The Photograph: Memento Mori and the death of photography

•August 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Departure (2013)

I am grappling with trying to lock down the Phd at the moment. Through the Phd I wish to gain a better understanding of my work progresses and the themes that I have been exploring through through my photography. Everything always seems to lead back to the bombing of Hiroshima and the images that my father brought back after serving in Hiroshima with the BCOF in 1946. Those potent images, the before and after, life and death, there is but a glance, a fleeting second that separates the two. In a flash, people were obliterated, lives were permanently erased and in some cases all that was left was a shadow. The bomb was like a giant flash that etched the the traces of life onto the footpaths and buildings of Hiroshima.

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Souvenir Photograph from Hiroshima, Japan. c. 1946.

So how do I make sense of these images now and what is the connection between these before and after photographs that depict the destruction of Hiroshima and the loss of so many lives? For me, I believe that my relationship with photography, and in particular the photograph is about life and death. But is the moment of taking the photograph about capturing traces of life, or is the photograph a memento-mori, a physical artefact that reminds us of our pending and eventual death?

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Order of Magnitude (2007)

In hindsight, my experiments with digital photography have been about trying to suggest a physicality where there perhaps is none. The Order of Magnitude (2007) images  (see above) were all about pulling back the skin of the digital image to reveal the pixelated flesh, to allude to a body instead of the neutral binary code that lies at the heart of the digital image. After working in analogue photography for most of my life, I understand that what draws me to the medium is the physicality of the process and the resulting photograph. For me, the photograph is the memento-mori, it signifies the passing of a moment in time that is gone forever. Each photograph a loss,  a tiny death, a reminder that one day we too will die. Just like our bodies, the photographic artefact ages, it’s surface growing more jaundiced with time, its paper wrinkled and the image slowly fading as the the chemicals that breathed life into the image become fatigued over time.

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Debris (2008)

So where do my images fit in here and what do I think I am trying to say through my photographs? I sometimes think that my photographs are like the moment in-between the ‘before and after’ images of Hiroshima. Perhaps for a micro-second there is a moment when both states are merged, where time is in a state of limbo, neither ‘before or after’. But after thinking more about the nature of my photographic work, I believe that much of my practice is centred around time and the lived experience. I suggest that my photographic work has a focus on the ‘indecisive moment’, the images allude to temporal shifts, making it difficult for the viewer to locate the image in a particle historical time. Past, present and future may occupy the same space in the frame, for my intention is not merely to use the photographic image as a tool to create a dialogue about the here and now, the photograph is also a signifier to pose questions about the lived experience, where we have come from and where we are going. Beyond an attempt to capture traces of the referent, I wish to use the   photographic image as a wunderkamer to illicit emotional and/or affective responses from the viewer. My attempts to degrade or blur the surface of my images are not simply trickery or cheap visual devices to allude to a past moment, these interventions are introducing ambiguity, to remind the viewer that in the blink of an eye all could be erased, that underneath the surface the erosion  has already begun and like the photograph we will also one day fade with time.

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Recovery (2005)

My self-portraits captured during my 2 year recovery from a major illness are a visual dialogue about the nature of the recovery process and a reminder of the fragile nature of life. This may all sound a bit dramatic, but for me, I have long thought about the indifference of time and the fleeting nature of our time on the planet. I often look for evidence of others who have been and gone and I am aware that I am part of continuity, that I will also come and go, and that somehow my images might also act as a catalyst to generate illicit similar thoughts and feelings in others that view my photographs.

My recent photographic works have employed the use of heritage media tools and strategies to explore the notion of an aesthetic that can be used to convey my the ideas that are driving my photographic practice.. I am starting to my photographic work is very much about mortality.

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The Camera as Architecture: Re-imagining the camera as a sculpture.

•August 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Camera Obscura, 1096 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco
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amera Obscura, San Francisco.

