Friday, December 25, 2009

Yes Virgina, There Will be a Book!

I wrote this possibly for use in a book about Steampunk that Evelyn Kriete is working on and/or as the preface for a book I'd like to put together with the shots from the public shoots.

Reversed scan from about 05/07/05. This is the shot that started it all. Pulling the old disc to unearth this, I noticed I had labeled them "Ghost Images."


"I am plagued by the thought that I am perhaps the last of my ilk; that I have jumped through a window in time and have a connection to a recent past that reaches still further back and, be it either real or imaginary, if I don't give it form, it will vanish."

I most often shoot with a ponderous Graflex Super D built in the 1940’s. This giant single lens reflex camera features a leather covered mahogany box that I peer down into via a chimney-like hood and a shutter mechanism that works much like a window shade. The instrument moves at the speed of a turtle and requires everything to be manually set. I don't use strobes, but instead, plain 200 watt house lamps in old style reflectors. My exposures are relatively slow and can be disturbed by bouncy floors or subjects that move. The digital manipulation of my negatives requires careful handwork to reconstruct the images and the time from capture to final print can be days or longer. Why, in an age where cameras can handle all photographic functions quickly and automatically, go to all that bother?

There is something very reassuring in knowing that as long as there is light, I can make a photograph, but there is much more to it. What a digital camera can do is no less than amazing, but the seamless and relatively foolproof technology comes at a price. Digital photography is largely an out-of-the-box affair and a non-physical, non-tactile medium. The pristine, impersonal way a photographer is led to interface with the digital image-making chain, can create a void, a distinct lack of connection to the creative process. Using a large format camera that requires a methodology that is slow, physical, calculated and relatively difficult; it transforms the photographic act, giving it a sense of direction and ceremony. I see the image as it takes shape on the big ground glass screen, feel the mass and solidity of the instrument, smell the ancient mustiness of the focusing hood, and hear the “plunk” of the shutter mechanism, intuitively sensing whether it is working properly; the link is almost visceral. The whole picture taking process requires not only mindful concentration, but also cooperation and interchange between subject, assistant, and camera operator. What it is usually a very one-sided operation, wherein the photographer simply grabs a likeness is transformed into a collaborative dialogue.

As an undergraduate, one of my painting professors, Angelo Ippolito said of a piece, perhaps one of mine: “It’s too clean, you need to mess it up a bit.” Paradoxical, but what I believe he was getting at was that the visual structure and execution was too pat. The artist hadn’t really set a challenge, something “messy” with which to work so as to find an interesting and vibrant solution. Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned as an undergrad was that the “interesting stuff” is a subconscious process; that creativity happens when you set to work on problems, by indirection, not by trying to create “art;” frequently the end product takes even the creator by surprise.

Though I have been taking pictures since I was five, it’s only recently that I found a way to work with photography that would lead to interesting solutions. The images I previously made were largely about being at the right place at the right time, framing the shot with skill and making good, technically solid prints. I would often set out, camera in hand, with all kinds of romantic notions in my head only to come back sorely disappointed. I largely moved away from photography in favor of painting and drawing, since these media raised issues I could dig into. In graduate school, in conjunction with small paintings I was making, I started using antique roll-film cameras perhaps thinking that doing this would visually inform the work in some significant way. The commitment though, was more to the act of painting on top of and collaging these images than the photography itself, which was still too abstract for me; I could only carry around a shadowy vision of what my photography might be.

In May 2005, a chain of odd circumstances led to the photographic "mess" I had long needed. I was visiting my parents, who live in the heart of the Catskill Park in upstate New York, when a large storage freezer failed and needed to be emptied. Buried beneath the crystallized tubs of ice cream, desiccated London broils, and chickens frozen since 1987 were approximately 38 rolls of old-style Polaroid film that my dad had squirreled away in the late 1970’s when Polaroid stopped its manufacture and the local department store had dumped the remaining stock for $1 a roll. My dad gave me not only the film, but also the swanky Polaroid 110B camera that went with it. Before I left to go back to Philly, he insisted I take one shot of my friend Dana who had driven me there. My dad kept the positive, but I plunked the paper negative inside the camera case, I guess as a kind odd memento since the film was over thirty years old. When I got home, I scanned the negative in color and reversed it to see what it the image would look like. It was fascinating! The image was eerie and painterly at the same time. I had gone from using photography to inform painting, to painting informing photography. I was hooked.

