Literally literal. Ho Hum.

A  photo blogger known for deep dives into the pool of technical virtuosity recently opined that we pros used to know how to pull stuff off with crappy film equipment but now we've gotten so lazy that even using state of the art stuff we've been barely able to advance along the evolutionary scale leading to the pursuit of sharper and sharper images. The writer imagines himself immune to these shortcomings. Of course I think this is rank bullshit to cover for the fact that the blogger seems to feel (and show) that painfully flawless technical execution trumps ideas. I, on the other hand don't care if an image is needle sharp and technically perfect as long as there is something created to tickle the brains of the audience, or make me smile in recognition of some universal, visual symbol of beauty, or a shared emotional experience. Like recognizing a wonderful face (and expression) in a portrait. Or seeing love in a picture.

I did the image above many years ago for a very good art director. It was the middle of the 1990's and the trend of the moment then was the same droll, pursuit of imaging perfection that seems to come in waves. The client came to me to talk about shooting ideas, and shooting them in a way that took the "preciousness of perfection" out of them.

We started by identifying the parameters of the project. We needed to shoot facing pages for essays about finance. We looked at different things I'd shot over the years, in different styles.  I showed the AD some images shot on 4x5 sheet film and she liked the format but thought a conventional treatment would be too clinical. Too artificial.

Then we looked at some work we'd done using Polaroid Type 55 instant film. The Type 55 film was shot in our 4x5 inch Linhof TechniKarden camera and we generally tossed the resulting print away but coveted the resulting negatives instead. The tonality, the grain and the general rendering we got from those negatives was so different from the conventional black and white films of the day. You would shoot the Polaroid film at $5 a throw, and when you found an image you liked it was important to do one version with about a 2/3 stop overexposure in order to create a negative thick enough to print well, with detail in the shadows.

We'd take the negatives and print 16x20 inch prints that showed all the handling and emulsion flaws of the negative because they gave such unique results. The client and I wanted to go further so I took the images from these negatives that had been printed on Kodak's double weight, Ektalure G surface paper, and I used Marshalls Transparent Oil Paints to color tone the images by hand. The resulting prints were rich with grain, detail and subtle color. It's hard to present that in 2100 pixels on the web but I can't help you there.

After we figured out how we'd shoot the project we started assembling props and putting together constructions in the studio. We spent a day shooting, a day making contact sheets for final selection and a day printing our black and white prints. The painting on the prints took another two days. Of course, if we'd have been happy just pursuing technical perfection we might have been able to wrap the whole project up in only one day by shooting color transparency film and having it scanned.

But both the client and I understood that we'd just be part of the ongoing homogenization of commercial vision if we only reached for sharp, in focus, and color correct imaging. We wanted to create artwork that pushed a little harder and transmitted a different feeling out to the viewers. We need to work the ideas into pictures the way potters work clay. And we wanted the little flaws, and odd grain structure, and suggestions of color, to help create a completely different creative palette.

There is some zany, adolescent idea that somehow each previous generation of cameras and lenses somehow hampered our "artistic" and "creative" visions and kept us from doing the work we really wanted to do. That the state of the art in photography gear two years, or five years, or ten years ago, worked as a tragic impediment to some amazing potential vision that could only be realized by the most current "breakthroughs" in the most recent equipment catalogs.

Of course, that's nonsense. The tools have nearly always been available if someone really had a vision to fulfill. But the pursuit of perfection in most art is a red herring, a detour down a rabbit hole by people who are insecure about the quality of their creativity. They look for material talismans of power as a substitute for real vision. And they'll always be looking for the next iteration of magic bullets with the rationale that only, finally, when the perfect camera and lens come along will they be able to translate their creative vision from the ephemeral reaches of their brilliant minds into a physical manifestation that finally has value.

If quality was really the foremost consideration, instead of convenience and the sybaritic pleasure of researching and purchasing new, expensive gear, then many of the reformed I.T. gearheads who have reconstituted themselves as photographic experts would gird their loins and be out shooting with the 4x5 and 8x10 inch technical cameras we grew up with. They may choose to be shooting with big film or they may be shooting with digital backs but, of course, from a technical point of view, anything less than an 8x10 on a solid tripod is a self-deluding compromise in itself.

Here's an idea: Next time you convince yourself that only X miracle lens will do the job, and only when grafted onto whatever the 24 by 36 mm format camera du jour might be, stop in your tracks and go buy an 8x10 view camera and a box of ISO 50 transparency film. Learn to load the film holder and learn to figure out bellows factor and overall exposure and then shoot with real technical perfection instead of convincing yourself that your Nikon, Canon or Sony actually represents the actual state of art in imaging.

