I was an early embracer of digital photography. I bought my first digital photo camera in the mid-90s, and a digital Sony video camera not long after. Around that time, the camera which I had been using for over a decade, a Canon AE-1, broke. I never replaced it with an equivalent. For years all I carried around with me was the video camera which I used both for video and for photographs (and it did take very good photos, even if the resolution is laughable by today’s standards). Then in 2004 I became aware of a cheap plastic medium format camera, a Holga, and the pictures I saw online and in print which had taken with that camera just blew me away. This was at a time when digital photography had really taken off, and the craze to put one’s each and every snapshot online, no matter what the quality, was already beginning. In the midst of exchangeable digital photographs, the square, imperfect Holga pics with their tell-tale vignettes and fuzzy edges stood out like a sore thumb (this was long before Instagram and the like began aping the ‘toy camera’ look with their filters). I got myself a Holga, and after a bit of a learning curve, learnt to produce the images I wanted and liked. I branched out, of sorts, by using other types of lo-tech cameras, such as the Diana+, an old Soviet-made Lubitel, as well as pinhole and panorama Holgas. For eight years I never looked back. Medium format film and manual automatic cameras had become ‘my thing’, my style. I participated in several exhibitions (with large format reproductions), had my work published in print and online, and of course kept feeding my web site. Although I favoured a type of cameras often called ‘toy cameras’, I decided to take them seriously, and in my (biased) view, managed to produce exceptional looking results that held their own in the company of photos taken with pro-level cameras – much as many other users of lo-tech cameras also did.
In 2012 I took up Polaroid photography. Impossible Project were finally producing film stock that was usable – decent colours, great black and white. The Holgas took a back seat as I delved into instant photography, using a couple of second-hand Polaroid cameras and the not quite cheap Impossible Project films. Again I had found a medium which suited my taste, producing images that were often imperfect but produced individual, and for me, great, results. Instant photography also offered the added advantage of producing physical images, and as such were a great medium for sharing with other people. And I found that approaching people to take their photograph with a Polaroid was a lot easier than with a regular camera, especially if you offered people to give them a copy as well – a trick I put to good use when travelling in India for example. I’ve been using Polaroid cameras now for three years, and again managed to produce a fair number of images I’m proud of.
However, there were shortcomings as well. Instant film is not cheap – 20 euros for 8 exposures is a lot of money. If I add up the money I spent on film during those three years, I come up with a sum that would have purchased me a pro camera. I also found other problems with the film, especially colour film. It doesn’t perform well when it’s too hot or too cold. It’s not a film to take on flights as the security x-ray machines at airports cause discolouration. And I also found that too often, the film was faulty and produced less than ideal results. It also seemed that the colour films got worse as new versions were released, while black and white film decidedly improved.
Another shortcoming of the lo-tech cameras I was using, both the Holgas and Polaroids, is that they have a limited range in terms of the light conditions they are suited for. Berlin winters tend to be long and above all, grey, and I found myself unable to use either type of cameras for long stretches of those winter months. So in November of last year, for the first time in 20 years, I went out and bought a digital camera. When I started looking for a model that would suit my style and taste, I was aiming for an unobtrusive camera which is easy to use in manual, or semi-manual mode, and that produces great results out of the box, i.e. without any major tweaking required in a photo editor. I liked what I saw online of the Fujifilm cameras (both the look and feel of the cameras as well as the output, which had a decided analog mood to it), and for a while played with the idea of getting a X100 model, but then decided against a fixed lens model and bought a X30 instead.
It took me a while to get back into digital photography. Actually, I’m not quite sure I’m there yet. I still very much use the approach I took with the analog cameras. I refuse to take series of hundreds of pics of the same motif in the hope that one image turns out right. I still want every take to be ‘the one’. If not on the first take, then at least on the second one… I also use the view finder rather than the display (another reason I chose the Fuji), and many of the photos I took in winter were in black and white. I enjoy being able to shoot at night, indoors and on dark days. I enjoy not having to scan the images or the negatives (scanning negatives is really time consuming). The wide-angle end of the lens comes in handy for architectural photographs, and the zoom for street photography. I don’t have to worry beforehand which kind of film to load, I can switch between colour and b&w as I see fit. So, plenty of good reasons to like digital.
There is a saying that it isn’t the camera that takes good pictures, but the photographer. That’s a statement I very much agree with. However, I also feel that the type of camera you use says as much about your style, and your identity as a photographer, as the motives you choose. My style had long been to incorporate the lo-tech cameras’ imperfections into my work. The blurry edges of the Holga cameras, the light leaks, the not-always-spot-on framing, the scratches and patches on the instant film photos, all added to what I was trying to convey.
Susan Sontag once wrote that photography always attempts, but always fails, to capture reality. What I had liked about the kind of analog equipment which I had been using was that these cameras did not even bother to try capturing reality. They were all about producing a disjointed, unreal, sometimes surreal, reproduction of the world around us. That’s what I liked and that’s what I embraced.
And now I’m using these digital cameras (I recently also purchased a used Leica X2 camera with, yes, a fixed lens), that produce technically great images. Yes, I could choose filters on the camera that ape the Holga and the Polaroids – but how daft would that be? In other words, faced with cameras that produce (technically) perfect results (or as perfect as you can get for the amount of money which I could afford to pay for them) and offer possibilities not present in a low-tech, I was thrown back to the question: how do I see myself as a photographer?
My work always had two foci. One was portrait and street photography, the other urban/architectural. As I mentioned above, the new cameras offered new possibilities in both these areas. My first real project with the Fujifilm involved shooting buildings and working out urban geometries. It is a motif I had already pursued with a Polaroid camera, but the Fuji allowed me to use a different approach and produced different results (read the blog entry here), and I’m very happy with that series. So far so good.
It’s a bit of a different matter when it comes to street photography. Both the Holga and the Polaroids produce very iconoclastic images when using them for street photography, or indeed portrait photography, images which are not in the same vein as the iconic photographs we know from the likes of the Cartier-Bresson (Polaroid is not particularly well suited for street photography but is great for casual portraits with willing subjects, but the same applies to these kind of images). What the digital cameras (and smartphone apps) do well is to emulate the style of the classic street photography cameras, notably the Leica. All the cameras offer more or less convincing black and white filters and settings that offer a close approximation of classic analog b&w photography. Sometimes they even do the same with colour photography. Again, so far so good. But, as I mentioned earlier, my style had never been about classic photography. Nor is it about to become about high-tech, sophisticated digital photography – HDR for example is a no-go for me. If, as I mentioned above, my style has always been about imperfections, what am I doing using near perfect cameras…?
So why am I writing all this? Foremost, I guess, to explain where I am, now. When you look at my current output on flickr this is what you see: photographs which are still very much of the type I like, but not necessarily in a style I consider mine. Some photos I like a lot, others I find adequate. I find none of them outstanding (and in case you’re wondering, yes I think I shot a few outstanding photos, especially with the medium format cameras).
So, in other words, I’m at a crossroads. I can chuck the digital cameras and go back to analog, or I can dig deeper into digital and find something that makes those photos mine. I can do both, of course, but not at the same time. A particular camera requires a particular frame of mind, and mixing these vastly different types of cameras hasn’t worked for me when I tried.
At this point, I don’t know where the road takes me. For a while at least, I’ll keep using the digital cameras, taking advantage of the possibilities which digital cameras offer while trying to find something in digital photography that I can own.
However, I also stocked up on Impossible Project’s new generation of instant films.
And I have a pile of Fujifilm 120 films lying around which I stocked up on before they went out of production last year.
So we shall see, shan’t we. Stay tuned.