Notes from If Wet 5

If Wet 5 - August - 27

If Wet 5 occurred on Sunday with presentation/performances by Nikki Pugh (who I’ve known for years) and Kathy Hinde (who I hadn’t met before). I was taking photos again (it’s one of the few times I get to be a “trad” event photographer at the moment so I make the most of it) but, as ever, it was a big brain-jolt and notes were taken.

The main concept I had was for the harmonic optical theremin. Building on my camera-obscura-pinscreen-sculpture idea I wanted to think about a camera that produces sound. Usually this is done with a photoresistor which informs the pitch of a soundwave, often called an optical theremin. That’s not really a camera though, as a camera doesn’t just measure light - it creates an image from the light. So, what if, inside the camera obscura, each photoresistor in the array (each pixel, if you like) triggered a different soundwave with the pitches for each shade of grey being in harmony. Images captured by the camera would produce different chords. A live video feed, or movie, would play a tune. A prototype of this shouldn’t be too hard to do using Processing or similar.

Another idea, possibly tying in with the “performance photography” musing, is a camera that “explodes” with light, sound, movement, etc when the shutter is opened. This would be technically similar to the above but the reactive object would be the camera itself. The camera “reads” the subject and reacts accordingly. I see it having party streamers.

If Wet 5 - August - 19

There was talk of “scores” on Sunday, particularly the odd graphic ones that experimental composers use, and I found myself wondering what a score for cameras might look like. Would it be very prescriptive (“walk 20 paces, look NNE at 45 degrees from horizontal and take photo with wide aperture and +2 exposure compensation”) or more vague? Could this be a way of making the photographic treasure hunt less cliched and tedious?

This notion of scores for photographers took me to the idea of group producing photos as a unit, each with own camera but the resulting images are combined into a “piece”, like the sounds of an orchestra or band. What was interesting about this was that the photographers would have to work together and follow a “beat”. The might have to be a conductor. If the score takes us through time the photos can be played back using timestamps.

Other thoughts:

GPS plays a big part in Nikki’s work. Many cameras, particularly those on phones, have GPS built in. Could the GPS inform the workings on the camera in some way? Probably easiest to do this as a smartphone app.

Feedback loops are used in music to create drones. What would a feedback look for a photo look like? A double exposure? Something like this?

Sadly I won’t be at If Wet next month as Fiona has insisted I go with her to a hot place for a week for a “holiday”. Le Sigh.

If Wet 5 - August - 14

Notes from If Wet 4


If Wet, an afternoon of sonic exploration in a village hall in darkest Worcestershire, has quickly become my essential event of the month. I’m not a sonic artist and sometimes struggle to follow the technical things under discussion (I had to google “transducer” the first month) but it’s proven to be the most inspirational and fundamentally useful art-thing ever.

Mostly this is because it’s based around peer sharing. Sam Underwood and David Morton are musicians / instrument builders / sound artists and curate If Wet in an effort to build a community of interest. They invite specific guests but rather than just perform they explain and discuss their work. As such it has more a feel of a seminar, but still has the casual and open-to-all vibe of a gig.

Ostensibly I go there to take photos, and have built up a nice collection, but my real motivation is to learn from people way outside my field. I’m mostly a photographer who works with light. These are mostly musicians who work with sound. Where their work with sound potentially overlaps with my work with light is where is gets interesting to me because it frees me from the often stifling definitions of “photography”. Last month Sarah Anglis was got me thinking about performance. This month Laura Kriefman, along with Sam and David themselvs, for me thinking about composition and movement.

Here’s some notes. I’m not expecting to them to be coherent. That can come later.

Sam and David talked about augmenting existing soundscapes by taking composed music into those soundscapes, playing it and and recording the combined results. Composed music brings order and composition to the audio environment, rearranging the relative importance of ambient elements. I started thinking about augmenting visual landscapes with composed images. How might that work? But images are the end result. The analogous thing to sound is light. As a musician composes sound let’s think about composing light. You can’t control the ambient light, you have to work with it. How about bringing “composed light” using studio lights into a naturally changing light-scape? Is that at all interesting or actually quite dull?

Following a different tack, maybe it’s less about composing the light but about composing the act of composition. By leading people in certain ways, through different routes or emotions, to the same subject, can the composition be guided? Guiding the eye.

Laura’s talk and performance was very wide ranging and I need to investigate her work much more deeply but one big idea came out of listening to her, building on the ideas seeded by Sam and David. She’s a choreographer who’s been working with sound and was riffing off how human movement can create soundscapes though interactions with technology. (Roughly summarised!) I liked this idea as the photographer, especially in the street, is always constrained by the limitations of human movement. We can only get so high or so low, so close or so far. We have to make do with a lot of spatial restrictions and work with those, often to the benefit of our work.

Could the photographer be given rules of movement, maybe like a chess piece, to force them into positions they wouldn’t have gone into. Photographic Twister maybe? Applying this to a walk is also interesting, though less photographically specific. I was reminded of something I’d seen on Nikki Pugh’s site years ago called Invigilator. This involved recording a journey in terms of left and right turns in one place and then following those directions in a completely different place. It ties in with some of the psychogeographic tricks like writing blindly writing your name on a map and following the path of the letters. I’m not sure if it’s relevant to the photo walk but it feels interesting if I can find the hook.

That’s all that was explicitly in my notes. The rest was gentle layering of ideas upon other ideas and notions. I’ll be back next month and I highly recommend you come too.

