17 May 2009

Just one thing after another

My mother has a six by four matrix of twenty four postcard sized black and white photographs which I took of my youngest brother. I was twenty one years old, at the time; he was was nine. A long time ago. He was learning to head a soccer ball, and the images focus on his facial expressions which range from totally focused determination to astonishment and "ouch!"

I was then, as now, very interested in sequential image matrices. It's not the first deliberate "sequence portrait" I made (that would have been my fellow student and girlfriend at the time, Yulia, ignoring me utterly as she concentrated on a painting in progress) but it was certainly a very early one and perhaps the oldest that survives (Yulia's current whereabouts, and whether or not she still has that matrix, I do not know).

In my own practice I am, for the most part, very much a "straight" photographer[1] in the documentarist tradition. What fascinates me about sequences of images is the combination of two very different ways of seeing. A photograph shows a face, action, or whatever, during a single frozen moment[2], a single "slice through time". A video recording presents at least an illusion of the continuous change which is natural experience – however often you replay the video, you are always replaying the fugitive nature of temporal observation. A sequence, on the other hand, adds a longitudinal sense of change but without sacrificing the photograph's opportunity to dwell on momentary expressions and gestures which would, in a video or real life, pass too fleetingly to appreciate. My sequences are not automated ... I decide when to press the button, when not, so I end up with a very selected set of moments which are then presented together: the viewer can move back and forth at will, looking at each for as long or short a time as s/he wishes.

A sequence also tells a story; long before I started these documentarist sequences, I was captivated by Duane Michals' storyboard constructions.

Shown at top left here (click them if you want a larger view) are extracts from two in an occasional sequences project which I call "conversations", because I make the exposures while talking with the subject (and sometimes other people outside the frame) over a period of time. The upper set are taken from a matrix of 32 exposures made over a period of twenty minutes; the lower set 49 frames across a couple of hours. Frame size, as originally exhibited, has crept up from those postcard sized prints of three and a half decades ago: each image in the first set was a 200mm square, in the second 300 by 420.

Any volunteers to be my next conversational victim?

At top right, by way of comparison, is a nonconversation sequence, taken over a period of maybe a second or two. I love the closed eyes in the final frame, indicating a bliss so much at odds with my own feelings about burgers.

Many of my most interesting sequences are not, alas, exhibitable. Last week, for example, I shot a hundred and fifty frames during a conversation with a student; but the heart breaking psychological fragility which both made the conversation necessary and makes the resulting sequence compelling also makes it unthinkable that they should ever be shown. Well – unthinkable to me, anyway ... I suppose I lack the killer instinct to be a real artist.

  1. There is, of course, no such thing as a "straight record" or a “straight photograph” or, for that matter, a “straight photographer”, but I use the term in the relaxed, day to day sense. I select the moments of exposure, select which of the resulting exposures I use or discard, but generally choose to make no modification of the resulting images beyond adjustment of tonal range along zone system principles (and very occasional cropping). I have no objection to other image modifications; I just don't, by and large, usually choose to make any use of them. Note my repeated use of “select” and “choose” – words which show that I manipulate just as much as those who use methods which I do not.

  2. Loosely and metaphorically speaking, that is. An entire thread over at Photo.net recently ranged around the extent to which the conceptually impossible dimensionless “moment” or “instant” can be said to functionally correspond (or fail to correspond) with the conversational understanding of those words and their practical photographic manifestation.


Jim Putnam said...

Immediately after reading your blog and Unreal Nature, I read this article in Time. It's interesting, not the least because of the sequence I read them.


Julie Heyward said...

I think that maybe, for me, comics are a better analogy than video. Photographic sequences can be like a comic strip or comic book (in the best sense -- a story in sequential images) but due to the much greater detail of a photo, it can be a micro-time comic. Covering a few moments as opposed to minutes or days.