The U.S.S. Grover is a glass bottom boat that I built for my camera. This project simply designed to be a way of capturing images underwater, particularly in shallow areas where one may not make a point of using a truly waterproof camera. Through the complexity of both fabrication and use, however, I encountered several unexpected outcomes.
In many ways, I found that the images we do see from underwater are less interesting than the fact that we can’t naturally see through water (even if we submerge ourselves, our eyes won’t focus the light). By cobbling together a contraption that interrupts this boundary, we cross into a world that is alien and uninhabitable. There is a degree of physicality to this process: wading through cold water, leaning down to block glare, and peering through your own shadow. Even the device itself breaks the surface of the water and changes its flow. Something about this feels mythical–like physically reaching into an otherworldly portal. And interestingly, this portal can send us in many directions. Without a shadow to block glare, the darkness underwater turns the glass window into a reflective mirror, revealing the world above me–at whatever distance I choose to focus. It is also possible to focus neither underwater or above, but only on the pane of glass itself.
Musing about the implications of this project, I’ve wondered how much photography has been altered by the limitations our cameras face in accessing the world? I wonder also, how building appendages that extend the reach of our cameras might redefine our relationship to image making?
What do you think?
As I’ve dabbled in sculpture, I’ve become particularly fascinated by interior spaces of wood. Any time a cut is made through wood, we get a snapshot of the inside, but we rarely get to see any continuity between these spaces.
This video is a journey through the interior of about 3′ of a log. For each of the 113 frames, a physical cross-section of wood was cut off (in a long, sawdusty, painful process). “Journey Through a Log” is the resulting stop motion.
During my time in Havasupai, I frequently returned to photographing the formations of rocks. Some formations looked almost like alien worm colonies. Others looked more like lava tubes, and a few made me think of giant bird bones that had been sectioned out. After two or three days of watching how the water interacted with objects it touched, it became apparent that these formations were the result of contact with plants that had since died and rotted out. Even tender new roots from grass seemed to calcify as soon as they could grow. In a very immediate way, the shapes and textures of the canyon are determined by the lives of the plants growing in it. Knowing this, it is clear why the formations of travertine reminded me living forms.
From a more general perspective, I profoundly appreciate how my completely superficial aesthetic interest opened the door to a deeper empirical understanding–moreover, how this understanding then multiplied the depth of my wonder at the visual content.
How does an ember move and change shape over time? What if we could perceive it’s incremental shape changes as a fluid motion? This short is my first attempt at finding out…
About the project:
Each frame is a 2 second exposure shot exactly two seconds apart. I chose this long shutter speed so the flames would blur out and wouldn’t distract from the embers. Every clip is shown at a constant speed, and all but the second to last is shown both normally and in reverse. In addition to looking really cool, I found that reversing the motion actually made it easier to see what was happening. By sampling relatively long units of time and compressing them as a time lapse, this project addresses many of the opposite questions as my last blog post.
Thanks to my friend Dave for letting me use his burn barrel and high powered fan for shooting.
One of the things I knew I wanted to explore in Havasupai was water… particularly how our perception of water changes depending on the length of the moments we occupy in time. Visually we inhabit around 1/15th of a second. Although this speed allows us to perceive most movement that is perceptually relevant on a pragmatic level, a great deal of motion is either too fast or too slow for us to differentiate (i.e. without any aids, I’ve never been able to watch a bullet fly or a mountain grow).
To get a sense of motion that is perceptible to us, consider the next two images. To me, the first photo looks like a long exposure, while the second looks more or less “normal.” In actuality, both capture shorter fragments of time than what our eyes perceive.
At 1/25th of a second, this image depicts a moment only slightly briefer than what my eyes saw when I was physically present. Based on the how the water appears as a smooth sheet and how the white foam is obviously blurred, it feels like a “long exposure.” Curiously however, this is only true in comparison to other photographs. Our visual process actually blurs the motion even more than this.
At a 1/320th of a second, this image is frozen far beyond what our visual system can process. It looks “normal,” but I believe this is only because photography has familiarized us with thinner slices of time than what we are physiologically capable of perceiving. Within the realm of captured images, a 1/320th of a second actually is a fairly common exposure time.
Conversely, photography has also introduced us to longer units of time than what we naturally perceive. The image above records of several seconds of motion. Long exposures like these are beautiful, but my explorations in Havasupai focused primarily on ultra-fast captures instead. When imaged at high speeds, water reveals some truly unexpected behavior (if you haven’t seen this two and a half minute video of bouncing water drops at 2000/fps, you’re in for a treat).
This image and all the following images were captured at 1/8000th of a second.
Last fall I outlined the trajectory for my thesis research. In a nutshell I’m using photography to introduce slight disruptions into how we perceive the world around us. My hope is to cultivate an experience of wonder, curiosity, visual presence, and critical observation. Some of the work I’ve been doing—The Ave Up Close for example—purposefully investigates places that I wouldn’t default to engaging in visually. This trip was set up to do the opposite.
