Friday, July 2, 2010

Five Wounds: Photographs and Etchings

[The discussion below continues from two previous posts: one on 'Tone and Line', and one on 'The Making of Five Wounds', the latter being a copy of a guest post on Spike, the Meanjin blog ]

Because of my experience as a photographer, when I came to write instructions for Dan for the illustrations for Five Wounds, I had a default aesthetic in which maximum definition of detail, low contrast, and a long tonal scale were important values. This photographic aesthetic led me to misinterpret certain aspects of Francisco Goya’s etchings, which Dan and I used as a common point of reference in the early stages of our collaboration (a couple of examples from Goya's series Los Caprichos are reproduced below).

Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, Plate 21

Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, Plate 64

Etchings are a reproduction technique based upon drawing, but Goya’s also use acquatint, which deliberately introduces random ‘noise’ into their backgrounds. Areas that might, in a different kind of image, be represented as an undifferentiated, empty field, or as cross-hatched, murky shadows, are instead broken up by the application of acquatint, which creates an irregular textured effect, as in the examples above. I did not actually know what acquatint was when Dan and I began to work on Five Wounds, but I could nonetheless see that Goya had flattened the tonal scale by breaking up the backgrounds of his images with the visual equivalent of static. The only analogy I could think of was film grain in photography.

It did not help that the editions of Goya I consulted were printed at a lower contrast than the original etchings (this is not the case with the samples above, which are more accurate reproductions). Reproductions of etchings in modern books usually involve their conversion into half-tones via photographs of the originals. Getting thick blacks in a printed book requires heavy paper to hold the requisite amount of ink, and multiple passes through the press to build up the densities (in some cases, it may also involve the addition of other colours into the black areas, to create a so-called 'rich black'). Conversely, the white end of the tonal scale is represented by whatever the paper base is, and in cheap editions this is invariably a dirty grey rather than a bleached pristine tone. Cheaper, mass-produced images therefore almost always sacrifice accurate representation of tonal values for budgetary reasons, but I did not realise this, and so I thought that the flat contrast was an effect intended by Goya.

The first set of images that Dan created for Five Wounds were the ‘Plates’, and my scripts for these were heavily influenced by my misinterpretation of Goya, as mediated through my experience as a photographer. I therefore asked for an oppressive, clinical accumulation of detail, almost like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, except with the opposite emotional effect, and I wanted a flattened tonal scale that corresponded to a flattened emotional response: that is, to the experience of trauma, which results in an inability to organise memories effectively (that is, an inability to suppress irrelevant information, to forget).

I also conceptualised the desired compositions in photographic terms. So I often asked Dan for either ‘telephoto’ or ‘wide-angle’ effects. The former implies a flattened perspective, a compressed representation of space that makes it difficult to separate near from far; the latter, by contrast, implies that space is opened up via abrupt recessions and violent changes in scale between the foreground and background. Wide-angle compositions are inherently melodramatic; telephoto compositions create a feeling of constraint. Mostly, I wanted telephoto effects. But the most explicit manifestation of this collision between two different aesthetics was that I asked Dan to incorporate pseudo-photographic textures into his drawings.

Many of these textures are used to suggest that the physical integrity of the image itself is breaking down, but in a radical sense: that is, in these images, the medium of drawing itself cannot maintain its integrity as a specific technology of representation, and it is therefore 'contaminated' by photography. Hence my scripts for Dan jumbled up picture references from works on the conservation of etchings, and those on daguerreotypes (an early photographic technology that is referenced extensively within the text of the novel), but – somewhat perversely – in both cases I only copied those images that illustrated what happened when things went wrong.

Several of the Plates therefore have pseudo-acquatint effects as well as pseudo-photographic textures, and they have a long, soft tonal scale, with minute accumulations of detail. Ideally, I wanted the viewer to be able to go over them with a magnifying glass.

Plate 14: Dust, dynamic

For example, Plate 14, Dust, dynamic, above, includes acquatint effects in the background, which are here given a kind of diegetic justification within the picture space by analogy to the event depicted in the foreground, which shows Crow blowing a handful of dust towards the recumbent Magpie. In the novel, the dust represents the relationship between signal and noise in information theory (among other things). In fact, there are two 'clouds' of dust in the image here, representing the exhalations of the two characters shown, one cloud contained within the other, and both contained within the surrounding aura of the textured background. In other words, there is no clear conceptual separation between object and field, an idea I took from photography, and from Goya's use of acquatint.

The figure of Crow on one knee from Plate 14 is cloned and placed at the centre of the subsequent Plate 16, Bang!, reproduced below, which depicts the destruction of the ducal palace in Venice by means of an explosion, in a development inspired by Guy Fawkes. The use of concentric circles in the composition is a reference to Tintoretto's Paradise (which is also alluded to in several other illustrations). The reproduction of the pose from Plate 14 draws a visual analogy between the exhalation of breath in Plate 14 and the violent, massive displacement of air in the explosion of Plate 16, an analogy that is underlined via two handwritten annotations underneath Plates 14 and 16: 'I'll huff and I'll puff ...' on the former; '... And I'll blow your house down' on the latter (these annotations are not visible on the versions of the Plates included here).

Plate 16: Bang!

The level of detail and the minute variations in textural effect that Dan worked into the Plates is probably not apparent in these online reproductions, but it may be observed from a magnified detail from Plate 16, appended below.

Detail from Plate 16: Bang!

As might be expected, the photographic aesthetic I had in mind sometimes 'clashed' with Dan's instincts as an artist. As a result, he sometimes ignored (or perhaps creatively misinterpreted) my instructions. Dan seemed to prefer chiaroscuro effects and what I would describe as wide-angle compositions, but in editing these images, I would often ask him to break up areas of undifferentiated tone with noise, or to add additional layers to an image, to build up a sense of compression.

The final version of Plate 2, Cur’s first murder, followed by the draft, reproduced below, indicate this conflict – or rather ongoing dialogue – clearly. Note that, in this image, as in several others, the ‘effects’ (the textures that mimic picture damage) are both ‘inside’ and ‘on top of’ the image: they exist in both the picture space and on the picture plane, and, as I suggested above, one of their purposes is in fact to obscure this conceptual distinction, as the accompanying text obscures the distinction between realist narrative and allegory. The 'effects' therefore apply most visibly to areas of the image that would otherwise be rendered as either pure white or pure black.

Plate 2: Cur's first murder

Corrections to Plate 2

When we moved on to the later stages of the collaboration, and in particular to an entirely separate set of illustrations, which are integrated into the page layouts, Dan switched techniques. In contrast to the Plates, these later images embrace the limitations of drawing, and revert to its binary system of black line against a white field. This was a logical extension of my intention to give Dan greater creative autonomy in this phase of the collaboration: that is, he was no longer under any obligation to mimic photographic effects, or to conform to my aesthetic expectations. Below are a couple of these 'pure' drawings, which have a quite different feel to the Plates, emotionally as well as technically.

Cur and the black dog

Cuckoo the trickster

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