On Cameras, Constraints, Glitches


Topics: consumption, photography, 'toy' cameras, analog emulation, the aesthetics of deterioration, creative constraints, bigrot, #GLITCHFEMINISM, Beyond Resolution

Although I espouse anti-consumerism and consumption, I do occasionally buy things. Most recently this is a new-to-me camera. As an artist I am drawn to working with tools of creative expression. I tend to spend lots of time researching before I buy anything new, and I try to buy used (often Ebay) and local (thrift stores, Craigslist) when possible.

I irregularly follow the work, writing and photography of Grant Peterson of Rivendell bikes. Last month I spied some beautiful photos, seemingly shot on film, I believe on their Instagram. It listed the camera as a Papershoot, which I looked up online. I have film photography experience going back around 22 years; I took a lot of camera and darkroom classes in community college and university, and in workshops afterwards, and I used to shoot a ton of film on a collection of old analog cameras I collected at thrift stores at desert shops and swap meets in southern california. I did not recognize the camera name, so I knew it was something new.

Film photography seems to me like any other artistic-craft skill: there are those that 'geek out' on the technical aspects more than the artistic choices; there's the ability (curse) of getting obsessed with accessories; and then there are those that don't care about these things but treat their camera as a means to create the artwork they see in their head and wish for the quickest route from idea to artistic execution of that idea. I am overly simplifying but hopefully this is a useful way to break down some of the approaches around photography and other disciplines.

Dad's film camera in my bike basket, 2008

In the community college darkroom courses, the focus was definitely on the technical: How many f-stops? how long to process? How to do light metering and how precise is your light meter? These areas felt so over-emphasized to the degree that I felt like the artistic aspect (what you shoot, how you frame, how you can experiment in the processing, and the poesis of the work) was perpetually left behind. We were constantly pushed on the technical skills and the photography field's classic definitions of photographic perfection. Did you get the full range of black to white? Does your composition use the rule of thirds? Etc etc. How many more classes would I need to take to get to the discussion of what we were shooting instead of these technical parameters? One could argue it's always important to learn and refine one's technique and that it can be taught hand-in-hand with artistic critique, but I never felt like that came.

In contrast to these technical courses I also took classes with names like "High Art vs Low Art" and "Breaking the Grid", which were more experimental courses where we tried lots of techniques, studied artwork, documentaries, experimental film, sound art, sculpture. These are unique classes that were offered at the private undergraduate university I attended. In these courses was little discussion of precise technical creation of our works. All discussion were focused on the ideas. These courses attracted a great balance of genders and allowed those with lots of technical expertise as well as those with relatively little technical background in artistic disciplines to share space as equals. This is largely the way I like to teach now as well in the public university I work for, though I am often required to teach 'straightforward' technical courses as the intro classes to get to these upper level courses. That makes some sense to me at times, but I also like to break this down.

Around the time of my undergrad university courses I picked up the posthumously published The Journey is the Destination, The Journals of Dan Eldon. Eldon was a British-Kenyan photojournalist working throughout the African continent. His journals combined hand written text journal entries, collaged drawing, snapshots, and collaged and treated photography. This book opened up a door in my head. I think subconsciously I've been influenced by this work to such a large degree and in many ways my digital work making games, flatgames, or other artworks are partially indebted to his body of work.

It was shortly after the time that I became really obsessed with pinhole camera photography. I attended workshops at a museum during a weekend program, I believe aimed at children. They had empty Quaker Oatmeal containers, sealed shut, with photo paper inside, and an aluminum foil pinhole in the side. We took photos by placing the camera outside, set up and aimed at a scene or still life. Then you open the lens by removing a piece of electrical tape to let the light in to 'paint' the film paper inside. After waiting an amount of time based on guesswork (30 seconds? one minute? hard to say!), we closed the lens, brought the camera into a darkroom, and processed the photo paper in the development baths. I was in love. This would have been around 2002 or 2004, around the time personal digital cameras were about $150 - 300 on the low end. These pinhole prints were the opposite. Not only were they made of free materials, they were not pixelated. They were distinctly not attempting to replicate the eye or even what we could see on a digital screen. This produced images not super-realistic but rather expressionistic or even impressionistic. It was something new. The outcome was unknown as we waited, but shooting with the pinhole camera was an attempt at painting with light, and channeling an artistic medium that favored both prior experience AS WELL AS dumb random luck. There's something about this combo that feels like the important space I like working in.

