Ken Smith Photo Journal

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time and value

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winter hill

There are several AT&T tv ads currently playing that grabbed my attention. They show an adult male in a suit, sitting at what looks like a kindergarten classroom table, with four elementary school age children.

He asks, “What is better, Bigger or Smaller?” Simply that. The children all scream, “Bigger!!” That is the real message of the ad, which we find out at the last is about the biggest 4G network the company has.

There are other ads. “What is better, Faster or Slower?” Of course we know the childrens’ answers.

And finally, in the same setting, the question becomes, “What is better doing two things at once, or just one thing at once?” The more the better….

I wonder the message being sent, not to those shopping for a fast phone, but to children sitting in front of a tv. And to us adults, who like me have been grabbed by the initial humor, but also question the values expressed? What do these values mean to all of us in our daily lives? What does it mean to me as an artist?

Last autumn I began shooting film again. Black & white film loaded in old cameras, and newer cameras. All medium format 120 size film. I got out the handheld light meter, the tripod, and it felt great. In the late afternoon, I once again was in the darkroom souping film in chemicals measured in beakers. A thermometer is now very important. It was heaven, and simple. I was doing one thing carefully at once. The medium required I slow down to develop my 12 shots made that day.

I am still scanning my negs and printing with a black & white inkset, and I haven’t given up my digital cameras, but now I feel more connected to this new work. It is curious what real hands-on involvement in each image can do to the art psyche. My darkroom still has the ancient Beseler 23c enlarger sitting, waiting for my attention, and it may be rewarded soon. I have stacks of badly outdated printing paper, long obsolete, that want to show me about time and most likely fog. But they might teach me something new along the path.

Digital or film, one is not better than the other, but very different. My rediscovery of film, I know isn’t a unique ephiphany, or an earth-shattering renaissance that will change the world, but for my world it is revealing. It reminds me of the value of meditative work, where film is expensive and limited, not throwaway pixels where the goal feels more important than the journey. The tools of the process bring me back down to earth, instead of me creeping in the ether of an lcd screen. I agitate the film to the cadence of the timer, and dry my hands on a clean towel. Simply that, while I await the mystery that is on the film inside the tank. There is the gamble, the sacrifice, the possibility of something good to come, and I enjoy that suspense.

It is sort of shameful that children cannot hear a message by the big corporations that it is ok to slow down, to be spare, to be contemplative instead of the revered multitasking. Unfortunately, I expect there will be no turning back.

Unless…they pick up an old argus off ebay, buy some film from Europe or Asia, and take a deep breath.

“What is better, a Tweet or a Haiku?” I know the answer to that one.

(Image info: A recent winter day in the woods. Made with a 1950s Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash with the lens reversed, on Kodak Tri-X 120 film.)

image copyright © Ken Smith 2013 all rights reserved.

Written by Ken Smith

January 23rd, 2013 at 2:11 pm

one thousand one…

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I had an opportunity this last weekend to blow the dust off my Burke and James 5×7 camera. For a couple years it has been a shining sculpture in my living room, a relic and reminder of a past when things were not so electronic. I put it to work photographing some turtle shells I am incorporating in an art piece. It wasn’t an easy matter, for I had to reacquaint myself with the other world which I had left behind for so long. I needed to get out my handheld pentax spot meter, fill the wood film holders with efke 100 asa sheet film…I had to clean the darkroom sink of the accumulation gathered there as the darkroom became a multi-purpose room.

Then, for several hours I got to play in an earthy way, with things made of wood and glass. I needed to remind myself to put the lens cap back on the lens after focusing, before removing the dark slide from the film holder. Everything was alien, and yet familiar. It came back with a sweet memory. Again, I went back to the school boy timer…..”one thousand one, one thousand two…”, like in some hide and seek game with light and shadow. The exposure on the old french darlot lense was 4 seconds at f22, then I quickly put the lenscap back on the lens. It has no shutter.

I went to the darkroom, familiarizing myself again with the beakers, the formulas of the chemistry, the gralab timer. Jeez, I could screw up at any point and ruin the film. I could only develop one sheet at a time, having slipped it sideways in a curve inside the 1-liter Paterson tank, emulsion side in. I was using the two part Pyrocat HD developer, which leaves a brown stain on the film, and was so beautiful it could be a finished picture in negative form.

The whole process was so antique compared to what I had been living with in my photography for such a long time. Every part of it could have been a century ago, or timeless…what men had dealt with before they knew about things binary. But in a hybrid affliction I scanned the film into my computer to print on my epson. It is all pretty awesome, but I didn’t know it would be, till I actually went thru the compete process. Now, I need to do it again and again. The 5×7 is no longer a monolith in the corner, but of real use. I won’t leave digital either – I am a heretic to nothing. I move through the shadows, enticed towards the unmentioned taboo by two lovers, for one alone cannot satisfy me.

Written by Ken Smith

March 9th, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Equipment,Still Life

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