Musings on Photography

Foolishness

Posted in equipment, large format, process by Paul Butzi on March 24, 2007

 

One common thread from this post on the contemplative nature of large format (or rather my disbelief in same) stands out and deserves comment.  Mike Sherck writes:

It is, though, a little presumptuous for one person who doesn’t happen to respond the same way I do to tell me that I’m an incompetant fool.

And Jim Jirka echos the sentiment with

I too do not feel that I am an incompetant fool when I emerge after 10-15 minutes under the dark cloth.

Let’s be clear, here, who dragged these terms into the discussion.  Nowhere in my post did I use the word ‘fool’;  that word appears first in Mike Sherck’s comment. 

I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about whether there’s any reality to the idea that large format is inherently more contemplative than other camera formats.  Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of the large format photographers who might contribute to the discussion are so defensive that any real discussion can’t take place.

I think that’s too bad.  If large format advocates can’t engage in a discussion without taking umbrage at statements that people who disagree with them didn’t make, I don’t see much future for large format.  The only realistic way to ensure the availability of large format gear, film, etc. is to persuade people that large format offers something that other gear doesn’t.  Reasoned discussion about the relative strengths and weaknesses of large format seems like a good way to pursue that goal.  Claiming you’ve been insulted when you haven’t seems like a bad way, especially when it shuts down the discussion.

19 Responses

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  1. Rosie Perera said, on March 24, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    There is nobody more zealous to critique a former way of life than a recent convert. This is as true in photography as it is in religion.

  2. Nicolai said, on March 24, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Reasoned discussion about the relative strengths and weaknesses of large format seems like a good way to pursue that goal.

    I completely agree! However, this sentence is not reasonable:

    If large format advocates can’t engage in a discussion without taking umbrage at statements that people who disagree with them didn’t make, I don’t see much future for large format.

    That’s a logical fallacy. It’s like saying “KKK members eat food, I don’t see much of a future for it”. The apparently lack of reasonable proponents of LF says everything about the proponents themselves and nothing whatsoever about LF itself. Just like the fact that I’ve never encountered anyone who was willing to have a reasonable discussion about Leica doesn’t mean anything about the gear itself or whether or not it has a future.

    The only realistic way to ensure the availability of large format gear, film, etc. is to persuade people that large format offers something that other gear doesn’t.

    It does, and there’s no arguing that. If someone is denying that and needs convincing, they are disconnected from reality on this point. As you recently pointed out, so do DSLRs, point-and-shoots, and phonecams. The question is really whether the things it offers are worth the trade-off to a particular person to achieve a particular goal. The choices others make to best do their work couldn’t possibly be less relevant to the choices you make to best do your work (which is why I think at least 50% of the online discussion of photography is a foolish waste of time (unless you’re trying to make somebody else’s work, which is also foolish–as the legions of Adams wannabes/recreators prove over and over, it’s impossible)).

  3. Paul Butzi said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    My fear is not so much that the fact that LF advocates don’t seem to be able to engage in discussion reflects badly on LF.

    It’s more that unless there are LF advocates who CAN engage in reasoned discussion, there are no effective advocates. Without effective advocates, there will be fewer and fewer LF photographers, and eventually LF will be gone.

    And, despite my ongoing thoughts about selling off my LF gear, I think that would be a shame.

  4. Ed Richards said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    > If large format advocates can’t engage in a discussion without taking umbrage at statements that people who disagree with them didn’t make, I don’t see much future for large format.

    In today’s world, I think zealously guarded cults are more likely to survive than cultural practices of small groups whose survival depends on reasonable discussion. In my analysis, LF is going to survive as an art form because of nostalgia, not because of its inherent advantages in certain circumstances. I think this will be very important in China, which seems to be the new home of LF interest.

  5. Nicolai said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    I don’t know about that, the lack of reason about Leica actually seems to help the company and therefore the products’ continued availability.

    I think there will always be the “more cowbell” effect, which seems to draw people to longer lenses and larger formats without anybody having to say anything in their favor. They’re there, they’re bigger, therefore they must be better.

  6. Paul Butzi said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    So what you are saying, Ed and Nicolai, is that LF will survive, but for reasons unrelated to its relative strengths.

    In other words, it will be around, but will be uninteresting as an alternative to anyone who’s interested in making photographs (as opposed to people who want to be members of a ‘special club’)?

    To go back to Clifford Ross, the surf photographer I mentioned, (thanks for the link, Oren!). Take a look at the ULF very high resolution stuff he talks about on his website at:
    http://www.cliffordross.com/zoomview/index.php?page=technical&tech=r1&techsubr=r11

    I think that work is very interesting and yet I think it’s well out of reach of current single shot digital technology. Are you sure there’s no future for LF except as a weird cult? I am not so pessimistic.

