Friday, November 30, 2012

The Groundglass

Composing a photographic image is really the "guts" of the photographic arts.  A little while back here I delved into many of the details involved in the decisions that must be made in order to arrive at a particular composition. Those particular decisions I examined were independent from any hardware considerations. All of these "editing" choices were influenced solely by the mind and artistic sensibilities of the artist. I'd like to turn now to the various hardware (and their related techniques) that enable the photographer to make those choices and effectively arrive at a successful composition.

How does a photographer know and select when the right image has been achieved? Three basic methods (and their respective hardware systems) have been developed over the past couple of centuries: the groundglass, the optical viewfinder, and P&S (point and shoot). Although this list is more or less an historical sequence it does not quite reflect a linear evolution as it has ebbed and flowed and produced hybrid results along the way.

Rudimentary groundglass setup,
using a magnifying glass as the imaging lens,
 and white plastic film as the groundglass,
© Bill Brockmeier, 2012
Early in the development of photography the photosensitive material responsible for the recording of the image was in the form of a plate. In the beginning it was the metal plate (daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc.), which eventually gave way to the glass plate. Since these rigid and planar photosensitive surfaces were modular in form it was pretty obvious early on that they could be simply exchanged for a similar-sized glass plate that was "ground" rough on one side (frosted). This frosted surface would diffusely scatter the image's light, and would act as a kind of projection screen so the image itself could be viewed and focused properly. This would also allow the photographer to adjust the location and direction of the camera while watching the image in real time.

Fundamentally, the operator was looking directly at what the final photograph would look like, identical in size as well as composition, albeit upside-down due to the geometric realities of lenses. When in place, the groundglass became the surrogate for the photographic plate. Once the proper focus and desired composition was set the groundglass could be removed and the actual photographic plate inserted in its place. Finally, the image would be exposed onto the photographic plate and recorded for posterity. With the camera work complete all that remained was to chemically reveal (develop and stabilize) the image on the plate.

HIS OWN WORLD, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
all rights reserved.
This ability to directly see what the final photograph would be seemed axiomatic for the definition of photographic art. Analogous to a painter viewing a scene and then manipulating pigments on a canvas, the photographer would view the scene directly and then retire to beneath his blackout cloth to view the image on the groundglass and manipulate it by modifying the location and direction of the camera and its lens settings.

Hidden beneath his black cloth and behind his camera, the artist is optically isolated from the real scene and is alone with his illuminated image on the groundglass. Of the three basic composition systems I mentioned above this method probably most removes the artist from the external reality which is the source of his image. This situation, coupled with the fact that the image is being viewed upside-down, provides a certain level of abstraction of the image. Only by frequent immersion in this inverted image-world and by a dogged determination to see the real world-as-it-is beyond this inversion can the abstraction be avoided.

The image on the groundglass is actually evidence not of the scene (the objective reality) but rather of the photograph– the image, the art, even the mind of the artist (the subjective reality). This groundglass method of composing the image, as archaic and outmoded as it seems today, has achieved a high renaissance in recent years. Although most don't realize it, modern computerized digital cameras possess their own high-technology version of the groundglass– the electronic display.

The electronic display–
a modern version of the groundglass plate,
© Bill Brockmeier, 2012
This electronic display sits on the back of the camera, just like the real groundglass of more than a century ago, and is the ultimate result of an image focused on the photosensitive surface inside the camera. While the true groundglass reveals the image simply and directly, the electronic display is coupled to the image by a hidden and unimaginably complex chain of digital electronics. The photographer here, as with the groundglass, is looking at a surrogate of what the final photograph will actually be, rather than somehow looking out directly into the scene itself. One difference, however, is that modern camera makers have bowed to conventional notions of reality and have re-inverted (or maybe un-inverted) the image so the photographer views it right-side-up. Although most users probably appreciate this I'm not sure this is actually a plus for the artist. I believe that leaving the image upside-down can allow a more intimate access to the actual power and subtlety residing in the composition of the image.

Also, because the photographer is looking at an image that is within arm's reach (for both the groundglass and the electronic display) he is further separated from the external world. The fact that this image is physically close to the photographer causes his eyes to accommodate, or focus closer, on this nearby object. That may not seem like much of a consideration, but the brain interprets what it sees substantially based on this level of accommodation. Certain powerful optical illusions (like the "moon illusion") depend heavily upon the degree to which the eye's lens is focused. Looking at an absolutely identical image at close range is perceptually very different than seeing the original scene at a distance. This effect can further abstract the image for the photographer.

