Wednesday, January 22, 2014

100,000 Negatives

So you have a chance to buy 5 or 10 thousand rolls of exposed 120 film, shot by some unknown photographer.

What could be on here? Well, the photographer could just have been some obsessive, and it could be 100,000 pictures of his penis. It could be 100,000 willfully bad pictures; I am pretty sure that many photographers have bad ideas that they carefully put in to every exposure. So, for example, if it's all attempts to copy Ansel Adams, it's probably worthless.

But what if it's something else? What if it was someone working in a picture-rich environment, say, a city, and shooting at least as well as random? At least as well as I did in my experiment with randomness, to be precise? 100,000 is about 239x larger than 420. Let us, for now, accept my assertion that I took 2 pretty decent street photographs out of 420. This suggests that such a large archive of negatives might contain 478 pretty good street photographs.

We can fiddle around and say that perhaps some random shooter would have done better, because the 100+ unusably blurry things I shot would mostly not be there, so maybe there would be 600 good ones. Perhaps our subject would not have shot all that architecture, so there might be 700 or 800 decent street photographs. On the other hand, perhaps our hypothetical photographer would have been less lucky than I, so there might only be 200. Regardless, it seems at least credible that in an archive of 100,000 negatives shot more or less at random by some not particularly talented photographer, one might find 500 really quite good pictures.

Just to put this in perspective, we've seen something like 300 pictures from Vivian Maier, the current darling of street photography as fine art, from an archive of something like 140,000 negatives. There are probably more Winogrands out there under the public eye, but a strong argument can be made that a lot of those are crap.

Should you buy a giant collection of exposed film?

If you can, develop a few rolls in advance, and see what you've got. If it's all pictures of the same penis, you might want to reject the deal. If it seems to be willfully bad, again, you might reject the deal. If it seems like random photographs in some promising genre, or genres, you might want to pick it up.

Now you've got a giant logistical problem. You'll want to develop and contact print (or equivalent) the whole lot. Then you're going to pick out the top 1% of the pictures, the top 1000. This should be pretty easy, really. Just be ruthless. Now you've got a 1000 pictures ranging from superb down to 'eh, not bad' with about 500 'hey, that's pretty good' pictures. Go over this collection, and pick out the best 50 to 100.

Now you have some myth-making to do.

You have to impose style on this collections, by pulling together stylistically similar pictures. If you're lucky, your photographer has some sort of style, but you'll probably need to at least refine and focus it, and you may need to create it entirely. You're creating an imaginary photographer who worked in a particular genre, and used a strongly defined style. Look to your best 50-100 pictures for guidance here, you're going to want your created style to have as many of these superb pictures as possible.

You have 1000 pictures to choose from, this should not be terribly hard. Again, it is at least credible that you should be able to pull together a couple hundred loosely related pictures, built around a core of a couple dozen truly excellent ones that are strongly in the same style.

Now you can release a book or something, with 50-100 pictures in it, liberally salted with the excellent ones. This creates the myth that we're dealing with a superb photographer. The next 100 pictures aren't as good, but that doesn't matter as much, the myth is already in place. The Public knows that this is a fine photographer, and therefore the second book also contains superb pictures, because they were shot by a superb photographer.

The 99,600 negatives that never see the light of day might also be excellent, but they might all be crap, too.

I'm certainly not accusing the curators of Vivian Maier or Garry Winogrand of constructing a completely imaginary great photographer by sifting an immense morass of pictures. I am merely pointing out that it's possible. It's not even very hard, given the right sort of mass of negatives to work from. Perhaps relevant is that we've seen a couple books of street photographs from Maier, and the curators have already moved on to Self-Portraits. This might simply be because they want to go broad, rather than deep. One cannot help but wonder, though, if it's because they've already shown us the best of the street photographs.

Just to put the numbers into perspective: If Maier took pictures for 40 years, a rough guess, she shot on average about a roll of film per day during that time. Generously, what we have seen from her represents about 1 picture per month of the work in that period, at a time when we can estimate she was shooting about 350-400 pictures per month.

It's definitely work, make no mistake. There are logistical problems with developing and archiving 100,000 negatives. There are indexing problems. There are issues of taste and style and judgement in play. In order to make this work, the curator has to be a kind of an artist. This doesn't remove the artist from the equation, it just obscures the artist's identity in favor of a good story.

It also, and this is important, does not make the work any less. Process doesn't matter, what matters is the result.

An excellent picture is excellent whether it was shot by a genius, or by a terrible but prolific photographer. This is the miracle of photography.

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