Having recently embarked into a deep metaphysical concept, one that is engaged in a personal and cathartic journey of self-discovery, I needed a camera system that would support such an endeavor. Following some experiments with a regular 35mm DSLR, as well as some exotic medium format digital systems, it quickly became apparent that a perfect camera system would not fulfill the ephemeral nature of the images desired to illustrate such a complex project.
The key components sought for these photographs involved a round image format, as a temporal disconnect akin to the first Kodak box camera of the late 1800’s, and the soft focus dreamlike quality of the pinhole mechanism.
Image # 2: Custom fabricated medium format digital camera
With these precepts established, a custom built camera was undertaken, consisting of a flawed medium format digital array (Phase One P25 with dead pixels and a non functioning back display), a brass pinhole mounted on a 1960’s view camera shutter (that only opens and closes without the regular shutter speeds) affixed to the drilled protective plate supplied with the digital back. This system produces round images due to the close proximity of the wide-open shutter to the array, a soft rendition of the scene from the pinhole and even more interestingly some unpredictable aberrations due to the capture process that involves a dual firing of the shutter, the first to “wake up” the digital back that does not communicate with this mechanical only system, and in rapid succession a second capture for the actual image recording.
The following image clearly shows the results from the twin exposures, the unpredictable aberrations that add a chance element to the photographs, as a subtle reference to alternate planes of reality.
Another aspect of this custom camera resides in its propensity to suffer from extreme flare, a flaw that can then utilized for expressive purposes with the addition of artificial battery powered lighting on location (continuous or flash) projected directly into the pinhole opening.
Cathy Dutertre, Deity, “Behind the Veil” series, 2014
In addition, the absence of a viewfinder and the lack of a functioning back display means that the operator has no way of knowing if the subject, in this case myself as a self-portraiture approach, is actually in the frame and compositionally correct within the environment. This additional chance element allows for a slow and methodical process, one that required much experimentation in order to pre-visualize the camera’s field of view. Finally, the color palettes generated by the pinhole can be surprising depending on the quality and intensity of the light at the time of capture, resulting in images that either work well within the concept’s narrative or not at it is often the case.
Cathy Dutertre. Loss, “Quest” series, 2013
As in all concepts, the tools utilized to generate images that support the project must be derived from the “What” and “Why” aspects, the intellectual approach needed to achieve a cohesive series of photographs that contain the visual elements supportive of the artist’s intent. In this case, this “round” pinhole camera has proven to be most effective with these communicative efforts, yet complex to operate, unpredictable for the most part, a magnet for dust that needs cleaning several times a day, but always wonderfully surprising, as photography should be, and was in the analog realm.
Is it a form of art? A lack of imagination? Or just plain theft?
According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word appropriation is described as: “When you take something for your own use, usually without permission”
So with this definition in mind, it is natural to think of this topic as a ‘hot button” for many, but particularly for professional photographers, in the commercial as well as the fine art realms. As an active member of the American Society of Media Photographers for many years, I can attest to the fact that this singular topic is akin to opening the pen of domestic animals to a pack of wolves, with the resulting carnage and even occasional self-cannibalism in the process.
First, we must look at the established parameters for all creative materials. Are they copyrighted? Has the copyright term expired? Are they part of the public domain? These factors would initially establish the potential legal use of these materials, the conditions for the usage and the ultimate outcome of the subsequent work created from the materials. These questions are more of a legal approach to the topic, but nevertheless an important starting point. It is crucial to remember that the courts do not make judgments on the artistic merits of any works of art, but rather look at their specific status within the current copyright laws. Having said that, there is a current flurry of activity proposing changes to the copyright laws (not in favor of the creators), as well as a number of class action lawsuits against Google and Getty Images. So far, the courts have often ruled against the appropriator, much to the chagrin of the art elite who proclaims appropriation to be integral posit to post modernist art, freedom and all kinds of elitist dribble. Sadly, the copyright laws are being eroded and more often than not the courts are now swaying in favor of the appropriation culprits.
