Friday, January 30, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition Pt. 1

Wolverine Mohawk, Keweenaw County MI, 2014


You can still find people who argue that the imposition of censorship during the early 1930's made Hollywood filmmakers more creative than they'd otherwise have been simply because they had to devise ways to tell a richly informed story within the narrow confines of prior constraint.

Except all you need do is to stream a choice handful of long suppressed pre-code Hollywood films to recognise that argument for the stuff and nonsense it is. Instead, what's true that those same prior constraints forced what'd become the art form of the 20th Century into decades of self-imposed adolescence, right at the hub of its global influence.

If you're interested, start with the uncensored version of Baby Face, then come back and tell me why six years later it was such a big honkin' deal for Clark Gable to inform Vivian Leigh he didn't give a damn. Or why three years after that even sophisticated adults couldn't be sure that Rick and Ilsa had sex during their penultimate night in steamy Casablanca.

Yeah, on the one hand maybe the work of Busby Berkeley wouldn't have been so gloriously mad if not for those same prior constraints. On the other hand, for decades thereafter American popular culture was force fed straight from the corporate trough of a relentless Fantasy Factory and You are what you eat, as they say.

On the other other hand, those technological constraints inherent to fieldwork with large format transparency film dictated the hard limits of its creative use. I can't tell you how many times I walked out into the light from the baroque interior of some splendid ruin creatively bereft because my choice of medium prevented its capture. Which would be why my architectural portfolio leans so heavily to exteriors and why the most evocative scenic work was invariably captured on overcast days.

Here's a fine example of both, on one sheet of film:

Houghton County MI, 2010

Real life enjoys its share of sunny days too, even around the Superior Basin. And generally, when I was mucking around deep inside the guts of someone's ruined dream I could see things just fine thanks, even when my film couldn't. Thus did the prior constraints inherent in the medium restrain not only the body of my work, but my creative vision for it as well.

Over time, those constraints went on to alter my fundamental approach to my subject matter. The very thing I labored to convey as authentic.

And besides, who thinks perfect light never occurs on days so brilliant it hurts your eyes just to see?


Existing light...

The last of film's halcyon days were spent largely in the technological pursuit of ever finer light. Then film died before it ever quite reached the point when early one morning you could lazily come out of a shaded bay, think "Geez, would you look at that", lift the camera, click the shutter and sit back to let the moment breath, reasonably assured you'd captured the essence of it:

Ottawa National Forest, 2014

In years past, if I hit the Superior Basin for a week's worth of work and that week turned out to be resolutely sunny, I'd have shaken my fist at the too bright light with too deep shadows and cursed the photo gods right to their washed out sky. Mostly, only the Magic Hour at either far end of the day would've been salvaged for serious work, though after a while you realise that having captured more than a few gorgeous sunrises and/or sunsets in your time means you've pretty much got that covered.

Not to mention that the twice daily hour or so of magic light is also magic for big fish. These days, I tend to side with the fish.

Before taking the Nikon out for extended fieldwork this last September, I'd set distinct goals. I'd visit those select places where I was already on intimate terms with the quality of light, sites I'd worked repeatedly through the years. That way I could later compare the digital capture with film of the same image, which would allow me to better understand the differences between the two. By pushing hard at its creative controls, I'd find out what the Nikon was capable of.

And I was determined to once again shoot at night, having had such a good time with that in June.

As it turned out, that fieldwork had to be done during the most unusual of September weeks in the Northwoods, with unrelentingly sunny days and bright bluebird skies and the whole world bathed in contrast sufficient to make a strong shooter weep. Just the same, I stuck with the plan.

Which decision proved liberating.

Union River, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness, 2014

Had I come to the turnoff from the South Boundary Road to the Union River during light like that in years past, I'd not have bothered to go in. That's basically in camera, with only the slightest, most routine Photoshop teaks.

As is this:

Gogebic County MI, 2014

And this...

Gogebic County MI, 2014

For a while I went sun crazy and was nearly blinded, by the light. Then I remembered the dark.

Gogebic County MI, 2014

For all the images of this forlorn old Ford that I've captured on film and in a healthy variety of light, I'd captured nothing the like of that.

All of which made me very excited to go traipsing off into the God's honest dark, which we'll revisit together long about this time next month...

No comments:

Post a Comment