Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A "Magic" Filter from Singh-Ray

When I was still in my teens, and just starting to learn photography, I recall two pivotal moments after which whatever doubts I may have had at the time about seriously pursuing photography evaporated, never to be heard from again. I described the first moment in an earlier blog entry; it amounts to seeing Minor White's "abstract expressionist"-like "Capitol Reef" print for the first time. I will not repeat what I wrote before, except to emphasize the spiritual awakening that White's image evoked in me. I realized for the first time that photography could be used to express not just the "objective" world - as it appears here and now, on the "outside" - but also an intensely subjective, private world that describes our very soul and its relationship to the corporeal.

The second moment, which occurred at roughly the same time in my life, took place as I was ponderously reading a rather dry textbook on photography; and is a direct precursor of why I am now so excited (30 years later!) by a magnificent lens filter available from Singh-Ray. Going back to my old self at 17, I remember being curled up in bed one day, while skimming through some pages explaining the basics of exposure. It was all standard material, with equally standard (meaning somewhat "dull") illustrations and photos highlighting the central points of the text. And then I ran across what I, at the time, thought was a stunningly dull photo: an image of an empty highway, taken in broad daylight. No cars, no pedestrians, no birds, nothing but asphalt and concrete. "Wow," I remember thinking, "these guys could use some creativity pills if this is the best they can do to illustrate a text on photography!" But it was a curiously puzzling photo, and strangely mesmerizing in its own way. I couldn't take my eyes off it for some reason. I kept asking myself, "Why aren't there any cars on this long stretch of highway in the middle of the day?" After reading the text more carefully (there was no caption underneath the picture except for the figure number), I had my second epiphanous moment.

The reason the picture showed nothing but an empty highway was because - during the extremely long exposure (about 1 min!) - nothing was in the frame long enough to register on the film! And how did that happen? Because the author was illustrating an effect of attaching a strong neutral density filter to the lens (in addition to using a very small aperture). A neutral density filter (NDF) reduces the intensity of light (at all wavelengths), thereby increasing the effective exposure time as the amount of reduction increases. NDFs are typically rated by the number of "f-stops"-worth of light reduction they impose.

For example, if a "filterless" exposure at f8 is, say, 1/500 sec, then a "2 f-stop" NDF will increase the exposure to 1/125 sec (at the same aperture); and an "4-stop" NDF will further increase it to 1/30 sec. Of course, one has to be sure that the white balance is preserved (so that there are no extraneous color shifts); which in practice simply means that you'll be investing in more expensive brands. I always carry at least two NDFs in my bag, one 3f-stop and one 6f-stop. The range is important, for it allows me to "experiment" with, say, a "frozen" water stream (using a fast exposure), a stream that is delicately blurred (for exposure times between 1/4 - 1 sec), and cloud-like flow "abstractions" (for t>5 sec).

However, despite the aesthetic allure of photos taken with my NDFs, I have often felt overly constrained by being able to reduce my exposure only by a fixed amount, as allowed and defined by a given filter's f-stop rating. Until, that is, a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a remarkable variable neutral density filter - called a vari-ND - by Singh-Ray.

The vari-ND allows the user to "dial-in" any desired level of light attenuation between two and eight f-stop's worth, simply by rotating a ribbed ring on the filter. Apart from the technical acumen required to make this work, by providing the photographer near instant control over a vast continuous range of effective exposures makes the vari-ND a truly remarkable device.

Well, I've had this magic filter - and it is magic! - for a few weeks, and had a chance to experiment "Seeing" with it; some examples of which you see sprinkled throughout this post. It works precisely as advertised, and is a lesson in elegant design and workmanship. There are two sizes - 77mm and 82 mm - which is not a problem for those (like me) with smaller sized lens, since you can always use a step-up ring to match the filter. Indeed, having a smaller lens is actually an advantage, since you reduce the possibility of vignetting at wider-angles.

Objectively speaking, the vari-ND does not provide anything that a photographer cannot achieve in other ways, using other tools. But oh how magnificently effortless vari-ND renders that work! If the possibility of creating lasting works of art depends, in even small measure, on the artist being unburdened from logistical/technical constraints, then - I say - the vari-ND is truly a magic filter! It is brilliant in conception, flawless in design, and produces stunning images.

If you are a seasoned photographer looking to expand your creative possibilities, have just started exploring the dynamics of light and exposure, or have ever wondered what it would be like to control up to 8 f-stops worth of light with a simple twist of a filter, go here, and order one of these magical devices for yourself. You won't regret it!

