That Explanation I Promised

Jane Alynn, Slant of Light, 2012. Zone plate photograph, gelatin silver print, 17″ x 21″
Remember, way back in May when I told the story of a guy who gazed at my soft-focus, black and white zone plate photographs (not knowing they were mine) and then said to me, “That photographer is not bad, but she ought to learn how to focus”?

I forgive him for misunderstanding. At least he looked.

A lot of people look quizzically at my zone plate images. Partly, I think, it is because these photographs go against the most common expectations of a photograph, especially when it comes to digital work. My zone plate images break the rule taught in Photography 101 that decrees a good photo is sharp and in-focus. A friend who is an exceptional photographer teases me, calling them my “funny, fuzzy work.”

When I am asked how I achieve that look I shudder at the thought of explaining. I am not fond of talking about the tech side of image-making. Cameras, lenses and their optics are topics I usually avoid.

But I promised a post in which I would explain it, and since I am a woman of my word, and since I have a show coming up of zone plate photographs, I thought I should talk about it.

So, here goes.

I have always been drawn to the obscure, the element of enigma. I see no reason for recording the obvious, as Edward Weston famously said.

I am interested in photographs that suggest dream states or memories more than sight, images that express a sense of the fragile, fleeting, ephemeral. My hope is to make images that tempt the imagination to see beyond the literal. Thus, ambiguity, nudging the boundaries of abstraction, plays a large role in my work.

I have been greatly inspired by the Pictorialist photographers of the late nineteenth-century who wanted to bring photography into the realm of fine arts. They succeeded with their soft-focus, evocative, and often very ambiguous images.

Now, here comes the tech talk.

To shift perception toward a sensual experience rather than on subject matter I use a high-grain film in a camera fitted with a zone plate. The zone plate takes the place of a lens. It is an optical device made on a piece of film, consisting of a set of radial rings (think of a target, only imperceptible) that diffract the light. This diffraction softens the image and creates a glow or “halo,” infusing forms with a glint of the numinous. The photograph itself is imbued with a haunting, dreamlike quality that one is unable to get with modern glass lenses.

Though zone plates images do not represent my entire photographic output, they have captured me for a very long time. I love the dark beauty these images convey visually. I find great pleasure in creating new perceptions. And I love the fact that I never quite know what I am getting because of the high unpredictability with zone plate work.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jane, I am hoping you reach this. I’d love to stay abreast of your work and the town you are in in Eastern WA. So impressed with you,

    1. Thank you, Bekky! Your words mean a lot. That town was Waterville. It’s up on the plateau where I’m working on a project (working title “Wheat Country,” inspired by Robert Sund). I’ll return when the fires settle down.

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