By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.
The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.
City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)
Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.
And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.
THE HYBRID APPROACH
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RECENT LOW–FI MOVEMENT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, immediately following the rise of digital imaging, was something of a reflexive spasm, a retro-reaction against the feared extinction of film (still not arrived as of this writing). Its chief weapon was the plastic toy camera, its principal quest a stubborn return to unpredictability, a celebration of the flaws, defects and deficiencies of film photography, made novel, even holy, once the bad old pixels threatened to end them for all time. Such is human nature: if you want people to brush after every meal, threaten to outlaw toothbrushes.
But not every primitive is a genius, and not every hipster wielding a $35 Diana with light-leaks, color streaking, vignetting and fixed-focus was serving up masterworks under the low-fi credo “don’t think, shoot”. Turns out that a lot of lousy cameras produced…..a lot of lousy pictures. Funny thing: shooting with bad gear is no more a guarantee of “authenticity” than a Leica is of artistry. But that doesn’t mean low-fi is a complete write-off.
What kept me from pledging myself to the plastic was the guaranteed cost of financing film, whether the pictures were great or horrid. Whether you produced dynamite or duds, you paid for each image twice, once for the consumption of the stock itself and once more for the extra time needed to plan and process shots. It was, for me, a constant reminder of all the compromises forced upon photographers by that medium. I occasionally loved the look but despised the labor.
Enter the hybrid solution, introduced a few years back: a lens typically made for a Holga toy camera but minus the Holga body, adaptable to both Nikon and Canon DSLRs…..a cheapo lens (typically under $25), loaded with divinely low-fi features, including vignetting, fixed aperture (f/8) frozen focal length (60mm), stiff-as-a-board “zone” focusing (turn to the “mountain” symbol to shoot a landscape!) and a rear lens cap you can easily pry off with a Philips screwdriver and a modicum of swearing. We’re talking precision here.
The results? Every bit as great as you’d expect for 25 bills, mitigated slightly by your DSLR’s ability, running 100% on manual, to turn at least some straw into gold, as witness the above picture. Even at that, you’ll generate a lot of shots that you’ll try to convince yourself are “edgy”. You just won’t be laying out cash for the true nightmares. Turns out you can put a price on hipness. Or at least keep it from bankrupting you.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESURRECTION, ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, of several low-end, cold-war-era plastic cameras as refurbished instruments of a kind of instinctual “art” photography has influenced even the digital and high-end photo markets, with light-leaking, optically sloppy toys like the Holga, the Diana and other “lomographic” devices shaking up the way many photographers see the world. Thus have these technically challenged little cameras, designed as children’s playthings, changed the conversation about what kind of formerly dreaded optical flaws we now elect to put back in to our work. Lomo shooters’ devotion to their craft has also meant a reprieve of sorts for film, since theirs in an analog realm.
But even digital shooters who don’t think of themselves as part of the “lomography” trip can dip a toe into the pool if they like, with filters on phone apps labelled “toy camera” which simulate light leaks, film-era “cross-processing” and the color variations caused by cheap plastic lenses. There are also companies like Lensbaby that manufacture all-new plastic optics designed to lend an element of creative control to what, in lomo cameras is largely random. The good news: you can, in effect, put defects into your pictures….on purpose.
Plastic lenses are generally much softer than glass lenses, giving a kind of gauzy appearance to your shots, so if you’re a fan of razor sharpness, they may not be your dish. More importantly, they produce a much higher amount of what is called “chromatic aberration”, which is more understandable under its nickname “color fringing”, since that more accurately describes how it looks. If you want a reasonably clear science-guy breakdown of CA, here’s a link to keep you busy this semester. The main take-home for most of us, though, is that the effect takes what would largely be a smoothly blended rendering of colors and makes them appear fractured, with the “fringe” look most noticeable along the peripheral edge of objects, where the colors seem to be separating like the ragged edge of an old scarf.
Why should you care? Well, mostly, you don’t have to. All lenses have a degree of CA, but in the better-built ones it is nearly undetectable to the naked eye, and can be easily processed away in Lightroom or a host of other editing suites. But people who are choosing to use plastic lenses will see it quite clearly, since such optics cause different wavelengths of light to “land” in the focal plane at slightly different speeds, meaning that, in essence, they fail to smoothly blend, hence the “fringing” effect.