If technical perfection is at the heart of your pursuit and most of your images are of things that don't move, you're just cheating yourself by not going all the way in. That Nikon D810 or Sony A7r2 is real nice but it sure ain't the real state of the art. There's so much more to it than just a high resolution sensor in a miniature camera...

What am I thankful for today? Understanding that creative thought matters. 

Just found this and I like it: http://photothunk.blogspot.ch/2015/01/on-taste.html


Kaspar said...

Hello Kirk! In the context of your blogpost, it might be of interest for your readers that some guys recreated Type55 4x5 instant film. It was interesting to follow their journey from a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to the "final" New55 available in limited quantities from their shop. If some readers feel inspired to follow your advice and buy a 4x5 camera instead of a new lens, they migh want to check out the blog http://new55project.blogspot.co.at/

Kirk Tuck said...

Good to know Kaspar, thanks. But as to the blog being a recommendation to try 4x5 I would say, No. It was more an attempt to answer the pundits who are ultimately more in love with every new "improvement" in gear and who try to make the argument that new and improved gear enables some sort of creative vision that could never be realized before. A sentiment I consider to be cow pie material.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think it's a-okay to love buying new gear. But we shouldn't couch it as a necessity for our creative vision. The need for new gear might be a symptom signaling that it's time to work harder on that creative vision!

Joseph Kashi said...

Your point is well taken. Real photos are the final measure and, if the gear can produce technical perfection but it's too much a hassle to use, then no photos are made. In that regard, some perfect image-quality gear is like an inoperative Rolex watch - nice to look at but without any ultimately useful purpose.

A few years ago, I bought some fresh film for my 4x5 and larger view cameras and that film's still in the freezer unopened. During the same time frame, I made many images with Olympus and Pentax gear that I liked enough to hang in solo gallery exhibits.

Joseph Kashi said...

This is an addendum to my just-written comment.

I had read the other post and in fairness to that author I must say that I interpreted his posting somewhat differently than suggested here. Assuming that I am referring to the same post as you, and I very much commend you for not mentioning names, that author indicated that he perceived the issue as avoiding photo gear that got in the way of some individuals and cramped their particular style, regardless of technical perfection.

That's a sensible point and basically a different way of stating your basic point in your well-written post. Although I certainly can't discuss the habits of professional photographers, good-enough digital cameras (especially cell phones,) do seem to have enabled both laziness and profligate making of billions of mediocre images by non-professionals.

Dave Jenkins said...

This may or may not be relevant to what you are saying, but, as a hard-core perfectionist, one important lesson that I am learning late in life is that the perfect drives out the good. (And since perfection is seldom attained, an awful lot of good is thrown under the bus.)

In another vein, I don't recall film ever keeping me from doing anything I wanted to do in photography. Digital made everything easier, but not necessarily better.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable amd grounding observations that help to keep the gearlust under control

Bruce Rubenstein said...

Good art evokes an emotional response from the person who is exposed to it. If the person creating the art doesn't have an emotional connection to what what they're doing, there won't be and emotional experience between it and the precipitant. If we're referring to the same blogger, then I find most of his images to be boring, literal renditions of what I would see if I happened by them. He does nothing to draw out a new aspect of the subject (if there even is one). Aside from cameras and watches, he doesn't seem to have any emotional resonance with his subjects. And if his pictures are dull, his mind numbing, pedantic, over intellectualizing writing does induce the physical response of a coma.

ajcarr said...

If you study Bill Brandt's photos in his book, Shadow of Light, you will find many that are not razor-sharp, and many that are grainy (some both); all have a level of contrast that will offend devotees of the zone method (despite this, Ansel Adams had a very high opinion of Brandt's work, obviously recognizing that the techniques that worked for him personally were not universally applicable, and that other photographers, with other approaches, could also produce great art). To the best of my knowledge, Brandt worked with Rollieflex TLRs, sometimes cropping the image hugely, and with a secondhand ultra-wide-angle police surveillance camera that he picked up second-hand in a market. Many modern photographers would find the very concept of a Rolleiflex claustrophobic: single focal length, single film speed, etc. (even slinging additional wide- and tele-Rolleis around their neck wouldn't help much).

"There are very few artists—in the true sense of the term—who practice photography. A photograph by Bill Brandt proclaims him an artist and a poet of the highest order." —Ansel Adams