Fooling Around – Experimental Photography

Posted in Humor, On Tthe Road, Photography Tricks on May 26th, 2011 by MadDog
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Once again I will get all pedantic on you and deliver a lecture on a subject so obscure that most would not even consider its existence. Today’s endless monograph will lightly cover the pseudo-intellectual pursuit of what I dare to call Experimental Photography. If you Google that phrase, you won’t find very much of interest. Some of the Google Images do lead in the general direction, though. Are you laughing yet?

I use the term more to make fun of myself than for any other reason. It embarrasses me to admit that when I have my camera in my hands I have reverted to a kid with a particularly engaging toy. I wish to appear more serious and, uh . . . deep than that. It’s all about ego. So, don’t take the second part of the title of this post seriously. The “Fooling Around” part is the operative phrase.

My personal view of experimental photography includes a continuum of categories ranging from purely narrative or descriptive to abstract. Within these categories a range of camera techniques can be employed to get the desired effect. I could write a book about this, but I have only this much space. Prepare for compression!

When I take a picture of something which must be instantly recognisable and the object itself is more or less the message, I call this narrative or descriptive. The object is  the story.  Here is a very obvious example:

It’s a sign. How simple can it get? It would be a very uninteresting image except for the words on the sign. What is the message? I’m sure that you’ve gathered that this is a sort of visual double entendre.  There is a place called Lick Elevator, a grain storage facility which you have seen here before. What makes it amusing is that the sign could appear to be a command – a rather absurd one.

This also is a narrative image. In The Happy Singing Machine  I wanted to convey the little surprise I felt when I turned my head and saw the cartoon face staring at me from the side of this whatever-it-is machine:

Here again, to complete the transaction between the photographer and the viewer, the viewer must uncover the narrative – decode it, so to speak. This one is so obvious that it takes little effort.

As you wade through this post you’ll note that I’m slowly (oh, so slowly – will it never end?) moving from narrative or descriptive to abstract. You may find yourself nodding off.

This one is also narrative, in the sense that you can easily see what it is – a restaurant bar top with the street scene outside and everything reflected upside down in the shiny surface:

In actuality, this is a tripple entendre.  The first meaning is the obvious one – the descriptive image itself. It is what it is, an interesting visualisation, but otherwise not noteworthy. The second requires seeing the title of the image, often a clue to the photographer’s hidden message – The Honest Lawyer.  Aside from the fact that the place is possibly a hangout for downtown lawyers, there is the aspect of the mirrored but shaded world reflected in the bar top. Honest? Possibly. True? Probably not. Ethical? Quite likely. Accurate? Well, that depends on who you are asking, eh? You can play these little word games with the image until you decide that you’re wasting valuable time. The third part of the tripple entendre  works for you only if you live in Hamilton, Ontario where there is a matched set of way-too-loud-music quasi-sports (too many big screen TVs silently blaring miscellaneous mundane sports nonsense) plastic-food establishments called The Honest Lawyer. (The funky video clip makes this site worth a click.)

Whew! All that in there? It’s a stretch, I admit.

That shot didn’t require much in the way of camera technique. I simply plopped my Canon G11 down on the bar, pointed it towards the windows and pushed the button. It did require a lot of post-processing to get the effect I wanted.

However, some shots require some planning and fiddling with the camera controls. I like to take shots of things whizzing past the car window. This requires setting the camera to manual or shutter priority mode and selecting a relatively low shutter speed, in this case about 1/8th of a second. It also requires one to look ahead to see what shot might be coming up, because there will be a very short window of time for the exposure:

Here we have the giant communications tower in Toronto framed between trees which are blurred by the movement of the bus on which I was riding. Even more blurred, because it was closer to my camera, is the traffic light on the right. This image is light on transcendental value. There’s not much there. It’s only real interest is the demonstration of motion blur. Ho-hum.

This one is a little more meaty. I remember seeing this sculpture from previous visits to Toronto. I find it no less repulsive than I did before. I wondered how I could capture my revulsion in an image? Hah! A passing pedestrian. Make her appear as if she is fleeing the ugliness:

Simple – select a slow shutter speed, brace firmly against the window frame of the bus and hope that the bus does not move until the pedestrian reaches the precise point at which she seems to be rushing past the travesty. I give you Rush on By.

I’ve been waiting a long time for the opportunity to put a picture of that sculpture in a post and treat it with proper disrespect. Thank you, kind lady, whoever you are.

