Dancing with Digital.

Chuy's Propeller Art.

There are some weird aspects to doing photography for a living. One is that my emotional connection and excitement about photography, and especially commercial photography, go through pronounced ebbs and flows. For a while I seems to have abundant energy to engage and make images and then, after a binge of non-stop shooting there seems to always be a period in which I don't want to walk into the studio in the morning and I avoid picking up my camera(s) for days at a time. 

When we worked with film there seemed to be natural rhythms based around the workflow. There was the planning, then the excitement of the shoot followed by a time and process mandated cooling off period in which your film was developed and contact sheets made. Then there was the serene and quiet solitude of hours and hours spent in the darkroom. Making images as prints that you could share and wanted to share took time. There was a commitment.

And here's a weird little secret about how my brain works, the expense of buying and dealing with film at every step of the way always worked as a filter for me. The gushing/hemorrhaging of earned money helped me prioritize what I looked at and how important a subject was to me. The expense also implied, on some level, the value which the image had to me. A perfect image might have been the final result of several boxes of pricey printing paper and lots of time, but when I finally held the print in my hands there was an intrinsic value that was most probably just an overlay of my thought process. My need to hang a value on something so costly to produce.

In my film days I rarely shot any of the things I now routinely walk around and photograph. I would never shoot a landscape, rarely shoot a photo of a building. Never really shot a cup of coffee and if I did it nearly always had a very beautiful person on the other side of it. That rigor meant I didn't shoot as much but when I did I was incredibly engaged. Now we just walk around looking for stuff to feed into our camera and the main filter is whether or not the image might fit the parameters that make it "share-able."

And in a circuitous way I think somewhere in the left or right sphere of my cerebellum all of this gets mixed into the almost autonomic buying of camera equipment, for me. If the process has no inherent cost my thought process needs to lead me in some way to incorporating a cost. No film? Okay, how about we substitute an endless flow of cool camera bodies? There seems to be some short term (placebo effect) pop to changing stuff (cameras and lenses) around in that the first month or so of ownership (and having spent money) pushes me to go out and use the cameras to make some art. The effect wears off when my accounting brain (admittedly very tiny) assesses that I've used the camera enough to "recover" its cost. At that point the camera is a camera and no longer a cathartic lever. And I start the cycle over again. (Self awareness can be embarrassing and sucky...). 

So, when I really meditate on what we've been doing, collectively, over the past few years it's really a massive attempt to re-balance the value proposition of seeing and sharing and the awkward personal creation of "skin in the game." This won't make any sense at all to anyone who came of age as a photographer in the age of total digital but it seems to make sense to me.  We need to feel as though we've spent something valuable to make the results of our creative processes seem valuable to us. I think it's a pattern we might want to break. Might need to break in order to get back to the pure business of just having fun with photography again.

While it seems that I must have amassed a veritable horde of cameras in the past few years they come and go. One in one out. Yesterday I sent a Samsung NX30 and two lenses to a friend who wants to do video and multimedia projects but didn't have a camera budget. That set is no longer swirling in my "constant inventory rotation awareness" gland. All the point and shoot and bridge cameras have been surrendered in my quest to focus in tighter. I keep trying to winnow down but the cycle is hard to break, especially when the rationale of better art through buying is behind much of the cycle...

No matter how impregnable you think your mind is to the suggestions that torment mine I think the thought patterns I've described, that I am plagued with, are almost universal artifacts of affluent, post industrial socio-economic beneficiaries like me and the people who read the blog. We have the blessing and the curse of being able to buy what we want. And we've grown up (mis)understanding that the more energy (read= money) you put into something the more intrinsically valuable it becomes (even when it's not). By extension the subconscious idea that a photo made with a Leica trumps a photo made with a phone or a photo made with a Canon Rebel is obviously(?) trumped by the "magical" output of a Phase One medium format camera.

A photographer in a less affluent society might not carry the same misguided burden around with him because he or she may not have the option of adding gear, trading gear (and continually loosing out to depreciation...) and generally not having the excess time to walk around aimlessly looking for something to give his camera and his vision a reason to exist... But I may be wrong and my thoughts might be either universal or singularly pathological. You never know when you are your own context.

Digital changes the nature of the dance with art. It can be a firehose that never shuts off. It can be as cheap or as dear as you want to make it. The cameras never seem to be a zero sum tool. There's always more pie. They don't run out of potential. How do we mould all of this into a different and more helpful way to do our art now? I imagine it's all about identifying what you really wanted to do with your craft in the first place and heading back to re-emphasize that connection. That inspiration. 

Could it be that we have been our own worse enemies by looking to the digital camera as a source of endless visual refreshment and sustenance only to have gorged on it's ease and renewability until we've made ourselves obese with choice? Maybe it's the same with texting and cellphones. People are gorging on communication now but are becoming intellectually and social diluted by the ease and endlessness of it. Would texts be smarter and better if they were limited to one or two per day?

