There Is No Cat

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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Instant Regret

Adam James created a thing on Twitter called the Shitty Camera Challenge, devoted to the idea that you could make interesting photographs with low end cameras. Having long been a toy camera user, this is something I could get into. He periodically declares that certain times on the calendar are this challenge or that challenge. August and September marked the Instant Regret event, devoted to the idea that any camera is a shitty camera if you load it with instant film. We spent two months proving that.

I’m pretty sure I posted something every day. I definitely tried to. Something in my brain wanted to treat this like Hands on the Hardbody, where you posted every day and people dropped out until there was only one person left and that person won. There’s no winners, but whatever. It was an exercise in arbitrary regulations, and it spurred me to participate. Instant photography is kind of my Rosetta Stone in any case, the thing that really speaks to me. My dad got a Polaroid 250 in 1966 when I was 3, and that’s pretty much the camera my whole childhood was documented on. I got a Polaroid Pronto for some holiday (Christmas, probably, because my brother got one too) when I was in my early teens. I started photographing in large format, specifically 4x5, because I backed the original New55 Kickstarter. I bought an Intrepid 8x10 because I found a cheap Polaroid 8x10 processor when the ICP was selling stuff from their old darkrooms in midtown before they moved to the Lower East Side. Instant photography is the thing.

So a lot of self-imposed pressure made some interesting photos. I started with dry transfers. This is a dying art form, because it requires Polaroid Type 669 film, a color peel apart film that Polaroid stopped making in 2008. There’s not much of it left, and much of what’s left is deteriorated. But I still have several packs that have been in the refrigerator all this time. Basically, you take a shot, pull the film, peel it apart 10 seconds or so into the process, and press the negative up against another paper, typically watercolor paper. You use a brayer to roll the negative onto the paper so there are no gaps. And after a couple of minutes, you peel. So I gave that a try. I figured nobody else would be posting these (I was right on that).

Belford Harbor

This is one of a number of examples I posted. I tried seven, and I think three or four were good enough to post. This was the first and best.

My next notable set was a series of diptychs I shot with my Hello Kitty Instax Mini camera on Hello Kitty Instax Mini film at a decommissioned steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Steel mill stacks

I had bought the camera and film on a whim because it seemed so utterly ridiculous, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Hello Kitty is infinitely malleable, however, and fits into every situation. It’s not hard to find her in every setup from wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes to dressed in checks wearing Vans in a mosh pit. So shooting at the steel mill seemed perfect.

Railway car with the number 6 on the left; on the right, in the foreground position number 12, and in the background, the studios of PBS station channel 39

After doing this, I had another set that I really liked. Polaroid has film with a circular frame. I never understood why or what I could do with it. I hated it. But I figured I should make an attempt to figure out what I could do with it. So I bought a bunch and I thought. What I came up with was this: the entire point of the film is the shape of the frame. So photographs of shapes would potentially work really well, playing off the circle.

Not a pie chart

I could tell you what I used to create the shots, but it would kind of spoil the effect. I have long loved abstract photography. In the Polaroid realm, I really love specfically the work Grant Hamilton did with shapes back when Polaroid Time Zero film was still a thing. But my photography was always really representational. I could never make abstract stuff that worked.

Until now.

Circles inside circles inside circles

I really feel like this in was a breakthrough for me. The Hello Kitty stuff was the first time I really pushed to figure out what a particular type of film would be good for, and the shapes work extended that, same thing but in a way different direction. I couldn’t be happier with how these turned out, and I see this as a vein I can mine for a long time to come.

The last major change in what I do kind of brings things back to where I started with this event. What dry transfers are to peel apart film, emulsion lifts are to integral (SX-70-type) film. I had never done emulsion lifts. But there were a few very talented photographers posting emulsion lifts over these two months, and it finally piqued my interest enough to give it a try. My first attempts failed, either partially or completely. Color film is harder to do this with than black and white. When I switched to black and white, I found success.

A boat and a shack. Between the two, a power pole

I was really happy with how these turned out.

I’ve participated in other “events”, like the other Shitty Camera Challenges on Twitter and Polaroid Week on Flickr. The only other time I’ve ever felt like I really accomplished something and made a change in my work was my Ukraine set for last April’s Polaroid Week. Between that and this, I feel like it’s been a really good year for my photography, and I feel very good about the work. I’m grateful to Adam for creating the event, but moreso for creating the space for a community of creating photographers to spur each other on.

You can see almost all the photographs I created for the Instant Regret event in my Flickr album; there are a few things I did, like a couple of trichromes made with a thermal receipt printer, or a set of failed prints on 20 year old Polaroid mio film (rebranded Instax Mini from around 2002, when Polaroid was the only company selling Instax cameras in the US), that don’t appear on Flickr. You’ll have to page through my Twitter account to find those.

Posted at 4:00 PM
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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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