  7. Nicolai said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    I’m not saying that at all: I’m saying that a lack of reason will contribute to its survival.

    I think part of the problem with public advocates of any camera system is the general type of person who’s inclined to be one in the first place. The people who have a rational outlook of “this works great for me, but you and I aren’t the same person and probably have different goals, so use what works for you” is mutually exclusive with the “you should use this” outlook, which is the basic role of the advocate.

    This is probably a bit like everyone thinking they’re a good driver, and I’m just one guy, but I shoot LF for some stuff because it helps me make the type of photo I sometimes want to make. I also shoot half-frame 135 because it helps me make the type of photo I sometimes want to make. I use each for their strengths, and my interest is only in making photographs–I really don’t care what anybody else shoots.

  8. sjconnor said, on March 24, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Um, to be fair to Mike and Jim (whoever they may be), while you didn’t call them fools, you pretty much flat-out said the LF slowpokes were incompetent bumblers:

    “if it’s taking you more than two minutes from the time you decide to make a photograph to the time you have your 4×5 camera on the tripod, movements adjusted, focused, aperture set, shutter speed selected, shutter cocked, and film in the camera with the darkslide pulled, I think you need to practice until you achieve competence with your camera. Anything longer than two minutes is not a contemplative experience, it’s bumbling”

    While I completely agree that there’s no reason to consider one camera formt any more “contemplative” than another, (and why would anyone care?), your last sentence seems particularly insupportable. I don’t see how you can make the claim that the slowpokes are so because of incompetence rather than a simple preference for a slow working pace.

  9. Martin Doonan said, on March 24, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    I, for one, have been extremely encouraged by Paul’s comments about the contemplative nature or otherwise of LF. I’ve been strongly considering it for a while as I feel it will help me make the kind of shots I want in some instances. By advocating LF as a medium that can be handled quickly, one of my large fears has been dispelled – I’m off to order the camera this week.
    I’m quite happy to spend much time scouting the location, picking the perfect shot & selecting camera position. After that, I want the mechanics done quickly. In some cases, even with 35mm, I might take 20-30 minutes before the camera or tripod come out of the bag but the act of shooting is over in a couple.

  10. Paul Butzi said, on March 24, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Um, to be fair to Mike and Jim (whoever they may be), while you didn’t call them fools, you pretty much flat-out said the LF slowpokes were incompetent bumblers:

    Yep. I said that, and I believe it. We might disagree – that’s fine. I’m past the age where I think the world is better when everyone agrees with me. If folks want to disagree by pointing out where I’m wrong, or where their views differ from mine, I think that’s great. That’s called a ‘discussion’.

    And, I’d point out that saying someone is bumbling or needs practice is quite a bit different from saying they’re a fool. A lack of competence with a large format camera is easily remedied with practice – as I point out, it’s not actually all that hard to work a large format camera.

    In contrast, if someone is a fool, that’s a little harder to remedy, if it can be remedied at all.

    And that’s why claiming that I’ve called someone a fool ends any hope of a discussion.

    I don’t see how you can make the claim that the slowpokes are so because of incompetence rather than a simple preference for a slow working pace.

    I think the key here is that ONLY large format photographers take 10-20 times as long to adjust their camera as is really needed. And, in fact, there are quite a few LF photographers who do the setup with efficiency.

    Or, to put it a little more directly, I don’t believe that focusing a camera is a deeply creative activity.

  11. Oren Grad said, on March 24, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    I think part of the problem with public advocates of any camera system is the general type of person who’s inclined to be one in the first place. The people who have a rational outlook of “this works great for me, but you and I aren’t the same person and probably have different goals, so use what works for you” is mutually exclusive with the “you should use this” outlook, which is the basic role of the advocate.

    Nicolai, I think you’re reading the possibilities for advocacy a bit narrowly, both in principle and empirically.

    Certainly, many of the very specialized approaches can take on a cultish, quasi-religious, exclusive-possessor-of-ultimate-truth character in some hands, and no doubt that’s what some users find appealing about them.

    But I think there’s also room for advocacy of the type “Here are the special tools that I use, and here’s why I enjoy them so much. If that sounds intriguing, give them a try – you might enjoy them too.”

  12. sjconnor said, on March 24, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    There’s a difference between “contemplative” and “creative”. The first implies a thoughtful consideration of something. It doesn’t carry any connotation of necessity – the contemplation is totally optional. And, therefore, not really open to legitimate criticism.

