Atmosphere

2011/05/16

I have a very large plastic bin in my freezer containing hundreds of rolls of film — leftovers from my days at art school when I studied photography. During my first year there in 2005, I shot film or chrome every day for one year. Not most days but every single day. A couple of times a week I would go into the labs and process the rolls myself. This way of working (shooting then self-processing) became such a habit that I thought it would always be like that.


But after graduation in 2007, I discovered all my professional work required digital. So I slipped into the routine of also using digital instead of film for my personal work. Economics also played a roll in that change (I no longer had free use of a film lab for processing or printing). I rationalized this was OK since I had finely tuned my digital darkroom skills to where I could achieve most of what I wanted to see in my photographs.

This year I’ve taken inventory of my film cameras and considered parting with them as they mostly collect dust and take up space. I can’t say that I am a photographer who developed a “personal” relationship with his cameras like some do. None of mine have nicknames nor are they adorned with initials or notches. Any personal working relationships I have occurred with the lenses. I had a 110mm medium format lens that produced the most exquisite light fall-off from a subject I’ve ever seen. No 35mm lens could even come close. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges in the camera world.

Before parting with my 35mm film cameras I thought I should use the expired film from the fridge. But where to cheaply process expired film? Target — $0.95 per roll. Perfect!

A good friend of mine and former photography classmate asked if I wanted to accompany him to the Joshua Tree National Park one recent Sunday. As this is one of my favorite places where I’ve been photographing since 2003, I eagerly accepted. So I packed my camera bag with a Leica M7, five different lenses and 15 rolls of expired (6/2007) Fuji Superia film.

I am embarrassed to say that quickly loading a roll of film for the first (or second) time was not successful. Five years had passed since I was able to load a roll of film without even looking down at the camera. But by the third roll all was hitting the right grooves and rails. Then I had to remember to cock the quick wind lever to the next frame. No auto-advance with this camera. Fortunately, landscapes don’t require rapid fire sequences.

Not having an LCD for instant review on my camera completely changed my shooting rhythm. At first, I felt disoriented. Then I became a bit paranoid and began double-checking my camera settings to make sure I wasn’t under- or over-exposing — especially in a bright desert at Noon. I finally decided it best to work in complete manual mode. A rangefinder camera (like the Leica M7) requires the photographer to manually focus and pre-visualize a shot for depth-of-field. So adding another decision element, like exposure, was not a significant burden. Eventually, I found myself contemplating these variables while viewing the object through my viewfinder. With one aperture or shutter speed click, slightly turning back the focus ring, I was really aware of putting my own imprint on a negative frame.

I have tried to evolve in the way I approach landscapes through a viewfinder. Until I began my photography studies, I was like a child, jumping out of the car and quickly raising the camera to my eye and pressing the shutter. Snap. Turn left. Snap. Turn right. Snap. But during my photography studies I became much more aware of light. One of the pleasures of photography school is I could spend hours, laying on the ground in a forest, watching how the light moved across the sky and through the trees. Last year I continued my landscape photography education by attending a workshop with the renowned photographer Kenro Izu. His workshop “The Sacred Landscape” implored us to meditate and explore a landscape before unpacking our cameras. Spend time to understand the atmosphere of the location: winds, sounds, light and the speed at which the clouds move across the sky.

When I compare landscape images shot with film versus digital, I immediately become aware that atmosphere is the element missing in digital photography. We try to capture it with our digital cameras. Yet, endless hours of digital processing achieves exactly the opposite effect. Instead of adding reality to a photograph, we remove the few elements of life the digital file had in the beginning. In essence, we photoshop life out of the image.

Regardless of photoshop skills, there are film elements that simply can’t be reproduced with a digital sensor or a computer. The way the sun burns out in a photograph or highlights fall off an object or person. These film elements help create the atmosphere of a photograph. In film, the over-exposure rolls off into a creamy warmth of white space. In digital there is no roll off. There is actually nothing. There is data or there is no data.

In a perfect world, I would shoot film for everything. And each night the film faeries would collect my film, process and return them to me each morning accompanied with a disc of high-resolution drum scans of my negatives. The mention of coin would never be discussed.

I like digital cameras. I like the immediacy of a digital file. That “immediacy” is in sync with how I usually work and think. But sometimes I want to relax. I don’t want to know I can review each image after it’s taken. I want to actually look at what’s around me instead of an LCD telling me what’s around me. I want an element of mystery in my photographs.

Joshua Tree Film Photographs


Health Department

2010/09/18

Chief Nurse

Each year in December, I return home to Clayton, Georgia – located in northeast Georgia. On my 2006 return trip home, I walked to the heart of Clayton to find the county’s hospital had recently closed as well as the Health Department. My memories of the health department are splotchy. According to my Mother, she took us there for our inoculations until I was five-years-old. She would dress each of us in our “nice” clothes — like we were going to church. It always pleased my Mother to hear “Norma, what nice, clean children you have.” My mother worked incredibly hard to make that happen – ironing shirts, pants and frilly dresses for us five kids every day.

One memory I can easily recall: the screams and cries from other children while we waited in the waiting room. Naturally, these sounds only made the anticipation more anxious. I think the role of the waiting room also served another purpose. It provided visual validation of whose kids were safe to play with because we had received “our shots.”


Joshua Tree

2010/09/05

Joshua Tree Shoot

This Spring I attended a photography workshop at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. I spent three days with the photographer Kenro Izu exploring two areas of the Joshua Tree National Park. Usually when I arrive at places that suggest landscapes, I take the typical postcard snap. If there is time, I will explore for more details. However, Kenro had us spend our first day without cameras at the two Joshua Tree areas. We spent time getting to know the wind movement, the moving light and clouds, the sounds. Then, we should try and make a landscape photograph that has atmosphere.

When I returned the following days, I wandered by myself, sat on rocks and listened, really listened. I watched the clouds moving swiftly across the skies. I kept wandering and listening until I finally found the right spot to photograph. I set-up my tripod only to find that it attracted tourists from afar who believed I must have the best spot to view the desert. In these days of digital snaps, a tripod is like a beacon to the novices, signaling “professional here — come closer.”

Having explored for hours to find the perfect spot, I didn’t want to share my space with talkative tourists. After all, there were several hundred thousands of acres from which to choose. As one family approached with children, I shouted to the Father “Be care — I saw some snakes when I walked up the rocks.” They immediately fled.

My snake tactic didn’t work on the next group: three women in town for the Dinah Shore Golf Classic. They kept climbing and sat within five feet of me. Smoking and guzzling beer, they pulled out a portable radio to listen to the live broadcast of the golf tournament. No more wind, no more solitude.

I tried to find my inner-peace, inner-calm but it ran away with the frightened family. I thought of how I spent hours and hours finding this place. I thought about the thousands and thousands of rocks in the Joshua Tree park empty in front of me — and yet these women chose mine. I didn’t have enough time to pack up and move to another rock. The sun would soon start its descent. What to do.

I asked politely if they would move to another rock because I wanted to be by myself as I photographed the light. “It’s a free country” was the response I expected … and received. I looked them over and decided another tactic. “You women must be really frightened out here by yourselves …. and need to have a man around to look after you. Is that it?”

I heard “Screw that!” as they wobbled down the rock.

My karma had been disturbed but I tried to let it go and return to task at hand. Driving back to the hotel that night, I wandered how many spaces are really out there in the world — no light pollution, no disruptive visitors, where just me and my camera can be alone?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: