Material Investigations: Black Country Walks

Introduction

The objective of this initial stage of the research is to test how the medium’s physical structure performs as a response to light and how the mediums expressive characteristics might be explored as a narrative device in relation to the generative activity of walking.

My practice so far has largely been about  establishing a personal sense of place (or space) when photography and walking are combined. A phenomenological basis is established in this initial experiment by borrowing scientific methods of analysis by simply testing the media for verifiable results through observation of how the substrate of photographic film responds to surfaces.

As is discussed by Hubert Damisch in ‘Five Notes for A Phenomenology of Photography’ I would like initially to submit the  to ‘a series of imaginary variations‘ (1980, p288) examining the cause and effect of walk and its recording on cognition, which is revealed in the substances of photographic materials with (or possibly as Damisch asserts without), the direct intervention of the camera. In short, I am simply testing the material explicitly at this stage, and  observing results as it might form a useful foundation for working on film later on.

West Midlands 1984 

My own autobiographical account of a walk seems in many ways an appropriate starting point for a practice led research project.  So to begin; I revisited a short walking route from childhood made during my time living in the West Midlands in the mid 1980’s. This particular route encompassed years of walks undertaken not more than 5 minutes from my home. The route is familiar and therefore enables  personal identification with place as well as a potential for comparative study between past and present.

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From this premise I started thinking about how encounters with place occur through a number of conditions simultaneously . These conditions are subjective, personal and intuitive and conversely, objective and rational . This led me to consider my photographic practice through personal connections and connotations with place and realise that walking establishes a dialogue between opposing positions, on one hand the subjectivity of experience and on the other a factually based objectivity denoted through calligraphic forms that describe movement from A to B.

I conceived of these four key areas of experience of and within place initially and then considered the ways in which they might be interchangeable.

Experiential – the lived experience of the present – actually walking and experiencing in the moment using all of the senses.

Psychological – making sense of the this stimuli and considering memory as a key element. For example,  many of of the more vivid experiences I have from the past involve in one way or another walking or travelling. These could be said to relate metaphorically to a passage through time, thinking about the metaphor of life as a journey.  On the other hand, it is a relative experience – walking from or to home brackets the walk creating  juxtapositions between the familiar with the unknown, the domestic in relation to the public .

Cultural –  engaging with place within the context of pedestrian activity  a means of improving health and instilling a sense of wellbeing and as a form of interaction with society and community.

Representational  – by looking at photographs (taken while travelling) and associated maps, one simulates journeys that ties the experiential, psychological and cultural into a hybrid experience.

Initially I looked at the representation of journeys in vernacular photographs of holidays and that one tends to photograph more frequently when on the move as a way of harnessing experiences from a constantly changing scene. It occurred to me that this is as a way of re living and therefore re experiencing journeys made in the past.

While developing these initial ideas , I came across a role of unexposed film from the 1980’s and started to speculate about how this film records colour and detail accurately for a certain amount of time until it expires and how this demonstrates a passage of time and in doing so may become a form of material memory that fades . In response to this I devised a methodology, (illustrated  below) a set of procedures as a way of exploring the ways in which it might mediate experience of the past within the context of the present as an experiment.

I began to think about the term ‘calibration’ a term commonly used in photography as one that could be applied to ones experiences of the past – a correlation with known constant, which happens when one re visits a location.

The definition in photographic practice is defined thus .. .

‘Calibrate (to) correlate the readings of (an instrument) with those of a standard in order to check the instrument’s accuracy.’

Oxford Dictionaries https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/calibrate

So while one has to calibrate photographic devices to establish a constant measure of accuracy based on external conditions – so the individual calibrates ones experiences of the world (or in this case, place) in relation to a known constant. In this case the known constant is the familiarity of home. Returning to a familiar environment is therefore a form of calibration. A route once walked therefore seems an appropriate starting point for a research project – a constant within an array of variables.

Methodology: Testing the metalanguage of film as material memory. 

