Past Poisons Present.

People get locked into the era of their primes. Not the prime lenses they might own but the prime period of energy and interests in their lives. That age is usually from their 20's to the 40's;  before life has beaten the creativity and optimism out of them.  As people move on and embrace entropy everything is compared to the milestones of technology that correspond to the period of that primacy. It is in this way that people can say, with a straight face, that LPs (long playing grooved records) are better than any other form of recorded music. The blinders of lock-in convince them to spend time and money collecting limited editions of special pressings of music they would never listen to, if not for the delivery method. Equally, this nostalgia for the Golden Age is the reason some people are locked into listening to old jazz, another generation is still listening to disco from the 1970's while yet another group lives to lip-sync bad pop rock from the 1980's. 

This Golden Age Lock-in is the reason why perfectly serious businessmen, who profess to be logical and "bottom line" oriented, can spend enormous amounts of time and money on restored muscle cars that were dominant cars of their youth. "They just don't make em like they used to..." is their mantra. 

It seems to me that the same idea is rampant in photography. Not so much that using a Nikon F is vital but that the true-isms they learned in early times poison the appreciation of present technological advancements. In early days of digital imaging it seemed vital to have a full frame sensor. It was once the only way to get the right mix of both resolution and also big enough pixel sizes to keep noise down and detail up. A stylistic adjunct to this, after years of having nothing but smaller sensor cameras, was that full frame cameras allowed for narrower depth of field and that popular technique had been missed. All of a sudden everything had to be shot on full frame, using an 85mm f1.2 lens at its widest aperture. And to mainstream photographers today this combination (from the past) is still the gold standard.

There is a cohort that achieved their mastery of the craft in the days of medium format film and they will drive the incredibly tiny niche market for a new collections of modern, digital medium format cameras, like the new Hasselblad or the down market Pentax. The idea being that the cameras of the golden age were special because they were NOT the 35mm cameras everyone else was using. If the size was a determiner in the past there is no reason (in their minds) to think anything has materially changed. (Is a bigger sensor a better imaging tool even when "bigger" is now such a relative term?).

The past tends to poison our ability to accept real change that challenges our belief systems. It's the reason most people resisted the inevitable acceptance of electronic viewfinders and why they resisted new, smaller imaging sensors. It's the main reason people cling to using flash as their only lighting tool. It's the reason why people have friction with their current camera menus. And why a huge portion of the camera buying market professes to prefer eliminating video capabilities from their potential cameras. It will be the reason we resist self driving cars...

We see the effects of past intrusion on present everywhere in the photo business. A blogger opines that the stars of yesteryear had uniformly bad technique and would never have been famous in our current, modern times (a disingenuous argument since both of his examples are current, working and gallery-profitable artists). He claims that the only way to fame now is to "up your game." Which is another way of saying we need to go back to the golden age of technical mastery and make sure that all our work is superbly sharp, perfectly focused and color pure. As though using the supposed metrics of an earlier time is the only guarantee of present success in a marketplace driven by a different aesthetic than perfectionism. Make it sharp like the transparencies from a 4x5 or 8x10 view camera and certainly you will prevail. Of course, this is just insane rambling. The people who achieved success in the past did so because the content and style with which they worked was interesting and compelling; sometimes in spite of their technical mastery, or lack thereof. That the style was assimilated and endlessly copied makes it seem more banal that it was in its time but the power of the work at the time is unassailable. 

Nevertheless the hordes of photography remain resistant to change and daily channel the restraints of past practice. They cling to the big sports cameras. They cling to the heavy, fast zooms. They worship endlessly at the altars of high megapixels and full frame sensors. Why? Because that's the way the pros professed to do things oh so many years ago. Because that's the way the advertising by the two major brands is structured. They are always paying stealth homage to the "good old days" of journalism and associated parts of the profession that are in headlong decline. 

I took at gander at the Photo Expo calendar to see that all the usual suspects will be teaching all the usual courses. They'll tell you how to use big flashes and little flashes. How to do the style that made them popular ten or fifteen years ago. And the biggest booths at the show will be Nikon and Canon as they try to convince another generation that the history of their camera production is somehow meaningful to contemporary artists for all the wrong reasons. The camera maker that tossed everything modern at camera design, to see what would stick, (Samsung) is long gone from the market, in some way confirming my belief that the bulk of buyers love to talk about innovation while their buying habits are constrained by their lock in with the past. 

Current photography is no longer about metrics of perfection or overlays of styles popular with generations past. It is about immediacy and experimentalism. The poison of obsession about tools or barrier to entry techniques is a perfect example of the past putting practitioners in self imposed straightjackets. Hard to get out of the box if you think the box is a really nice, comfortable, custom tailored suit.

