Methodology: beyond protocol

Beyond protocol

My imag(in)ing ‘beyond protocol’ experiment was based around photographing objects around the Fence surrounding the 2012 Olympics site using analog film and cameras[ref]All three experiments were at one scale the same. My photographic involvement in the imaginings was in terms of images of things. I was exploring ways of imag(in)ing 2012 which were not focused on the site or even its position in the East End. I explored Jane Bennet’s account of ‘vibrant matter’ photographically. I began photographing objects, things, material rags ‘n refuse I found in the shadow of the Fence and in the surrounding streets. Some were literally refuse: litter, discarded materials others were more permanent: a canal side mooring ring, a material component of the Fence. I deliberately sought to frame the images in such a way that the object was the focus rather than the ‘thing in its environment’. I used close up and depth of field conventions to isolate the object representationally. My aim in abstracting these from their contexts was to relocate them in their material, political, social and technological contexts in a similar way to the way Bennett used her abstracted matter to open up a view of wider materialities and networks. What changed with the experiments was how those objects and images of objects were generated, used and positioned within the process and practice.[/ref]. I chose to use 35mm analog film, in particular Kodachrome, a transparency film that was famous for its particular colour space and saturation. Kodachrome was a film with a history in photography, almost an iconic position. It was the film of choice for journalists making the move from black and white to colour, of artists looking to make strange the everyday. What is more, Kodak had decided to phase out production of the film and it’s development process in November 2010 as part of a broader move towards digital. I bought up rolls of the film and after shooting, sent them off to Switzerland to be processed before Kodak’s arbitrary deadline. Like the objects I was photographing, the Kodachrome slide was a thing, a specific object, a material presence enfolded with myth, culture and professional practice. It was shot through with the processes, or as I would come to call them the alliances, within the photographic industries. It was an example of the sort of enfolded vibrant matter that Bennett talked of and that I was exploring.

My choice of cameras was also driven by this material focus and concern with photographic practice’s enfolded nature. I used a Leica M2 and a Belplasca stereo camera. Both material technologies had particular enfolded positions within photographic history, practice, culture and political economics. Neither was a neutral imaging device, a recorder. Both were material and deeply powerful.

Like Kodachrome, the Leica is iconic. It is the companion of Cartier-Bresson, the weapon of Robert Capa, the chosen technology of Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank. In fact the mythology of the Leica is such that camera is positioned as almost withdrawing from view, leaving just the eye of these artist/journalists. Such is its perceived engineering perfection, the Leica is a tool. Its greatest advocates do not sing the praise of its presence, rather they sing the power of its absence, the way it does not get in the way of their vision, their street walking or their art. When a police officer once told me I could come to the front of a gaggle of press corps because I had a “real camera”, I knew that the Leica had a particular mythic position enfolded with its very material presence. It resonated, vibrated across professional practices, cultures and social spaces. Similarly, when I joined the queue at the Post Office in November 2010 to send off my last rolls of Kodachrome and joined in a nostalgic conversation with another photographer doing the same, I knew that my choice of film was part of a cultural world, that ‘Kodachrome’ resonated, vibrated across photographic culture and practice. It was not just that Kodachrome and the Leica were objects of nostalgia or even just mythic. They were enfolded with how photography talked of itself, how photographers understood their world and how the imaging industries were reworking those histories, practices and discourses within the new technologies. Interestingly Kodak’s press release announcing the “death of Kodachrome” as it became known, talked of its past but also the company’s commitment to the future and to analog imaging. Similarly, Leica continues to make analog M cameras and even models it’s flagship digital camera in the same mould.

I also used a 1950s stereo camera, an East German Belplasca. This device was from a particular historical and photographic conjuncture, a moment when the possibilities of a stereo scopic experience were being resold and marketed[ref]The Belplasca (seen as technically superior but from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain) and the American Stereo Realist cameras were at the heart of revival of interest in stereo-imaging driven by images of and by celebrities as well as a desire to see the post-war domestic boom differently.[/ref].  This camera and other models targeted at the domestic imaging markets claimed to offer a particular form of experience that expanded almost beyond the visual to the spatial and maybe even the tactile. What is more they were built around, and possibly failed because they demanded, the personal viewing moment. Only one viewer at a time could have the experience. The use of a viewer device took the viewing subject out of a social scopic moment, passing prints around or sharing a slide show. My decision to use this device was partly driven by the desire to work again with a particular enfolded device, a camera that could not be delocated from it’s historical and discursive location, but also because it enabled me to work with the scopic experience.

