My first encounter with a camera obscura was in 1972.
I, like many others of my age, was addicted to a children’s TV drama that ran throughout that summer called, appropriately enough, The Long Chase. Time seems to pass more slowly in the halcyon days of youth, and so a serial comprising 13 weekly episodes was mammoth. (Good training for the exploits of Sarah Lund 40 years later though.) The protagonist was a young boy who stumbles onto some sort of conspiracy involving his father that leads to a VIP being assassinated during the Edinburgh festival, a crime witnessed using the nearby Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile.
I was reminded of this when watching the trailer for the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor names Tim Jenison postulates that the incredible skill of Johannes Vermeer may owe something to his having used a camera obscura to obtain his indubitably lifelike results. I haven’t seen the full film (though my appetite has been whetted) but Jenison, who is not an artist, recreates one of Vermeer’s masterpieces with great precision, which perhaps gives credence to his theory, but then, so what? The film is directed and narrated by the illusionists Penn & Teller, artists whose work relies heavily on the use of unseen technology that enables the production of a particular vision. The entertainment is in the amazing results, and for nerds like me, trying to guess how it was achieved.
So if Vermeer used a tool does it matter? We may possibly consider him less of a genius, but does it make a painting like Girl with a Pearl Earring any less stunning? The destination is more important than the journey when it comes to art it seems.
Some years after the conclusion of The Long Chase, I read an interview with another hero of mine, Brian Eno, in which he described his approach to music recording as similar to painting. (As a visual artist as well as a musician he is entitled to do so). Using multi-track recording (this was in the days where tape constrained you to 64 tracks or less) he applied and removed layers of sound until he achieved the result he desired. As one with no skill with paint and brush I wondered how true this was in painting terms.
Musically I soon learned as the introduction of portable recording machines like the Portastudio opened the doors for anyone who wanted to record their own music, though the world failed to recognise the genius of my early masterpiece Culloden haha! Nevertheless the techniques remain valid.
On the song 17 Hills, a typical Dolbian tale of tragic lovers on the run, as Thomas introduces the romantic interest by singing
Flaming hair and her name was Irene
The prettiest thief you ever seen
the lady is personified by the appearance of Mark Knopfler‘s guitar, playing some of the best breaks and licks I’ve heard him produce. I was very pleasantly surprised having developed a strong dislike of his sound as a result of overexposure in the 1980’s. My renewed admiration took a bit of a knock when I happened upon this video from Mr Dolby explaining how he got the best from Knopfler during the recording session –
So has the revelation in the video made me like the song any less? Not in the least. Maybe some of the admiration has shifted from the guitarist to the geek, but I still love the finished article.
My point in all of this? There are lots of photographers who are very snooty about the ability to get the shot “in camera” with little post processing required. I don’t have that skill, but I often know what I’m trying to get from the image I’m pointing my camera at – it just takes a bit of effort building up the layers in photoshop later.
Thanks to my flaming haired friend who suggested we visit Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall today and supplied the delicious curried parsnip soup that ended the walk. Here are some before and after comparisons of what the layers did for me, and a screen grab of my photoshop settings for the final image.
I’m no Vermeer, Eno or Dolby, but it will do for me.