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FP100C

There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the analog photography community this week regarding the untimely demise of Fuji's FP100c pack film, the last instant film available for use with medium format cameras like my Hasselblad.  I know for me that every time a product I use gets discontinued I not only feel the loss of that creative tool, but also question why I continue to go against the grain and pursue an art form that is becoming ever more anachronistic.  I'm going to let my geek flag fly a moment and admit that at times like this I always think of this exchange between Gimli and Éomer in Tolkein's Return of the King:

"You have chosen the Evening, but my love is given to the Morning. And my heart forebodes that soon it will pass away for ever."

The Lord of the Rings books are suffused with a sense of melancholy for a world that is a shadow of its former self, and soon to fade away.  Tolkien's writing and worldview were surely influenced by his service in the First World War, which profoundly traumatized his generation and in many ways represented the death of the world as his people knew it.  However, this sentiment of love in the face of ephemerality is a universal human theme, and one revisited again and again in literature.  This idea of loving a diminished and vanishing world mirrors how I often feel about analog photography.

 Carbon.  Mamiya RZ67, FP100c

Carbon.  Mamiya RZ67, FP100c

At times like these I think it is worth remembering that it is our privilege to enjoy this art-form with the greater appreciation for its vulnerability and transience.  When I use my Rolleiflex, I do so knowing that I am her steward and there will never be any more like her produced.  The Cibachrome print on my wall is more special because I could never have another one made.  I am grateful to pursue my art with these tools while they are still available, and when they are gone I am grateful that I experienced them.  It is my hope that analog photography will always have a place in the visual arts, but it would be folly to expect it to become anything other than more niche, challenging, and limited in scope.

So I would exhort those in the analog community to be grateful for the experiences we have had with discontinued photographic tools and to enjoy those which are still available.  Life is finite and fleeting, and we must enjoy the last of the morning before its gone.

Blind Spots

While this attitude was probably an asset in keeping me receptive to critical feedback and helping me to identify areas for improvement, over the years I’ve begun to recognize that distrust in my own vision can be as severe a handicap as a blindspot for my own flaws.  I have reached points in my efforts at photography where I have been consciously attempting to create images where nothing was wrong with them....

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Vermeer & Cheating

Vermeer & Cheating

Last night my wife and I watched “Tim’s Vermeer,” a documentary about an inventor who set out to prove that part of the remarkable virtuosity of Johannes Vermeer’s work may be explained by his use of technology to turn himself into a human camera.  The hypothesis of the film is that Vermeer utilized a combination of a variation of camera obscura along with an angled mirror to ensure perfect color and tone fidelity, along with fine detail...

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Nostalgia

As I was perusing my photography forums the other day, I stumbled across a post where a guy complained that he was feeling uninspired in his photos, and was considering trying film.  As one would expect on a forum devoted to digital photography, he was discouraged from this line of thought by most of the other participants in the thread.  This in itself is neither unusual nor worth writing about.  However, one of the criticisms of film and film-users struck me as interesting:

"Its nostalgia by both those who did shoot
film way back when and those who have
never shot film."

I found this to be an interesting criticism, because in my view nostalgia is the fundamental matter of photographs, which are just echoes of moments past.    As soon as a photograph is made, it is a representation of a world that no longer exists.  We use photographs to record places we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we’ve loved.  There is no way to repudiate nostalgia without condemning the practice of photography.  I wholeheartedly admit that I shoot film cameras with a sense of nostalgia, and I feel no need to apologize for it!

The Formals

The Formals

When I was younger and just starting out shooting weddings, like many of my colleagues I took a somewhat dim view of “the formals.”  The group photographs at weddings, save for the occasional “rockstar” bridal party shot, were typically something of an assembly-line affair.  These shots couldn’t claim the drama possible in the individual and couple’s portraits, and lacked the raw emotional impact of well-executed documentary work.  Large group portraits were simply a check-the-block item, to be accomplished as efficiently as possible.  This view was reinforced by the fact that many young couples took a similar view: these group shots were a “necessary evil” to placate older relatives...