Photograph by Mannie Garcia (AP) / Artwork by Shepard Fairey
Secondly, the vast proliferation of images in a globally connected world and social medias in all forms will invariably lead to the proliferation of appropriation, often under the incorrect assumption that if it is on the internet it is free to use and fair game. Google is the biggest culprit, gathering millions of images for the purpose of gathering data on the viewer and/or user of said images. Interestingly, Shepard Fairey found the image of Obama on Google. Should you care to check the terms and conditions for most social media platforms, you may be surprised at the dangers of putting your images on these media! Technology has changed the entire premise of copyright laws, eroding these in the process, yet the world moves forward and so we must evolve as fighting Google, Getty Images or the social media platforms is simply futile. The genie, or monster, is out of the bottle.
Last, and perhaps more importantly in my personal opinion, is the intent of the person who appropriates the materials. Is the person or artist using these as a precursor and inspiration for their own output? Are they replicating or duplicating the materials for personal use or commercial gain from the public or private enterprises? Are they using them to produce a new generation of art, one that takes its roots from the originals but departs in a newer creative form? Are the materials used for academic purposes and following the established rules of that usage? So, at the root of this topic are the ethics within the intent of the person or persons who appropriate the art (in its many forms). Appropriation is not new, gaining momentum with the Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, the readymade urinal presented by Marcel Duchamp in 1915, the 1950’s works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Pop art and the emergence of post modernism with notable users of appropriation such as Jeff Koons and Sherry Levine. The polemics of what constitutes art cannot be presented in such a limited blog format, suffice to say that appropriation art is a complex topic that can be debated by the art elite in between ritzy gallery openings, museum gatherings and the columns of well read publications that do not address farming or livestock in any fashion.
Photograph by Art Rogers, 1980 / Sculpture by Jeff Koons, 1998 Photograph by Walker Evans, 1936 / Re-photographed by Sherry Levine, 1981
Ultimately, and in response to the title of this blog, appropriation can be a form of art, a lack of imagination, or just simply theft. As any good lawyer would say: It depends. In this case I would affirm that it depends on the intentions and ethics of the appropriator, or some ubiquitous discussions on what constitutes art and its ownership.
The use of movement and slow shutter speeds for concept-based intents and visual experiential outcomes.
Photo Credit: Edgerton Harold
The uniqueness of the medium of photography resides in its ability to capture the passage of time, either with a long exposure or just freezing a moment in time. High-speed photography allows us to observe the fast actions of the world, the hidden spatial movements of humans, animals, as well as the physical properties of actions and laws of physics.
Photo Credit: Richard Copeland Miller
The reverse of high -speed photography, the capture of movement has also immense potentials for expressive outcomes, the study of the passage of time as a unique characteristic of the medium. Extrusive time, an academic term, refers to slow shutter speeds, long exposures and movements within the subject or scene, as well as with the camera as we will explore shortly. Although many artists have explored extrusive time, either due to the limitations of their historical process, one with low sensitivity such as the Daguerreotype or wet collodion, or even slow optics, others have used these inherent limitations to record the passage of time for an emotional and ephemeral outcome. One of my greatest influences resides with Richard Copeland Miller who photographed the country of Romania in his book entitled “Passage Europe” in a most somber and immensely emotional manner, using both extrusive time and camera shake to imbue the viewer with an extraordinary sense of sadness and nostalgia for a country left behind in the 20th Century. Sadly, he passed away at an early age, yet his work resonates the deepest within my soul.
Photo Credit: Richard Copeland Miller “Ephemeral” by Cathy Dutertre
Cathy Dutertre has made extensive use of extrusive time with several of her current projects, “Behind the Veil” and “Behind the Mask”. Using a tethered stationary camera, she will produce a performance (another academic term that designates a sub-genre of self-portraiture) together with various props in order to arrive at highly expressive images. The exposures are often in the 30 second to several minutes’ ranges, the tethering allows her to adjust her movements in order to arrive at a precise artistic outcome.
