A Photographic Memory - 220 R.I.P.Tuesday, August 09, 2011
It is a paradox of the expression “a photographic memory” that it is no longer that and that is it rarely used.
The expression may have originated with the birth of photography when this new thing (not art yet and who knows not art even now) could capture (and yes that word was used before it became a staple of digital photographers) reality as opposed to the embellishments of artists be they painters or sculptors. In fact with the advent of photography the art of painted miniatures by which 8 year-old grand duchesses might meet their future husband, some Hohenzollern prince, just about disappeared. Blue bloods now wanted to see the real thing or at least a reasonable facsimile. Photography fit that bill to perfection until photographers became adept at modifying this erstwhile absolute reality.
A photographic memory implies looking at something once and then snapping it with our mind’s eye to then be able to retrieve it all, unchanged, at any moment’s notice.
But with the proliferation of all kinds of digital programs for photographic manipulation (and before them the virtuoso talents of Russian propaganda technicians who with the help of historians could make people disappear from a well known image using photomechanical methods) a photographic memory now comes burdened with imperfection.
And when one considers the term within the confines of photography itself that memory can be vague and all but forgotten.
Before digital, there was the almost universal presence of the 35mm camera. By mid 70s I had tired at its ability to allow me to shoot one picture after another. When the motor winders and the much faster motor drives appeared, we photographers abided by the rule that “film is cheap, so shoot lots”. I resisted this trend by purchasing my first medium format film camera a Mamiya RB-67. It used two types of roll film (it can be identified by the fact that the film is protected from light by a paper backing) one was 120 film which gave me 10 exposures and the other 220 film (twice as long) which gave me 20 exposures. I weaned myself from shooting lots by using the 220 back for my Mamiya. In the beginning for me 20 exposures put me at a challenge to the previous count of 36 exposures with 35mm cameras. My Mamiya taught me to be frugal with film and forced me to make every exposure, every shot count. Soon the 10 exposure roll became my standard.
Some magazine art directors, stuck to the techniques of 35mm photographers would get nervous when I would show them 10 exposures of b+w or slide film. “Did you shoot more?” they would ask. After a while they, too adapted and began to shun the photographers who shot a lot without much thought behind each exposure.
It was in our trip to south Texas where I used my Mamiya 220 back (I have two) for the last time. Kodak and everybody else have discontinued 220. One of my last shots, to my feeling enabled me to leave 220 with a bang. It is that portrait of El Borrado.
|Camerino Urbina aka El Borrado |
Mamiya RB-67 Pro SD
Kodak Plus-X 220
But I don’t want to give the impression that I could handle a magazine assignment with one roll (in fact, handled quite a few with two or three exposures and no more). More often than not we had a special tool/crutch which was the Polaroid back. This meant that I could take a snap with Polaroid back attached to the back of my camera. The resulting picture (much like a digital’s image in the display in the back) helped me check my equipment’s performance, my lighting and my composition and many times it helped me to make my subject relax. There was an added bonus in that many of my subjects went home with that Polaroid which I hoped they would attach to their fridges with a magnet.
That Polaroid back gave me a choice. An important choice was my ability to not take it with me (I could pretend I had forgotten) and when I took portraits of iffy politicians, businessmen of questionable repute, showing them what I was doing to their faces might have made them bolt. I had that choice and I wonder what digital photographers do now when their subject demand to see each exposure and some even go as far as demanding that the picture be deleted.
So here is a scan of my retired 220 back and I look once more on how elements of my past world have disappeared. We will soon join them but until then I still have 120 film with its ten exposures! Particularly important, now that film isn’t cheap anymore.