More on the zone system

If you enjoyed my post on the zone system you may be interested in this. I’ve written a longer version for the Intrepid Camera Company, which includes some practical exercises. You can click on the Tweet above, or the button below.

SP-445 Film Processing System

I have a new review over at It's of the excellent SP-445 sheet film processing tank:

The art historian under the dark cloth

The other day I came across my copy of T.J. Clark’s book Farewell to An Idea. It is a splendid work of art history, one that positively crackles with the most detailed and painstaking descriptions of Modernist artworks. As I flipped through the book, I remembered in particular the passages on Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Looking back, I had read and re-read these passages, almost as one might enjoy a novel.

Clark is an intellectual heavyweight in the old manner. He set up a masters degree in the 1970s called the Social History of Art, dedicated to a Marxist approach to art history. I studied on that programme in the late 1990s, under the tuition of Jasper Johns expert Fred Orton, amongst others. While Clark’s book is hardly light reading, it does repay the hard work it demands of the reader.

Now, I write that Clark’s descriptions stand out, but it isn’t just that these are careful and rigorous, which they are. There’s something more. They are object lessons in how to read a work of art. Clark makes every effort to convey the richness of the works he grapples with; it becomes a time consuming process of looking and looking again, a process that demands equal care with writing. The writing is not an afterthought, a means to an end in the descriptive enterprise, but a poetical analogue of the condition of paying close attention. This is perfectly in line with Clark and his ilk, who believe that canonical works of art repay that kind of close treatment. Unlike so many art historians though, Clark has learnt the figurative and rhetorical potential of his prose, and I can’t help feeling that his search for the ‘right’ phrase (a mirage of course) is a figure for our search for meaning in the painted and other material forms.

As is the tradition in so many of these blog posts, I make a recommendation to the photographer. Spend some time with Clark (or a Clark equivalent) and see how he describes the artwork. Think about how such a careful approach might be applied to a photograph - a canonical one, of course, but perhaps yours or a friends, too. Photography is so often a descriptive business. I’ve written on these pages before that there is much to learn from carefully looking at the work of others, and an analysis of composition, tone, mood, and so forth is the nuts and bolts work to be done.

This not only helps us to appreciate the finished image, but sharpens our skills of looking and in turn informs our visualisation. Indeed, as I continue to grapple with learning large format photography, I’m struck by how that format offers up a picture to be read right at the start. Under the dark cloth one has time to survey the flickering camera obscura image as if it were the final print. The Clark pacing to and fro in front of Pollock’s paintings in MOMA would be a wonderful mental guide to critical and rigorous decision making at the time of exposure. I can envisage him asking us to trace a line here, shift a little there, re-think depth of field, interpret a tonal shift. You would be right in thinking that this is not unlike the procedures recommended to us by experts like Ansel Adams, but the point here is that our resources stretch much further than the discipline of photography alone. And there are riches out there indeed. 

What's special about a film portrait?

The other day I came across a photographer wrestling with the task of capturing his daughter on large format film. He declared, with some modesty given the skill he showed in his images, his attempts a failure. I got the sense he would triumph, however, his declaration being at any rate interim in nature.

Large format photographers are not strangers to difficulty (their medium certainly brings its challenges) nor are they afraid to pursue highly individual whims and visions. It would be easy to dismiss this gentleman as a maverick, and to retire with a sigh, saying something like ‘wrong kit friend, try 35mm and continuous focus for better results’.

Yet an essential part of this photographer’s vision, the look he desires, is 5x4 film. It is a very particular look. And film. Something I fully appreciate in the endeavour is the idea of committing a person’s, nay a loved one’s, visage to film.

So in mulling this over, I set myself the task of expressing what exactly it is that makes a film portrait special. The obvious comparison is with digital, so why choose film instead? The answer I have so far come up with may be no more than a kind of illusion, a piece of analogue nostalgia in an increasingly digital time, a fool’s gold of image making.

When I think of my own film portraits, I think of the silver gelatin crystals in the negative that have reacted to the light that emanated from the subject. Physical stuff, now tiny grains, that make up an image. A person, etched in a transparent medium that becomes, through the further action of light, a physical photograph to hold in wonderment. When the negative (or the photograph) is in my hand, I hold a token of a causal connection to the being who was once before the camera. I believe semiologists call this kind of relationship between sign and thing represented ‘indexical’. Like footprints in the snow signalling someone’s presence.

Now, digital is of course no less physical than film, hence my talk of fool’s gold. Yet the physicality of digital is, well, just not very physical. Many others have pointed out that images on memory cards and folders on computers are ephemeral. Negatives and prints, by contrast, support the romance of the imagined connection to a person that a portrait fosters. Like a Proustian smell, they are evocative and sensory, and nurture memories. The negative in my fingers is like a little light trap; a special light that really came, indexically, from the person caught within.

My ruminations don’t address the ‘look’ of film as a factor, but I think this isn’t the best place to look for distinctions, at least not on its own. I use and enjoy film simulation presets on my digital shots. These go a long way to imitating film (although not the whole way, for further technical reasons involving focal lengths and formats, old lenses and so on). It is not (just) the look of film that makes it special. It is that and the gravitas of the physical light trap of which I write. Digital pictures image people; film ones bear their imprint.