I saved up and bought a large format (this refers to the size of the film) wooden pinhole camera. It was expensive for me, and I used the cheapest student film paper and film to shoot black and white images. In my community college darkroom courses I ignored the professor's assignments and used my limited darkroom time to process these pinhole film prints as contact prints. In other words, rather than use the photo enlarger to project and enlarge and then process and print technically-proficient 35mm photos I experimented with large format contact prints. I loved working this way, and would bring the photos back to my studio at a local warehouse in the desert, where I hung and 'exhibited' my photography, and photocopied and made zines of the work. Some of my photography was also shown at a local museum and in local art galleries.

It was around this time I started to become familiar with 'toy' cameras. Not cameras meant for children, but cameras that had their own peculiar constraints, or really, 'failings.' These were almost like cousins to pinhole photography. The first one I learend about was the Holga camera, which I discovered while looking for a medium format pinhole camera to purchase that was affordable. A plastic lightweight camera that is really cheap with plentiful used ones to be found? I learned about the various Holga camera options with plastic lenses. And in these days, pre-twitter, pre-facebook, there was a lively movement of photographers on Flickr.com. I spent hours flicking through, commenting on others' photos, and using the forums to learn various techniques. At a local swap meet I finally found one for sale. For years I used this inexpensive Holga camera, producing unexpected results, goreous images that I was proud of, true collaborations between me and my camera and the light and the subject and the world.

Big Sur coastline via Holga, 2009
Big Sur coastline via Holga, 2009
Riverside desert railyard, taken via Holga, 2008
Riverside desert railyard, taken via Holga, 2008
Black Rock City double print, scratched, taken via Holga in perpetual dust storm, 2009
Black Rock City double print, scratched, taken via Holga in perpetual dust storm, 2009

Around 2010 I bought an iPhone. Over time I stopped carrying my cameras on me. I stopped pulling out my pinhole camera. I moved around the world. I didn't have a home and lived out of a backpack. The cameras would take up precious space. I shot on my iPhone and posted to tumblr, facebook, then instagram. I also tried VSCO, which emulated analog film photography but in a cutesy 'street style photography' format that became popular around the same time. This is my recollection at least.

I stopped shooting film. I traveled around the world and mostly shot photos via my iPhone. I didn't have consistent income. Then I was employed again but my art practice had shifted. I wasn't using photography as a creative medium so much as a documenting medium. I continued to shoot photos ("make images") with my iPhone, sometimes to unexpected delightful artistic heights. But photography had become tertiary in my art practice and more about documenting or representing moments of my life presented for online consumption. And that seemed to be the case for most others I knew. This is also when I was getting into programming. As I learned to program in Processing, a relatively early thing you can learn after the basics of variables, functions, loops, conditionals, is working with the camera. You learn about 2dimensional arrays, and looping through the pixel grid. I enjoyed making Chuck Close style camera software, which I think many would now call a 'filter.'

Self-portrait created with colored lines, camera software in Processing
Self-portrait created with colored lines, camera software in Processing

Don't get me wrong, these were fun experiments, and I love my artistic practices now, but I do miss my camera as an always-ready fount of inspiration and discovery. For years I used a point-and-shoot fashion camera with a beloved Carl Zeiss lens. But I have no desire to work in the darkroom anymore, breathing in toxic chemicals, and I don't love the process of sending my photos out for processing and printing at 20 to 25 bucks a pop anymore. I thought occasionally of the Holga, and had checked out 'toy' digital cameras like the Superheadz Necono digital camera (a camera in the shape of a cat, taking 'lofi' digital photos). Shooting photos on my iPhone and using an analog-style filter wasn't that compelling to me. There's too much else around it: the web browser on the phone, text messages, the unlimited possibilities of options, especially since these apps like VSCO often make their money by charging for additional 'filter packs.'

