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Thread: Authenticity and self-constraints in Hybrid Processes

  1. #1
    500+ Posts Ned.Lewis's Avatar
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    Authenticity and self-constraints in Hybrid Processes

    Not sure if this is the right forum, but a few thoughts have turned into a sort of rambling essay. I think scanning paper negatives fits into "Non-conventional" on F295.

    I'm preparing to share at F295 about a process I call “over/under” and while getting it together I realized that I impose some “authenticity” constraints on myself that are artificial. For me it would feel like “cheating” somehow if I veered away from these, yet some of them don't make much rational sense. I wonder how we come to make these boundaries within ourselves? I'll give some examples of what I mean. The recent forum post about dwindling activity here also made me think a little about why I appreciate F295, so that's mixed in as well.

    One of the reasons I like F295 is that there isn't a zealous definition of pure authentic and valid art. We see and appreciate everything from digital pinholes and hybrid processes all the way to salt prints or anthotypes and everything in between. The creativity is wide open, with an underlying theme of alternative, lensless, unconventional or historic that ties everything together nicely. Somehow F295 seems to avoid the digital vs. film kind of tensions. This post is about how “authenticity” and hybrid processes get mixed up and muddled. I don't think many here would bat an eye at using a digital negative to get the the right scale for an antique printing process.

    I gave my daughter a digital camera when she was around 7 years old and some of her results blew me away. It made me understand that preconceived notions and inculcated ideas are deeply stifling. I know part of it was the “child's viewpoint of the world” but a lot of it must have come from not having a set idea of what a photograph should be. Talk about “real” and “authentic”.

    Again it happened when she was older and we played with lumen prints and the scanned images in The Gimp. I had a preconceived idea of trying to make the digital image as close to the physical image as possible. She was under no such restraints and thought nothing of changing the colors and playing with all the possibilities. Some of the digital images she made starting from our scans were magical.

    There is one photographer whose work I follow and admire. He always posts his photos as “unaltered negative scans”. To me they look a little flat and I often think a straight contact print ( by which I mean no dodging or burning, another litmus test! ) on a higher grade paper would look nice. I'm sure he must think by not touching the result of his scanner he is being authentic or honest. But the scanner itself is choosing the white and black points and the gamma, and I have a hard time understanding how the default settings of some scanner are more “authentic” than settings which would give a deeper black or a little more overall contrast. I guess it is like choosing “minimum time to maximum black” for a proof sheet, but there's nothing that says you can't use grade 3 paper! Nevertheless I am sympathetic to his mindset, and if he wants to have that self-imposed discipline, it's not my concern and I even admire him for sticking to it. There is also something subtle here: by looking at the “flat” negative scan, it forces me to think about how I'd print it and what that print might look like.

    I've seen photographs of the Moonrise Hernandez negative. Whatever you think of it, it is certainly a famous photograph. The negative is very low contrast. All would be lost if we restricted our notion of it to an accurate representation of the negative. Yet I've heard that some calotype exhibits only show the mounted original negative, since a contact print somehow takes us too far from the “original”. And I've seen pictures of some gorgeous calotype negatives, so I can understand how this might be true! In the end there is no single purpose, no single goal, but only what we desire to create. I think f295 encompasses all our possibilities this way.

    Where is this all leading? I do a lot with paper negatives and a scanner. Contact prints are wonderful and in some way more satisfying at a gut level, but there are plenty of times that I make scans of paper negatives. I have some self-imposed rules: for a photographic paper negative, I'll invert the colors and adjust the levels, and flip the image horizontally so it is oriented like a real print. But I never do much more than that. I never alter the colors after inverting.

    For solargraphs, I make two layers with the colors “authentically” inverted and then I “equalize” the colors on one of them. The final result is made by varying the opacity and combining these two layers in whatever way I find most pleasing. The colors remain the truly inverted colors, but the range and scale of hues has been altered a lot. I find this level of adjustment to still be acceptable and honest, but I guarantee that my daughter would have no qualms about changing the colors and everything else much more dramatically!

    With a scanned silver gelatin print, I try to make the digital version look as much like the one in hand as I can, and that almost always means that I have to adjust the colors slightly! So to match a print I'm willing to do something that seems “inauthentic” in the other contexts.

