1.22.2021

Communal delusion, evolution, and relentless personal branding. Or....why I/we constantly want to buy new cameras. A look at desire.


One of my long time readers and commenters posited a question yesterday (Thank You!) after I admitted to my irrational lust for a nice, shiny, new Leica SL2. He asked, and I am paraphrasing, what exactly is it that compels you to buy new cameras when you rationally understand that there is little or no real obvious benefit to making yet another purchase? In fact, when the opportunity cost of spending the money might, in fact, be detrimental to my overall financial condition.

I thought of tossing off a witty reply to show-off to my audience just how glib and cavalier I could be but the question sank into my consciousness and I decided to take a breath or two and try to understand better just what it is that obviously compels me to buy new cameras and lens time and time again even though I have a certain, median mastery, and familiarity with the tools I already own. It would be so easy to explain if the problem was reduced down to the logical nuts and bolts. If the goal of our camera buying was really just to be able to make photographs that reflect how we think a photograph should end up looking it would seem as simple as a little math. 

The reader's query was an opportunity, or a push, to make me come to grips with just what I'm trying to accomplish by "churning" through camera after camera in the pursuit of something I hadn't dug deeply into. Probably because I fear the end result is that I'll be embarrassed and ashamed at the simplicity of the answer, and the implications of my compulsion. But I think a behavior unexamined is more dangerous than the psychic cost of coming to terms with reality; and with the understanding that reality might be contextual.

With all this in mind I re-read an academic book on why we desire things by William B. Irvine. It's a book that's a popular, modern tome for college philosophy classes and it covers the topic of desire from evolutionary biology to religion to the basis of human inter-relations. 

In one sense, everything we experience at the most basic level of desire stems from our evolution. From solely reactive organisms to fully sentient beings. So I'll start with that. 

From the book, "On Desire.  Why we want what we want." by William B. Irvine:

"When we humans later came on the scene, we carried with us a few billion years' worth of evolutionary baggage. We possess a highly advanced ability to desire; indeed, thanks to our reasoning ability, we can form elaborate plans to get what we want. But because of our evolutionary past, we find ourselves wanting certain things. Having sex, eating ice cream, and winning the admiration of others all make us feel good, and so we want to do these things. It isn't that we want to want to do them; the problem is that doing them feels good, whether we want it or not, and is therefore intrinsically desirable to us. If our evolutionary past had been different, what we find to be desirable would probably be different as well, and as a result we would tend to form different desires than we do. 

    If our goal, then, is to figure out why we want what we want, we would do well to take a look at our evolutionary past. 

So, our evolution compels us to take actions to ensure our survival and continuation. We need to eat, avoid disease, and procreate with healthy mates. As societies become more complex and our human existence more interwoven and independent on others, our survival and reproductive tactics become more complex and more external to our own basic planning. We now have to compete more competently with others for the benefits and rewards of existence. We feel evolutionarily compelled to constantly evidence some sort of superiority to those around us in order to ascend a social hierarchy that gives us greater opportunity for continuing evolutionary success. We can't control others but we can control how we appear to others in order to attract this success. This means we feel we have to care about how others see us so we have to be diligent about creating a public construct of ourselves that other find...interesting and desirable. Self-branding.

Levine also writes: 

    "Because we care very deeply about what other people think of us, we go to considerable trouble and expense to create and project a certain image of ourselves. Thus, according to La Rochefoucauld, "in every walk of life each man puts on a personality and outward appearance so as to look what he wants to be thought: in fact you might say that society is entirely made up of assumed personalities." The image we project however, will typically be quite unlike the "real" us: in  the words of Schopenhauer, "A man can be himself only for as long as he is alone; aid if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.""

He continues: 

    "We take great care in constructing this false image of ourselves. In conversations we are careful what we do and don't reveal to others. We might tell someone that we just bought a car, but we withhold the information that we had to borrow from our parents to make the down payment and that lately we have been receiving dunning notices from our creditors. We might tell someone abut the award-winning novel we just finished reading but not about our ongoing addiction to a certain soap opera. We try to project an image of happiness even if we are miserable."

Status, and status signaling, is part of an evolutionary strategy which attempts to attract the best mates and also to willingly surround each other with associates (tribal community?) that help ensure our physical and existential survival. Just ask any male peacock. 

