Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lossy Light Memories - Draft

Lossy Light Memories

Claudio L. Midolo
Marko Tandefelt Loretta J. Wolozin
August 25th 2008

I. Introduction
This paper is meant to be a preliminary document about the process I will go through in order to realize my thesis project at Parsons, The New School, during the 2008 academic year. The title for this paper has been chosen as it successfully incorporates the two main elements that currently drive my investigation. The first core definition of “Light Memories” is strongly linked to the concept of Photography, not only from a physical and technical point of view, as Photography is a medium who lives on top of light, but also from an emotional standpoint, as the images produced through the photographic practice fixate moments in time as well as contexts, dynamics which can ultimately be considered precious visual memories. The “Lossy” attribute is directly borrowed from the digital technology jargon usually referred to a specific way to compress digital data having as a result a lower quality, but still useful, copy of the original. From the combination of these two concepts the main topic of my research emerges embodied by the lost of values which gradually took place during the transition from Analog to Digital Photography.

The art of capturing images, and with them emotions and memories, has always fascinated me since my early childhood. I remember I had my first contact with this strange world made of black boxes, strong lights and long lenses when I was five years old. At that time I was living in a flat and I used to spend a lot of time in our neighbours’, Carmela and Caco, house as my mother and father were both very busy working hard to make a living for my sister and I. As a result I became very close to both Carmela, who eventually got to be as a real grandmother, and to her son Caco, who is like an uncle to me. It was in that very apartment that I entered the magic world of photography as Caco was a professional working in the field and I couldn’t resist the innate impulse to enter his private laboratory in order to explore it and play with his tools ultimately messing them up!
The years passed but I always kept live in me this fascination for that peculiar craft that among many other was the only one capable of capturing an instant from the continuous stream of time in the same way human eyes do with visual memories.

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” 1

Growing up I had no other contacts with Photography. High school years passed in a glance followed then by my first real negative education experience, that in the Computer Science degree program at Milan Politecnico, ended with my conscious withdrawal. At that time I naturally started exploring the intersections between visual arts and computational media and one year later I officially started to learn design at the IED academy in Milan, enrolling in the Digital Design program. It was during that period of time that I started exploring Photography as a mean to create and manipulate those visual elements that were the essential building blocks of many of my visual communication projects. First on my own and then with the precious help of Caco the doors of photographic knowledge were opened to me revealing a marvellous and wide panorama. My first personal camera was a cheap digital one and the photos I was taking with that tool were pleasing but the more I was using it, the more I was feeling that I needed something more “manual” in order to really learn the basics of Photography as almost everything in that camera was automatic. It was with the purchase of a digital reflex camera that I discovered the meaning and the power of those words that just some time before were arcane to me such as aperture, shutter time, white balance; thanks to that interface I really started playing more directly with light and it is the tool that I’m still currently using after four years. At that point in time my personal photographic experience was almost exclusively based on digital cameras, I was just loving the ease of use, speed and quality even a beginner like me was able to achieve with little effort thanks to the superb design and technology of those digital interfaces. Given my little experience I was superficially considering analog cameras just as things of the past; they were slow, mechanical and, more importantly, they were not able to immediately visualize the result of a given shot, thus my interest in them was fairly limited. This situation began to change during a trip to Berlin, during which I randomly encountered a very special analog camera, a Lomo-camera, which started to erode my superficial assumptions about Photography and digital technology in general. That strange, little device was funny looking, made completely in blue rubber with plastic lens and it didn’t even have a viewfinder! In order to take a shot you just had to point at the subject, press the shutter button and hope it was caught on film... at first I was considering it more a joke than a real tool, but then what a surprise when looking at its results! The images captured by that device were so genuine, spontaneous, maybe with lower quality than those of my fancy digital camera, but absolutely imbued with life.

