Photographer Assisted Selfies

On the surface, this project appears to be about ownership and copyright, which is partly true. Personally, this project was a metaphorical look at the passing of life and the choices we make as we author our lives. The idea for the project came from my father’s intentions as he approached his last days and the interventions made by others on his behalf. He wanted his last day to be at home, in his favourite chair, with a drink in his hand; It’s never as glamorous as we imagine it will be. Instead on his last day, he was at the ER, heavily sedated, with a bunch of tubes and wires connected to bags and electronics. He almost had his wish, but thankfully, he was lifted from the floor by a dear friend who was able to intervene. She called the ambulance that took him to the hospital. That intervention allowed his kids (and a nephew) to see him off. Once at the hospital, doctors tried to drain the retained water in his abdomen; the procedures weren’t successful and the Chief of Internal Medicine asked me for guidance about removing the tubes; asking for my intervention. My first thought was, “I didn’t put them there! Why involve me? You take them out if they aren’t working!”. Next thought was, “Why do you need my permission to discontinue a treatment you initiated?”. My final thought was, “If they are doing neither harm nor good I can’t make a wrong choice.”. Stopping and thinking is a good strategy.

Later that weekend the coroner called and asked if I knew what my father’s cause of death was. In my head I was thinking, “Isn’t that your job?”.

Life was the cause of his death. Life is always the cause of death. If you’re going to go, and we all are, go fully. Dad did some things fully. So, with almost all of his organs failing, I was a little taken aback when the coroner said that the cause of his death was a systemic infection brought on by an accidental tear caused by a medical monitoring procedure… Irony.

Why is my conscience marked by the choices of others? It’s because we are all connected. A string that’s common is vibrated by the actions of others; we all feel it.

There wasn’t a shutter in my camera, so I made one. This shutter is a falling blade. A rectangular sheet of black plastic with a hole carved in it. The blade has a beginning, middle and end, or you can look at it as two periods of darkness separated by a moment of light, and we can only see what happens in the light. That period of light metaphorically represents life. Are the periods of darkness truly dark? No, because we can only see certain things. Darkness for an owl is a different darkness than ours.

 

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My camera shutter is triggered by a string.

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Film records artifacts over time. The emulsion is an organic medium. Light, heat, solar radiation, x-rays, radioactive particles and countless other influencers leave their mark on the sensitive silver in that emulsion.

This project looks at choices, authorships, ownerships and the responsibilities that come with making any choice. I passed the control of the timing of the image to the subject for each image and, as a result, this may give the authorship of the image to the subjects of the portraits. That one act may confer copyright upon those in the images and the work may no longer be mine.

I chose to use a film for this project that was past its best before date three years before I was given my first camera. With that choice came a degree of unknown. Every choice comes with uncertainty. Every path leads to a different ending. Every life collects baggage.

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Ilford HP5 film was introduced in 1976.

The 4×5 sheet film I chose to use was in its prime forty years ago. It remained in a partly sealed box, in an unknown environment, under conditions that were likely less than ideal, through every year that I’ve worked with cameras. The individual sheets of film were divided by an interleaved sheet of paper that may have been radioactively contaminated. As those years elapsed, exposed to the elements that film is sensitive to, it gathered character, was left with latent marks, and lost some sensitivity. Not unlike ourselves.

We all make choices. A choice is the one thing an individual can truly own and legacy is the collection of actions that an individual makes. Choices lead to actions that can be active or passive.

My choice to use a film of this nature came with certain risks. Every choice has a risk. My hope was that the latent experience of the old film and its final exposure would blend in a complementary manner; it didn’t work every time, some of the film was hopelessly fogged.

There are no failed experiments, everything ends in a result; a yes or no. Answers in themselves don’t contain emotion. The idea of failure comes from a misplaced preconception.

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The latent image on film requires chemical amplification. We don’t see the marks left by light and other factors until it’s developed in a solution that reduces the silver; chemistry darkens the highlights.

I mixed a special developer for this project with a few household ingredients. To make one litre of developer, I mixed the following ingredients in these proportions. I started with beer. 100ml, because it probably should be used in moderation. I could have used one liter, but that would leave me less to drink during the processing. I added 900ml of water and into which 60 grams of monohydrated Sodium Carbonate (washing soda), 16 grams of Vitamin C powder, and 40 grams of Instant Coffee were added and individually dissolved in that order.

Dad liked coffee. Every visit to the hospital started with a coffee, two sugar and two cream.

I can recall only having one beer with my dad. It was on the day he was released from hospital a few weeks before he died. He was on fluid restrictions due to the condition of his organs, He was too weak to get one himself and asked me to pick some up for him. I felt guilt for that for some time because, medically, it was probably doing him some harm. Given the coroner’s findings on the cause of his death, I shouldn’t have felt guilt. That beer, on that day, made him happy. I should have shared in the happiness more, and thought about the beer less.

Not all the answers can come at once.

 

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A camera is a machine that records an image made from a slice of time.

There are many actions involved in the process of creating an image.  Who owns that image is often attributed to the individual that operates the machine. If one individual contributes to every action of making an image, except for the timing of the image creation, does that individual relinquish copyright and ownership. I own the film, but do I own the image? It becomes a question to be interpreted and that interpretation is dependent upon a point of view.

There can be multiple truths when something is viewed with a different perspective. Turn a beer can on its side, shine a light on it, and rotate it. It would cast a shadow that alternated from rectangular, through somewhat oval, to completely round. All are true shadows. Each shadow is a valid outcome that changes with perspective.

Making an image is an active process; it’s an action. Making a portrait is a collaboration. Life is a collaboration.

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The string represents that common link that connects all of us to each other. Through better or worse, we are all connected. Life in a vacuum doesn’t fare well.

Along that string, some of us are holding tightly, grasping with both hands fearing a loss of connection, some touch it lightly with a fingertip, still others are at an end listening through a tin can knotted to it while others speak into another can on the other end. We are all on that string. Our actions ripple the string. Some actions cause tension, others compression. The string is flexible and adjusts in all dimensions to the vibrations that run along it; The kid you bullied when you were young, the time you intervened to defend the bullied; every choice leads to an action that marks the individual and moves the string.

I’ve vibrated that common string. I can look back and see the marks those vibrations made. I’m not proud of every ripple. Too often I put work before family; it was how I was raised. Thankfully, as a photographer, I’ve asked people to smile. That’s a contagious vibration.

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I started this project on my birthday and I’m wrapping it up on what would have been his.
We missed so many of each other’s birthdays for no other reason than being too involved in our own piece of string.

Dad really loved comedy. His last days were filled with so much humor, both dark and light.

I’m so thankful for that because not every kid has this photo in the family album.

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Happy Birthday.
Ross

 

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