Author Archives: Leicaphila

Being an Authentic Photographer

Took this in 1976. Still Love It, Because it Says Something to Me. Bonus Points: What’s the Punctum?

As I’ve mentioned before, I became a ‘painter’ for a while. I’d had no formal training, nor did I really know much about the history of painting as a representational or creative medium apart from having read about Carravagio and Picasso and van Gogh and Pollock. I knew what I was supposed to like, what I actually liked (van Gogh and Pollock!) and that was about it. Some of my photos hung in a gallery that also represented the Macedonian abstract painter Robert Cvetkovski, and it happened that he needed a place to stay while hosting a major exhibition of his work here in North Carolina, so he stayed with me for a few months. I watched him work and, being bored, decided to take a canvas and try to paint in a similar non-representative fashion. Hell, I thought, if he could do it, so could I. So I did, and, in my initial flush of excitement, foolishly thought I wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I talked the gallery owner into giving me a show, at which a pleasant, enthusiastic couple stood with me in front of one of my paintings and inquired as to my creative influences. It was at that moment I realized I was a poseur.

Basically, being the dummy I was (am) – and leaving aside the larger question of the Macedonian guy and his authenticity – I foolishly ignored the vast functional difference between what I was doing and what those did who created the genre of abstract painting, artists who sought to express deep convictions about life, emotion, and experience through what they knew about color, line, shape, and representation. My paintings of drips and blobs and primitive shapes – sometimes quite visually appealing – weren’t really art, because they weren’t authentic to me. They were, at best, decoration, which is what I see them as now, with the benefit of hindsight. I was mimicking creating ‘Art’, appropriating the symbols and modes of expression of others. I was a poseur.

Untitled, 2005. At Least I Didn’t Title it “Metaphysical Daydream Part 14“.

This concept of ‘authenticity’ provides us a way to differentiate legitimate art or action from those that merely pretend (the ‘pretentious’), those done in what Jean-Paul Sarte calls ‘bad faith’ – modes of expression not true to the artist or actor’s essential individuality. Authenticity is about using a form of expression that comes from within, not merely appropriating someone else’s form of expression. As long as what you’re doing is expressing who you are as opposed to signaling who you admire or who you think you should be to impress others, you’re not a poseur.

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Being true to your essential creative nature, as opposed to apeing other’s, can be frightening; you’re exposing the most vital part of yourself to other’s critical judgments, and other people can be clueless, mean, judgmental pricks [guilty as charged]. Sartre claimed that exposing your real self to the gaze of others could be so overwhelming it could cause mental, emotional and physical distress, what he referred to as “nausea.” Yet he saw this profound discomfort as necessary if you were going to be true to yourself ***. This was the price of being authentic. Sartre saw it as a process driven by discomfort, where to be true to your inner calling happened when the psychic embarrassment in being inauthentic became greater than the discomfort of expressing something true to yourself, in effect putting you out there for others to observe and critique. And that’s what happened to me: after that period of painting in ‘bad faith,’ after the profound internal embarrassment of standing in front of my work mouthing inauthentic babble about what ‘it meant,’ I made a decision to abandon the idea that my output needed to please or impress anyone but me…and in the process became a much better photographer and painter.

All this doesn’t mean you have to be completely unique, without influences – sui generis – to be authentic. I certainly have influences that show in my work. That’s the nature of creative expression – it always comes from antecedents that it can be linked to the current work and in some partial way help explain it without exhausting its meaning. Look at Trent Parke, the guy whose video I previously posted; if you’re a photography aficionado, you can see his influences, but those influences don’t define him. He’s added something to make what he creates his own. Likewise, it doesn’t mean you can’t be commercially successful. It doesn’t require you laboring in anonymity or critical irrelevance, trusting that someday someone will recognize you. It just means that you’ll need to ignore whatever commercial or critical pressures that encourage you to conform to anyone’s ultimate vision but your own.

Authenticity is the drive to achieve something from within, to create work you know feels ‘right’ as opposed to work that appeals to other’s sense of right. It manifests itself in devotion to your unique vision backed up with hard work to achieve it, the ultimate irony being that authentic expression usually appears effortless and belies the amount of work invested, while the inauthentic gives the unmistakable impression of “trying too hard.” The “Train Guy,” the guy I was critiquing a few posts ago, he’s trying way too hard.

*** Which begs the question: how can Sartre talk about being authentic when his entire philosophy is premised on the claim that we have no ‘true’ self but rather that we make it up as we go along?

