Is a photograph now a screen?
Given that Nikon’s shift to electronic viewfinder cameras and away from DSLRs seems inevitable, I took the opportunity recently to look over a Nikon Z7.
My experience with electronic viewfinders dates back to the B&W CRT version in the mid-1970s when I was wielding a Sony Video Portapak, available since 1967 and the favoured creative or recording instrument of international conceptual artists Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Eleanor Antin, Shigeko Kubota, Dara Birnbaum, Tony Labat, Joan Jonas William Wegman and John Baldassari and here in Australia by Mike Parr, whose video Pushing a Camera Over a Hill was made in 1971 (but later reshot on 16mm film for better depth of field), and by those accessing the independent video access centres of the Whitlam era, Peter Kennedy, Tim Johnson, Michael Glasheen, Jill Scott, Tim Burns, David Perry, Phillipa Cullen, Jeune Pritchard, Stephen Jones, Peter Callas, Leigh Hobba and the Bush Video group amongst them.
I was curious to find out how the new EV Nikons compare to the company’s Coolpix P900 which we’ve had in the house for some years now.
I was disappointed. The image (as Ken Rockwell’s image above confirms) is harsh and remote, even sharper and glitzier than the P900’s, a high resolution colour version of what one could espy in the cyan, glowing peephole on a Portapak. There is a sense of looking at the image rather than through the lens that is only a magnified version of what one can view on the back of the camera. It is an experience not much different from using a mobile phone to take pictures and useful for the rare novice unaccustomed to the conversion of three dimensions to two that is the essential photographic effect.
Even the experience of using a rangefinder camera is more direct, since the actual subject is seen through the viewfinder unmediated.
Kurt Staudinger‘s reflex pentaprism system, put into production after WW2 as the Contax SLR, brought a revolution. Seeing exactly as the lens does, through the lens, even the wide angle or telephoto that the framelines of the rangefinder could not encompass, the photographer came to appreciate those optical nuances since cherished and pursued as bokeh.
What the electronic viewfinder pictures is just that; the electronic picture. We have entered the chameleon phase of digital in which the destiny of the image is inevitably the infinitely mutable screen. While part of their imperative is to deal with the breakdown of mechanical shutters and mirror-returns though the sheer number of exposures made by digital users (to which both my D100 and D750 shutters have succumbed), these cameras face the fact; most photographs are to be seen on screens, not on paper.
On the occasion that images are rendered physical, for exhibition or sale perhaps, the technology so often used is the inkjet, glamorised as a giclee, derived from the rather less chic French word giclée, for a ‘spurt’ or ‘squirt.’ The irony is that this print-making returns us to the efforts of Nicéphore Niépce to use photochemistry to create a plate from which he could print in ink. Through the intervening two centuries photo-printing means were developed that culminated in the peerless albumen and silver gelatin print using chemistry that had formed the negative.
A current exhibition at Castlemaine Art Museum stimulates reflection on the notion of photography as printmaking. It is the second Experimental Print Prize sponsored by a local, Michael Rigg, with a First Prize of $10,000; Highly Recommended $5,000 and Emerging Artist, $3,000 and which continues until 28 February 2022.
Fifteen of forty-three artists — about a third of them — experiment with some form of photography, and so confirm that the forms of photographic printmaking are many and varied, the result of restless efforts to realise Niépce’s ambition, whether for fine art or for mass production.
The emphasis is on experiment, and while the winners used more traditional means to explore radical outcomes, some are pushing the boundaries of what might be meant by the term ‘print.’ Among the most speculative being Kate Gorringe-Smith‘s, which makes a first strong impression as being entirely out of place here. Its title draws attention to the effect of its strong red glow which manifests itself as an afterimage in spectral green on the walls of the darkened gallery, and prompts us to consider how the retinal image is a form of print, and indeed, is a primal photograph. More than an optical illusion, it becomes a metaphor for extinction. That the Eastern Curlew is critically endangered is signalled by this carmine, and the species’ disappearance, in a fading green, happens right before our closed eyes.
