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.