:

Many times out shooting I've felt myself running low on film, and on a few occasions I've gone dry completely. It's not a comfortable feeling and I wouldn't recommend it as a shooting strategy. Still, I think it can be a healthy experience. It's like a hunter trading in the semi-automatic for bow and arrow. Hunting upside down like this, maybe your odds of bagging the animal diminish. But in end, is it really about that? 

If you're a pro photographer, yes it is. No one cares about process. You've got to bring home the shot regardless of method. So if you're Stan Grossfeld covering a Red Sox game and you see Torii Hunter chasing a long fly, you shoot on burst mode, hoping to get something. Spray and pray. And if the photo gods align, maybe you wind up with one of the year's iconic sports photos (despite Slate trumpeting another version). 

Could Grossfeld have made this photo shooting one film frame at a time? Possibly. With a motordrive he could even shoot multiple frames per least until the roll ran out. With high speed digital his odds are certainly better. If he's aiming at the right place and shooting twelve frames per second he's going to get something very close to the right moment. After a slight crop and color adjustment it's hello, Pulitzer. 

But how special is this photo? There were hundreds of photographers at the game. I'm guessing many of them photographed the Ortiz slam, probably all of them on burst mode. Some alternate photos can be found here as well as on Twitter, Instagram, and the usual places.

And that doesn't include millions watching at home, one of whom was me. Viewing the scene on TV I was more captivated at first by the amazing bullpen catcher who actually caught the home run! But I also noticed arms and legs flying, and a quick pause and rewind brought up a screen very similar to Grossfeld's, with legs and arms reversed.

So a photo like Grossfeld's is available to anyone with a television. Granted, a TV camera may not yet offer the resolution and quality of an SLR, but the gap is narrowing, and the infrastructure is in place. We're approaching a time when most public scenes will be continually recorded by television and/or security cameras (GSV, anyone?). These cameras might be seen as public burst-mode SLRs, It's just up to us to wallow through the muck and choose winning shots. And when we reach that point, what then? Will there still be a need for photographers? I'm being facetious but one can see where this is heading, to perhaps a world where photographers roam around with cameras on continual record mode, the edit into photos later. Wait, there's actually a name for that. It's called filmmaking.

This is where I will begin to sound old fashioned. Come on, you knew it was coming. I'm a stubborn old fogie. I record on film, one image at a time, no burst mode. When a roll is done I pull it out for another one. Sometimes it's even slower. I shoot on Instax film and wait 5 minutes between shots. I'm sure I miss many potential photos this way. It's a slow, inefficient, and prone to accident. I can't recommend my process to anyone who wants to pull the best shot from a scene, whatever best means. If I'm shooting an outfielder in mid-air, for example, maybe I catch the right moment and maybe I don't. A simple DVR will produce better odds.

But the photos I get with this process feel like mine. When I do catch that outfielder at the right moment, or some other confluence of events just on the cusp of existence, it feels like fucking magic. Like, how did that happen? How did I come to own that? 

The irony is that I feel like a conduit for some greater serendipity. Maybe that's what some of the more process-oriented photographers are looking for too. When you shoot a tintype and a developing bubble happens to coincide perfectly with the subject matter, it feels like something important happened. OK, it's just one little cosmic accident but it feels like something important. Humanity in a nutshell.


Kiriakos Papachrisanthou said...

Well unfortunately the hidden message appears not so much hidden in rss feeds. Regarding the burst or film fears, i wouldn't worry so much. I'm sure the growth of 35mm, 36 shot rapid shooters freaked out a lot of people at it's time but here we are still discussing it.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the story about Yasushi Nagao's Pulitzer-winning photo of Inejiro Asanuma's assasination where he only had one frame to get the shot.

Hernan Zenteno said...

For me, and I must to emphasize for me, photography is just about that, see a moment that I need to freeze to see it later. Like the fly of a hummer bird or a smile in the crowd, whatever. In the moment we see a thing, a situation, some action, the feeling of what we want to hold to see later, there are a connection between this fact and ourselves that some people can't understand. But exists. And when this moment can be explained beautifully we reach a deep feeling that I doubt the people that edit it from a tape or a film can understand.