Others, like Rachel Bavich, are more direct in the use of digital imaging and the inkjet giclee print, though she has also used ‘solar’ plates, a prepared, light-sensitive polymer surface on a steel backing for production of etchings. Employing digital layering in her superimpositions of her own and archival images, Bavich presents the same location in the city of Ringwood over time in Backstreet.
A recent BA (Fine Art) graduate from Curtin University as a mature age student in 2021, her background in Honours level Humanities informs her interest in urban change, memory, familiarity and alienation in what she aptly identifies as a palimpsest, which originally referred to the erasures of previous writing that remain as traces below the surface of parchment which has been scraped to accommodate new script.
The scene encompasses historical views, like those above, of Ringwood, one of Maroondah Highway looking east, and allows glimpses of the past through the present; the parapets of 1920s shop-fronts bear signs for a bank, sweet store and car hire, the owner of both businesses being a Porter, who you can find advertising in The Age of Wednesday the 1st of December 1954 “HIRE.–Caravans for short or long terms. Not Xmas. WU6354;” a bare-headed rider on his motorcycle and sidecar peers back under his bodgie quiff at an approaching 1940s bus; he is unobserved by contemporary youths on the kerb intent on their mobile phones, surrounded by graffiti, cyclone fencing and a dumpster bin, while in the distance a man in a gabardine overcoat and waistcoat seems to gaze their way past a Bedford lorry from in front of the dry cleaners’. A lone figure, out of an indeterminate present or past, glimpses this temporal rift as his own figure melts into his reflection in the wet pavement.
Heliogravure is the name given by Nicéphore Niépce to the first photomechanical process for the reproduction of drawings and engravings, using which, from 1822, he made successful copies of existing images, most famously a portrait engraving of Pope Pius VII, by contact printing them on thin layers of asphalt coated first on glass (as a negative), and later used as a resist on stone, copper and pewter for printing in ink.
Photogravure, invented by the Viennese Karl Klic in 1879, is a photomechanical intaglio process adapted from F.H. Talbot’s ‘photoglyphic’ engraving process of 1852. Marks etched into the printing plate, are filled with ink for printing and can produce high quality continuous-tone images with a rich matt surface.
It was the favoured medium of Pictorialist photographers at the turn of the 20th century. As John Hannavy notes, Edward S. Curtis’ 20 volumes of his The North American Indian, each contain 75 hand-pulled photogravures while Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work was illustrated with examples that are still prized. Alvin Langdon Coburn produced 83 plates and over 40,000 prints and Peter Henry Emerson, calling it “photo-etching” found it ideal as a medium of personal expression.
Thomas Annan (1829–1887) in partnership with Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (inventor of a carbon process) purchased the rights to use the photogravure process from the Imperial Printing Works in Vienna. His Old Closes and Street—Glasgow, A Series of Photogravure, 1868–1899 was printed by his second son, James Craig Annan whose sunlit scene below shows the tonal range of the medium and its handling of shadow and highlight detail.
Nevertheless, photogravure has its challenges which only the likes of Silvi Glattauer, a founding member of The Baldessin Press and Studio, can meet. Her local application of blue in the lake is à la poupée (“with the doll”) in which a doll-shaped bundle of fabric is used to apply ink of a different colour on a single plate, rather than by printing from multiple plates for each colour. She says;
The hand-made print allows me to work slowly giving me the opportunity to consider and ponder the subject and intentions. The materiality of the photogravure objects echoes the preciousness of landscapes that are being renegotiated by our interventions…in the very few natural places left on earth that have not been degraded by humankind.
Close examination of this print (though I can only provide an iPhone copy here, taken at the exhibition) reveals a fine grain and stippled quality well suited to depiction of the occasionally-filled vast ‘inland sea’ Kati Thanda once known as Lake Eyre
It returns us full circle to the origins of the photograph as print.