Performance Photography

One of things I’ve been considering over the last few months is how photography can be performative, in the same way that theatre, poetry, music, etc can be performed live in front of an audience in a manner which is unique to that moment. My obsession comes from two areas. The first is an utter disinterest in prints and galleries. I like prints and I like seeing things in galleries but I have no desire to see my work in them, especially when I can have 100s of individuals to look at one of my photos through Twitter and Flickr (should the photo deserve it, of course). The effort and cost involved in printing, framing and hanging photos seems utterly without reward and a diversion from the work I should be doing - the making of the images themselves. That’s not to diminish the value of the gallery as a space in which interesting things can be done by artists, but as a means of allowing people to look at photographs we’ve pretty much solved that problem with computers, in the same way we’ve solved the dictionary problem or the CD problem. To paraphrase Egon Spengler, Prints are dead to me.

But thinking of a gallery show of photographs as a “performance” is still a bit of a stretch, so let’s consider my second thought. It quickly struck me that the Photo Walks I’ve been leading in Digbeth over the last year are a kind of performance. I take people through a planned narrative and “perform” the role of a guide or expert. While I have no theatre training at all I can tell that this is theatre of a kind. And the notion that my “act” and the mood I create in this “audience” can inform the sorts of photos people produce is intriguing to me. But I’m not sure this counts as Performance Photography. The great irony of the walks is I hardly take any photos on them. I was asked for a shot of Curzon St Station the other week and despite leading dozens of people to it I didn’t have one I was happy with. When teaching a class or leading a walk I’m very much not in the photographic mindset. The performance I’m doing, while informed by my photography, is not photography.

Steve Albini performing with a guitar. I've often wondered why exactly this is interesting to watch, given the sound is the thing.
Steve Albini performing with a guitar. I’ve often wondered why exactly this is interesting to watch, given the sound is the thing.

A good model for this notion of “performance” is a guitar player on stage. They create sounds using a machine which is amplified into a room where people listen to the music. A camera is a machine with creates images. The issue seems to be the amplification of these images into the room. I say issue as I’m very reluctant to go down the VJ route. I know many people do this and some of them do it very well, but simply hooking up a camera to a screen and, manipulated or not, projecting the photos to the audience strikes me as missing a fundamental point. What that point is, I’m not sure. But I can kinda feel it out there, somewhere.

In trying to understand this sort of thing I find it helps to unpack photography as a process. As I tell my beginners photography classes, photography is the process of controlling and manipulating light as it enters a box containing a light sensitive receptor. In digital photography the receptor converts the light into digital data, 1s and 0s, which are displayed as colour pixels on a screen. And in all cameras the light is controlled and manipulated by lenses, hole sizes and shutter speeds. To take a photo, then, is to catch light in a controlled way and turn it into electricity. Just as to play guitar is to create vibrations and turn them into electricity.

Now that’s interesting.

Of course, the optical-acoustic instrument is nothing new. If you’ve known me for a while you’ll know of my fleeting fascination with the Thingamagoop, also known as an Optical Theremin (which I’m sure pisses off the theremin purists). These work using simple Photoresistors to increase or reduce the pitch depending on the amount of light hitting them. Lots of light = high pitch, less light = low pitch. In other words, you can make music by shining lights at a light sensitive sensor.

You can also make photographs by shining lights at a light sensitive sensor.

Long exposure photo taken by Simon Brettell on a light painting workshop I ran.
Long exposure photo taken by Simon Brettell on a light painting workshop I ran.

Long exposure photos are interesting because we normally take photos at speeds faster than a second. Without a tripod, 1/30sec is the slowest you can get away with before your shaking hands affect the image so we don’t often see photos that capture light for longer than that. Even movies and TV which purport to represent long periods of time are essentially just stacks of very short exposures run in sequence. A film runs through time alongside you. It doesn’t show you more of less than you’re able to experience. A photograph captures a moment, the length of which can be a tiny fraction of a second or a lifetime.

A six month pinhole camera exposure of the sun rising and setting over the Clifton Suspension Bridge by Justin Quinnell. That's 15770000 seconds.
A six month exposure of the sun rising and setting over the Clifton Suspension Bridge by Justin Quinnell. That’s 15,770,000 seconds.

As should be very clear by now, I don’t really have a clue what Performance Photography might look like. But I’m sure of the following.

  • It involves a camera, being a box with a hole and the ability to record light.
  • It involves the production of an image through the manipulation of the camera.
  • It involved the image being viewed by an audience immediately, or very soon after, it is produced.

Everything else, from the mechanics of the camera to the source of the light to the transduction of the light data to the rendering of the image is up for grabs.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this has been done in many forms before. Indeed, you could say a live TV broadcast fits my criteria, and of course it does. But so do many other things. I intend to explore some of them.

Here’s one that’s just come to me. It’s a 5 minute idea so don’t expect miracles.

The photoresistor in your average optical-acoustic synth is pretty crude. It measures the intensity of the light and changes the amount of electricity it will allow to flow through it. How about creating a massive camera sensor and enclosing it in a massive box, say a shipping container fashioned into a camera obscura. Each photoresistors is connected to an LED on a big board and as they register light they increase or decrease the brightness of their respective LEDs to create a picture.

That might count as a performance. Or it might just be an installation.

More thinking needed.

Thanks must go to MortonUnderwood‘s If Wet, which I attended before writing this, in particular their guest Sarah Angliss whose thoughts about the performative and theatrical aspects of her music really helped me focus on this subject for myself. If you need some mental stimulation I can highly recommend a monthly trip to If Wet.