Before cinema’s fall from relevancy, most movies were stand-alone, self-contained creations — not episodic instalments in a franchised, multi-segmented marketing blitz. Often, within today’s modern movie franchises, it’s the origin stories that are among the most-loved and lucrative entries — indicative of an audience’s hunger to discover the source of some serialized character’s eccentricities.
Though eccentric itself, I’m not sure if ULTRAsomething counts as a franchise, nor if its readers are as famished for details as the average Batman fan. But another month is upon us and I have to write about something, so now seems as good a time as any to crank out this site’s origin story.
ULTRAsomething first appeared in early 2001 as my online music, photography, sound- and product-design portfolio. Seven years later, it was repurposed into the photo-centric, essay-based format you see before you. But these simple facts are not its origin story. For that, we need to travel all the way back to the days of rabbit ear antennas, dial phones, and typewriters.
Through a series of fortuitous events, as described in Jim’s Victory, a prepubescent, protoplasmic blob now known as Egor, began to compose its own music. As I grew, so too did my thirst for musical knowledge. I became increasingly obsessed with the idea of making ‘weird’ music; got exposed to the avant-garde through some records in my local library; and launched into a lifelong journey of sonic exploration. Music became my primary, all-encompassing love. Unfortunately, my high school guidance counsellor was adamant in her belief that “avant-garde composer” was not a viable career choice, so I decided my only other childhood interest, architecture, would become my vocation.
By the age of 17, my architecture plans were crumbling. The career counselling books all suggested that a “successful architect” would become a wiring or ductwork specialist at a large architectural firm. I wanted to design transformative spaces for human interaction — not be some cog in a machine. So if a five-year architecture program wouldn’t pave the road to becoming the next Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, why was I trading in my dream to become the next Pierre Schaeffer or Karlheinz Stockhausen? Fearful of “succeeding” my way into a tediously uncreative corporate career, I made the last-minute decision to study electrical engineering, hoping I might graduate into a job designing synthesizers.
Instead, I graduated into a job testing high voltage power supplies for the U.S. defence industry — a fate infinitely more soul-crushing than that big-firm architecture gig that had so frightened me. Suffocating beneath the workplace misery, I sought solace in my continued passion for electronic music, and I rekindled my interest in architecture — thinking, perhaps, that it wasn’t too late to switch careers.
Throughout my 20’s, my architectural interests widened more than deepened, and grew to include furniture and industrial design. I began to hang out in architectural bookstores, where trips down other aisles led me to an interest in graphic design, which led me to discover a small sub-section of photography books contained within. Until then, I hadn’t the slightest interest in photography — but through those books, I began to regard photography as a viable and compelling art form. In an act I’m sure delighted the proprietors, I stopped frequenting architectural bookstores, and transferred my browsing habit to art bookstores, which featured more expansive and diverse photography sections.
I devoured the contents of every photography book I saw — whether in stores or libraries. No subject was beyond my scrutiny; no genre unworthy of exploration. I began going to galleries, subscribed to numerous photography-centric fine arts magazines, joined the now-defunct Friends of Photography, and bought membership in the newly opened Ansel Adams gallery in San Francisco. I absorbed every book within that gallery’s store, and would attend each and every exhibition numerous times to scrutinize the prints.
During these years, I learned a lot about photography as a visual medium — about what I liked, what I didn’t like, and why. I learned what made an image work, and I learned the “language” of photography. I even learned about the photographers who made the images, and would study the economic and cultural conditions under which they created them.
And all the while, not once did I ever think about becoming a photographer myself. I saw photography as an art form, which meant it was created by artists — which I most definitely was not. Besides, by this point, I’d abandoned the corporate life and was now a struggling sound designer, composer, music technology writer, and computer music design consultant. The last thing I needed was another thing to struggle with.
It seems absolutely ludicrous from today’s perspective — but after several years spent vacuuming up every photo I could find, I was running out of new photos to look at. Tim Berners-Lee had just invented the World Wide Web, but it would still be several years before anyone realized its potential, and even more before the bandwidth would support photographic images. Fresh into my 30’s, and faced with a dwindling photo supply chain, I decided that if I wanted to see more photographs, perhaps I needed to start taking them.
There was no “Big Bang” — no singular moment that triggered my switch from photography connoisseur to actual photographer. It was simply the logical evolution. And while there were many factors that led me to purchase a brand new Canon EOS 100 (Elan) from Adolf Gasser’s in the fall of 1991, three stand out as significant:
First, was the influence of Bill Brandt’s “London, 1952″ — not because it was a nude (there were hundreds of fine art photographers working in that genre), but because it was the “anti nude” — a tightly-cropped, softly-focussed, high-contrast image that seemed more closely related to architecture and design than to portraiture. It was one of the most beautiful photographs I’d ever seen, yet it broke every rule of classical photography. Aside from this, and some earlier inspirational examples from surrealist’s like Man Ray or the Czech avant-garde, such concepts seemed underrepresented in the photography canon. “Breaking the rules” seemed like an avenue ripe for further exploration. So what if I gave it a try?