    As for “efficiency” – in whose eyes? Are these folks turning out a product, or indulging in a passtime they enjoy? If it’s the latter, “efficiency”, which you seem to equate with “speed”, would seem to be, if not outright counterproductive, optional at best.

  13. StephaneB said, on March 25, 2007 at 1:08 am

    Hum, I must say I agree with Paul. It might be the convert zeal, but I don’t think it is. The old phrase “that mountain is not going anywhere” is very misleading because it implies that in landscape photography the photographer has the time to proceed with its beloved technicalities. Well the mountain might not go anywhere, but pretty everything around it is. The light the clouds, the wind all that moves fast. Really fast once you stat to notice it. And I believe than until you notice that you have a long way to go on the path to landscape photography.

    Now, I think it is impossible to have noticed the fast changing pace of the landscape view and not be concerned with speed of setup. Therefore I think a photographer who finds normal to take 15 minutes to setup his/her camera is more about enjoying his gear than making great prints. Please teach me something by showing me where I am wrong.

  14. Mike O'Donoghue said, on March 25, 2007 at 4:32 am

    LF just captures more detail than mid and miniature formats and we do know that the devil’s in the detail …. tho it’s sometimes devillish to go and get the detail. For me it’s a question of what most resembles and can bring back in a print what I’ve seen in sharpness and tonal gradations. Skies that don’t show much grain and have many shades. Grass and leaves and branches that really “look” like they have surfaces with structure. Again — what my eyes see. I use 4×5 but have seen 20×24 contact prints and those were a relevation! The subjects seem to be there before you (and that in b&w).

  15. Epona said, on March 25, 2007 at 6:49 am

    This is just as bad as the Mac vs Windows war. People will choose what they find works best for them for a myriad of reasons that may have no rationale whatsoever. Use what tool works best for your art. I don’t think LF will disappear simply because people will still use it for what works for them. Mac never disappeared and they’ve been crying that it will since 1984. Whether LF stays for a cult following or not, I believe it will stay. There are photographers out there that have workshops that teach LF, like Guy Tal and Michael Gordon (http://www.gtworkshops.com/). I don’t believe that if they are having workshops that the form is dying.

  16. tim atherton said, on March 25, 2007 at 9:52 am

    The best advocate for LF photography are always going to be the photographs made with it. All the rest is besides the point – talking about cameras never makes good pictures – it never makes any pictures.

    If there are good pictures being made with LF then the chances are there will still be LF around.

    It doesn’t need anyone to talk it up – or not.

  17. Nicolai said, on March 25, 2007 at 11:01 am

    But I think there’s also room for advocacy of the type “Here are the special tools that I use, and here’s why I enjoy them so much. If that sounds intriguing, give them a try – you might enjoy them too.”

    This is absolutely true. But how much of that do you find on the Internet?

  18. Ed Richards said, on March 25, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    > In other words, it will be around, but will be uninteresting as an alternative to anyone who’s interested in making photographs (as opposed to people who want to be members of a ’special club’)?

    A does not imply B – that LF may be kept alive by gear heads and nostalgia buffs does not make it less valuable to artists. If the only thing keeping art stores in business were serious artists, there might be a few in the biggest cities, but there would not be anyone making much in the way of supplies.

    > Therefore I think a photographer who finds normal to take 15 minutes to setup his/her camera is more about enjoying his gear than making great prints. Please teach me something by showing me where I am wrong.

    Do a complex architecture or tabletop set-up with movements in a couple of planes and bumping up against the coverage your lens.

    Work on an extreme near-far composition where you need to fine tune the position of the camera to get everything in and as sharp as possible.

    Spend some time really going over the viewfinder with the loupe to make sure the edges are clear and that there is not something sitting in the frame, say, like a beer can. This probably matters less if you are doing to photoshop the result, but for traditional prints it matters a lot.

    Just think about the image for a while to think if you can do it better. Paul may do fine thinking about it before he sets up the camera, but a lot of folks like to think about it while looking at the GG. Thinking about the image is not a bad thing, especially with the larger cameras with the cost, both in time and money, is high for each exposure.

    There are some things you do with a view camera that you do not do with an SLR, and these can take time. If you are doing head on landscape, these are not relevant.

  19. Mike O'Donoghue said, on March 25, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Look at it this way — those who already have the gear, like me, and can work with it have no compelling reason to change. Those full frame Canon copiers (see http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/aa-07-worked.shtml)
    cost an arm and a leg and then there’s the computer and the printer to be paid for, too. So I ask myself “Why change?”


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