Monday, March 07, 2016

Published 12:55 AM by with 2 comments

Soul Searching - The Lost Art of Imperfection

These days, I don't seek out or need the newest, shiniest, sharpest and highest resolution photographic equipment money can buy. In fact, I'm consumed in my quest for the complete opposite - a kind of illusive, soulful quality that I've only experienced shooting with vintage lenses.

Years ago, before we (us humans) refined the process of mass production, things were crafted with our bare hands. Even those things that weren't entirely handmade at least had a visible human touch. It could be seen in loose dabs of paint or in the way, for instance, the corner of a piece of wood or metal was finished. It's now the kind of thing sought after by collectors but I've had an appreciation for it since my childhood.
Nowadays, if something is not perfect, we demand a replacement and, by cracky, we'll get it. While there are a few things in my life that I wish were perfect, my own photography is not one of them.
I spent years honing my craft so that my photographs would look "professional". At some point, I think I crossed that threshold because, looking back on my early attempts, I can clearly see marked improvement.
When I reached my goal, I thought I would be ecstatic but the more "perfect" my images became, the more they drifted from my vision of what a good photograph ought to be. With the passing of time, each image became more sterile, more clinical and had less... soul.
Today's cameras can capture enough information to faithfully render the appearance of anything we choose to shoot. Yet, companies keep telling us we need more resolution, bigger screens, more colors, sharper images. It's insane. What they don't say is that you need a brand new computer to process all of that new and unnecessary information or a bigger room to accommodate your giant TV. Now the multimegapixel photograph of your cat that you shot with your phone can be printed to fit a billboard in Times Square. You can also capture video of that same cat on your phone at a staggering 4K Ultra HD resolution that wouldn't look amiss on an IMAX screen!!
Aside from all this absurdity, it also becomes cost-prohibitive. For my upcoming trip to Alaska, I wanted a lens with a decent reach for my anticipated wildlife encounters. Fujifilm's new 100-400mm lens is almost $2000! I can't afford that. So I did my research on the Web to figure out a decent alternative. A quick look on eBay resulted in the discovery of a Russian lens, made in the 70s, that closely resembles a rocket launcher. It is 300mm (with my crop sensor, that's about a 450mm full-frame equivalency). It has no image stabilization, no autofocus but, with some care on a tripod, I can get perfectly acceptable shots. They are not going to be edge-to-edge sharp but I don't care. The lens cost me $80.
I have a couple more vintage Russian lenses that have helped me find the soul in my work once again. Maybe it's the flaws in the old glass, maybe it's the fact that I have to be more methodical using manual focus, or maybe I'm creating something beyond the basic image. Is it possible to photograph the emotion or feeling of a place? I think it is and these old lenses somehow strip all the precision away and facilitate that magic.
My most unusual experiment recently has been to couple my Fujifilm camera with an old pocket bellows camera from the early 1900s. The camera has none of the modern technology we take for granted like lens coatings and precise focusing, etc. but it produces a picture that sometimes gives me chills.
This is what fires me up so much about photography; capturing an unexpected presence, not just getting the perfect shot. If I wanted perfection, I wouldn't even have to pick up my camera, all I'd need to do is search through hundreds of similar images on Google. Now where's the fun in that?

My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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Gordon Pierce said...

Excellent Steven! You have already shown imperfection to be perfection many times over and have created a good number of images that capture that "soul you are seeking. To me, that's pretty much like listening to old vinyl recordings of great music. The crackles, pops, warbling sound is oftentimes more pleasing to the ear than the new crisp digital sound that, at least to me, lacks the warmth of analog recording.

It's about time for us to retire the pixel peepers!

Steven Dempsey said...

Thanks Gordon. I agree about the sounds of the stylus on the vinyl. I'm an analog human myself. Digital never fit my body type although I do enjoy its conveniences :)