These abstracting aspects of the electronic display– the new "groundglass"– have revolutionized my own approach to this art. Once I became connected to the immediate ability to hold in my own hands a replica of the final photograph– before it had even been taken– I couldn't imagine ever going back to the "dark ages" of shoot-and-hope.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Deep Communication

I was recently present at a "celebration" event (some would have referred to it as a funeral, but that would be a misnomer in this case) for a woman I had met a few years before. Although I did not know her well, I was happy not only to attend, but to participate on some level as well. It was a remarkable conclusion to a remarkable life that had been lived well and to more than the fullest extent.

You might wonder what a funeral might have to do with photography or art. As I sat among the group celebrating this lady's life, and being surrounded by some marvelous and captivating music, I began to ponder some of the more profound aspects of this thing we call art. What is it about artful expression that so captures us and draws us into its sphere? How can it gain such access into the deeper regions of our minds, our emotions, our spirits? Why are some of us so driven to produce it and attempt to excel at it?

The music I was hearing was certainly calling out, and speaking to my soul. I experienced the need to respond, and so I did at the appropriate opportunities which were offered. The art of music is obviously brimming with what we would call communication– not simply the transfer of information, but the interchange of something much more more significant and vital.

UNEXPECTED LIGHT, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
all rights reserved by the artist.
Several times the event was punctuated by profound and relevant periods of prayer. These were not intrusions or distractions in the least, but existed entirely within the flow of the moment. Prayer led to music which flowed into prayer which curled around more music which embraced yet more prayer. The praying and the music all seemed to be involved in the same process, which was a conversation involving those in front who were leading this celebration, as well as those of us in the "audience," and of course, God Himself.

It was clear that there was a profound parallel and resonance between the communication offered through prayer and that offered through musical expression. It was only the mode that was different, and that not by much. The depth, the intensity, the value, and the beauty of each was similar. Each was concerned fundamentally with taking a precious and rich gift from who knows what depths of the heart, bringing it to the surface, and expressing it to one who was listening.

On the drive home I thought more about this and realized that nearly every art form, whether sculpting, painting, poetry, or <<fill in the blank>>, has the goal and capacity  for deep, rich conversation between two or more individuals. And, of course, that is precisely the point and power of prayer as well.

I remember the now-cliched zen koan– "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"  I would paraphrase that as– "If someone produces a creative work and no one is there to receive it, is it really art?" I am convinced that real art must have this aspect of true human conversation to it or it is sterile and empty.

And finally, "If someone 'prays' out into the void, not knowing for certain if there is Someone there listening, is it really prayer?" Simply speaking out into the universe is not really conversation as much as it is wishful thinking. First of all, know Who you are speaking to, and then take sufficient time and attention to listen. You might be amazed at what you hear.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Unexpected Gold

Growing up in the Midwest, I was absolutely enamoured with the deep pine forests of the Rocky Mountains. I had been born in Denver, but after our family moved to Kansas City we only visited the mountains as tourists once a year. The plains of Kansas and Missouri surrounded my home for a hundred miles in every direction and these were not populated by large forests of any kind, let alone the lofty pine. These evergreen trees were exotic to my young mind and seemed so different than the few hardwoods I was familiar with. The pines were incredibly tall, and rather than spreading broad branches in a horizontal scheme, they seemed to soar straight up into the heavens, their tops even tickling the feet of angels flying "up there."

Another way in which these pines seemed so superior to the oaks, maples, and sycamores I knew was that their "leaves" were made for the long haul. Unlike my lowly hardwoods, which weakly dropped their entire crop of leaves as the weather turned cool in the fall, the ever-green pines had wonderfully exotic needles with which they eternally clothed themselves. Even through the coldest arctic blasts the proud and stoic pines kept their deep green cloaks wrapped tightly about them. Never naked, never shivering in the cold, they seemed to laugh at what the winter threw their way.

BARELY GREEN, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
All rights reserved by the artist
When I moved to South Texas thirty years ago, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the "secret" held by the magnificent cypress tree. The Hill Country in which I live is filled with the clear, cold, fast rushing rivers and streams which host the wonderful cypress. These trees nearly always grow at the very edge of the rivers, thrusting their feet and legs– up to their knees– into the fresh water and solid rock limestone bed. Some of these huge seniors are known to have seen over a thousand seasons, and who knows how many floods.

These cypress giants seemed so much to me like the pines I idolized as a boy. They were incredibly massive and tall, as were the pines. This was certainly a "tree's tree" that fulfilled the biblical description of the "Cedars of Lebanon." And the finely divided leaflets seemed so much like the pine's needles. These were clearly in the "evergreen" class of trees. Or so I thought.

