Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fishing for exposures - Berkeley, CA

Recently I purchased a Yashica twin lens reflex camera. The model was somewhat beaten up and in pieces, but I have long covetted a twin lens and was happy to pay the $15 to have the chance to reassemble one. This particular model is from 1958 and has a few peculiarities about it which I like. The first is that it shoots medium format 120 film, which I prefer for the detail it can provide. The second, is that it has a top view. That is the subject is projected onto a matte glass screen at the top of the camera, so the photographer looks down to focus on a subject, rather than look directly at him. This approach is much less confrontational and allows for greater candidness of portraiture as it is less likely to make the subject feel scrutinized. It's a small point, but being someone who prefers the candid photo to the posed, an important technicality. This is true for all twin lens cameras, with the exception of the rare model which accepts 35 mm.

That I should now have six cameras - seven if the lens on my smartphone were counted - did not seem strange to me. It only seemed unusual in that it did not feel unusual at all to have a devotion to film. Even my one concession to digital - the camera on my phone - I have only used to take images of film prints. The six other cameras span the range of available technology from 1930 to 1990, or in the case of the pinhole I use, 1850. An odd pursuit at a time when photographs are more ubiquitous and of the least worth than at any other time.

I think the analogy of fly fishing explains the fascination quite well. I have never been fly fishing, but I understand many points of similarity between that crafts. There is the technicality of the arcane and elemental equipment, the immersion of the self in the environment of study, the attention to simple lures and to distraction, the focus of the observer and of the observed, and finally, the satisfaction of a successful capture ending in release.  Either the fly fisherman or the film photographer could easily find superior ready-made products to any he could snatch from the wild, but it is with both the thrill of having wrested something lasting from the transitory, of having gained a moment of magic against time. Here is this sleek, defined image shining up through liquid silver, coming to life as it rises.

In both there is gadgetry. For the fisherfolk, there are the radar systems and fancy reels and scented baits and snap-proof line, each ensuring a reduction to the risk of an empty hook. For myself, I am often urged by the well-meaning attendants at the camera store I frequent to try digital with every available setting or light meter. Such devices might do away with underexposure and poor timing, but I have had too many beautiful mistakes from improper exposure, expired film, and mechanical caprice to consider the safeguards seriously. Complexity is anathema to proper sport, and the best hobbies require the fewest props. I find myself bemusedly mystified by digital cameras with their myriad settings as I am by pocket knives which have too many blades. A single feature is enough for the tool.

Although there is some hypocrisy here in this idea, as there are many devices now which can take and treat images far more simply and quickly than I can. Even the simplest of devices I have - a pinhole cigar box camera - still requires the chemical skill of a darkroom and - since I do not process my own film - the patience of a week to see the results of a day's shooting. The complications have only been outsourced to where they are nearly invisible. Surely it is simpler to use a digital camera. A smartphone can do some remarkable things with exposure, requiring no darkened chamber, no supply of consumable film, and no further financial output required. Is a well-composed image any less beautiful for having been taken by a cell phone? Or, put another way, are my photographs any better for the adjustment a few knobs?

Perhaps no. To continue with the analogy, I think a trout caught on a line by a skilled fisherman would still be its equal in beauty if it were caught in a basket, or a net, or shot out with a pistol. It is only the relationship between fishermand and fish, predator and prey, subject and object which would change. I would wager that any good fisherman would rather have his preferred rod in hand and be set down upright at a favorite stream than be given a magic basket which need only be dipped in water to come back brimful of trout. He might never go hungry again with the basket, but he might never again enjoy his hobby. It is the attention, the waiting, the uncertitude which make the experience. And when the fish are not biting at all, the day is not counted a waste for lack of a catch.

Even on a bad day of photography I have still seen lovely things. I remember a moment in Seattle, outside Pike Place market, when it was clouded over and drizzly. Then the wind picked up and blew a hole in the clouds so the sun shone clear on the entrance just as a party of seven or eight Navy doughboys in starched whites came out to the street. The slick cobblestones, the darkened sky, the outline of the market sign, the sun on the crisp, white uniforms. It would have made a beautiful photograph but the film I had was not properly advanced and in the few seconds it took to ready, the moment was gone. But I think of that image with almost as much pride as I do the successful exposures. If I had one of those magic cameras than could capture images night and day, shadow and light, color and black and white, close up and far away, I might never use it. Assuming I learned how to work the device properly, there would not be enough misses, enough ones-that-got-away, enough transitory scenes like that one at Pike Place. A near miss is a loss that feels like a win. It is the setup which gives drama to the catch.