I don't know why they do it but they do it all the time. People talk to me about photography and they are so desperate to show me what they've recently shot that they whip out their iPhones and start flicking through images. And sadly, many times the images are not portraits. They show me tiny landscapes which makes my internal critic yawn and wince. They show me "abstracts" which means they liked the color or shape of something and snapped a photo. They show me architecture which I sometimes like, sometimes tolerate but mostly ignore. And they show me pictures of cats to prove how sharp their new lens/camera/flash is.
I have a new dodge to get out of looking at the images as they are flicked past on the screen. I apologize and point out that I didn't bring my reading glasses and so am incapable of truly appreciating the "art." At this point they start using two fingers to enlarge the photographs. Perhaps they mean to scroll across and depend on my "persistence of vision" to tile together their masterpieces in my mind. At that point I generally just tell people to stop.
The one exception is when someone shows me a really nice portrait. Then, mystically, my vision improves and I can share in the sharing. Now I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with pursuing landscape photographs. Ansel Adams had a good run with the genre and I suppose some other people have too. And Lee Freidlander certainly made some hay with his abstracts, as did Gordon Parks. It's just that people are so much more interesting to photograph and look at. In a way it's because portraits can be virtually interactive......at least they will look back at you.
(Above shot on medium format black and white film, Hasselblad Camera. 180mm Zeiss lens.)
It was a more civilized time. We'd shoot for while and then stop for coffee while the assistants reloaded the film backs. None of the jittery madness of tight scheduling and fast turnaround we "enjoy" today. And, after a shoot, the film would be sent to the lab for processing and contact sheets. That bought us two days of relaxation and respite.
The coffee was always hot and good. The film always seemed to turn out fine. And no one was in a rush. What a delicious way to work.
I can't imagine how we did it just a few short years ago. I was looking through boxes with thousands and thousands of black and white, medium format images and wondering, "how did we pay for all that medium format film? All the developing and contact sheets?" And it wasn't all for jobs. That would make sense. No, at least half the stuff in the boxes was personal work. People I couldn't bear not to photograph because I liked the way they looked so much. Looking back at a typical bill from my lab from 2002 (we were still shooting a mix of film and digital....) I note that I shot 160 rolls of MF tri-X in the month of June. In that same month I shot 300 rolls of color transparency film. While that's only 5,500 exposures it's critical to remember that every click of the shutter cost real money. I'd estimate the out of pocket expenses for the 460 rolls of film, with develop and contact at a modest $10 per roll (I used to get volume discounts...) and that means we spent $4,600 that month. Close to a dollar a frame. And that's before scanning or printing.
Now, for all intents and purposes, when we shoot with digital cameras it seems like photography is free. But I think we've made some compromises that I wish we didn't have to make. I like shooting in medium format but who can afford to buy and use $28,000 cameras and $4,000 lenses for clients whose budgets are falling faster than the Dow Jones average? But the things I miss most people will dismiss as intangibles: The brilliant finders. The way the image goes out of focus because of the longer focal lengths on bigger formats. The way black and white and color negative films could hold on to highlight detail and make it amazingly nuanced. Being able to put your hands on a piece of film and seeing it. Knowing that negatives might dissolve but knowing that they will do it gracefully instead of catastrophically. The incredible tonal range of well shot and processed film. The unmatched pleasure of the square frame...
The wonderful thing about life is that not everything has to be binary. I change my mind a lot but it doesn't mean I have to burn all the other options and walk a narrow path for the rest of my days. I've been seduced by the promiscuous nature of digital's ample largess and I've been swayed by film's Calvinistic rigor and I like both feelings. The hot tub and the stern, early morning run up the long hills.
So I think I'll spend a while going back and forth, like a man with two lovers. I'll shoot portraits for myself on silvery slivers of film and I'll shoot work for my clients on the visual accordions of digital. And I'll hunger for the day when a wonderful client, with Warren Buffett-sized budgets, stumbles across some of the work I'm doing with film and exclaims, with a breathy excitement: "Oh dear God!!! These are wonderful!!!! Please. Can you shoot our next project with real film???"
And I'll tilt my little black beret to one side of my head, toss aside my hand rolled cigarette, empty my martini glass and, grudgingly say, "Well...if that's what you want..." And we'll be back into a new game of mixing old and new.
Note: atmtx visited my studio on Sunday and captured me with the new camera. His photo is here