Obsession. Can be a good thing. Helps get work out that is really controlled and high in quality. Motivates one to work hard and be single minded. Keeps one focused. 

For me, obsession runs through much of my career, both in a good way and a not so good way.

Example: The old days of making slides of one's work.  This may end up being a short story told long but slides of your work can have a huge effect on your career. Darkroom prints were the primary vehicle for many of us but we always needed to have slides of our work. These were needed for job applications, grant applications, competitions and contests. Most importantly, this is how we presented our work in lectures. We would photograph our prints on a copy stand using color slide film and then project the slides.

Here comes the start of the "obsession" thing. You caught that, right? I wrote "color slide film" in the above paragraph. But I worked in black and white so why make color slides of those black and white prints? Because I made toned silver gelatin prints using toners that produced colors from selenium, gold and multiple variations of brown using sulphur compounds. In order to get this across I needed to use color film to match as close as possible my black and white prints. What a pain. Of course getting this right  gave me fits. Obsession.

Was this the solution? Only partly, as it turned out.  Much of my work was in making square prints from images shot on 120mm film. But the slide film I was using to make my slides with was 35 mm, a long thin rectangle. 

This resulted in a projected slide that had the square image in the middle and either the window mat of the print or the edge of the paper around it, or worse, the baseboard of the copy stand in it. Not good. The common answer was to have the 35mm transparency film developed but not mounted in cardboard mounts, buy our own plastic slide mounts, tape off the bad stuff along the edges with metallic tape and then mount the slide. 

This meant hours hovering over these tiny little pieces of slide film on a light table, wearing white cotton gloves and using special non transmissive foil tape to first surround the square image on the slide with the tape, then trim it all so that it would fit in a plastic press fit slide mount. OMG! It feels like I've lost years of my life to this f------process. Obsession.

Okay. So let's step back a bit and allow me to paint the circumstances for you. It is 1978. I am a few years out of graduate school, have begun teaching at Harvard University and am hired to teach a summer workshop at MPW (Maine Photographic Workshops). I am told when hired by David Lyman, a man well deserving of a blog post all his own, that I will be making a slide presentation of my work in the evening during the two weeks I am teaching.  All the teachers there did this. It served as the evening's entertainment for all present and shared the best work of  both younger and seriously accomplished teachers as well. The first summer I do this I am scheduled to present the same night with Sam Abell, a contract photographer for National Geographic, an extremely wonderful person and member clearly of the second category of photographers. I present slides made using the above system: 35mm slides taped off so no white shows around my images. I get through the evening, don't become speechless, am able to talk about my work, and it looks reasonably okay up there in the large hall where we show work. People clap when I am finished. Fine.

But not fine enough for me. In order to get my square image large enough on the screen, remember this was a square in a rectangular slide mount, the lens on the projector had to be zoomed up to fill the screen. The result? Less sharpness, more grain and less quality. Although I got through that summer okay, the projected quality was unacceptable to me.

I had a year to figure out something better as I'd been invited back to Maine the next summer. I chose to make Super Slides.

What the hell is that, you ask? These used 120 mm film, which was 2 1/4 inches across as opposed to 35mm which was 1 1/2 inches across, and a plastic slide mount that was square. But the outside dimensions of the mounts were the same that fit in the standard Kodak Carousel projector trays. I would still be trimming the film to fit the mount, but at least if I shot the square print on the copy stand with a blank slide mount taped to the ground glasss of the 2 1/4 Rollei camera I used to make the slides I didn't have to tape off anything. Did it work? Did it ever. The projected slide now would fill the big screen. You could see people in the front row of the hall going, "whoa" in reaction to these big slides of very high quality. My work projected in a dark hall now had real impact and presence. 

Of course, I had obsessed over the making of these slides. In the pursuit of perfection I had created a system that was: more expensive, wasteful ( I was trimming off about 50% of each slide so that it would fit the mount), more difficult (I was now using glass slide mounts so that both halves had to be cleaned and free of dust), and more time consuming. I thought it was worth it. By this rime I was presenting my slides in other places, including at Harvard.

I hope you're still with me. To conclude, my obsession with presenting my work in a way to show it off at its best had worked. But beside the above disadvantages of making slides this way there were a few other problems. I remember one time I sent off a sheet of slides (you could buy transparent slide sheets 8.5 x 11 inches that would hold 30 slides) to a grant competition in a manilla envelope and they came back with every one broken , the thin glass of the slides rattling around inside the envelope.

One more little wrinkle: Now that these slides were mounted in glass they were what is called "flat field". But the slide projecting industry had moved on to "curved field", meaning that new projectors came with lenses that would maximize the sharpness with 35mm slides because the film was slightly curved in its mount. Using a curved field lens with flat field slides such as mine was truly awful. Rantoul's solution: I now traveled to my lectures with my own flat field lens. My elegant solutions to my problems always seems to cost me more money. 

Obsession carried my mentor and friend Fred Sommer to heights unimaginable to someone like me who was an intellectual peon in comparison. Fred simply made twelve of the most beautiful and exquisite photographs a year. That was it, a print a month, made with a live-in assistant and labored over every day to wring out the best print possible. 

You know what they say, don't you?

Perfection is illusive.

Ah, obsession.

Permalink | Posted December 29, 2013