photography

Film, Digital, and Paradoxical Simplicity

One of the allures of film is that in its relative simplicity, there is supposed to be some tighter connection between the scene before the camera and the recorded image. The lens impartially draws on the film, and that’s it (not really, but let’s pretend). This stands in stark contrast to the computational photography creeping steadily into digital capture, particularly in the case of phones. All sorts of digital magic goes on behind the scenes: compositing images, automatic "best" selection, massive distortion correction, post-process background blur. It’s all very complicated, and if you’re of a certain mindset, it reduces the authenticity of the final image. The traditional camera, by contrast, is supposed to be more like a human eye, with its organic lens focusing light onto a retinal film and none of this digital trickery. What could be more perfect, more true, than the very organs with which we see? Would that it were so simple.

Things were simpler, better, before.

Things were simpler, better, before.

The dichotomy that sets the purity of film photography against the artifice of digital capture overlooks the fact that vision itself is a tremendously elaborate and notoriously unreliable example of computational imaging. What we “see” is disturbingly detached from the photons that hit our retinas (retinae?). It's dependent on the way our brains put together flickering nerve impulses as the eyeball saccades around the scene and melds multiple moments with preconceived schemas to form an illusion of continuous, coherent vision.

Consider the classic Harvard study in which subjects watched a video of people passing balls around. As they carefully tracked a ball, half the participants failed to notice the man in a gorilla suit who sauntered across the screen. So much for the reliable fidelity of our built-in cameras.

So the human eye is more an eye-Phone than a classic L-eye-ca (oh yes, I did that). But maybe it's film's divergence from the eye rather than any parallels that justifies our attachment to the impractical and antiquated. Human vision is complex and unreliable. Much like a smartphone, much like the world. And digital photography, which is as much about computers as optics, suffers from the fundamental opacity common to so much modern technology: nobody understands it.

No single body, I mean. As a product of humans, of course “we” understand it. But consider the thousands of minds, the millions of lines of proprietary code, that go into a smartphone. Could any one human really know, end to end, how the thing works? Of course, most people (myself included) don’t fully understand all the optical principles of a multi-element lens or the chemistry of light-sensitive emulsion, but we intuit that with some reading, a substantial but totally human amount of effort, we could. And this lets us feel more in tune with the technology, more aligned with it as we use it. It’s a tool, like a sharp stick, not magic. Magic, despite its appeal, has a dark side. They burned witches, you know. And they burned David Copperfield. Or if they haven’t yet, David, you better watch your back.

Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Perhaps it's digital technology's transformation into a subjective, active partner in image making that's freshened analog photography's appeal. Digital, having largely achieved the goal of total fidelity that photography has aspired to since its inception, is now trying to out-think us. We want what we remember, or wish we remembered, whether it was there or not. This is how human vision and memory already work, after all -- the perpetual golden hour light of childhood afternoons half-cribbed from old movies, the moment when everyone laughed that never actually happened.

And to some extent, this is what all photography does. The moment of family bliss caught in the frame is what carries forward across the years: the sulking and hair-pulling that bracketed it are allowed to fade. But film, when you understand it, feels more dutiful, more reliable, perhaps more beautiful, with its opto-mechano-chemical process that affords no judgement in the moment. Once the shutter is tripped, a chain of events rooted in the physical world leads to an image hiding in the film emulsion, waiting for developer. It's magic, but it's a small, predictable magic. Nothing you're likely to burn for.    

Paris Photo 2016 Show Report

“Would you rather stew over the fraying of western democracy or soak in a deep pool of fine art photography?” And so I found myself at Paris Photo last week.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

Paris Photo is both a trade show and an art expo. It’s advertised in the metro, on the street, where the unwashed masses can catch wind of it and subsequently attend in an effort to better themselves. But the show’s true raison d’etre is getting galleries together in one place to facilitate the Monopoly-money economics of the fine art world. There are presumably collectors prowling around, collecting, though they are not immediately identifiable. I assume the galleries do some horse trading among themselves as well. Prints are sold for 5,000 or 15,000 or 50,000 euros. You see a lot of bottles of champagne opened: commerce at this scale is thirsty work. This kind of transaction usually happens in rooms where the hoi palloi never tread, so there’s a voyeuristic thrill to be had in rubbing up against it while wearing pants from Old Navy.