    For pinhole images, things get really strange. If it is a big negative, then it often ends up looking much sharper when it is reduced for sharing on the net. I usually like the softer “in hand” version much better. That's true for negatives and contact prints of them. I think it loses charm by becoming too sharp. But then when I scan a smaller instant film pinhole image, the image on the screen is bigger than the original, and shows more detail, and often I like it better. No rhyme or reason! Maybe for pinhole images, it's easier because the “authenticity” is so difficult to achieve that I can just “let go” and not think about it.

    I have no conclusions. I just surprise myself when I realize how many constraints I put on my own pictures. When you see my “over/under” processed pictures soon, they follow exactly the constraints I use for normal in-camera paper negatives. I inverted the colors and adjusted levels only. Strictly nothing else. My amazement at some of the resulting tones is almost comical, because I'm being amazed that these colors can come from my own self-restrained process! Someone adept at photoshop would laugh because they could make them “better”, but mine are “found” or “discovered” and not artificial and that has a kind of importance to me. I don't know if that distinction matters to anyone else. And there is no reconciling that with the admiration I have for a beautiful gum bichromate print or a beautiful painting. Not dissonant either, just different things.

    My surprise at the tones also comes from a nice serendipity, and I think that is why it appeals to me so much. When you make solargraphs or a “retina print”, there is a neat coincidence ( ?? ) that when you invert the colors, the results are somewhat lifelike. Blues become blue and greens become green. Light greens become a light tan straw color, like using a light green filter with black and white film. It doesn't work at all with oranges or browns or reds, but enough colors end up lifelike to give almost the feel of a hand colored print. Here is a pinhole paper retina print of a Macbeth color chart. You can see how the colors map. They are not exaggerated here, but you can get the idea.

    colortest.jpg

    Here is a solargraph of a lake in a forest ( on the day of an eclipse ), and it has bluish sky and water and dark greenish trees. Maybe you can see what I mean by a sense of “hand colored”. To me there is something special that these colors come directly from inverting the color on the paper, similar to inverting the colors on color negative film.

    20May2012Eclipse2tmpb.jpg

    These same patterns play out in how the warm colors on an underdeveloped paper negative invert. ( By “underdeveloped” I only mean a paper negative that is pulled before it is developed to “completion” ) The warm colors on an underdeveloped negative are remarkably similar to the colors on an undeveloped piece of photo paper left exposed until an image forms, as in a retina print or a solargraph.

    So in my personal version of “authenticity”, I include staying true to these color inversions from paper retina prints, solargraphs or paper negatives. How important or “real” that is doesn't matter so much, but I am going to try to stay aware of my self-imposed limitations and try to keep an open mind.

    I don't sit around worrying if my process is “real” or “authentic”, and I don't think about it at all when I'm busy making a picture. It's just a feeling about what keeps things connected for me. What self-imposed constraints do you have?
    Some photos: Ipernity
    ( pinholes and solargraphs mixed in among the rest)

  2. #2
    Interesting thoughts you've raised. Much of my chemical photography is paper negative-based, though I do some color print work with film cameras, pinhole or glass lensed. With my paper negatives, though I can and do contact prints onto silver paper, they're mostly scanned and processed via PC. So this means that a digital workflow is an intrinsic part of the overall process, and is also evolving over time.

    For straight paper negatives intended to be posted as positive images, I will scan, flip horizontal, invert tones, do some basic dust spotting via the clone stamp tool, and perhaps very minor brightness and contrast adjustment. The intention is for the process to mimic what I would normally do with a contact print in the darkroom. Were I to contact print a negative and then scan the print, I want the result to be very close to scanning the negative and doing the 'printing' in post. The intention is for my viewers to see what a positive 'print' of a paper negative image looks like scanned and posted online.

    So there is this underlying intentionality of a straight print derived from a paper negative that I'm trying to maintain in the process, so that by taking the shortcut of scanning and 'printing' in post, there is maintained a direct connection to the process, and results of, contact printing in the darkroom.

    As I said earlier, my process is evolving. One side road I've experimented with briefly is, instead of scanning a paper negative via flatbed scanner and PC, I will take the negative out into some environmental setting and photograph it digitally in color, within a larger setting, then back home on the PC I will invert the tones. The paper negative, which originally picks up a slight blue tint by means of reflected daylight then becomes brown toned upon inversion, while the background setting becomes altered into a digital inversion. The paper negative thus becomes the one recognizable subject in the scene, due to it now becoming a positive image, while the scene itself becomes an abstraction, often in counterpoint to the photograph's original intentions.



    I like these sorts of experimental approaches to the paper negative, where it becomes the source material for a larger process, in much the same way that a silver print can become a starting point for a hand colored work, for instance.

