Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Uncanny Double and Photography

We should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope, or a photographic apparatus, or something of the kind. On that basis, psychical locality will correspond to a place inside the apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. 
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud famously analyses ‘The Sandman’, a tale by E. T. A. Hoffman named after a mythical figure who steals children’s eyes. In the story, the character who represents the Sandman has two identities: Coppola and Coppelius. In the former guise, he’s an optician, who also makes eyes for automata; in the latter, an alchemist. In Italian, coppo means ‘eye-socket’, while coppella means ‘assay-crucible’: a white-hot orifice, overflowing with molten light.

Self-knowledge is a prize I pursue through a labyrinth, towards its centre, where I wait for myself. I’m both Oedipus and the sphinx; Theseus and the minotaur. But who lays out the labyrinth? Who carries out the act of repression that banishes an idea to its underworld? In other words, who maps the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious? He’s a censor who controls access to consciousness. He’s an invisible homunculus who watches a screen inside my head at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. He’s my double, who, in the essay on the uncanny, troubles Freud in the form of mannequins and automata, and is initially identified as an avatar of the id: primordial narcissism, which seeks, in duplication, a defence against annihilation.

As is often the way with Freudian concepts, and the effect is especially appropriate here, the double also stands for its opposite (just as unheimlich may also mean heimlich): having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death. In this guise, it doesn’t affirm my existence; it usurps my place. And is thereby revealed as an avatar of the superego, which performs the function of self-observation and self-criticism, and which In the pathological case of delusions of observation becomes isolated, split off from the ego, and discernible to the clinician.

The double is the child of both Coppelius and Coppola: alchemy and optics. He’s my shadow, and my reflection. That is to say, the double is the child of photography, which uses alchemy and optics to combine shadows and reflections. I summon myself with my image.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jon's Notebook

My photography project 'Developing Writers' shows the subjects with their notebooks. Here's a page from my notes relating to the printing of the portraits and accompanying images:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Photographer's Body

Stephen Shore: I was thinking of how I would approach the issue of embodiment in photographic terms, and that is if you become aware of yourself as a physical object in space, as though you were a dancer moving through the space of a room, your perception changes, your perception of space changes, your perception of time changes, and to the degree that that perceptual change is visual, it could be communicated in a photograph. So the sense of space is often the easiest of these subtler qualities to talk about, but if your physical awareness of yourself changes your perception of space, if you are a photographer that has had a lot of experience, a practiced photographer who has control of the medium, the picture you take can communicate that.

Michael Fried: Yes. What struck me in [your] landscape photos .... is that I felt something intensely empathic about, for example, the way they depicted the unevenness of the ground. And about the way in which they treated the whole question of relative distance. It had to be read. I mean I was keenly aware of the visual work I had to do to make my way imaginatively through the photos, to figure out distances, to read scale relations. Let's say there is something at a certain distance, it might be a big rock or it might be a smaller one. Everything depends on whether it is a big rock at 800 yards or a small rock at 75 yards, and those photographs don't immediately deliver that information. They make you work for it, and I came to feel that the labor of construal they forced me to do was implicitly physical, if you see what I mean. It was more than just mental, it was equivalent to imagining myself having to physically negotiate that space. So they were for me extremely interesting photos precisely with respect to the issue of bodiliness and empathy. Also, they made me register the unevenness of the ground in a more than strictly visual way -- the way I would have done had I been walking on it, climbing that slope, or coming back down. 

From an interview in the recent Phaidon volume on Stephen Shore

Monday, July 7, 2014

Street Level Photoworks

This is where I am currently developing my negatives:


I was really pleased to discover such a great public darkroom in Glasgow.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

New Photography Project

I am currently working on a new photography project: my first using a large-format camera since 2005. It depicts Glasgow University creative writing students with their notebooks, in the setting of the university’s Hunterian Gallery. I wanted to use a large-format camera in order to retain resolution in the text on the notebook pages, which occupy a relatively small area in the composition, but are its literal point of focus. The theme is of ‘Developing Writers’, and it seemed appropriate to use analogue technology to depict the similarly analogue character of handwritten notebooks by writers in the process of revising themselves as well as their final portfolio submissions.

 I found this project very challenging on a technical level, for reasons that would not be appropriate to explain at length in a general discussion of the images, but which I’d like to review here, if only for my own satisfaction.

 First of all, I was out of practice with the large-format camera. That’s like being out of practice at running: it takes time to recondition your body to work within the machine's protocol. Secondly, I have never developed my own negatives before. I’ve always made my own prints in a wet darkroom, but for previous projects I shot away from home, and I had the negatives developed by someone else. This wasn't really an option here in Glasgow, and it took me quite a while to get the hang of this part of the process. Numerous fogged or stained films bear witness to my difficulties. Thirdly, the light levels in the Hunterian are low, and the light is also very flat. Using the slow lenses of a large-format camera, the best aperture / shutter speed combination I could get was f8 and 1/15 of a second, even on a 400ASA film pushed one stop to 800. That’s very slow for a portrait, and even at f8, the depth-of-field on a 210mm lens was often only a few centimetres.

I focussed on the handwriting on the notebook pages, but I often couldn’t see clearly enough on the ground-glass screen to get critical focus, or alternatively the sitter moved a few centimetres before exposure, or the paper shifted very slightly during the exposure (sometimes it was 1/8 of a second; occasionally 1/30). Any of these variations was enough to fuzz out the letter shapes on the notebook page, and the human eye has no tolerance for fuzzy typography. Whereas a face can be slightly out of focus and still seem natural, any loss of sharpness in written letters looks ‘wrong’.

In addition to this, the resolving power of my 210mm portrait lens is not as great as I would like. My 90mm wide-angle has much superior optics, but isn’t great for portraiture. I also used a Fuji 6 x 9 as a backup camera, which does have a great lens, and a convenient rangefinder focussing mechanism. I sometimes found that the resolution on the notebook pages was better on the smaller negative of the 6 x 9 than on a large-format negative from the 210mm.

These are all technical problems, but, even assuming that I managed to resolve them all, which I did on maybe one in three negatives, that simply established the preconditions for a successful portrait. Success depends on capturing an interesting psychological truth or moment from the sitter, and I am a very poor director of people.

 I was helped in this by the presence of Katy Hastie during most of the sessions. During the set-up, she talked to sitters about her side of the project, which involves a questionnaire and discussion of creative-writing pedagogy.

 I would set up the camera to determine the edges of the frame, and then place the sitter within that space. Katy compared the second phase to being at the opticians (‘Left a half-step, right a quarter step, notebook up ten centimetres, face turned slightly to your left; now hold that while I put the darkslide in the camera back’). Of course, from my point-of-view all those directions had to be given while viewing the image upside-down and back-to-front.

The really crucial elements in a portrait are facial expression and body language, and the sitter had to discover those while trapped in the vice of the technical limitations.

I expect to get 8-10 successful photographs from about 75 sheets of large-format film and 30 or so rolls of 6 x 9 film. That failure rate is more or less consistent with previous projects. Since I’m not a professional photographer, the only edge I have is in my willingness to edit ruthlessly.

Samples to follow on Flickr.

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Available' by The National

From their album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers