Portrait of the Artist as an Old Guy

Inverness, Scotland, 2016.  Leica M5. Hot Wife. Skinny Jeans. Firm Abs. Doesn’t Negate the Facts…I’m Old.

All of the sudden, I’ve realized I’m old. ‘Old’ in a bad way, like the 50-something twice-divorced, beer-bellied guy with the comb-over who drives the Porsche, sun-glassed with ball cap backwards thinking all the young women secretly dig him. You know the guy. That’s me…except I’m 10 years older than him.

I’ve been slow to see it coming. Even now, at 60 (Really?), I pride myself on being intellectually curious and physically active, unconventional socially, culturally and creatively – all the things I associate with youth. Amelia, the smart, sophisticated, French speaking 17 y/o next door, considers me “the coolest guy in the universe” (this from her mother), even after spending a month in Europe with me, a week of which we spent on our own, just a 59 y/o guy and a 17 y/o girl sharing trains, buses and cheap hotels. You try to pull that off and maintain even a shred of your dignity. As for physical condition, all the metrics say I’m young. (I recently took an online test where you plug in your health metrics and physical performance abilities and it tells you your “health age;” I’m 18). I’ve still got hair. I wear skinny jeans without looking completely ridiculous (or so I’m told). And I’ve got a hot wife, so I assume I’m doing something right. Yet…

From a photographic perspective, however, I’m trapped in amber, my photographic world frozen circa 2004, which was when I moved from Paris, and a life filled with photography, back to my pedestrian existence in America, sort of like moving from the 30th floor office suite with an unobstructed view of the Eifel to a 6×8 cubicle with a view onto a McDonalds parking lot. In Paris I had been daily immersed in photography via SPEOS Paris and a circle of friends I knew there. I spent hours in museums and galleries and the library at the Maison Europeene de la Photographie, soaking in all I could, and better still, acquainting myself, via photographic monographs, with 20th Century photographers and photography writers of note. Were I in Paris today, there’s a good chance you’d find me in the Maison’s basement library, catching up on the 14 years of photography I’ve missed since my last visit. I can’t think of a better way of educating oneself in the practice of photography than looking at, and reading about, good photography.

By 2004, digital had mostly won the day. In the studio, we used a 4 meg Canon 1D and marveled at the ability to instantly review and address what we’d just done.  But some of us still used the darkroom and prefered film.  For photos that mattered, I used an M4  bought at an obscenely low price from a camera store on rue Beaumarche just north of the Bastille, it being a time when film cameras, even Leicas, were selling cheap. Then I moved home to the States, placed the M4 on the shelf and got on with life, which in my case meant settling in and paying the bills.

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What’s brought on my realization I’m old is that I’ve bought another Nikon D800, just for the hell of it. At the price they’re going these days,  why not? I previously owned a D800E but found it overkill for my needs, its 36 mpx files slowing my computer to a crawl, so, two years ago I sold it. The D800 I’ve just bought has been used less and cost half what I pocketed on the sale of the D800E. (This is one of the upsides of the digital era – you can buy great cameras super cheap as they are updated so frequently and past iterations quickly fall out of favor).

So now, in spite of my recent attempt at de-cluttering, I now own 6 digital cameras (!) – 3 Ricoh GXR’s, a Fuji S5 Pro, a Sigma SD Quattro and a Nikon D800. Ironic for a guy who writes a blog unfailingly critical of digital photography. Actually, I do like digital. More precisely, I love film photography and find it a richer experience than digital for any number of reasons. Film is more tactile, it slows you down and makes you think – but not in a neurotic, obtrusive way digital too often does – and you get a negative – a thing – when you’re done. Plus, mechanical film cameras are cool because they’re timeless, something digital cameras are decidedly not. My Leica IIIg, circa 1958, gives as much pleasure today as it did 60 years ago. It’s like a beautiful suit made by Battistoni, outside the parameters of fashion, timeless and elegant. My Nikon D100, circa 2002, is, in all probability, moldering in a junk heap somewhere in a third world country.

But, back to the point…Buying the D800 has reminded me once again that I’m relatively clueless about the amazing things DSLR’s can do when in competent hands, which might explain some of my antipathy to them. So, this time, in the interests of objectivity, I’m going to learn as much as I can about the camera and its capabilities with an eye to actually using more than just the basics. In short, I’m finally willing to be won over, if won over I can be.

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Paris, 2004. Leica M4, HP5. Scale Focused, Exposure Guessed.

Being old has its upsides. I’ve been around long enough to remember arguments about built-in meters, and then arguments about AF and AE, each successively dismissed by purists when introduced as unnecessary complications useless for real photographers. That was my opinion too, being young and stupid and full of opinions. Now, trapped as I am in amber, I’ve transferred those prejudices to my use of DSLR’s. I use mine much like my film cameras – ISO 400 and keep it there, either manual or aperture priority exposure, spot metering (assuming I pay any attention to the metering at all), and whatever AF mode the dial happens to be on. The rest, all those options nested in menus? Not interested. My shooting style, developed in an era of non-metered film cameras, has always been pretty rudimentary. I’ve never understood why photographers obsessed about exposure and developing, or things like the zone system (with a 35mm? Seriously?) or “metering for the highlights and developing for the shadows” (or is it the other way round?). Those were superfluous issues for techies. I’ve never given much thought to metering. You metered in your head. I’m convinced that learning to calculate proper exposure by eye is preferable to any sophisticated matrix metering system. My matrix metering system is me. I’ll often play a game with myself: guess the exposure. I’ll look at a scene, calculate correct exposure in my head, and then point a meter to see how accurate I am. Invariably I’m spot on, low light, sunlight, shadow. It’s almost automatic, the result of long years of estimating til it’s become second nature.

