Friday, October 8, 2010

Psychogeographer, Qu'est-ce Que C'est

someone who wanders the city with the sole purpose of paying attention to it.
(Shawn Micallef)

Back in university I took a couple of photography classes. Our final project of the second class was self-directed, meaning we had to come up with a concept, write an artist's statement and execute the project. It was my first attempt at art photography, i.e. something more than a simple portrait, narrative series, or technical exercise.

Choosing my subject matter was easy: I wanted to wander Toronto in the dead of night and take pictures of the city asleep. Empty streets, alleys, pedestrian tunnels. I wanted to do this, at the time, mainly because I thought it made for the most interesting pictures. The city is a chaos of striking visuals. Varied spaces and shapes. Textures: stone and glass, polished metal, crumbling brick, scrawls of graffiti, smooth pavement. Beautiful and strange buildings, interesting nooks and crannies where alleys meet tunnels, and branch off into hidden courtyards between glass-paneled skyscrapers. And it all only gets better at night, lit in all kinds of dramatic/ominous ways by streetlights and shop windows. I'll also admit I've always felt nervous taking pictures of people, especially strangers on the street, never sure if my camera will be an unwelcome intrusion. In this regard as well the city seemed like an ideal subject: it never minds having it's picture taken. It will stand and wait while you dial in that shutter and f-stop.

This idea also appealed to me because the opportunity to maraud around in the dead of night seemed exciting and a little illicit. Boundries get blurry in the city, at night. Everything is kind of closed, or actually closed; some of the places you could normally go during the day are off limits, and some of the places that are off limits are fair game, if only by virtue of the fact that there's no one around to stop you. There's no traffic to keep you off the road, and no other pedestrians to keep you from going in the exit and out the entrance, or strolling casually down walkways designed to usher crowds along at maximum speed. Defying these unwritten and unspoken "rules" of navigating the city can feel liberating. Of course, I'm articulating it now much better than I could then. At the time, these sentiments weren't much more than a vague feeling of adventurousness.

In any case, the project demanded a more artistic justification than "cool pics" any my exploratory inclinations though. I struggled with the "meaning" of my project, something that is still not my strong point. I'm more inclined to make something that looks cool because I like it, than to create something with a message, or purpose. In the end I cobbled together an awkward handful of paragraphs - something about the city bereft of people becoming a kind of landscape. Seeing it in a different way when it's divorced from the obvious functional purposes of it's spaces.

See, I find the city beautiful, and not just the parts that are conventionally attractive. To me, the cracked brick and uneven pavement and broken glass is just as interesting as the sweeping spires of skyscrapers, or carefully groomed parks. Wandering the city at night amplifies this beauty, because there are no pedestrians or traffic to get in the way. The city, separated from the things it is built to functionally accommodate, takes on a life of it's own.

In thinking about what it might mean to develop a much more personal relationship with the city around me, I was straining toward something I couldn't quite articulate because I didn't yet have the vocabulary. However, in the past few months I've learned the word for what I was trying to be: flaneur. The school of thought that informs what I was trying to do: psychogeography.

I learned this from a book I stumbled across totally by accident - Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, by Shawn Micallef. This is the book I have been looking for and never knew it, and it's the basis for a project I have in mind, likely to start once the weather gets bearable outside again. Because it will involve a lot of walking. Luckily, that is what these boots were made for.

More later.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"There is only you and your camera."

Simply carrying a camera around with me causes me to see things in a different way. I find that I start to notice details, interesting textures, plays of light and shadow, unusual shapes. I become a little more aware of the space around and between things. I frame everything in my mind as I move, searching for interesting compositions. The photograph I eventually take is only the last of a hundred that passed through my mind's eye before I actually pressed the shutter.

Carrying a camera makes me conscious of the act of really seeing what's around me. And man, have you looked around lately? There are some interesting things to see.

I finally caved and bought a DSLR. I put it off for a long time because of the expense. It seems like such a crazy extravagance. But considering how much satisfaction and inspiration I get from playing with it, perhaps it's not actually so superfluous.

I've only been out a couple times with it so far, just wandering aimlessly for the sole purpose of finding some interesting pictures to take, but it already feels like I'm getting to know the city better. Instead of just walking from point A to point B, lost in my thought, I'm actually paying attention. Seeing the streets I walk down, noticing the buildings, realizing how this place connects to that place. Forming a more substantial map in my head of how it all fits together. And the feeling of coming to know this city I live is a satisfying one.

The DSLR encourages experimentation, and that's what I love about it. Because you can snap away, hundreds at a time with no need to buy or print film, you start to get adventurous. What happens if you set the ISO to this and the f stop to this? What if you focus over there? What if you move the camera while you expose? What if you make this exposure way too long on purpose? You can shoot over and over, playing with the settings and seeing, immediately, the effects of each tweak. You can shoot until you get something you like, and simply discard all the failures. These are the reasons I bought a DSLR, and it was totally worth it.

It does give me the itch to get back to shooting actual film at some point, though. I'm a total tech geek, and I love gadgets as much as the next guy. I've been working on computers all my life and definitely appreciate the power and flexibility of tools like Photoshop. But I've got a soft spot for film. Film is substantial, it's physical. You get your hands on it and you get some paper and chemicals and light and you craft an actual physical object. Like any physical art it can be imbued with those touches and imperfections and happy accidents that are as unique as the fingerprints of the pair of hands that made them.

The digital, on the other hand, feels colder and more mechanical to me. I'm less impressed with gorgeous digital shots, because the cameras are so sophisticated and capable that sometimes it seems like the shooter doesn't need to do that much except point them in the right direction. If you want the kind of interesting visual flukes that can crop up in film printing - vignetting, odd areas of over or under exposure, the gritty noise of dust and scratches getting in there somewhere in the process - you have to mimic them with a Photoshop filter, and they're no longer happy accidents but design choices that can be tweaked and adjusted until they look ideal. And since there is no roll of film imposing any limit, you can snap away, hundreds of pictures at a time - no longer watching for and snatching out that one paticular moment but shooting all of them non-stop and then sifting through afterward for the keepers.

A film photograph feels like art, a digital photograph feels like documentation. At least some of the time.

I think my ideal scenario is to use the digital format to learn and become a more competant photographer, and then take that knowledge and apply it to shooting and printing film. When it comes to art, sometimes it's just way more satisfying to get your hands on it and make something real.