Process

  • visited, photographed and printed a walking route retraced from the location of childhood memories from the mid 1980’s. This was photographed on black and white film as a way of establishing a nuetral ground to work from.
  •  re-photographed the print under colour balanced fluorescent tubes using the expired AGFA (100 ISO) colour film from the year 1984 – the time period in which I was revisiting
  • the film was developed and the most successful exposure selected, scanned enlarged to reveal a faded image of a pathway
  •  chemical degradation observed 

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Results 

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Target test image #01

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Processed 35mm Agfa film (1984)

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Enlargement (7×5 inch print)

Findings 

  • since the original image is grey-scale the AGFA colour film records the action of light and reveals colour shifts attesting to the passage of time
  • the film shows signs of chromatic deterioration indexical of the films ageing
  • the films grain is more pronounced, leading to a flatter rendering of a 3 dimensional scene than conventional (in date) film
  • its material presence is accentuated due to the abstracted forms that emerge from the chromatic and tonal shifts
  • the material aspects of the medium is foregrounded and, like the body, reveals a temporal relationship with the environment and related experience.

One might argue that these artificial structures might provide an emergent link between a phenomenological experience and photographic practice through the agency of times passage, a kind of inscription.  This inscriptive capacity of film caused by the impact of light is foregrounded as a direct result of the aged material surface of the expired film.

Analysis

My aim in this experiment was initially to denote distinctions between places remembered and places experienced in the present which might be expressed directly through the material substrate of the film. Since the passage of time attests to physical changes in the environment so film based photography reveals diminished chemical responsiveness of the film base .

Knowledge gained from this initial experiment is considered in the following ways  ..

  • the decision to shoot on film is key as it is a material form and is therefore affected by ageing. Like the human body it has a lifespan.
  • since walking and photography have been brought into dialogue as part of this research it is important to examine overlaps between optical (and chemical/materiality) consciousness (see Benjamin and Flusser) and human perception and memory and embodiment (Ingold) leading to a cross disciplinary discourse .

This experiment is a means of testing how the mediums physical structure might signify experience, all be it in an abstract form and one that might be utilised later in the treatment of finished pieces. The experiential aspect of the walk is revealed through the simple activity of mediating an encounter using a camera and film that correlate to that period of time with the path (referent) potentially acting as a metaphoric element.

Summary 

In my previous practice I have ‘narrated’ or explicitly ‘illustrated’  associations between place and personal history and memory through a conscious choice of signifying architecture or visual motifs. Conversely, this method  works towards an implied or indexical correlation between the past and the present . The age of the film as an index of the passage of time might be regarded as a form of material memory, by providing a meta-narrative in which the medium itself might elicit meaning .

While the above experiments have proved fruitful in regards establishing ontologies concerning film based photography and the importance of the material index, there is a concern that endless investigations into the material aspects of photography might lead to unfocused tangents that are not a central concern of the thesis. While I intend to experiment with material aspects of the medium it seems appropriate that some of the material considerations need to be focused more directly on the walk and possibly methods of way finding.

To further develop this mode of thought, an approach needs to employed that involves  testing various media, recording phenomena and establish a methodology based on the findings. It is worth noting at this stage that an ontological distinction between film and digital methods are evident and will require further discussion since the action of light on chemistry is largely absent from digital imagery. This may also lead to the possible introduction of hybrid forms and approaches between and digital methods of image capture.

Points for further consideration

Semiotic readings of images that have emerged as part of this experiment might be regraded as rather illusive, abstract or vague without some other form of rhetorical device that enables greater transparency of meaning.

Therefore the deliberate assertion of the following elements also need further consideration as the research progresses

a. some contextual element – e.g the inscription of date, place as caption

b. contextual positioning within a physical space (installation)

The assertion of the material characteristics of the medium which frames, magnifies, appropriates or obscures irrelevant details does however lead to greater emphasis of the sensory phenomenological aspects of experiencing place.

The function of the camera, lens, exposure effects, related characteristics and pictorial construction of the print are principle elements in the construction of meaning, However, the material aspect of the medium (often overlooked in photography) has the potential for a direct phenomenological experience through its inscriptive characteristics of the formation of light on a sensitive surface, surpassing the control and intention of the camera operator.

In the case of many of these experiments the medium reveals by masking detail and shrouding the referent  in a chromatic field that filters out referential information but amplifies the expressive characteristics of the medium.  The question that follows is – how can this be harnessed to contribute to a move towards an embodied experience of place within my practice that utilises the activity of walking and photographing?

The answer could potentially lie within juxtaposing a variation of prints made from a range of film types within a grid structure that explores the syntax as a dialogue between materiality, distance, temporality and spatial relationships. The variations in which  3 dimensional space is rendered in 2 dimensions as a by product might describe journeys through a series of advancing and receding abstract planes that may correlate to movement though a given space.

References

Trachtenberg, A. Ed., 1980. Classic Essays on Photography. Connecticut. Leete’s Island Books. 

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