I have been recently thinking about the camera and my relationship with place. As I move through places with a camera looking for things to photograph I am beginning to think that it is the camera itself that is a major part of this Phd journey. I have experimented with the pinhole camera and camera obscuras, but the next step is to explore the camera obscura further via the production of images captured in a variety of buildings. Eventually I plan to build walk-in cameras, but for the moment I will transform rooms in everyday houses and commercial buildings into a camera where I will produce video and still images. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but the work is telling me to push in this direction, to make the camera the viewer and to see what the camera saw, to be inside the camera. I am particularly interested in how the camera might sit within the landscape as both imaging device, dwelling and sculpture.

I am in search of the past in the present, or is it a case of searching for something lost, an auratic presence of a past long gone? A world of machines and tactile experiences that is vanishing like the ruins of an ancient civilization. Could it be that certain places are ‘loaded’ or ‘charged’ by the events and people that have passed through or inhabited the space? Can that energy or ‘sense of the moment’ be fixed within the frame of an image, trapping it like fruit in gelatine?
Or is it the act of transforming buildings into cameras that will enable to see (photographically), the traces of the past?

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I am currently looking at the work of Edgar Lissel who works exclusively with pinhole cameras and heritage media. You may also like to read Edgar Lisel: Picture Rooms. I am also investigating the work of Abelardo Morell (see above) whose photographic practice is centred around transforming rooms into  camera obscuras that mesh both the interior and exterior worlds.

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Another interesting interpretation of pinhole photography can be seen in the work of Stephen Berkman who explores the world of pre-chemical photography.

Ms. Yekaterinburgh: Camera Obscura Dress Tent from Robin Lasser on Vimeo.

Other works of interest include Ms. Russia: Camera Obscura Dress Tent at City Hall, San Jose, USA and Church On The Blood, Yekaterinburg, Russia,
Robin Lasser + Adrienne Pao.

Looking for a Sign: Flirting with nostalgia and semiotics.

•July 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I recently went back to Aspendale to retrace my steps from the last visit. My Mamiya C220 twin lens reflex camera is in need of a service so this time I took along a DSLR with a decent zoom lens. It must be said that I much prefer to work in square format, infact the world seems to make no sense at all to me when its framed in a rectangle. The purpose of this recent field trip was to document the area I grew up in and start to look for connections and ideas to expand upon in my Phd research.

The results of my walk were interesting in many ways. Flirting with nostalgia, I took time to walk along the old back track from Mordialloc railway station and through to my old family home. The old railway bridge across Mordialloc Creek is long gone, and in it’s place a concrete bridge, but the old timber bridge was knocked down when I was a child. I can still remember how the the old timber sleepers would rattle when a train crossed the bridge, a jingle jangle that served as a reminder of the many components that held the bridge together. I took a quick look under the bridge and I was surprised to find an old armchair there, a sign that someone had been occupying the space.

armchair under bridge

The paddocks behind the houses in Aspendale had been flooded to create a kind of lake. The paddocks were on the creek bed, so perhaps it was time that the area was reclaimed and used for for wildlife rather than an extension of the industrial estates and suburbia that was slowly encroaching upon the last of the remaining disused land. I stood under the bridge on Wells Road for a while and listened to the sound of the cars crossing overhead. The drone of traffic echoed through the concrete pillars as I photographed (see below) the secret world that exhausted underneath the road bridge. As I continued to walk I became aware that the area was a kind of ‘non-place’ (Auge) that people would occasionally pass through whilst walking their dogs or on the way to the local shops.

42 Gale mailbox 42 Gale street

I was quite shocked to see that the house that Mum and Dad built is now in a poor state, the front garden cluttered with old motor vehicles and a boat. I’m not even sure if anyone lives there anymore. As I walked the streets, I looked for photographs, but no matter what I snapped it seemed that what I was looking for failed to materialise as an image in the camera. How does one go about capturing historical time in the present? I am starting to think that it’s a figment of my imagination, or is it that I am yet to find the right combination of place and technology, or am I simply expecting too much of the photograph?

