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9 March 2016

Australian Composer Polaroid Project: 40 pairs of penetrating eyes

Judy Bailey took Jim's camera in her own hands after the shooting Image: Judy Bailey took Jim's camera in her own hands after the shooting  

Photographer Jim Rolon's Australian Composer Polaroid Project took him to meet 40 composers and sound artists, in order to capture them on a particular kind of photographic film, a threatened species during the months that the project unfolded. The Australian Music Centre is now exhibiting Jim's photographs for the first time as a series. We're thrilled to have the premiere rights to these special portraits, and hope that they will be available for viewing in a gallery setting and a much bigger format soon. In this article, Jim talks with his former neighbour Andrew Ford - who appears in one of the photographs and also collaborated with Jim on another portrait project with a music component - about meetings with his 40 subjects, his artistic choices and his chosen photographic technique for this project. Make sure to view the online gallery which forms part of the AMC's 40th anniversary celebrations.

Andrew Ford: Why did you want to use Polaroid film in this project? In fact, for non-photographers, perhaps you could say what Polaroid is.

Jim Rolon: I chose Polaroid or instant film for a few reasons. Well, actually, the Polaroid-branded film I needed to use was no longer manufactured. After I used the small amount that I had in my possession, I had to use Fuji-branded instant film which was pretty much the same stuff. Unfortunately Fuji ceased manufacturing their B/W instant film a third of the way through my composer series. It's a film I very much love and I had to finish the project with expired B/W film. I knew that the time of these materials not being manufactured was coming, so I must admit that I wanted to execute this 'instant analogue film digital scan hybrid' in a series while I still could.

But the main reason I have done this series with these materials, is the unpredictability of instant film. As with all analogue films and papers, there's an emulsion on the surface of photographic film and paper which reacts to the light and to the chemistry; we process films and papers with developers, acid baths and fixers before washing…and this processing, from a photographer's point of view, provides an organic, heartfelt connection to the image.

With instant film, the emulsion on the film is exposed to light by the camera shutter. Directly adjacent to each sheet of film in the pack of Polaroid is a kind of balloon of chemistry which seeps onto the emulsion when pulled through the processing rollers in the camera. These wide and tight rollers evenly distribute the chemicals over the film and print emulsions (the print and film are one at this point) when you pull the film/print by hand through the rollers. After the pull there is a processing time. Then the print is pulled away from the film. Of course in this case the photographer ends up with a positive image.

How the image appears depends not only on exposure to light, but how evenly the photographer pulls the instant film and print through the rollers, how long the photographer lets the film/print process and even the temperature at which the instant film is processing. The result is that every print is unique and often a surprise. That's even without considering the colour temperature of the light on the subject.

Also, while this process provides very inexact outcomes, this sort of imagery cannot be recorded in the same way with digital technology. Digital technology is too exact… and, funnily enough, it is very two-dimensional in feel. The digital flat, sharp and bright file contributes to the actuality that digital imagery appears unreal, although it has super-real resolution qualities.

In respect to photographing composers and musicians, what they do, their creative endeavours, are inherently unpredictable. Why not photograph them with an unpredictable medium? Aren't my old cameras, in a way, like old electric guitars played through old tube amplifiers with old distortion pedals?

More often than not I have had the impression from the composers I have got to know that they are most interested in an idea, or a series of ideas, and these ideas are very separate from technology. They may know at the time of writing what they want, but it is for other people (musicians and technicians) to figure out the how. Of course there are exceptions. I have the impression that Erik Griswold physically explores experimentation with sound as he composes. I feel the same about Ross Bolleter.

In answer to that question of why I am photographing with materials from a previous century, I hope this imagery demands an emotional response from the viewer.

AF: After taking the initial snap, what happens to the image?

JR: The initial snap is precisely that: a relatively quick click. I can assess my portrait subject, take the picture and look at it right away. The process is fast yet slow. I photograph as deliberately as if I am using a large format view camera. Then I see the image I am finally going to use immediately. What is unusual is that I have made an immediate judgement and decision about how I want to present or express the portrait right there at the sitting.

Getting back to the process: the final prints before scans are only 8.5x10.8cm. Because they are prints the images will not be as sharp as if they were negatives. The final image files/prints are to be one metre wide so there are a few technical problems to solve. I work with a very talented technician. We use a very powerful Heidelberg flatbed scanner. The initial scan is very large. The next step is that we use Photoshop to clean up the images of dust marks, scratches and to add sharpness via noise and other various retouching filters. Noise adds dimension and depth just like film grain. There is also the issue of colour-correcting the scan back to the original print. We are creating digital files from analogue images while remaining as true as possible to the original analogue recording. Each image takes at least 4-5 hours to finish.

AF: The fact that you clean up the image so carefully and remove the glitches suggests you're not after a retro look. Can you, in a sentence, sum up the 'quality' of the photograph you get from using Polaroid style film?

JR: I do not have the intention of focusing on the past; rather it's the organic quality of the instant film (in this case the harmony) that I am looking for. Occasionally, some of the surprises of this medium just do not work for me so we change them. This is usually in the realm of colour shifts or balances. Keep in mind that the huge problem to solve with the scans and retouching is that the original image is 8.5x10.8cm, while the final image file is 100cm wide.

AF: What do you know about the composers and their music prior to the session?

