Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Romance, Reality and The Digital Dark Side

This year, I have likely done more shooting just wandering the streets of Philadelphia than I have since the late 90's. What has motivated it, is not completely clear to me but I think a lot of it has to do with the Stand in the Light pinhole photographs, the pilot series having been recently completed. The post processing took hundreds of hours spread out over many months. I kind of just needed a break, an excuse to bum around the streets, simply me, my thoughts, and the camera; to do more or less straight photography and satisfy my hunger for reality, but also to connect with something vital, alive and ever-shifting.

I've become addicted to the extremely long walks and the meditation it takes to use a public space as my studio, especially as I've become more interested in the idea of simply letting things to come to me, rather than trying to force my own vision on the world. In a sense, I have been testing myself, allowing my mind to just take things in and also to let the distraction flow through me. Of course, flexing one's visual imagination in an open-air setting is just as varied and unreliable as hitting a more traditional work space. I've had days where everything seemed to be magic, where my inner state was Zen-like, others where I couldn't make it fly. But something else has become patently clear: the best currently available tool for these jaunts in the urban landscape is a digital camera.

For years I resisted. I carried a multitude of film jobs, many considered collector's pieces. I would use a digital occasionally and without much seriousness or care, using point-n-shoots, often of low mega pixel-age. It was always film that was for The Work. In fact, I even wrote a missive for The Broad Street Review on why I was shooting film and had side-stepped the digital revolution.

My attitude towards working digitally has changed recently, in fact, it's the only kind of camera I feel motivated to use for shooting pretty much anything outside of a studio type environment. As an irrational human, where my sentiments lead is often at variance with rationality. I try to make a conscious choice as to which is allowed the upper hand. In the creative end of art, what has often been called a waking dream, I'm happy to lead to let sentiment romp all over the mental playground, but when it comes to setting the stage and making the tool and logistical choices, I do my best to be as pragmatic as possible.

All the photos I've done for the recent Digital Landscape series have been done using a 6mp Canon Powershot point-n-shoot. In 2007 its list price was about $700. They are now going on e-Bay for about $40. This speaks more for the rapid advances in technology and depreciation in a market ever hungry for the latest thing rather than this camera's ability to make great photos. The freedom to experiment without concern for film or developing costs, to quickly zoom and reframe shots, and to be able to come home after after being out for many hours and closely look at what I captured and then be able to edit and share the images online, makes the cold, plastic-y, and unromantic silver box the clear winner.

I think Cartier-Bresson once said that one's first ten thousand photographs were the worst. With film, only the most steadfast photographers ever reached that mysterious tipping point. The limitations and lessons I learned from film have not only allowed me to start to really appreciate electronic photography but in many ways are informing what I'm doing with it. Shooting film for years taught me to slow down even though today's digital cameras are fast and nimble and encourage a fast and loose shooting style. Film photography really required the photographer to pre-visualize the final print. Though digital does give you an instant preview of the shot, it still is a far cry from the finished image, so little has really changed. I'm still having to get in tune with how the camera sees.

I guess there was and still is a certain romance to shooting with film, some of the biggest arguments being simplicity and the kind of concentration and near-ceremony using a film camera brings to the whole chain of creating photos. It's tactile and physical too. Part of the attachment for me was I brought up on film. Some of my fondest memories are working in the darkroom whether it was a bathroom, or later a small outbuilding my dad and I built.

The romance ramped up in graduate school when I started getting into antique cameras as real users. I had collected old film cameras as a kid, scouring the junk and estate shops of the Upper West Side in Manhattan for old Kodaks that I bought for a few bucks, but it was in graduate school that I bought my first usable antiques and fell in love with them. While I was at LSU in the early 90's I started simply roaming around with them. I bought a Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a German camera from the fateful year of 1933. Then, not content with one, I bought another. I bought a few 35mm Kodak Retinas from George Mrus, who was then alive and selling nice overhauled items.

The mania for finding the perfect outside/street camera continued into my years in Philadelphia, offering a poor substitute for really going out and making a lot of images. The film cameras kept on multiplying as I tried out different tools. The insanity finally peaked this year when I started looking at Leicas and Voigtlander Bessas as my possible next acquisition. Somehow reason stepped in and though I will likely upgrade soon, it's going to be to a Panasonic Lumix G2, a fairly modest mirror-less digital which is even less sexy than the Canon, but it's compact, has some excellent optics available and will suit my needs. I will still use my Graflex beasts and Crown Graphics for Tsirkus Fotografika and for pinhole work. Vintage folder anyone?