Monday, October 29, 2007

Embracing Change

Okay, I’m game.

I’ve decided that, rather than being merely presumptive or highly opinionated about certain aspects of photography, I’d try the new technology on for size.

See how they fit, as it were.

What I am talking about is this: that there are other technological usage modes, photographic paradigms, to the genre of image making known as ‘street photography’ – documentary photojournalism – than the rangefinder 35mm film camera.

Blasphemy, I know.

I am known to a small circle of intimates and acquaintances as a traditionalist, even a borderline practitioner of alternative photographic processes.

So, why now? Why step off the deep end, into the no-man’s land of the digital point-and-shoot? Well, for one, I was out of film; or rather, my traditional camera of choice for street photography, a Retina IIIC, only had two shots left, and finding silver gelatin, B/W film would involve a trip across town. Too, I wanted to explore new usage modes of modern camera technology, which in my case was a several years old Sony DSC-S90.

This camera has become our standby family camera for snapshot events: parties, gatherings, doing, and outings. It replaced our Olympus Stylus; not for any valid reason, like the Oly was broken, - although it was battered and scratched and had seen better days – but had served us well and faithfully, and was now relegated to some dusty drawer.

I’m certain that my Retina went through a similar life cycle, but is now old enough so as to be better appreciated for its precision optics and Swiss-watch-like mechanical precision. Not so the plastic-bodied, instantly disposable products marketed under the rubric of an immediately accessible, ever changing, perpetually behind the state-of-the-art by five minutes, consumerist ethic.

I am not embarrassed to say that my most up to date photographic tool is at least ten minutes behind the state-of-the-art.

New tools find new working methods. The older tools, the ones with which I am most comfortable, required the camera to be placed up to one’s face in order for the photographer to make informed composition and focus decisions. That gesture – the camera momentarily placed up to one’s face – seems as disjointed and obsolete as the deft-wristed flickings of a barber’s straight razor against the leather strap.

The liquid crystal display has changed the way in which cameras can interface with the biomechanics of the human body. For street photography, this is a great thing, because it offers the possibility of a candid approach to photographing people in public unrivalled by traditional gear. I find a useful technique in gripping the camera in a kind of palmed curl, the camera concealed behind the forearm, ready to be raised into action in one deft movement that simultaneously half-presses the shutter button, permitting the camera’s automatic exposure and focus systems to adjust to the scene at hand, while a quick glance at the view screen offers a brief moment for compositional adjustments before the exposure is made, and the camera is again concealed in its one-handed wrist curl. Sometimes this action is so quick that, when accompanied by a kind of mimicked mental confusion that resembles the wanderings of a tourist, the photographic subject has little or no clue to the intended target of the wandering photographer.

The action of image making now is no longer required to be directly connected to a specifically identifiable and predictable set of gestures.

The principles that describe how humans create, interface and react to new tools dictate that each specific tool will have unique attributes, some good and some wanting. In the case of the new digital cameras this is all too true. My Sony, for instance, possesses a pretty good optical viewfinder, useful under bright sun when LCD screens can be washed out, one that zooms with the camera’s lens; but its framing and parallax are so far off as to be practically useless. And like most small cameras, its performance under low light conditions is less than optimal, as is the delay in the action of the shutter.

It is this matter of instantaneous shutter response, and having ergonomic, mechanical controls at hand, instead of tiny buttons and software menus, that will keep the traditional mechanical film camera alive for a few more years; that, and the superior tonal range of black and white, silver gelatin film.

Hand-operated tools, of which cameras are, work best when optimally designed to interface with the human hand. Many modern cameras seem instead like they were designed for titanium cyborgs, rather than flesh and blood people.

Yet I am embracing the new technology with curiosity, exploring the possibilities with an open mind.

Now, if only I could get a good black and white print from a digital file without sacrificing my first-born son. I am reminded that one can purchase a 100-sheet box of the finest gallery-quality, silver gelatin print paper for about the same cost as several ink cartridges. But that’s another story.


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