“At the moment the writer realizes he has no ideas he has become an artist.” – Gilbert Sorrentino
I thought of the above quote when thinking of writing a piece for this website. Frankly, I’ve been in a fallow period and simply not very motivated to write about Leica film cameras and the arcane minutia us leicaphiles obsess over. Maybe, after all these years, I’ve become an “Artist.”
It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve been involved in the visual arts for 45 years, as a painter and photographer and a documentarian. I’ve never made much money doing it (it’s not my vocation but rather a lifelong avocation) although I’ve been professionally trained and know my way around a gallery or two, both as a “Fine Art” photographer (yech!) and as a painter.
Untitled, Acrylic on Canvas, 30×40, 2015
As this website attests, I’m mostly just a camera freak, a fondling gearhead, bottom of the photographic food chain, not much better than the guy on Rangefinder Forum discussing which bag goes best with his M240. Guilty as charged: I love old mechanical cameras, with a preference for Leicas because, frankly, they’re the best mechanical cameras ever built. But I also love my Nikon rangefinders (I’m completely enamored with my black paint S3 Olympic) and a brace of Nikon F’s I currently own. And, as someone firmly grounded in the film era, without the need to keep current technologically, I do realize my photographic concerns and critiques are anachronistic in the extreme, the product of having the luxury to discourse about what constitutes a meaningful interaction with one’s photographic tools without the burdens of deadlines requiring 80 finished prints for a wedding client, or a set of photos to illustrate a newspaper article.
But…there’s something about the incredible technological advances in image capture that just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s grounded in the uncomfortable recognition that photographic realities have passed me by, and I’ve become the functional equivalent of the grumpy old guy yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. But maybe it’s something more than that. Maybe it’s it that the skill and vision traditionally required of a photographer seem to have been subsumed in the race of technology, which itself is redefining both the skills required to succeed in the profession and the ways we measure what constitutes photographic excellence.
The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about Robert Frank, who, if you’ve ever read much of what I’ve written, you’ll know I think is one of the three or four most brilliant and creative photographers of the last 100 years. Great article, although I made the mistake of reading the reader’s comments on the Time’s web version a few days after it was published. Typical of the comments was one from a photographer, no doubt who had come of age recently, who, to paraphrase, said that he was a professional photographer, and while he wasn’t familiar with Frank there certainly wasn’t anything he saw in the accompanying photographs that would make him want to learn any more about him. To him, Frank’s photographs were amateurish, crude. Sigh. In my less charitable moments I’m tempted to call that man what he is – an idiot.
Maybe photography has become too easy. Any idiot can do it, and any idiot can mistake what he does – exposed and framed right, razor sharp from corner to corner – with being “good.” Ease of use has created a generation of photographers who can produce tack sharp, technically perfect photographs, and invariably they’ve confused their technical expertise with having something to say. Very rarely these days do I see photographers with something to say. The best photography has always been a black art, an alchemy that turns matter to spirit. Technology has nothing to do with it.
I recently ‘inherited’ a Nikon D2x, a full bells and whistles pro digital tool that sold new, with backlog, for $5000 9 years ago. Curiosity getting the best of me, I did a google search to see what was being said about the camera today. Current opinion is that the camera is a relic, unfit for any serious use because of its dated sensor that craps out over 800 ISO, in spite the fact that 10 years ago it was being lauded as an exceptional image maker. It’s the same dismissive attitude one sees toward the M8 or M9 today.
Of course, back in the film era, when we didn’t have the technological advantages digital provides, good photographers, photographers with a vision, found a way to produce stunning work. If you needed a large print (11×14 or above) you used either a low ASA fine grain film or a 2 1/4 negative. You needed sufficient light for proper exposure, so using a larger negative with higher ASA film remained the preferred alternative. Somehow we managed, some of us with less effort than others. We referred to it as “skill.” You had the choice of using a faster film or a faster lens to achieve good results in low light. I don’t really remember using any film faster than ASA 400. Lenses went down to f1.2, f1.4 but were expensive and true technical quality was fleeting. Somehow great photographers managed to produce some remarkable images during that time and photojournalism flourished.Then came digital and all changed. Technological mastery replaced skill and vision and it became necessary to have the latest camera body to make an acceptable photograph.
I am having a tough time seeing the transition from film to digital as all progress. Is it easier, more convenient? Yes, certainly. Does its use facilitate better photographs? It certainly hasn’t made my photographs better, and I can make a case that it’s made the process much less satisfying as well. In spite of all the ‘progress’ the photographs I see look more generic and uninspired than ever. As for me, I’ve not missed a single image I wished to capture because of a deficiency of the obsolete camera I’m known to use. I have, however, missed a few because of my lack of a vision. Do photographers today understand that difference?