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William Eggleston

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

 The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

Perhaps more than any other photographer, William Eggleston is credited with legitimizing color photography in the art world.  Eggleston was certainly not the first or even among the earliest color photographers, but he was the first whose color work secured broad acceptance and support among the curators and critics that stand watch at the perimeter of the world of “fine art.”  Eggleston’s work has been described as “elevating the quotidian.“ (quote taken from the show at the Frist center in TN a few years back).  For those of you unfamiliar with that last term, it is a rather fancy and unusual way to say “everyday,” and is favored by art critics the world over.  Eggleston’s color work gained acceptance, at least in part, because it was the first serious work judged by the cognoscenti in which color was integral to the image, rather than an incidental addition. 

Eggleston’s subject-matter is primarily the American south, identifying scenes, people. or objects that others might ignore as worthy of more serious consideration.  Most of his strongest work features the use of the profoundly labor intensive and expensive dye-transfer process, which not only renders some of the richest colors of which a print is capable, but also invests both time and money in “elevating” the subject matter.  The very act of utilizing such a process is a statement of the investment the photographer has in these apparently mundane subjects.

 Untitled (Horse) from Southern Suite, by William Eggleston 

Untitled (Horse) from Southern Suite, by William Eggleston 

However, for all of the complex theoretical underpinnings of Eggleston’s work, both my wife and I cannot help but feel that Eggleston is the spiritual Godfather of every teenager who took a picture of his or her feet and called it “art.”  This photography exists at an extreme end of a spectrum of unpretentiousness and deliberate artlessness, where the line between brilliance and everyone’s instagram selfies becomes awfully murky.  Take, for example, this image that my wife and I have taken to calling “underwhelming pony.”  (prints of which typically sell at auction for 5 figures)  Perhaps I can blame the same deficiencies of character that prevent me from enjoying dry sherries and goat cheeses, but I struggle to understand the significance of this image despite a reasonable comfort with the artist’s body of work and a respect for the method by which it was created.

I believe that the generalization of the Eggleston ideal described above has both negative and positive effects on photographers as a group.  Certainly, the democratization of subject matter has freed would-be photographers from a narrow band of acceptable subjects for artistic endeavor.  Artists like Eggleston have given license to photographers who would be artists to explore their own worlds, regardless of what those worlds are or the perspective the photographer chooses.  However, in light of our modern generation of people brought up on participation trophies and unconditional validation, it reinforces as sense of relativism: technique doesn’t matter, and all perspectives and subjects are equally valid.  I have seen this borne out time and again among both professionals and amateurs: photographers expecting and demanding praise for their images simply because it is their “unique vision.” 

For these reasons I find my relationship with Eggleston’s work to be an uneasy one.  I vacillate between respecting what I perceive to be the intellectual underpinnings of his oeuvre, and feeling compelled to point out the emperor’s nudity.  And more generally, I sometimes find myself struggling with the asceticism of the more extreme examples of the snapshot aesthetic.  While I generally favor simple, honest photographs free from extraneous gimmicks, these images are often aggressively Spartan and unadorned, deliberately eschewing any semblance of craftsmanship in favor of immediacy.  But while this lack of craft or technique may be viewed as ascetic in the way it strips down photographs to pure depictions of a subject, it paradoxically maintains a level of decadence and self-indulgence in the presumption of the photographer that he or she may confer significance almost by divine right, without any real effort or skill required.

So I struggle with the fact that while the logical intellectual conclusion of my photographic philosophy, at least in part, is represented in the work of Eggleston and his fellows, I cannot unreservedly endorse this manner of artistic extremism.  However, I have to wonder that few groups of images produce so much dynamic tension in my mind, and perhaps that has artistic value of its own.

Robert Frank & Burying the Subject

Anyone who aspires to move beyond simply owning a camera and desires to become a photographer typically seeks an application of art or craft that will differentiate his or her images from mere “snapshots.”  One of the fundamental premises of “good” photography that is preached in all classrooms, formal or informal, is that a photographer will use techniques to direct the attention of the viewer...

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