Musings on Photography

Equipment and process

Posted in equipment, process by Paul Butzi on May 13, 2007

Ever since the little fracas about the association between ‘contemplative photography’ and large format, I’ve been muddling through quite a few murky thoughts about how we photographers feel about cameras, the impact of our feelings about the camera on the creative process, etc. Naturally, all of these murky thoughts were of the sort that drift tantalizingly just out of reach, and so when you go to articulate them, you can feel your fingertips brush against them but the slightest touch makes them drift out of reach.

Recently, though, I got an email from Colin Jago that crystalized my thinking somewhat.  Colin wrote

I remember my first camera that didn’t do anything other than go click. It was a 6×6 Lubitel horror. The memory is quite strong because I remember the overwhelming feeling of disappointment that there was no camera stuff to learn. I gave it away, if I recall, and went back to the reassuring gadgety-ness of my motorised SLR (and even that was basic in today’s terms). So much more to do…modes to select…buttons to press…and the camera sounded very busy when it took a photo. It was doing something important. The tiny little click on the Lubitel was just soooo unsatisfying.

Colin has neatly summed up so much of what I was trying to figure out – namely, that how serious we feel our equipment is (and how much we feel it will appear serious to others) greatly affects how serious we feel the art we make is.

So we get a big, awkward, hard to use camera, and we make photographs with it.  It’s very impressive, and it makes a big negative.  And so we’re deceived into thinking that the art we make must be important, because just making a photo at all is an achievement we can be proud of.  Or, we use a big, complicated SLR, because it has lots of options and buttons, and it takes a while to master.  And we somehow think that because we’ve mastered a complicated camera, somehow our art will be better.

And, on the flip side, we somehow get the feeling that if we use a unimpressive little camera that doesn’t require years of effort to master, we can’t possibly be making real art.  Real art is the result of hard work, yes… but we’re making the mistake of thinking that art is the result of working hard, and we lose track of the fact that it’s not just a matter of working hard, it’s a matter of working hard at the right thing.

12 Responses

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  1. Jeremy said, on May 14, 2007 at 12:54 am

    To be honest, though, how many of the images posted in Flickr groups like Holga Art and such like do you really consider to be good photographs? Of course some are, just as some SLR or large-format images are. But the whole Equipment/Image interaction is a red herring, to me.

  2. Rory said, on May 14, 2007 at 1:49 am

    One of your best photographs; taken with the big, awkward, hard to use camera.

  3. chuck kimmerle said, on May 14, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Jeremy as a point, as the argument can go the other way, as well. A lot of folks go the rudimentary route (toy cameras, Holgas, pinholes) and then automatically assume they’re making true fine art simply because they’re shunning the “big, complicated SLR”. It’s as bad an attitude as those who automatically go for the largest and newest simply because they’re large and new.

    Equipment is integral to what we do, but it should be like an ugly stepchild….locked in a back room and rarely acknowledged in front of company (apologies to any step-children who may have taken offense).

    I had an art student show me his work last week, and right away he wanted to tell me what equipment he used. I think I shocked him when I told him I didn’t care (I said it nicely) and that he should refrain from talking equipment when showing his work, as the two are separate entities.

  4. timatherton said, on May 14, 2007 at 7:12 am

    Real art is the result of hard work, yes… but we’re making the mistake of thinking that art is the result of working hard

    (aside from that perhaps reading better as “… but we’re making the mistake of thinking that the result of hard work is art”).

    We are simply talking about two entirely different sorts of work. The amount of physical work that goes into producing art (or whatever you name your creative endeavour) bears no correlation to the art itself.

    It may be physically hard work – a sculptor working in a foundry. But I don’t think anyone has ever accused a poet of doing hard physical work. Obviously putting pen to paper is easy. That’s simply immaterial. Yet poetry can, and probably should, be hard work – “hard labour” – as one poet put it.

    Confusing the physical work (or lack thereof) with the actual work that goes into creating something is simply a mistake.

    More bad pictures have been made with view cameras and SLR’s than we can ever dream of. But the same goes for Holgas and box brownies – you can’t get much simpler and easier than either. Yet Atget’s genius was all carried out through means of a heavy clunky awkward view camera. Sudek did all that and with only one arm – just to up the ante. Others have produced amazing work with a point and shoot – but it’s simply immaterial.