Like it or not the camera that influences people in their creative prime today is the cellphone. The iPhone 7 is not a revolution but an iteration aimed at the generation which first fully embraced phone cameras as just cameras. We might not be able to make the leap from 4x5 all the way to a pocketable phone for our personal work --- if our idea of "prime" is locked in the past, but we can take some baby steps and accept that all the new formats for  cameras are just as legitimate as everything else. No one format has a lock on anything anymore... 

Techical perfection is nothing more now than a nod to an era when achieving technical perfection was as difficult as having new and novel ideas. We've moved on.


amolitor said...

There is a large and vocal contingent that is absolutely convinced that the DSLR is the ultimate endpoint, it will never be surpassed. They openly mock cell phone pictures that are in fact indistinguishable from the counter-examples they present.

As a guy who is 20 years older, and therefore knows perfectly well that the Nikon FE2 is in fact the ultimate endpoint, the never-to-be-surpassed instrument for serious photography, I find these people incomprehensible.

Anders said...

Not all change is for the better and I believe that a true artist does not care so much about equipment as long as it works well enough. How often do you hear a carpenter talk about how great his new chisel or planer is?

Regarding the blogger you mention, I believe he is completely wrong about for instance Steve McCurry, and he is probably just trying to talk his own technically perfect, but often very lifeless, cold and sterile images up.

Personally I use my phone, and cameras with sensors from less than 1 inch up to FF. The cameras are equipped with a touch screen for very quick "touch to AF and shoot" (Sony I'm looking at you...just joking), an EVF or an OVF. I even shoot with film cameras sometimes because it is fun. I don't care the least about optical or electronic viewfinders, 10-axis stabilization and all the junk they add to cameras these days and enjoy all my cameras with the limitations and advantages they are born with.

Joe Kashi said...

This post makes great good sense as a musing upon human nature and is very much on point, not just in photography but also in the arts generally as well as in the sciences You provide a very important reminder that we need to discipline ourselves to try new approaches and tools with an open mind throughout our lives if we are to remain fresh, productive and relevant beyond our 40s.

I recall Thomas Kuhn's assertion in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that the success of a major paradigm shift in the sciences, such as plate tectonics or quantum theory, generally first requires that the Old Guard retire and make way for the next generation to whom the new theoretical paradigms were taught in their 20s. Over the next generation, these then become the new Establishment clinging to their now-superseded notions, just as classical physics grudgingly gave way to Einstein's Relativity theories and to Quantum Theory.

Inherent conservatism seems to be just as much a problem in the arts as in the sciences even though both disciplines present themselves as being premised upon the constant exploration of new frontiers.

Unfortunately, there's as much hubris among the youthful, who are convinced that their newly found approaches utterly obsolete the past and present, as well as among the current Establishment that just doesn't get it about new technology offering a broadened palette of options.

The danger for photographers is that constraining one's self to a single tool set, whether old or new, channels and constrains the results that are feasible when using only that single tool set. As a photographic example, high quality night-time street photography is more feasible with an optimized full-frame camera like the 12MP stabilized Sony A7S II than with anPhone or Hasselblad, while that iPhone will work much better for casual social media snapshots and the Hasselblad can produce technically superior product shots for the advertising photographer.

In the end, though, whatever one can continue using to make good content, science and art is whatever is right for that person. Just don't get stuck in a rut.

MikeR said...

Waiting for the new Huawei P9 to hit eBay sometime next year (being cheap), so I can play with a monochrome camera while not spending $6+K for the privilege. (At 74, I guess I am an outlier in the lock-in premise.)

When I hear that they don't make them like they used to, I think, thank God for that. Those cars were awful. Nice to look at, though.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Joe, this is why I love having a 20 year old son. I pay for this phone while he is at school and because of that I also get all of the music he buys. I have hours and hours of very, very current work by bands I would have never experienced if I hadn't been open to clicking on new stuff and listening. And you know what? Some of it is very, very good. The Korean Pop is an acquired taste but then so was sushi...


Amen brother!

Shmeeko said...

Nice piece Kirk. It's always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

George Beinhorn said...

I need a camera that focuses fast and accurately, tracks focus beautifully, and exposes consistently very well. In 1995 it was the F4, now it's the V1, maybe tomorrow the DL. The big honking DSLRs are starting to feel like white elephants to me. I love the small form factor because it gets out of the way. I love a camera that behaves very well. That's all. The rest comes out of my heart.

Joe Kashi said...

Hi, Kirk -I'm in the same situation that you mention, 60+ with a 22 year old in college. My kid often gets accepted into juried shows and I find myself liking, but not emulating, my kid's edgy content that often works well despite minimal concern for technical perfection.