Monday, July 8, 2019

Kaleidoscope – New Daguerreotype Work

  Daguerreotype, the first truly successful and, in the eyes of many through history, the most beautiful photographic technique, was introduced to the world in summer of 1839, so this year marks 180th anniversary of Photography.  Congratulations.

  After two major technical improvements were added to the original process as announced by Daguerre, improvements aimed at reducing exposure times and strengthening the adherence of image to plate, the following basic procedure of making each image was set henceforth. A plate of copper coated with pure silver is buffed to an absolute mirror surface, sensitized with fumes of elemental iodine and bromine, exposed in camera, developed in fumes of mercury, fixed with hypo, and then coated with gold by gilding.  The elegant simplicity of chemistry involved should not however be mistaken for ease of overall procedure, pitfalls are a plenty and too much can depend on the smallest seemingly unimportant and thus overlooked stop.   Some of the chemistry is also highly toxic, and should be treated with extreme respect and caution.  However, it’s all worth it, as when properly made and examined, a truly fine daguerreotype plate has never failed to bring a sense of awe to viewers of today as in early middle of 19th century.

  I have been working with Daguerreotype medium for about 4 years now.  After having worked with other analog photographic methods for about quarter of a century prior, I fell in love with this technique for its incredible physical presence and appearance, and the possibilities I saw in taking that further.  In the fall of last year that I spent some length of time in the darkroom making 4-10 images per day.  Erasing, buffing, fuming, developing, erasing, repeating…  A few ideas were tested and tested again, a few new ones emerged, merged with others, opened possibilities.  As things got more and more complex, I decided to slow down a bit, and to produce a few small bodies of work, which would be built upon single variations of Daguerreotype process I’m planning to combine and utilize as part of my work with in the future.
  Below is the first such illustrative body of work, completed in early April.  First an introductory ‘straight’ plate, made with all traditional methods as have been practiced since 1840s, and appearing as representational as any semi-abstract daguerreotype can be. The other 5 are variations of same subject, which explore possibilities of color within this traditionally monochromatic medium.  The aim was to control placement of cool and warm tones and keep them interspersed within the same plate, and to be able to switch around their placement like in Variants #2 and #3.   In addition to color, I wanted to explore the possibility of creatively using the inherently reflective quality of the daguerreotype plates in areas void of image particles.

  There’s no way to accurately and fully convey via a screen how these 4x5 plates appear when one is holding them, letting the light reflect from different angles, paying attention to the color and pattern changes.  Daguerreotype colors shift their hue and saturation with angle of view and lighting.  There can also be observed a pattern of double mirror effect between plate and bottom of cover glass, which moves around behind the image like a holograph.  Viewers are asked to rely on their experience with handling and viewing daguerreotypes live.

 Variant 1 - 4x5in daguerreotype

 Variant 2 - 4x5in daguerreotype

 Variant 3 - 4x5in daguerreotype

 Variant 4 - 4x5in daguerreotype

 Variant 5 - 4x5in daguerreotype

 Variant 6 - 4x5in daguerreotype


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Light Formulation - Statement Of An Artist

  I always resisted writing artist statements and bios. In school, that part of every assignment or exhibition was the most agonizing.  It felt overly simplistic to just describe what the viewer was about to encounter, or why objects or abstract shapes, making my specific image or groups of images, were presented in this way or another.  It seemed that by assigning it a set number of combinations of words and letters, designed to invoke a set of associations or emotions, and qualifying and quantifying it that way, I would be doing a disservice to my work, by not letting it have a clear and unadulterated voice of its own. I never did connect with majority of artist statements I’ve read, be it on walls of student shows or those of more established institutions.  Most of the time, they seemed contrived, often borderline pedantic. Far removed from subject matter in actual show, they often seemed to be paying more service to the ego of the photographer rather than to photographs shown, or Photography itself. 

  Meanwhile, I kept shooting.  I wanted to be a ‘photographer’ since I was very young, influenced by seeing my grandfather and his Zenit 18 on all family outings, and how much joy it gave him to grab the camera in crucial times and quickly change position for better light and composition, or sometimes ask us to pose in just the right way, or sometimes just to point it at things and directions I didn’t yet understand, and to get locked into whatever he must have seen in that little window.  He passed on before I was old enough to learn much, but right before I turned 12 my classmate showed me how to develop and print black and white film, and at that point I knew that the darkroom constant was lodged in my heart and mind forever.  So, I had to keep shooting.  My family moved to US when I was 16, and prior to photography, spurred on by inertia of overachieving drive that most immigrants seeking a better life in America have, I started college studying chemistry, in order to follow my parents’ professional footsteps.  But I always kept shooting. It was something about the light, the act of vision, the process of solidifying fleeting images seen by my eye while on the journey of life wherever it took me, and the experience of seeing my thoughts and feelings about various subject translated onto a page in form of shades and shapes in a visual manner with light and chemistry. I needed to keep shooting.  

