I was watching a video program from PBS about Richard Avedon a few nights ago and it made me sad. Not sad for the person (Avedon--who passed away a few years ago) or the people in our industry but sad for just how much good stuff we've (as an industry) been willing to let go of in the thoughtless pursuit of the "free" practice of digital photography. And how complicit we've all been in our own artistic decline. I am as guilty as the rest of you. If you still shoot larger formats than 35mm you are excused from this discussion and from automatic inclusion amongst the collective guilty.
Let me explain what I mean before the fire breathing forum experts go into spiteful overdrive.
Regardless of whether we work in digital or film photography there are certain aesthetic manifestations resulting from the use of different sized imaging sensors, or different film sizes, just as there are obviously different effects that come from using different focal lengths of lenses to achieve the same angles of view across formats. Newer technologies in sensors might yield less noise or higher perceived resolution but all the new advancement(?) comes at the expense of a truly diverse range of tools. And the ones that have mostly gone away are the larger formats. The same formats that made most of the amazing images from the last century. Six by six. Six by seven. Six by nine. True, in camera large format panos. 4x5 inch and bigger.
When discussing different styles of cameras most people aren't well educated enough to get very far beyond counting the number of pixels on a chip. Most don't understand that there are many visual differences between the constitution of different kinds of sensors and most don't understand the very idea of movable (non-parallel camera movements) lens and film planes. But the biggest issue is that we all chose to ignore the obvious visual differences that come from the inter-relationship of sensor size and focal length/angle of view.
We're like happy ants toiling in the tiny garden of m4:3, APS-C and good ole fashion small format 35mm frame sizes. We've completely tossed away medium format, wouldn't know what to do with 4x5 inch sheet film and are probably depressingly unaware that once film could be readily had in 8 by 10 inch sheets---and larger. And we're equally unaware that many, many practitioners of the recently past era didn't use the larger sizes to get more "megapixels" they worked in the larger formats because the larger formats gave the artists different looks. They delivered images that looked unique by format----not just stylistically but fundamentally. Down at the level of physics. If you could make a snap shot with an 11x14 inch view camera it wouldn't look like a 35mm camera used in the same spot with a lens having the same angle of view. It would look totally different. The much, much longer focal length of the lens (for the same angle of view) used at the same subject to camera distance would have yielded a totally different depth of field in which sharp focus would fall off at a much steeper rate. These were the days of giants in the field of photography. The gear and the people.
In the days before ignorance and indifference (and the mass market driving relentlessly toward low operational costs as a top priority) people chose particular cameras in order to create a certain look. It may, for some, have been the enormous amount of information contained in a large format frame. This almost infinite availability of information allowed for incredibly smooth transitions between tones but it was a smoothness that depended on layers and layers of overlapping information rather than the current smoothness that's generally a result of software blurring of images that are already at the fringes of thinly stretched information. People only really chose "hand cameras" for expediency. For fast operation.
We've also lost the ability to appreciate and utilize the true effects of a lens or film plane tilted off a parallel axis which allows an artist to decide where the plane of sharpness will go in the translation of three dimensions into two. The digital effects in post processing are just an echo of the true potential of this effect. And in still life photography we are losing the look and the effect of a totally sharp image, taken up close and with a normal or longer focal length lens. Since we're now mostly limited to a front tilt at the most we've come to depend of the forced perspective of stopped down wide angle lenses made for 35mm sensor sizes to create fully sharp table top images instead of the fully flexible front and rear shifts and tilts of their much more powerful (and flexible) camera ancestors. Flexibility which allowed a deep focus with longer focal lengths.
To watch Avedon work his magic with an 8x10 view camera or even a twin lens Rolleiflex is an exercise for me in regret for a lost time when people had the balls to spend real money on their vision and to do it in a way that defied ALL compromise.
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and two tasting experiences come to mind for me. First, I remember as though it was yesterday walking into the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas to see the opening of Avedon's show: In the American West. I'd bought the book the minute it came out but nothing could have prepared me for the enormous prints hanging in the museum. Some were printed eight feet by ten feet and mounted on metal. You could have walked in, cut out an 8x10 inch section and realized that even that small crop had more tone and detail and depth than any print I've seen in the digital age. The show was mesmerizing as much for the subject matter as the uncompromising attention to every visual nuance. Every detail that could have been massaged and mastered had been. It was amazing work. If you've just seen it in a magazine then you haven't really seen it.
No one has come close in all the digital age to the sheer quality of construction and presentation of the that show. No one.
But it wasn't about the loss of an uncompromising vision in a lone outlier like Avedon that makes me sad. There were other fine artists like Sandy Skoglund whose large format documentations of her own installations were flawlessly captured. And of course, there were Avedon's peers, like Irving Penn and even Ansel Adams whose command of the medium and the message is unequalled today.