BROAD PALLET, © Bill Brockmeier
All rights reserved by the artist
After our first summer in South Texas, with the coolness of autumn descending from the north, we began exploring the Hill Country in earnest. As we approached one of the seductively clear rivers on our journey, I noticed something strikingly odd about it. This stretch of once magnificent cypresses was turning brown and some were already bare and apparently dead. How could this have happened? Was it some strange tree-specific blight killing them in succession? Was some out of control insect species to blame? Had something been dumped in the river and poisoned them? What a tragedy!

As we drove on and came to another river the same depressing scenario appeared at the river banks. We couldn't believe how badly this plague had progressed. We were somewhat deflated as we finally arrived home.

That evening, as I read about the bald cypress in our field manual of trees, I suddenly realized the ignorant mistake I had made. These cypress were NOT the evergreens I had supposed them to be, but were actually classified as deciduous trees! These trees were supposed to drop their leaves each fall. I sheepishly told my wife about the truth I had just discovered.

In the few decades since that time I have come to appreciate the rich gold, amber, and orange show the cypress makes each November. I now actually look forward to this unusual autumn display of deciduous splendor. It is kind of ironic that growing up in the Midwest, where gorgeous autumn trees are the norm, I now live in South Texas where most of the oaks are "live" (nearly evergreen), and this seemingly "evergreen" cypress is one of the few deciduous trees. As a wise man once said: "Go figure..."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Solitude, Silence, and Stillness

About a week ago I took the opportunity to visit my Art and Conservation project site in the Texas Hill Country. If you recall my posts of the summer, I had been assigned a Nature Conservancy land trust that is located somewhere between the little towns of Sisterdale and Comfort. The trust is situated along a nearly one-mile stretch of the cold, clear Guadalupe River.  This was my first chance to return in a couple of months and I was looking forward to spending nearly a full day there: capturing images and getting to know the place.

I had called and left a message with the landowners informing them of my trip out there. Since they hadn't responded within a day of my phone-call  I didn't expect them to be there, and they weren't. I would have this huge natural gem to myself– I almost felt guilty about it.

I had arrived a couple of hours after dawn. Even though it was well into morning, the fairly high bluff on the southeast bank of the river was still deep in shade and the day seemed younger than it was. The air was crisp and new. 

I drove my truck slowly over the nearly invisible trail on the precipice above the silt plane adjacent to the river. The bank on this side was already well lit by the sun. The sun's beams had not yet illuminated the river itself, still a hundred or more yards away, but I imagined I could see ripples sparkling on its surface. I parked and exited my truck, attempting to close my door without breaking the silence that surrounded me. The only sound I could now hear was the whispering babble of the river in the distance, but perhaps I imagined that as well. 

CYPRESS LANE, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
All rights reserved by the artist
It is really remarkable when you finally find yourself in a place where silence reigns. No street traffic, no humming AC units, no TVs inanely yakking in the distance...not even an aircraft in the clear blue overhead. It is amazing how the immediacy of life comes to the fore when there are no external sounds to distract you. All of a sudden you feel your own heart beating in your own chest. You can feel/hear the rushing "whoosh" of your blood as it streams through the capillaries of your inner ears. And then you start to "hear" your own thoughts. They become so clearly audible that you'd swear you were speaking them, but then you realize that your lips and tongue are not moving and your mouth is still closed. 

The lack of external sound can also amplify the sense of vision. Magnificent, large cypresses lined the river in front of me and their deep green leaves were brilliantly backlit in front of the yet-dark bluff behind them. Even though a hundred yards off, it seemed I was seeing the finely cut "needles" in perfect clarity and in higher resolution than my eyes were physically capable of. 

COLOR IN THE SHADOWS, © Bill Brockmeier, 2012
All rights reserved by the artist.
I headed down to the river itself after taking a few exploratory photographs from afar. Now at the immediate banks of the Guadalupe I could hear the actual sound of it. The audible sensation of running water is something exquisitely marvelous and magical. I don't believe I could ever tire of it. The hearing of it is, to me, as refreshing and enlivening as taking a long, slow drink of it. My ears drink in the sound of it. 

I continued to photograph throughout the day, moving freely through the conservancy trust. It was not only the lack of man-made sound distractions, but also the total absence of any human contact for seven or eight hours that was refreshing and invigorating. It is marvelously cleansing to be immersed in nothing but the Creator's handiwork. And when you come so face-to-face with His Art, it makes communication with Him that much more immediate and powerful.

Personally, I take great joy in talking with people about my own creative work– hearing what they think and feel about it, and giving them my insight into how the work came about and what it means to me. I believe it is the same with the original and authentic Creator– He, and we, can take great joy in conversing about His work as we experience and consider it. And He will give us insight into how this creation came about and what it ultimately means.