Friday, October 4, 2013

Riding the Imaging Revolution, Part 2

Or, what I did on my summer vacation...

In May of this year I tucked the Linhof snugly into the backpack that's carried it from Switzerland in 1996 to Dan's Cabin in 2012.

Typically that was 54# of dead weight, slung to my shoulders then hauled off across wild land and/or into the broken buildings that frequently litter it. Always, the pack secured my practical purpose for being there. And served for an admirable working platform too. Flat ground or no, fair weather or foul.

Next to the Linhof I placed a Gossen Luna Pro light meter of the type I first used while shooting 16mm film, along with a proper coterie of necessary camera accessories and a factory sealed, outdated box of 20 4x5 transparencies. Everything snug as a bug in a rug, ready to be whisked off someplace exciting tomorrow.

Then I gathered all the other gear my photographic life at one time or another depended upon, carefully cleaned each piece and catalogued the lot.

A few weeks ago I sent everything off in a box to New York, to see just how few pennies on the dollar obsolescence fetches on the open market these days. At the last minute I set aside the ragged but authentic hippie camera strap from my first Nikon, what the hell.

And now for the first time in nearly 40 years, I am not a photographer.

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI. 2012  From 4x5 transparency film


It was difficult sometimes to remain focused on the initial impetus for this Odyssey, what with all the miles of discovery leading us here & there. As narratives will, this one took on a life of its own. But always, in the Artist's Statement and my basement freezer, there lurked a stinging reminder.

The last large format film I'll likely ever use was discontinued by its manufacturer a full year before I got the news. I'd run through stock on hand, went to order more for the 2011 shooting season and poof!

That same April day, I secured from trusted sources every remaining sheet in the world I could. Latest expiration date: August 2012. 300 sheets, all told. With roughly 17 months to live. And I'd never made more than maybe 150 exposures in any given year prior, largely because when each click of the shutter costs eight bucks a pop, you learn creative discretion or learn to do something else.

Bobcat Lake, Gogebic County MI. 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

A month later I was with my canoe on Bobcat Lake, in full "woe is me" mode. A freezer filled with short-dated 4x5 transparencies dragged on me like a sea anchor in a storm. There'd be no more, ever. And I'd no plan.

Air and water warmed by a hot early season, summer patterns were already in place and the splendid spring fishing I'd longed for all winter was well & truly finished by the time spring and I arrived. So even fishing sucked. That's called piling on.

Save that Bobcat is one of Earth's magic places and it heals me.

An only vaguely metaphorical light bulb flashed on over my head, like in a retro cartoon. I probably didn't slap my own forehead in response, but may have said aloud:

"Social media, dummy." 

It was an epiphany. Or as close to one of those as I'm likely to come at this relatively late date.

Ontario, Canada 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

Until that morning, core principles led me to mostly avoid the chaotic social scrum made marketing mandate courtesy of the Democratization of All Media. For me, going live was a big deal.

The idea was to create an organic structure around the work as we went. That way there'd be no stacks of notebooks and massive pile 'o undifferentiated film left begging for a couple year's reconstruction project at the end.

And here we are.

Along the Pinguisibi River, Ontario Canada 2012   From 4x5 transparency film


Read Riding the Imaging Revolution Pt. 1 and you'll understand that 30 years of production experience came immediately into play. "Be Prepared" might be the motto of Boy Scouts, but it was decades of professional expertise that enabled me to translate hurried preparation into steady workflow into ambitious finished product, while on cascading deadline.

I picked up a well used Mamiya outfit dirt cheap, to cover my ass. Bought the Toy Canon on Labor Day super discount Big Box retail special, because whatever its many virtues, film doesn't do 'live'.

Following the initial fieldwork and pressed by the somewhat balky used Mamiya, I splurged on a RZ67 Pro II D, figuring that sometime later I'd invest in a digital back and transition to high end digital capture. But while on the road in 2012, Mamiya merged with Leaf and the new company discontinued film cameras and their component digital backs altogether. My spiffy new outfit became a "Legacy" product and of no further long term use to me.

Once again, the revolution I'd ridden my entire life bit down hard on my future.

Then the Incredible Shrinking Kodak promptly dropped the 120mm film I preferred for my still new Mamiya. I bought the last of that too and kept right on shooting.

About the first of this year, with only a bit of outdated stock left on hand and apparently flat out of tolerable options, I shut it down.

