Memory lapses and other failures

I tend to think of myself as pretty self-critical, at least in generally having a lower opinion of my work than most people around me seem to – assuming the feedback I get is honest and not just a brush-off. However, there were a few series of pictures I’d done in the past that I thought were pretty decent. So it was with some pleasure that I came across a box of prints from one of those in my Mom’s attic a few weeks ago. However, this turned out more than a simple stroll down memory lane; I’ve had to rethink some things as a result.

The leader of the pack, so to speak. I’ve always been very uncharacteristically pleased with this picture, and still more uncharacteristically continue to be.
Another favorite from the box. Is it just about the yellow bits?

After the initial elation wore off, I discovered that many of these pictures have not held up very well, and I’m not really sure why I remembered the whole set as so much more vibrant and engaging than it seems to me now.

These pictures were made for an advanced color class I took at Columbia College back in the 1990s. Having come on the back of one of my first conceptual dry spells, it was probably one of the most thought-out projects I’d done up to that time. On the technical side, it was my first project using medium-format film, which generally gives wonderful definition and increased tonal separation.

The series was called “Signs of Life”, and concentrated on traces of everyday activity that created little touches of poetry in our otherwise mundane surroundings. This could be a good example:

But looking through the box, I see a lot more misses than hits, like this one:

While compositionally it has a certain dynamic balance I enjoy, content-wise it’s pretty much a one-liner. There’s nothing of the unintended artistry of the scrape in the one above about it. Technically it’s also nothing special – it certainly wouldn’t be any worse if I hadn’t sprung for the medium format film.

I keep looking back at Aaron Siskind’s paint-and-glue wall detail images in the hope that I can find the thing that doesn’t work for me (those who know his work I’m sure can tell I steal from the man greedy armfuls of ideas, if not successful executions):

All hail the master

Obviously, aside from the hubris of comparing my work to his, Siskind didn’t necessarily ace every shot, and didn’t show all of his failures, either, and I have no real way of knowing how he saw his work a few years after he’d made it. The question is more about why thirty years ago I thought I had something, when today it’s pretty clear to me that I didn’t. I can’t really put it down to just having more experience and having seen more things over the intervening years, since I was pretty familiar with Siskind, Eggleston, later Callahan, and many others. I think the main problem is I simply wasn’t nearly as critical of my own work as I like to think. I was still excited about photography (I’m still very engaged in it, though today it’s more of a long-standing obsession, not so much excitement). Maybe today I’m just seeing these with a grown-up’s eyes, and naturally I find them wanting – as I do with almost everything else.

But in the end, whatever it is, this series has certainly shaped my later photography, from a fascination with color to the predilection for square images. And if you look even through the mostly casual snaps on my Instagram stream, it’s clear that I didn’t just leave this series behind when I put it away in the box.

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Triple threat

My triptych project continues. I know I want these to have a more “narrative” feel and be about Chicago’s built environment, but I’m not sure where exactly I’m going with this. So I’m just going to make pictures and then think about a direction once I’ve got something actually produced. In the meantime, criticism gratefully accepted – whether “constructive” or not.

Here’s the latest batch:

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Triptych power

I want pictures that tell stories. So being me, I built a camera that I hope can start doing that about Chicago’s architectural spaces. This is it:

The middle hole is on the bottom

The idea is that the three pinholes take three different views of the same scene – the top ones are heavily up-and-side shifted within their sub-frames to look up at the architecture, and the middle one is shifted down to view the story down below.
This is the kind of thing it gets, in one of Chicago’s more iconic locations:

Yes, it needs work

A little more understandable than my 360 panoramas, I think.

For the tech-minded:
The focal length of each sub-frame is about 30mm. The holes are shifted vertically about 22mm – the upper ones up, the lower one down. The idea is for the camera to look up and down without converging verticals. The upper ones are also shifted horizontally to ensure that they see “to the side” instead of straight ahead. They are also tilted up and down, respectively, in order to avoid the “washed out corner” effect of superwide pinholes. This is to keep any part of the image from being formed by the pinhole at a very reduced aspect ratio.

The holes are drilled in .0005″ (yes, that’s half a thousandth of an inch) stainless steel shim stock from McMaster-Carr. Each one is about .3mm (haven’t measured them exactly, but their sizes are all very closely matched). They are slightly larger than standard for the 30mm focal length, but the shift means the distance from each hole to the far end of the frame is closer to 60mm. I seem to be acceptably sharp – at least I haven’t got anything much sharper from any other medium-format pinhole. I’m getting roughly 1s exposures in daylight on Tri-X 320.

The film transport consists of a stock Singer Graflex 6×7 back. The body of the camera is made of black museum board (salvage from my time cleaning up studios in UIC’s School of Architecture almost a decade ago). Shutters are strips of aluminum roof flashing, with holes punched using an office three-hole punch.

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Narrower Vision

If I have a frustration with the public spaces 360-degree panorama project, it’s with the number of images that I have to reject because the composition is just not strong enough. However, many of these contain parts, often 180-degree halves, that could stand pretty well on their own. Two cases in point: I made these two images as development tests, and I like both of them well enough:

However, both have bits that I think would work better on their own:

So the big dilemma is: Do I let myself crop these to get more effective compositions and alter the concept of the project (showing the enveloping nature of the space I’m photographing), or do I stick to my orthodoxy, and deal with the higher number of rejects? Or, can these stand on their own as singles, while the project moves on along its own track?

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Close to the ground

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