Old Man Yelling at [Dark, Ominous] Clouds

Think of this as Part Two of my last post, Further Proof That the Apocalypse is Upon Us.

That’s me, to the right, said “Old Man’ of the title to this piece. No question, I’m old. According to at least one of my readers, (I presume) a millennial, I’m also clueless, at least to the extent I’m resistant to newer manifestations of ‘photography.’ In response to my last post, he submitted a reader’s comment dismissing me as “an old man yelling at clouds,” the proverbial addled old guy standing in his bathrobe yelling at the kids playing ball in the street, the smug implication being that the world has long ago passed me and my kind by, and I should wake up, take note of the fact and move the hell out of the way while a new generation advances our notions of creative possibilities.

Specifically, my previous post concerned my off-hand dismissal of the “photographs” of a guy who authored a piece wherein he extolled the virtues of current digital photography tech and used examples of his work to bolster his claim that current digital technologies make it difficult to not take a great photo. I metaphorically face-palmed at his claim and the “photos” illustrating it. While I didn’t come out and say it, you could infer that I found the illustrating photos to be bad, bad in a way that only someone profoundly unaware of their aesthetic incompetence could produce. And then, after taking a deeper dive into his website, it turns out he’s a relatively well-known “photographer,” having shot stuff for all sorts of ‘hip’ publications. Holy shit, I thought to myself, has it come to this, that these hyper-processed, computer-generated in-your-face graphic simulacra are now what the millennial generation consider to be ‘photography?’ Is this what we now hold out as excellence, what current ‘photographers’ are aspiring to? No thanks. If you know the history of the medium and the necessary role photography plays in the visual arts and the larger culture, if you knew the etymology of the definition ‘photography,’ if you’d read Barthes or Sontag, if you’ve ever developed a negative and wet printed it, you wouldn’t tell me that what this guy is doing is ‘photography,’ because it’s not.

So I wrote about it; there was something unsettling about the fact that the mass understanding of ‘photography’ could have arrived here, at this point; that we’d gotten here, at a place so far removed from a traditional understanding of the medium…and nobody really notices, probably because they’ve come of age in the digital era – an era wherein graphic novels, video games, photo apps and augmented realities are “the real”; because they’re so profoundly ignorant about photography and its history as a visual art, and have no real understanding of the radical shift in consciousness this all entails.

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“C’mon in. Buy What We’re Selling. What Have You Got to Lose?”

Already in the 1930’s, Martin Heidegger warned of mechanized technologies transforming modern man’s internal life. For Heidegger the mechanical typewriter was a harbinger of a larger problem: by veiling the essence of writing and script, the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without him experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of his Being to his essence,” [italics mine] which is a convoluted Heideggerian way of saying that new technologies rob us of our creative powers without our even realizing it.

Obviously, we’re now infinitely advanced from the humble technological advances of the typewriter. Were he alive today Heidegger would go further, saying not only that we aren’t aware of our impoverishment by our technologies, but we’ve been duped into thinking that the very technologies that rob us of our creative autonomy are in fact enhancing it. We’re so mesmerized by the marketing hype produced around these technologies as a means to their replication that we’ve intellectually and emotionally refashioned our loss of autonomy as creative enhancement. It’s a textbook example of what the Existentialists called “Bad Faith,” “Stockholm Syndrome” with respect to technology.

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Above is a ‘creation’ of mine. I did it completely myself, if by ‘completely’ one means pushing a button or two and initiating an algorithm created and controlled by someone else to create the end result. Likewise with the self-portrait that leads off above. Twenty years ago I could have offered these ‘creations’ to you as evidence of my artistic skills, and you’d probably be impressed, although you certainly wouldn’t accept them as ‘photographs.’ But they are ‘photographs’ in the currently accepted sense of the term – they were generated by a camera and have some link, however tenuous, to the capture of light. (That’s me, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, the car a 71 Camaro I cycled past parked on a back road.) Now? Created with the push of a button, the rest done for me by a computer algorithm and AI, whatever link they once possessed to the real now completely severed. Anyone can do it. Welcome to ‘photography.’

