foto friday – clouds part two

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Johannes Vermeer – View of Delft

I always like to think there were three things I could spend my life photographing   …Well actually it’s only two, and I only really take pictures of one.

First and foremost I was always struck by trees. They’re everywhere you go. Intricately complex. And full of allegorical power. From the delicate shades of color when they’re bunched together in the distance to the hyper-realist detail when viewed up close. I know from long experience that trees are the most difficult subject to draw well. Perhaps even more complex and demanding than drapery and the human form.

It was the challenge of drawing drapes and humans and trees that made me shift from painting and drawing to photography. I set out to compile reference material so that I could study undisturbed for hours, the details of how physics, light and optics renders a subject in two dimensions.

I’m not sure I got very far with my giant book of trees and my eye began to stray towards other ideas. Other things began to jolt and occupy my mind. Like the basilica as a structure and a plan for experiencing space. An idea that deeply impressed on me and still colors my view of light, theater and architecture to this day. In short even though I keep them constantly in the corner of my eye, the trees were relegated to the sidelines.

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Basillica form with transept

My second subject was high tension transmission towers and pylons, and to some extent just poles.  A fascinating visual story of structure and necessity, simplicity and balance.

From the first time I climbed a tower above a sea of rhubarb to  Sam Miller’s 1998 film ‘Among Giants’ – they have never been far from my heart. The thinness of the steel laced together against the sky. Hydro towers more than anything else hum to me the music of the modern age. They’ve got my attention.

I look at them like crazy stick figures created by wedding  Giacometti’s shadows and existential panic to  Lissitzky’s revolutionary idea of “das zielbewußte Schaffen” where the artist is an agent for change 

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Alberto Giacometti – Three Men Walking

Lone majestic giants marching over every corner of the earth, hydro towers as the 20th C structure of worship -always on the move.

Like the mosque, temple, synagogue and church that once strung every community together through faith.  These 20th C sentinels stretch well beyond the age of reason and past the heavy industrial rails of the 19th. Mischievous electricity as the atomic age of transformation. Reaching right into our homes and held aloft by structural sculptures of progress that are always by our side  …but then, I digress.

For in the end, it was the sky, and in particular clouds that held my gaze. A constant backdrop connecting us through time to a world that existed even before man.

The daylight contemplation of the heavens just like those who contemplate at night, not only seems proper but also necessary in adjusting our sense of scale.

It places us not at the centre of the universe, but embedded deeply in it. While small and insignificant, we become capable of sharing in incomprehensible  grandeur. It allows us to connect with the vast forces we feel but cannot see.

It was Kenneth Clark who said that each new birth of civilization was welcomed by a new understanding and experiencing of space. Clouds can do for me as can art and faith. I suppose it’s how you look at them in the end that matters.

I can’t say where my visual interest in representing clouds comes from. How it moved from carefully watching for breaks in the sky that revealed “enough blue to make a sailors pants” as my grandmother put it (which meant it would turn out to be a fine day, sunny and full of wind) to the lavish visual creations of Albert Bierstadt and the westward expansion.

Undeniably the Western Plains and Eastern Slopes of the North American Rockies produce some of the finest clouds and skies. But one look at the work of the wonderful Russian painter Isaac Levitan leads me to believe planet is filled with limitless opportunity for shared creation.

In fact, studying art through history has been the largest influence on my work. And frankly it’s a two-way street. As a photographer I’ve taken many cues from the paintings of Vermeer and many Dutch painters of the early 17th C.

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Salomon Van Ruisdael – A view of Deventer seen from the North-West

And when I discovered Kodachrome 64 I truly felt that I (and photography) finally belonged to the world of art. This film gave me a new and immense respect for  Canaletto who seemed to travelling down a similar road. His clouds like Vermeer’s and countless others were free and unencumbered, unfettered and alive as a someone would later sing.

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Giotto di Bondone – The Lamentation

I was once told the definitive error in western painting was when Giotto painted the sky blue. And while I am in sympathy and agree – in less than 200 years Giorgione’s Tempest would introduce a more powerful, nuanced complex possibility to the question of representation in art.

It was lecture on Giorgione’s painting that first made me aware of the concept of clouds and landscape as legitimate dramatic subjects on their own.

While many consider the Tempest as the western world’s first ‘landscape’ painting I know that it’s brooding ability to perplex and confound us makes it more than that.

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Giorgioni –The Tempest

And while I appreciate  Constable’s  lithe and rapid depictions of early 19th C clouds before the age of steam  …today I’m more interested in rediscovering the Baroque and Ultra-Baroque. Those towering masses of clouds capable of holding angels, saints and putti aloft no matter how light they should be.

