dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

Stop thinking and start photographing

Photography, at least to the extent that people write about it today, has gone astray.  Whether at the bookstore or on the internet, one could spend hours reading about pretty little machines, obssessing about them, purchasing them, fondling them, and disposing of them.  Or one could spend an entire human lifetime experimenting with processing and output methods.  But these uses of time are just a sideshow, the samsara of photography.  People have become very self-conscious about the how and have completely lost track of the what and the why.  Photography exists to serve art and express some aspect of life.  So why are so many people hung up on issues of form?

I.  Photography in failure mode 

The problem is that photography is democratic, but talent is not.  A lot of people who photograph would have painted if they could.  Their assumption was that because you could use equipment to paint the outlines, the artistic bar was lower.  They were wrong.  Faced with a lack of vision, poor photographers went in one of three ways:

A.  The scientists.  Some failed photographers attempt to turn photography into an exercise in metrics: how many tones, do I have a 1:255 range, how many line pairs per millimeter, how many megapixels?  Their thought is: if you don't have the ability to succeed at photography in the classical, pictorial sense, redefine photography so there is some objective standard you can meet.  This is "pixelography," not photography.  Photography  is not solely (or even primarily) about objective measures.  If it were, computers would be very good at it.

B.  The magicians.  Other failed artists seek the answers in ritual magic: ABC pyro, Azo, Amidol, Acros (why do all of these things start with 'a'?).  These are people who cling to unnecessarily complicated methods.  Maybe it is a twist on the Velveteen Rabbit in which suffering, not love, makes you real.  People who used these old-fashioned methods when they were current largely did so because they were current at the time.  They would have reached for Tri-X if they could have.  And if using the same paint as Picasso doesn't make you Picasso, why would using any particular photographic material make you into an Adams?

C.  The slackers.  And some pursue badness for its own sake: using the poor imaging qualities of Lomography, reheated counterculturism, and pictures of pieces of litter to cover for lack of an artistic vision.

Search your conscience.  To some extent, every photographer today fits into one of these categories - even if only weakly.

II.  How did we get here? 

It's not clear to me exactly where the fixation with metrics, magic and mediocrity started.  When photography began in the 19th century, the primary mechanism of printing was contact printing large negatives. Making a good full-sized print did not need very much resolution on a negative.  When photography moved to flexible-based film, there was never any high degree of enlargement, and the difference between, say, a Wollensak and a Zeiss lens was not really that important.  If you look at pre-WWII photographic texts, you will notice that there is virtually never a discussion of specific equipment, except where an author classifies it into a broader category ("cameras that produce large negatives").  The choice of equipment played very little role, and it was probably unwaise to discuss any particular brand (at the time, there was a profusion of manufacturers making equipment in small, small quantities).  So you didn't have 100,000 people with the same camera and any technique built around that camera.  But mass production, process modernization, and social upheaval changed everything.

A.  The rise of the machines.  After World War II, when 120 and 620 rollfilm became amateur norms, most pictures were contact printed to 2.25x3.25 inches (6x9cm) - again, without taxing the lens or the output system.  From the 1950s to the 1970s, 6x6, 6x4.5 and 35mm equipment moved from the fringe to the mainstream of amateur equipment.   These cameras used film that made projecton printing a way of life, drawing attention to the "objective" qualities of the equipment.  Combine that shift in output technique with large amounts of disposable income, Kodak's successful marketing to Everyman, and the natural male predisposition to manhood envy, and you had the perfect storm.  By 1970 or so, lens quality was unquestionably the top criterion in selecting a box with which to take pictures.  Marketing reflected it.  People bought the message.  By 1980, it was exposure automation.  By 1990, it was focusing ability.  So we had the beginning of the scientists.

B.  Wisdom of the ancients.  By the mid-1970s, multicontrast, resin-coated (RC) black and white paper was in circulation.  Even if it was unstable in its first incarnations, it eliminated variations caused by development time differences, simplified processing, and allowed the user to replace five or more grades of paper with one.  The volume in this market led to the elimination of many types of traditional (fiber, baryta) paper that had been used by amateurs.  Some disappeared quickly; others faded into that Zone IX sunset.  The counter-revolution, propagated by photographers with little better to do, was a charge toward old-style papers and techniques.  The thought was that if you brought back the old materials, you could bring back the old magic.  And so we had the magicians.

C.  The rebellion against pictorialism.  In the 1950s, Robert Frank shot his seminal work, "The Americans," driving around the United States with a Leica.  Many considered the Leica incapable of good pictorial results at the time - and Frank's product did not violate the expectation.  The difference between Frank and negligence was rebellion against art in any traditional sense.  At the same time, Walker Evans, an American photographer, was perfecting his technique of spending incredible amounts of time and effort making pictures that looked like they took no thought.  The thinking of Frank and Evans, combined with the anti-establishment spirit of the 1970s, gave rise to what we recognize as "college student photography" - cigarette butts, litter, unfocused images.  In the 1990s, when bourgeoise students realized that anti-pictorialism was now the establishment, it was time to rebel again - this time against the humble Pentax K1000.  They became attracted to the Lomo, the Lubitel and any other number of dubious, plastic-eyed Soviet-bloc inventions.  For the slackers, bad equipment could only "improve" bad photography.

III.  How do we recover?

A.  Learning by example.  From the little that can be pieced together about great photographers, it can be fairly said that they did not gravitate toward anything remotely close to what is called "best" today.  In fact, some even shied away from "the best," materials, technique and equipment, whether intentionally or due to economic distress.  Adams was a Protar fan because although the Protar was not the best lens in sharpness, it was even-tempered from edge to edge and did not create unreasonable expectations within the frame.  Weston rejected boutique paper and went right for the coarse commercial stuff.  Strand used off-the-shelf Kodak paper.  Mortensen, through his 7-D negative and printing techniques, rejected clinical photography.  And Eugene Smith, possibly the greatest photojournalist of all time, was constantly pawning his equipment and starting over with something else.

B.  Using only what is necessary to execute your vision.   When you are looking at equipment and techniques, select them to be good enough to meet your intended output but not so bad that it unnecessarily cripples you.  Remember, at best your equipment and techniques do not detract.  At worst, they get in the way.  Resist the temptation to look at some technical measure the same way you resist looking at centerfold models: they just aren't good predictors of what you get in real life.  I would be surprised if 1:1 pixels ever figured into the process of selecting what serves your vision, just as you would never care much about what film equipment could do at a 50x enlargement.  Theoretical or numerical performance not a real world measure.  At best, it can only distract you. 

C.  Paying more for a reason.  This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but there is a method to the madness.  Photography equipment and techniques are tools, and if you can't be confident in the tool, you worry about whether the tool is affecting the results.  If you're the type of person who obssesses about what could have been, you might be better served by resolving every doubt in favor of more expensive, "better" equipment with no upgrade path.  Why?  It might make you more confident, but it definitely removes the temptation to blame the equipment when you fail.  You do not have the ability to blame the camera, lens, printer, enlarger, paper, or anything else.  Instead, you face the hard reality that if your own skills don't improve, you'll be dead some day and your pictures will all be in someone's garbage.