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Why the old-man angst about inevitable technological advances? What’s at stake? it’s certainly not as simple as what I suspect digital millennials think is going on, that of resentment and inflexibility of those of us supposedly psychologically and emotionally wedded to outdated technologies and the concepts on which those traditional methods rest. It’s way more existential than that, something that’s been in the air since the inception of digital, something that forward thinkers have been warning was coming and is now upon us full-bore. It involves a fight for the real and photography as a means to document the real, recognition of the pernicious consequence of severing indexicality from photography, transforming the medium into a means of subjective expression with no link, however tenuous, to brute factuality. It’s about the ‘transformation” Heidegger sees occurring to us – to “Being’ -in this process, a transformation that’s two-fold: first, an increasing retreat of photographic consciousness from the objectively real into subjective virtual worlds, and second, the creation of those virtual worlds not by our own imaginations but imposed on us via the push of a button, the result of it all being a false consciousness confusing imaginative subjection for creative flourishing.

So, next time you smug technological sophisticates begin to feel all superior to us film era Luddites, take a step back and consider that some of us may have articulable philosophical and creative reasons for rejecting the more outre aspects of digital technologies, and those reasons may be grounded in legitimate concerns based on deep historical sympathies. In other words, we may know things, important things, you’ve never even thought about, and you may be wise to listen.

Further Proof That the Apocalypse is Upon Us

These from an article titled, ironically enough, Modern Cameras: How They Make It Harder to Take a Bad Photo published here.

The photos above, taken by the author, are offered as examples of the “stunning” results modern cameras are capable of. Feel free to click through the author’s portfolio for further edification.

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On a completely unrelated note: Back in the day I used to drive a delivery truck in Paterson, New Jersey. I delivered laundry to residences, in the course of which I got to speak to and know many of my customers. I had this one who, when I asked him what he did for a living, told me he was a “painter.” Interesting, a painter? You paint houses, I replied? “No, a painter. I paint pictures.” Apparently, his modest little flat was full of his work. Very cool, I offered, and I meant it. So, over the course of months we talked often, and he talked about his paintings and described them for me. He was obviously really proud of the work he did. One day I asked him if I could see some of them, maybe buy one. He took me inside, and with great pride showed me the works that covered his walls from floor to ceiling. They were all paint-by-numbers.

So, I congratulated him on his beautiful work, politely declined to buy one, and went back to my truck. I was touched in a way; he wasn’t hurting anyone, and he took obvious delight from painting those paint-by-number pieces. Who was I to judge, right?

Is Photography Killing Imagination?

Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have the explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.

Robert Haas, Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984)

I’m just done reading a book it’s taken me 42 years to read, The Man With the Golden Arm. Great book, beautifully written by Nelson Algren, a once-famous author now thoroughly forgotten. I bought the book in 1977. I bought it because Algren was currently living in the next town over, Paterson, and was somewhat of a local celebrity, a Chicago born critically acclaimed writer who decided to move to Paterson just for the hell of it. Knowing Paterson, that took guts. The book is about junkies in Chicago in the 1940’s. It won the National Book award when it was first published in 1949. Hemmingway said it was one of the best American works of fiction of the first half-century. Algren, who went on to also write the cult classic A Walk on the Wild Side in 1956, was apparently a pretty interesting guy himself, a self-taught author, self-professed Communist and Anarchist who hung out with, and wrote of, Chicago’s junkies and prostitutes and petty criminals ( he also carried on with Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist philosopher and girlfriend of John Paul Sartre, throughout the 50’s and 60’s; anyone bad-ass enough to be banging Sartre’s girlfriend deserved attention).

That book sat on my shelves, unread, until a few weeks ago. Innumerable times over the years I’d open it, read a few of its dense pages, and put it down. It simply didn’t grab my imagination. And then, a week or so ago, I told myself I was going to read it. Period. The time had come. So, I did, and I loved it. In hindsight, it was a work that needed 42 years of my maturation to fully appreciate; Algren’s beautifully intricate writing style, full of metaphor, doesn’t lend itself to topical reading but requires your full attention. Given that, it’s a remarkably evocative novel, the writing easily lending itself to a vivid imagination.

Yesterday, I rented the film version, starring Frank Sinatra. Bad idea. Not only was it a shitty movie, it somehow poisoned my delight in the book itself. As a dedicated reader, I’ve learned one thing about film adaptations of books I’ve previously read: don’t watch them if you want to retain the imaginative enjoyment you derived from reading the book. That’s because, once viewed, irrespective of the quality of the movie itself, the movie’s image asserts its hegemony and wipes from your mind’s eye how you as a reader imagined the characters and unfolding plot. The visual image offered by the movie now has become truth, something more brutely powerful than your own memory and imagination. Like it or not, the movie’s interpretation is now mine. In fact, after seeing the movie, I can’t even remember how I had imagined the story I’d read. It’s gone, bludgeoned unconscious with the literalness of the photo image.

