Answering some questions and preparing a talk…
Posted on May 6, 2013 by williamarnoldphotographer
I am currently in a state of considerable anxiety trying to prepare for a talk that I am set to give to a symposium ‘Photography and The Expedition’ at Plymouth University later this week. Therefore the opportunity to procrastinate for a couple of hours provided by the answering of a series of questions posed in an email from an undergraduate photography student was not to be avoided. All jokes aside, I found the process of answering these questions very useful in straitening out a few things for myself regarding my practice and hopefully it’ll be of some use for the talk at which I am concerned that I may well manage to destroy an artistic reputation before I’ve even managed to build one!
Please excuse grammar etc. I tried to answer these questions as conversationally as possible and I haven’t proof read. In case of any potential embarrassment I have not given the student’s name.
Q: How important is the original image content of the work, as opposed to the innovative processes you use to create them?
A: I think my current work can to an extent be viewed as abstract, however there are strong elements of representational realism, due to the fact that the images are made by light that occurs outside of a device (pinhole camera) for capturing that light and rendering it sensible on a sensitive surface – as opposed to an artist like Garry Fabian Miller, for instance, whose work is pure abstraction created in the darkroom from influences garnered from the experience of land and light but not the direct capturing of those elements. So, in terms of the image content … the representational elements within my work are important in the creation of a semi-fiction that is grounded in a reality that plays somewhat on the repetition of certain patterns within nature – think microbial organisms, the petri dish, the retinal photo, the circulatory system, water courses, tree branches, weather systems, celestial bodies – supernovas, wormholes and galaxies. The process used is in a large part responsible for the image content, so I think what I am trying to say here is that the two are in a symbiotic relationship.
Although as a result of the diminished agency that I as the photographer have in the making of this sort of work, it is important to me that the individual works can stand on their own aesthetic values aside from the wider concept of the series. I think all of my works now and previously aim towards some kind of formal beauty. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could produce work in the new topographic aesthetic mode – it would be limp derivative stuff and there is enough of that about already!
That said … the systematic elements in the work of the new topographic photographers and those who work in this mode are a strong influence. For example, within the series each individual exposure is given equal weighting with the next, each image is exposed for the same length of time in the same type of camera, on the same type of medium and presented without edit – no image fails to make the cut. The images despite the obfuscation of process and environmental factors that create what I’ve called a ‘semi-fiction’ are ostensibly still just an image of what was in front of the camera at a given point – as much as Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings or Ed Ruscha’s ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip’.
I go on my walk, I place my camera, I plot the GPS coordinates of the camera’s observation point to a chart on which constellations take shape … after an allotted period of time (8 weeks for the current batch) I repeat my walk, collect my cameras, scan the negatives and present the results as ‘observations’ of the points that form the constellations on the chart. There is no aesthetic judgement at this stage of the production – all ‘observations’ must feature to complete the survey of the ‘bodies’ within the ‘constellation’ – if my camera is lost then the observation must simply be presented as a blank. This methodology, is I feel absolutely vital to the credibility of the series, which could very easily degenerate into the photographic equivalent of a bad seventies prog-rock record. Liz Wells’ essay ‘Landscape, Geography and Topographic photography makes a good case that today “the landscape photograph’s authority relies on the methodology of the photographer; outlining a framework that places the artist as a landscape researcher.” 
Below is an example of a constellation and the points of observation from which it is constructed.
William Arnold ‘Objects of constellation: North 50° 37′ 10″ – 50° 37′ 30″ , East -04° 64′ 50″ – 04° 64′ 10″- ‘Bodies of the Firmament (as observed from a forest 30/09/2012 – 12/01/2013)’
If I were to make a selection available for sale however, or to send to a publisher/award jury etc, the editing decisions would be made purely on aesthetic terms – some of the images are more pleasing to the eye in terms of colour and form than others.
Q: I’m especially interested in the environmental elements to your work in regards to how the work is made when using the pinholes made of sweet tins. Would you say you are a facilitator of natures creativity, or are you further in control and that is just one element to these works?
