Thursday, May 26, 2016

Blogging for Thor: Writing in the Dark

Skotograph by Madge Donohoe, 1920s-30s.
What should I blog about, Spiders? I ask myself this every week that I haven't got an on-going experiment or process that I'm fiddling with. Earlier today, I was considering a post about lumen prints made primarily with opaque objects, like fruits and vegetables. The primary exposing agent in such a case would be the chemical interaction between the photo paper and the bio-matter, not light. Light might expose the uncovered areas of the paper, but anything that happened on the covered areas would be explicitly chemical. That's interesting to me, since it's photography without light. That should be impossible, right? Photography without light is... what? Chemistry? Chemography? Or... Skotography?

I looked up what the Greek root-word for "darkness" would be. Skotos, it turns out. Then, I had to wonder if 'skotography' is a word? Yes. Yes, it is. It's two words!

Scotography (another way to spell the same word, because going from one alphabet to another is a bit flexible) is the medical practice of using non-visible wavelengths of radiation to create images. X-Ray photography is, therefor, scotography.

There's also Skotography, which was a spiritualist practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The idea was that, in darkness, spirits could project energy onto photographic material and produce images. Skotography was the high-tech version of a seance, or table-rapping. Treating photography as magic has a long history, about as long as the history of photography itself. Today we have 'aura photography' or Kirlian photography. And ghost-hunters that use their cameras to image the supernatural. And, there are, of course, still people who believe in skotography.

People are weird, but the few supposed skotographs I've found are actually fairly interesting in appearance. There's even a French artist who is doing a modern project inspired by the work of Madge Donohoe, a popular skotographer during the 20's and 30's.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Cameras and Caramel

Caramelized sugar, the product of thermal decomposition. SCIENCE!
Today I came across an absolutely awesome blog: Serious Eats. They are serious about cooking, as they should be. It's serious stuff. Even though my MFA thesis project is created with food, it does seem odd to feature a cooking blog on a photography blog, doesn't it? No. It doesn't. Shut up, Spiders.

One of my oldest friends shared an article from Serious Eats: How to Make Rich, Flavorful Caramel Without Melting Sugar. And it's everything I love. It's food, it's science, it's kitchen-friendly, and it's easy! I was so excited after reading this article, that I had to share it with everyone. All my friends, my Instagram followers, and you, my lovely Spiders. It seemed, though, that most people were not as blown away as I was. So, I'm going to explain why this article is amazing.

It's the science of an ordinary process (caramelization) being dissected, studied, and used to make something far more amazing than you could manage without understanding what is really happening. It's about not being satisfied with the surface, and digging deeper into the mechanics so that you can really take control of a situation.

The writers at Serious Eats are, like Alton Brown, showing that cooking is all about chemistry and physics. There's another article where one of the writers goes in-depth explaining why bleached flour has its place and why, in fact, the bleaching is entirely useful. It's sometimes essential to use bleached flour. Until reading it, I assumed that bleaching flour was just an aesthetic concern. It isn't! It causes important chemical changes in the flour that give flour new capabilities.

How is this all relevant to photography? It's relevant because all photographers should ground their practice in a thorough understanding of how their tools work. If you don't understand the physical processes involved in photography, you're not going to be able to exploit them properly. You won't be able to end-run around problems, or bend the mechanics to your advantage.

Take something simple like a lens flare. If you understand why and how lens flares happen, its easy to avoid them when you don't want them, and control them more precisely if you do want them.

...Oh, and I'm absolutely going to try burying a sheet of photo paper under a layer of sugar, caramelizing the sugar, and seeing what the resulting chemigram looks like. I will not eat the caramel sugar produced, because it will probably absorb some nasty chemicals from the photo paper. I do have high hopes for this idea, though!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Blogging for Freya: Beyond Beginnings

Three Cheeses – Digital Scan
I find the obsession with original prints a little odd for photographers. Recently, as part of my graduate school program, I had a year end review of my current thesis project. I make lumen chemigrams which are inherently unstable, and can't be chemically fixed without altering their appearance. So, for the images to be viewed later, they have to be digitally imaged and reproduced. The "original image" is transitory, because even if stored in a dark environment, the prints continue to develop and change due to chemical residue from the food used to create them. The digital image is the "final print" because the physical print is a dynamic event. So why are people hung up on wanting to see that print, not the digital version?

In every understandable way, the digital image is the photograph. It's the final print. The original, food-covered paper, is not really a 'print' at all. It's my subject for a photographic image. It's not actually a photographic print in any useful way, since it can't be viewed in its "actual" state for more than a few minutes. It's not much different from a sand mandala or water calligraphy. If you're there when it happens, you can see it. Otherwise, the only way to experience it is through a photographic reproduction.

And yet, repeatedly, the panel of reviewers were upset that they couldn't see the "original" prints. They made the assumption that the original prints must have more depth, more texture, more dimension, richer colors... but they don't. Honestly. I've seen them, I work with them, I scan them. In almost all the cases, there's no visual information in the "original" that isn't in the photographic reproduction. The only significant difference is that the paper surface of the "original" might have a different texture, tooth or reflectivity than the digital print. 

But, dang, the reviewers were fixated on the idea of seeing the "original". I was even accused of teasing the viewers by 'dangling' the idea that there was an original print at all. You need to know that there is a subject print, to understand what's happening and what I'm doing, but you don't need to see that subject print. Generally because, by the time I've finished everything and am presenting the work to an audience, those subject prints are no longer anything like the image you're seeing. They've lost contrast, lost color, sometimes completely decayed into dull swirls of brown and grey. They're not interesting anymore.

This odd fixation on the idea that there is some inherent merit in the "original" print just because it is original is so strange to be. Photography is all about reproduction. It's all about making an aesthetic choice to capture a single moment of some event and present it to others, far removed in time. If you're going to demand to see the "origin" of any photographic image, aren't you questioning the very reason that photography exists?