Photo by Cathy Dutertre, 2014 Photo by Cathy Dutertre, 2014
Another aspect of illustrating movement resides in the camera’s movement during capture, the act of altering and deconstructing the scene using a variety of techniques including ND filters, variable movements of the camera and rear sync flash.
Photo by Cathy Dutertre, 2014 “Chinoiserie” by Cathy Dutertre
Using movement, either from the subject or the recording device can be extremely emotional as the viewer re-interprets the image from a mental and emotional rather than physical points of view, whereas the use of extrusive time allows the artist to remodel the world at large, exposing the viewers to the astounding ability of the medium to record the passage of time.
The Technique of Variable Planes of Focus for Reflective Artistic Outcomes
Photo by Pierre Dutertre
View cameras, with their ability to independently move the front and back standards to generate sharp images within complex environments where the detail of a product or structure has to be fully rendered, have been around for well over a century. Architectural photographers have used the swings, tilts and shift functions of their view cameras to generate accurate, fully focused and standard renditions of interiors and exteriors, ensuring perfect vertical lines and recording the fine details of a particular space or building. Commercial artists have indeed been fortunate to control precise planes of focus to accurately represent products without distortion and with immense or a very shallow depth of field. This was predominant in food photography, where only a small portion of the image would be in focus, thereby creating a visceral and imaginative reaction with the viewer.
However, this ability to precisely control 3-dimensional planes of focus (also known perhaps incorrectly as selective focus) can also be utilized by the creative artist who desires to highlight a particular point of interest in a scene, directing the viewer to an area of interest as intended for a concept-based reflective intent. This technique relies on the ability to move the lens 3-dimensionnally, with the equivalent of the swings and tilts available in a view camera format. There are several alternatives that replicate the front movements of a view camera, from the easily attainable to the exotic. The beginning point resides in a lens baby set-up available for 35mm DSLR cameras.
The operator can simply twist the lens in multiple directions to generate a fairly precise 3-diemnsional plane of focus.
The results can be very creative in isolating certain parts of the scene in order to create a mood or an ephemeral and mysterious image that denies a full view to the viewer, allowing for directed and controlled points of interest and therefore an artistic communication, resulting in a reinterpretation of the scene by the viewer.
Photo by Cathy Dutertre, 2012 Mounted Canon PC Type Lens, Tilted
Perspective correction (PC) or tilt-shift lenses for 35mm and medium format cameras have been primarily used by architectural photographers in order to control perspectives and distortion, but these exotic prime lenses can also be used to imbue a distinctive style and content to an image.
The Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II allows for shifts and tilts, but can also be rotated to create a similar result of the lens baby, yet preserving a superior optical rendition.
“White Knight” by Cathy Dutertre
At the high end of the spectrum, one can use the X2 PRO system created for medium format and 35mm digital cameras, replicating the precise movements found in a view camera that otherwise may not be the best suited tool.
X2Pro, Fully Extended
Although created for studio use the X2 PRO is still manageable on location as in my personal use, despite the bulk and weight of the complete assembly. Mounted with a refurbished Mamiya body, a flawed Phase One P25 digital array, an ancient Mamiya RZ lens and a monopod, this rig has been a mainstay of many of my personal projects, allowing me to precisely control the 3-dimensional planes of selective focus to convey a mood and expressive / reflective artistic outcome. From a banal scene, I am able to extract the essence of a particular subject in order to imbue the image with a communicative message, the real subject matter that transcends the recording abilities of the medium.
“Dawn” by Pierre Dutertre “Weeping” by Pierre Dutertre
In effect, the technique of variable planes of focus imitates to some extent our human vision, monocular eyes that have a central point of sharpness, blurred peripheries and adjustable parallel focusing. The ability to push beyond these organic parameters with 3-dimensional planes of focus allows for a creative outcome, making images that are precisely controlled to add a quasi surrealist feel and mood, deconstructing unnecessary elements that do not support the concept, and creating engagement with the viewer as they examine a reconstructed reality as a personal communicative effort on the part of the artist.