Friday, May 04, 2012

Tooty Tooty Toot . . It's Hip To Be Square (Part One)

Greetings ship-mates!
It's a Saturday morning, the sun isn't shining and your ol' Cap'n Sheephouse has decided that it's time to renew the caulking on the decks.
The comfy familiarity of that piece of deck you always walk across? Begone with it. Gouge out that tarred rope and set to work. It needs to be renewed and different by the end of the day.
See, the world's a changin' faster than a spring tide and before you know it (if you're not careful) you'll be washed away.
Change is everything - follow that new current till it leads you to a promised land.


I have no idea what the above was about at all, but sometimes your fingers work in mysterious ways and maybe, just maybe, this has led on to an article that is about stepping outside of conformity. Whatever it is, sometimes the Cap'n lashes out with the cat o'nine-tails and you have to follow.
Anyway, the title of today's Weekend FogBlog alludes to a certain Mr. Alex Turnips of Sheephousecestershire, who in the strangest move I have ever seen from a teenager believes himself to be the soul-mate of a certain Mr. Huey Lewis. Who? you ask, mouth aghast, toast and bacon raining down upon your lap. You know,  . . . Huey Lewis And The News. That band from the 80's that liked golf and suits. Yes . . them!
I swear to you, Alex sees himself pulling up at the Old Course wearing a suit and a Pringle jumper and making a number of hole-in-ones whist an adoring audience looks on. This is very strange for someone of such tender years, because in a time of his life where it was set in stone (almost) that he should be raising a middle finger to conformity, he has done a particularly clever thing . . .
Look around you.
Youth these days, I feel sad for them actually, because on the surface they seem to have it all on a plate. Really. We have made sure that they have everything their hearts desire and they live (to a large extent, and I know that this is a bit of a generalisation) pretty untaxing lives.
They can communicate constantly without hogging the one household method of communication (which used to be the phone in the hall . . ) and escape for hours to worlds that someone has created for them by gaming, so that they don't even have to use their brains to create worlds from a printed page.
A lot of them seem to be ferried everywhere - no more standing at a bus stop getting soaked and arriving at your destination smelling like a musty ferret.
The privations I remember from my youth are no longer there - and it wasn't as if I lived a youth full of privations. On the surface it looks like they have it all.
That is entirely my generation's fault though, because we have taken away a certain very necessary thing from them: the need to struggle.
Think about it - there are no pricks to kick against, because they've all been covered up with soft spongy stuff to protect them. Instead of feeling a need to rebel against conformity we've made the world a safer (and less conformist) place for them! You can pretty much be your own person from an incredibly early age before you even know your self.
God knows though, if I were a youth of today, I'd feel I had to rebel against something - just take a look at that wall of hopeless defeat we've put up in front of them and then tell me they have it easy.
Despite this the riots of last year were nothing to do with knocking down that wall or even knocking on any doors that mattered. No dear reader, we've made such a bosh of it that when an opportunity came to try and change things, most of them saw it as nothing more than an opportunity to make a mess of innocent people's lives and get more stuff. How mucked up is that?
You can't even rebel through music anymore simply because it has all been done - my [punk] generation made sure of that. Yet thankfully you do still see lads and lasses of a certain age pursuing this path, because if they didn't what else would appall their doting parents?
Music is a BIG subject, but I feel I can write about it because that is how I have earned a living for the past 30 years.
From the rebellious youths point of view there are a million permutations: Death metal, Grime, Dub-Step, Toot, Rap, Math-Doom-Sludge, anything appended by 'hyphen core', you name it, think of a heady mix of the most unlikely things and it will have been done. Add in a goodly amount of swearing and voila! there's a ready youthful audience.
The likes of a band like Slipknot (who have had a shelf-life well beyond what I would have expected of them) still have an audience of youths who feel that in this bunch of middle-aged men they have a ready outlet for the uprising of hormones and glumness.  Yet there's nothing wrong with it.
This is where Mr. Turnips stroke of genius has come in, because when all around him is Uzi-toting, mother-hugging, death-grunting, black-studded, de-tuned, machine-made, faceless plastic* he has donned the uniform of a middle-aged man (metaphorically of course).
Huey Lewis and the News might well have sung 'It's Hip To Be Square' but blimey could they have realised how dreadfully old they sound(ed) - even at the time. Nowadays who the hell listens to them apart from an audience remembering the glory days of leg warmers and ra-ra skirts?
Is Mr. Turnips liking of them an incredibly subtle form of rebellion where something that seemed old to me in my 20's now sounds even older at the age of 50?
Forget rebelling against the music your parents liked, this is rebelling by liking the music your parents didn't like . . .
It is a contra-reverso-back-to-tomorrowland.
More fiendish than a googly.
More devilish than backspin on a ping pong ball.
In a word he has rebelled.
Am I appalled?
Will I let him wear a Pringle jumper . . . er . . .
I do admire his stance though . . .


