Archive for September, 2010

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I had a minor epiphany the other day about a certain source of unease I feel regarding photography.

The epiphany happened while I was mulling over the subject of video games and their relationship to art. I was listening to the Joystiq Podcast episode in which Ludwig Kietzmann talks about Bulletstorm. I forget his phrasing on the podcast, but here’s what he wrote in his preview:

> Writing about games always comes with a peculiar kind of self-defeating dissonance. This morning, I might have grabbed a metaphorical megaphone and shoved it in some ebert’s ear, right before laying out why Shadow of the Colossus is such a magnificent meditation on loss and sacrifice and etc. “Games involve and encourage and inspire!” I’d say. “It’s for grownups, you know.”

> And then, just a few hours later, I’ll write about a game that’s awesome because it lets you kick people to death.

This made something click for me: I really like video games — despite not being all that good at them, and despite not playing them all that much. But maybe even more than playing them, I like reading and listening to people share what they think and feel about video games. I like the intellectual culture surrounding gaming.

I also like TV. I like TV a lot. I think about TV a lot, and I talk about it, and good television is quite possibly my favorite sort of media to experience. And I take the idea of good television extremely seriously.

I don’t particularly like movies. I mean, some movies are excellent. But I find that, by and large, I am nowhere near as excited by a good movie as I am by a good television show. Even more so with theater. I feel out of place as a member of those audiences.

And when it comes to fiction writing, I am _strongly_ biased towards genre work.

All this, plus my enjoyment of photography — and, specifically, the aspects of the photographic world which make me _uncomfortable_ — point to a very strong, fundamental bias on my part: I prefer media that have not gained acceptance as art and, in general, legitimation.

I like stuff happening in cultural contexts where the “high” and “low” have not yet differentiated themselves into mutually exclusive markets, where the best and worst work sit side-by-side on the shelves or the walls — and where conversations about quality, taste, and worth cannot be shut down by simply pointing to the segregation of high and low markets. These are contexts which have a more democratic flavor to them, and a more diverse one — and as such, I feel more at home in them.

These are also, significantly, the contexts in which separate scales of value have not yet been created for audiences of different socioeconomic class.

This is perhaps why I’m generally drawn to photography that took place in the time prior to the ’80’s (that is, amusingly, prior to my birth), when the longtime dream of creating legitimacy for photography as an art form was more or less accomplished. And also why I’m uncomfortable with both the world of contemporary art photography and the world of contemporary commercial photography — and the communities of wannabes that orient toward either of those worlds.

I’m not sure whether that should make me optimistic or pessimistic about the future. In general, that gap gets wider as time goes on — look at theater, which is basically either highly rarefied or is Cats, and look at cinema, where it feels like more and more, every movie can be classified either as indy or blockbuster.

However, it seems like the lines in photography are getting somewhat more blurred recently — or, rather, that the contexts which are defined by those lines are overlapping more and more. I don’t think this is necessarily making photography a more democratic and diverse place than it was in the 90’s, say, but I do think it makes the direction of the medium more uncertain, and maybe more open to redirection…which is maybe enough cause for a bit of optimism. God, I certainly hope so…

Origin stories

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

I noticed something recently while reading a post on La Pura Vida. A photographer began by saying, “before I can talk about my photography it’s important to share my history,” and then proceeded to say something which I’ve read (with some variations) many times before:

I was given a small kodak instant camera as a kid. I used it for the single purpose of taking back memories to my parents when I was away from home, to share with them what I had lived. I couldn’t bare the idea of them being absent and not experiencing what I was seeing. I was obsessed with the – “Look what I saw!”

via Featured – Alex Cretey | la pura vida

I find a lot of interviews with photographers and essays by photographers start with something like this — a disclosure of childhood experiences that flowered into photographic obsession.

For photographers, origin stories often start at a very early age.

I don’t have anything of the sort — I had zero interest in photography as a kid, aside from occasionally envying any gadget that had so many controls on it. A good thing, too, since I could never have afforded film for a camera back then. I was — and remained until quite recently — a fundamentally word-based person, with virtually no interest in art of any kid, just the written and the spoken word.

I got my first camera for an entirely pedestrian purpose (I wanted to be able to photograph my knitting). Inevitably, like every other asshole with a camera, I started using it to make flower macros and shit, too, just because I could. Some of that stuff is probably still lingering in my flickr account.

But I think the shift toward thinking of the camera as something more came when I realized that the camera could see things more clearly than I could.

This was not a metaphysical realization, mind you — my eyesight had become pretty bad for distant subjects, and because I don’t drive, it was a long time before I was forced to do something about it and actually get glasses. This was around the same time I started using the camera out in the world, but there was still a window of a few weeks or months in which my clearest view of the world was on the back of a crappy LCD.

When I would see something that — despite its fuzziness — I thought might be interesting, I would photograph it simply for the purpose of being able to inspect the details I could not otherwise perceive.

At that point, the camera was acting for me as a kind of mild prosthetic. It was an extension of my eyes, a tool for seeing. Since then, while I’ve gone much deeper into the medium, I don’t think I’ve strayed too far from that initial, banal relationship with cameras; I still basically see the practice of photography as an act of perception, although as time passes (and I got glasses), that has been more and more in the phenomenological sense and less and less in the optical sense.

