Cameras, Art, and the History of Photography

A bit of a rambling essay on photography, art, enthusiasts, history, and what the hell is going on with digital; and yes it’s probably all just justification for me to get a new camera.

In the early days the hero shot – the single amazing photo was what photographers strived for. Large and medium format were king of the mountain and were able to deliver these amazing single shots in spades. Can any one really take a better black and white photo of Yosemite than what Ansel Adams produced?

It was early days and photography was still in the realm of the technical and masters. It was difficult, time consuming and still involved lots of chemicals and processes. Kodak simplified it by bringing the box camera to the masses, which addressed the snapshot market. Looking at the photo enthusiasts, the artists, the ones pushing the medium forward; Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, they were using large format, hand developing. Ansel Adams literally wrote the books on how to properly expose a photo, develop, and print it.

35mm and Jets

It wasn’t until the 60’s and 35mm film that really brought photography as a means of artistic expression to the masses. Combined with the advent of jets and the ability for people to travel just about anywhere in the world created a market for smaller cameras and photos from new places were exciting.

These exotic locations and introduction to new cultures and people became the primary realm of photography. Photos from places people have never been or even seen before, how “easy” it was to show the West the first photos of the Taj Mahal. I say easy from a picking-the-subject standpoint. This was the hey day of National Geographic.

I’m guessing this era probably goes up to around mid-to-late-80’s, prior to that cameras were still pretty expensive, likewise with travel. Numerous times I’ll read about old film cameras which people said were thousands of dollars brand new, and thousands of dollars back then was even more. You had to be a professional.

SLR for the Masses

However, costs of both came down, SLR cameras kept getting better and better, making it easier for less committed people to get into photography. You didn’t need to set aside that much money, maybe it was Canon with the Rebel, Andre Agassi sponsored them in early 90’s, Image is Everything.

Now, SLRs get to be good and inexpensive enough, that most people have them, the price to take good quality photos is pretty low. It is around this time you see the artists and enthusiasts start experimenting, a rebellion of sorts from the high precision technical machines camera. For example cheap plastic cameras, like the Lomo which came out in 1992. The Holga made its way from China into photographers hands, with David Burnett’s Holga photo of Al Gore during his 2000 campaign earn a top prize.

This is around the time I really got started in photography, I took numerous classes and learned the classic black and white darkroom. It was this experimenting and getting uncommon results that really got me going. I was playing with homemade lenses, tilt shift, cross processing and other alternative techniques. The subject matter and photos weren’t that important, it was just exciting to see unique results. This was also when online services started taking off and being able to share all this work.

Digital makes a mess

Digital than came in and threw people for a loop which I’m not sure it’s ramifications have been quite digested yet. It didn’t take long for digital to get good enough, professionals, such as wedding photographers and journalists, went full in. This makes sense for them, they can produce great quality and quantity of images with little additional cost, which is their job.

However, the artist and enthusiasts digital was a bit of a different thing. This now includes the mobile phone bringing high quality photography to just about everyone. No longer is it someone hauling 80lbs of high precision gear into the wilderness with chemicals and a complicated processes to get an amazing shot. The wilderness has been tamed, there’s a parking lot you can pull your car into, step out and snap a photo with your cell phone and have it uploaded to Instagram in seconds.

Those former exotic locations, everyone there have cameras themselves and taking their own photos. You can view a locals point of view of wherever in the world you could possibly want, or Google Street Map and see it yourself.

As far as all the experimentation, there’s a filter for that. What I used to have to do hacking my own lenses, can now easily be done with a tap-tap. You want an old vintage camera look, or cross-processing, tap-tap.

Now what?

So where does it leave us? It’s no surprise that people are going back to film. I’m also reading a lot recently of people going back to large format cameras, that’s way too much work for me. The enthusiasts are trying to find their niche, since now the photography community is practically the whole world.

This is something I’ve been trying to figure out, what is my niche. The last year or two, I’ve been bouncing around trying a bunch of different cameras, but still haven’t quite figured it out. I’ve tried technical marvels such as the Nikon F6, digital, and quality medium format cameras; but still not quite sure.

I’m finding it comes down to the camera is a tool to use, which begs what do you want to use the tool to do? A carpenter doesn’t go out and buy a big fancy air compressor hammer and then figures out what to build with it. Instead, they start with what they want to build and then get the tool, the answer might be a screwdriver.

So what do I want to use a camera to do, that’s the toughest question. As mentioned the hero shot is pretty much covered, beautiful sunsets and landscapes are a dime a dozen. The unique look and surprises of experimentation are no longer unique and surprising.

Overall, this doesn’t mean photography is done, all the shots have been already taken. It really is just beginning, the easy shots and low hanging fruit might be done. You probably won’t ever be able to go out and take a better shot of the Golden Gate Bridge that couldn’t be found online in 10 seconds. This just means it’s a lot harder to produce meaningful work.

Series and Sets

For me I want to work on series and sets of photos that work together, to set a mood, or show a place, as the cliché goes to tell a story. These will more than likely involve people and places they work, or live, or play. Its getting more access and more embedded in what I’m shooting. I’m not there, but hopefully starting to aim in the right direction.

I know logically that the camera shouldn’t make any difference, that its just a tool. However, it is something I can change to help me set the mindset. I want the camera feel and picking up to encourage me, but also to get out of the way.

So to do that I don’t need a gigantic camera that can do everything, or The Best^TM quality ever, these can be intimidating, or too big to bring, or pull out. Plus the fancier the camera, the more it is about the camera which is the wrong focus.

I need something a little more discrete. As much as I hate the Leica brand, sorry its just so overpriced and trendy, I think they are on the right track of smaller, discrete, rangefinder cameras. I don’t need a big fancy interchangeable camera that can do everything, I need one that can do enough.

I’ve already tried out a couple of compacts and got a few more coming and going, but I think I’m narrowing it down. You can expect a couple of reviews in the coming weeks and months.

Ok, I obviously think too much about it, and if you’ve actually read this far thank you. Maybe it’s all an excuse to buy and try more gear.