My experience with Algren’s book – and then watching the movie – points to a larger problem of images, that of how their literalness can interfere with the workings of our imagination. As noted by Owen Hulatt, a scholar of the cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno, the more our reality is comprised of the factuality of images, the less room there exists to exhibit ‘imagination and spontaneity’ – rather, images “sweep us along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be ‘alertly consumed even in a state of distraction.”

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Photographic images are everywhere, increasingly curated for us; algorithms decide what we see, when we see it, and how we see it. While this is great for those who want to influence us (advertisers, politicians etc) this surfeit of images and our easy familiarity with them has caused us to become imaginatively lazy. Why? In Roland Barthe’s mind, what defines the image is its stubborn factuality. Photos are traces of things, real things out there. In this sense, they tell us a truth. I would submit that photographs give us, at best, an impoverished ‘truth,’ a truth of brute ‘facts’ that in its literalness leaves little room for imagination. This has nothing to do with popular criticisms of altered images and photoshopped realities. It’s more existential than that. Photos are “unisensory” i.e. no other sense nor the imagination itself is needed to understand them. Given they are unisensory, a photo cannot convey the full depth of experience, because nothing other than the visual is required to grasp them.

In his cult-classic The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976),** psychologist Julian Jaynes contends that imagination is fundamental to consciousness itself, or rather, more precisely, consciousness is imagination in the sense that all consciousness depends on metaphor, which is itself a type of imagination. Metaphoric thinking =  this is like this is like that.   Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), notes the inextricability of metaphor and imagination: ‘Metaphor requires a perceptual power and ability, a re-seeing, a re-analogizing’ … fostered through a ‘depth of attention’ that, in turn, breeds imagination.” Jaynes would say that’s the architecture of our minds. Reality is comparison, and comparison is imagination.

Metaphoric comparisons are not only part of the architecture of language and mind but they are elemental to human thought and imagination. To make sense of new things – to give them a reality – we compare them to other things, familiar things from our environment, our culture, our identities, things that we previously came to conceptualize by doing the same, ad infinitum. It is these mental connections that give rise to consciousness itself, which consists of the primary experience between ourselves and the world, as well as sensitivity to the nature and details of that experience. Metaphor is how we mentally access and internally narrate language, image, and sensory experience. And, it’s the basis of all human creativity. Aristotle, speaking of the poet, claimed that “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

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So, we’ve established that metaphorical thinking is really important and yet, in our hyper image-saturated world, I’m starting to suspect we are losing the imaginative power to create and find meaning through metaphor. As always, kids are the bellwether, kids who’ve found their reality via web-based versions of the real, the punchy over-saturated image or the 40 word tweet. Consider the experience of poet Sara Holbrook , who wrote a recent article for Forbes titled ‘The Writer Who Couldn’t Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work (Again)!’ which documented her frustration with her students’ desire to “dissect” her poems e.g. understand the ‘best reason’ for a simile she chose to use etc . “Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry;” what students wanted was “line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic,” as one might approach the dissection of a frog. This sort of literal, factual dissection of artistic creations was what they knew, having been bred into them as heirs to a culture where information is increasingly gleaned via the visual, and factual investigation has replaced imaginative interpretation as the standard by which creative expressions are critiqued.

In 2014, a Harvard research team set out to study the decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team sought to define a potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. What they claimed to find was that the creative-writing of the two groups showed a “significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre,” what they defined as a trend toward formulaic styles without significant imaginative deviation, while their visual creations were informed and inspired by “expansive mental repositories of visual imagery” [think: stock photography] easily available in the public domain. They noted in both “a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism,” and a turn away from metaphoric thinking. The team cited standardized testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, but also the proliferation of visual culture and its role in new modes of casual communication – in other words, visual literalism (“selfies”, emojis etc) standing in for words and feelings.

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What’s the point of all of this? Hell if I know. The fact that I’m on my third bourbon, neat, isn’t helping to clarify things, except I do see a transition I’ve been making – probably subconsciously in response to the issues I’ve articulated here – in my photography. I was trained as a documentarian, and my idea of the photo has traditionally been less a means of creative expression than as a vehicle to transmit knowledge. However, lately I find myself more focused on producing images that possess ambiguity, that need to be read into. Maybe it’s a subliminal response to what I consider all the regressive trends currently ascendant in photographic culture – sharpness, image quality, technical brilliance etc – and in visual culture generally, the use of images as a means of documenting what is presented as “the real” [selfies and all the airbrushed nonsense people post on social media sites]. I’m increasingly getting to a point where I want my photos to be explicitely about the “not real,” about what might be imagined as opposed to what I claim is. That’s the place I want to share, if that’s possible, to make of stubborn facts something more than just what is via the viewer’s imagination. That’s what Nelson Algren did with his writing. Of course, he died broke and friendless in a cold-water flat in Paterson, New Jersey, completely forgotten.