  With passage of time and accumulation of different work in a variety of photographic mediums, in my mind started to congeal a more cohesive view of what it is that most excites me about the photographic branch of the arts, and its myriad of processes, and why it was that I can’t seem to stop shooting.   A common thread started to come more and more into critical focus.  It started to become apparent that no matter where I found myself, no matter what I was going though in life during each moment, I always found instances where Light and Shadow beautifully accented certain subjects, and it was Photography’s innate ability to record this interplay of shades upon tangible matter by use of no less tangible chemistry, that relentlessly inspired me to give life to each individual image, regardless of particular content.  Light became content. Light became the focus.

  I once asked myself ‘why not?’, and switched my college major from a reliable track of laboratory research chemist and dedicating my education to the direction leading along an often-uncertain and eroded, overgrown and yet congested, path of paying the bills with images.  This is the same question I like to ask myself often while pondering my next image.   Why not point my lens at this direction?  Why not try it this way?  I find myself enjoying absorbing light reflected from a thistle in s field, just as much as it brings me joy to see it strike any face in a compelling or complimentary way.  I am reverend and grateful for the perfection of photographic medium, which allows for seemingly infinite amount of both precision and variation in capturing reality in all manners it appears to me.  Without taking this into account, my work may seem fragmented to an outside glance, but if one considers that the inspiration stemming from Light Itself as a uniting foundational thread, the fragments then make an almost Surat like single vision from the sum of all parts. My individual images, projects, bodies of work, are all akin to separate letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and tomes of the same story or song.

  I feel compelled to dedicate this last part of this formulation of the impetus behind my work, to addressing why I always chose to work in analog photographic mediums.  The world around us is a tangible place. Molecules and atoms, which make up all that is visible to us now, switch states and places in one grand infinite cycle.  During some parts of this flow of energy, some of those molecules are briefly arranged in forms that reflect Light.  At that point, it becomes possible for Photography, processed through the filter of each practitioner’s vision and skill level, to manifest the action of distilling this combination of light and matter to concrete compositions we call photographs. For me, it seems logical to make my images from essentially the same particles which I photograph, real physical atoms vs. more ephemeral electrical fields.  I’m attracted and intrigued by the continuity of this physical property in my images, and the incredulous variety of way in which I can act to physically arrange a set of molecules on a page to reflect a moment in reality as it was experienced by my eye and envisioned by my mind.  I am also heartened by the knowledge that the Light reflecting from those molecules will reach the eyes of all future viewers in the same manner as it reaches my eyes now, and that the weight of my prints or plates will remain the same each time someone picks them up to feel their heft and presence.  For the past 6 years, I’ve worked almost exclusively with direct positive techniques of wet plate collodion tintypes and ambrotypes, and am now gravitating more and more toward daguerreotype technique, which is irresistibly noble in its process and unparalleled in visual appearance and sharpness.  A direct positive it a truly unique creation/experience with almost no chance for post-production manipulation, making it a technically demanding way to work, particularly when one has a set pre-visualization in mind and is set on actually having their vision to be communicated precisely.  A direct positive exists singularly, like the moment during which all elements came together for its making, and there’s only one set of molecules bearing that particular visual semblance.  Because of that, I feel a deeper connection to each plate (of metal, or combination, of metals or glass) with an image which I placed upon it.  After varnishing a tintype or sealing a daguerreotype, I am done with a given particular personal challenge of capturing beautifully my experience as closely to my vision of it as I could and, as the moment itself starts to recede to the annals of memory, while molecules upon the plate hold it fixed as intended for at least a few centuries, I can be open to meeting the next inspirational challenge as quickly as possible.  After all, it’s fun to keep shooting.

Here's a 4x5 tintype made last night after typing up the above formulation,
because a blog post without an image is only about as good as photography without a camera.


Monday, May 6, 2019

Multi Plate Multi Lens Daguerreotype Panorama Plus...

  I haven’t posted much lately, because I’ve been experimenting non-stop with a few new daguerreotype techniques, and however promising the results are looking so far, those experiments are slow going, and I’ll release at least part of it hopefully soon.   But here’s something I thought up and was able to execute in a relatively speedy manner, which I believe warrants a look.  I don’t believe this method of making a panoramic image has ever been utilized before, so I’m dubbing it ‘Antorama’.

Botanical Building and Reflecting Pool at Balboa Park
7 4x5 plate antorama, 4 lenses

  The point of the antorama is to use variable focal lengths to achieve shortening or lengthening in appearance of a scene within multiple frames of a view, in order to bring distant objects closer or to be able to see more of those near the camera.  Of course, by all means one doesn’t have to do execute the antorama in daguerreotype format. As a challenge though, I don’t believe there’s a greater one out there.  Ever since 19th century a multiple plate daguerreotype panorama (made in the usual way, with same lens for all plates) has been referred to as the ultimate technical challenge in photography.  Daguerreotype plates are made on highly polished silver plates, which are sensitized with fumes of iodine and bromine, and developed in fumes of mercury.  Matching all those steps over multiple plates, and getting same tonality and contrast from one plate to another is a task unlike any other I know of in photography.  You don’t have to take my word for it, but using multiple lenses adds a whole extra level of fun to the pursuit.  So, focal lengths in millimeters of lenses used for above 4x5in plates from left to right are 120, 150, 180, 210, 180, 150, 120.

