I am probably as addicted to reading camera and lens reviews as any photographer or “gear head.” Often, as I droll over the latest DSLR body or lens that I can’t afford, I have to remind myself that I don’t have time to use to their full potential the two Nikons and assorted lenses that I already own, so why waste my time and mental energy even bothering to look?
Of course, I can justify the window shopping as staying abreast of developments in the industry. But since I pretty much hung up my professional photographer’s vest a few years ago, after cataract surgery forced me into the world of reading glasses, I’m just kidding myself. There is a fine line between staying abreast and lust. Despite what that devil on the shoulder would tell you, it usually does hurt to look at that Adorama email or Nikon Rumors website.
We build mausoleums for our exhausted bodies, but give little thought to preserving our digital lives. Words, moving pictures and photographs ought to last beyond the cloud or life of a smart phone.
With the passing of my mother recently, I am reminded of the short distance I have left to cover in this life. The hair is almost gray, the hearing shot and the legs ache. Somedays the fire that once burned like the one in my woodstove on a windy night is but a few embers when it comes to getting out the camera and exploring the forest, lake or some lonely street with it. Having used an SLR since I was in high school, yes way back in 1972, I’ve documented pretty much all I can think of documenting. There are thousands of slides to be scanned, thousands of negatives whose images are likely to be forgotten if I don’t take the time to scan them, describe them and file them before the last few brain cells expire.
Our world is awash in images. Pictures are as cheap as words. I chose the worst possible occupations at which to make a living, photography and writing. Everybody with keyboard and Internet connection is a writer, and everybody with a smart phone is a photographer. You can find a photograph of just about anything online and if you can’t, capturing one is as easy as finding the subject. And when you’re done with the imaging, it will be worth pretty much what every other picture is worth online.
Paid assignments are rare and far between; there’s always a “good camera” owner on staff these days who can take the annual report or marketing photos that the company once called upon a professional to do. Parents, dads in particular, have a good excuse to buy expensive camera gear as soon as the mom finds out she’s three days pregnant.
Living in a small, blue-collar, Midwestern town where art is not much appreciated or understood makes the challenge even greater. If a photographer puts a great deal of effort and thought into making an image, develops a style or exhibits technical mastery of the media, it is likely to go unnoticed because the viewer’s cell phone is capable of producing a facsimile. I’m always amused by cell phone photographers who take pictures of other photographer’s work at art shows and festivals. I spent one gruelingly hot summer sitting under a canopy at area festivals, attempting to sell enough prints to pay for the space. After two such weekends of wrestling with a 90-pound canopy, forcing a smile as people strolled by and being broiled on asphalt, I sold the canopy and sent the matted prints to a consignment shop.
On a rare occasion I had the camera handy as I was working in the garage one winter evening. My wife had left me and the garage and property felt so lonely; life felt so bleak. I felt like half a circle, the person who was supposed to make me feel whole had left, and all that remained was this lonely cottage and bleak landscape. There was in the fresh snow only one set of tire tracks, further reminder of my solitude. Looking at the image today, I recall the pain I felt, but the casual viewer sees only a window, snow and trees. If the viewer finds some beauty in that, the image resonates. But it will never resonate with the viewer as it does with the image maker, who was in the moment, not just the scene.
I have a theory that if people want to purchase photographs to hang on their wall, they will have prints made of their own work because it is much more meaningful to them than the work of another person. They were in the moment, and their expression of it reflects what they were feeling and awakens those emotional memories every time they look at the picture. A sunset photo with a tilted horizon and blown-out sky will still trump a perfectly exposed and composed one if it is of a favorite place or vacation.
Ironically, this plethora of mediocre, easy done images comes at a time when photographers are positioned to capture extraordinary images because of the capabilities of equipment at our disposal (assuming the photographer works on Wall Street or has a solid line of credit). Lenses that are f/1.4, sensors that can see in the dark, optics with razor sharp resolution, software that can compensate for a host of shortcomings in both the equipment and person operating are standard.
Oddly enough, when I read equipment reviews the illustrations rarely depict the full potential of the lens or camera. We’re so obsessed with “bokeh” that ketchup bottles and garden flowers are used pressed into subjects for these reviews because they are handy. The old walk around the neighborhood and shots of brick walls also abound in the reviews because the new owner just had the lens delivered on his lunch hour and wanted to shoot some images with it so he could post a quick review, that is tell the world he just put down $2,000 for a lens that will be used to take pictures of street lamps. And if he has time, he’ll make a video of the item being unboxed. What’s with that?
