Trying to record the “trace of movement within the frame” can either be incredibly easy, or incredibly difficult depending on how we approach it (probably the same could be said for just about any of the exercises on the course and our mentality towards them). The longer the shutter is left open, the more it seems to create problems for us with the dreaded camera shake and subsequent blur; however, looking at some of the photographers/artists who have used it, it appears that it also creates an exciting glimpse into unseen worlds; worlds that merge, flash and slide past us everyday, everywhere.
I was excited by the idea of multiple exposures (which I have dabbled with in the past) and particularly shutter speed: I have a rudimentary understanding as to how the shutter influences what is captured and so I really wanted to try out some experimentation. Well, once again as often happens with these exercises, I found it trickier than expected. Not from a technical point of view – although there were some issues there too – but more of a content issue: what could I photograph to emphasize movement that wasn’t horrendously predictable and mundane?
Having said that, it’s not like being predictable or repeating things can always be a hindrance, it’s just that I want to push myself; I need to do things differently to gain some kind of insight as to what I need to learn, develop, enjoy, and what I need to work on. Besides, seeing as this is quite a personal adventure with limited feedback, I think I need to challenge myself, doubt myself, review my process(es), reflect on outcome, and continue to ask questions almost constantly to be able to make any progress. What would be the point of already knowing everything – or presumptuously thinking that you do – when approaching these tasks? Where’s the learning with that? How can acquisition work if we are just going through the motions? Where’s your love and passion going to be with that type of attitude towards things?
Once I started to read up on the suggested artists from the course notes, I soon realised that this is a huge area of incredible significance to photography and cinema alike and not just from a *historical point of view, but also from a contemporary perspective too; from the first ever night shots of London by Paul Martin in the late 19th century and Atget’s amazing and ghostly humanless Paris shots too – to Sugimoto, the Bechers, Pastorino Diaz, and Vanvolsem, to name but just a few.
Sugimoto & Co
I was already familiar with Sugimoto’s grandiose long exposure projects Theatres, and his museum waxwork photos, but after watching the Contacts video as suggested by our course notes, I began to get a more complete picture of him. The Contacts series is a wonderfully insightful project and Sugimoto’s explanation of how and why he does what he does is beautifully clear, and, to some extent, I found his voice mesmerizing.
Time, as to be expected, is a key element in his works. From his seascapes series to the Theatre series, he used crystal clear images from large format cameras with long exposures albeit with very different shutter speed times!
His thoughts about the concept of “nothingness” (when referring to the Theatres series) are beautiful; how the white light of the cinema screens reveals nothing (of the film itself) – even the viewers have disappeared – and how that emptiness is caged within the movie theatre: “The movie theatre is the case to hold this emptiness” Such an ominous and disturbingly attractive thought: How can we ever represent nothing? It is always something, isn’t it? It’s oxymoronic; a delightful paradox.
Does it only become something once we stick labels onto it, or cultural baggage? It’s interesting to think how would someone from another culture interpret these images?
When thinking just of the theatre screen, the white light is no longer a film, although it used to be, so does that make the photo of the “film” nothing? How can we say that the light is not something? Is it not the accumulative effect of the whole film? Is that what a film really looks like? Can I say that I have seen that film now after looking at his exposure? In a certain way, I believe we can say that.
Is this how a camera can reveal the hidden secrets of reality, mirroring what Wesely seems to be suggesting with his own ridiculously long exposures about the hidden marvels of the “Dance of the Universe, which coexists on an entirely different time scale“?
In Higgins (2013, p153) Sugimoto is quoted as saying:
“I let the camera capture whatever it captures… whether you believe it or not is up to you; it’s not my responsibility, blame my camera, not me.”
That’s brilliant. However, does this imply that we are simply slaves to the machine? Or as Rick McGrath says in a recent interview on how just relying on the camera, “…reduces photography to the technology of the camera“? That we are slaves to the camera’s whims, or its technological pros and cons could be a moot point: arguably – nowadays at least – modern cameras produce reasonably faithful representations of the world in terms of colours, exposure and so on; and HDR is bringing the image closer to how the human eye perceives – however much I dislike HDR personally. The camera frame crops reality, that really is a moot point (and something already looked at here); but I don’t think we should forget how involved the photographer can actually be in using that film or sensor space to create an interpretation of reality, or better still: a representation of the reality in front of him or her. Jeff Wall talks about this too in his Contacts’ video (05:40) where he says how, “The journalist is interested in conveying the event to the viewer or reader; the artist is interested in conveying the representation of the event to the viewer.“.