In effect, each of us is, at some level, hard wired to create and foster an image of ourselves for an exterior audience which presents us as successful and leads other people to think that by allying with us they will be able to benefit for themselves from association. This gives us a tribe or community. Part of the building of that status is to show off totems or symbols of success and power. For investments bankers this might include acquiring and bragging about lavish mansions. In almost every demographic strata in my country the most mobile and easily presentable status symbol of wealth and position has long been a car. The model and vintage of the car, and the easy to discern price strata are elemental in defining the rewards of society to the owner that the car represents. 

Another symbol of success might be fine watches or really nicely tailored clothing. The strength of the symbol is very particular to the group in which it is presented. In fact, the more exclusive the group to which one aspires the more niche and nuanced the symbols become. At some point it's not enough just to be able to afford an object or symbol, one has to know which products represent the most value to a particular cohort.

Among photographers there is the same hierarchical pattern by which we subconsciously, or even consciously, use to try to broadcast to our group our level of achievement and the beneficial rewards thereof. While most photographers can (and have done) very good work with very basic, plastic and inexpensive cameras (think: Canon Rebel, non- iPhone phone, point-and-shoot) there is a culturally enforced hierarchy that is persistently presented as "proof" of the owner's position and mastery within the hierarchy.  

For street photographers an entry level camera might be any....entry level camera. Currently most cameras make successful images.  As the desire for positive differentiation grows the kind of camera used becomes a symbol of a person's mastery of the concepts in play that kind of photography. Our communal delusion, created by the advertising of past masters' predilections and preferences for certain kinds of cameras, informs us that small, discreet, rangefinder style cameras are the way to go. We end up buying a camera like a Fuji X-100V because it is affordable but at the same time its implied complexity signals mastery of craft and a step up the ladder of conferred status within a very specific demographic niche. This is aided in no small way by Fujifilm's very informed advertising which serves to create a mythology about the very nature of "street photography" in which "rebels" re-imagine  imaging in a way that creates an effective subculture of fans.

In addition, being able to buy a speciality camera instead of one that can do a bit of everything fairly competently is an obvious signaling that the owners are more affluent. Otherwise they would more logically buy cameras with interchangeable lenses and other features.

Once that step up is achieved the marketplace, and our group belief is that the "actual" ultimate camera for shooting "our" kind of photography is the more prestigious interpretation of the rangefinder style camera; an actual rangefinder camera. Once people progress to the Fuji X100V and use it for a while they are likely to explore the lore of street photography and documentary photography which Fuji suggests is the primary reason for the design and very existence of their camera. However, when digging into the lore about these kinds of cameras one soon discovers that a different and more expensive camera signals an even higher level of success and mastery. 

That would be the Leica M series rangefinder camera. It immediately signals that the owner is financially successful since the Leica camera most closely associated with the same style of street photography as the Fuji camera would be the M-10, paired with a 35mm Summicron lens. The combination of which, while basically providing the same benefits and capabilities as the $1400 Fuji, would currently cost well over $10,000. As clear a signal of wealth accumulation as any other mobile totem. The members of the Leica M community are a much smaller subset of the overall community of photographers which is also a convenient status level signaling. Finally, and counterintuitively, the Fuji is easier for people to operate which better insures that they'll be more productive but the manual operation of the Leica M camera, and the need to be somewhat skillful in focusing with a coincident rangefinder, further connote that the owner has attained a higher level of operational skill. 

In short the continued climb through the strata of street shooting cameras confers acceptance into a more and more exclusive group of photographers, the value of which is mostly an emotional assuaging of imperfect self-esteem but is also part of the complex dance of appearing more successful or competent which is just a piece of the overall personal branding of the camera-wearer. 

Anecdotally, I fell for the Leica value proposition back in the 1990's when the disparity in pricing between a Leica and something like a Fuji was much less severe. Also, in the film days the ruggedness of a camera could be thought of a very worthwhile feature in that all the complex mechanical parts in a typical SLR film camera would make them more prone to breaking down while the simplicity of the Leica promised more reliability. 

I took a Leica M camera with me everywhere and on every shoot. When I entered into a corporate suite to make portraits with a Hasselblad or Mamiya or (God forbid) a Bronica, I always had my German talisman of "real photography" swinging over a strap on my left shoulder. I was never asked about any of the medium format cameras I was using nor about various Canons or Nikons but invariably the CEOs of major companies instantly recognized and appreciated the Leica. In fact, several CEOs here in Austin were avid Leica collectors. In my estimation their Leica ownership was not because any of them had much interest in the end product of photography but because they were interested and motivated to let others in their circles understand that they understood the cameras to be precious and valuable symbols of both wealth and prestige. And "insider" knowledge.