Havasupai is probably one of the most incredible and unfamiliar places on this planet that I’m aware of. After spending an afternoon there six years ago, the beauty and disorientation I experienced are still a vivid memory. My intent in returning was to use the environment as a sort of experimental sandbox that might spark my imagination in directions it wouldn’t otherwise travel.
Conspirators and Itinerary
Along with me were my wife Liz, and our friend Øyvind. Liz and I flew from Bellingham to Vegas, where we met Øyvind who had flown in from New York. It was his Spring Break and our finals week. Our challenge was to find the canyon, drop somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 feet down to the bottom, survive temperatures ranging from freezing to 85° F for a few days, then make it out alive. The render below from Google Earth shows our trail. As you can see, most of the elevation drop happens in the first few miles.
The land belongs to the Havasupai Tribe who continue to live at the bottom of the canyon in Supai village.
One of the things I began to think about after making this climb five or six times, is how our location and identity are linked. For me it was incredible to let parts of who I am open up in response to the aesthetic and physical terrain where they felt at home.
Last Friday I hiked out of the Grand Canyon after spending five days camping in Havasupai with my wife Liz and our friend Øyvind. In addition to being an incredible spring break adventure, the trip was a part of my thesis work at the UW. My intent was to respond visually to the physical explorability and unfamiliarity inherent to a place like Havasupai. Since I don’t already have an established pattern of how to see (or even move around in) this sort of place, it seemed like an ideal space to apply some of the visual disruptions I’ve been working with.
The image below is a 30″ time exposure with Havasu falls painted in by our headlamps. You can think of this image as an artificial rendering of extramissive sight, where our eyes both project and capture light. Though this theory is long-debunked for explaining how our eyes work, it perfectly describes many scientific imaging processes like electron-based microscopy. Also, in this mode of seeing, we only capture 1 frame per 30 seconds, rather than the reverse. As a result, this type of vision occupies a tracing of light in time much more like how we are accustomed to perceiving smell.
I live on a funny little street called University Way. It is conversationally called “The Ave.” In addition to being the road I must first cross before going anywhere else, this is where I eat yummy ethnic food (more than 42 different varieties I’m told), drink the best lattes I know of, and find awesome used books. The funky vibe has become a part of me. I can’t get anything done without the bustle of nerdy conversations around me and I have come to genuinely believe that flannel jackets and argyle socks are pretty much the coolest things ever. They are right?
But the Ave is also home to hardened faces, lungfuls of exhaust, near-death biker v.s. car encounters, intoxicated brawls, zombie students sealed off by their earbuds, and many others with nowhere to go and few who care. Visually it’s all rectilinear architecture and color can be scarce.
I love The Ave, but there’s also a point when too much character can be depressing. I miss fresh air, sunsets, quiet, growing things, wild places, and untamed topography. One of the side-effects that I’ve encountered living here is that my visual sensitivity feels dulled. If I had grown up in a city, I suspect that I may have learned to see much more in urban spaces. But I didn’t. I grew up on a mountain and northwest forests are where my vision is most attuned …and also where my capacity to see feels the most refreshed.
On a personal level, I’ve been asking myself whether it is possible to approach an urban environment with the same visual curiosity that a forest draws out of me so naturally. Can I come to grips with what simply isn’t there to see? Is it possible to challenge the limitations in my viewpoint that make the The Ave feel visually claustrophobic or inaccessible?
As a simple gesture to explore these questions, I took an afternoon to walk down The Ave and to look at it up close with my camera. I used my 50mm lens and a 13mm extension tube. The extension tube moves the lens away from the camera, which brings the focal plane closer–allowing the camera to focus on subjects almost close enough to be touching the lens. The side effect of this benefit is that anything more than about 5″ away becomes completely blurry. Most of the images I made span a distance of about 2-4 inches, and are about as far away from the camera.
More than enough said. Here are some pictures!
After 3+ years of [more or less] traditional college coursework, most of this year will be spent on my senior thesis. I know I’m still stuck with myself and the real world and stuff like that, but I’m really excited! It actually seems a little too good to be true so far. Two of my favorite profs have agreed to work with me as advisers, I received an undergraduate research grant which will provide some funding, and I have a topic that I’m genuinely excited to pursue.
The clearest description of my project so far is the research grant I wrote up last quarter.
Interested? I’d love to make room for this project to be shaped by the community around me. Here are some ways you can participate:
- Share your thoughts on why you think this matters (or doesn’t). What do you hope to get out of this undertaking?
- Suggest specific project ideas. Do you think it would be cool to do infrared pictures underwater? I may be able to actually make it happen.
- Tip me off to resources. Have you read or seen something relevant that inspired you? Do you know someone with connections (e.g. access to interesting places, imaging expertise, or personal submersibles) who might be interested in helping?
- Volunteer to help. A lot of the ideas I already have could benefit from extra hands.
- Respond to project updates here on the blog. Ideally, this could become a forum for some interesting conversations.
I can’t promise fame and glory, but I’ll be sure to acknowledge you however I can.
Tech Specs on the Project:
Project type: Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) Senior Thesis
Time frame: January-June 2010
Advised by: Paul Berger (Winter) and Phillip Thurtle (Spring)
Project Description: online here