In the Contacts’ video, I love what Sugimoto says about how, when looking at his seascape photos, we are drawn into the sea; the lack of any contextual clues or distractions within the frame just the sky and the sea allows us to see how, as he puts it, to be “freed from the time is to get drawn into the time.”, (05:38). How lovely is that? I’m sure these images work so well with large prints dominating a gallery wall (or any wall for that matter); that ‘lose yourself’ feeling when looking at those vast expanses of exquisitely detailed seas (not seen with my Ruffesque copy above!) and perfectly divided by sky must be amazing (the fact that he marked out the horizontal division of the frame on the back plate/screen of the camera is fascinating too).
So is Sugimoto simply showing us a representation with his long exposures? Or is he – and the likes of Wesely (including a Flickr friend who has been doing very long exposures for years) – revealing something more about the world, about light, that we – with our limited visual spectrum – can only dream of? Can the camera ‘see’ or represent these (un)imaginable worlds that surround us? Or are we just imposing our own ever-present and stilted anthropocentric visual limitations onto these captured images of other worlds? If you left a photograph in the woods and no one was around to look at it…
As normal with YouTube, I ended up bingeing. But this time, instead of bingeing on “Best Ever Vines” or some other crap, I ended up ploughing through the Contacts’ series and came across Bernd & Hilla Becher’s video. I’d been meaning to read up on these influential artists and found the video interesting. I also surprisingly discovered that they very often used 20 second long exposures with their industrial series of photos from the late 70s – early 80s; telephoto lenses with two tripods to reduce camera shake; and they only really shot on cloudy dull days to avoid harsh light and contrast. But to look at the shots, you would find it hard to believe that they are using a long shutter speed.
The work of Esteban Pastorino Diaz which is a ridiculously glorious blend of his mechanical engineering background and his passion for photography, captures some alarming and intriguing views of the modern world.
Esteban Pastorino Diaz, Shinjuku #1, 2005
His work of stretching time and space with his long negatives (for example with Shinjuku #1 which was shot on a home-made medium fomat camera), creates not only a sense of disorientation for the spectator, but also a sense of familiarity. While talking about Shinjuku #1) Higgins (2013, p69) refers to it as: “…distorted space and time in such a way that a quotidian, urban scene seems part of a different reality.”
This contrast of clarity and distortion of the urban scene, I believe, is also a reflection of how life too can often appear to be clear and sharp while also being distorted and blurred.
Higgins goes on to quote Rodrigo Alonso, a curator and critic, who says that Esteban’s work is, “...no doubt a camera effect, but in the realm of photography, what is reality other than camera effect?” So true.
He used a slit-scan camera (which I had to go and look up as I’d never heard of one!) for the Tokyo street scenes to create these fluid panaramas. He has also created one of the longest negatives in history – something of a genius – and testament to how his engineering background is such a wonderfully creative tool producing these one-off cameras to reveal these almost otherworldly, magical photographs.
I like what he says about our preconceptions with what we expect to see after taking a picture, and how we “…assume that the photographic representation has to follow the same rules as our vision, but it doesn’t.” Yeah, that is something I’m getting used to. I have contacted him to see if he’d like to chat about his work. Fingers crossed he gets back to me…[He did: here]
As with Pastorino Diaz’s work, Maarlen Vanvolsem also uses slit-scan photography to capture movement within the frame. There’s a great informative article by Vanvolsem on the beauty of photographing dancers and the benefits of strip-technique in photography when trying to capture movement. He notes how the photographer Lois Greenfield’s “well balanced” photos “...reconfirm photography’s longing for the moment and the freezing of time.“. He points out, correctly I believe, how her photos are just frozen moments of dance, “…but without a focused direction or overall movement.“, picking up on Szarkowski’s observation about how the camera creates the “fragmenting of time” and not actual movement.
Vanvolsem notes how there has been hardly any photos of “dancing” but rather the “dancers”, and, as he puts it, this seems to be: “...photography’s focus on the performers rather than on the performance.“. That’s an interesting notion. Could this lack of photography showing the actual dance rather than the dancers be down to the fact that we have all been conditioned to expect crystal clear focus with photography? Or that the camera and its current technology has its limitations?
