I’m a gear head by nature. I love mechanical things. I love sculpture and industrial design. Cameras of the 20th century were mechanical marvels. Lots of tiny parts assembled to work synchronous with each other to divide fractions of a second multiple times. Or sometimes they were simple levels and fulcrum. I could talk about gear for hours. If film become obsolete I would still appreciate and collect film cameras.
Gear can get in the way of photographing, but more often than not for gear heads it can get you out there shooting in places you might not otherwise explore just to be out taking photos. That’s the nice side of it. The not so nice side is you can spend more time worrying about the gear you want than using the gear you have. For the most part I’ve been GAS free for almost a year. It feels good. There’s gear out there I want, sure, but I’m not preoccupied with it.
It’s the tail end of a long summer and my shirts sticking to my body like a wet blanket. Oddly, I’m thinking about winter. My last serious photo outing was six months ago when I drove from my home in Virginia to Asbury Park, NJ for a chopper show and swap meet. I brought along a Polaroid SLR and my 35mm Nikon.
While driving to the boardwalk with Bruce blaring on my radio courtesy of Spotify I was overwhelmed by the sights of the city. Often when I’m driving I see buildings I want to photograph but don’t have the time to stop. I make mental notes to come back one day and explore. When I walk I see things I miss while driving and more often than not I end up with photos very different than my original inspiration. The best way to see the world is as a pedestrian.
Unfortunately I only took a few photos that trip but I definitely want to go back. New Jersey has a charm very familiar. It’s the same charm that Oakland has for me. It’s not glitz and glamour it’s grit and grime. Blue collar bars and rusty cars.
Critical thinking oft ends up sounding bitter and negative when expressed in its written form. A master critic can praise and constructively critique a work but many critics are not masterful. Take Susan Sontag On Photography as an example. Her criticism on photography is highly de-constructive in my opinion, but masterful in its ability to provoke thought. Still, how anyone can read it and then pick up a camera afterwards without feeling self conscious to point of paralysis is beyond me. I certainly couldn’t. Being a thinking artist is not easy. I don’t know that I ever fully regained my feet after reading Sontag.
Photography as an artistic expression isn’t always paired with photography as a craft. Many respected photographers wanted nothing to do with the developing and printing of their work. Today, as a film photographer, if you’re not exceptionally funded somehow it can be a real struggle to work that way. So most of us do as much as we can ourselves. Some of us control that process from shutter to print or publish. When life gets busy I tend to put film photography aside. I might continue to shoot but my film piles up in a box waiting to be processed. My iPhone becomes my primary camera and I go about my busy life until I feel the urge to practice that craft.
The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust.
In the last few years I’ve seen new photographers pop up with amazing talent and a knack for constructing amazing images. But very few photographers bring anything new to the medium. My point isn’t to be critical of their work but to be critical of my own. What am I adding to the conversation? It’s very well to take photos for myself for the sheer joy of photography but I feel driven to do more than find recipes in life that I know combined with the right film and camera will result in a popular photo. I want to be like Shore or Baltz and make images that transcend populism. But to follow in their footsteps because it’s easy to do superficially isn’t the same thing as turning established universally accepted ideas of artistic qualities on their head. They’ve already done that. You can be content to mimic their vision perhaps and maybe convince yourself you’re carrying on their legacy but once a barrier has been broken it’s broken for good until it’s been restored. No one said being an iconoclast would be easy.
Declaring War on Nostalgia
If everything’s been done already why not do it again? Nostalgia is a powerful tool. Square framed faded drugstore prints look great. Old signage. Old cars. Memories of better days artificially created by cropping out inconvenient truths. Nostalgia to the “documentary” photographer is the homeless man on the corner to the street photographer. It’s not for me to judge what’s good or bad, right or wrong, I’m just pointing out that it’s low hanging fruit many of us are picking. I’d like to reach higher. I’d like to see my peers reach higher.
I’ll be the first to admit that I never owned a Polaroid OneStep or 600 camera before film went out of production. I never thought of it as a photographic tool. It was the camera phone equivalent of the day and film wasn’t cheap. When the impossible project started up I wasn’t all that excited about it. I thought it was hopeful but I was busy lamenting the loss of so many 35mm and 120 film stocks. I found a SX70 in an antique store, bought a $24 pack of film and was severely discouraged to find that it was broken.