    It has almost nothing to do with the “work” of creating something good.

  5. John said, on May 14, 2007 at 7:33 am

    A camera is just a box that captures light and (to paraphrase Garry Winogrand very loosely) a print is just light reflected off paper. I think we all take ourselves, our cameras, and our photographic prints (or computer monitor images)way too seriously.

  6. John said, on May 14, 2007 at 7:49 am

    I think we all take ourselves, our cameras, and our photographic prints (or monitor images) way too seriously. A camera after all is just a light capturing box and a print is just light relected off a piece of paper. As others have pointed out in other blogs, how much time do we really spend looking at a print or an image on screen, and despite all the hype of archival longevity of prints, will anyone really want to look at our stuff 100 or 200 years from now?

  7. Martin Doonan said, on May 14, 2007 at 8:49 am

    I freely admit to being a gadget nut, and modern cameras are gadget-tastic, but in the end every tool is a means to an end.
    I spend a lot of timing thinking about technical tools (of all sorts, not just cameras). I have one over-riding aim, though, in this consideration: which tool gets me to the end product with the least effort. In photography terms that means getting to a given composition of a given quality.
    I feel best about a camera when it is putting the least obastacle between me and my goal. Sometimes that means a view camera (which has excellent mechanical gadget appeal, btw), sometimes a basic P&S.

  8. John said, on May 14, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Sorry for the double comment above, but the “digital point & shoot shutter lag” interval in getting my first comment posted got me to thinking that it wasn’t going to appear, hence the 2nd effort!

  9. Mike said, on May 14, 2007 at 10:20 am

    I had a funny experience a week ago: my brother in law was visiting and brought along his new Nikon digital SLR. He pulled it lovingly out of the black Nikon bag and began to excitedly show me what all the buttons and dials did. I let him go on for a few minutes while I watched TV over his shoulder, then asked to see some pictures. (Keep in mind that he’s had the camera for about three months.) In a nutshell, he didn’t have any. He’s taken a few snapshots but has spent most of his time A.) learning what all the buttons and dials do, and B) trying to decide whether he could have gotten a “better deal” by purchasing something else. By not showing more interest in his new toy, I may have made an enemy for life. 🙂

    It has been noted before that photography is a popular hobby with those interested in gadgets — a fact well known by camera manfucturers and which I’m convinced goes a long way toward explaining the cryptic and unergonomc user interfaces so many SLR’s feature. Professionals are, I believe, somewhat less prone to this mania but still — I don’t know that I’ve ever met a photographer who was completely uninterested in “stuff”.

    I’m an amateur, by the way, and am all in favor of technology which doesn’t get in my way. Apparently I’m also something of a luddite by most measures, since my destructive tool of choice is most often a view camera and film. I haven’t yet managed to reconcile the obvious dichotomy. Perhaps more beer would help…

  10. paul said, on May 14, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    I would guess that it comes down to using the right tool for the job AND using it correctly. Just because you have view camera does not automatically make the image better. Just because you have a $5,000 DSLR, doesn’t mean you’ll get better results than the guy with the $100 point and shoot.

    It’s pretty much the same way with most things. Having bigger, better, stronger, faster, _____ doesn’t improve the skill of the one wielding the tool. However, in the hands of a skilled user, it can make the job more efficient.

  11. Mike O'Donoghue said, on May 15, 2007 at 7:46 am

    Recently saw Ansel Adams exhibit (best of) and was again bowled over at how nice large negatives print. The venue is Westlicht in Vienna, where the first commercially maunfactured camera will be auctioned off next week (starting bid 100K EURO they’re talking hammer price of 1 million — this for a black softwood box).

    At same venue were some 25 20×24″ polaroid portraits in b&w. I’d seen 20×24″ contact prints before and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the pol prints, each of which is unique. For “reality” capture that 20/24 format is outstanding. I really like the amount of detail rendered. I suppose this is absolutely Luddite, but it don’t get much better than that!

  12. Photo Buffet said, on May 17, 2007 at 8:45 am

    I always come away from your site with something to think about. Thank you for taking time to write as well as photograph. This is a strikingly rich b/w, by the way. The light through the trees is mesmerizing.


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