Barthes suggests the “every photograph is a certificate of presence” (2000, p.87) and I think that in order to work through my project I need to understand place through the lens, to be able to track my journey via the photographs I have taken, to see the world photographically rather than just through the lens of my personal memory. The places in the photographs, my memory and what I see with my eyes seem to have very little in common. Working with the digital camera this time, I felt hampered by what I perceive to be the shortfalls of this technology, such as algorithms that bump up colour saturation and contrast, limited dynamic range and an overall flatness and lack of depth in the images when compared to film based photograph. Anyway, I can’t blame the tools but I generally didn’t feel very inspired using a DSLR and I much prefer to use my trusty steed, the Mamiya C220 twin lens reflex camera.

So what did I glean from my recent visit to Aspendale? I need to keep photographing but experiment more with heritage media and alternative processing techniques. What I am looking for has a connection to the process, it is linked to the actual construction of an artefact. It’s back to the books and regular photography sojourns to suburbs around Melbourne. I really need to lock down what I am looking for and what technology will best allow me to capture and communicate that vision.

Below is a sample of some of the photographs. All were shot on a Canon DSLR but I have cropped the bulk of the images into a square format to get an idea of how these shots might look captured on my square format camera. Looking at these images it is clear that many more photographs need to be taken and a lot more reading is needed,  but theses images play an important role as visual experiments at this stage of my Phd research.

Reference

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida, Vintage, London.

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Photographing the past in the present.

•June 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Signs

The relationship between time and the photographic image is a key part of my Phd project,
and its fair to say that discussions around temporality are unavoidable when looking at
ways to capture a sense of the past in the present. Apart from the obvious use of a
Black & White photograph to allude to the past, I am often find myself wondering what
techniques I can employ to communicate my belief that that the past and present co-exist
in the one moment.

On a recent trip I went back to Aspendale, a beachside suburb I grew up in and where
I spent my childhood. There were many sunny summer days spent lying on the beach
and lazy walks home along the hot concrete footpaths. It has been years since I was
last in Aspendale and the prospect of photographing it and the surrounding suburbs
seemed a little daunting at first, but as I walked around the memories came flooding
back and I just photographed anything that I felt compelled to capture on my old
Mamiya 220 twins lens reflex camera. Unfortunately, it turns out that the camera
is in need of a service or that I need a new portable light meter, as many of the images
were very underexposed, and yet some images in the same location had correct exposures.
The camera will need to go in for a service, so now its time to look through the images.
I am shooting on Fuji chrome, so I put the transparencies on a lightbox and took some
photographs with my smartphone. Some of the images have colour casts, so its important
to
note that these images are being used for simply looking for interesting ideas that might
be emerging from the photographs.

Beach1 Beach2 Beach3 Boat1   ShopSunday School1 Sunday School2

Artists I met and liked….

•May 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I have a little yellow notebook that was given to me by a friend. On its hardback cover is the simple sentence ARTISTS I MET AND LIKED it. And even though I have met and liked artists, for me the book is a place to jot down thoughts about my own creative practice.

I just got back from Canberra where I was doing a 5 day intensive workshop on ‘writing about practice’. The objective of the workshop was to help post-graduate students to find their voice, so that they are better equipped to write their exegesis. The short duration of the workshop means that you really have little time to over think things, and this is a good strategy for people such as myself who tend to be overly self critical. So, my little yellow book got a good workout over the week and this has helped me to really get down to the nitty gritty of my Phd and hopefully to start moving forward on producing some work.

As Martyn, my supervisor, said to me “less yappin, more snappin”. And he is right of course because nothing gets made by simply thinking about it. So the next stage of the Phd
begins, and I have thought a lot about the direction, infact I have probably thought too much about the nature of my work and need to whittle down the plethora of themes I have listed in my little yellow book. I took some photographs whilst in Canberra, nothing in particular and nothing special but sometimes you just need to get snappin and see what ideas start to emerge.

