As the title says, for me, it’s about where things break down. The beginnings and endings. The edges. There is always a point at which an image breaks down and becomes the mark. Be it a pencil drawing, an oil painting or a photograph.
I’ll show you what I mean. We’ll start with an oil painting. One of mine to be precise.
So this is the whole painting, and I think it’s okay. I’m happy with it. But for me, the painting can only work if the parts of it all work, too. The details – the marks – need to be in harmony with the whole.
When I look at it, I also examine all the bits:
Above left: You can see where I made the marks with my drawing and my paint. They need to work as well. They need to stand up by themselves, or else the whole is no good.
Above right: Yes, even this little part of it has to work.
Anywhere you look on the canvas, it needs to hold up. The marks – the place where the image breaks down into the marks that I made – need to work. And this is how I look at a photo as well.
NOTE: I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT COMMERCIAL WORK. THAT IS ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.
If I’m delivering files to a client for a magazine or their marketing collaterals, it’s simple. The image will have high enough resolution so that the output device (Print, Screen) is the limit, not the file itself. Make sense? It’s where people get these rules “to print at A4 you need xxxx pixels”, “The file must be 300ppi”, etc. No dramas. And I’ll be shooting digital. All easy. This is where we want clean images. no noise, etc. etc.
But this is NOT what I want for my own work. I want to control what it looks like when it breaks down.
I generally want the image to break down BEFORE the output device does. By “output device” I mean the printer or display that made the image you’re looking at.
OK – back to the subject from the cover photo who was turning it on in San Marco. Not a bad shot, if I say so myself. Shot on 135 Kodak Portra 400 in an Olympus Trip 35. What you’re seeing is GRAIN. The image breaks down even on an iPad. This is what you get. You can print it two metres wide and it’s still what you get.
Any output device will out-resolve the grain.
Or – to put it another way: It can’t break, because it’s broken already.
And I broke it. Well, I didn’t make the grain, so I didn’t actually control it, but I gave it permission. I decided that it’s okay for it to break here. It’s what I want.
I don’t want you see this much (above). Yuck. This is a similar-sized crop from my digital camera.
I do want you to see this much.
What on earth does this have to do with paintings and other art forms in general? The details – all the parts of the photo need to work. Sure, the main event is the swirling red dress, but the third photog’s hat and the pigeon’s right foot need to be okay as well.
The surface of the image needs to be in harmony with the whole. (Note please that Lightroom gets a bit naughty and makes up its own mind about how to smooth these bits that I exported, so they are not quite right, but I think they serve to make the point.)
Hmm – so where do we go from here? What can we learn from this?
Let’s ask a film-shooting hipster.
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“Oh man, film is so… ORGANIC.”
Bullshit it is, my friend. Sip on a craft beer while you ponder this: Film is a dirty chemical process that pollutes the earth with plastics while it wastes water and spews out nasty chemicals. Photographic processes were developed to make images as efficiently as possible. There is no romance baked into it at all. It has been about reducing grain, increasing high ISO performance and colour fidelity etc. etc.
Sound familiar? Yes – just like digital.
The only thing is that digital is WAY AHEAD in – yes, detail, high ISO etc, and it’s way easier to manipulate the colours.
And digital breaks down differently. You don’t get to see grain, you get to see pixels and noise. Ascribing an aesthetic value to each of these is pretty arbitrary.
This image would have something to do with why we like grain – a Robert Capa D-Day photo. It’s cultural rather than purely aesthetic and I could write for days on this, but for the moment let’s leave with a thought and move on. The thought is that when we see grain we ascribe to it our notions of history and culture, and that gives the photo a weight that it doesn’t get if we see pixels and noise in it.
So if a film photograph can look nice because of grain, can digital look nice because of noise? Or if not noise, because of what happens at the edges? Where it breaks down?
The problem here is it’s really hard to get a modern digital sensor to break down. Really hard; and when it happens it is hard to know how it got there or why. So much is baked in. “Raw” files aren’t raw, etc.
“Enhance 224 to 176″ says Richard Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). When you DO get a digital file to break it’s hard to escape the cultural weight of the gritty surveillance cam shot. It’s dystopian. I’d even say it’s Orwellian if I didn’t think that word should be banned.
When Antonioni tried to do this with film in 1966’s Blow-Up, it wasn’t dystopian, it was the coolest thing ever:
Vanessa Redgrave really wants that roll of film – but why?
Lurking in the corner of the frame David Hemmings has found a murderer about to pounce…
Enlarge it! Enlarge it David!
Of course, when David does enlarge it, the grain breaks down into series of abstract blobs. “It looks like one of Bill’s paintings,” says Sarah Miles.
I like grain because I get to have a say in where the image breaks down. If you’re looking at my photo in a book, on a wall, on your computer I still get to have a say in what you’re seeing (perhaps not on your phone, but maybe even there) That’s reason number one. There’s more to it of course: Reason number two is that by using the type of film I do, I’m guiding you to think, “Oh wow, it’s 1975. I’m feeling unsettled and a bit nostalgic.”
Or at least I hope I’m leading you to that.
And I can’t do that with digital. Note that I’m saying “I can’t do it” not “It can’t be done.” I firmly believe that to understand a medium you need to think a lot about what it can’t do as well as what it can. Being a painter makes me a better photographer and vice versa. My film work helps my digital, my digital helps the film.
Let’s finish with an anecdote. An illustrated anecdote of course. One afternoon on the same trip I saw a really old orthochromatic shot of a boat, pinned up in an antique shop window. I was thinking about this, and next morning I woke up with the idea of trying to convert my Fuji X-E2 to a pinhole just to see what would happen, so I punched a hole in the lid of a film canister and stuck it over the lens. The dawn was breaking nice and misty – pure 1870s I thought, so I took my contraption out to see what I could get.
And I did get something. Something – not anything great, but something to think about. I was pushing the little XTrans sensor to its limits, and maybe I got it to break. It has not really given me anything to jump up and down about, but I printed some of these files and they worked in a way that I did not expect; the prints were better than the digital versions. So that was fun, and I now see the shots on film in a different way.
Who knows – it might lead somewhere.
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