Schrödinger’s Film

As I was developing a few rolls of film recently, it occurred to me that the developing tank is akin to Schrödinger’s Box, with the film taking the place of the cat (rest assured I did not try to stuff a cat in the developing tank). If I’ve already lost you, Schrödinger’s Cat refers to the thought experiment proposed by Erwin Schrödinger whereby a live cat sealed in a box with a radioactive poison exists in two states – alive and dead – until such time as the box is opened to observe it. Similarly, film in the tank with the developer is both developed and undeveloped until you open the tank and have a look. The isotope decays, the developer develops, and you know it will happen in theory, but in practice the closed container prevents confirmation, and thus both cat and film exist, respectively, in two states simultaneously.

By the same logic, film in a camera also exists in two states – exposed and unexposed. Just as we know the poison will kill the cat, so too do we know that the shutter will expose the film, but we cannot confirm that it has happened without examining the result. One might argue that releasing the shutter is a more positive action on the outcome than simply placing the poison in the box – indeed, I would make that argument – but the uncertainty remains.

This observation, like so many of the things that run through my head and occasionally spill out, is fairly useless. I find it an interesting thing to consider, however, primarily in the psychological sense. How does the dual state of film affect they way photographers shoot it? How has this changed since the advent of digital photography, i.e., now that a more certain alternative exists, how does the deliberate selection of a medium that by definition must exist in an unknown (or dual) state from the time the back of the camera is closed to the time the developing tank is opened reflect upon the type of photographer that prefers this to the reassuring and instant certainty of digital? What is the appeal? Why do some photographers embrace uncertainty?

The prosaic answers, focusing on the physical objects, are that film looks different than digital, or that the cameras are more fun to use, or that one likes the process, but I wonder if it’s more than that. Is it the promise of the endorphin rush of pulling freshly developed film from the tank? Is it the gambler’s stake of having something to lose by screwing up, or simply by the whims of chance (light leak, expired fixer, whatever)? Is it the displaced manifestation of a latent hatred of cats? I don’t know that there are clear answers here, even for me (except for the last one – I like cats), let alone any universal truth, but I think the question is valid.

Timing is Everything….

This being a blog generally about my photography, and my photography being done entirely outside of a studio setting, resuming posting here a year or so ago was especially ill-timed, even for me. Regardless, while I have not been posting here for a bit, I have been thinking about photography, and even managed to take a few photos during the current unpleasantness.

Being limited to places that are nearby and familiar forces some degree of rethinking if one wants to avoid taking the same photos over and over again. I am not especially interested in taking photos inside my home – I see it all the time – so that’s out. I’m sure there are ways to make such photos interesting and different, but mostly I don’t care. Every once in a while something catches my eye, like when the morning light comes in a just the right angle for a couple days to highlight something, but usually it’s just too boring to be enough to motivate me to pick up a camera. The same goes for my yard. It’s arguably somewhat photogenic, with nice trees and good morning light, but I see it every…single…day. No thanks.

So we have to enlarge the circle. There are a number of places I like to hike around here, and I’ve expended a fair bit of film on them over the years, and that’s the problem. How many different ways are there to shoot the same views, the same buildings, the same features? Not enough, at least for someone of fairly limited imagination like me. I can go further afield, but limited daylight, other commitments (stupid work…), and general laziness (or is it apathy? I find it hard to care…) all conspire to make such excursions infrequent at best. And even so, it’s trees and rocks, hills and streams. Blah blah blah….

One of my usual motivations for photography is travel, but that’s been off the table for obvious reasons. Without the promise of new places to see, and to provide useful contrast to the places I see every day, it’s been difficult to see the daily views as anything other than an utterly nebulous background, like something you might see in a Sears Portrait Studio circa 1983. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, and the last year would seem to bear that out, albeit negatively.

Street photography is another dynamic source of potentially interesting photos, but the thought of willingly plunging into a mass of potential Typhoid Marys is deeply distasteful to say the least. It should be pointed out, I suppose, that I’m also not especially interested in directly documenting the way society is reacting to this transient upheaval. Plenty of other people are happily taking pictures of people in masks, or protesting loudly about how right they are and how wrong everyone else is. I’m bored just writing about it.

So what’s it all about then? Well, if we consider photography – and art generally – to be a personal thing, then for me it’s about confinement, limitation, and boredom. Seemingly minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, I know, but that’s what the last year or so has looked like to me. And in my world, the greatest failing, the greatest weakness, the greatest sin, is boredom, both inflicting it upon others and suffering from it myself. How exactly does one photograph that?