The second experience was the viewing of the recent Arnold Newman show at the Humanities Research Center at UT. While Newman occasionally worked with a 35mm camera later in his career his most memorable and most celebrated work came mostly from 4x5 inch view cameras. But his intention in using these cameras and the 20 square inches of film surface they delivered was not given over to grandiose enlargement. It was really all about the relationship of the lens to the format and the visual effects that they gave. The images have a grounding and a definite visual language that's mostly missing from today's quite literal work. It's almost like we've abdicated working with specialist tools and embraced a universe where we are all the plumbers and electricians of photography working with the same tools. You see it over and over again in articles and interviews. It's generally the (un)holy trinity of zooms. The 14-24mm, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses. No real divergence. Few are even adapting the use of prime focal lengths anymore as people move with the herd out of fears of client or peer rejection. ( And look: I have a 28-70mm and a 70-200mm as well. My fears are just as palpable...).
And why? The great mass of people (the ones who drive markets) will nearly always race to the easiest value proposition. The easy to handle, easy to use tool that has no tag-along costs (film, additional focal lengths, specialty equipment). They drive the market and the marketers have learned that supplying the smaller niches gets you burned, financially. Yes, there are people doing great commercial work with the cutting edge medium format systems but by and large those same cameras are mostly being wielded by other than the potentially gifted artists of our/your generation. They are being pressed into mostly mundane and derivative service by groups of established people who came from other occupations for whom making big images is a passionate hobby. And, because of the sheer cost to enter it's become a hobby of exclusion and, to some extent snobbery. They are generally reprising exactly the work that they grew up with. Or the work they learned to do from the workshop masters. But at least they are keeping our choices alive (if only on life support) and continuing to nudge us with images that show off the optical properties we've banished from mainstream photographic consciousness.
In the days of film an artist who understood the advantages of those flexible and interesting tools could buy a second hand view camera and a few lenses and film holders for less than a thousand bucks. He could master the art with older but still capable tools. And I knew many, many people working as artists in the field who would buy and process film but not know where any additional money was going to come from for food and rent. They had a sequential matrix of priorities that defined their dedication to their art. It wasn't an afterthought or a comfortable diversion. It was as important as food and shelter.
You could enter the ranks of medium format shooters back then with as little investment as a $100 Seagull twin lens camera. You could find 8x10 cameras for a song. But now people assume that owning digital means that the hobby is cost limited. The art is in the final production. The clever post processing slight of hand. An echo of the power which camera from divergent cameras....
There is an unwillingness, in the age of all digital snaps are free for people to step up to the plate and take advantage of tools that will differentiate their vision----because that comes at a cost.
I'm not pointing fingers. I'm as guilty as the next person. I used to use the larger formats. I convinced myself that clients had been trained by my peers and the wisdom of the web not to expect digital imaging to have hard costs for materials, and I convinced myself that client's expectations had changed and required me to supply them with immediate visual gratification. I bought the 35mm equivalents. I've dabbled in the tinier formats. I've rejected the $20,000+ medium format cameras as commercially untenable. And I've watched my vision fray and melt into the same tepid and homogenous cultural stew pot as everyone else's.
Yes, yes. We all have a vested interest in believing that it's all about the artists. The idea that a great artist doesn't care about the camera. The insane idea that Avedon could have done his work with an Olympus OMD em1 and done the same kind of art. But we all know it's self-serving bullshit. We know our portrait work could be better in larger formats. We are keenly aware that landscapes would be much more captivating if they came in the form of large format images, ala Elliot Porter. Even our fashion work would be elevated with different tools like the ones used by Peter Lindbergh or Nick Knight.
But in the end we're too cheap, or lazy, or comfortable, or paralyzed by financial fright to work with the very tools that might free us...or empower us. And that's why watching the Richard Avedon video saddened me. Not because we can't do great work but because we categorically refuse to make the investments in time, money and aesthetically articulated gear to realize our own visions. We hope that we can delivery ten tons of steel on the roof of a Prius because we don't really want to buy the right truck... We accept the limits offered by camera makers because it's too painful to do otherwise.
And so we're stuck with trillions of images that all look more or less the same. The subject matter might be different from image to image but the tools create a relentless pressure to conform to their boundaries. And the boundaries inform the aesthetic. And now the art looks like so much mass produced machine vision that nobody really cares anymore. And maybe that's why we're all fascinated by the equipment of the week instead....... At least some of it is meritoriously executed industrial design.
If you are not a regular reader you might not understand that this is an opinion, not a statement of objective fact. If you don't like the opinion that's okay. But it doesn't mean it's not absolutely correct from a certain point of view...