They say that inspiration comes from the most unusual of places, and how this post came about is no different. I had just returned from the supermarket with a load of shopping and was in the process of unpacking the chilled items and putting them into the fridge. Our fridge is one of those massive American-style side-by-side models that is completely over the top and way too big for two people’s groceries. It’s a brilliant machine, but while it has some great qualities, there is a function that always bothers me even though I appreciate it being there. When either of doors is open for a while, an alarm sounds warning me to close them immediately. It’s not particularly loud, nor is it a particularly annoying sound, but as I was unpacking my shopping, and it started to go off, I wondered why it bothered me so much. The answer turned out to be a simple matter of time, or rather it being about to run out. While I do not suffer from OCD, which I understand to be a very debilitating condition, I do find these micro-deadlines rather stressful. The reality is that the interior of the fridge merely drops a couple of degrees while the door is open, but somehow with the current cost of energy and the desire not to waste it for the sake of the environment, that little alarm signals something more than “your food is gonna get warm”. It suggests that we I need to be more organised, pack my groceries with a view to better unloading, and not to waste time leaving the door open. We all have these ‘helpful’ warnings which are produced by modern technology, whose purpose is to make our lives easier by preventing us from forgetting something that might be important. However, what they actually do is present us with a logical condition; if we don’t act, there will be consequences. Those, however minor, might mean that we cannot achieve something that we want in the short term and potentially prevent us from revisiting it in the future. The effect is to frighten us into action, rather than act as a simple reminder. A more significant one than the fridge alarm that I’ve received from time to time, comes from the university that I’m studying with. The course is hugely flexible within each module, but each one cannot take more than 12 months to complete. As it’s a creative degree, most of us take advantage of the time available to learn more, which is how I explain the length of the course to people who say “couldn’t you just knock it out in 3 years?” I feel like the length of the study is making me a more knowledgeable artist than I would be if I did a full-time course at a traditional university. The difficulty is that with each increasingly challenging project, it takes more time to come up with an idea, explore how to shoot it and produce a body of work at the end. Therein lies the problem, which the university is quick to be helpful about. They continually monitor the elapsed time between coursework submissions, and if there is a longer period than expected, they send a reminder. It takes the form of an email asking if everything is ok, because they are naturally worried about missing the deadline for the unit…etc…etc. This has the effect of piling on the pressure, which is a good thing if you’re an engineer or accountant, but not if you’re trying to be a creative. Worse still, the email comes from an automated mailbox, so there isn’t even anyone on the line to reassure or vent at. Over the years, I’ve got used to them and am also acutely aware that getting stressed about it, makes me less creative and consumes more time. I’ve mentioned before that I cannot force the idea into fruition, and this has been evident in some of the work I’ve produced in the past. What it means these days is that every waking moment is consumed with some thought about what I’m working on, running in the background like a Windows Update. Sometimes ideas flow freely as my wife pointed out recently. We were out with friends and Jayne told of how she’d walk into the room and say “hello”, only to be greeted in reply with a torrent of ideas and thoughts about the current assignment. “I only said hello”, she added. On other occasions I’d have to console myself by knowing that even if I wasn’t shooting, researching or writing, at least I was using the available time to think, which goes some way to easing the pressure.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because even my mitigation strategy isn’t effective all the time; if we constantly thought about everything we were trying to do, it would drive us crazy. Instead, I wanted to highlight the importance of disconnecting from the modern world and its helpful reminders. One of the best ways I’ve found as a photographer is to go out with a pinhole, or better still a large format camera. I have 2 cameras in my collection that shoot 4x5 inch sheet film, one recent model made by Intrepid Camera and the other being an early 1960s Graflex Crown Graphic. The Graflex is a camera that everyone will recognise if they watch a movie set during that period, as they were the ones used by the press corps, stereotypically wearing trench coats and fedora hats. The camera is also well known in the world of Star Wars as their sidecar flashgun battery tubes were used as the prop for the original lightsabers in the first film in 1977. Fans of the films tend to buy the flashguns in order to make their own lightsaber handles, which means they are becoming increasingly rare.
My 1962 Graflex Crown Graphic 4x5 camera with its original box just before it was shipped from the US
The escapism provided by shooting the Graflex is twofold. Firstly, the camera works like the old-fashioned box cameras of the early days of photography, with the image being composed and focussed on a ground glass screen and being upside down like with a camera obscura. This requires concentration and some imagination to make sure that the elements being photographed actually fit into the frame. Secondly, the camera has no electronics which means that metering with an external lightmeter is needed to determine exposure. This isn’t uncommon with old cameras, but the high cost of each individual sheet of film (around £5 for a good black and white stock) means that determining exposure is a job that requires great care. With all cameras, there is a single value of exposure, which is determined by a meter reading and the setting of aperture, shutter speed and ISO (sensitivity) accordingly. Whatever value the photographer chooses from metering, becomes a single setting on the camera and it will yield different results depending on where that reading was taken from and, in the case of film, the characteristics of the emulsion. Most film photographers meter using Adams & Archer’s Zone System from 1940 if they want to weigh up the lighting conditions and select an average exposure value for the scene. This involves looking for the middle tone of the scene, taking a reading and then determining the dynamic range by taking further readings of highlight and shadow. Once the range the light is known, the photographer can choose how they want the picture to look and set exposure accordingly. This all takes a fair amount of time, which when coupled with the operation of the camera, isn’t exactly a ‘point and shoot’ situation. This is what I love about it. I’ve been out with the Graflex and taken 4 sheets of film, all loaded and ready to go, and taken over 2 ½ hours to shoot them. I’m not sure exactly what happens, but the concentration and lack of digital distractions, social media and other crap, means that the time just whizzes by. That slow process is in itself relaxing and at the same time exciting, as the photographer is hopeful of getting everything right in the camera resulting in the perfect negative (we are a delusional bunch)
Salvador Dali graffiti mural, shot on 4x5 slide film. The resulting slide was so detailed that the client enlarged to a huge poster that was many feet high
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone takes up shooting large format film cameras, but I am saying that self-isolating from the pace of the technological world, with its micro deadlines and constant reminders, is a healthy thing. I’ve found it to help calm my mind enough to overcome any creative roadblocks I might be having, which also means that I can meet the deadlines that are really important. It’s definitely something to think about. I’ll sign off there as my laptop is telling me I only have 10% battery life left before ‘computer armageddon’. What fun.