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Andrea Pozzo –  Ascencion of S. Ignazio 

foto friday – holding on to detail

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Mt. Chapin – 3795m, CO

There are few harder situations than shooting at high altitudes in bright sunlight with lots of haze. Sticking with the ‘black box with a hole in it’ approach;  getting an image that represents both how you both and how you experience a vista is incredibly difficult.

It’s even more difficult when you don’t resort to intense filtering, gadgetry or massive post-processing manipulation which is when a document can start to stray.

It’s also why I have come to appreciate ( almost worship ) those photographers of the 19th century who ventured into the mountains with cumbersome equipment and an intent and understanding of how they might get it in ‘one shot’.

And too, to those photographers like Ansel Adams who spent a lifetime struggling with technicality in order to capture, partly through process, the grandeur and complexity of life.

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towards Estes Park, CO

 

Asif Hassan – the decisive moment

 

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Photo by Asif Hassan – Karachi, Pakistan (The Guardian UK edition)

It has been a very long time since I’ve seen a photograph of this calibre, published or curated. With the plethora of images around us – many of them very good, I have always feared the great works of our age would be buried amidst a pile of rubbish.

Today I came across one of those astounding pictures that in fact may be one of the best photographs I’ve ever seen. I know there is a loud faction that would argue everything is context and personal, but I’m more interested in great art which is always transcendent.

Based in Pakistan, Asif Hassan has been publishing photos in The Guardian newspaper for several years and with a little searching you can find his work online there and elsewhere.

Certainly outside of Sebastião Salgado and one other photograph, I can’t think of any other picture in the last 40 years that has managed to both transcend the medium and reveal the profound power and enduring importance of a good photograph the way this one does.

 

Edwin Land presents – instant fun in a box !!

polaroid-onestep-SX70-whiteFor anyone who’s spent time developing pictures, spooling and dunking tanks, rinsing, tilting, waiting, mixing, measuring, weighing, washing, squinting, fumbling, while sitting in the dark listening to the shortwave radio and scribbling notes about dilutions and diminishing chemical strengths; what Dr. Land did on stage in those 5 seconds in 1972 was nothing short of a miracle. Up to that point, making a picture was always a very tangible process. Trying to insure the room was black, the temperature was stable, plenty of fresh water, everything in its place and our muscle memory reliable and competent. Constantly fighting humidity, dust, impurities and time. Balancing it with precision, knowledge, patience and skill. A good picture, not even a great one, was materially wrestled out of light and thin air. And whatever the process was, the first thing that comes to mind wasn’t fun.

I stepped outside this morning and was struck by how the morning light fell about the yard. It was a pretty mundane view but still it intrigued me so I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. Maybe it would intrigue others too?  I quickly checked the screen, it actually did a decent job of documenting what I saw.

In fact,  just snapping an image and checking becomes an act of pleasure and entertainment in itself.  And apparently I’m not the first to notice this. What Edwin Land’s SX-70 did was change forever how we feel and interacted with images.

All of a sudden pictures are instant, self gratifying and totally in our power. The whole process is exclusively ours with no one else involved We can enjoy the fruits of anything we record even before we leave the scene. Snap a picture and a minute later we’re looking at it, judging it, showing it off, and getting others to judge it.  If everyone agrees, we have our picture. If not, we can immediately adjust the world until it looks exactly how we like. And then we try again.

There’s no driving to the store or taking the bus across town. No standing at the counter examining contact sheets with a plastic loupe. No horribly developed duplicate prints to shuffle through. No need to be marking little x’s and circles or pointing out bits of dust. No pushing or pulling and no coming back days later to see if we can decide which shots are good. Often seasons changed before you got your picture. One look at the commercials of the day and gets you an idea what it was like. *

To top it off,  no one could count on someone else to deliver their prized memories and experience. We always end up siding with the woman standing at the counter braying ” if they come back shaky, I’m not paying”. Everyone knew it could be their  own pictures coming back faded blue and green or murky black.  People shelled out money and told themselves “I meant it to be that way” and quietly wished for better luck next time.  Not with a Polaroid though, no sir!  Suddenly we lived in a future where taking pictures was exciting and incredibly fun!!