    Another medium I'm working with is Harman Direct Positive paper. When I present these images onto F295, I will scan them so as to appear as close as possible to viewing them in person, rather than using them as a jumping off point of a larger process. Here again is the intentionality of presenting a digital facsimile that is every bit faithful to the original, physical object of the paper print.

    In theory, nothing is keeping me from highly manipulating such direct positive prints, except that to represent them as such when in fact they've been highly manipulated is disingenuous.

    In summary, inverted paper negative scans and straight Harman Direct Positive scans are my attempt to present digitally works that are intrinsically physical to an otherwise remote audience, while the more experimental works like photographic environmental inversions of paper negatives are intended to produce a work that is intrinsically digital from source material that originated as physical paper media.

    ~Joe
    "There was just that moment and now there's this moment and in between there is nothing. Photography, in a way, is the negation of chronology."-Geoff Dyer, "The Ongoing Moment"
    My Writing Blog: Joe Van Cleave's Blog
    My Pinhole Blog: Obscure Camera
    Visit my F295 Gallery

  3. #3
    We all place constrains on what we are willing to do. I have no problem with someone taking a pinhole photo and digitally enhancing it, as long as they say it has been digitally enhanced. Personally I think that the digital technology has greatly increased the ability of the masses to utilize old technology. For instance most people don’t have access to a darkroom myself included. To add a darkroom to our house would be very expensive. However, I develop black & white film and scan it on a cheap flatbed scanner. Back in the 1980’s I had a darkroom and found the most challenging part was making prints. Creating a good digital image is easier than printing the same. The best thing about digital technology is the ability to share images with people around the world. I agree that children are much less inhibited and able to create because they don’t have a preconceived idea on what works, or, what is acceptable. Adults call it thinking outside the box.
    Visit my photos at
    pinhole http://rdungan.smugmug.com/Pinhole/P...4109&k=cVfxsqC
    black & white http://rdungan1918.deviantart.com/
    digital-color http://rdungan.smugmug.com/

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21

  4. #4
    I love your creative approaches to the digital negative. It would have never occurred to me.
    Visit my photos at
    pinhole http://rdungan.smugmug.com/Pinhole/P...4109&k=cVfxsqC
    black & white http://rdungan1918.deviantart.com/
    digital-color http://rdungan.smugmug.com/

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21

  5. #5
    500+ Posts Ned.Lewis's Avatar
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    Hi Joe and all,

    I see quite a few "self-imposed constraints" like I was thinking about in your post. You used the word "intent" and that's probably the key. We have an intention and stick to it. That leads to a similar idea, about whether the final image stands on it's own or if it matters what the photographer intended. I personally think it matters and am intrigued by Minor White and Alfred Steiglitz and "equivalents".

    I think I remember the reversed digital tree, that's neat. ( It could be the same tree.... right?? )
    The bluish daylight makes the negative look like a toned print. Something particularly nice about that!

    -Ned
    Some photos: Ipernity
    ( pinholes and solargraphs mixed in among the rest)

  6. #6
    Ned,

    Great thoughts. Yes, this was the same image I posted in the past, the same tree. Which reminds me, this last Monday I had this and its neighboring tree (they were both Arizona Cyprus trees) taken out. I had enough of the droppings, sap, pollen and bird cr@p to last one lifetime. Now I have more parking space alongside my driveway, but I'll miss the sound of the birds morning and evening (though not their droppings).

    ~Joe
    "There was just that moment and now there's this moment and in between there is nothing. Photography, in a way, is the negation of chronology."-Geoff Dyer, "The Ongoing Moment"
    My Writing Blog: Joe Van Cleave's Blog
    My Pinhole Blog: Obscure Camera
    Visit my F295 Gallery

  7. #7
    500+ Posts earlj's Avatar
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    I think that we all have stated and unstated constraints on our work. Some of the work posted on this site is less to my taste due to the amount of work that is done on the image with digital techniques. On the other hand, I agree with Ned that I see images that could use a little more work before they are displayed, and they could be so much more. More and more, though, I take less satisfaction in showing a digital image on a monitor than I do in holding a physical object in my hand. It is easy (relatively) to make a scanned negative look good on the screen. It is much less so to make a fine print. And then that print is difficult, if not impossible to display well over the internet. Perhaps this explains my less frequent submissions to this site.

    In any case, I hope that people keep making and posting interesting work here. It keeps my juices flowing.
    because:
    "a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?"
    -Don Van Vliet

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