This is where strip-technique comes into its own. It seems to be able to really catch movement on the negative thanks to the negative being moved itself: movement attempting to capture movement: that’s glorious! There is no fear or motion blur with this type of photography, and it is welcomed. As Barnbaum (2010, p48) observes: “Most of the time, photographers are concerned about eliminating movement from their images.”, and concludes with: “Sometimes movement can create a surprising departure from reality as we perceive it.”In fact his photo Clouds at Mt Rundle (Barnbaum, 2010, p49 Fig. 3-16) beautifully captures this departure.
Freedom at last from the tyranny of ‘Zeiss clarity’ shots? Probably not.
Strip-scan photography is certainly exciting and seems to offer a clearer indication of how someone or something has moved across the frame, or a 300 foot negative for that matter. It seems to show the passage through time and space, the transient nature of everything; and yet, for me, it still doesn’t show movement. How could it? The graceful blending of forms in strip-scan photos is not movement, just evidence of it. It’s a suggestion of movement; and just as it is a suggestion of the past and not actually past, so photography continues to capture a suggestion of reality – moving or still – and will never actually be reality itself.
*Please note the deliberate usage of the indefinite article ‘a’ as opposed to the common (unfathomable and erroneous) use of the determiner ‘an’ with the adjective ‘historical’. Letters to the usual address please.
As with anything once you get the bit between your teeth, you realise that there’s always so much more to it than just a few simple observations. I started to look through my books hunting for practitioners of the ‘long shutter speed’ and multiple exposures, and have discovered some truly amazing works and artists. To be honest, those works would have just been dismissed as Photoshop abhorrences a few months back, but now, thanks to these exercises, I see them in a totally new light; I can appreciate them, and to some extent, construct some kind of coherent critique. Something which would have been inconceivable to me some time ago – as well as totally irrelevant – now presents itself as a valuable, comforting, and pleasant sensation. Well, I haven’t got bored yet, so that’s a good thing, right?
And by the way, I have been taking pictures throughout this reseach too.
References and Sources
Itchyi.squarespace.com. (2016). The Longest Photographic Exposures in History – The Latest – itchy i. [online] Available at: http://itchyi.squarespace.com/thelatest/2010/7/20/the-longest-photographic-exposures-in-history.html [Accessed 24 Apr. 2016].
Siebrecht, K. (2014). INTERVIEW WITH… Michael Wesely –. [online] Talkingaboutart.de. Available at: http://talkingaboutart.de/some-question-to-michael-wesely/
[Accessed 24 Apr. 2016].
Higgins, J., Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus – Modern Photography Explained, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013
YouTube. (2016). Contacts vol 2 Jeff Wall. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg8bB0zs3HQ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
YouTube. (2016). Contacts vol 3 Bernd&Hilla Becher. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sy9dXWkC8Q [Accessed 27 Apr. 2016].
YouTube. (2016). Contactos. Hiroshi Sugimoto. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgN3WIWi4qg [Accessed 25 Apr. 2016].
Routes Through the Exhibition Area. (2014). Jeff Wall, the ‘artist’s artist’.. [online]
Available at: https://ecrossmedia.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/jeff-wall-the-artists-artist/ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
People.rit.edu. (2016). Slit-Scan Photography with Large Format Cameras. [online]
Available at: https://people.rit.edu/andpph/text-slit-scan.html [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Guinness World Records. (2015). Longest photographic negative. [online] Available at: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/longest-photographic-negative/ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Flickr – Photo Sharing!. (2016). A Dreariness of Thought. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinbyrne1971/21685351674/ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Imageandnarrative.be. (2016). Image and Narrative – Article. [online] Available at: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/Timeandphotography/vanvolsem.html [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Lois Greenfield. (2016). Contemporary. [online] Available at: http://www.loisgreenfield.com/contemporary-dance/ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Barnbaum, B. (2010). The art of photography. Santa Barbara, CA: Rocky Nook.
light through a hole. (2015). window of enlightment [Can Manyer library, Vilassar de Dalt]. [online] Available at: https://jesusjoglar.net/2015/06/23/window-of-enlightment-can-manyer-library-vilassar-de-dalt/ [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].
Notebook: research notes