A Materialist Film Practice in the Digital Age

Developmental Editing, Copy Editing, and Posting by Alexandra Hidalgo

“Janis Lipzin as Amelia Earhart” by Nancy Rexroth

My media practice always begins with some tangible phenomena. For this reason, I prefer to use methods that allow me to reflect on the “real” while at the same time re-shaping it. Light-sensitive emulsion is my gateway to re-imagining and re-experiencing the physical world in a tactile and connected way even as digital processes engulf contemporary art and commerce with virtual disconnected ease. My conscious decision to begin with film is based on that medium’s unduplicable and capricious response to light. I use darkroom processes to produce outcomes that allude to, but don’t truly describe, color in the natural world—the outcomes become the visible evidence of a direct, yet surreptitious, conspiracy between artist, materials, and photochemical occurrences.

In the photochemical process, when an exposure of the film is made, light makes a physical impact on sensitized gelatin and a genuine light mold is created. André Bazin even likened this phenomenon to the making of a death mask in his “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”[1] Upon close examination of the surface of the side of a piece of film that carries the emulsion, a tactile sculptural relief is apparent. It is something like an impression, a pattern made by one thing being pressed into something softer. This process underscores the sense of physical fidelity that film possesses for me, because there is a “real,” corporeal encounter between subject and material. Light is physically sculpting the gelatin material. This is an actual palpable, sensory incident.

Temporal Vision: Pennsylvania Diner, pigment print, (2012)

As I understand it, a digital camera has, in place of film, a sensor that converts light into electrical charges, which a computer then converts into digital data. A computer then breaks this electronic information down into digital (binary) values. By contrast, this means of recording light electronically seems to me to be in all respects inherently synthetic. Because digital media provide unlimited options for entirely new breeds of images, these media carry strong significations of invented rather than authentic images.

My ongoing Starfex Series, initiated over 30 years ago, exploits the “faults” of a simple Kodak Brownie Starflex camera and size 127 color negative roll film. The camera’s limitations:  a shutter that sticks open unpredictably producing unusually long exposures; its plastic lens that diffracts light in unexpected ways; the manual film advance that overlaps frames on the roll of film—provide me with endless creative discoveries. I edit “in the camera” keeping the original negative roll intact. Even the paper backing on the roll of film provides new creative possibilities: exposing film through the small red filtered window on the back of the camera by leaving the camera in bright sun for hours draws light rays through the textured paper backing before reaching the film emulsion. In this way printed numbers and paper fibers contribute in surprising ways to other images that enter through the front lens resulting in unpredictable double exposures. Until recently, I enlarged the entire filmstrip in the darkroom and printed it truthfully onto color roll photo paper; now, after scanning the film, I print the unedited roll on computer photo paper with a digital printer. In either case, the results resemble slow, life-size, six-foot long, cinematic processions.

Temporal Vision: Yellow Springs, Chromogenic photograph (1978)

A recent hybrid film/digital video series, De Luce was prompted in 2009 by my rediscovery of the Robert Grosseteste (b. 1170, d. 1253) text that Hollis Frampton drew upon in his key film Zorn’s Lemma (1970). In On Light [De Luce] or the Ingression of Forms, Grosseteste writes, “In the beginning of time, light drew out matter along with itself into a mass as great as the fabric of the world.” This quote guided and inspired my creative process for De Luce.

My process in making the De Luce works was, in no small way, facilitated by Kodak’s unexpected introduction in 2005 of Ektachrome 64T (7280) and its successor, Ektachrome 100D (7285), super-8 camera stocks, both of which could be hand-processed using available E-6 photo chemistry. De Luce 1:  Vegetare blends my enduring interest in nature’s volatile events with my sympathy with film’s unpredictable response to light. I learned that exposing the film to quick bursts of light, during the first developer sequence, unleashed volatile color shifts, that, while still grounded in the real world, vastly expanded the Kodak palette of color.

Coincidentally with my growing artisanal film practice, I discovered that students at the art college where I taught for over 30 years, in defiance of short-sighted   pressure from the school’s administration to exclusively embrace digital media, demanded instruction in hand-made or materialist film approaches. These 20-to-30-year-olds, although raised in a digital world, were drawn to create an intimate physical relationship with moving image material.

enlarged film frame from De Luce 1: Vegetare, (2009) hand-processed super-8mm film

Cinema’s physical identity was too sensual to be subsumed in a transparent carrier of information. Chun-Hui (Tony) Wu was one of the first of these students to fully embrace such a practice and pushed the concept to its limit. Like his contemporaries, he was interested in subverting the monopoly of filmmaking machinery by forefronting the visual artist’s hand and touch. In 1998, he created his remarkable s-8 film “More Intimacy” by quite literally taping found footage of bodies in intimate embraces directly in contact with unexposed plus-x reversal film which he exposed with a photo enlarger and later hand-processed. His Europe Resurrection of 2006 in 35mm continued in this vein.

In the absence of the instant digital image, the students and I discovered or re-discovered the feeling of eager expectancy while a latent image was allowed to reveal itself in its own time and often on its own terms. Shrieks of wonder and amazement at unexpectedly exquisite results were not uncommon in the screenings that culminated these courses in materialist film practices. And to our surprise, we had recovered a space of time that is filled with anticipation, expectation and authenticity.

NOTE: This article was originally published in issue 56 of the Millennium Film Journal in the fall of 2012. The issue was titled “Material Practice: From Sprockets to Binaries.” We thank them for allowing us to reprint it here.

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[1] What is Cinema? Volume 1, University of California Press, 1967. Originally published in Problemes de la Peinture, 1945. Bazin argues, “The photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint. Therefore, photography actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing substitute for it.” Return