Light fantastic

Seeing a photograph seems like a pretty simple thing.  There’s the image, our eyes – we look, we see, we evaluate.  Visualization is a skill evolved to a high degree in us to recognize threats, mates, food, possibilities and even ourselves.  But photography gives us more than one way to see an image and the difference can be astounding.

Holding a print in our hands or viewing it on a wall or in an album has been the traditional way to see photography since it was originally invented.  The esteemed masters of photography all the way back to the early 1800s have been appreciated based on a print of their work.  Some would even say photography isn’t complete without the print, that an image on paper is the definition of a photograph.

Yet for much of photography’s time with us there has been an alternative – the projected positive image.  We call them slides, or transparencies, or chromes.  As kids we Boomers probably looked at lots of them, enduring our uncle’s slide shows, educational film strips, or presentations backdropped by the regular click/clack of slides advancing in the projector.  It’s a view of the world we are all familiar with yet few of us take advantage of.

It’s been this need for alternative technology, a projector, that seems to have kept the popularity of slides lower than prints.  The need for transmitted light to bring the image to life and lenses to magnify it to a viewable size – barriers preventing us from easily viewing images that can be breathtaking.  But it shouldn’t be a barrier.  One of the joys of using slide film is viewing the results on a light table or holding them up to a window, seeing the colors spring off the surface and give you an immediate sense of being at the place.

Ironically, it’s this viewing experience that is becoming the more dominant now that technology has shifted.  Images are now viewed on screens – big ones, little ones, pocket-sized ones – that transmit light and magnify all at the same time.  Our computers and PDA’s and cell phones all create the final photograph by transmitted light and showing all the great colors and details once only seen with slides.  Printing has become almost secondary to popular photography, a time-consuming ritual with unpredictable results using a technology that seems to have a mind of its own.  No, transmitted light images are now the standard way to see and share what we’ve created with our cameras.

Even the artists of the day are coming around, both to transmitted light pictures and color.  Gallery showings of images made with cameras in cell phones are reviewed as serious art.  Websites display slideshows (ironic name) of artists’ works, even those that will eventually be sold as prints.  The museum catalog so prized by collectors has become a downloadable file to be viewed on handheld devices as a projected entity.

One of my wonderful photography experiences was to view a dozen images made by Edward Weston, all on Kodachrome slide film, 8×10” in size.  They were landscapes of the Pt Lobos area south of Carmel, CA.  The display mounted them in light boxes with daylight balanced light illuminating them from behind.  Seeing them sent a chill up my back.  Here in living color were places I’d hiked, scenes I’d seen, but not as flat images on paper, instead as nearly three dimensional pieces of landscape art.  Weston, who like most photography artists disdained the use of color and probably the idea of transparencies, had simply experimented with the film at the request of Kodak but these images were to me of greater value than many of his prints I’d seen.

Photography artists say their effort is not to document but to illuminate, to interpret.  It’s a claim most artists make, seemingly to differentiate themselves from commercial practitioners of the same skills.  I marvel at this exceptionalism with respect to color slides (or color JPEG’s) and wonder how using transmitted light to view images can’t be considered illumination.  Is it pedestrian simply because our uncles or grade school teachers used this medium?  Will the growing popularity of display screens for images reinforce or dispel the artistic efforts in photography?

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