Belfast: Light & Dark
I went to Ireland 37 plus years ago.
I was some young man those years ago in the 1970s. I had ideas, mostly sophomoric. But the things I thought have come to fruition. It was a time in Belfast when the central city was cordoned off. As you entered the city, the army of England patted you down, inspected bags, checked IDs if you looked suspicious. I thought that this was the future. I thought that people would rise up against the ‘establishment’ in rage and disappointment due to restricted movement & economic oppression.
I thought that Belfast was the perfect dystopian city which I called Urbania. I figured that the people would show this in their faces. I figured it was a bad idea to walk the streets with a little hand camera and reflexively respond in a timely Cartier-Bresson manner. I thought the world was a stage in front of the camera and just face it. I used a large format 4x5 camera on a human tall tripod. The gear had to be unfolded and aimed in a declarative manner with the person standing looking right at the camera and with me under the beautiful velour cloth hood behind the camera, first to allow focus and composure and second, to make the moment click. I would focus, then somewhat groundhog pop out and say the same phrase in a science staging manner, ‘look right into the lens.’
And the actor’s part as they played it on my stage was simple recognition as they could see the actual closed shutter open and close in anticipation of the click. Perhaps what they didn’t see was how giving they were to this stranger in a strange land. I wandered the streets parking, unloading the camera and approaching people to see if I could photograph them in their interrupted footsteps. Few refusals happened.
And what I came back with was a set of dark pictures. The light barely reaches the bottom of the image or the earth that grounds their soles. Technically, the images were as hard to print as it was to be dragging the camera and tripod around. Originally the film was a transparency film, but I returned and intentionally developed it as a negative film. This process made the images dark, grainy, funny colors. These colors had not a bit of humor but were called crossed curves by those old photographers who knew sensitometry. And what that meant was if some object was yellow in both sun and shadow, the yellow would not be yellowish across the whole dark-light spectrum but the object’s photographed color changed as it went from dark to light...the negatives would contain a yellow in either the dark or the light value and the opposite value would be the complementary color of blue. Colors crossed as they went from dark to light. The tones were cantankerous to print just as the society was not the same at the bottom as it was at the top. And my sophomoric late twenty-year-old self thought what a fitting paradigm to promote that what the society projected was not really how things were. Crossing boundaries; crossing realities; crossing curves...it all fit so neatly. I love these few faces that have outdoor blue light on their one side and indoor warm light on the other side of the nose...indeed the basic conflict of crossing lights.
Now looking back and living anew with these people remembered, forgotten, reacquainted in our computered vision and printing dialogue I am struck that my naiveté was indeed in concert with the contemporary suspicion of post 9-11. Perhaps this is in sync with how greater the separation is between those haves and have nots.
I am sure these images could never be made today. We have clocks that run faster with distraction at every tick. Stopping people on the street, getting them to attend without the phone’s tether to their mind...is that consistently possible? Imagining me fiddling with a big camera and a cloth hood to compose and having the person constantly check their social feed or simply be impatient for the click to come out loud...would our fleeting social contract allow such an occurrence or would the failure of connection reveal the societal inattention? Could the ubiquity of the social media placenta allow an insight? Perhaps it is only the context or the backdrop that has changed. Or maybe it is I who have changed and no longer can I start with a youthful dogma that would filter an equivalent of these images compared to what is seen today.
But the images are then and not now. They still sweep me to my own history so many years ago when the light worked so hard to get to the earth’s crust and illuminate our condition.
~AJZ August 2014