The Medium Suggests The MethodWednesday, January 13, 2010
Miss Scarlet did it in the studio with a hammer. Or was it a screwdriver?
Sometime around 1982 I was driving my spiffy Fiat X 1/9 on the Trans Canada Highway freeway not far from our home, (I had gone shopping to a nearby Safeway) in Burnaby. Suddenly the gas pedal seemed to collapse and I lost all power. Luckily I was able to pull over and I was not rear ended. I opened the motor compartment (right behind the rear window but in front of the rear trunk (the X 1/9 was a mid-engine automobile). The cable from the gas pedal leading to the carburetor had been severed. I sat down to think and remembered I had purchased bread. In those days bread still came secured in paper coated wire bread ties and not with those rectangular plastic thingies that are used now. I used the bread tie to temporarily secure the gas pedal cable to the carburetor and I gingerly got home with no problem. Mail had arrived and there was a envelope from Fiat Canada telling me about a recall that had all to do with the sudden breaking of gas pedal cables. I was to report to my dealer as soon as possible for the installation of a beefed up and improved connection.
I have been privy to heated arguments between fellow photographers who argue about their cameras (and in particular their digital cameras). In this age of uniformity they argue “My Canon is better than your Nikon.” They argue back and forth until someone tired of the shouting simply says, “A camera is a tool. It is how you use it that really counts.” I have been made speechless by how often I hear this statement that I gave it some thought some years ago and came up with the comparison of cameras with two ubiquitous tools, the hammer and the screwdriver. These are specific tools that are made for a particular purpose. The hammer is used for hammering in nails or for removing them. The screwdriver is for screwing in screws or unscrewing them. But there are other uses for these specific tools if you put some thought into it. The hammer, wrapped in a cloth, could be used to hammer in and firm up the loose joint of a chair or table. The screwdriver can make thin holes in the ground to plant seeds. I don’t think that Miss Scarlet ever considered using either tool as a murder weapon in the board game of Clue, but in a pinch, either would do quite well.
Of late I have been thinking a lot about cameras as tools and just a few days ago I came up with the pseudo McLuhanesque expression, the medium suggests the method. I will use my medium format film camera the Mamiya RB-67 as an example. It used to shoot 20 exposures (6x7 cm in size) of 220 film or 10 exposures in the half-length 120 film. As soon as most manufacturers discontinued 220 film I was stuck with 10 exposures per roll. The camera comes equipped with removable film backs so I can load them up (I have three) and shoot one after the other.
But from the beginning this large and heavy camera “suggested” to me a frugality in shooting. It’s big viewfinder helped me look at every corner of my frame and I would note all the corrections I needed to make before I exposed film.
Back in the 70s, or later on when I sometimes used 35mm film cameras, my assignments could be executed with 36 exposure rolls. Even though I knew I had my shot (usually early on) I would tell my subjects that I had to finish off the roll as I did not want to waste film. “Film is expensive,” I would tell them.
In the last 10 years as the editorial jobs from the Georgia Straight began to peter out and their editorial rates were kept pitifully low while their demands for what they wanted increased I learned the frugal trick of shooting one Polaroid test in b+w and then doing the job with two or three exposure of a 10 exposure 120 roll of Ektachrome. When possible I tried to stack together more than one job and I would do two and even three with one 10 exposure roll. Doing this was exciting and I was never asked by the folks of the Straight, “Do you have other versions of this?”
My Mamiya RB when placed on a heavy tripod is secure but if you wanted to twist the camera on its side to go from a vertical format to a horizontal format it would be a time consuming job. The folks at Mamiya rose to that occasion by designing a film back that rotates so you can turn it to the vertical or horizontal mode. In my years as a magazine photographer (beginning around 1977) I have rarely had my photographs cropped. I would always shoot a vertical and a horizontal version of everything. And the folks at the Straight demanded only vertical pictures for their arts pages so I never had to opt for shooting those two or three shots as horizontal versions, too.
Because of my frugality I have always used a very good flash/exposure meter. By making sure that every exposure I took was the right one I never did waste film in what many photographers call bracketing. This means shooting a burst of at least three exposures with half-f-stop increments either way of the supposed correct exposure. My experience is that the portrait with the perfect expression was the one that was too light or too dark.
My Mamiya has an accessory Polaroid back (I shoot Fuji instant film now). From the beginning I standerized my photographic method by using film that was always the same ISO speed rating of 100. I noticed that when I removed the battery from either of my two Minolta meters that when I would re-install it the meter would automatically read 100 IS0. For many years I always duplicated my shooting by doing so in colour and in b+w. The Mamiya allows the photographer to shift back and forth between two different kinds of film and ultimately with a as many as you want if you have a film back for each. So I used 100 ISO b+w film and Kodak Ecktachrome 100. I never had problems in setting my meter to match the film in the camera.
The fact that my Mamiya RB is fully manual and has no built-in light meter has meant that I never had to override any faulty exposure failure of the built in meter the camera did not have.
