Saturday, February 14, 2009

Looking In

As I'm getting more familiar with the process of shooting, developing, and printing film photography, I can't help but notice that there is some creative leverage found here that is difficult to duplicate in digital photography.  What I'm mostly talking about is found in the printing process.  Ever seen an old photograph with some rough, wavy lines around the image?  That's what happens in the printing process when you expose a negative to photo paper and don't crop it.  It is a fantastic way to frame some photos (depending on the subject matter). 

Another thing I love is a contact sheet.  When using 35 mm film, you can line up multiple negatives, side by side, and expose them onto light-sensitive photo paper to yield "thumbnail" prints.  This is a quick and dirty way to see which photos you will eventually want to enlarge and print.

Something that's cool about contact sheets is that they can tell a story in chronological order from exposure 1 to 36.  When I decided to go shoot some pictures the other day, where did I go?  What was I drawn to?  They are their own special kind of narrative.  And, although they're just a step in the process, I think they are strangely beautiful on their own.  Speaking of: NPR just published an article about a just-released catalog entitled Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans.' It chronicles the 83 images currently on display at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. of his full-fledged photographic series The Americans (first and fully published in 1958).  

According to NPR: "It's sacrilege to say, but perhaps even more revelatory than the 83 photographs themselves are Frank's contact sheets, a frame-by-frame record of the images snapped on his sprawling journey.  Filling 81 pages of Looking In, they not only provide a thrilling and rare insight into the shaping, through masterful editing, of images into art, but they also reveal how a great photographer sees - in this case, directly into the soul of America."

About the photographer in general, they go on to say: "His images perfectly capture the new America: a flag-draped memorial to Honest Abe; celebrity-worshippers at a glitzy premiere; Windy City operators huddled in political deal-making; the empty chairs and desks where bank-loan officers and aspiring homeowners once sat; couples clutching in hope and love and uncertainty on public lawns.  

It's evidence both of the cycles of American life and the timelessness of photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank's art that a half century after the debut of his ground-shifting book The Americans, so many of its brazen, coarsely poetic pictures still frame our national experience."

"Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19 - New Orleans 11/1/1955" - Frank shot this roll of film in New Orleans in November, 1955. It contains two images, numbered 13 and 16 in the row outlined in red, that made Frank's final cut for The Americans. Photo number 16, "Trolley - New Orleans," became famous as The Americans' cover image.


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