Friday, June 30, 2023

Looking more deeply ~ One

The other day I caught myself skimming through hundreds of images online. I stopped and felt it was useless.  My eyes were "consuming" images at a hellatious rate, and for what?  What was I actually seeing?  What was I doing?  Why was I doing it?  

I'd caught myself as a mindless, insensitive consumer.

Shortly afterward I was skimming through the Reporters Sans Frontieres journal #66 which contains 100 photos by Jacques-Henri Lartigue.  The images look good but I couldn't tell you what I'd looked.

I'd caught myself as a mindless, insensitive consumer.  Again.

Stuck in my mind was an interesting article written by someone named Sroyon on the site 35mmc.  The article talked about how to look more deeply at an image and to appreciate it for all the things that it is and all the things we bring with us as we try to look more deeply.

Taking a deep breath, I returned to the journal and a famous photograph that was made many years ago by Jacques-Henri Lartigue.  It is a unique image (or so I thought) in the way the subject is distorted one direction, and the background is distorted in another direction.

It was easy to wonder about how M.Lartigue had created the image.  Using the Force, I Duck Duck Go'd (I'm no longer using Google) and found something rather fun.  There is a lengthy discussion on the effect.  The discussion thread details what was done and how the effect was achieved. 

M. Lartique used an early focal-plane shuttered large format camera.  The shutter was slow to travel in front of the film plane giving time for the subject and background distortions to be generated. The photographer himself at first felt the image had "failed" because of the unintended distortions.  He hadn't panned the "bolide" (racecar to us 'mericans) at the proper rate.  It didn't look "right" and the image was set aside.

There was a 40+ year span of time between when the M.Lartigue photo was taken and when it was first widely shared.  The image was made in 1913 of the "bolide" of Rene Croquet but wasn't distributed in the wider world until 1954.  

What changed his M.Lartigue's mind?  It seems that a certain photo made by the American Paris-based photographer, Man Ray, was gaining a lot of attention. So M.Lartigue went back through his old negatives to retrieve his own version of a distorted racecar.

Further, this kind of distorted early racecar image is not the only image in this style.  It turns out that there are many examples of this kind of distortion.  Some show light distortions.  Other photographs show a stronger effect.  Photographers were having a difficult time panning with their subjects.  Their technique wasn't "perfect."

The attention Man Ray's image was receiving must have been significant enough to rise above the other distorted images to have ultimately captured the attention of M.Lartigue.

What makes the Lartigue image so remarkable is that the early part of the 20th century is it comes from a time preceding the industrialization and mass commercialization of cameras and film.  Photography as a craft was in the process of exiting a time when a good photographer was also a very good alchemist.  

Early photographers had to either understand or happen upon solutions to photographic problems  Lenses were still ground by hand.  Cameras were still somewhat unique.  Dry plate film could still struggle with batch to batch variations.  Photography had yet to be democratized across the upper and middle classes.

As icing on this exercise of looking more deeply at something, I never knew that the photographer wasn't actually a photographer.  He made his way through the world for many years primarily as an artist.  His paintings were exhibited and sold in galleries in Europe. 

It was after John Szarkowski at MoMA presented M.Lartigue's works in 1963 and after the enthusiastic Richard Avedon helped put on a show of the Frenchman's images that the world came to see Jacques-Henri as a photographer.

The shift from artist to photographer is by now complete.  Searching the name "Jacques-Henri Lartigue" produces links to only his photography.  I've tried this various ways using search engines and I've yet to come across a link to paintings by the artist.

This was fun and educational.  I got to learn about a photographer who wasn't really a photographer.  I got to learn about early photographic tools and their application.  I got to re-experience looking at a famous image.  I got to appreciate how the bolide's lines, including the brake handle, point one direction and the background sliding in the other.  

What a fascinating image.

I think I'll have to try this out on other works in the near future.