Of course, chromatic aberration may be exactly the look you’re going for, if you want to create a kind of lo-fi, primitive look to your shots. In the cactus photo seen here, for example, taken with an all new plastic “art” lens, I found that the effect resembled old color printing processes associated with early postcards, and, for that particular image, I can live with it. Other times I would avoid it like the plague.
Plastic lenses, like any other add-ons or toys, come with their own pluses and minuses. Hey, if you’re a ketchup person, then soak your plate with the stuff. But if you believe that it just louses up a good steak, then push the bottle away. Just that simple.
FIND YOURSELF A KID
“MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS” IS ONLY HALF OF PHOTOGRAPHY. The other half consists of placing yourself in the oncoming path of that runaway truck Experience so that you can’t help getting run over, then trying to get the license plate of the truck to learn something from the crash. You need to keep placing your complacency and comfort in harm’s way in order to advance, to continue your ongoing search for better ways to see. Thus the role models or educational models you choose matter, and matter greatly.
Lately, much as I thrive on wisdom from the masters and elders of photography, I am relying more and more on creative energy and ideas from people who are just learning to take pictures. This may sound like I am taking driving lessons from toddlers instead of licensed instructors, but think about it a moment.
Yes, nothing teaches like experience….seasoned, life-tested experience. Righty right right. But art is about curiosity and fearlessness, and nothing says “open to possibility” like a 20-year-old hosting a podcast on what could happen “if you try this” with a camera. It is the fact that the young are unsure of how things will come out (the curiosity) which impels them to hurry up and try something to find out (the fearlessness). Moreover, if they were raised with only the digital world as a reference point, they are less intimidated by the prospect of failure, since they are basically shooting for free and their universe is one of infinite do-overs. There is no wrong photograph, unless it’s the one you just didn’t try for.
Best of all, photography, always the most democratic of arts, has just become insanely more so, by putting some kind of camera in literally everyone’s fist. There is no more exclusive men’s club entitlement to being a shooter. You just need the will. Ease of operation and distribution means no one can be excluded from the discussion, and this means a tidal wave of input from those just learning to love making pictures.
One joke going around the tech geek community in recent years involves an old lady who calls up Best Buy and frets, “I need to hook up my computer!”, to which the clerk replies, “That’s easy. Got a grandchild?”
Find yourself a path. Find yourself a world of influences and approaches for your photography. And, occasionally, find yourself a kid.
- Resist the need to Get some new Camera – Change your Photography Instead (textb.wordpress.com)
I AM INTERESTED MOST IN WHAT MAKES PEOPLE WANT TO TAKE PICTURES, as well as what makes them take the best ones. In that spirit, I have been recently re-examining the decade-long debate on the trend known as lomography, or the use of plastic bodied, low-tech toy cameras as serious imaging instruments. In renewing the impact of “lomo”, with its rudimentary shutter speeds and fixed-focus meniscus lenses, I have pored over four bazillion angry diatribes by those who condemn the cameras’ extreme technical limits and dismiss their enthusiasts as trendy phonies. I have also tracked its rabid defense by ardent users who celebrate lomo cameras as a way back to a kind of artistic innocence, a return to a photographic Eden in which we all shoot with our hearts instead of our heads. At the end of it all, does it matter what anyone thinks about how we take pictures if something, anything comes along to want them to take more of them? Probably not, and I certainly can’t decide the issue, if it needs deciding at all. Still, a brief re-examination of the whole concept, as I see it, might be worth a run-through. Your mileage may vary…
And, yes, before we proceed, I freely admit that a few world-class photos have been taken with cameras that are one step above drawing the image yourself with a crayon, just as a few amazing canvasses have been created by artists who hurl paint the way a monkey flings poo. I leave it to your discretion whether these accomplishments are vindication of a great vision, or happy accidents granted by the randomness fairy.
