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SWOON

Catalogue essay accompanying the SWOON exhibition
Metro Arts Gallery One, 20 July - 5 August 2009


Like all the bodies of work in my practice, the Long Shots series emerged unexpectedly.

I had been using a digital camera since around 2002 to document my spatial installation work, and so the camera became a constant companion for me even though at this time image-production (something fixed, discrete, bounded, in view, more or less permanent) was the last thing on my mind given the sort of very subtle, ambient installations I was making (something unbounded, diffused, peripheral, ephemeral, in streets, parks, offices, homes, galleries and so on).

And then, when I got my hands on my first digital SLR camera around 2004 (fully manual, with control over aperture, shutter-speed, ISO, white balance and focus) I just started playing around. Making blurry images. The first group of images I have on record was taken at a bus stop in the city. Nothing special mind you, but what a physical and psychic release not to have to worry about holding the camera steady and keeping everything in focus as had been my goal when documenting the installations.

More and more, I would stuff around with the manual settings of the camera, and especially its long-exposure. Playing around a lot with lights at night, in whatever city I was walking through as part of my ambient travels. Up until then, this was for amusement, hardly thinking of it as serious work. Of course, something happened to change this.

It happened on a bus to Hobart airport, in 2006. Again, with camera in hand, having just documented some subtle installation work (scratching geometric gaps in the moss that grows between pavement cracks), I was blurring away. But the game this time was to try to keep a single tree in the middle of the image, selected from the many trees in the hills and paddocks whirring past. In this moment of myself, camera and the surrounding moving in one accord, the resulting images came alive, captivated me more than all the other throw-away blurs I had been doing. The trees I had tracked were sort of in focus, with all the hills and trees either side of it splaying out into the edges of the image, and the foreground road and fields, having moved relatively much faster past me than the hills, were even more greatly blurred and streaked. So, in a single image created 'in the lens', there were layers, foreground-background differentiation, counterpoint of gesture, ambiguous form and spatial depth. It helped too that, when opening up the digital files in Photoshop, some simple colour correction through 'auto-levels' and 'auto-contrast' brought out a lushness of colour and light that took me by surprise, but was somehow there in the image all along.

Not only did the images excite me, as an excited landscape, which prompted me to continue on in this practice, but a particular ambition began to grow in me. This ambition was to create new images, the quality of which no one had seen before. Visual innovations. In particular, via long-exposure, blurry photography. This ambition maybe even more ambitious than in previous decades and centuries, given the incredible amount of visual imagery being produced by people all around the word, via ever affordable digital cameras, mobile phones and other devices, much of which is uploaded and circulated around the web. Flickr.com, the world's foremost photo sharing site, boasts the number of new images uploaded to its site in the last minute. Today, it’s averaging over five thousand a minute. That's nearly eight million images a day. And the ambition of creating new visual worlds is perhaps even more stretched given my choice to use a typical, vernacular method of making images. The thing about blurry photography is that everyone has done it, whether meaning to or not. 

So, not surprisingly, many of the images uploaded to Flickr deal in blurry photography, and there’s over two hundred social photo groups dedicated to this genre. And that’s not to mention the vast number of other images searchable in Google Images. I have been very interested in scanning this rampant online archive of blurry images because it helps me work out which images of mine are just like the throngs of others, and which are unique. It has certainly sharpened my eye. 

Searching through Flickr and Google has also helped me determine how a blurry photograph might take on a unique presence. After looking at enough blurry images online, it is easy to see that there are about half a dozen ways of making a blurry image, which get employed time and time again by millions of photographers world wide: camera shake, a moving subject, a moving camera (laterally, or randomly), shifting the zoom whilst taking a shot, a foggy veil between camera and subject (eg, frosted glass or lens fog), or being out of focus. I have come to understand that in the Long Shots series, I am not coming up with new ways to blur images, but instead finding ways to combine and interweave this stock of movement-techniques in hybrid, multiple ways. Not just zooming in once, but zooming in and out over and over again. Not just sweeping the camera from left to right, but also zooming in a little at the same time. Or spinning around and around again so that the 360 degrees of surrounding compacts and smudges on the image frame. Many more movement-combinations have emerged, each complicating, weaving and undoing the gesturality of 'move camera this way and image turns out that way'. Each semi-improvised, choreographed procedure then gets grouped and named to create clusters of images, such as: smudges, sweeps, swipes, swivels, scribbles, strobes, swivels, scrapes. For this exhibition it’s swoons, swerves and swishes – lines no longer parallel, horizons collapsing on themselves, lights (flickering faster than are eyes can normally see) throbbing and pulsing across the image, curving around one another, bleeding back into themselves, fading out, swirling about and so on.

The other thing required in all this is the taking of many, many shots, and the use of the thumbnail preview on the back of the camera to work out if the particular movements are getting anything interesting. The improvised nature of the practice requires the immediate feedback of the thumbnail vision, something unavailable in the older analogue SLR cameras that needed the delay of chemical film processing. In this way, I have taken thousands of images over the last two to three years. In fact, a thousand over the last week alone. Not that many of them turn out. It's a long shot if they do. 

When the images do turn out, they move beyond particular techniques, and enter a visual world, an ambient scape that sucks me into the picture plane, getting me lost, floating away, enter vast space via what is otherwise a framed print right in front of you.

As the archive of the Long Shots has grown, a strange relationship to the visual cannon has arisen, to which the Long Shots seem to attach themselves after the creative act: geometric and expressive forms of abstract painting; digital abstraction and effects; aerial landscape photography that heads towards abstraction just because it renders deserts, flood plains, valleys, rivers etc as strange almost deliberately painted schemas; and vernacular, everyday visualities like screen savers, ambient video scapes, dream sequences in film and so on. 

Such connections reach back throughout the history of abstract painting, film and photography at least a hundred and fifty years to when the camera turned up in the middle of the nineteenth century. From this time on there has been this unfolding, symbiotic, parasitic and complex relationship between captured image (still and moving) and created image (painted and drawn). It is as if each cluster of Long Shots – each S-word – takes on a particular zone of historical abstract visual practice. The Romantics of ambient light, space, sky and water in the work of Turner and Constable. The steaks, skreets and squeegee-ing and slurping within abstract paintings like Richter's Red-Blue-Yellow series. The strobing, spotting and sequencing of pop art, Riley’s stripes and some of Sol Lewitt's later more cloud-like line drawings. Super-surrealism of dream-like squishy, squashy, smouldering forms. Not that the Long Shots are copies. They can't be. They are a product of very contemporary technologies (digital SLR camera) and yet they are also part of a longer, classical aesthetic approach. The ambient visual aesthetic, we might call it.

So that's how it is for all the Long Shots images. Born out of a relationship between my sensing body, the digital SLR camera, and the luminous land, revealed further through digital darkroom techniques of mild colour corrections. Attempting to go beyond the bounds of what we know of, and know through, long-exposure photography.

I make to discover what is around and beyond me, to open up things lurking in the familiar and test out ways to approach them, and, when it works, enjoying the grace one feels when welcoming in something at the edge of our being.

Luke Jaaniste
5th August 2009