Technology as artistic opportunity and aesthetic hurdle

My wife, who is a photographer, has been producing some compelling animations / videos based on multi-generational portraits of Indian women. In the process of making the work, she went through a series of hurdles, just like any creative person would. She first struggled through the process of conceptualizing and defining the project. Once she knew what she wanted to do, she then applied for and had good luck getting a grant to fund the initial photographing and the post-production of the work. Over time the project evolved. She has recently completed the creation of the finished pieces. The work uses some of the latest digital technology to raise some interesting questions about time, memory and photographs. In the process of making the work, it seems she got a little too far in front of the existing technology. So much so that one of our current projects is to figure out what existing technology can be used to present her work in the exact way that she wants it be experienced.

The work is called “Re- Generation,” and some of the finished pieces can be seen starting at: http://annumatthew.com/Portfolioregeneration/index.html Click on an image on the left, then watch the image evolve. A statement about the work is at: http://annumatthew.com/Portfolioregeneration/Regeneration%20statement.html In that statement Annu describes the work: “The final ephemeral animation is a combination of a scan of an archival image and recent photographs of three generations of women which magically flow one into another… Here, history is distorted, evoking a new dimension of memories, which is uniquely digital.”

That last point is the core of the dilemma. The work uses an established technology, animation, in a new way, in order to “animate” family photos. Family photos, like other images, are presumed to be fixed in time and unchanging. Yet her animation makes them change. That same change is the core of the experience she is trying to recreate in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

One example of how she has move ahead of the existing technology and aesthetics comes in when she has been sending the finished work out for competitions/shows. To fully appreciate how the imagery changes over time, the end viewer needs to see the changing images. The problem is that most of the venues where she is submitting the work accept only still images, labeling moving images as video, a kind of work that falls into a completely different category in their eyes.

She is blurring the line between media in order to give the viewer a new experience. Photographers have been doing this as long as the medium has existed. The “photo-transformations” of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Lucas Samaras are just one example of this. He took the Polaroid SX-70 prints that popped out of the camera in one complete package and then manipulated them with whalebone, to distort the representational image into something more interpretive. He discovered that heating the Polaroids in a toaster-oven would make the emulsion, which Polaroid designed to harden as it developed, into some thing more soft and pliable.

Ironically the recent demise of the Polaroid Corporation means the end of that particular process. You might say, “Technology giveth artist’s opportunities but it also taketh them away.”

The struggle with technology that my wife and I are working through today is something we have encountered before. She used Holga cameras, with their plastic lenses, back when there was only one model available. Now you can get Holgas in many colors and formats. Similarly most new Holgas incorporate a bulb setting for long exposure. When she first started using Holgas over a decade ago, we had to modify one, so the shutter would stay open as long a she wanted it to.

The Holga camera with its unique technology has moved from the periphery to center stage in the world of photography. Annu has some of her own Holga work in an exhibition of Holga work opening soon in New York City. You can read more at: http://www.umbrellaarts.com/index2.php?option=com_jcalpro&Itemid=27&extmode=view&extid=2

She has been showing her latest work, the animated multi-generational family portraits on television sets attached to small DVD players. That presentation format is less then ideal. The set up is technologically complex. Since the images are meant to evoke family photos, they are best presented as fairly small and intimate so in this case only a small part of the HD TV screen is even used.

For the last few months we have been looking at digital picture frames as a new presentation technology. They seem like a great solution. They are self-contained unlike the TV / DVD player set-up. They are compact and easier to ship then the other set-up. And of course they work well giving the viewer the “feeling” of looking at family photos.

Back in October, at the Photo Plus Expo trade show in NYC we looked at a lot of digital picture frames. Though many claim to show video, very few actually did and NONE were remotely satisfactory in how they showed the animated examples of Annu’s work. It was not for lack of trying on our part. We had sample videos on flash cards to try out on the many models of digital picture frames we encountered. For our more recent research trip to the B + H Photo Video store, I actually made the same animation in seven different formats / compression settings. After dealing with a very knowledgeable salesman at B + H, I set up my laptop and remade that same animation into the formats that he suggested were more likely to work. Those newer animations actually worked. After months of online research, which was of limited value, and hours of research with the actual frames, we were finally closer to finding a technical solution to what started as an aesthetic question.

We have not settled on which digital picture frame technology we will be using. Among the very few that actually do what they say they can, really showing videos, each set-up has certain limitations. We will be probing those products and their technologies until we find just the right solution to present the work “Re-Generation.”

In terms of finding such a solution, both the technical representative at HP we spoke to at the trade show and the salesman at B + H in New York City said essentially the same thing. Their thinking went something like: “This technology should exist in a system with much higher quality and ease of use because we get so many calls for it and yet to date, it does not really do that. All the digital picture frame makers who claim their products easily and adeptly display video are being disingenuous at best and lying at worst.”

This week we explored another facet of the convergence between still images and moving ones that I blogged about last week. In that case I was exploring the issue on the on the commercial photography side and this week that same convergence confronts us on the fine art side of photography. I look forward to the day when the technology will help others see clearly what my wife already see clearly in her mind’s eye.

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