Second, in my ever-widening search for new photos, I’d begun to frequent Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco’s “Japantown” neighbourhood. Never mind that I couldn’t read a word of Japanese — I couldn’t read any of my French or German-language magazines either. I was there for the pictures. Most of Kinokuniya’s photo books were chock-full of the most banal landscape, cherry blossom, and cloud formation snapshots imaginable. But entwined amongst them was a smattering of photos that proved positively confounding in their seemingly total disregard for form, function or fidelity. Black and white; out of focus; poorly exposed, gritty yet murky — I couldn’t tell if they were the result of a printing press gone horribly wrong, or were actually intended to look that way. Though I now obviously know this was classic Japanese Provoke-school photography, I hadn’t a clue back then. All I knew is that I found the photos mesmerizing, and they seemed every bit as radical as the noise, drone, atonal, and avant-garde music I enjoyed. Without adequate access to more Japanese photography, owning my own camera seemed the most viable path to further exploration.
Third, was a realization that I could combine two hobbies into one. With only two-and-a-half channels accessible on the TV in my downtown San Francisco apartment, and with cable priced well beyond my budget, my viewing habits skewed toward the ancient art of “people watching.” I could (and would) spend hours camped in front of cafes — watching the passing parade, and delighting in the eccentricities, subtleties, personalities and conventions of human beings. Elliot Erwitt seemed to see exactly the same sort of things I saw, only he actually bothered to photograph them. At the time, I’m not sure I even considered people like Erwitt, Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand to be ‘real’ photographers, since I was still responding to photos by what they looked like, rather than what they said. But none the less, it seemed like having a camera with me could, at the very least, allow me to share those fleeting moments of serendipity with others.
My first forays into photography were a complete disaster. The visual gap between all those classic images and my one-hour photo lab colour prints — it was beyond cavernous. The photos I loved did not look anything like the photos I took.
I had a lot to learn about how a camera “saw” the world, and just as much about how to print. I invested in some stainless tanks, stocked my fridge with Tri-X, bought an enlarger and some B&W print chemistry, blacked out my bathroom, and started on the journey toward figuring out just how all those fabulous photographers conjured up compelling images from such a utilitarian little box. I’m still learning.
As photographer origin stories go, I suspect mine is somewhat backward. I didn’t grow up taking photos. Nor did I become a photographer in the ‘typical’ way — in which one starts photographing friends or vacations, and “catches the bug.” And I most certainly didn’t get interested through a love of gear; to be “cool”; to get access to events; or any other such nonsense. I became a photographer because I fell in love with photographs. And it was because of this love, and the large photographic vocabulary I had already amassed, that I ultimately chose to become a photographer myself. I honestly think, had I done it any other way, there would never have been an ULTRAsomething. Which, as far as I know, is pretty much the de facto requirement for any good origin story.
© 2022 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE:
I’m well aware this is one of the most boring posts in ULTRAsomething’s near 14 years. But some day, when I’m dead and legendary, some poor copy writer is going to appreciate its existence when tasked with writing my obituary.
“Added Pressure” was shot on Tri-X, inside a Contax G1, fronted with a Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 Biogon, and developed in HC-110 (Dilution B).
“Ingels, et al.” was shot on Tri-X, inside a Leitz Minolta CL, fronted with a Minolta 28mm f/2.8 Rocker, and developed in a 1:50 solution of Rodinal (Blazinal).
“Post-It®” was shot on Delta 3200, exposed at ISO 1600 inside a Contax G1, fronted with a Zeiss 45mm f/2 Planar, and developed in a 1:25 solution of Rodinal (Blazinal).
“30 Years’ Fruition” was shot on Rollei Superpan, inside a Widelux F7, and developed in a 1:50 solution of Rodinal (Blazinal).
“Cart Before the Horse” was shot on Fomapan 100, inside a Nikon 28Ti, and developed in HC-110 (Dilution H).
“Technically Compliant” was shot with a Ricoh GRIII digital camera.
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It’s a concise story? It’s a “Master of (Newton) Rings”! Cut it down, PLEASE, or no one sane in Holywood will bother to even look at it.
Have you not noticed, over the years, that the average blockbuster film has increased from a taught 90 minute run time to an overly bloated three hours? I think this article stands toe-to-toe with the most tedious of Hollywood origin stories. 😉
Not boring at all; quite the opposite, in fact! It never ceases to amaze me how many complex – convoluted, even, – paths people take to becoming some variety of photographer. However, perhaps that’s just a consequence of when we were born and how challenging mastering even the basics was back then? And yes, that mixture of eager anticipation, combined with a tinge of fear over possible impending disappointment, experienced while sitting at home and repeating the mantra,”someday my prints will come”would seem so alien to the Internet generation as to be almost impossible to explain.
Now I feel old.
Waiting for my film to dry is the best part of the whole process. For those four hours, I get to fantasize that there might actually be a good shot somewhere on that strip, just waiting to get scanned. Most curiously, the fact it never seems to happen doesn’t dampen that same enthusiasm for the next roll… and the next… and…
I disagree with your assessment of this article as boring; I really enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s because I went through the effort of getting an electrical engineering degree and then followed up with a career that did not go according to script. But that’s in the past and now retirement suits me fine.
And like John said above, “Now I feel old.” I got into the photography hobby in the 1970s because I became friends with a fellow in a neighboring apartment; he was quite talented with his Nikkormat and I thought it might be fun to create images. But my efforts over the years have been far more erratic than his… or yours, for that matter. I tended to drift in and out over the years as the mood struck and situations changed.
Anyway, I enjoyed this month’s piece.
Interesting the way those E.E. degrees are a springboard to photography. My old high school guidance counsellor never bothered to mention that bit…