With this one we are approaching the abstract. I call this a concoction. It follows the recipe of the moment. It’s shaken and baked virtually on the fly. As I was looking out of the window of the bus I was distracted by the reflection of the bus driver. How inconvenient. Why not record my complaint?

Here again, a normal automated shot will not work. If both the reflection and the outside scene are sharp the reflection is lost in the muddle. What is needed is to blur the scenery outside so that the reflection stands our more by its sharpness than by its contrast. A slow shutter speed once again comes to the rescue. If there is a subliminal message in The Phantom Bus Driver  other than the title, you will have to find it. I’ve racked my brain and can’t puzzle it out.

If you are very observant or very bored, you may notice the reflection of my hand holding the camera at the far right of the image. There is a term for this self-referential imagery in which the artist or a portion of the artist appears in the image, but I can’t think of it. Any help out there?

Here the narrative and the abstract mingle. What is the mountainous object which dwarfs the trees? What kind of grass matches a good-sized pine? Does the title Around My Neck  lend a clue? Well, silly me, of course it does. Who am I trying to fool. Some images are just fun and camera technique boils down to nothing more technical than lying on my belly in the wet grass like a 140 pound short thick snake:

The object is, rather obviously, a millstone and it is not twenty meters tall, only about one. The camera angle, shooting from the ground nearly straight up, and the inclusion of the trees make it seem much larger at first glance. I call this Abstract But Not Really Abstract. It’s a visual joke, if not a very good one.

Some of these last ones are approaching abstraction. This one probably more than any of the others:

In Clouds and Angles  it’s all about photography. Nobody would paint this picture. It’s a found object which disappears in an instant unless it is captured and viewed. It appears in a singular place in a moment of time. Were it not for me, nobody would ever have seen it – nobody. Does that mean anything? Of course not. Wait . . . no, it does mean something. It means that somebody sat in a car thinking about the sky and the clouds and watching things go by as a little story about the sky and the clouds and the things going by was being scripted in the mind of the observer until the right moment came along when everything converged and the world was set right for a nanosecond and the finger moved of its own accord to freeze the instant for no purpose whatsoever except the stopping, the pause, the memory of the moment of perfection.

Is that abstract enough for you?

You have to be a little bit odd, I think, to be a photographer. I’ve never made any money to speak of from photography. I’d certainly like  to make some money from it, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. However, I have made a little money at it and I take it very seriously as an expression of how I see the world, so I call myself a semi-professional photographer. Hey, you can have semi-pro baseball players and golfers, why not semi-professional photographers? Fair is fair. Part of that oddness I mentioned is allowing the mind to romp unfettered through the mountains of optical data flooding the visual cortex to stumble across little meadows of incongruity. I give you GO!

This shot would better fit the abstract label if it were not for the top of the bus at the bottom of the image. I, as the photographer, share a tiny hidden joke with you. There is a thing in Ontario called Go Transit. It’s a combination of bus and train service. The logo is entirely unintelligible – see the little turquoise colored symbol? It’s supposed to read “GO”, but you have to be a calligrapher to figure it out.

Patience, I’m nearly finished.

In This Way Up  we are back at the grain elevator again. We’re nearly all the way to abstract now. The object is not clearly recognisable. This is an assemblage of shapes and colours. It has been Photoshopped beyond all reason. My purpose was, as nearly as possible, to obscure reality under layers of camouflage:

If I’ve done my job well the reality will not be too obvious, unless you are an  employee of the establishment and you travel up and down this precarious ladder frequently. See, there you go. Once the reality is clear, the image loses it’s interest. It’s no longer a mystery. Phooey! I should have stopped while I was ahead.

This last one is neither narrative nor abstract. I might go so far as to call it a visual pun, though not a very good one. What makes it weak is that there is no common phrase “food temple” to match the title of the image:

I had some concept or other in mind as I was working on this image. It may have been a deep thought about the place that food has taken in modern western culture. I might have been thinking about how irritated I am that I can’t go to a meeting or visit with friends or engage in practically any social activity without being compelled to consume food. Really folks, I can’t eat that much. Please stop trying to feed me.

Yeah, that may have been it.

I can’t remember.

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Disconnected in The Windy City

Posted in On Tthe Road on May 12th, 2011 by MadDog
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For a variety of reasons I’ve not written anything for a few days. That is not good for me, as it is so very easy to get out of the habit. I’ve been feeling that strange disconnect from reality which overwhelms me when I’ve been living out of my back-pack for too long, moving from place to place as necessity dictates. Here I am in Chicago, or nearly so, the grim finger of the Sears tower barely piercing the smoggy horizon. I just finished a pleasant conversation with a dear friend and adviser. As I ran out of words I excused myself by saying that I needed to sit down to write. Sensing my mood, she told me to “write something beautiful.”