Soon after, along with two colleagues, the cache of Polaroid film was used up via free portrait shoots we did in front of The Book Trader in Philadelphia during the Philly Fringe. I bought a Speed Graphic so I could use the then available Polaroid sheet film and tried various emulsions both in-date and expired. The whole experimental process fueled itself bringing me to the point where I am now. Polaroid peel-apart film is now over a year out of production and I can only get instant film imported from Japan made by Fuji. The film's characteristics are nowhere near as interesting as some of the older stocks I used to employ. I cannot wax too nostalgic since this is the photographer's lot; we have to roll with the times, adapting to the available materials. Also, I discovered that what I considered to be the amazing properties of the film were not that critical. Sure, they created some serendipitous points of departure, but there are other ways to create happy accidents or find a direction based on where the image may be pointing. The vision has become internalized.

This more organic way of working that I evolved has often been referred to as “Steampunk Photography.” Ironically, I don’t consider myself part of that sub-culture and never set out to be; yet my background and creative motivations, led me in a similar direction. Like the Steampunks one of my goals is to bridge past to present-- to be romantically modern. A perhaps fictive past where things were less complex, tangibly inventive, and on more of a human scale, what I’d call a kind of “old energy,” has been with me since I was a kid. I grew up in an enormous converted circa 1889 mansion across the street from the Ansonia Hotel in New York City. The neighborhood, in my childhood years was full of estate shops and I had a field day browsing through them, amassing a fairly large collection of old cameras, 78rpm records, pocket watches and other interesting stuff, like the scrapbook of an Edison recording artist, Leola Lucy, who was on the “tone-test” circuit, a kind of “Is it live or is it an Edison Diamond Disc?” sales pitch from the 1920’s.

Though I started out in the sciences (art was not considered by my family to be a “real” profession), I ended up with a BA in theatre set design and eventually an MFA in painting. I have never taken a photography class. My dad bought me my first darkroom kit, a simple set-up for making contact prints and I learned mostly on my own. As a teenager I worked for Nathan Rabin, whose archive will soon be part of the National Gallery Library, a photographer who got fantastic results using simple tools.

While my art training was far from “classical,” I did countless figure studies. As an undergraduate at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, I took classes with sculptor Charles Eldred. Eldred lived a time warp, which was his own world that hovered between past and present. Arguably his art was “Steampunk” long before the label existed. His pieces often centered on a romantic and re-invented vision of the past, particularly in the post-industrial Triple Cities, where he grew up. The work was not anachronistic; it was fresh and modern.

The creative bridge to the past Eldred was able to build and the feelings it embodied stayed with me though it took a long time to finally emerge full force. It took much experimentation and artistic stumbling around before things started to gel. I drew a lot and also made paintings. I might have made a career as a painter, but the pieces never seemed to be quite “there,” as if the medium were still fighting me. The work did not meet my standards.

My undergraduate teachers also instilled in their students a concept that is now largely out of sync with today’s visual world: that the “how” is more important than the “what.” That is, the way an image “speaks” with visceral immediacy via its visual construction far outweighs any grandiose conceptual conceit the artist may profess. Rare or shocking subject matter needs the backbone of an inter-linked formal invention, or it is just flash-in-the-pan sensationalism. I guess you could say I'm "old school," insisting on craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, and depth; yearning for the poetic. When much of what is being produced now is forgotten, I believe these values will prevail.

RA Friedman, principal photographer

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A possible turning point: 12/13/09

(Self-portrait drawing by RA Friedman, 1986.)

I'm just back from NYC where I did a shoot where there was only one customer. Sometimes this happens; it's just not the right "crowd." Fortunately, this is the only time it has happened when I had to get the gear to and from Phila. to NYC and back. When I shoot out of townI have to hope that one of my very generous friends or relatives is available to let me crash. If I had to factor in a hotel, the whole Tsirkus project would really be in the red.

I have much to be thankful for even if I didn't get to hit the heights with my old Graflex Super D. I got to see my friends Joe and Steph, who is an artist (website: and their nine-month old daughter, Olivia. I managed to negotiate the NYC subways with eighty pounds of gear in fine fettle. I found an excellent new assistant who handled the lack of traffic with grace and good humor. I made some professional contacts.

Most of all, I had time to think about the Tsirkus project and where I want it to go and how to steer it. For the long term, what's the most important thing for it and how do I want it to fit into my overall plans/goals as an artist? I'm still not sure how I want to craft/re-craft the model.

Really the most important thing about Tsirkus has been that it is a way to connect with a lot of creative people, but moreover allow folks to creatively play. I feel strongly that is hugely important in these times and in this particular culture in which I find myself. On the flip side, I have to be realistic about the wear and tear on myself, my gear, my friends/relatives, and my bank account, especially if the shoot turns out to be less than fortuitous.

Stay tuned for updates as the "Tsirkus saga" evolves.

RA Friedman, Principal Photographer