Monday, 4 May 2009

How not to Photograph: I've got a scanner and I'm going to use it

picture - Colin Pantall: I scanned my arse but it was too nasty so here are some dandelion seeds instead

If you work in an office, you may have attended an office party. At the office party, you may have drunk excessively and acted inappropriately. You may have photocopied your body parts, and displayed the photocopies around the room. The next day, there is good chance you felt embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated.

What you didn't do is put all the photocopies of your body parts together into a portfolio turn it into an end of office year exhibition. You didn't make a book of your photocopies or enlarge them and frame them. This is because you, like all right-thinking people, know that a picture of an arse is a picture of an arse is a picture of an arse.

Now imagine that you don't work in an office and you don't have a photocopier. Instead you are a photography student and the proud owner of a flatbed scanner. You don't have to get drunk to photocopy your arse. You do it with a sober face etched with the knowledge that the scan you will make of your arse is no longer just a picture of your arse. It is something more; a project, a series, Art. So you do make a portfolio of your pictures, you do put them in the end of year exhibition, you do make a book of them and enlarge them and frame them. It's your photographic education etched in scanner stone.

But goddamit, they are still just pictures of your arse!

It used to be that photograms were the thing - ferns, dresses, children's clothes, swimming babies, the debris of war or rubbish dredged up from a canal. The best photograms are magical pieces, shadowlands that have been touched by the thing they represent.

Then a few years ago came scanners. There is fabulous scanner work out there, and the best scannograms are also objects of beauty (look at Elaine Duigenan's Nylons and Nets), the result of craft and collecting made apparent on a glass plate.

The worst are lazy scans of random body parts accompanied by mumblings about Jenny Saville or John Coplans. God help us if they are flowers (and I can never really get past flowers) or bugs or anything two-dimensional because then you are just talking photograms done on the cheap. And things done on the cheap have a nasty habit of looking like things done on the cheap. They're cheap.

Scanning your sandwiches can be good fun, in fact scanning anything can be good fun (including random body parts) and that is the main point about scanners. They are quick, they are easy and they are fun. You can make little things look big, and big things look little. Mess with the scale, then mess with the colour, curves, saturation and the hue because what are scanners for except experimentation in photoshop gone wrong.

What scanners almost never do (unless there is some massive back story as with Duigenan's work) is present anything profound. They are two-dimensional in every way, the artificial flavouring of the photography world. The apparent speed, ease and fun results in something cheap. And the best word to go with cheap. Nasty!

So there you have it, scannograms, the photographic equivalent of photocopying your arse, with all the class, dignity and beauty that this implies. Cheap, nasty and thoroughly pointless. But somehow marvellous as well.


Shane Godfrey said...

This is awesome, but just think about photograms. Same thing, more nostalgia.

Alisha said...

Hi Colin,

Just wanted to let you know I have been thoroughly enjoying your posts in this series, both for the laughs and for the thought-provocation.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Shane and Alisha - I think there is an ease about scannograms (what is the word for them?) which makes them easy to abuse. True for me anyway.

Charles Klein said...

So does this count or are we talking about something completely different?

Matt said...


This post really amused me, I am that art student who uses the scanner as a camera. I just finished my final project for B.F.A. and I am getting ready to install it next week. They however are not pictures of my arse, but scans of our everyday environment. Specifically Detroit Surfaces for my thesis exhibition.

Images and more on my process on my website,

colin pantall said...

Hi Charles: of course it counts because it ticks all the boxes I mention including the marvellous one. And you can add inventive - I like the bit in the viewfinder best which begs a question and invites a next stage.

Hi Matt - marvellous too but what's the difference between scanning and photographing? I get the feeling this is going somewhere so what's next?

Matt said...

Hi Collin, The main difference I see is on the technical side, the scanner interprets space differently and does not cause traditional distortion of space that a lens based camera would cause. Also the scanner provides its own light source creating unique photo fidelity, resulting in a highly detailed duplication of the surface. The texture and information that a scan provides allows a new look into the marks, layers, and interactions of the surface and I hope inspires deeper contemplation of the commonplace. In the end it is still using a mechanical process to record light. I am working on some new ideas right now exploring materials that we use in our day to lives but take for granted, and also I doing some research on foods and thinking about what we put into our bodies.

colin pantall said...

Thanks for that, Matt, and good luck with the end of year show. I'm still not entirely convinced but I reckon I will be soon enough. I love the food idea. Keep on with it...

Charles Klein said...

Thanks Colin :-)

I had other photos in that series as well which I did a few years back on a school computer - I was really sad though when an entire folder disappeared :-(

I wonder about the links between scan-photos and large-format photography. I wonder how far one can go with combining the two, perhaps it is possible to make a scanner back for a large format camera... dreamin dreamin ;-)


colin pantall said...

I think it is possible Charles - there was a guy who made a scanner-camera, a fantastic thing with tape and glue, a few years back. I forget his name but he had a blog/website with all the technicalities up on line. And I bet you there are a hundred people out there doing a similar thing - sniff it out and let me know what you find!

Charles Klein said...

Quite right there Colin,

I've just found exactly what I was after!

Not entirely convinced that I want to go further in that direction though, interesting but I think I'd do better to find better ways of scanning my negatives.

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