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So quite a few themes to explore and a few solid ideas emerging from a playful session with the digital camera. I have always liked the vapour trails expelled from aircraft, thick white lines that cut through the sky. I am working on a series of photographs which are very simple compositions which document these lines, as well as some image that play with the idea of light and darkness.. The physical work of Mike Parr and the energy inherent in te paintings of Francis Bacon offers some very interesting points of investigation. I think you really need to try out a lot of ideas in order to find a subject matter that can support a Phd exegesis and a large body of work.

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Pinhole Postcards

•February 5, 2013 • 1 Comment

Today I spent the afternoon walking around Canberra. It’s difficult to recognise
many of the locations I photographed with the pinhole camera. Unfortunately,
many of the photo paper negatives were overexposed. I carried out tests yesterday,
but I had not factored in that I had been in a relatively sheltered location in late
afternoon, whereas today I was in full sun. What I had thought would be a ideal
exposure time of 10 seconds was far too long, an exposure time of 5 seconds would
have produced a better quality photo paper negative. Oh well, you learn by your
mistakes and I will try to be more aware of the light quality in the future.

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The size of the pinhole in the camera I made is perhaps too large, so I think if
I stick with exploring the pinhole camera a little longer I will use a much finer
pinhole to get slower exposure times and a slightly sharper image.

The photographs below were taken at the same location. One was taken
with a pinhole camera and the other with a camera-phone. The photos
enable the viewer to see the visual effect of the pinhole camera (analogue)
in comparison to a digital imaging device.


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Photographic Distortions

•February 4, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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Today I produced a series of pinhole camera photographs. I am very interested in
pushing the mediums of analogue and digital to produce abstractions or effects
that remove information rather than add detail. This is about the erasure of detail,
the creation of gaps to loosen the image, to create images that slip and slide.

In all of the images, the effects have been achieved in camera, rather than
through the use of photoshop. I am looking for ways to manipulate through
natural means to create unusual perspectives and abstractions.

The Pinhole Photographs

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pinhole_landscape1 pinhole_portrait3

There is still a great deal of work to be done and it’s still not clear if the still or
the moving image presents more opportunities for experimentation.
It’s been a long time since I was in a darkroom and I can’t help but feel
that I should be working in colour rather than producing black & white images.
After a meeting with my Phd supervisor the other day, one thing stood out,
a factor that has influenced the production of a lot of my photographs.
My Phd supervisor commented that many of my images were about the
‘before and after’, that there was often an element of transformation
or a sense that time had passed.

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This observation makes a lot of sense, some of the very first images I ever saw
were souvenir photographs of the bombing of Hiroshima featuring before and
after transformations on many of the photographs. In an old shoebox, the
photographs of Hiroshima were mixed amongst photographs of family.

The people and places in the images always seemed so distant, the ageing skin
of the image told me that the pictures belong to a time outside of my own,
yet the images were charged with a power, they vibrated with an energy that
was somehow captured through the lens of the camera. A moment in time
that had not lost its potency through the act of mechanical reproduction.

The mobile phone also presents opportunities for experimentation. I have previously
explored the potential of low-res images (Order of Magnitude Photographs) and I
still believe that early model camera-phones can be used to for testing out ideas and
creating a wide range of effects. Not all camera-phones are the same, and early models
vary in their colour palette and image quality.

Mobile Photographs

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Image

I am currently using a Nokia N95, which often produces muted colours
which I find works particularly well for the types of images I like to
make. There is something almost primitive about this transformative
digital technology, it’s like using a box brownie to take an image.
I like the simplicity of use which frees me up to concentrate on the
subject of my photograph. It’s size means I am more like to be playful,
try new angles and different ways of composing an image.

I’m not sure what all this playing with basic cameras means, but for the
moment I will continue to make images and consider how elements of the
process and aesthetic may have potential value for both my Phd research
and creative practice.