Why do I mention this? Because a first impression with a CEO can mean tens of thousands of dollars of revenue if they become an ally of yours within their company. Their approval quickly permeates the hierarchy and gives permission to subordinates to use you without the lingering fear that comes from hiring someone else, the choice of which might be questioned in the future. 

In these situations the CEOs' evaluations seemed binary. We would set up our lights in a conference room and wait for the CEO's arrival. A person from marketing would be on hand to make introductions and let the CEO know what the marketing people would like to see from the project. The CEO would shake hands with me (a quaint notion in the time of pandemic) and assess me; from the shoes I wore to the camera on the table in front of me. The assessments were instant and, like stink, stayed with one throughout their tenure with the CEO and the company. 

Almost to a person the CEO would mention the camera on the table and descend into a story about their first Leica (invariably a Leica M3 since that was the real inception product of the legend) and which lenses they placed special value upon. Then I'd get quizzed about my Leica M inventory and if the answers were "correct" I would have made an ally for his term. Or, at least I would not be dismissed out of hand. 

This is the rawest and nakedest example of status proffering as I can think of in the photography world. 

Keep in mind that I was not photographing the CEO with the item of our joint admiration, only wearing it as "jewelry" but it was enough to signal that I was affluent enough to enjoy the symbol and conversant enough to understand the particular cultural value of that camera/symbol. 

As the peacock with the most impressive plumage gets his pick of mates so the owner of just the right tool/symbol ensures his acceptance into the orbit of financially successful confederates. While this seems to work with male CEOs it seems irrelevant to their female counterparts.

On a personal perspective, while I owned film era Leicas, which could be purchased used for not much of a premium over other brands of the time I have spent the last number of years feeling that much as I would have liked to own a flagship product from Leica they did not match my understanding of value in my marketplace, at the time. Leica, in the early days of digital, was plainly in disarray and the products they presented to market in those days were not as culturally valuable as the products on offer currently. They seem to have regained their footing quite well in the last six or seven years. 

But the Leica versus everyone else is only an example of why we might, as photographers, buy various cameras. With the dawning of the mirrorless age buying a "cutting edge" mirrorless camera was a way of signaling to your tribe that you were an innovative thinker. That you were looking into the future and inventing new ways of imaging which might also change your vision of photography in a way that was industry leading. To your group this willingness to embrace change delivered a learned aura of expertise that elevated your status within the tribe. 

The willingness to experiment, promiscuously, with new equipment was a sign that you were more knowledgeable and more conversant with tools. It also brought along with it the promise that your understanding and learning about the new tools would be conveyed back to the group which benefited the other members. 

And remember, all of this is exclusive of anyone ever seeing an image, photograph, webpage, etc. of actual photography that might let people know at a glance if you were proficient. But that wasn't the intent of camera knowledge in the first place. It's always been about defining a self image and honing the image presented to your enduring benefit. If equipment ownership was about the quality of photographs being rendered then every website or blog with references to a particular camera would just list the camera as a title and then the rest of the content would be galleries and galleries of images from said camera and lens. 

But even that would show nothing beyond the photographer's proficiency because truly talented photographers have shown they can work well with just about any camera in arm's reach. 

But this brings up a different question; if, as an example, a Leica SL2 can be thought to be the ultimate status signifier in 35mm style, popular photography then isn't it both logical and positive from an evolutionary point of view for said photographer just to buy one and use it exclusively until an even better Leica SL3 comes along and then switch to that, and so on? Once one attains the camera or lens he sees as the "finest" what is the value, if any, of moving on to another model or brand? What is the value of the "churn"? What is the underlying message of changing camera systems much more often than everyone else? Why are some people happy to sit with the same camera for a decade while others are ready to move on months or even weeks after the purchase?

I see this, in light of our knowledge of desire, in two ways. First, here's a quote, again from Levine: 

"A species suited to its environment is more likely to survive and reproduce that one that isn't. The problem is that environments change not just millennium by millennium but also second by second. This, in turn means that members of a species (or of a tribe) benefit from being able to detect changes in their environment and react in a way that increases their chance of surviving and reproducing in that environment." 