When Polaroid Originals announced the new camera I preordered one at once. Inspired by my use of Fuji Instax I had grown to love instant film for candid photos. Only problem was the instax mini was too small and the instax wide was too hard to find film for and my camera was broken. While waiting for the new OneStep 2 I had come across some vintage 600 cameras and snatched them up. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality level of Polaroid Originals film stock. They’ve come a long way since the early impossible project days.
So I’m now practically a hoarder of Polaroid Cameras and buying film in bulk. Lately it’s the only photography outlet I’m practicing regularly. The limitations and character of the film are charming, and I’m loving the results. Sometimes I’m too busy to process and scan film and my photography gets put to the side. Now I’m shooting instant and really enjoying it. Will the fever last? Considering the cost of film packs it’s hard to say.
I thought about deleting my Instagram account but I’m not ready to kill it yet. I came to the realization that by constantly posting my photography on IG I am devaluing my efforts. I do not mean in a monetary way since I am not actively selling my photography work at this time. As a photographer on Instagram I get paid in likes. My EGO receives the payment and it makes me feel validated for the life cycle of the photo. Generally that’s about 4-6 hours and then it gets forgotten about. Very rarely does anyone go back and review my feed or gallery. Instagram has certainly launched careers for aspiring photographers and it’s gotten work out there that would otherwise languish in obscurity so I’m not saying it’s a bad thing overall, however, when it became a source of dopamine and I was constantly working specifically to have something new to post to my feed I lost the sense of why I even take photos.
Before I got hooked on IG I took photos for tangible projects. I wanted to make prints, not to sell, but to display my work. I wanted to make zines, again, not to get rich but to share my work with a living breathing audience. I was posting on IG but it wasn’t my prime motivator. It was just a way to gauge if my work had appeal. I already know what appeals to me. Once I started building a following on IG I got it into my head that I was going somewhere. I wanted to be a populist. I wanted photographers to say, yea, he’s a great photographer! Maybe my work would get discovered and some gallery owner would insist that I have a solo show. Maybe the MOMA would call (or at least DM me). But that never happened. The jolt of excitement started waning. I realized I had a dedicated group of
“likers”but it wasn’t growing, and they were all people that I followed and also “liked”their work. My likes were mostly genuine, but some I gave away for free because they don’t cost me anything. I won’t even get into the follower/unfollower building an army of followers for commercial reasons contingent that’s out there. The ones that like 5 of you photos and start following you but never actually look at your feed. IG changed how you follow people, so now you can follow people and never actually even have to look at their work.
Someone, I’m not
sure who, brilliantly said that if you are using a product for free than you are the product. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Social media in general. It’s a partnership complete with a contract (user agreement). I should probably include BLOG’s like the one I’m writing now into that fold as well.
While I can’t escape social media and hope to become relevant as a photographer outside of my own mind I can at least have some artistic control back as well as some of that time I’ve been spending constantly looking at my phone. So I’m refocusing (unavoidable pun) on what I am doing as a photographer and how I utilize social media as a tool that works for me rather than me working as a tool for social media.
The streets of downtown Norfolk are not very crowded. Aside from a few blocks bustling with white collar types and the hand full of locals there’s not a lot going on. Decisive moments are few and far between. Norfolk wasn’t always like this but suburban sprawl, strip malls and a number of other factors have resulted in a downtown that doesn’t have a lot to offer outside of a few retail shops and restaurants. And then there’s the mall. The mall is climate controlled, has ample parking and pleasant music. It’s a pleasant bubble of chain stores and plastic.
If you’re willing to venture a few blocks east, you’re greeted by the Cold War exterior of the Greyhound Station, a pawn shop, tattoo parlor and a bar, but what most people notice is the murals that adorn most of the walls of buildings, the biggest and most notable being the mammoth mural on the exterior of a gun shop. This is the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) arts district. There’s a few art galleries and a lot of run down vacant buildings scattered in between. In the epicenter is The Plot, an open community space on the foundation of a demolished building.