Friday, May 23, 2014

Wir Leben Immer...Noch

My buddy George has been having fun with his new Fuji X100 lately. Like most newer digital cameras it has a stitching mode which knits images automatically into panoramic photos. You pan the photo slowly between exposures and the camera figures out the rest. 

This mode would be pretty boring if it weren't for the fact the camera is easily tricked. By stopping and starting and moving imperfectly during the panning capture, unusual images can be generated. Here's one of George's captured during a photo meeting last year. Steve doesn't actually have 12 heads but he was moving to the left in synch with the pan.

When George first showed me these photos I had a flash of recognition. They have a similar effect to photos I made about ten years ago with a swing-lens panoramic camera.

The similarity makes sense if you think about it, because a swinglens camera basically replicates the stitching effect in analog form. Light exposes the film not all at once, but sequentially over time through a panning slit. Like the digital effect, this technique becomes very entertaining when you trick the camera by moving during exposure. The slit goes where it shouldn't and then all hell breaks loose.

You can even photograph the same person twice during one exposure. Jeff Bridges has a great series of these made using a Widelux.

In the early 2000s I went through a period of experimenting with this effect on downtown walks. There's always some guesswork involved with film —that's what keeps it fun—but during this time it was extreme. I often had absolutely no idea how the images would look until I saw them a few days later. 

Then eventually my Noblex broke and that was that. I moved on. I haven't yet tried it with digital but others have. The results have been collected in various places online —here and here, for example— usually treated as cheap gags photos, Panoramics Gone Wrong! But sometimes they're incredible. I mean, who could dream up a photo like this?

Or this one

I'm not sure exactly how this shot was made —if it was a complete accident or had some conscious intent— but Asger Carlsen would be proud. 

The effect is beginning to spill over into other arts. This recent painting by Willard Dixon is based directly on a mis-stitched photo. Maybe we can call it Neo-Cubist?

Google Earth's stitching algorithm is subject to similar glitches. These have been mined and exploited in various places, most notably by Clement Valla.

It raises the old question (revived by Alec Soth a few years back). Why go through the rigor and expense of producing fine art photos when casual snapshooters often come up with work that's just as entertaining? Very few photographers have made work as good as what's in Evidence, for example. They are brilliant by any standard. But they were made by untrained photographers during science experiments. The recent rash of found photo books works by the same principle. I have a book edited by Robert E. Jackson called The Seduction of Color. It contains some photos as good as in any other book I own, but no one knows who took them. They're all anonymous snapshots. 

With the rise of the internet, the sheer number of images out there guarantees that some anonymous snapshots will be brilliant. But now the equation has expanded. It's not just casual snapshooters making great work. It's machines. It's brainless stitching algorithms. More than ever the emphasis is on photographer as editor. What do you want to say? OK, your camera made a stitching error. Now what? Maybe it always was that. But now that actually shooting photos has been removed from some processes, the focus becomes intellectual. What is the message? 

For those coming from the art world, and who would like to see photography move in that direction, this is service on a platter. What is the message? That is the central question and it always has been. Fine art is more concerned with ideas than appearance. Screw the work, just show us your thesis statement. Or something like that.

But I don't really live in that world. Mostly I live in the world of images. For me the photo is just about the photo. Each one is self contained. Some images are magic, most aren't, and no amount of thinking or editing can alter that. 

This is why I sometimes find great snapshots depressing. The idea that you can work your ass off, pace the streets, take thousands of images and still fall short of an old anonymous album photo is a bit of a downer. Sometimes I don't know why I keep trying. I think it has something to do with time. I keep tossing messages forward to be received by myself in the future, but it's only by looking back that they slowly resolve themselves. Between those two processes, sending and receiving, sometimes I can trick my brain by moving my ideas during the exposure. Then all hell breaks loose.


Hernan Zenteno said...

Do photos is toss messages forward to be received by ourselves or others. What are a photo? a message for the future. For who? Is beautiful? is interesting? is odd? Here you are mixing two themes. The life of a photo and the amazing quantity of photos we could edit thru the web. And I still can't find a relationship between this two points, except that there are a lot of people that don't care all this things and only produce, produce and produce. They are are putting more gasoline to the chaos. And they haven't idea about it. To not mention the social media.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Re reading now I understand your point about the "anonymous side of the snapshots", but part of the happiness is in the Vivian Maier syndrome if you want to call so. I am pretty sure that I will dead taking portraits of people that see me if I am able to do it. There are some force, so impulse, that is see with hungry and enjoy some times the nice synchronize of heart, brain and soul, or something like this that made famous Bresson. I never did a show of my own work. And I have a lot of photos. My father did a documentation of Argentine history that few knows. I don't know how to put in the eyes of others the work. But this is a promotional problem, a marketing problem. I am afraid that put energy to solve that make our work less punk, freshness, or playful. The most happiness I had in my life is play doing photos. But I still like see those anonymous snapshots.

ed g. said...

Maybe we can call it Neo-Cubist?


Anonymous said...

Re: "Sometimes I don't know why I keep trying.":
I don't think that B. can actually stop taking photos. It is who you are. The act of it, the moment you know you got the moment, this is what it's all about (at least in my mental repesentation of you.). If no one ever saw even one of your photos, it would not stop you from taking them.
The flip side of it is that your mind wants to get that "instant photo insight porn" endorphin shot even when you are not shooting, which is why you keep on looking at other people's photographs.


barry young said...

"This is why I sometimes find great snapshots depressing. The idea that you can work your ass off, pace the streets, take thousands of images and still fall short of an old anonymous album photo is a bit of a downer"

with 30 years experience in cinema/photography, and accumulated skill in ALL the principles of photography, my girlfriend frequently takes stellar, definitive snaps with her iPhone. on the fly. bam! all while i'm setting manual exposure on my 5d.

she has like 50 million followers on her website. i think i had 6 visits to my sites last month. i think they were probably all me, checking in.

love ur blog. it's honest and insightful. and i love your work.

respect from l.a. (we CAN be respectful. really.)

CJ said...

After years and years of education / training/ shooting / self-education / rules / non-rules, will never be able to create "an anonymous snapshot" - it's impossible now. To work at creating an image which feels like "an anonymous snapshot" is incredibly arduous (knowingly breaking down your formal training, etc.); and it seems (unfortunately) as though an artist statement must accompany that imagery in order to explain why that snapshot(s) holds a certain something on it's own.

I guess it depends on if snapshots are defined as imagery created by "non-professionals"?

Rules, anyone?

John Goldsmith said...

All true. I love these ideas. But consistency is also nice. The untrained make exceptional images but what about prints? Narratives? More than a single great shot? If we're discussing fine art, I'm seeking something beyond luck. Or Martin Parr's cat exhibition, I suppose. An artist takes these ideas and continues them to a cohesive end.