This probably has a lot to do with my distrust of “creative” photography and many flavors of conceptually-oriented photography…


Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Ricoh GRD II

Please forgive that horrible photograph. It’s a product of two powerful competing impulses: On the one hand, it seems stupid to write about a product without picturing it, and on the other hand, I’m at a point in my life where I simply refuse to put effort into to stupid gear photos.

Needless to say, there are plenty of reviews online that provide very nice pictures of the camera, as well as (almost) all the technical information you could require.

So, as to the camera, why do I have it, and what do I have to say about it that isn’t just summarizing dpreview?

Well, for starters, I should explain why I bought a new (used) digital camera. As you may know, I started on digital, but switched to film almost completely. I’m a still a hardcore film convert (and as any student of religion knows, converts are the ones who are always most strident), and I have some very nice, very portable film cameras, including the semi-pocketable Olympus XA.

But, a few different factors conspired to make me desire a compact digital camera:

* Sometimes I’m in social situations where a photograph is called for, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something for a blog post, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something to put online the same day (but don’t feel like busting out a big camera and polaroid back)

In the past, those factors never overcame my hatred for some of the ubiquitous features of digital compacts, like:

* Autofocus
* No usable MF option
* No scale focus option
* Often absurdly impossible UI
* Shitty image quality

In discussions about these problems, folks have often brought up Ricoh’s GR Digital cameras, which I previously ignored, because they’re so damnably expensive. However, I happened to take a look one day at both the focus and exposure options on the GR Digital II and it’s price on the used market, which is comparatively pretty reasonable.

So, after a bit more research and digging, I ordered one.

Now, I won’t go into what it looks like or its specifications, etc., because you can get that information in more detail elsewhere very easily. What I will address is the question that typically most interests me about digital compacts, the question which virtually no reviews of those compacts ever actually addresses:

Can the camera be used for LCD-free, scale focus street shooting, the way I would use a film compact?

Street photography isn’t the only or even necessarily the primary thing I want this camera for, but I strongly feel that this sort of scenario is one in which every small format camera should be able to offer at least acceptable usability. Obviously the camera market as a whole disagrees with me; but is Ricoh the exception?

Yes and no. Or, rather, yes, with some annoying caveats.

On the yes side:

* Yes, you can turn off the LCD and all noises
* Yes, there is what amounts to a hyperfocal setting
* Yes, there is an electronic DOF scale for effective manual prefocusing
* Yes, the camera can be made to record a photograph near-instantaneously
* Yes, it has aperture priority and manual exposure modes
* Yes, there are aperture and shutter speed controls under your finger and thumb where they should be
* Yes, the camera has a hot shoe and can reliably sync a corded flash at (so far as I can tell) speeds up to about 1/1000 or so

On the annoying caveat side:

* The camera does not appear to meter continuously in aperture priority mode; i.e., if you skip straight to a shutter release full press without a half-press first — which you should be able to do when working sans autofocus — you will often get seriously inaccurate exposures
* Also, the camera does not have enough dynamic range to allow you to be sloppy in your exposures
* This makes it impossible to abandon the LCD completely, because one cannot simply trust the camera to accurately expose for you
* While there is a mode which allows you to view settings on the LCD but skip the live view (good), that mode does not display the settings continuously; you have to twiddle a control to make the settings appear.
* It tends to crap out around ISO 400 in the “noise acceptability department.”
* Despite having a fixed lens, it does not have a built-in viewfinder, and while accessory finders are available, they are wickedly expensive. (As are many finders made for film cameras that cover a similar FOV, so I don’t mean to imply that Ricoh is trying to shaft the user on this front; wide angle finders simply aren’t cheap.)

Off Oxford St.

There are also some annoyances that aren’t really design complaints, but which frustrate me nonetheless. The delay in writing RAW files to the card, and the unnecessarily large size of those files, are particularly chafing. You would think that a camera with so many incredibly intelligent design choices targeted at an unusually sensible (in terms of photographic practices) market segment would favor less pixel density.

I’m also finding it difficult going, getting the hang of working with those files. So far, I’ve only managed to get results I like by going black and white, for example. However, hopefully that will improve as I get more practice with the camera.

But, at the end of the day, will I be using it?

Car Seats Facing Bing Wong

The answer is yes, or at least probably. There simply aren’t that many digital cameras that allow me to easily — by simply twitching a preset — go from ideal settings for daylight hyperfocal street shooting to ideal settings for shooting with a handheld flash. Not even my D40 — although that camera’s beautifully simple interface when paired with a non-metering lens remains the envy of most digital cameras, as far as I am concerned.

It’s too bad that I can’t use the GRDII like the digital equivalent of an XA — which, with its extremely reliable metering system and simple operation, is one of the most stress-free cameras imaginable in most situations.

But at the same time, I’m not exactly averse to busting out my handheld meter and getting old school. Doing so gets me the ability to more or less reliably pre-set exposure, and I have an adequate (although not perfect) eye for the 28mm-equivalent field of view. In other words, it’s a workable solution, even if it is not the ideal one.

Of course, if only someone would release a camera like a digital equivalent of the Rollei 35 — with external, top-viewable dials for exposure settings and a built-in VF — I would be a completely happy camper. But since that’s not going to happen, the GRD is probably going to be good enough…