A philosophical postscript: I use the word "magic" in the title and in my reference to the vari-ND for two reasons. The first reason has already been hinted at in the text above, and has to do with how this filter "magically" renders effortless the willful imposition of desired exposure time (on a technical level). The second reason, unarticulated explicitly above, is decidedly philosophical. What this filter does, in effect, is to transform our normal, every-day perception of temporal flow - in which the world appears to move in localized snippets of time that last roughly 1/30 to 1/60sec - to glimpses of a supranormal, otherwordly, realm in which time moves at a slower, sometimes significantly slower, pace. It thereby also transforms us into temporally transcendent beings, that temporarily exist outside of time, and are able to marvel at time's own inner rhythms. Who is to say what is "real", and what is not? Is the "real" stream of water the one my eyes provide a visual imprint of?" Or is it the ethereal cloud of vapor that my "temporally transformed" eye glimpses, however briefly, with the aid of the vari-ND? Both are "real", but neither is definitively so, of course. Moreover, I would argue, it is this simple, but profound, realization that we have momentarily stepped "outside the normal flow of perceived time" - along with the even deeper realization that the clearest view of reality can only take place from some vantage point outside of it, on a meta-level - that points the way toward something approaching a "spiritual" enlightenment. Thus, the second reason I use the word "magic" in describing the vari-ND, is that it "magically" reveals a (normally hidden) spiritual realm.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Concerning the Spiritual in Photography

"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form ... provides and will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fashion," so prophesied the great Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, in his masterful Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1914. Since then, of course, and to varying degrees, art has been replete with many aspects of the spiritual; indeed, the traditionally religious-centric interpretation of the term has on occasion been considerably expanded by art to include mysticism, ritual and myth, symbolism, the occult, and pure abstraction. A wonderful book - The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 - that chronicles much of the history of spiritual art, and contains many wonderful reproductions of important works, was published in 1985 to highlight an exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A recent Dover reprint of another classic survey - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art - is also available; though it has only a relatively few black and white examples, the scholarship is first-rate.

The impact of the "spiritual" on photography is less clear, and has - sadly - less of a clear history. To be sure, the spiritual has never been far from photography's best practitioners; though not necessarily in overt form. Alfred Steiglitz's "Equivalents" are nothing if not quiet, soulful expressions of an inner reality, and are obviously infused with spirit in the deepest sense. Ansel Adam's portfolio of ostensibly "grand sweeping vistas" filled with Wagnerian-scale drama, are both creative affirmations of everything that is beautiful "out there," beyond the artist behind the lens, and of the poetic soul yearning desperately for a way to better communicate the transcendent beauty it sees on the inside. Adams' quest was a quintessentially spiritual one, much more so than merely aesthetic; a quest that is, regrettably (and profoundly erroneously, in my view), all-too-quickly dismissed by some latter day photographers as a product of "vision-less" Zone-system technobable and attention to irrelevant minutiae of craft. Many of Minor White's best works can be compared to those of Kandinsky, in the sense that both artists (used their respective media to) point a way toward a radically new grammar for spiritual expression. And Carl Chiarenza's visionary explorations of the "inner landscape" have been available for all to "see" for decades.

Still more recently, I've encountered the works of spiritually inclined artists such as Doug Beasley, Nicholas Hlobeczy, John Daido Loori, Deborah Dewit Marchant, and Jerry Wolfe, who each in their own way, pay homage to the spirit of Steiglitz's equivalents, and use their photography to reveal otherwise invisible realms of the soul. (Not surprisingly, Hlobeczy, Loori, and Wolfe all worked with Minor White.)

But, though there are plenty of other contemporary photographer / artists whose work is very spiritual in nature, there is little evidence to suggest that "spiritual photography" (at least in the sense I mean here) is emerging - or has ever emerged, for that matter! - as a bona-fide movement in photography. Indeed, if books such as reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow (published, ironically, by Aperture, a magazine founded by Minor White and Ansel Adams!) are true indicators of the direction in which photography is currently "moving," that direction is visibly leading away from, rather than anywhere near, spirit. Deliberately staged images that shock and pound the senses into a surrealistic (and often numbingly ugly) unreality seem to be the norm; pictures that invite a quiet meditation or that simply, but sincerely, ask, "Is this not beautiful?" are rarely seen today - and when they do appear, are routinely scorned by critics as unimportant "pretty pictures" that convey no lasting meaning. (Christopher Alexander has been lamenting a similar spiritual decline in architecture and urban planning for a quarter century.) I hope I am wrong, for to move away from spiritual expression is, in my opinion, to move away from the most meaningful connection we have to the spiritual world - which is our essential wellspring of existence - as physical beings. Severing this connection, even if only implicitly by focusing our collective artistic / photographic energies onto more "sterile" - and spiritually inert - aspects of the world, means we must face the specter of losing ourselves in (or devolving backwards to) the merely physical.

For me, photography, or any other creative art form for that matter, is first and foremost a language of the transcendent; it represents a way for gifted "seers" - otherwise known as "artists" - to remind the rest of us that none of us are merely creatures of the flesh.