On Cameras – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

The development of camera and lens technology has allowed for such things as telephoto and wide lenses, increased light sensitivity and faster shutter speeds. These have all meant we can take pictures where we couldn’t before and so the camera has attained almost a sense of its own ‘personhood’. This quality accorded to cameras is wrong and unthinking. A camera must be subservient to its user-master.

To fix an image through means of the entrapment of light alone needs a lens to act as transceiver linked in a particular way to a mechanism which converts the eternal into the ephemeral. Think of the continuous stream of light that pours through a lens and then imagine the opening and closing of the shutter as it grabs a moment of that light. In this way a camera is a space/time slicing machine. Now cameras have new features such as being able to shoot movies and post-focus cameras (such as Lytro) that allow us to throw focus and depth of field about without recourse to the laws of physics (so it seems) but the essential function of a camera remains the same – to render the infinite finite.

Camera design closely follows leading edge technology. Today’s camera phone is the distant descendant of the development of 18th century lens making technology which led to the invention and wide use of the ‘camera obscura’. Portable film plate cameras followed and then the conversion of 35mm movie film to stills cameras by Oskar Barnack leads us to present day high achieving techno-wonders such as the Sony A series.

We take pictures to freeze time and show we were here (see B+W 189) and that hasn’t changed since Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot first fixed an image on a portable substrate. Imagine what is was like to record ‘real life’ for the first time! Lartigue pushed the boundaries of what was possible with camera technology in the early 20th century and the gains we have made since then haven’t changed the essential facts of the medium as laid down by Niepce et al.

 

What matters in a camera is how it enables us to act as conduit between the chaos of the real world extracting, either on purpose or by happenstance, those artefacts that we wish to save for ourselves and others. The camera that allows you to do that is the one you should use. Araki says that the best camera is the one he has with him, McCullin says that a camera is like a toothbrush – it does the job. Ernst Haas says “Leica schmeika”. No photographer should ever attribute his or her success to the instrument they use but, correctly, many have credited their apparatus as having contributed along the way.

This ‘accreditation’ is important because it describes the nature of the relationship between a photographer and their camera. The camera is an adjunct to the eye and the eye is an adjunct to the mind. In this way the hand and the rest of the photographer’s body acts in service to the camera/eye/mind paradigm. Indeed the centre of the creative act is the union of this tripart constellation. The moment of release is the moment of catharsis as the tension built up around this union of physics and metaphysics, perception and sensation, has to find some kind of resolution. To use a camera well we need to be clear about the nature of our relationship with it yet at the same time it is preferable that we are not conscious of it. We need to know the camera so well we can ‘unknow’ it – that is to say to take it for granted as we do our hands or our feet.

Protons may stream into the glass but attention flows outward and we are nothing in the universe if we are not attentive to it. The nature of our existence in the cosmos is predicated on our attention to it and not the other way round. The act of creation is an outward bound, ‘active’, impulse not, as some may see it, a passive act of allowing existence to come in. The act of photography is the act of synthesis in which the nature of human attention passes into the world through the lens. What is important to understand is that the world does not come into the lens rather the photographer flows out into the world through the medium of his camera. Where a camera is concerned light comes in but, in the case of human attention, it is humanity that flows out.

Equipment doesn’t have life unless we give it. In this way we are masters of the mechanical. Any perversion of this relationship comes at the cost of originality and feeds the banal and derivative. There is no standard test of truth that can be applied to photography or any art form but there is a discernible ‘truth’ in the way we engage with the world through our cameras. No matter how much technology, no matter how much money is spent, whether film is used or not, there is one mutable dynamic at the heart of the creative process; the nature of the relationship between human and camera – a relationship which allows the photographer to blur the lines between the physics of the external and the secrets of the internal and that is made possible by only one thing; you.

3 thoughts on “On Cameras – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE”

  1. This is a brilliant article, Alex. I particularly like your point about the user controlling the camera. Very timely for me. As you know, I used film until 4 years ago. Since then, I have used a Canon SX700 HS. Whilst I am reasonably pleased with the results, I will never master all the facilities. I tend to keep it on manual. I do, however, miss my SLRs and interchangeable lenses; particularly a good quality zoom which would help with the wildlife of the garden and the forest. I also used zoom for candid portraits, enabling me to fill the frame with the subject.
    So now, I am thinking about a DSLR. Do you have any advice/recommendations? And what is the significance of the phrase, full frame? (Don’t forget I’m an old dog).

    1. Hi Derrick, glad you liked the article. The significance of full frame is mainly seen in the depth of field, i.e. the larger the sensor the shallower the depth of field. Inversely it’s smaller sensors provide better front to back focus at all apertures. You could look at buying a 2nd Canon 5D Mark2 as these are brilliant cameras and not expensive. There is f1.4 50mm lens for under £100 which is v plasticky but brilliant optically. I know lots of photographers who love the Olympus OMF which is Aps-c (smaller) sensor. V compact and great optics for the money. Hope this helps.

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