1.27.2009

I stepped back in time yesterday and bought a Nikon F4

It's silly.  The tidal wave of progress long since ground the champion cameras of yesteryear to the ocean floor of photography to be compacted over time into an archeological layer that future scholars will dislodge with tepid interest.  I couldn't help it.  The Nikon F4 (film) camera represented a revolution in so many ways.  It was the first professional autofocus camera.  It was the first of the Nikon F series cameras to come with a self contained motor drive.  One of the first cameras to include "predictive" autofocus.

From a manufacturing point of view it was the pinnacle intersection of mechanical and electronic symbiosis.  A blend of 1700 parts.  Each chosen to be the best ever crafted for this kind of tool.  The inner shell of the body was constructed with a specially concocted alloy that boasted incredible strength while also dampening vibration and shock.  The view through the eyepeice was designed to introduce as little dissonance between the object as it was and the object as it was observed.  Even the metering was new and spectacular.

But why would I fling $200 away on a piece of antiquated industrial art in the age of digital?  Well, precisely because this is the age of digital.

Let me explain.  In one or two generations the camera manufacturers will advance the craft of digital camera making in a number of ways.  One of which will be the removal of the moving mirror which must lift up to make an exposure and then drop down again into order to allow the photographer to see through the finder.  SLR cameras that still feature this sort of "thru the lens" viewing require precision ground, silver pentaprisms of extremely high quality glass.  The best are still pretty much hand finished.  The mirror mechanism in the professional cameras has to be engineered to rise and fall up to 12 times per second which requires appreciable mass to be started, accelerated and then stopped in milliseconds. The mirror mechanism also requires a highly precise shutter to shield the sensor from light until the exact moment of tightly timed, and highly repeatable exposure.  All this costs money while introducing less reliability than a totally electronic camera.  It costs lots more money.

So the drive is on to drive cost from professional grade cameras.  The first thing to go will be the pentaprism and the beautiful image projected optically through the finder.  The next thing to go will be the mechanical shutter.  In one fell swoop every mechanical connection between man and camera will be eliminated.  Withdrawn.  And this is generally a good thing for both camera manufacturers and people who will never experience a "real" camera because both will save money.  And the difference in images may not even amount to a hill of beans.

But it seems as though the tactile integration of man and machine will be greatly diminished.  Like a race car driver who can no longer shift gears.  A mechanic with computers but no tools.  A chef with a microwave.  The Nikon F4 represents to me the collective drive that existed in the last cenury to make a machine that wasn't sensible and efficient (or worse, cost effective), not the best in a category,  not just "good enough"  but the very best machine that could be built, for its intended purpose,  with no holds barred.  And in my mind it's come to represent something that's missing from our digital culture:  The Pursuit of Creating the Most Excellent Art Possible.  No excuses.

Since we capitulated to the power of the web, and the implied cost effectiveness of digital cameras, we've gone down a sinister path that may be more devastating to our culture than the present economic disaster.  We've allowed ourselves, collectively, to be subdued by the economics of process progress.  The web represents the lowest common denominator of quality precisely because every image placed upon it is a compromise between size and quality. Resolution and loading time.  Color depth and quickness.  Surrendering to the idea that color is just relative since no two monitors will perform identically.  We work with the expectation that everything will turn out to be crappier looking than ever before so we aim for that target.

The economic fear that we live with is already reducing the number of printed magazine pages, month by month. The driver of the professional digital camera market has been a relentless pursuit of higher and higher resolution but that will become increasingly meaningless as the drive to the web accelerates.  Even ad agencies are finding ways to make "social marketing" and "networking" profitable (in direct opposition to the intention of social networking......) which will further decay the need for true quality.

As the demand for large prints diminished so will the demand for the last remaining photographic labs and their master printers.  All photographic art will be destined for the screen or the wild interpretations of ink jet printers on papers of dubious quality and keeping potential.  We, as a culture, will have done to art exactly what we have done to the DVD player and the hamburger:  We will have commodified it, driven it brutally to it's lowest price with all the attendant compromises and we will have sucked the "humanism" out of the process in a vain and egalitarian attempt to make all things accessible to all people.

So, the F4 convinces me that the expedition in search of excellence is still part of human nature....even though it is temporarily in hibernation.  The feel of the camera is superb.  The feedback of the shutter and mirror noise is sensuous.  And the looks of my photographic peers are priceless as they try to figure out just what the hell I'm up to now.

Bottom line:  You owe it to yourself to go out and buy the industrial art of your era.  The Nikon F2's, F3's and F4's.  The Leica M3's, M4's, M5's and M6's.  The portable Hermes typewriter.  The Linn Sondek turntable or the Luxman tube amplifiers.  Once they disappear, like spirits and whimsy in old fairy tales, they disappear forever.  And over time the tool, and the imperative it represented recede and finally vanish.

That's why I bought a used F4.

Note.  I'm doing a little experiment.  I'm buying color film from Costco.  It's Fuji 400 speed color print film and it can be had for around a dollar and change per roll.  Each roll gives you 24 individual frames to fill.  When you've got a handful of the rolls shot you take them back to Costco where their lab develops the film and color corrects and prints the film and finally puts all the images on a disk for a very low price.  Then I'll come home and look at them.  And I'll be happy that the images exist in a physical form.  That they can be physically cataloged and reinterpreted.  It's comforting.