Pieces of us

I first opened Craig Mod's piece for the New Yorker with skepticism—the "cameras are dead" horse has been beat nearly to death these past few years and is not an easy sell to photographers—but I finished it feeling as though I'd read something I might have penned myself.  There are many reasons I say this, not the least of which being the timeline he spells out for his sojourn through photography and photographic tech over the last 15 years or so: note-for-note it was the same as mine.  What's more, later in the piece he admits to harobring the same feelings toward the Sony RX1 as myself, the only difference being I bit and he didn't. 

I think directionally Craig is right about cameras, especially for the great majority of people: big feature-poor cameras are a poor competitor for the smartphone. That one must photograph, unload, process and then upload images is incongruous with how mobile devices are training us to interact with one another and the web. He's also right that this is both something gained and something lost for photographers and for every day snapshots. What's gained is a more complete picture of the photographed scene than pixels would convey: 

In the same way that the transition from film to digital is now taken for granted, the shift from cameras to networked devices with lenses should be obvious. While we’ve long obsessed over the size of the film and image sensors, today we mainly view photos on networked screens—often tiny ones, regardless of how the image was captured—and networked photography provides access to forms of data that go beyond pixels. This information, like location, weather, or even radiation levels, can transform an otherwise innocuous photo of an empty field near Fukushima into an entirely different object. If you begin considering emerging self-metrics that measure, for example, your routes through cities, fitness level, social status, and state of mind (think Foursquare, Nike+, Facebook, and Twitter), you realize that there is a compelling universe of information waiting to be pinned to the back of each image. Once you start thinking of a photograph in those holistic terms, the data quality of stand-alone cameras, no matter how vast their bounty of pixels, seems strangely impoverished. They no longer capture the whole picture.

What's lost then is the way we (those of us Craig's and my age and older) were brought up to interact with images. What's lost is a very human kind of photography and photo consumption.  It may seem self indulgent to mourn something as simple or as frustrating as film, but it was and still is a remarkably human thing. It is impossible to overstate the sea change that photography has undergone since our little black boxes ceased to hold celluloid and started to host silicon. 

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the digital cameras I use every day and that I so love are things that might as well have been designed by machines rather than man. They are a testament to how powerful a science electrical engineering has become in such a short time. By contrast, nothing could be more human than mechanical film cameras and emulsions. No machine would have created something so silly, so preposterous as an emulsion of chemicals that must be processed, fixed, mounted and then used as a filter to recreate an image. 

I write this having just reconsidered selling my Hasselblad for the umpteenth time. Film is getting hard to find and the labs that process E-6 are few and far between. It's heavy and it requires real skill and patience to produce a useable image. The images aren't nearly as crisp as what my D800 produces in a single frame. Slides require scanning and storage, they are fragile creatures, scared of heat and light.

Yet it was given me by my mother and father for Christmas after many years of longing to own a "moon camera." In these frames you won't see the camera, but I remember viscerally the cold steel of the body in my hand and the glow of the ground glass inside the viewfinder and the authoritative shick! of the mirror slap.  I remember the camera as a cherished gift and a traveling companion. Whether we want them to or not, these cameras—especially these film cameras—become a part of us. 

I doubt very highly I'll hold the same feelings for my iPhone or for my D800, they are just so utilitarian by comparison. The irony of Craig's title is that, despite the coming obsolescence of even these very modern DSLRs and digital cameras, the cameras to which I can't say goodbye were by all accounts relics before I had purchased them.  

Photography is cherished by many today as a form of immediate conversation: "Here is where I am and what I am doing." Photography as I believe it was and should still aspire to be is a form of remembrance: "This is who we were." It's not as though immediacy isn't a virtue, but posterity, I believe is a stronger quality. Film, and to a lesser extent, the non-networked lens are the standard bearers for the latter.  As I've gotten older, I've begun to realize all too painfully that the true value of an image isn't realized in the 10 seconds after it's making, but in the next 10 years.

So then, be it resolved that, rather than selling this camera, I will endeavor to use it as frequently as I can. We should all be so lucky to age as gracefully.

Lake Tahoe Bonsai Rocks on Velvia.

Lake Tahoe Bonsai Rocks on Velvia.

Lake Tahoe Bonsai Rocks on digital.  

Lake Tahoe Bonsai Rocks on digital.  

Last Light, Lake Michigan west coast.  

Last Light, Lake Michigan west coast.