Thursday, 6:32pm
20 January 2011

Shots in the air

Just thirty-six frames for a (typo) exercise in photographic restraint

Back in 1986, before Wellington Polytechnic had computers, writes Catherine Griffiths, Visual Communication Design students spent big on course materials. One tool our tutors encouraged us to buy was an SLR camera, analogue then – either that, or borrow a school one for which there was a queue.

Somehow, I scraped together enough for a Ricoh, a leap on from my Kodak Instamatic and its small, square-format prints with rounded corners.

The camera (and the darkroom processes in league with it), we discovered, was especially useful – photography brought to light new ways of seeing, and unexpectedly introduced us to other expressive disciplines – in this case, lettering and typography.

It’s a clear memory, being briefed in class, one sharp Spring morning, to photograph the alphabet A-Z, followed by numbers 1-10. We loaded up our cameras, each with a roll of 35mm black and white Ilford film, 36 frames (not 24), and headed into the fresh air to go looking. It seemed a simple task, erring on the side of boring, we thought. Good excuse for a percolated coffee downtown at Suzy’s. But, there was a catch. We were to shoot a sequence accounting for the way the six negative strips of six frames would be set out in the easel and printed as a standard 8x10 proof sheet (portrait format), reading A-Z, 1-10, left to right, top to bottom.

Spotting a ‘W’ on a red bus (the Wellington transport logo), when actually I needed a ‘B’, called for restraint over impulse – the shutter was tantalising. But there could be no screw-ups, one film only. No chance to review, delete or cheat. This was a real-time wander around a small city of letters and numbers – a serendipitous composition of forms and figures on film in the dark of a camera, idiosyncratic records from the mind’s eye, of a time and place.

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