People file out their negative holders so that the borders of the images show product codes, frame numbers, directional arrows, (even sprocket holes on 35mm film); the two little Hasselblad tick marks; and shadows of the hold-down strips on four by five film holders. People using Polaroid 55 P/N make sure that you can see the place at the end of the negative where the two halves of media were clipped together and the developing pod sat. People making platinum prints or cyanotypes matt the images with big cutouts so you can see the brush strokes.
People buy plastic cameras with plastic lenses, unflat film planes, and light leaks; then they process the images with all of the reverence and care that they’d use if they’d made the negative with a Linhof. People haunt the dusty aisles of camera stores looking for old uncoated large-format lenses, sometimes without shutters; they use those lenses to produce semi-sharp, vignetted images with lots of flare.
What do all these things have in common? They emphasize quirks of the medium that have nothing to do with the subject of the photograph. They bring those characteristics into the final result, emphasizing and celebrating them, even though in normal photographic circumstances, many are thought of as defects. I see that a lot in the world of chemical photography, but not so much in digital.
There are exceptions. I remember a Ted Orland photograph exhibited at the Center for Photographic Art. It was printed with an early generation Iris inkjet printer, and the halftoning was so obvious that it became the dominant texture of the image. In the early days of digital photography, photographers occasionally created pixels so large that they became striking squares, forcing you to back up from the image in order to perceive the subject. There have been images where each pixel was itself made up of a photographic image.
Last week I was looking at some wide-ranging and inventive work by Ron James, a long-time local photographic instructor. One beautiful and fascinating series emphasized the noise of the capture CCD to such an extent that the photograph was almost entirely about the noise, in the same way that Brad Coles’s dramatically toned prints are about the toning, not whatever was on the negative.
I think what Ron is doing is great. Why should the chemical photographers have all the fun?