As I look back on the subjects that I wasted film and time on, I’m frustrated by all the flower, forest, waterfall and sunset photos. Why did I take these things? 40 years later, and the sun is still setting, the leaves turning and the snow falling. Prosaic stuff.
A portrait of the late National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel, photographed in Aurora, W.Va., was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had an introverted photographer. I gained his trust when I pulled out the tripod for the session; being old school, he liked the fact that I recognized my shortcomings and desired the sharpest image possible. Ironically, the shot I liked best was done without a tripod, in a “down” moment.
Too seldom did I turn the lens on the human life around me. Introverted and fearful of confrontation, I’ve always had an aversion to photographing people. Even buildings scared me, in the event someone ran outside and challenged me, or a passerby in a car would shout the same stupid thing, “Hey take my picture.”
Why oh why did I ever get interested in this stuff?
I suppose it is because as an introvert it is easy to hide behind a camera. I am by nature an observer, and even if a camera is not in my hand, my mind is often noticing the light, the expressions, the play of colors, the compositions that take form as life interacts with life within the frame of the infinite second. Images are metaphors to me, and unfortunately few other share that metaphoric interpretation of what they see.
Laziness is another reason I take photographs, and that ties into my work as a writer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The one magazine I write for pays 10 cents a word, so that’s $100. But they only pay $25 for a picture, so the adage isn’t correct, or at least it has not been adjusted for the plethora of both images and words. No, a picture is worth not much. And it is much easier to snap a picture than to study a subject and really get to know it to the point a description can be put into 1,000 words rather than 36 megapixels.
I see metaphor in the things I photograph. I made this image last spring as I struggled with the heartbreak of divorce and recovery from the emotional wreckage in my life. Those things hung as deep shadows on the wall of being, but a vine of hope was emerging through those shadows, following the light upward.
What we forget in all of this is that what we’re capturing is not the real thing but a reflection, it is all a reflection or a shadow of reality. The only thing we really capture is what goes into and stays in our brain. If the researcher is lucky, we’ll take the time to write it out in a journal that has paper for pages and leather for a binding, that is cared for and treasured, and in a few hundred years opened and studied. That’s probably the best we can hope for.
In my mind, at least, a photograph does not become a document until it is committed to paper and preserved for the future. And words, such as these, are nothing more than thoughts as long as they float around the sphere as bytes. The same holds true for video; indeed, I wonder if we can truly call any “film” that is produced electronically and distributed in the same manner as “film” until it reposes on the silver-emulsion.
I find all of this rather distressing given how many people store their family’s memories on their cellphones, in the cloud and on hard drives prone to failure. Perhaps it is a blessing that all those selfies of smiling faces, tongues protruding toward the lens and noses distorted, will be someday lost forever. Then again, they were only shadows.
Earlier this week I ran across an advertisement in an 1868 newspaper. It was from a photographer’s studio; it simply stated “Secure the shadow ere the substance fades.” This morning I am reminded that the substance of mother has faded, her shadow disappeared from the walls and floors of my life. What I captured in the living years is all I will have of her on paper. And I regret that I did not pay more attention to those shadows when the substance was still with me. This, despite having thousands of dollars worth of equipment at my disposal. The camera and lenses stayed in their satchels, safe from harm, safe from shadows, whenever she came to visit. The most recent photograph I could find was from my father’s 84th birthday party in 2016.
My parents, Carl and Cossette Feather, and my cousin, Greg Rumer, and his wife Michelle, at Dad’s birthday picnic in 2016. Lucy was more interested in the food than the camera. It is the last picture I have of my mother; what happened to those other 16 months? I failed to “secure the shadow.”
It is a good memory of her; she was smiling and raving about how much she enjoyed the party and meeting the daughter of the man who built our stone cottage. My cousin Greg and his lovely wife Michelle had joined us; Mom and Dad brought their dog, Lucy, to the party. It was a good moment. And it reminds me:
“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.”
And so during a break in writing this, as I walked through the kitchen trying to remember what I went out there for in the first place, I saw Ruth’s cats, Max and Ruby, posed at the top of the steps on her heirloom sewing machine. My D750 was handy, and I quickly put an old 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor on it and forced these old eyes to manually focus for a couple of shots.