Backstory section: as a lifelong shooter, I enthusiastically began taking pictures with the very types of cameras which lomo fans so highly prize. This was dictated purely by economics, not art. It’s fair to say that, with the opening of every new packet of prints that arrived from the processor in those days, I spent more time cursing the smotheringly narrow limits of my light-leaky box and its take-it-or-leave-it settings than I spent cheering the results as some kind of creative breakthrough. I knew what real cameras could do. My father had a real camera. I had a toy, a toy which would betray my best efforts at breathtaking captures pretty much at will.
I didn’t feel avant-garde. I didn’t feel edgy.
I felt like I wanted a real camera.
Turns out that the manufacturers of my Imperial Mark XII, along with the Holga, the Diana, and other constellations in the lomo firmament, eventually came to the same conclusion. Many of their cheap products were made in the underdeveloped economies of iron-curtain countries.They cranked these babies out with the chief object of making a quick buck on undemanding first-time buyers and children. There was no attempt to market these clunkers as serious instruments; they were the fixed-focus, plastic-lensed equivalent of a bootlegged Dylan album taped off the mixer board. Eventually, these companies went on to other ways of separating the rubes from their rubles.
Now factor in the effect of time, nostalgia and (wait for it) ironic marketing. In the beginning of the digital age, photography arrives at a crossroads. Film is being challenged, if not falling under actual attack. Photography seems, to some, to have surrendered to a soulless technology rather than the “warm”, “human”, “hands-on” feel of analog picture-making. And as for the black arts of post-processing, the digital darkroom begins to be demonized only slightly less than the clubbing of baby seals. The unexpected, the unforseeable, the random begins to be attractive, simply because it spits in the eye of all this robo-gearhead slide toward pixels and light sensors.
A longing for a simpler time is observed among the young, who long to dress in forty-year old clothes and who regard vinyl records as more “authentic” than digital audio, not in spite of the scratches, but because of them. Film photography and its worst accidental artifacts becomes “retro” product, to be marketed through trendy boutiques and vintage stores. The sales message: anyone can take a picture (true, actually). The box isn’t important (less true). None of it’s important (outright lie). Shoot from the hip! Look, it made a weird rainbow streak on the picture, isn’t that cool?
Cool at a premium cost, as well. Cameras that went for $5.00 as toys in the ’60’s are now topping $100.00 for the same optics and defects in 2012, with one principal, cynical difference; in the newly produced cameras, the optical defects are being engineered in on purpose, so that every frame comes saturated not only with garish color but attitude as well. Every click produces a tic. This kind of salesmanship makes Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans seem absolutely honorable by comparison.
Tolerance disclaimer: can great art be created with a rudimentary tool? ABSOLUTELY. Cave dwellers made wheels good enough to move their carts to market well before Sears Craftsman came on the scene. I can make a sort of painting using dried sticks, but somehow I suspect that a supple, tapered brush gives me more fine-tuned control. In the field of combat, I can open someone’s airway with the shaft of a Bic pen (see your favorite M*A*S*H* re-run) but writing instruments are not, typically, the tool of choice in the operating rooms at the Mayo. We don’t use sealing wax to send love letters anymore, we don’t take the family horse on a Sunday jaunt to the county seat, and we don’t eat peas off a knife. Of course we could. But what is our motivation to do so?
The historic arc of photography bends toward technical development, not fallback. As soon as glass plates were developed, their limits implied the need for film. Once film first froze movement, we needed it to do it faster. No sooner had pinhole apertures allowed a picture to be crudely focused than the market cried out for dedicated glass to refine those pictures. And while many were just getting over the novelty of recording events in monochrome, some dreamed of harnessing all the shades in the rainbow.
Tolerance disclaimer #2: the only reason to use a technique or system is if it gives you the pictures you want. Once your dreams exceed the limits of that medium, however, it’s time to seek a better system. Prevailing over the limits of your medium because that’s all there is can be noble. However, there is no artistic triumph in deliberately using bad equipment to take great pictures. Lomo cameras may entice people to begin shooting, then move on once they outgrow the warps, distortions and flares that these toys produce. Thus the trend will at least have given them time to experiment and master the basics. But for the most part, for me,there are already far too many obstacles to making good pictures to allow the camera itself to be one of them.
Even in the name of cool.