How do you dance with digital? Who leads, you or the camera? And why do so many other cameras seem to want to cut in?


James Pilcher said...

I lead, but I dance with many partners. I would have it no other way.

Ray said...

For some odd reason, I still approach digital photography in much the same way as I did film photography. I tend to be conservative with my shots, even though there isn't a real need for doing so. I even did the same when I was shooting sports for an income.

I guess when I'm out and about with my camera, unless I'm doing a project, I don't see everything as a photo opportunity. It's only when something catches my eye/mind/subconscious that I feel that I need to take a few photos. The reason for taking the photos may not strike me immediately, but usually there's something that rises to the surface later on.

Dave Jenkins said...

For me, film photography was more difficult, took more skill (at least, skills that I value most), more satisfying, and just plain more fun.

I don't shoot as much now. For assignments, I shoot as much as necessary to cover them thoroughly. Other than that, I shoot for various self-generated projects, and those usually take much more looking than shooting.

In my earlier years I loved to shoot just to be shooting, but now I'm mostly subject and project driven. My gear lineup is pretty much set, so I no longer have that distraction. When I eventually cease accepting commercial assignments I will probably sell my Canons and be all micro 4/3s.

Richard said...

Right now, I am being led by what comes off my printer.

I participate in a monthly group crit at the Atlanta Photography Group. Printing my digital images on 13x19 paper has been a revelation. Putting them up on the wall and getting feedback from a group of excellent fine art photographers has been both enlightening and challenging.

What started this was that I recently picked up a Canon Pixma Pro 100, which I got for a $150 on Amazon after rebates. Printing large prints (13x19) at home runs about $3.00 a print on Canon paper. With soft proofing in Lightroom, it is easy to knock out a great looking print. This is ink, not pigment, but the prints still look great and they fit my purposes. This experience would not be possible with these wonderful digital tools.

Mark W. said...

Stop talking to me like that :-)...
Since I married into the Fuji lens system, I wanted a second body for my X-E1.
I just treated myself to a X-T1... I can't wait for it to arrive.
But when I need to do something indoors with flash, its always back to the D7000...
Someday Fuji will do flash with decency.
If I want to capture a moment I'll reach for the Fuji.
If I have to deliver the moment I'll reach for the Nikon.
Fortunately, I've run through my budget and can't play in any more sandboxes.

Anonymous said...

I hate shopping, I don't buy food until the freezer is empty.

I refuse to let a camera get in my way while I'm out for a walk. If I see something interesting I'll use an iDevice to snap a reference/note. For me, walking is therapy for both my body and my mind.

I may soon stop "dancing with digital." Film is making a mini-comeback in commercial photography. I still have four 35mm film cameras and a 4x5, so I may join the film revolution.

BTW I shoot digital like I shot film, no chimping and no excess shots.

G Gudmundsson said...

A good post - as always

What is hard earned becomes valuable
spending time in the dark room
I've only got 24 shots on the film

What is easy becomes cheap
snap, snap digital snap
so we don't value the tools

But of course it is up to us
either we are creative and capable
or we are not

In a way the easy, easy
divides the wheat from the chaff

To stay sane we must be creative
we must be able to light the world
and that is the key
- light -
not the tools

the law of diminishing return helps us
the new is not so new

and so we prevail ...

Chris White said...

I love the instant gratification and total control of digital as opposed to film, however I recognize how easy it is to get "burnt out" with digital. I go out and shoot, come home, download, process my raw files ( I like to play with my photos )and catalogue and maybe post the good ones. When I'm not doing that I could be looking at other photos on google+, thanking people for their comments, reading blogs like this one, learning new software and reading tutorials on the web. I am an old guy so I have more time during these cold winter nights to do this, but I'm probably not that different from a lot of other people. Quite a difference from the film days, I think.

rexdeaver said...

One of the things we have to wrap our heads around is that digital has made art ephemeral. Most photographs' relevance is measured in hours, at most weeks. During that period of relevance they are exceptionally valuable, but after that they are merely bits slowly degrading on whatever backup medium they are stored on.

We need to understand that what we have to offer is our vision, not our images. That is what makes us relevant as artists, and that will allow us to develop business models that are still relevant in the 21st Century.

Ted Phillips said...

Breakout the Hasselblad & shoot 2 rolls of film. It really makes one shoot & think differently. It can be quite refreshing!

Michael Matthews said...

All the point-and-shoot and bridge cameras have been surrendered -- does that include the RX 10, the partner in a mad fling only a few months ago?

If not, and you find that it's time to move one more out in order to admit one more in, let me know what you want for it.