Throwing back to the lo-fi, pre-digital age
We’re agreed, right, that digital cameras have become ubiquitous enough to deserve a backlash? Yet another of those so-called democratizing technologies by which everybody becomes an artist—or at the very least, quite literally, a poser—the digital camera makes so much possible for so many and blah blah blah. Yeah, it makes everything too damn easy. Now we can just snap off anything anywhere, crop and colorize and send and post and resend and recrop and Photoshop and repost and resend again and let our eyes cross and glaze over with forgetting the purpose of looking in the first place. Now photographs needn’t be made anymore, and what once was tactile may become, well, tactless. Now we can finally fully avoid eye and skin contact altogether, blissing out instead in front of all our screens, assuming our positions in virtual-only space as the digitized, freeze-framed, mega-pixelated avatars of ourselves—always illuminated, always vivid, always empty.Overreacting, you say? Well, yes, of course, but doesn’t overreaction often beget great art? Sometimes? Point being, it couldn’t hurt nowadays for photographic picture makers to get a little aggressive.
Adam Saake, for one, has gone on a ‘roid rage. Well, OK, that would be ‘roid as in Polaroid, and rage as in fashion, not anger. But the energy of his enterprise is what counts. Saake has been experimenting with instant photos over the past couple of years, and now has convened a series of them in brief, understatedly fantastical narrative sequences for a small show he calls Continuity, on one wall in Café Milazzo, 4818 Folsom Boulevard, as of this Second Saturday.
Photography’s petulant old farts may rejoice to learn of a 24-year-old who says he feels alienated from digital technology and prefers an instrument of creative expression—a Polaroid camera and its standard-issue 600-speed instant film cartridges—that you can buy at Rite Aid. (Presumably there’s some alienation from darkrooms, too.) He has put it to use in service of wry optical tricks. Saake’s images require multiple frames, but use them to subtly exaggerate or skew spatial relations; continuity, in Continuity, is illusory. Or, it’s real, but it comes at the expense of natural-world logic. One subject appears through the arrangement of sequential pictures to be levitating, another to be shaking his own hand. Objects and appendages look longer than they really should be—but sometimes not until the second glance. These deadpan fun-house-isms are captured flat-on, like mug shots, with their backgrounds flattened or blanked out to heighten the aura of oddity. As befits the medium, the poses seem casual and immediate, but Saake obviously has some formal investigation in mind. There’s an eye for compositional balance, and his illusions wouldn’t work without a functional awareness of line.
And so, just because it relies on simple antics, and is not at all novel, doesn’t mean the work isn’t fun to look at. Saake, who is also a gallery manager at Sol Collective and half of the electronica outfit Shotgun Sound, has good entertainer’s instincts. The overall effect of his series is scruffily chic.
We always knew Polaroid was good for that. It has a peculiar kind of cultural staying power. Polaroid cameras have for years been used on movie sets to document the positions of props between takes—for the sake, officially, of “continuity.” Their creative applications have pervaded pop-culture every which way. Remember that 1980 Peter Gabriel album cover with the melting face? Remember OutKast’s famous injunction in 2003 (and the company’s subsequent insistence that no, actually, you shouldn’t shake it; that could mess it up)? Today, for young artists like Saake, Polaroid means a happy marriage between the immediacy of digital and the old-school DIY appeal of actually holding something in your hand.
But that’s just one way to lash back. Bear in mind that the digital resistance movement has many fronts. Also on Saturday, the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center, at 551 Sequoia Pacific Boulevard, presents work from the Contact Printers Guild, a loose affiliation of photographers who obviously take all that handmade stuff pretty seriously. Even the organization’s name has a willful-throwback ring to it, as if the Contact Printer is a tradesman you’d see in some canned historical re-enactment ceremony at Sutter’s Fort.
“As digital photography becomes more and more popular for professionals and amateurs alike,” the guild’s site announces, in a polite sort of manifesto, “the contact print represents a return to an older, hand-made process that yields beautiful photographs unsurpassed in detail, resolution, and tonal scale.” That’s no lie; it works by pressing a negative directly onto photo-sensitive paper, and printing not with dyes and inks, which are susceptible to fading with age, but with finely granulated precious metals like silver and platinum. Not exactly something you can do on the cheap with gear you get at the drugstore, no, but a real craft, to be sure.
No, there are no gimmicks here; these contrasty, sumptuously textured portraits, landscapes and studies of natural and architectural structures tend to default to earnestness. These people may actually be photography’s petulant old farts. But it doesn’t mean their work isn’t fun to look at, either. Often, it is ravishing.
The work of Davis photographer Gerhard Bock seems like as good an example as any. Bock looks carefully at landscapes; he enjoys studying natural patterns—ripples in a sand dune, lines in a palm frond, wood grain in an old door—and elaborating them into abstractions and formal rhapsodies well-suited to the sinews of platinum/palladium prints. That said, he also does artful wonders with a cheap, plastic, point-and-click toy camera called a Holga, whose chronic light leaks and other symptoms of sub-par optics make it highly prized among lo-fi aficionados. Not even Polaroid has that kind of cred.
It goes to show that while easiness and immediacy long have been cherished in photography, technology ultimately can only serve as a means to these ends. What’s still most important is what the human touch provides: It’s all about feel.
As for digital cameras and photographs passed around between computer screens, we can at least say this: Without them, certain newspaper staffs would really be screwed.