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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Photographer is..

When I started taking photography somewhat seriously, one of the long standing jokes was A Photographer is someone who can blow without spitting. This is a reference to the fact that, in those days, photographers spent a lot of time blowing dust off of things, ideally without spitting on them. Lenses, film, cameras, enlargers, more lenses, negatives, paper, etc etc etc. Photography was, to first order, a war with dust.

This is a joke that doesn't even make sense today. Most photos are taken with hermetically sealed devices. Even the interchangeable lens camera is maintained largely dust free. And, of course, as soon as the exposure is made, the scope for more dust getting involved drops to zero. It's all digital after that.

And yet, as we've simplified the process, the dedicated amateur seems to spend just as much time getting a picture done.

In fact, there seems to be a pretty constant irreducible amount of time we're willing to spend, and that we insist on spending, per picture. If anything we're spending a bit more time these days. An ambrotype takes, I dunno, an hour of labor start to finish, plus some amortized time in the background maintaining gear, mixing chemicals, and so on. A 1980s era roll film picture might be a similar effort, or a bit more, depending on how fussy a printer you were. Two hours is about my limit, start to finish, but I'm a pretty brutalist printer.

Nowadays, now that all the messy chemistry and dusting and putting things in and out of containers, and washing up trays after and and and and.. we're seeing people spending even more time on a picture. Of course, many people spend far less time as well -- click, share. But the dedicated amateur might spend a couple hours per picture, without even getting to a print. This is just some shitty landscape to stick up for +likes on some photo sharing site.

I think there's something similar to the traffic engineering phenomenon in which one cannot build highways big enough to eliminate congestion. Bigger highways with more capacity just encourage more driving, until the congestion reaches barely tolerable levels. Small, low capacity, roads discourage driving to levels with, yep, barely tolerable congestion.

In the same way, a hobbyist is willing to, and in fact insists on, spending such and such time per picture. Somewhere between 1 to 4 hours, let's say, depending on the person. That's enough to feel like you've done something of moment, and not so much that it's getting in the way of your life. Most of that work is pointless bullshit. And lest people think I'm just a luddite, looking back on the old days of wet printing, I notice that I spent a lot of time worrying about dust. Cleaning gear, and then spotting prints, and so on. All to remove little specks that nobody would ever notice.

Little specks nobody would ever notice expect me.

In the same way I love my sheet film contact prints for properties that have that nobody will ever notice except me.

In some sense, it's all just for yourself, isn't it?

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