Old Tri-X film that keeps re-surfacing.

I carried around a camera over the weekend but I didn't see anything I felt compelled to shoot. That's okay because I was busy with other aspects of life. Sunday brunch with my parents, the acquisition of a new car and some last minutes searches for important papers that ended up in the very last place I looked. In the process of looking for a car title I came across a sheet of negatives from many decades ago. I was not a (capital "P") photographer back then, just a happy amateur and many of the negatives in the sheet were overexposed or poorly developed. But I pulled the negative for the image above and put it into the Epson V-500 scanner in my studio and fiddled around with it for a few minutes. I'm pretty happy with the resulting images and happier still that the image prodded my memory and reminded me in exquisite detail just how free and easy the hobby of walking around taking photographs was in the middle of the 1970's.

I took a semester off from college to walk around a much different Europe than we have today. I am amazed to look back in a contemporaneous journal and discover that my girlfriend and I spent a good part of the semester backpacking, staying with new friends and occasionally splurging and staying at hotels and pensiones for about $800 each. That covered food, transportation and lodging but not our plane fare from the U.S. and back.

We camped out in the south of France in dozens of towns from Avignon to Perpignan, pitching our small tent in rustic campgrounds and making meals with a little blue gas portable stove. A frying pan hung from one of the straps of my backpack.

My camera of choice for the trip was the only camera I owned at the time, a Canonette QL 17 III. I took that little camera, a few extra button cell, PX-625 batteries and a small plastic bag with about 30 rolls of Kodak Tri-X film which I bulk loaded into blank canisters in order to save nearly a dollar a roll. I used the strap that came with the camera. It was a thin nylon strap with no logos or branding, just a little rubber shoulder gripper that kept the camera from sliding down my arm as I walked around.  I mostly used the camera in a completely manual mode because my friend, (and fellow photographer) Alan Pogue, took the time to teach me how much more accurate my little system could be if I used the pictogram sheet that came packaged with every roll of Kodak film as an aid to calculate my exposures. Sometimes I didn't even bother to double check the increasingly worn and poorly memorized sheet and depended on the vast exposure latitude of the film to save my ass.

I also shot some color transparency film but unlike the black and white negatives there is nothing on the color film that interests me, even for a moment.

The primary mission of the trip was not to have a primary mission. My girlfriend and I were going for adventure and fun. We wanted to see Rome without our parents in tow. We wanted to lay out on a beach on a Greek Island and waste full days doing nothing more than watching clouds and drinking beer with other tourists from all over the place. That made the camera incidental. That meant I used it when I was intrigued by something rather than spending useless energy lurking around trying to goose the muses into giving me a little something for posterity.

And when I looked at the images I stuck in this blog post it got me thinking about how easy things are to do when you don't focus all of your energy directly on them. It's almost like dating where aggressively stalking someone and calling them all the time are counterproductive.  Better to have a bit of insouciance and reticence in your pursuit and not care overly much about tightly controlling the outcome.

Shooting with the small rangefinder camera was such a wonderful way to add small doses of documentation to the experience. The camera had few controls and demanded little attention. The battery with which it arrived in Europe  was still going strong as we headed home. The rangefinder was pretty easy to use, and accurate, and the lens (when one paid attention to technique) was quite sharp and charming. But the real beauty of the photographic part of this experience is that nothing was riding on the outcome. No clients would "die." There were few expectations.

When I returned to Austin I spent happy months learning to print in our little co-operative dark room. It was located in the Ark Cooperative near the UT campus and the whole dormitory (according to rumors) had once been the Tri-Delt Sorority house. The room the darkroom occupied rumored to have been Farah Fawcett's old room. The one she lived in before being drummed out of the sisterhood for some indescretion. Whatever. It was a magic place and I spent many long nights getting a tan under the dim red safelights as I printed very personal images from the trip onto box after box of double weight Ilfobrom graded photographic paper.

The girlfriend exited the scene a few months after our return but the camera is still sitting on top of the equipment cabinet to remind me that a lot of good work can be done with minimalist tools. When I go on a digital camera buying spree I remember to stick the little rangefinder in a drawer before I head to the store. If I don't do that I imagine it sneering at me in superior derision for wasting my time and money buying cameras that are barely as capable as that thirty seven year old tool.

What an odd collection of ideas for today....

Getting queasy thinking about buying new cameras.

Let's call it camera buying fatigue. Or maybe it's the realization after so many years that a slightly better camera isn't going to do squat when it comes to making me a better photographer. Seems like a short time ago I was waiting anxiously for the new Sony a99 camera to float down from the stratosphere of a camera design and convert my pedestrian vision into world class art. But now that the delivery date is drawing nigh I have nothing but ambivalence about parting with ever more money for fractional perceived improvements in the imaging minutia that may not trickle down through my heavy handed usage into the final images I give to myself and my clients.

What happened to extinguish the camera lust that has always burned so brightly in my psyche? I think it's been the process of thoughtfully reviewing selections of images I've made from the inception of my interest in photography to the present. And truthfully, there is no mechanical or technological confluence of factors that makes one image "better" or "worse" than the other.

