Ben. September 1997. On the move in Austin.
"The dollar doesn't go as far today because people won't go as far for a dollar... " -old folk saying.
Could it be that photographs are being devalued, in part, because we don't put as much of ourselves in them as we used to? I was trying to figure out why I have such an instinctive dislike for the idea of pocket cameras and phone cameras. I understand that technology has gotten better and better and the images from iPhones are pretty good, technically. And I know from experience that the 10 megapixel wonder cameras that are pocketable are also pretty good picture takers. So what is it that's going on in my head that keeps me thinking that defaulting to the tired old saw, "The best camera is the one you have with you." Which implies that you, as a photographer, are too damn lazy to carry around the right tools with you to do the job so you're happy to default to whatever is most convenient; if even you know it compromises your vision and your style.
For casual amateur photographers I get it. They aren't interpreting a scene they are documenting it and in their minds as long as the content is conveyed they've accomplished their mission. And usually their mission isn't to go out and get great images it's to do something totally unrelated to photography but with the potential to create an image that speaks to the reality of their experience to all their friends on Facebook or Pinterest.
Where does that leave the artists? Where does that leave real photographers? Trapped between convenience and intention. For years now I've spent Sunday afternoons walking around with a camera. It's a nice change of pace from the studio and the pool and it gives me a chance to practice with whatever camera I've chosen to carry along.
I go through phases. For nearly a year after the Olympus EP-2 came out it was rare for me to go out with anything else. I carried it because it was small and light and because the VF-2 finder let me configure the camera as a square shooter. That spoke (in a slightly diminished way) to the style I've been working on for nearly 25 years. Shooting big square images with a Hasselblad film camera and a normal or slightly long lens.
The EP2 kept me happy enough but somewhere deep inside I had the gnawing realization that many times the final image was a compromise from the way I see things. I had chosen small, light and free over the exacting parameters of my real vision. With an equivalent angle of view the backgrounds didn't look the same as they did with my bigger camera. The meatiness of the black and white negative was missing. The rounded shoulder of my Tri-X film had been replaced with a snappy curve that clipped highlights quick in order to make the files fit into a color space.
That all started me thinking about the difference between carrying a camera as a diletante as opposed to carrying a camera with a sense of my own real intention. If you pack a camera in your pocket in order to be ready for the unexpected you are, on some level, like the guy who carries a condom around in his wallet on the off chance he might get lucky. You're out on a beer run or buying something at the hardware store or drinking with your friends and you have your phone--with built-in camera--- in case Chuck drinks too much and hurls, or you see a power saw and need a price comparison photo. Or you and Chuck and Joe want a photo of yourself bracketing some poor girl who works at the car show. Your primary intentions are to leave the house to do whatever normal people do in normal life. The camera is an afterthought. The iPhone is a substitute. It's the Power Bar instead of the nice lunch. It's the instant coffee instead of the stuff they brew at Caffe Medici.
So lately I've been trying to match my cameras to my intention. Really. I'm trying to match up the cameras with the reasons I bought them in the first place. More and more my Sony a77's come out when I'm going to work for a client. We have images in mind and we use the right tools to get them into file form. Long and short lenses. Big files. Tripods and lights. But it's rarer and rare that they go out on walks with me.
My Olympus EP2 and EP3 cameras come out when I'm shooting personal projects that are all about color, shape and textures and abstraction. I really like them when it's my conscious intention to go out and look for patterns and symbols embedded in the urban landscape. The smaller cameras are like the Moleskine notebooks full of inferences and descriptions instead of the finished novel.
But now, when I take images of family, friends and interesting people I'm most likely to bring along my Hasselblad because it makes the kind of images of people that I know I'm going to like most. Even with the 80mm Planar there's something very different about the way the lenses and the system differentiate my subjects and "remove" them one step from their environments. To go one step further I usually use the medium format cameras with black and white film. Not because that's some requirement from the art cult but because, when I started out shooting, color film was too expensive for me to use for personal work and too finnicky for people who did their own darkroom work. But I learned to love it and look for tones and graphic separation of things and that love hasn't diminished.
It would be much easier to go out with the Pen EP2 and bang away with the aspect ratio set to 6:6 (1:1 in reality; Olympus was just riffing off the fact that square medium format is also known as 6x6...) and then take the raw frames, massage them and then run them through Silver EFX. But the range of tones would be different and the ability to grab tenuous and precariously balanced highlights would be gone and the optical magic that happens when shooting to a bigger frame would also be gone. Could I replicate the look and feel with lots of little PhotoShop tricks? Sure but it won't be the same. It will be a diluted fascimile of something that can still be done first hand.
So now, even if it looks dorky, when I leave the studio and my intention is to photograph people I put the Hasselblad strap over my shoulder because that system is closest to my intention. And life it too short to continue down the avenues of half measures and recitations about how something is "almost as good." It never is.