As such, when I do attempt to use the sophisticated features DSLR’s offer me, my choices have been more a function of my ignorance than a considered decision. I’ll shoot manual, refer to the meter (whatever its set on) occasionally. Focus? Set it to center-spot, point it at something and shoot. Most of the time, it’ll be in focus, just like film, irrespective of the mode it’s set on. In other words, I usually don’t know what I’m doing…and I don’t care, as my idea of photography isn’t about obsessing over procedural aspects or technical virtuosity, which I think is a healthy way to approach what is, and should be, about embodying one individual’s vision of the world around him. For that, the instrument you choose to use should be transparent, your attention on what’s around you. The less your camera gets in your way – requires it be in your way – the more attention you’ll have for what’s in front of you.

5 thoughts on “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Guy

  1. Dominique Pierre-Nina

    HI, Great read I have a few cameras as well Fujifil XPro2. Leica M3, M5, M6 and a FujifilmX Pro2! but no French babe an no porsche yet but a hot wife haha.. I am looking to buy a 1971 Porsche soon but let see how the $$ goes.

    PS most of my metering is also by eye but I tend to mess up in low light conditions.

    Thanks,

    Dominique

    Reply
  2. Rob Campbell

    You see what you missed being away – all those nicely crafted sentences rolling off your computer? What kind of keyboard do you use? Mine doesn’t make such good sentences… of course, it’s digital.

    You think 60 is old? Toss the idea immediately! You are still in the peak zone – enjoy it and don’t think of age yet. You should start to think about age only when you can’t do things that you could do before you found the numbers getting higher, were even aware of the numbers. And even then, you can always conclude that hey, you didn’t really want to do many of those things anyhow. Age really is largely a frame of mind, and that part we can control. Just think of the great snappers still working in their late 70s: Bailey must be around 80, Hans Feurer well in his 70s and Sarah Moon hasn’t rolled over and cried herself to sleep (though I can’t personally confirm this) and Saul Leiter was getting exhibitions and books published at even higher numbers. Peter Lindbergh must be getting richer by the hour.

    Why the hell did you go back to the farm after you saw Paree? That is decidedly not in the lyrics, though I could be mistaken and am just using selective memory.

    I have lived on the farm, so to speak, for decades now, and am trying to sell my place and remove back to civilization. Mostly for exactly the same reasons that you miss Paris.

    Rural life is cool as a temporary change from bustle and hassle, but stultifying if you have a developed sense of awareness of things other than tranquility. As a photographer you can hardly avoid that quality or curse.

    Paris, 2004, is a lovely photograph.

    Rob
    .

    Reply
  3. Jack

    The way you write and the things you write about really resonate with me. I’m happy to see each new post. At only 60, you have a lot to look forward to. I hope you continue to share parts of it.

    Reply
  4. Rob Campbell

    I was having further thoughts about your age-anxiety piece.

    Well, not so much about age itself, but about the things that we see come and go and, perhaps, wish were still around.

    Film used to be high on my agenda for quite a long time after the advent of – or at least my acceptance of it, digital – and it eventually became clear that, as seems to be much the case with you, it isn’t so much film as film cameras that I miss. I loved my 500 Series ‘blads and trading them away was my second major attack of male menopause. In retrospect, the answer for ‘blad in the digital age was not the unavoidable route it eventually took (deserting the square) but keeping faith with the original shape and trying some other way of handling the problem of tiny sensors. Square was not just about format “look” per se, but also much about the cropping convenience that it allowed when working for publication, often to unknown crop shapes. Going up to 6×7 simply recreated the same problems as did the 135 format of Nikon etc. but on a larger base. And not having to reorient the way your camera sits on the tripod is wonderful! Today, Paul Simon could sing about, and blame, the sensor makers!

    With your Nikon, I’d suggest putting it into Matrix metering mode and auto ISO. The only time I find an advantage to manual metering and ISO selection is when shooting towards a window from inside, hoping to catch information on the shaded area of the subject. Matrix is so good that apart from instances like the above example, I never chimp. That, of course, also shows age: it wasn’t something film Nikons allowed. I actually enjoyed the little dose of faux doubt before I processed the film…

    Regarding you line about exposing for what and developing for what, in case it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek: expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights (black/white film) whereas transparencies had you expose for the important highlights and let the shadows go as they please. That’s because overexposed trannies generally look awful.

    Far from processing being somewhat casual, it was key to knowing what one was going to get. The trick was not in unending experimentation with a zillion brews, but learning how to use one well with the films you used. Myself, it was always D76 1+1 with water. I only used two films: Kodak’s TXP 120 and Ilford’s FP3/4 and HP3/4 – as they evolved – the Ilford lot in the smaller format only. I didn’t much take to Kodak in 135 format black/white.

    Not sure I quite understand why you want to expolore all the gimmicks your D800 can offer; doing that is only going to take you a few steps back from the fluid drive you enjoy right now.

    🙂

    Reply
  5. Lee Rust

    Part of the problem with digital cameras vs. aging might be that you start to suspect that the camera is smarter than you are. This thought would never have occurred to the younger you.

    Reply

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