Apart from its sheer size and total lack of curatorial unity, this is what sets Paris Photo apart from a museum show: you can stand right next to the great pounding pistons of the machine, tucking in any loose clothing to avoid mangling accident. The hood is off, you feel the thrum of it, see the teeth of gears meshing implacably, shining and smiling hard in the bright daylight-balanced illumination. You hear the ecstatic greetings of near strangers, witness the carefully presented facades of clothes and faces, the leaning close, the parted lips, the excitement of acquisition and being acquired. You sense the invisible flows of currency coursing through the veins and arteries of the show, the fuel that drives this engine for transmuting art into investment.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

I go, not to increase the size of my collection of fine art (which contains not a single object or print, excepting my own), but to bask, to marinate, to steep myself in photography, potentially of excellent quality, and certainly of excellent print quality, especially if you like big prints. There is always art, real art, that resonates in the cockles and subcockles of my heart, shown at Paris Photo. A lot of it is canon, some of it is still damp from the womb, blinking in the bright light, untested.

The photographs hang naked on the freshly erected pre-fab walls, as honest and true as the artists that made them. That is, presumably, of greatly variable honesty and truth. There’s always a fair amount of stuff that does absolutely nothing for me, that I suspect, thought don’t quite have the courage to call out specifically in print, is dross of the most empty and cynical order. I strain to credit my own laziness, my closeted philistinism, for this interpretation, because it is depressing, enraging, to consider that in fact the gatekeepers and taste makers don’t know the difference, or more likely, know but don’t care, that their consideration of the bottom line outweighs all other considerations. If this is the case (and how, in this world, could it not be, at least often?) then I assume the buyers are complicit, more concerned with appreciating investments than appreciating art.

My frustration with the ratio of truth to trash at Paris Photo is offset by my secret delight in the worst work, which allows me to revel in a sense of superiority as I compare it to my own, ignoring for the moment that I am on the outside looking in, that I face the walls rather than face out at thousands of considering, judging eyes. These pieces allow me to indulge in that eternal fantasy of the unappreciated artist: that my work, as easily as some of this stuff, could be anointed, if only I were willing to play the game, dance with the vulpine elegance of gallerists, pander to fashion, etc.

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

Not all of the attendees with artistic aspirations are likely to be so bitter. A disproportionate number are photography students, dutifully toting heavy film cameras and notepads in which they scribble discerningly. I drift through them, vampirically savoring their youthful enthusiasm, stopping up my impulse to condescend, noticing how well their jeans fit. I never speak to them, would not spill the black ink of my cynicism on their clean white pages (they are almost always white). I imagine that they imagine themselves on those walls, that they are taking aim, carefully ignoring statistics, the preponderance of work by photographers who died before they themselves were born, the recurrence of certain names further slimming the room for new entrants. But as with the army of tiny fresh-hatched sea turtles blitzing the beach beneath the wheeling hungry gulls, some tiny percentage will make it. Under such withering fire, luck will play its role alongside ability. Such is the design of things.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

Despite the nose-bleed elitism that drives Paris Photo, the event also embodies a wholesome democracy. A print that sells for more than a house reflects the same light into my eyes as it would into those of a collector with an exotic credit card. The galleries have staked their claim, merged money and mouth: this is what we have selected, what we think is best. And anyone can praise or piss on their selection (anyone with a disposable 30 euros and a free afternoon, anyway). For a few short days a year, the cards are all on the table. Then they’re folded back into dark, deep pockets.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Anyway, this year I saw some cool photography, familiar and not. I might mention it in another post. Also, a lot of people were carrying neat old cameras, which was fun to see. You’d think film never went out of style. BMW is still a sponsor, and JP Morgan attached its name and apparently lent out some photographs from its collection. Money and cars: the link to photography is oblique, but I believe it is there. Leica had a little pavilion where I saw the new TL, mated absurdly to the already absurd new-old 28mm Summaron. In its glass case under LED spotlighting, perhaps bathed in an inert argon atmosphere, the TL looked impossibly clean, too pristine for this world. I did not particularly yearn to profane it with my touch: it seemed distant, an idol once worshiped by a long-disappeared alien race.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.