On the other end of the camera

  
My last post was a couple tintypes of my friend, Mikael, who assisted me while shooting this weekend. He offered to take a portrait of me, so I accepted. I prepped the camera and did the chemical stuff, and then he did the final focusing, loaded the plate holder into the camera and held the shutter open for 60 seconds. It was fun being on the other side of the camera without the added struggles of taking a selfportrait. 

Pictorialism

If you’ve followed my photography, you’re going to start noticing a shift in how I make a photograph. It’s going to be become less oriented with that modernist aesthetic I was obsessed with (which I’ll probably get into in another later post) and more about achieving the mood I want. This is sort of an effort to reverse-engineer my photography education now that I’ve graduated. It was bad timing, which could have something to do with my stubbornness, that my mind started to open up in my last quarter of school. I took a History of Photography class and an Alternative Processes class that started to shift my perceptions.

Gum bichromate print on watercolor paper, from alternative process class.

Ziatype print on paper, from alternative processes class.

Prior to these classes, I was so focused on learning to make a perfect image that I came dangerously close to losing my fascination with the medium – something that I needed to remedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the things I learned regarding trying to make a flawless print in the darkroom. That was invaluable, it is something that cannot be replaced, and at some point, it’s something I plan on returning to. But for me, the expression in photography was getting lost in the details.

When a person feels lost, they go back to their roots to dig their way back out again. That’s what I want to do.

Like I said, my last quarter of school got me appreciating different kinds of work more than I had in the past, and some of these influences may be starting to show up in my future work. The Pictorialist photography movement is one of the things that I think I can take a note from. Here’s a brief analysis I put together back in November:

From the outset of photographic processes, there have been those who compared its greatness or its shortcoming with those of painting. Even the word photography, translated by its root meanings, is essentially light (photo) writing (graphy), which implies some sort of gesture. Given the camera’s ability to only capture ‘real’ subjects, this writing aspect of photography could get easily lost along the way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pictorialist movement and photographers like James Craig Annan sought to embrace the personal expression of the artist in a photograph, ultimately linking themselves with painting.

James Craig Annan, “The Dark Mountains”

Annan’s photograph, The Dark Mountains is an excellent example of the pictorialist movement, both in its motives and in its formal elements. The first and most obvious way to see this photograph is from the mind of a pictorialist is that the viewer, upon first viewing it, could very easily have trouble identifying the media (means of creating: e.g. painting, drawing, printmaking, etc). Lines are soft, tones are muted and the four figures in the foreground lack the detail necessary to see them as ‘real’, or captured in the reality we may associate with a camera’s ‘writing’. This specific photograph, on top of being soft (as opposed to sharp, crisply detailed) has a graininess which further connects mountains, clouds and figures with a scene rendered by a brush stroke and not the documentation of a moment. Especially with the emergence of pointillism, or dot-based painting emerging around the same time as pictorialism, people of the time would undoubtedly have made the connection between the two.

Another way that a person could see how Annan’s photograph is from pictorialism is the subject matter itself. The key mantra of the pictorialists was ‘beauty over fact’ (Hirsch). They were not concerned with making believable images. What they wanted was to make emotional images – something that the viewer would need to interpret and respond to. In this case, the scene is giving folks in the city exactly what they wanted. Four pioneering men out in the wild, on an adventure in the great beyond. The Dark Mountains plays on the relationship between the beautiful and the sublime. The grandeur of the mountains, the solace of the adventurer and all the other romantic aspects of this image make the viewer want to be in the photograph. However, the muted color palette, the ominous sky, the dark vignette around the edges makes the viewer comfortable where they are, as the spectator. There is in the same photograph nature represented as both wonderful and fearsome.

While most aspects of pictorialism are present in James Craig Annan’s photo, it is still on the more subdued side of the movement. Some artists took the ‘graphy’ of photography to be a more literal thing. Some etched into the surface of their prints, some drew or painted. The key thing though is the use of manipulation in general. This need for personal expression in a medium that is primarily scientific (entirely reliant on the use of chemistry of some sort) defined Annan and the other pictorialists. They wanted the option of suppressing the elements in their compositions that were not essential to their vision, which could be as simple as making a soft image, or as radical as physically altering a print.

A photograph like The Dark Mountains is an excellent example of photography’s innate relationship to painting and how it has been and still embraced by photographers (whether intentionally or unintentionally). It stresses the important facets of the pictorialist movement in its lack of sharpness, its mood, and in the narrative of the four traveling figures on what appears to be a walk with no intentional end as described by authors such as Thoreau [if you click his name it should take you to a google books version of his piece Walking, which I’d highly recommend]. While the pictorialist movement came and went in a relatively short period, photographers like Annan, who devoted themselves to its success achieved just that. They further solidified photography as that of art and allowed for different ways of taking and viewing a photograph, the latter being something that would benefit my pursuits to learn from.