Time for another bourbon.


** One of the truly mind-bending books I’ve ever read. Every educated person should read it at least once.

Becoming the Cliche

“There’s a passage in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential brick-book, Being and Nothingness, where the author describes a waiter who carries his towel just-so, who is attentive, who does all the things a waiter should do. He is the perfect waiter. Except, of course, he is not. He is a man who has the freedom to spill the wine on obnoxious customers, to spit in the soup, to walk away from the job. His pretense at being a perfect waiter is a performance in Bad Faith, a loss-of-freedom that is untrue to his authentic conscious self.

The same idea can be applied to photographers. Wear that Leica too heavily, start believing in your own legend, fetishize your style and you become the photographic equivalent of Sartre’s waiter, a caricature of a photographer who does the things that photographers do because those are the things that photographers do. ” Sohrab Hura, Magnum Photo

Send Her Back

I live in North Carolina. It’s a Southern state that’s traditionally been considered “progressive” as far as Southern states go. It has an admirable history of having established and funded the United State’s first public university, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, to this day, is considered one the America’s premier research universities. It’s what brought me to North Carolina 37 years ago as a graduate student in the humanities, which was one of the best things I ever did. The state proudly refers to Chapel Hill as “The University of the People” and until recently purposefully kept tuition low so that bright kids from modest families had access to a world-class education, every bit the equal of the education plutocrat’s kids received 8 miles away at Duke University, an uber-expensive elite university in Durham. Chapel Hill (read: the State of North Carolina) educated me as both a historian and an attorney, allowing me entrance to their flagship University and essentially paying my way. I’ve since attended both Duke and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but my emotional loyalties will always remain in North Carolina with the good people whose generosity enabled this working-class boy to receive a world-class education.

When I first arrived in North Carolina, it was a solidly Democratic state, both urban and rural. That started to change in the 90’s as the divide between city and country intensified. Within the last 15 years, state government has become solidly Republican, the rural areas gaining power through gerrymandering at the expense of the urban majority. North Carolina voted for Obama twice, but in 2016 voted for Trump. There’s a reason for that. While urban areas like Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte prosper, rural North Carolina is in a death spiral – no jobs, failing education, willful ignorance and reactionary evangelical religion mutually reinforcing each other. It’s sad to see, but it’s the reality.

I mention all this because American politics is currently being roiled by a new nativism, the kind that used to tell people they could love America…or leave it. Our latest jingoism is of the “Send Her Back” variety, an unfortunate chant taken up by folks at a recent Donald Trump rally, addressed to a Somali-born American congresswoman from Minnesota at odds with Trumpism. The whole thing has, rightfully so, gotten a lot of media attention, not all of it good for North Carolina, given it occurred at a Trump rally in …. Greenville, North Carolina, a medium-sized town in rural eastern North Carolina. I cringed when I heard it had happened there, for two reasons: first, I love North Carolina and am grateful to it for all it’s done for me. My North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham) is diverse, inclusive, forward-thinking…and affluent and so unlike what most folks might think of the state based on this; and second, I’m familiar with eastern North Carolina and Greenville in particular…and I like the people there. It’s beautiful country, and the folks who live there are nice people, friendly, pleasant courteous and always ready to help when I’m stranded on the side of the road with a flat bicycle tire.

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I’ve spent the last few years taking photos throughout eastern North Carolina while biking its country roads. No need for a Leica or dedicated camera. The iPhone is the perfect documentarian’s tool – always with you when you need it, the images more than acceptable for journalistic applications. This weekend I finally figured how to download them from iCloud (why does everything digital have to be so fucking complicated?) and I worked a few up in Lightroom. My intent is to put together a series of photographs that somehow tell a truth about the people who live in eastern North Carolina and felt it OK to chant “Send Her Back” at a political rally. That’s what good photojournalism does, and I’m convinced there’s still room for it. Pictures sometimes tell truths that can’t be conveyed with words. Compelling issues like what’s happening politically in America are not simple to explain or understand. Sometimes seeing can inform us in ways words can’t. I hope the photos I’ve chosen do that.

Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

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2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

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Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?