A: The other day a friend of mine jokingly referred to my current work as being ‘accidentally on purpose’. This isn’t really too wide of the mark though … the photographer’s agency is somewhat diminished with this sort of work due to the extreme exposure times – the photographer isn’t even present for almost the entire time represented in the frame and due to the environmental factors at play.
However there are many decisions that remain with the photographer that will affect the final outcome: compositional concerns in the placing of the camera – what is above the camera? What can it see? The deliberate placing of the cameras so that they largely face upwards and will fill with water that will make rust, refract light, make the emulsion lift and create the pock marks, fog and swirls that make the images more redolent of celestial bodies is a decision that remains with the photographer and to an extent can be managed to affect the aesthetic.
So, while the environment plays a considerable hand in the making of the final image I like to feel that I am working in a partnership – initially some of the results felt like complete accidents but over time loose patterns emerge and you can learn to work with and exploit the environmental effects.
Susan Derges talks about how she manipulates the water flow using her body in the creation of her photograms – I feel this is similar.
Q: How important are the maps and the more scientific elements to your work in terms of working out exposure times, scanning techniques etc, are they of primary importance or secondary to other influences on the work?
A: With regards to the maps and the scientific elements, I’ve sort of answered that part already with what I wrote about methodology and systematic photography when I went off on a tangent with your first question. The methodology and system is of quite intrinsic importance. It all links!
Technically, I scan the negatives at a high-resolution to facilitate very large reproductions, although thus far I haven’t printed above 16 inches in diameter but this could be done and I hope to experiment with gallery presentations soon. I use Photoshop to invert the negatives and I run ‘auto-levels’ on the contrast and colour – I do sometimes make an aesthetic judgement and veto the software’s decisions however. I will also selectively spot-heal some dust spots but usually only if this is a result of the scanning rather than the exposure.
Exposure times are worked out according to experience with using this kind of paper negative in various lensed and pinhole cameras. My series: Personal Timeframe and another work in progress ‘En Plein Air’ (terrible working title!) along with more conventional solargraphs use this process. See footnotes for web links to portfolios. In my current series I settle on one exposure length regardless of the cameras location to keep the methodology consistent.
Q:Would you say the image surface and tactile qualities to the work are lost or enhanced by combining analogue and Digital processes?
A: Image surface and object value of work is something that I feel can be lost with digital processes and I have made exclusively analogue works before because of this. My current work although analogue to begin with cannot really exist without digital scanning. I suppose it would be possible to create a transparency of my negative on a copy stand to then create an internegative to print in the darkroom but what would be the point!? The scanner for me reveals a wealth of detail that is often not initially apparent. I don’t like that digital has diminished the craft aspect that was to some extent inherent in analogue photography but then for most genres of what would popularly be considered photography- vernacular photography, reportage, commercial work etc image surface and tactile qualities were never really a concern and the use of film was just necessary because that’s all there was. I wrote a short piece about film in the digital age for our exhibition ‘30p film’ which you might find of interest.
An issue working digitally can be output – artists like Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Derges have to find new ways of working due to the discontinuation of the manufacture of their materials and are now faced with the problem of replicating using digital techniques the surface quality – what Chuck Close likes to call ‘Pictorial Syntax’ – of their former processes. They also have the problem that their new digital works are no longer one-off art objects.
As a practitioner with an interest in historical and alternative processes, image surface and the tactile qualities of a print are of high importance to me. To that end I have been experimenting with inkjet pigment printing on to Arches Platine paper, heavy-weight traditional deckled edge stuff normally used for platinum, gum bichromate and other old processes. To provide a coating for the printer to ink I have been using a gelatine size, manually applied to the paper – the results have been pleasing – not as punchy as a paper machine coated for this purpose but not as flat as a print on completely uncoated watercolour or other art paper. In these experiments I feel I am claiming back some of the tactile from the digital process.
 Wells, L. (2006) ‘Landscape, Geography and Topographic Photography’ from ‘The Rural Citizen: Governance, culture and wellbeing in the 21st Century, University of Plymouth 2006
 Rexer, L. and Close, C. (2002) Photography’s antiquarian avant-garde: the new wave in old processes [Book]. New York; London: Harry N. Abrams. P.36