  Due to daguerreotype being a UV-sensitive medium, various lens coatings used by different companies through the decades (and I also suspect the thickness of glass and the number of elements that light has to travel though) make lenses give surprisingly different exposures when all are set to same f-value.   I suppose that having a full set of same type of lenses would help here, but I had to work with what I had, so it took me a few experimental plates (shown below) to match exposures of Schneider 150 Xenotar, Rodenstock Sironar 180, and Fujinon-W 210.  However, after the first go at above view, I understood that 5 plates weren’t going to be enough, as the composition ended rather anticlimactically on both ends.  I then decided to add a frame with 120mm Schneider 120-XL on both sides, which showed parts of the promenade walkways and made it into an approximately 220°view.  Based on previous experience with the other three, I guessed the exposure for this lens and luckily got both end plates on first try.  

4x5 Daguerreotype Test of 3 lenses (shown not gilded)

 For the above 7-plate antorama to be as I envisioned, the sun needed to be out at 1pm, which is normally something you can bet your bottom dollar on in San Diego from about March to November. I won’t go into details of how much frustration was added by climate change, and the fact that it seems that these past two weeks have been the cloudiest and rainiest ever for this time of year here. Anyhow, while waiting for right atmospheric conditions I decided to capture a slightly less ambitious 3-plate view of San Diego Coronado Bridge, this time with just one plate per lens (again, 150, 180, 210).  

San Diego - Coronado Bridge
3 4x5in plate antorama, 3 lenses

  These two compositions took a fair amount of effort and polishing hours.   At one point, a few days ago, I was going at it for a while and my shoulder got tired.  I didn’t want to stop working, so, to switch gears, I decided to see if I can pull off another minor ‘first ever’, but this time with an easier medium that can be done on the fly – wet plate collodion tintype.  During my Grand Canyon trips earlier in the year, I saw more than enough tourists wielding phones propped upon those ubiquitous selfie sticks.  Let us not address here the impact of those sticks on user’s experience of his/her surroundings and the narcissistic tendencies driving their sales, but among social media groups a while back people jokingly speculated if this concept can be applied to collodion.  Most people expressed doubt because of the usual understanding of collodion as being a slow methodical technique, which requires long exposures and steady tripods with heavy cameras upon them (though lately people have been using anything from Kodak folders to tin cans to make images with).  I don’t recall however anyone every actually going for it and trying it out.  Well, no time like a break from polishing daguerreotypes to try something new. 
  To imitate the wide angle lens of a cell phone I chose the Burke and James 4x5 Orbitar camera, which comes with a 65mm Schneider Super Angulon.  Having the top speed of f8, that lens wasn’t exactly ideal, but I figured that with my relatively fresh collodion and somewhat healthy silver bath, I should be able to get near ISO 1 speed, which in direct sun would give a proper exposure of 1/4sec at f8.  Yeah, holding a 4x5 outstretched on a tripod as a selfie stick for 1/4sec is not exactly something you do when you want for sure to get a sharp image, but I did all right on the first try and the image turned out rather sharp, but a bit on the dark side.  I guess my silver wasn’t as good and collodion did age in the fridge over the 4 months that I’ve had it in there…  So, 1/2sec was the next try.  I held my breath, squeezed the cable release and voila: what I strongly believe to be the first ever hand held collodion selfie.  

4x5 Handheld Wet Plate Collodion Selfie
(phone copy of plate while still wet)

Burke & James 4x5 Orbitar camera and my 'selfie stick'

  I’ve been working on daguerreotypes for a few months now almost non-stop.  There’s something I’m experimenting with which I cannot yet reveal, but do stay tuned as results are coming along.   While in and out the darkroom I kept running into my good friend and an amazing videographer Justin Edelman, whose office is in the neighboring building.  I’ve known Justin for close to a decade now, and over that time period he’s gone from excellent to amazing.  The best thing is that he doesn’t stop pushing himself in terms of technique and vision.  He’s been planning on making a clip about my daguerreotype work, but lots of things are on his plate and time didn’t come around until now, which is actually great, because now we were able to catch a few of the latest experiments in process (though you don’t see a lot of it there).  Justin also keeps up very well with the latest gear, so we combined making of the below clip with his mastering the brand new camera he just got and that amazing tracking slider, which made the last long cut of the clip be truly special. If Justin was able to do this as a test clip, imagine the quality of the product you would get if you hire the guy...  Thank you Justin!

 Thank you for reading.  Back to the darkroom for me, the other daguerreotype techniques are calling to be transferred from dream to reality. This year marks 180 anniversary of invention of daguerreotype, so I really think it's time for that technique to be explored beyond that which has been done so far.