Wednesday, August 12, 2020

From f295: This kind of discussion doesn’t happen on Facebook.

f295 was an international discussion forum begun and administered by Tom Persinger. Originally just about pinhole photography, it expanded into all kinds of alternative methods.  It was active from 2004 until 2015 but it remains on-line. Recently it disappeared from the web for a few days, and that prompted me to decide to reprise some of my favorites here at Pinholica, for backup if no other reason.

f295 would occasionally have long discussions about technical and aesthetic aspects of pinhole photography. They were often responses to photographs with questions that didn’t just relate to some technical aspect such as you see so often on Facebook.

Here’s one which is one of my favorite spontaneous writing experiences. 

I can’t reproduce the whole discussion because I’d have to get permission from everyone. I can link to it but unregistered users can’t see the pictures and you can’t register. I can describe it and I think I’m OK with reproducing the parts of the comment that unleashed my keyboard. It started with the post of a photograph without comment by long term member Igor Bryakilev. The picture is reproduced here with Igor’s permission. It was posted on June 12, 2012 with the cryptic title of 'l’hommage.'

He posted it at mid-morning in Russia. I was the first to comment at 7:44am Central Time

This is a really terrific composition. I can think of about ten different painters and photographers this could be l'hommage to. Forced to make a guess, I'd say Man Ray.

There were three more complimentary comments which involved how this elevated a randomly encountered ordinary moment into a beautiful, dramatic photograph.

Late in the evening another longer term member I only knew by his screen name “Kier” apologized for what might be a critical question but he sincerely wanted to learn what others saw in the picture. I read it early in the morning. It flipped some kind of switch in my head. I remember writing this sitting at work and posted it at 9:45am.

"What is great about these images? I don't understand this thread of modern photography to produce images of this sort (non-descript subject matter, flat lighting). And there's a lot of it these days. I just don't understand it"

I think you might have unleashed a hopefully not too pedantic monster. I haven't had this much fun thinking about art in a while. Sarah and I talked about it for about a half hour this morning.

I'm not sure I can justify "these images" but I have a lot of response to this image.

My comment yesterday had to do with composition. One of the popular memes reacting to the invention of photography was that if photography repeated reality so accurately, what was the value of painting. One defense was that the idea wasn't to make paintings of beautiful things, it was to make beautiful paintings. An extension of that idea recognized the fact that a painting wasn't reality, it was a 2D surface. The basic thing you have to work with is composition, so just stick the paint on there in a great arrangement and maybe provide a little surface detail and that's all you need to get an emotional reaction from the viewer. I think this is abstract expressionism. I always think of Mark Rothko as the ultimate of this concept. Alfred Stieglitz did a long series of pictures of clouds which I always interpreted as a desire to remove subjective response to the object of the photography using clouds not as symbolic representations of stormy weather or peaceful sunsets, but simply as close to abstract patterns as you could get and not abandon "photographic" quality. (You didn't want anyone to think you were trying to imitate a painting.)

One response Sarah had was "This is not a broom"

In my comment yesterday I said I thought it might be a Man Ray Tribute, but now I'm leaning more toward a child of Mondrian and Miro. Very few elements, straight line geometric elements with that crazy twist of what looks like painted quarter inch copper pipe or maybe some kind of coaxial cable.(Is the right hand wall really curved?)

But realistic portrayals of the real world are interesting as well. One of the values we all get hammered into us in photography class is the power of the illusion of depth. If you have to sum this up in one quip, as I did in a recent handout, it is to use directional lighting.

"flat lighting"

Whaddya mean flat lighting. This isn't flat - it's directional as hell. It's coming from, if he were standing there through what was probably a long exposure, over the photographer's right shoulder. It's diffuse as hell, probably an open door or a really big window, just what you'd expect to find occasionally in a stairwell between landings. I think there's also an electric light in about the same direction, putting a little reddish glow at the right. It provides depth in a lot of ways. The shade of the walls provides a gradient as you change the angle from the source. It casts the shadow of the broom handle. As the twisted pipe moves in and out of the shadow you can perceive it's three dimensionality. There's kind of a Minor White conversations with light quality about it.

And who says directional light is the only light you can have a conversation with. It always use to piss me off when students would whine "but it was a grey day" when I would criticize them for turning in a flat photograph.

Flat is negative print (and screen) value too and full range it's opposite, Igor's got that nailed. There's a pretty white highlight on the left wall's edge, and the floor and the broom bristles anchor the low end.

And there are other cues to depth independent of lighting. Theres a good bit of one point perspective, and a bit of the broom bristles go behind the wall so you know there's a passage to the left there. (It could be just a few inch indentation though)

And you don't need that much depth for your illusion. Aaron Siskind did it with a relief of about an eighth of an inch.

"non-descript subject matter"

Celebration of the ordinary has been as big a theme in art as the nude or heroic battle. I've quoted Fox Talbot on it here before. I've always thought you didn't have to go to Monument Valley to find something to photograph. As a matter of fact, the art in it is often pulling off stopping and doing what's necessary to capture something you just run into.

Harry Callahan's pictures from Chicago, Detroit and Providence exemplify this and it was taken to kind of extremes by Irving Penn's platinum prints of cigarettes. Again, the idea is to make a beautiful photograph, not a photograph of beautiful things.

And think of the symbolism! OK, that's a little dramatic. When thinking yesterday of what this could be a tribute to, instead of an artist, it may have been a tribute to a favorite relative or friend who was a custodian. Sarah thought of it as a metaphor for the constant need for cleaning, a variation on the theme of decay you so often see around here at f295.

Or it could be about all workers. If I started going on about that I'd probably go over the line into class warfare pretty quickly so I won't' even start.

This is all very interpretive, and I'm a little worried about how pedantic it is (I just saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris), but maybe that's what we want from a work of art, something to make us think while we're decorating our local environment.

Thanks a lot, Igor, this was fun.

The discussion went on for two pages. Most of the comments consisting of multiple paragraphs complimenting the quality of the photograph and the theme of ordinariness. It included Kier's thoughtful response to my essay and a defense of his disinterest by someone else. 

It was very civil with no flaming.



  1. All these considerations were a lot of fun and some very interesting. I used to be part of f295. I miss them.

  2. Yes I agree totally. f295 was the best of forums both in terms of content and the respectful nature of discussions. Odile, I still have your print on my wall from one of the print exchanges. Nick, I still like making people scratch their heads at the notion of photographing with a cereal packet! My Populist is over 10 years old now and apart from a replacement shutter (aka small piece of card) it has worked perfectly and produced beautiful images all the way.