It'd been a great run, overstuffed with marvels large and small. Time in the field often consisted of robust days & nights spent weeks on end, fully engaged with magnificent places most folk don't even know exist much less ever spend quality time at.

Working all those years with film altered and enriched my perspective on life. Fieldwork informed my daily approach to the real world and our place upon it in ways I'm sure I don't even recognise. I'm much the better man for that.

But they say all good things must come to an end. And that time for film is now.

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI. 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

I opted to scan the 4x5's only once I'd finished the fieldwork, so as not to unnecessarily stress my discontinued commercial scanner and risk the entire effort.

This summer, I finally secured high res digital copies of my entire 4x5 library. After a bit more organizational legerdemain, soon the film will rest in a safe deposit box.

Now it's come time to see if I might convert the remaining value of the scanner into something within spittin' distance of a new Mac, as I bought my mildly souped up G3 some years ago, just months prior to Apple's announcement of the switch to Intel chips, which immediately rendered that great tool essentially obsolete too.

Woodspur School, Ontonagon County MI 2012   From 4x5 transparency film


During April of 2012, a mighty curious thing occurred. As usual I missed it, though this time due to an excused absence.

For the first time maybe ever and hot on the heels of my medium format digital dreams being dashed, Nikon introduced a DSLR with capture capability approaching that of the digital back I'd hoped to someday own.  And for many thousands of dollars less than it would've cost me to make the now obsolete Mamiya at least temporarily digitally functional.

So while you can't always get what you want, at least occasionally what you need most comes unexpectedly rolling right down the pike and it's only for you to remain sufficiently dexterous to pick it up, should that happen.

And remember my old Bolex?

Well, the Nikon comes with pretty reasonable HD movie making capability built right in. A culturally, technologically active format and rough equivalent to 16mm film. It's only just the last few years I've let my longtime dream of shooting motion pictures slip away. Just didn't seem in the cards, you know?

Now it turns out that dream is one of the few threads in this narrative that ain't yet been made obsolete, one way or the other.

Which means maybe there's time left after all, for this prologue to become symphony...

Gogebic County, MI. 2011   From 4x5 transparency film


As I write this, a bountiful crop of late season seed falls from the variety of herbs and native plants in Heather's garden, one little miracle after another, singly to the ground.

Mourning Doves make their annual transition from overhead wires, garage roofs and our fading sunflower patch to be like little chickens with sweet voices, contentedly pecking over the abundance. Hummingbirds are recently arrived.

Autumn is on the cusp. Critters gauge the season and go about their business accordingly. It's fast approaching what's long been my favorite time to shoot, as light wanes closer to perfect with declination. Soon all the world will glow, even through the height of day.

Houghton County, MI. 2011   From 4x5 transparency film

I wish I walked in the wild with wolves and bears as eagles rode a brisk autumn breeze, all of us gathered together with purpose at the edge of the world's great freshwater sea, beneath an azure sky. But this'll do for now.

By the time I'm again a photographer, the glories of autumn will be given way to winter's icy breath, with nearly everything locked in slumber that looks a lot like death but mostly isn't.

Somehow that seems appropriate, all things considered.

I'd like to think this pending commitment to keep Riding the Imaging Revolution into the winter of my career will mark the final time I'm forced to dance or be made irrelevant in the name of progress.

I'd like to think my remaining productive years will be spent digging deep into a still young technology. That'd allow me to combine the necessarily rigorous formality of image capture on large format film with the amazing dexterity of digital capture, just to see what comes of the effort.

I'd prefer my full attention be devoted to demonstrating that this new way of doing old things isn't simply that but is rather a new thing altogether, with inherent opportunities undreamt of while image capture remained caught in film's web of chemical limitations, which hard boundaries nevertheless once served to enrich artistry in that now obsolete medium.

Those limitations presented creativity the opportunity to flourish within an organic structure. No such boundaries exist in digital capture, or here on the Internet for that matter, though both the shiny new toy and its delivery system of choice surely possess a boatload of their own.

There is only to press steadily and creatively upon them, for to find out what those boundaries are.

And I can't tell you how much I'd like to think it's smooth sailing from here 'cause the Democratization of All Media ridden in on a tsunami of technological revolution has finally offered me something resembling safe harbor, at an affordable price.

But I'll not bet the rent on that, no matter how blue the autumn sky.

Lake Superior, 2012   From 4x5 transparency film

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