Angel of Uncertainty

I have not written much lately here because I’ve been in a bit of a photographic funk. The last couple of months I’ve been feeling two aspects of photography - this idea that I mentioned before about images that I have but have overlooked, and also that I’m not really growing much. Have I passed over interesting photos that I’ve already captured? Am I doing new and interesting things? These are the questions I’ve been considering.

Usually when feeling like this most pros will tell you to just go out and shoot something. Pick something new, or not, but just get the camera and use it and keep your eye open for serendipity. I’ve kind of done that, I have captured images over the past few weeks, some even that I’ve liked (the one above, for example). But they don’t represent the kind of realization of the images in my mind that I’m looking for. As my aunt sometimes says “anyone could have taken those”. I’m being hard on myself, but I also feel that maybe I’d have taken that same frame a year ago. The last set I shot sat on my camera for two weeks before I loaded them into Lightroom for a look...

So like I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent some time looking at older images, working on the book, capturing some images here and there, and allowing my mind to relax and recharge a bit. But before I get seriously started on new images I wanted to first identify some ways that I can approach the process of making images and discover ways of getting what my finished images look like compared to what is in my head.

In one session last month, I did a lot of manual un-focused stuff. Just making abstract shapes and colors from defocusing all the way. That only kind of worked. I mentioned in a previous post about doing double exposures. Color or monochrome. Etc. None of these things were changing my feelings about the images and what I was kind of looking for. In a sense, I don’t actually *know* what I’m looking for. It’s like describing a feeling. I’ll sort of know it when I see it. But I do feel like urban street photos at night and without people are feeling kind of boring. And maybe not so much boring but that I myself am taking the same *kind* of shots, my eye is drawn to the same type of compositions.

So what is it that’s missing here? Here is sort of what I feel like: Phone cameras are getting really good. DSLRs and other pro cameras are exceptional. Everything is *sharp* and colors are amazing. Everything is *controlled* - I can set up the camera and I know I’ll get the same thing over and over. This is good in most cases, like being a sports or wedding photographer or photojournalist. You need to be one with your gear. But for the artist? Where is the accidents, the humanity or randomness? Why do people prefer vinyl to digital music? Why won’t film just die?

I was very much struck by something Sally Mann wrote in her book Hold Still, when she was talking about her use of wet-plate collodion for her landscape series:

I tried to remain flexible and open to the vagaries of chance; like Napoleon, I figured that luck, aesthetic luck included, is just the ability to exploit accidents. I grew to welcome the ripply flaws caused by a breeze or tiny mote of dust, which ideally would settle right where I needed a comet-like streak, or the emulsion the peeled away from the plate in the corner where I hadn’t liked that telephone line anyway. Unlike the young narrator in _Swann’s Way_ praying for the angel of certainty to visit him in his bedroom, I found myself praying for the angel of uncertainty. And many times she visited my plates, bestowing upon them essential peculiarities, persuasive consequence, intrigue, drama, and allegory.

This is the kind of thing I’m looking for. The night isn’t precise, isn’t controlled. It’s dreamy and otherworldly. It’s not the same for me as it is for you. It’s laced with fear and excitement and mystery and apprehension. How can this be conveyed via images? Perhaps not with precision digital tools. If the daytime is rational (digital) night is emotional (analog).

When Mann started her landscape series she was looking for the same kind of dreaminess that comes from not seeing the land but *feeling* it. Using an antique camera she first did some experiments with odd films and then realized that what she really wanted was to use wet-plate collodion in the same way people did in the mid-1800s. Because her topic was the South and all the historical and romantic overtones that are part of that, she felt that a process from that era would help tell the story. But the process is FAR from controlled. Dust, dirt, variances in prepping the plates or developing them all introduced uncontrollable variables to the images. This is the Angel of Uncertainty slipping something into the mix that makes the image unique. Unlike with digital, it would be literally impossible for her to take the same image twice, much less ever having an “anyone could have taken that” comment levied against it.

Ok, so I’m not going to do wet-plate collodion or tin types or even do large format with an antique camera. I know what the investment in time and money is to do stuff like that and I’m a long, long way from being able to use get any real benefit from those kinds of obscure aspects of photography. But I do kind of have a similar romanticism for being out in the still of the night.

So wet plates and arcane chemistry aside, one idea I had to “invite the angel of uncertainty” into my images is to give a medium format Holga a whirl. If you know what one of these is, you’re probably rolling your eyes because they were trendy with hipsters a like 10 years ago (until - like everything else - being supplanted by Instagram and in-phone software). That said, there is no question that they can be used as serious tools - take this book by Michael Kenna as example.

But if you don’t know what a Holga is, do a quick youtube search and you’ll get more than you ever need. Because of poor manufacturing, each Holga is kind of unique. Most people do some mods (because who cares what you do to a $35 plastic camera) further making them unique to the user. Light bounces around inside of them in weird ways. What few “controls” there are are crude and haphazard. The net result is generally you only have a rough idea of what you’re going to get before you develop the film.

What I am feeling is that if you want to bring in the angel of uncertainty, there needs to be room for her to be a part of the process. With digital, as I mentioned before, everything is so controlled and precise that aside from basic technical mistakes (like forgetting to turn on image stabilization, ahem) there isn’t a lot of space in the process for variability. You can’t count on mistakes to happen all the time. In fact, it’s not about screwing up, it’s about discovery. There is no uncertainty in the digital process. You set the camera, check the histogram, maybe auto bracket your frames, pull it into Lightroom or photoshop, apply your favorite or your personal preset, tweak it a little and you’re done. Or you go deep into the software and do all the things. The point is that you can undo anything and you’re controlling the process through the image’s entire journey. And someone standing next to you could do basically the same thing. Maybe it’s like this: if you can write a script that essentially results in the same image over and over, it’s not art anymore, it’s a program.

Mann’s wet plate process was the opposite end, there is nothing in the process that doesn’t have variables due to temperature, environment, human input, etc. Even her notes on printing images were cryptic and prone to potential error. What I am hoping to find is something in the middle, between almost chaos and programming.

I had set aside some money for a prime lens this year. Instead, I’m going to push 10 rolls of film through the Holga and see what I learn by drastically slowing everything down and giving up a lot of control. In addition, I have all of my old darkroom equipment so I can develop the film myself allowing for experiments in the developing process as well as variations introduced by my own imprecise (inept?) handling of the film. I actually don’t want to run it through a machine with precise temperature and chemistry controls.

Plus it’s kind of fun.