Is that possible when darker thoughts prevail and the heart rests low and quiet, hardly venturing to whisper through the noise of confusion? I don’t know. We shall see.

You will note that I’ve visited the farmlands. I’ve seldom needed to imagine so much while searching for images. This part of the world can seem a visual wasteland. As I seek inspiration my eyes must listen very carefully for the tiny voices calling from unexpected places. My job is to try to make the mundane exceptional. I spot a corroding gas grill sitting beside a farm outbuilding. A few incongruous strands of straw hang limply from under the lid. When I see what is there I first laugh and then feel a little choke at the back of my throat as my mind frets over the absurdity:

Birds are not alone among the creatures which build nests in hazardous places. We are only aware of the hazards we can see and understand. We can see the future not at all.

Yet nature itself, which seems designed to kill us, provides that which we require, along with a little work on our part, to nurture us. Though this fallen world appears to favor weeds, the creator gave us wits enough to push them back a little so that we can squeeze out of the land what fills our bellies – most of us, that is:

Flood and drought, pestilence and disease, frost and storm all thwart our efforts, but somehow the farmer stays ahead. It amazes me how easily I forget those who feed me. It is good to get out on the land every few years to remind myself that those who are called to work the land bless us all by their efforts. The farmer leads a risky life, dealing constantly with forces beyond his control. He is an artist of the soil.

The soil itself can be beautiful, especially as it lends itself to be the canvas of the farmer. Here the corn-planting machine has tread, leaving its linear footprint on the land:

It awaits the first rain to fade it. The soil will warm and the days grow longer. The green shoots will rise cobra-like and grow astonishingly tall in a few brief weeks. Some say that the corn can be heard to grow. Maybe this is true. Does the farmer see his planted field as I do? Does he hear the same voice? Maybe he sees the same thorny path to an unknown horizon. Though we see it that way for entirely different reasons. He asks, “Will my crop be bountiful?” I ask, simply, “What lies ahead?”

John, husband of my niece, Pat, operates a grain storage facility. His job is to see that the farmers’ products are safely stored until it is time for them to be sold to those in need. This seems to require a lot of shifting of grain from one giant bin to another, for reasons which I do not completely understand. Here corn spills from one huge cylinder into a pit from whence it will be elevated to a dizzy height and spilled into another:

As I look at this image I cannot but note that all of the grains of corn, regardless of the wildness of their individually random paths, end up in the same place – the pit. The metaphor is inescapable. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what a ride! I admire the kernels which bounce crazily – the outliers – the mavericks. They too will end up in the pit, but they do not go easily nor without squeezing every last bit of value from the trip.

I do not like to believe that destiny rules us. In the broad sense we cannot escape the notion. Certain things will happen no matter how we wriggle to avoid them. Still, in between birth and death, we like to think that we have some choices. Exactly how much choice we have is debatable. I can never make up my mind about this. My beliefs require that I accept that my creator is involved in my life in substantial ways. Sometimes I am very happy about this and other times I am resentful, even angry. This seems to be the nature of the relationship, if you accept that there is one at all. So, in a sense, I do have a destiny:

As I saw the angled lines of the machinery intersecting at the apex under the high, hazy sun, the image shouted at me. At first I shuffled around to fix the orb directly above the point at which the seemingly random paths joined. And then I realised that this was not the message. I will not intersect perfectly with my destiny. This is the skill of saints, to yield willingly and unerringly to the direction of the Divine GPS. I tend to ramble about.

To get there, the intersection where all paths which lead to the destination finally meet, I must follow one of the prescribed paths. I might have chosen any of these paths and arrived safely. Wolves lurk in the parched bushland between the paths and other paths lead to unknown dangers as they depart from the course to the apex.

And what is it, exactly, which lies where all safe paths meet? Heaven? What is that? We don’t have a lot of information to work with, eh? I can never decide whether I’ll really like it or not. There seems not a lot to do there. Perhaps I’m too attached to this world, to this life. It’s all shiny and sleek. It has a lot of bits and pieces with many knobs to twist and buttons to push. There is fun to be had, things to do, people to meet, plans to be made . . .

Plans to be made . . .

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