Jump ahead and I discover the Papershoot. I've spent a bit of time researching the images shot with it. Sometimes the images look like analog film to me, though perfect emulation is not particularly important to me as such; it's the 'warmth' of analog-appearance that appeals to me, crossed with the artifacting and degradation appearance that adds a certain color or something extra to the images. Like a traditional film camera, there is no screen to display the image. When you take a shot, there's no way to see the image until you plug the camera in to the computer to unload your shots from the day. The camera offers 4 settings: color; black and white; sepia emulation; blue - which I think is vignetting, dark corners, and a color shift - reminiscent of something like the Holga's plastic lens and weakly light-proof camera body effects. I waited a few months and found a used one on ebay. The thick paper (cardboard?) body is wrapped around a thin camera circuit board. The paper has an image of an analog camera on it, a silly mimemis, though other 'cases' could be purchased. I'm enjoying shooting with it, having no expectations, and embracing the unknown. Like the old days, I jump on my bike, sans phone, with just the papershoot in the pocket. Would I use this for documenting other artwork I make? Probably not. But that's okay. I'm having fun, letting this constrained tool take over. My area of 'specialty' is now constrained to where I aim. Do I move forward, backward? When do I snap the shot? Which of the 4 emulation filters? And then I forget about it, and wait the week or two until I plug into my computer and rediscover where I was, who I was with, and find magical works I channeled from the light.

La Brea, photo I took today with Papershoot camera, 2022
La Brea, photo I took today with Papershoot camera, 2022
Lloyd cat in low light, taken with Papershoot camera, 2022
Lloyd cat in low light, taken with Papershoot camera, 2022

In the past two months I've been playing off and on working on a photo emulation process. This isn't complete, but started by a question I posed to myself of whether I could make a camera that emulates some of the discovery and magic of using a photocopier. I love the black and white images full of distortions, fragments, ruptures and fuzzes.

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
-Brian Eno, A Year of Swollen Appendices
Distorted 'scanner' portrait experiment, via software, 2021

I'm still working on my bigrot photocopy-ier software, and who knows, maybe it will turn into its own camera, or zine software, or something else. I'm enjoying creating something new, beyond precisely capturing the world, adding in random number generators that distort and disrupt my photography.

Portrait with bigrot emulating photocopier effects and additional distortions, 2021
Portrait with bigrot emulating photocopier effects and additional distortions, 2021

Increasingly recently I'm seeing artists reading and embracing Legacy Russell's Glitch Feminism.

Glitch Feminism, however, embraces the causality of “error”, and turns the gloomy implication of glitch on its ear by acknowledging that an error in a social system that has already been disturbed by economic, racial, social, sexual, and cultural stratification and the imperialist wrecking-ball of globalization—processes that continue to enact violence on all bodies—may not, in fact, be an error at all, but rather a much-needed erratum. This glitch is a correction to the “machine”, and, in turn, a positive departure.

Queering our discourse, art practices, institutions and our technology is a much-needed critique and experimental corrective that has a lot of beautiful implications and experimentations, even for those of us of dominant sexualities, genders and other identities. Cameras can be tools for liberation, for example by embracing of 'othered' bodies, as well as a way to rethink and question societal norms.

In Rose Menkman's scholarly work she writes about glitch as praxis. Her most recent work The BLOB of Im/Possible Images asks us to imagine creating an 'impossible' image of any object or phenomenon that you think is important, sans any constraints. She posed this to scientists, then created an exhibition of works inspired by their answers to her questions. This process of making tools and artworks and exhibitions guided by conceptual and artistic areas of interest is deeply inspiring to me, and guides how I want to build both tools and frames such as exihibitions or publications or websites to present the works created by the tools I make and use.

As my bigrot project unfolds, I hope to absorb some of the lessons and practices of these works, and I look forward to discovering new forms of glitching, breaking, disrupting, photographing and remixing and re-seeing through the lens.


Website dedicated to the work of Dan Eldon

Photos tagged Superheadz Necono on Flickr.com

Photos tagged Papershoot on Flickr.com

A Year With Swollen Appendices reviewed in 4Columns

GLITCH FEMINISM by Legacy Russell

Rosa Menkman's Beyond Resolution

The BLOB of Im/Possible Images

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