Well, it turns out, I don’t. Much, at least. Sure, I took a few photos here and there, but there’s no real creativity, no real meaning. Perhaps an occasional photo managed to capture something more than an utterly prosaic image, but it feels accidental rather than deliberate. So rather than bore others – again, a Very Bad Thing in my weltanshauung – I just didn’t put anything out there. I worked sporadically on some past photos, reediting and rethinking, perhaps assigning new values to old pictures – a very personal thing to be sure, and not one to be imposed on other viewers – but the idea of producing new creative work has been the very opposite of my experience in the last year or so.

So there you have it. The absence of photos posted here is my artist’s response to the last year. What seems like nothing is actually a meaningful artistic expression of a sort of dull, slightly angsty, void. Now if I can just find a way to sell it….

Working Past Perfection

I recently watched an episode of the series “Classic Albums,” a show that chronicles the production of – surprise, surprise – classic rock albums. While I have no musical ability, I find the process of musical creation fascinating, and given the nature of radio in the 1970s and 80s, I know the songs really, really well.

This particular episode focused on Steely Dan’s Aja. I’m no great fan of Steely Dan, though they certainly deserve credit for producing a unique and instantly recognizable sound, and again, with the songs in heavy rotation on all the local FM stations back when that’s how people listened to music, I heard them a lot. Watching Donald Fagan and Walter Becker sitting at the board and bringing up selected tracks from the masters, breaking down what they wanted and why, was fascinating and gave me further appreciation for what they produced. Still not high on my playlist, mind you, but unmistakably impressive and evocative work.

As a duo, they of necessity brought in session musicians, a common practice for many bands in a lot of recording sessions. What I learned, and what was rather unusual, was that for Aja they brought in different groups of musicians – whole different bands, really – looking for the sound they wanted for each individual song. And they worked those bands hard, playing the songs over and over, trying countless different things to arrive at the final product they envisioned. Some were sent home never having recorded a track. One might get the impression that Becker and Fagan were perfectionists, never satisfied until the session players conformed to their vision.

This notion, while reasonable and not entirely inaccurate, doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the players, a guitarist named Dean Parks, suggested that the endless repetition and experimentation were not about achieving perfection, but a conscious effort directed toward what he called “playing past perfection” – getting so familiar with the piece that it became natural; not a forced mechanical repetition, but one that came easily to the whole assembled group. They could play it the same way endlessly, but their familiarity enabled a fluidity and an interaction that brought the parts together in a way that mere technical perfection never could.

This struck me as remarkably applicable to photography. Many, many photographers (self-styled or otherwise) spend countless hours and even more countless dollars in search of perfection (whatever that means to them, and in many cases to the internet acquaintances who are their social arbiters as well). Perfection is, well, perfect, but as I’ve noted here before, it’s also endlessly repeatable and thus hopelessly boring. Capture a photo that’s perfect by every measure – exposure, focus, composition, everything – and you have made something that can be made again by any other photographer with the same gear and understanding of the metrics of technical perfection.

When, however, you become so familiar and so proficient with your equipment and your way of seeing that you can photograph instinctively, as well as technically well, and you have transcended perfection. You have now produced something that only you could, something that is not reproducible by anyone else. A photograph that is yours and could be nothing else.

It seems to me that this is also a pretty strong argument for limiting one’s gear and getting to the point where using it becomes a natural extension of the body, entirely within one’s personal control. By extension, this approach also precludes the use of cameras that do the work for you – if auto-focus and auto-exposure are perfect every time you use them, they are equally perfect for everyone else. You can never go beyond perfection with gear alone. To extend the musical analogy, drum machines can produce perfect time and whatever beats they are programmed for with absolute accuracy. If that was enough, drummers would be extinct by now (and not just due to natural Spinal Tap-style attrition).

I have a lot of cameras, and many of them are used relatively infrequently. Most of them were purchased as I was experimenting with different things, looking for the ones that worked best for what I wanted to do. But that time has passed – I know that my little screwmount Leicas are the right cameras for my photography. It may be time to think about thinning the herd a bit, removing the temptation to load up some odd thing and instead going more often with the old standbys, the cameras that allow me to work instinctively. While am by no means at the point of technical perfection, let alone anywhere near transcending it, I also know that I will make no progress in that regard unless I avoid distractions and focus on the task at hand: bringing the vision and the final product closer together.