Photos of prints that are photos

Apr 16, 2012   //   by Matt   //   Blog, Matt, Random Thoughts  //  2 Comments

I use film cameras and wet darkrooms; lit red with safelights, I stand before pools of chemistry, each allotted a coloured tray and tongs, each measured with some accuracy, all waiting in their respective ordering to receive the latest latent image-laden sheet of paper from the activities of the enlarger.

The process of using films, developing, proofing and editing, then printing out is all part of my value chain which culminates in a photograph on paper, which interests me emotionally or stimulates some other response. The process and the image are intertwined in a nexus of artistic effort, which I relish; a creative and emotional exercising of some pent-up urges. The images that result are often unrecalled; strangely familiar yet, altered in some ways beyond my experiences – I never feel that I saw that, or knew that moment (partly a result of time passing, while I accumulate rolls for a large single development session; partly a separation of direct experience of the moment recorded).

Instead, the photos show me something intimate and near to my experience, but as though they’ve passed through a sequence of overheard conversations, to become altered by inexact iterations and interpretations. This is somewhat akin to the oft-quoted line from a Garry Winogrand interview: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”. I have discovered that I shoot and am shown what the photograph is once printed out; I see what the photograph looks like (accommodating my darkroom interpretation, controlling contrast, tonal ranges, etc) as a new viewer, as fresh to the image as a stranger.

In this realisation, I see my children as I have not experienced them in our day to day; my wife as another woman; the world as a new place constructed from familiar shapes and forms.

It seems nonsensical to try to invoke the same feelings in others: Garry can no more convey his understanding of the things he sees in photos, comparing them to his real world understanding of things, as I can bring my realisations of my photographic processes and their results. We can only tell another person what other people learn in the magic of photographing things, and only then from the first person perspective.

Now, with the photos made, my perceptions tweaked by what they show me, how to show them to others? Scan and post is a clear process: the results are the clear dissemination of what the paper holds. But the photograph is a flat paper surface, that suggests the real world it reflects. It would seem that photos of this paper reality are more fitting to convey the truth of a printed photograph, or rather not to hide or obscure the physical limits of them as simple paper products. When one sees photos in exhibitions, we suspend belief in the physical nature of the object we gaze upon, accepting a projected reality where none exists. Few displays offer the chance to recognise the photograph itself with its image (which defines it): examples are displays of early photos, of daguerreotypes for example.

So, as an experiment in honesty, I present photos of prints. 

2 Comments

  • It’s very interesting to me how you describe your relationship to the people in your lives via the photos you take. The people in the pictures are like people in dreams, slightly removed and vague, never there when you’re looking, a comforting thought rather than an awkward reality.

    I’m sure the editing choices you make (convert to black and white, shallow DOF, high contrast) further abstract the photos from the original scene/person as someone present may have experienced it/them.

    A printed photo is an artefact, distinct from the abstract and infinitely reproducible ‘photo’ itself, that’s a point well made. It’s something I want to explore more myself.

    It’s not really true that your work culminates as a photo on paper. Most people will see your photos on screen, so the culmination is the rendering of your photos of photos on whatever screen that person happen to be using. Getting there via a print is a deliberate choice to further stylise the image you’re making.

    What do you mean by ‘value chain’ and how is this an ‘experiment in honesty’? What would be the dishonest alternative?

    • By ‘value chain’ I am referring to the connect string of events that starts with picking up the camera, traverses the decision to compose and shoot a frame of film, through the developing and printing processes to the final, dried, paper print in ones hands. The ‘value’ in this expression is the most succinct term I can find to qualify this sequence of actions as something more than a process, like instructions and actions for tying ones shoelace.

      For me, the precession of the resulting photograph through each segment of the chain is as inseparable from the very print in the hand: change something in the process and that photo at the end will change *for me* (emotionally, creatively) : e.g. if I shot digitally, or changed camera formats or sent the film to a lab instead of my own development; the photograph I received at the end would have a different value to me, though could appear identical to an alternative chain’s outcome. As it is, with my current process, I am happy with the entirety, but I am also looking to ‘add value’ . This is perhaps a never-ending, unsatisfied yearning for something more than my current lot – perhaps that is just to be human, to want to evolve and change, whilst always improving, opposing an entropic creative flatness.

      The honesty is opposite the dishonest representation of the photograph as a disembodied colouring on computer screens, hiding the real existence of that photograph as an artefact, as you put it. I am reminded of Rene Magritte ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’; the scanned/reduced jpg screenshot from a print (the photograph) that is uploaded to a website is not that photograph. Without being in the room and holding the print in your hands, you cannot know it. My attempt at honesty is to show that photographic print itself, as a best proxy for what it is.

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