Am I making some sort of statement to the effect that everyone should rush out and buy a Hasselblad even if your very first camera was a Canon G2? Nope. I'm saying that if you work as an artist you will have some perfectly formed aesthetic that bangs around in your mind day in and day out. That aesthetic is served by a unique set of tools and when you know and feel which tools are the ones that can best recreate your vision you have an obligation to yourself to match your aesthetic intention and your tools, even if they don't fit in your trouser pockets or allow you to tell everyone on Twitter that you are now at Denny's and will be ordering a Grand Slam. (For my European readers: Denny's is a down market chain restaurant that specializes in packaging traditional American trash cuisine with maximum fat calories. The Grand Slam is a breakfast special for four people, served to one...).
We have a vision in our minds of something we collectively call a "walk around" camera or a "street shooting" camera and we judge it to be something that will focus quickly, not be heavy or bulky and also be somewhat discreet. We love the idea that Henri Cartier Bresson and his confederates roamed the streets of the world with small Leica rangefinder cameras, swathed in black tape to diminish their profiles, almost invisible to the world. But those were their only cameras! Hank didn't have a Leica in his hand and a bag full of Rolleiflexes over his shoulder or a view camera waiting in the car. All of his work was done with the same camera. (He changed models as improvements came along but the ethos was always the same: small, light, simple.)
His camera perfectly matched his intention. It was perfectly chosen to match his vision. As were William Klein's cameras and Robert Frank's cameras. But my vision is not a "middle distance" vision of a scene unfolding so my choice of cameras shouldn't be the same. Even if it's in the nature of a walk around camera.
Many of my friends and associates have been drawn into the lure of the new walkaround cameras. They are currently flitting between the Olympus OMD EM-5's and the Fuji Pro 1's. The more financially robust are sticking with the Leica M9. But they also have Hasselblad digital systems and Nikon D800's or Canon 5Dmk3 and their day-in-day-out vision is more accurately described and ascribed to their integration with interpreting through those systems. Most of the folks I know honed their vision looking through the finders of 35mm SLRs. A smaller sub-group gravitated early on to either medium format or, in the case of landscape and still life shooters, even bigger cameras.
Their training, their vision and their technical demands all scream "No!" to the cameras they feel compelled to acquire for their "leisure" work. In my mind there is no difference between the leisure work and the heartfelt work. An innate style is hard to change and even harder to translate to new and varied tools. Few make the transition successfully.
So I've moved back to shooting with what the little voice in my head keeps telling me I should have been shooting with all along, the big square. And it's hard to "go backwards" on some fronts. We've trained ourselves that everything we shoot is free. Needs to be without cost. (financially and emotionally). No more film purchases, no more lab costs. If we go back to our big black and white square we're back to paying to shoot. Client or not. We're back to scanning our work. I'm putting up one or two scanned frames at a time to share instead of glops of twenty or thirty similar but not quite identical digital frames.
But as I look through notebooks full of old school negatives and contact sheets I remind myself that we figured out how to pay for our own personal work back in the day, why can we not figure out similar budgeting compromises today? Film, for my family, may mean that we don't go out to eat as much or that I keep my car a year or two longer than I intended. Since all the work I'm doing with film is personal (for me first) I don't have to rush to develop it. I can put it in a light tight box in the file cabinet and dribble it out when budgets are plumb, delay the processing when times are lean. Opening the box and taking five or ten mystery rolls to the lab will have the same celebratory feeling we used to get when we'd pop the cork on a nice bottle of Champagne (Louis Roderer Brut, SVP) at the end of a lucrative project. Film processing and celebration for doing well in your occupational art.
The bottom line here is that I'm not making any impassioned plea that you return to film or arrive at film as a virgin but that you choose your vision camera and be true to that camera and that vision when you have the intention to go out and do your art. Even if it's a tight squeeze to get that Hasselblad in the pocket of your pair of tight designer jeans. But don't kid yourself that you somehow have secondary vision and that it's being well taken care of with popular but inappropriate tools. Whether or not a tool is appropriate depends solely on where you are in the process.
I wish my vision were all about the Fuji Pro 1 today. They look really cool. But what's the use for me when I'll just end up cropping it square and trying to make the background go away in a very distinct fashion? I'm looking for a digital back for my Hasselblad film camera. I want one that has a big square. When I find one I can afford I'll see if it can replace film. Maybe. Maybe not. Only me shooting it for me will tell.
One thing I am sure of is that buying all the different cameras is a great way to move you further and further from what it is you really know you want to shoot. Happy is the man or woman who has found his subject, his format and his camera and who can now settle down and just use them over and over again.
When we are willing to go all the way to make photographs that fit our vision they will have more power and more draw. They will be truer art. When we choose a tool for convenience it's hard to push past "pretty" to "wonderful". People talk about using the right tool for the right job but maybe we've been confusing ourselves as to what the real job is......
Steven Pressfield has a new book out that will be of much interest to many of the VSL readers. It's called Turning Pro and it's a follow on to his great book, The War of Art. I recommend both of them highly. I am thinking of writing a rejoinder called, "Turning Amateur: Making Photography Fun Again." But that might be too much.