Hello instagram, selfies, pinterest, flikr, facebook, tumblr and more. Kittens, puppies, lunches, babies, flowers, trees and any thing else that catches our fancy. The pictures aren’t that much different. It’s how we take them that’s changed. That and the sheer volume of them. Images have become a waste product of our daily lives. Inhabiting our internal landscape like a city in the midst of a garbage strike**

Imagine for a minute how many images we capture daily of the Eiffel Tower, Lotte World and Everland?  Think of how people would have behaved or experienced taking those pictures in the 1930’s or 1860’s.  Dr. Land’s strange and wonderful invention introduced us to a whole new way of imagining the world. Truly carefree and disposable in practice. The world we now inhabit is instantaneous, impulsive and without consequence or history. Free from the complexity and constant physical grappling needed to visually capture experience. We stopped gazing and contemplating and our records became as fleeting as our thoughts.polaroid-SX70-classic

Equally the magic box of Dr. Land would turn out to be prescient of other trends to come. It would introduce a landmark patent case that would be familiar to us today. Devoid of inspiration or innovation like most American companies since that time, Kodak would try to steal this fun idea and disguise it as their own. They would have to pay for this infringement,  $909.4 million dollars to be exact.

Polaroid’s public popularity would be brief. Peaking in less than 20 years. 10 years later they would file for bankruptcy. A labour force of 21,000 reduced to 150 people in the end. Crippled and left out in the cold with the rest of the photographic world. The change they ushered in would spell their doom.

But what surprised me most in stopping to look at Polaroid and Edwin Land, is just how many Polaroid products I have owned or used over the years. It was a bit of a shock really. I never really thought of them as part of the product of my workaday world. They often solved intractable problems incredibly well. For me, Polaroid was never a passion but it was always deeply fascinating, sophisticated beyond belief and above all else loads of fun!!!

 

*   fotomat television advertisement from 1973

** this is how I imagine our mental landscape

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Edwin Land’s self developing film

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Today marks the day 65 years ago that Edwin Land received his patent for self developing film. I sort of came across this fact by accident. Like almost everything about him, I wasn’t looking for it and it wouldn’t normally have popped up during the course of the day. Fact is though, as soon as I saw it I knew enough to pay attention.

Edwin Land was a funny kind of hero to me for many years.  I never really connected him to his cameras, or to his film.¹ For the most part, I was unaware of his quiet contributions but it didn’t stop me from regularly tripping over his name associated with something I was doing. As a person, he never ‘burst onto the scene’ and always seemed to remain just a little out of sight. But his timely contributions managed to shape a generation and his iconic inventions still influence our day-to-day life.

Land was a scientist and innovator capable of putting many of our current superstars to shame.  I mean, here’s a guy who left after a freshman year of studying chemistry at Harvard to invent a film that contained millions of micron-sized polarizing crystals that all lined up with each other and were capable of filtering light. In order to do this he used the New York City Public Library to do his research and snuck into the laboratories of Columbia University at night to do his work.

He returned to Harvard but never finished his degree because he didn’t need one. Once he figured out a solution to a problem in his head, he just went ahead and solved it. He had little interest in writing it down, and even less in trying to prove himself to others.

Together with his Harvard physics professor he started a company to produce his polarizing film. Designed for optics and scientific work they managed to get it to work on sunglasses and camera lenses and this brought in enough money to start his Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

He went on to make the first full-colour 3D glasses, the brightness control necessary for all LCD’s, target finders, dark adapting goggles, the first passively guided smart bomb, and a stereoscopic system that could reveal camouflaged positions in aerial photographs. His team developed the optics on the U-2 spy plane, and the ability to project the entire spectrum with only 2 colours of light. But most importantly, on February 21st 1947 he demonstrated the first instant camera and film to the Optical Society of America. The Polaroid 95

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Despite the fact that he never obtained any type of formal degree, his commitment to science had him perform at least one experiment every day and earned him enough respect to be called Dr. Land by his friends, employees and the press. The Wall Street Journal being the only known exception, adamantly refusing to attach the Dr. before his name.

Wall street in general took a dim view of him. They and his investors disliked the fact that he made his decisions based on what he felt was right both as a scientist and a humanist. He consistently hired women and trained them as research scientists and put himself and his company at the front of the affirmative action movement after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

When he died at the age of 81, his personal notes and papers were shredded by an assistant.

We’ve fast forgotten how physical the world of photography was for most of its existence. The glass plates, flash pans, massive tripods, stools, boxes and giant cameras. The problem of trapping light in a black box and getting it to physically stick to a surface was something more than alchemy, and that Dr. Land could permanently stabilize it in dye was more than remarkable.

There had been instant film for cameras since he introduced it in 1947. But it was still physical and messy. And in the 10 seconds that passed when Edwin Land pulled a folded camera out of his pocket and took 5 ‘instant’ photos at the annual meeting of his company in April 1972, this would change forever.

Congratulations and Happy Birthday to all, for none of this would be possible without the original patent for self developing film.

¹The whole story of his life is worth the read from the following link from which I have drawn a fair bit of information  →  Edwin Land