It's about incentives and rewards. As the need for bigger, bulkier cameras decreased the need for smaller, lighter but equally proficient cameras increased. In a group with aging members exposure to newer, smaller cameras led to jettisoning heavier, bulkier cameras which offsets the disadvantages of aging and muscle loss. There might be any number of reasons to embrace rapid change and increased prominence, and status confers to the early adapter.

To really understand the nature of desire and how it works on someone like me, as a writer and photographer you also have to understand the emotional rewards of being a vociferous and agile adopter of change. Some of my self-esteem is no doubt tied up in things like the books I've written and the blogposts I've created. In a sense the written product and the acceptance of it by an audience create a powerful circle of reinforcement and positive emotional value. There is little doubt in my mind that having new equipment gives me a certain amount of purpose that is essentially divorced from the purely photographic aspects of the tools. 

Buying a new (example) rangefinder camera not only gives me a new camera but also a continued motivation to go out and experiment and shoot with the cameras. But the end results are less pieces of art than they are components of my journalism. If I shoot well enough and write convincingly enough then I become valued for my contributions. 

Were I to become totally stoic and reject any anti-logical aspect about new cameras I might still be nursing along a couple of six megapixel Kodak APS-H cameras and getting adequately good quality images to sell to clients. But I would have had very little with which to enter into conversation with, where photography is concerned. One can only read about the foibles of Ni-Cad camera batteries so many times before wandering off to see if the moss is growing well on the trees. 

Yesterday and the day before I was wrestling with my seeming compulsion to sacrifice the sunk value of two magnificent cameras (which are actually profitable work cameras - even though their status signaling value is moderate to low) in trade for one new camera. The thing that would amaze most students of psychology is that both the new camera and one of the cameras I was willing to trade arguably share the same sensor. Without any doubt they share the same lenses. And much of the technology in both cameras is shared technology between the companies. To put it bluntly, I would be trading up at a high financial cost, to purchase a camera with no higher photographic value than the one it would replace. 

Therefore, the only logic in the trade would have been the acquisition of a status symbol with which to announce my place in the loosely configured order of gear buyers. Since I can afford to buy the SL2 outright, without trading the other cameras I hesitated. I would probably would have gone forward with the deal twenty years ago because, on some subconscious level, I would think or believe that the new camera would confer bonafides that might enhance my standing among my tribe and also acceptance by a more influential tribe.  All of which might hopefully lead to more profitable work along with a rise in stature among my peers.

My final rejection of the idea of "upgrading" was the realization that I am at a point where social signaling has a much lower chance of adding value to my overall position. I am not actively pursuing jobs where I am in contact with well positioned executives and, in fact, most would see a mirrorless Leica as inferior to a rangefinder M Leica. Others in my photographic circle have finally come to the conclusion that all cameras are excellent now and that I would be trading the idea of financial exclusivity for many other features and performance benefits that come from other cameras. 

Desire is endless...until you realize that the thing you desire isn't as valuable in one's current situation as it might have been when the symbols of status were first learned and ingrained. Also, what is status to one generation is boring to another. The phone cameras are a brilliant example of this reversal of value perception. 

Even the most logical of us are hard-wired by evolution to react in certain ways. Outsiders might couch the desire for a new camera by trying to divine a logical argument that the new camera might improve my photography. Or that it might make photography more enjoyable. I conjecture that those considerations are much less important to most photographers than the idea of camera as symbol, totem, avatar.

We could all be using earlier film or digital camera and enjoying the actual process of taking photographs as much or more. But because of the way we are wired we constantly seek change. We fear being left behind. And why? Because if we weren't hard-wired for a constant struggle to improve our condition we'd still be sitting on some vast plain, scrounging for enough food to enable us to continue scrounging for more food and hoping to breed with an acceptable mate before dying of tooth decay at age 28. 

Part of that genetic training is the immutable desire to get ahead and to feel superior to everyone around you. 

If you don't identify as a full time photographer your evolutionary ammunition is probably aimed at different targets and so it seems to you that after having covered the basics for a workable camera it's just sensible to move on and work on your other, more core ambitions. But for a life long photographer it may be that those self-branding attempts based on ever better equipment are part of existential survival strategy. 

Sorry, there's no cure. Only self-realization and the constraints of budget. 

And this is my response to CR Santin's question.