To my mind my best work came when using tools with which I had long term familiarity. We pay lip service, nowadays, to the idea of mastering our cameras but if we look at this assumption rationally, knowing that we are now impelled, seduced, moved to rationalize, persuaded to "upgrade" our magic boxes and their attendant lenses every eighteen months to two years can we really say honestly that we have the time and tenure with the gear to create a man/machine relationship that is truly, really, genuinely transparent????

The image above was taken with a film camera. After loading film (autopilot function) the only choices open to me as the operator were aperture, shutter speed and focus. That's it. Exposure measurement was largely a function exterior to the actual camera. I didn't worry about "creative" settings, color spaces, focus adaptations, noise reduction, color temperatures, parameter adjustments or even raw versus jpeg. The camera operation almost instantly became subservient to the process of actually taking the images. 

With digital cameras I find myself wrenched into a mode of heightened vigilance. I become overly aware of all the settings and "gotchas" of the digital workflow.  Not with just one digital camera but with all digital cameras.  There are hundreds of combinations of settings we can enable or disable and all of them, in one way or another effect either the image quality or the quality of making the image.

It's like the "Tyranny of Choice" for average consumers. Careful studies find that consumers mostly want three choices in a category. If they are looking for a jar of raspberry jam they are looking for "good, better, best." And, unless they are budget constrained, most will pick better. If confronted my too many choices and too many variations they may (if they do not already have a brand preference) skip the purchase altogether.  One several levels I'm sure this dissonance to effecting a cascade of choices drives a wedge between the camera and the user when it comes to comfort with the process. How else to explain our almost constant search for the next camera and our supplementation of a our "primary" camera with a growing selection of secondary cameras, rationalized as "carry around" cameras? Aren't they almost all "carry around" cameras?

In my personal situation (what else can I know?) I've had the Sony a77 cameras for almost seven months and I've used them to make over 30,000 images. Frankly, I am just now becoming comfortable with all of the menu settings. And that is not because the Sony has more or more complicated menus but because there really is no "right or wrong" setting and not all settings apply uniformly to the creation of all images. So I'm asking myself "why?" when I am just becoming comfortable with the way the cameras work and shoot, why am I considering "upgrading" to yet another device and another set of things to learn and implement. It surely isn't any perception that the cameras in hand have failed me in some way, or that my clients are demanding some decisive jump in overall image quality. It's because there is always the implied promise that I will somehow generate more interesting and profound work.  But I'm here to tell you that a recent browsing through my archives tells me that meeting the right people and being in the right situations has far, far, far more to do with creating images that I will like than some tiny movement in the calculus of my taking camera's ephemeral ability to nail down a performance paradigm that causes me to exceed my own limitations.

In fact, I feel like the rejection of the newest toy and a dedication to wringing out the best performance from my current two main cameras is much, much more likely to allow me the transparency in taking images that will make them more fun to look at and more fun to share than anything that takes place on the pixel level. If you think about it, shooting in raw is just another way to not have to knuckle under to the tyranny of choice, at least not in public and not until you are comfortably ensconced in your own little cave to privately tend to your wounded ego as you come to grips that a new camera won't make your work more universally successful-----no matter what Canon, Nikon, Sony and Olympus would like you to believe. It really does all boil down to you.  And that's more reason to dig in and move toward man/machine transparency than to kick the can down the road and just upgrade the stuff.

I like the idea of the Sony a99. I like the idea of a full frame sensor. I like the idea of some of the cameras new features but I'm pretty sure it won't make my interaction with portrait sitters any better, more exciting or more intimate. In fact, in the short run I'm certain that my uncertainty with the nuts and bolts of the camera will have the opposite effect. When I audit, with searing honesty, the kind of work I like to do with cameras and, by extension, the kind of work that comes to me as the result of showing the kind of work that intrigues me, I realize that there's nothing more in the a99 than there was in any of the endless line of digital cameras that have paraded through my hands. At the end of the day the camera is generally on a nice tripod and the lights of the studio are shining and winking and glowing. I'm still trying to engage the person in front of the camera and the less time I spend engaging the camera the more time I have to do what I consider my real job: selecting and collaborating with people whose images I'd like to interpret and share. Nothing else really matters.

In 2009 the people at Leaf lent me an AFi 7 medium format digital camera with a whopping 39 megapixels of resolution and an $8000 Schneider 180mm f2.8 lens. This should have been the ultimate camera for the kind of subjects I like to shoot. The lens is among the best in the known universe and the camera, at the time, represented the state of the art.  After six weeks I sent it back with no regrets. I was so overwhelmed and hyper-vigilant in the operation of the camera that I couldn't relax and just take portraits. Batteries constantly needed attention, settings beckoned, and the auto focus took a lot of attention away from the real action. Here I was with the $50,000 image machine that my peers drooled over and in the short run, at least, it stymied my ability to make great images.  Oh yes, they were sharp and possessed of awesome bokeh and infinite tonality but I would have been better served to have dumped everything but one species and genus and family of camera and plod onward.

And the appreciating tragedy of using lots of different cameras, all together and serially, is that the personalities of the cameras mash and wiggle and jostle together in your mind so that each implementation is like another layer of chaos in your mind. And since it's impossible to flush no longer needed information from yout mind you just have an ever escalating and very poorly organized catalog of facts and settings that slows you down, distracts you and diminishes the enjoyment of the moment.

All something to think about as we start the next round of "upgrades."