Going backwards in time. Buying up yesteryear. The cameras I wish I'd had back when....
It's been a mysterious week. The heat is getting really oppressive and all out of hand and I find myself turning back the hands of time to recapture the magic of my own photography. The photograph above was created with a handheld Pentax 6x7 film camera using a 165mm lens and whatever my favorite flavor of color negative film was at the time. Hard to believe in a day and age when people must have their cameras focus, meter and wipe their noses for them that photographers ten or twelve years ago could go out and shoot 20 different well exposed and well seen images without any of the crutches we take for granted now. And I've come to believe that we made good images not in spite of having no training wheels or floaties or inexhaustible sources of image frames, but because we worked within those earlier restrictions.
I've been going through a process of evaluating my work done since the dawn of digital. As most of you may know I've been doing this long industrial art enough to have started with 4x5 sheet film. And I was there at the dawn of the digital "revolution" shooting with everything from Kodak DCS 660's and consumer 1 meg cameras to Fuji pro cameras that took PCMCIA memory cards. Think you're cool because you're an early iPad adapter? Well, I've got an Apple Newton sitting on my desk. Think we don't get what you can do with PhotoShop? I was just looking at my 1994 copy of PhotoShop 2.0.....on CD. And you know what I think? I think we all got hosed by the digital "revolution." I've got a drawer full of the latest Canon stuff but I like the images from my oldest Canon digital cameras a lot better than the newer ones. I like the files from the 1D mk 2N a lot better than the files from the 7D. I'm trying to snap up an older 1DSmk2 to replace my 5Dmk2 as my primary shooting camera, and I'm finding that I like focusing manually a lot better than I like letting the camera focus for me.
After I looked through twenty or thirty boxes of black and white portrait prints, originally shot on film, I've been back to Precision Camera to buy two Hasselblad 500 C/M bodies, an 80, a 120mm Makro and an old, black 150 Sonnar. Along with a couple bricks of God's film, Tri-X.
What's got me so fired up? I'm tired of shooting in an aspect ratio I don't give a crap about. I'm tired of trying to find a decent SilverFX profile that even comes close to matching what we could effortlessly get with a roll of $3 film. I'm tired of blurring backgrounds in PhotoShop when I can see em and blur em while I'm shooting with that glorious 150mm.
Have you ever wanted to start over? Have you gotten to the point in a job or a hobby or a life where you found yourself surrounded with failed (and mildly successful) experiments that you wished you never had to see again? Have you ever want to wipe the hard drives clean and start over from scratch? To take all the stuff you've learned and start off in a new direction? It's a constant with me. There's stuff I like in my collection but I mostly keep everything, image-wise, because I fear the loss of something I didn't quite appreciate more than the freedom of being unfettered by the trappings of a past.
I've gotten over my "all or nothing" and "take no prisoners" approach to change but I think doing stuff the same way over and over again, while critical for restaurants and surgeons, is anathema for art. And for artists. At times I feel trapped the way Ansel Adams must have felt trapped, printing edition after edition of those same twelve or twenty greatest hits until he couldn't print any longer.
Have you ever sat down with your life's work and distilled it? The way I do it is to look at every print and slide that stays in the "active layer" of the studio. That's the layer where the same content rises again and again and gets used over and over again as both resource and filler. You know it's good. Not much of it is great. And it amazes me, or frightens me, how few digital images would even make it into the second layer (the stuff that you shove in the filing cabinets but can pretty much remember how to put your hands on it if a client calls and asks for it.....) and how many images from the 4x5 sheet film layer are down in the primordial ooze. It seems I'd found a sweet spot with the medium format square.
For the last decade we've all been racing to find the digital camera that will give our inner artist the fully erect tool we think we've been looking for and at the same time telling ourselves and everyone who will listen that: "It's not the arrow, it's the indian. Horses for courses. It's not the camera, it's the man (or woman) behind the camera that counts. Real pros can make great images with any camera. A true artist can even make art with the camera in his phone, Just shut up and shoot. etc. etc. etc." And, it's all bullshit. Just rank bullshit by people who either don't get the search for the tool, the format and the palette or people who get it but are more interested in following the pack. (If you've never been in the zone with a camera how could you even understand the difference it would make?) Being in the safe spot in the Bell Curve. The tools do matter. If painters paid thousands of dollars for a brush you bet your ass they'd be talking about them. If there were twenty competitors to Newton oil paints and oil paints cost a couple of house payments there'd be forums galore with all the teeth gnashing you could ever want.....
So, I'm going in the opposite philosophical direction. I'm saying the tool leverages the artist in our field. The tool (the medium is the message) is part of the process. The process doesn't exist in a vacuum. A straighter arrow kills more buffalo or cowboys. A real pro can make a better image when he's comfortable with the aspect ratio of his chosen tool. A dedicated artist has a strong preference for the way their medium expresses its own color palette. And the process is as important to the art as the idea.
We've effectively cut down our choices and, thru market attrition, homogenized the vision of what a camera can be for a generation. I realized this for the first time when I realized what made me buy an Olympus EP2 with a EVF finder......it was the ability to set the camera so I could see in the square. And that's the way I've used the camera for the last two years. It's not enough to crop something square in post production it's important to go thru the visualization process while you are shooting. You have to exclude the visual clutter to realize the image. Only those images that I shoot square really make me smile.
So, I've shot a dozen rolls of film in the Hasselblad over the course of the week. I'd love it if it were digital and full frame (6x6) and only black and white but the process of shooting constrained is already making me a happier photographer.
I'm not suggesting that any of us is wired the same way but if you were someone who grew up shooting a different format than 35mm and you were forced to abandon it for digital's contraints you might want to revisit your roots and see how it impacts the way you see, and what joy it might bring you.
I wrote about the Sony a77 a few days ago and while their are many things to potentially like about that camera what I like about the EVF technology is that it can (Go Olympus!!!!) put the choice of aspect ratio back into the hands of the artists in a meaningful way. Not an "after the fact" way but in an organic way of seeing and previsualizing that helps one de-clutter their vision and provides a formalist constraint that moves the process forward. Like turning off the hip hop on the radio when you are trying to hum the melody line of a symphony. It works that way for me. Less static better seeing. Less steps to think about now for greater clarity in the moment.
A long way to go to justify my capricious purchase of a couple cheap, used Hasselblads but I mean every word.