My adaptation to my tool (the Mamiya RB) meant and has meant that I had a very low incidence of photographic failure. In editorial photography this means being able to provide a magazine or newspaper art director with one useable image with no excuses.
As a dinosaur of the film age I have not adapted my photographic procedure in any way except to realize that film and my good film scanner combine to give me a pleasant cushion to save an unforeseeable (not frequent with me since I have duplicate equipment in my camera bag) exposure. A slightly overexposed slide was toast. Now it can be fixed. The dark under exposed slide can be brightened up. But my scanner has never been a crutch. I depend on my two identical Minolta meters to keep my exposures accurate.
This means that in many respects my camera (my Mamiya RB) is much like the hammer or the screwdriver I mention above. I have adapted to the camera’s design assets. That it is heavy has meant that I have learned to use a tripod and then without having to worry about moving myself around (or moving my hands and arms up or down) I can concentrate through that big viewfinder to notice the nuance of expression of my subject. I can move the camera up or down millimeters or centimeters on the tripod column and notice how this affects the look of my subject’s face. When I find the right place I can take two or three shots and play with the expression knowing that the angle of my camera is the right one and secure. While Mamiya did make an expensive zoom lens I could never afford it nor did I ever want one. I use really only three focal lengths, a 50mm wide angle, a 90mm normal lens and an extremely sharp 140mm longer lens. In the wings I have a 65mm and a 250mm telephoto for special situations. This means that my pictures are never taken at 98.76 mm or 53.85 mm. The shutter speeds of my Mamiya lenses are mechanical so I can opt for 1/250 or perhaps 1/15 second. Modern electronic cameras give you stepless (to me confusing) speeds like 1/753 of a second.
In short my medium, my Mamiya RB and other ancillary items (important) as my one light soft box method and a gray wall, has “suggested” what has in the end (but early on) became my recognizable and fairly lucrative style.
To put that in another way this style has been my adaptation (listening to my camera’s silent suggestions) to the reduced parameters of my camera. I have found that reduced parameters lead to creativity while over-choice does the exact opposite.
Now in the 21st century we have fewer camera manufacturers but they make incredible machines of miniaturized electronic engineering. They are wonders of what we are capable designing. These cameras come with so many options that their manuals are as complex as the motherboards of the on-board processors of these Digital Single Lens Cameras or DSLRs.
The back lit viewing screen that pops up on the back of the camera after each exposure guarantees (almost as those storage cards, the closest equivalent to film in those cameras, can become corrupt), at the very least an approximation that all systems are working correctly and that the picture is in focus (or not) and correctly exposed (or not) and that the chosen crop is the one want (or not). Many of us make fun of these photographers that check (chimp) after every exposure. But few of us remember how dependant we soon became to checking, every once in a while, what we were doing with a Polaroid back on our medium format cameras or bigger 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras. There were some very rich American magazine photographers that had special Polaroid camera backs made for their Nikons!
I do believe that chimping with a DSLR somehow results in a sort of photographic coitus interruptus. It makes the photographer work in a jerky manner. While I do believe that one should cultivate a relationship with ones subject (particularly for a magazine shoot) the moving of the camera to our subject so that both of us can see the little picture in the back forces some sort of instant closeness that might affect one’s objectivity as a magazine or newspaper photographer.
As a Mamiya RB shooter I see myself as sharpshooter with an instrument where each bullet (or exposure) must count. I see DSLR shooters as Gatling Gun operators hoping that in their spray they might hit the target.
I can list here the many advantages of the modern DSLR. There is the obvious one that if you travel you need not worry about airport security x-rays fogging up your film. A DSLR’s ability to adapt with white balance to any kind of lighting situation or to even make a cloudy blue day into a more cheerful one is another. But many a digital photographer, unable to force themselves to shoot with accurate exposure by using a good meter, is forced to shoot in the RAW format This results in long hours of post production work flow (not paid by most customers). The RAW format gives a photographer ample room for exposure failure correction and even white balance correction.
What this means is that the DSLR photographer will shoot bursts of exposures showing a person without much change instead of the photographer taking the time to pick the right expression.
DSLR advertising tells us that with one of these in our hands we can do anything. Camera advertising has been spotty since the beginning. I remember Olympus harping that their cameras came equipped with ESP! With the digital wonder in hand we will rarely decide to use supplementary lighting. It is supplementary lighting that helps to take a picture’s look away from that uniformity of the norm that we see in Flicker. The camera is then capable of doing anything and this anything is the very anything that all those photographers with a camera like you are doing.
It is a DSLR’s capacity to do anything that makes the photographer flounder in over choice. It is up to the photographer to somehow talk back to that digital wonder and suggest back, “I want to do this, and you are going to do just that and shut up.” Until each individual photographer does that photographs are going to have the boring uniformity of Flickr.
further musings into change in the 21st century.