Wednesday, December 23, 2009

19th Century New Guinea Canoe Prow Detail

This beautiful carved wood boat prow from New Guinea is in the basement of the St. Louis Art Museum, the detail presented here as a faux Holga image.  Which got me to thinking...

My first experience with shooting with a toy camera was in the Fall of 1970 through a Photography I at Florissant Valley Community College.  My serious interest in photography began earlier that year.  By the time I showed up for the college course, I had already built and outfitted a darkroom, bought a Nikkormat and two Nikkor lenses, absorbed many technical manuals and monographs by photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen.  That Summer I burned through at least 100 rolls of Tri-X and made a trip to New York City to see Irving Penn's incredible platinum prints.  I also quit my job at an IGA grocery store when I landed an assistant photographer job at Todd Studios, where I learned how to operate an 11x14 Deardorf and run a custom black and white lab.  Nonetheless, I remember that I was concerned that I was not sufficiently prepared for a college level course devoted to my new found passion.

I was immediately disappointed with the Photography I class.  The teacher gave us the syllabus and it was clear that photo history, chemistry and optics would not be discussed.  The supplies list for the class required us to buy a Diana a toy camera, similar to the very popular Holga, and 50 rolls of Tri-X 120 film.  We were told that we would process the film in Kodak Dektol, a paper developer, instead of film developer to boost the contrast of the fuzzy plastic lens.  I asked the teacher if it would be acceptable for those of us who already had cameras to execute the assignments our existing gear.  The teacher's response:

"No, absolutely not!  You will experience a thrill in the darkroom when you see a picture you made emerge the first time in the developer.  I want you all to shoot hundreds of pictures with an inferior camera so that you get over that thrill and learn that pictures are not good just because you made them.  That is what this course is about.  To make you critical of your own work."

Why was everyone to use the same camera?  Our teacher also said she didn't want to try to deal with helping students use twenty different makes and models of camera - it would take up to much class time and be too chaotic.  As a reminder, in 1970 there was no auto-focus, let alone a complex digital menu systems.  The adjustments available were focus, f-stop and shutter speed.  In-camera meters were simple analog match needles.  To figure out the controls on any camera from that period or earlier should take no more than 30 seconds, a basic skill I'd expect a Photography I class to impart.

So I bought the camera and completed the first two week's assignments and learned several valuable lessons:

  • Not all teachers are qualified to teach.  I'd had bad teachers before, but this one set a new low.  She had no idea what she was doing.  I caught her in so many basic technical flubs in the first two classes, it was clear to me that she was not a practicing photographer.  
  • A college photography course is a total waste of time and money.  I confess I thought Photography I was a fluke, so I talked my way into Photography II.  Different school, different teacher, same technical and artistic inferiority.  Use the tuition to buy books and gear.  
  • The best way to learn photography is to shoot, find and mimic photographers you admire, learn from your mistakes and get a job as an assistant for a good photographer.  The apprentice system makes the most sense for learning the arts, especially photography.  
  • Best of all, you can get a full refund when you drop a class, as I did with both photo classes.
I got nothing practical out of my Diana experience in 1970, other than a renewed appreciation for fine German and Japanese optics and engineering.  In the past 20 years or so, a number of photographers have embraced toy cameras, considering the light leaks, lens aberrations and scratched film as positive attributes to their pictures.  In 2009 alone, there were two major toy camera photo exhibits in St. Louis.  While the shows had a few memorable images, in general it seemed to me that viewers were expected to somehow give a handicap to photographers for using inferior cameras.

While I might be the first to admire the Impressionist and antique feel of images from cameras like the Holga, I'm not personally comfortable limiting image quality at the time of capture.  Perhaps this view is driven by my early experience at Todd Studios, making contact prints from old 11x14 glass plates, the same type used in 1890 by Stiegliz and Steichen.  For them, the subject matter and printing process produced the Impressionist qualities, not the camera gear.  Today, at least for me, this means trying for the best possible capture, then transforming into the picture I had in mind when I shot it.  This allows me to experiment with degrees of pictorialism, rather than have the equipment to lock me in to a particular picture with random streaks and scratches.

Technical: Nikon D700, Nikkor 24-84mm f2.8-f4, ISO 800, 45mm @ f/4.0 @ 1/6s, handheld.  RAW file processed in Lightroom 2.6, then edited in Nik Silver Efex Pro to applied the "Holga" custom style and "pulled" copper toner effect.  The "Holga" style adds quite a bit of grain and a heavy vignette.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

person sounds like a pompous know it all. Too bad his work and knowledge doesn't match up to the size of his ego.