The Immortality of Photons
So here’s the thing. I’ve been missing taking photographs.
Sure, I’ve had my phone with me and the quality you can get now with these things is pretty spectacular, I mean, do you really need anything else as a street or documentary photographer.
But it’s not the same as having a camera in your hand. My first camera was a Russian made Zenit E. It was entirely mechanical and had no TTL metering. I also think it was made out of iron it was so heavy. From there I progressed onto Olympus and then Nikon.
My first degree was in photography and I had the great fortune of studying with two of the most influential and talented photographers of the last 50 years, John Blakemore and Thomas Joshua Cooper. It was an amazing three years of immersion into the art.
So anyway, I decided I wanted to get back into taking photographs again, taking some time to go out and explore, create images and do so with more than just a passing ‘oh that looks cool’.
The last time I did that I was loading Tri-X film into my Nikon FM2 – it was a long time ago.
I’ve never owned a DSLR and was of the opinion that if ever I wanted to take photos I’d just buy an old Nikon or Olympus and slap some film into it.
The problem is I no longer have a darkroom, or any developing or printing gear, so I’d have to buy all that again. I’m wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, or spend my life smelling of developer and fixer again. So I decided to bite the bullet. I would buy a digital camera, something I knew nothing about and pretty soon I realised I knew even less that that.
Sensors and megapixels and CMOS and raw files and menus. I really didn’t want to spend my time assigning functions to buttons, customising menus, and all the other stuff you can do with a camera nowadays. I wanted a knob to set the shutter speed, one to set the ASA and an aperture ring on the lens for me to turn.
Yes I know I sound like some old guy who’s stuck in the 1970’s but there’s a point all this.
Photography is not about technical specs, it’s a human activity, a process of creation that relies on your ability to ‘see’. Yes you need the understanding of exposure and light and composition but none of that requires the latest spec, the biggest sensor, the most up to date firmware – whatever that is.
It’s about your connection with the subject and your eye’s ability to realise what is in front of you. Go look at the great photographers and you’ll see what I mean.
This is one of my favourites, Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of the Great Depression in 1936. It’s about as perfect as a photo gets. Lange used a bulky and incredibly cumbersome Graphlex, a mix of field camera and twins lens reflex, but the camera is of no importance. What makes it work is Lange’s talent and her commitment to telling the story of this mother and her children. It’s a focus on her subject and what she wanted to say - the camera was there just as a tool to produce the image.
My point here is that I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my photography and as my digital and IT skills are certainly not the best, I wanted to make the process of using the camera as close to what I knew as possible. It was about recognising my limitations and playing to my strengths whilst getting all the benefits of digital image making. It’s also partly about the absence of flexibility. Technology, technical and gear based flexibility takes your mind away from what’s really important – connecting with and seeing the potential photo in front of you.
So I could have stuck with celluloid, bought a scanner and then just edited in Photoshop. But that seemed to me something of a strange hybrid, a compromise and perhaps even an ‘analogue for the sake of it’ approach. I didn’t want that. It’s not about nostalgia, or an analogue fetish, simply a process of finding the best way for me to create images.
For me the process is important but not in a workflow way. The process is important because the act of taking the photo, the moment of shutter release is the most important. Personally, I find it difficult to reconcile the shooting of RAW images which you can then post-produce in any number of different ways. For me, that disconnects the most important moment of production, the release of the shutter, to the image.
Now I know this all sounds rather philosophical and I’m not a studio or advertising photographer for whom that production process makes a lot of sense. My photography is based in the landscape, whether that’s rural or urban.
The point of all this is that cameras are the least important but at the same time the most important aspect of photography.
Let me explain.
You can take great photos on any camera. Lange used a large bulky old box of a thing to take this extraordinary image. Albert Eisenstaedt used a diminutive Leica IIIa to take that iconic image of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day.
No in body stabilisation, no autofocus, no plethora of metering and exposure modes. So how was he able to respond so quickly to a scene like that, one that is moving and developing quickly, dynamic and chaotic. Many photographers today would demand that fastest autofocus, the most accurate and responsive metering.
What Eisenstaedt did was to take a general reading for the conditions, set his aperture to give him some decent depth of field and prefocus to a certain distance - what's known as zone focusing. By using that knowledge he could respond to the subject in front of him faster than any modern camera, no focus hunting, no doubts in the photographers mind about the technical elements. Just skill, previsualisation and creativity.
So it’s not about the technology, it’s about your eye, your perception and your ability. The mega-pixel chasing that seems to drive manufacturers and photographers alike for me misses the point entirely. Yes, I know that with 40 or 50 megapixels you have the ability to crop your image drastically in post, but if you have to crop so hard to get a good image then I would question your compositional and image choices in the first place.
So the camera you use is irrelevant to taking great photos.
But then again it’s not, because the camera is more than just a means of acquisition, it’s the link between you and the subject, the world and the image. The tool you use to make the image. You have to find one that suits not just your style of photography but your personality and your creative process. It is the conduit whereby a world in constant motion is frozen in time, a particular moment memorialised by the flow of a billion photons through your lens and immortalised onto your sensor or rectangle of celluloid. Because of that, its more than just a technical operation, a series of mechanical and electronic actions. It’s a historical, social and cultural action and your relationship with the tool that enables that is central to the whole process.
For me I need a camera that will inspire me, challenge me, make me want to pick it up, feel right in my hand and when I put it up to my eye, will then be a frictionless interface to the ‘decisive moment’.
I don’t know yet what that camera will be, but I know it will be the start of a long journey back to those early days of using my Zenit E and the magic of a still image.