Both cameras and Kodachrome were ‘beyond protocol’. The imaginings (images and scopic experiences) they created were not dependent on or determined by jpeg. Their alliances with the imaging industries and governmental practices and discourses were set in motion by actants other than jpeg. And their failure to find a place within social media (unless scanned  using the jpeg protocol[ref]Obviously a stereo image can be scanned as two separate image but cannot be viewed as stereo without special hardware or software interpollation.[/ref]) was down to their unvisibility as non-jpeg technologies.

The practice-research experience of imaging using these ‘beyond protocol’ technologies and apparatuses was perhaps familiar because this was the professional practice I was trained in as an apprentice press photographer. The use of an external light-meter; the mental calculation of exposure as a set of choices based around the Zone System{Adams 1995} rather than as a clear-cut identification of the right combination; the eye-level framing of the image according to the classic rule-of-thirds and Harold Evans’ precepts for a photo that ‘makes’{Evans 1997} – all of these professional cultural practices and habits not only set in motion particular images but also imag(in)ings. As I unconsciously worked through the ‘theories’ of the Zone System and the Decisive Moment{CartierBresson 1999}, I imag(in)ed the images I was taking, I pre-visualised in the way that I had done as a press hack, knowing what I needed to get, what the market demanded and my editor wanted. Not having access to the image immediately (as in digital) meant that I had to be sure of what I was doing and imag(in)e in a way that covered the bases. Although I was working through the theory/ideology of the decisive moment, my professional practice was built on the maxim “if it’s worth taking one of it’s worth taking three of; if it’s not worth taking three of it’s not worth taking one of”.  Imagining was in the service of images or more correctly the best chance of getting a usable and sellable image. Here professional security and reputation trumped the myth of the single image. Just as I automatically took a selection of landscape and portrait format images (so the editor could choose to fit the page), so I measured out the 36 frames (or 20 in the Belplasca) in professional as well as creative terms.

These imag(in)ing practices and images emerged from this complex system of professional practice-theory. My particular visualisation of the vibrant matter around 2012 emerged from these fragmentary rules (protocols we might say), habits and practices, refracted through particular technologies, themselves enfolded in their own histories and discourses.

This phase of the project was designed to imag(in)e beyond protocol or at least beyond the jpeg protocol. The absence of the compression standard’s ability to allow multiple images to be saved to the card made imag(in)ing a matter of decisions and professional judgements. Similarly jpeg’s relative inflexibility to encode the full range of light  detail gave my beyond-jpeg analog imag(in)ing the space to deal with a wider dynamic range of colour and tone. In short, as a non-jpeg imager I knew I had more colours, detail and range to play with.

Once the button had been pressed ‘beyond  protocol’, the absence of jpeg became even more apparent. Imag(in)ing stopped. Once the transparencies returned from the lab, they were my scopic experience to have or to share by inviting someone to the light-table or passing them the stereo viewer. The archive remained stationary and fixed, a unique set of material objects, actants within a limited scopic network. It must be noted of course that these Kodachrome slides remain enfolded in countless other global networks – Kodak’s business strategies, art and journalism and now academia, but at the immediate scale of their location as 2012 imag(in)ings, they were outside the distributed scopic web of images and imag(in)ings. They were (socially) unvisible.

This experiment was about more than the difference between analog and digital[ref]As I will discuss in relation to the digital imag(in)ing apparatus, it is possible to explore the unvisibility of if imag(in)ings in a digital space through the use of non-jpeg protocols.[/ref], it was about unvisiblity as a way of imag(in)ing, opening up the search for an imag(in)ing aesthetic appropriate to a network scopic regime. Where my practice-research approach to this question added value over a purely theoretical exploration was that it was only as fragments of practice and theory collided that the central issue of ‘unvisibility’ emerged. That unvisibility that being beyond jpeg entailed, emerged from a practice of imag(in)ing with cameras meeting a practice of theorising objects as actant processes.

I could have looked to explore the unvisibility of the Kodachrome slide, the beyond protocol image and imaging practice, purely via theory. My theoretical framework would have enabled me to build an account of the Kodachrome object as a process-actant, enfolded and unfolded within the scopic regime. So far so useful. What it could not have done is address how the practice of imag(in)ing with those objects is similarly enfolded and unfolded. The slide cannot be separated from the practice of its creation and consumption, the theoretical and discursive enfoldings within which I work. These are processes too and as actants in the network they must be accounted for. Only an approach that clashes practice and theory is willing and able to work with and through that flat ontology.