Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Aleatory Arrangements

I've written before about the attractions of chance, and the way an "accidental" arrangement is so hard to improve on. I always return to this quotation from the photographer Frederick Sommer:
"I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have great respect for the way I find things. Every time something falls I look. I cannot believe the relationships. The intricacy."
It just seems to be the case that "found" arrangements have more going for them than "constructed" arrangements -- it's why a lot of us are photographers, after all, rather than painters or sculptors. Our eyes seems to have an innate hunger for construing relationships of weight, colour, line, shade and positioning out of the raw materials of reality, an interpretive joy that is rarely matched by the pleasures of construction.

As well as working away at a substantial sequence of photographs, I thought it might be fun to put together something quicker, less laborious, less constructed. The idea of compiling all the "spare" square images I've made since starting this blog suggested itself. What would happen if I relied on judgements made at the time, and simply brought them all together?

I arrange my RAW files by camera, then month/year, with a further "converted" sub-directory for images that have been worked on (e.g. Canon450\Jun10\Converted). I don't know why, but I prefer to have them sorted first by month rather than year. When I start a new book project, like this one, I create a new directory, copy relevant files into it, then create a subdirectory "Select", and beneath it one called "Bookjpgs".

So, using Breezebrowser, I went through all the directories since late 2008, copying any square images into a new "Squares" directory. I looked through these, and copied the good stuff into "Select". I then set up a bulk edit in Photoshop Elements to resize them all to 15 cm at 300 dpi, and resave them as JPEGs at highest quality to the "Bookjpgs" directory. I sorted the resulting Bookjpgs directory by "date originally created". There were over 170 images in there.

I then set up a new book in Blurb's BookSmart software. I chose the small 7" square size, and for the sake of simplicity chose the same photo page format throughout. I tried autoflowing the images into the book, ordered by date, but discovered that Booksmart only sees the latest date, not the original date -- no use. So, having loaded the Squares\Select\Bookjpgs directory into BookSmart, I dragged them in one at a time on facing pages, using Breezebrowser's sorted display as a guide. Tedious, but I have an affinity with such work; I think I believe it's good for me.

What was immediately obvious was how satisfying so many of the random pairings were. Weirdly so. A chronological sequence is -- visually -- as subject to chance as a truly random order. Now, I work very hard at sequencing photographs. Judging what goes with what, and in what order, and why, is a real skill, which gets honed over time. But -- as with Sommer's random pebbles -- it would have been hard to improve on very many of these.

With a bit of a cull, the book came down to 160 pages. I decided to get it down to a ruthless 120 pages, but always retaining the chronological order. In my experience, the pain of editing always pays off. Sometimes, it's the very pictures that stimulated the idea of the sequence in the first place that need to go. It's rather like taking down the scaffolding.

This is still a work in progress, but here are a few of those unplanned pairings.

Obviously, there is an inherent coherence in these images, in that they are all made by the same person, in the same way, and during a period of eighteen months when my preoccupations would have been similar. But it does make you realise that all that work put into sequencing is only worthwhile when there is a conscious underlying program to develop, like the theme of a piece of music, or the plot of a story.

Otherwise, your mind seems perfectly happy to construct relationships with whatever comes to hand. It's an interesting question whether these relationships are in any way different or less meaningful -- to the viewer -- than the ones so carefully constructed and offered up by an "artist". Somehow I doubt it: that, as I say, is one good reason why we like photography in the first place.

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