JR: In the beginning I tried to have a good look at each composer's work but realised it didn't matter. During the portrait sessions we talked about everything but their music, mostly. I recognised that I was photographing the artist's face, not their music, so I would concentrate on their eyes, their faces and their expressions when I photographed them.

If their music came up in conversation during a sitting, or if I had a particular interest in what a certain composer was working on, then I would listen. I spent extended periods of time with a few of the composers during my pursuit for funding so of course I did become familiar with some of these composer's compositions.

But interestingly, throughout my career I have noticed a similarity between composers, musicians, actors and other performers which has felt different from the visual artists whom I have met. When I began this series I intended not to apply any visual tricks, props or other affectations to these images. Each portrait was solely about personality and the composer's response to my camera. Although these 40 composers are all very different in personality, visually I see connections that I haven't created. (I could easily make a few comparisons but I don't want to get into trouble.) In each portrait the eyes are always penetrating even if the body language seems detached; the composers are looking into the lens but they're not sure what they are feeling. Have a good look and you will see what I mean.

AF: So the pictures don't glamourise their subjects. Was this your intention or simply a function of shooting very quickly?

JR: For me in the context of my personal work (as opposed to commercial lighting tests since that is how we used Polaroid in the studio in the past) Polaroid film was a fun means of experimenting with different techniques in addition to recording what I saw on the street: photographing the scene spontaneously and then seeing it instantly in the tones and colours of the Polaroid film medium. Yes, I wanted to shoot these portraits quickly; I did not want any of these pictures to be some sort of complicated big production. I wanted a simple intimate response from my portrait subjects. I distracted them with conversation and anecdotes, as they did in return.

Liza Lim told me that she likes 'hardcore noise'.

James Hullick, who seemed very tuned into the portrait shooting process, told me that he 'explores restless change in my music'. Warren Burt said he tells his 'students to make music with your voices', which may suggest a view on digital technology.

Cathie Travers had all the energy or the style of someone who plays the accordion. The simplicity of the photographing created a relaxing atmosphere whereas tiny insights about music were interweaved with talk about food, kids or life in general.

Helen Gifford said: 'Music is a symbolic language. I depended at one time on mid-20th century composers. I learned from them.You must become familiar with the language of a composer.' And then she passed me the chocolates. Helen had already told me the story of her garden while I photographed her in it.

AF: Often when I've been photographed I've been asked to stare off into the middle distance - I think the photographer is hoping it'll look as though I'm in the throes of being inspired - but you had us all look straight down the barrel of your lens. A couple of the photos are rather confronting. Was that the idea?

JR: Yes. There's always a conversation happening between my subjects and my camera in my portraits. The people I photograph are communicating with their eyes. I want you to look hard at their eyes. The photographs are all structured that way, even when something happens and my portrait subject isn't really looking at the camera, you can see that they were a second ago. I don't want to capture affectations.

You know Andy, your portrait captures you perfectly. You're there, yet at the same time you are not. When I look at that picture I do wonder where your mind went for that split second. I like that. For me, those split second abstractions accumulate somewhere in my memory to return in a group as an idea. Is writing music anything like that I wonder?

AF: And no props - no manuscript paper, no computer screens, no pianos... But the backgrounds seem significant, especially when the photos are viewed together. Some of the backgrounds are very plain, some are quite busy. How do you choose them and how do they work?

JR: Yes. I choose the backgrounds; yet I respond to them intuitively and then save them up to match them with a composer at the last minute. Most of the time I do not decide whether to photograph in colour or in B/W until I meet the person. When I approach a background I must then decide if that particular surface has good portrait light on it... if it works with the subject. Again the matching of background to subject is intuitive. When I met Erik Griswold I thought 'colour'! And as I spoke to him I thought 'fire door'! When I met Warren Burt I thought about black & white abstractions and textures. Some places like the Sydney Con had similar walls everywhere, yet each spot had a different colour temperature. This affects the instant film very much. I found that interesting. A significant contribution to the impact of your portrait was due to the unexpectedly cold colour balance. Oddly it was warm at the same time. When I photographed Betty Beath on her back patio, I saw her necklace and then the bamboo. I thought that it was an effective coincidental repetition.

Sometimes I do not have a lot of choice with background. When I photographed Sandy Evans I was first struck by her positive energy. I immediately thought that I should abstract it with B/W film. We met at UNSW and Sandy did not have a lot of time. I saw that particular wall and knew how it would look with the film I was using. I can't dwell on more than that technically because the point of the portrait is Sandy's energy. I did know her music, whereas I knew comparatively little of Lachlan Skipworth. I visually matched what I felt of Lachlan with the louvred background. The background, stark or minimalist somehow went with his lean build and his eyeglasses.

What I seem to be saying, repeatedly, is that the images are about personalities rather than music. These composers are what they do. I feel that and I see that.

AF: Viewed on a big screen, there's a lot of detail - the pictures become more beautiful and actually quite enthralling. What's the best size to view them?

JR: These images were shot and the image files were made to be big. While the images were finished on a retoucher's special colour corrected screen, the images were always taken home to my Apple 27 inch Display, which I think should be the minimum screen size for viewing.

> Australian Composer Polaroid Project on AMC Online

> Australian Music Centre: the first 41 years (timeline)

> Photographer Jim Rolon - homepage

[Edit 15 March - down to 40 photographs/subjects.]


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