But what, you might ask, has this taxi ride through the tides and mores of early life got to do with photography? Well, before I jumped in the driving seat and headed off across country with the wrong tyres on, I intended to write about the square photograph. 
And no, it isn't a picture of Mr. Lewis. 
No, I am talking about 6x6 cm, 2 ¼", or 2¼ Square, whatever you want to call it. 
The square photographic format had been around since before Franke and Heidecke came out with the groundbreaking Rolleiflex in 1929, and it's importance was further reinforced by numerous copies and then post-WWII by a certain Mr.Victor Hasselblad, but it is weird, because logically and visually a square photograph shouldn't work
Think about it, the world is a rectangular place. 
You watch rectangular TV pictures, which (apart from the world around them) is yer average human's primary source of visual stimulation; you look at mostly rectangular paintings; books are just rectangles on their sides, the computer screen you are reading this on is a rectangle; ok if you're smart-phoning this, then that's a rectangle on its end too . . . and that iPad you're hiding behind that cushion? Yep . . . do you get where I am going?
Why the hell would you want to look at a square photograph?
And yet, when it is done correctly, it is the seemingly most natural of formats.
This problem has been succinctly discussed by Mr.Aaron Siskind:

"We as photographers have basically so little to work with in a picture. There's a given space, which we repeat over and over again. It presents a problem because I may want to change the space without changing the dimensions of the space. I had this problem with the meaning of the divers in relation to the kind of space surrounding them. The picture had to be square because I was working with the Rolleiflex. No two square pictures are square in the same way. Some are heavy at the bottom, and so they extend beyond the square. Some become horizontal depending on how you weight the space with blacks, whites and intermediate tones. In the case of the divers, I wanted no clouds, only white (or grey) in the space enveloping the figures; seemingly endless space."





"No two square pictures are square in the same way."

There is genius and a deep understanding of the format in that sentence.
His photographs are just incredible images if you think about it; they balance so well and Mr.Siskind has sequenced them so that visually they make a balanced narrative. In a word, they are a master's sequence.
So folks, it can be done. It is really quite an achievement to make what, on the surface, seems like a fairly limited square view of our wonderful world, produce images so incredibly dynamic. And especially so when you realise that he was using a Rolleiflex with its fixed standard lens. No telephotos, no motor-drives, no digital spraying . . .


Bear with me reader, because we are nearly there . . 
Half the thing with square photographs is that your eye has to be attuned to the format - in other words you have to be like Mr.Huey Lewis, you have to think 'It's Hip To Be Square'.
Ignore what your brain is telling you about the fact it isn't a rectangle and concentrate. If you're using a Twin Lens Reflex, then you had better concentrate even harder, because that view of the world isn't just square . . .it is a tad dim and back-to-front!

This is a poor photograph, but basically you are looking down into the viewing area of a Rolleiflex . . that's the Cap'n's 'Indoor Shed' you can see . . .and it is back to front.

Adjusting yourself to the format you are using is obviously as basic as releasing the shutter, but there is something about the rectangular formats that fits the eye more naturally than the square. I think a lot of people find it easier to compose for a rectangle, and as I said before, I think this could well be to do with the fact that visually the world is slanted that way.
But this is about squares.
You have to think square, and that is a difficult way to think.
Personally I made many square photographs for quite a number of years and very few of them any good. It was only when I moved over to rectangular photographs (with the gift of a Nikon F from a friend) and then returned to making square ones, did I feel that I could make the format work for me.


I feel that I achieved a balance within the square with this photograph, and even though it is a single image I feel it has a narrative flow.** 
Remember the saying: "One picture is worth a thousand words"? 
Well, with regard to my humble effort I think that there is a story to be told with it or a story to be interpreted from it. The decision is yours, and thank you for your time.
It was made with my Rolleiflex T and I was using a #1 Rolleinar in a way it wasn't designed to be used.
The exposure was 1/30th of a second at F16. I placed the foliage on Zone VI ad have printed down from there.
The film was (sniff) Ilford FP4+ at EI 50 and it was developed in Kodak HC110, Dilution H for 20 mins.
I used fairly normal agitation for the first 5 mins; intermittent until 10 mins and then I left it to stand until 20 minutes.


I realise this has been a long haul this week, so thank you for your time.
Believe it or not, Part 2 of 'Tooty Tooty Toot . . It's Hip To Be Square' is next week, but I think I shall make it more . . how shall we say . . Zen.
Stay Square mein fronds. Over and out.

* I could have easily slipped into lip-smackin' thirst quenchin' . . Pepsi
** I don't necessarily think that you need a sequence of photographs to have a photographic narrative. It is popular today to have a huge run of images and say that you have a narrative going. I'll counter this by saying that any single one of Sebastian Salgado's images (I am particularly thinking of Workers) would make a narrative in its own right. 

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