“The medium is the message.”2

II. Motivation
From that moment on I started exploring the analog medium and now I own several analog cameras as well as a digital one. What I’ve learnt so far has helped me building a more critical perspective over digital technology and its relationship with the analog counterpart. One of the assumptions related to this subject that I feel most is that in the transition from analog to digital medium in Photography, has not only changed the way images are captured, processed and memorized, but, more importantly, has, gradually but constantly, modified the way we approach to the protographic practice: how we interact with the camera in order to take photos, how we look at them, how we share them, what value we attribute them. One example of this deep shift is the explicit, obvious, but not broadly perceived sacrifice of surprise in favor of immediacy. The first and foremost feature designed and marketed when the first consumer digital cameras came on the market in the mid nineties was the ability to take a photo and immediately show it back in order to evaluate its quality. The feature encountered a great success and was included in all the following evolutions as it successfully satisfied the great demand coming from the users to eliminate the long, time and money consuming process of develop and print the images captured on film at the photographic laboratory, similarly as Polaroid did with the introduction of the instant developing film cameras in the fifithies. All this convenience came with a price, that of the sacrifice of surprise; as the pictures can be immediately accessed and evalueated in the same place, same moment they have been taken with no effort and additional costs, it is easy to imagine that the practice of taking a shot over and over until the “perfect” one was finally captured became more and more popular and widespread. The emotions of surprise and suspance emerging from the discovery of the results of a film shot time ago were lost for good.
Other two key features brands like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony are always pushing to the limit of are those of quality and speed, the first in terms of resolution and the second seen as the overall capturing, processing and memorizing time the device consumes at each shot. Not surprisingly the users react positively to these technological advancement, even if they are not truly genuine as, for example, the quality of a picture is more related to that of the lens which captures it more than the amount of pixels on the camera sensor. The pictures are bigger and bigger, can be scaled up without losing too much detail spending less and less time capturing them, but how do they look? There is really little or no difference between an image taken with two digital cameras in the same price range. Taking two DSLR as example a Canon 40D or Nikon D300 and looking at the images they produce it is clear that the difference between them is little more than just the brand they carry on their body. The images produced digitally have stunning quality, but all look and feel the same, while film used to give each shot a distinctive quality, thanks to the different chemicals used to produce or process it. Post production digital image manipulation suites like Adobe Photoshop are powerful tools that can enhance and transform each digital photo boosting its characteristics, empowering its qualities and fixing its weak points, but they are incomparable to the implicit character a specific combination of film, camera, lens and develop and print can give to a given shot. One last argument about the shift the digital transition has brought in the photographic world is related to the way pictures are viewed and shared. Thanks to their immaterial, electronic, numerical nature, and to the wide spread computational information network known as the Internet, the images captured with a digital camera can easily reach a world wide audience. So called “Web 2.0” services such as the popular Flickr enable anyone with a digital camera, or tools to digitalize its shots, a computer and Internet connection and no proficiency in database/web technologies, to share its images with the rest of the world in a glance. The popularity of these services is growing together with the astonishing success of digital consumer cameras; in any given minute, on the Flickr website, thousands of images are uploaded and shared with anyone present on the net. While this is great on one side, as it democratically enable any image maker to show its creation to the same audience a world known professional can reach, the tradeoff is that of loss of intimacy and social value the sharing of a picture can generate. When all these contemporary technologies were yet to be implemented and distributed to the wide public audience, the sharing and viewing of pictures was a very intimate and social event. Usually one picture was given as a gift to a particular person and the act of giving and receiving the gift involved just those two individuals. Another occasion would have been the leafing through the photo album together with friends or family, another hint of the intimate and social nature of the photo sharing and viewing activities in the past. Surprise, Magic, Unique character, Intimacy and Sociality, all of these features that once characterized the photographic experience are slowly but constantly fading away, leaving an immediate, high speed, high quality, world spreaded Photography behind them. Probably desirable and ideal for business or worker professionals, but surely not fully true to the very nature of the shots that every day millions of people try to condense their precious and intimate memories in.


[1] Yamamoto, Tsunetomo and William S. Wilson. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Kodansha International, (2002): 68.

[2] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media: The Extensions of Man. Routledge, (2001) : 7.

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