Last week I was strolling home along Granville Street, my guard down and my mind wandering, when something tickled my photographic subconsciousness. Experience has taught me to trust the tickle. Things happen fast on the streets. “Shoot first, comprehend later.” That’s my motto. I fired off a shot just as the tickle began to coagulate into an amorphous shape within my conscious mind. As the indefinite form passed on my left, I was faintly aware of only two things: bouffant hair and long false eyelashes. “My comrade!” I thought, happy to have her photo safely stored within the metal and vulcanite walls of my Leica.
Bruce Gilden said there’s something that attracts him to the people he photographs on the streets and for that reason he considers these strangers his friends. I’ve always felt the same way. I photograph people who interest me, attract me, fascinate me, haunt me or somehow stir something within my emotions.
What drew me to the bouffant lady? Why did I consider her a comrade as she passed me on the street? The answer likely rests within the camera I used to photograph her — a 1959 Leica M2. In the year 2011, this woman and I were both anachronisms. Tourists from another era, we both left our homes confident and comfortable with our retro-infused choices. I will never know why she settled on a mid-1960s appearance that belies the dictates of the latest issue of Vogue. But I know exactly why I’m carrying a late-1950s manual mechanical film camera that belies the dictates of the latest issue of Shutterbug and it’s probably not what you think.
Most people who don’t know me, see my film camera and believe that I’m a Luddite — fearful of change and resistant to advancement. I’ve been accused of being stuck in the past and lectured on the street by people who thought I was somehow unaware of 21st Century technological advances. But believe me, I didn’t take the passive road to photographic anachronism — I worked at it. Most anachronistic people were fashionable once, in the same way that a broken clock is still correct twice a day. Me? I’ve been a photographic anachronism in every time.
I began to photograph seriously some twenty years ago, right about the same time that Kodak started marketing the very first digital camera — a $20,000, two-piece, 1.3 megapixel behemoth. Although the digital Kodak exceeded my photography budget by 4000 percent, its very existence helped guide my decision to get serious about photography. I had spent the previous decade working with electronic music and was hard at work transforming music creation from an analog endeavor into a digital one. I knew that photography would eventually follow the same trajectory as music and I was anxious to take that ride. I had recently developed an insatiable appetite for photographs and spent much of my spare time leafing through photography monographs in art book stores, galleries and libraries. By early 1991 my appetite for new images was so voracious, that I decided to start taking photographs myself. I figured that by the time I learned my craft digital technology would become affordable enough that I could ride the digital train— exactly as I was doing with music.
True to my plan, I learned to shoot with a Canon EOS film SLR. I learned to process my own black & white film. I also bought an enlarger and learned to print in the hot, cramped and awkward confines of my only bathroom. By late 1992, digital cameras were still not any more affordable, so I decided to take a half-step toward digital photography — I purchased a Nikon Coolscan LS-10 scanner and a copy of Photoshop 2.0. Although my electronically processed photos looked great on my computer monitor, there was no way for anyone to actually see them. The Mosaic web browser, which was the first browser popular enough to bring the world wide web into public awareness, was still over a year away. So I would often resort to printing the photos on my laser printer, with obviously limited success. It was 1992, and I was an anachronism, longing for photographic tools that did not yet exist.
Undaunted, I continued my march toward the future. Eventually, I was able to pay exorbitant fees to specialist labs who could print my digital files using ridiculously expensive IRIS inkjet printers. By 1994, the internet was gaining significant traction and Apple released the first affordable digital camera: the 0.3 megapixel QuickTake 100. It was just what I’d been waiting for. A year later I upgraded to a Kodak DC40, with its massive 0.38 megapixel sensor (of which half those pixels were noise), and enough memory to hold a whopping 48 photos (six times the storage capacity of the QuickTake 100)! The more I used the Kodak, the more I resented shooting and scanning film. It just seemed like such an outdated process and, frankly, that Nikon LS-10 scanner gave new meaning to the word finicky. I soon surmised that the future of photography rested with the digital camera and that the future of publishing was the world wide web. In fact, those two technologies seemed perfectly suited to each other. Digital photos were so laden with chromatic noise that the best way to minimize the effect was to display them at a reduced size — perfect for transmitting over all those 28.8 kB/s modems! I remember attending a photography class in which I presented my portfolio as tiny images on a computer screen. Everyone else had traditional paper portfolios — no one had ever seen or heard of an electronic photo portfolio. My classmates looked bemused. My instructor took one look and stated, unequivocally, that digital photography would never catch on. The limitations of early digital cameras and mid-90s web technology required me to radically alter my photography techniques and simplify my images. By the summer of 1995, I was even more of an anachronism than in 1992.
I soldiered on. By 2000, I deemed digital cameras such as the Canon EOS D30 good enough to replace my film cameras and sold my last remaining film SLR. Of course this was a premature proclamation, but I was so desperate for the future to arrive that I was ready to call it. I was still an anachronism, but at least people now knew I was an anachronism. They knew digital represented the future of photography and I was finally seen as ahead of my time, rather than just a crackpot. Eventually, other photographers would make the same proclamation — some with the introduction of the Canon EOS-1D, some with the D60 and others with the 10D or 20D. The world that I wished, cajoled and willed into existing had finally arrived. And the more I lived in that world, the less I actually liked it.
I was such an early digital adopter that, for me, it had been several years since I had shot film. Time distorts memory and I began to forget about the hassles of developing film, of the unwillingness of my LS-10 to scan when I asked it to, of the tedious process of spot-healing dirty negatives. Instead, I began to focus on the unforgiving highlights and shadows in my digital photos, of their strangely unnatural tonal characteristics and limited dynamic range, of their clinical precision and irritating noise patterns.
Mind you, I was not becoming anti-digital. The visual anomalies of digital that I find disagreeable have been around since the technology’s beginnings. The difference was, unlike the previous decade, I had eliminated choice from my photographic toolkit. In the 1990s, as I waited anxiously for digital to reach state of the art, I continued to employ film. I would use it whenever a particular photographic assignment called for something that looked, shall we say, more organic. Throughout the 2000s, digital cameras improved by leaps and bounds, yet certain aspects of digital’s appearance still irked me. I still loved all the benefits of digital and I was still thrilled that a fully digital workflow had finally arrived, but I found myself actually missing film. Specifically, I found myself missing the ability to choose between digital and film. Since 1991, I had been so focused on replacing my film cameras, I’d forgotten what got me into photography in the first place. I’d forgotten that all those images I used to go and admire in book stores, galleries and libraries were all shot on film. The images I held in highest regard all had a certain look that was well and truly different than digital.
So a couple years ago, I returned to my hybrid days, meaning I began to supplement my digital images with film. I began, once again, to develop negatives in my kitchen and scan them into Photoshop. The more I shot film, the more I liked it. But unlike the zealous “digital or bust” days of my youth, I’d finally achieved balance. I’d finally come to realize that I could shoot both film and digital, and enjoy the benefits of each. In fact, I wrote about the importance of choice in an ULTRAsomething article, called Click Clique.
Sadly, I fear that my desire for choice is yet another anachronism. In the days of analog, I desired digital. As the popularity of digital grew, I began to desire analog and now, in a world gone almost totally digital, I desire choice. It’s my eye that should dictate the camera I carry, not fashion.
I got to wondering about my bouffant lady. Does she value choice? Does she sometimes party in a slinky, 1970s pleated polyester disco dress? On a sunny day, will she stroll downtown in a brightly colored, broad-shouldered asymmetrical jacket from the mid 1980s? Does she, on occasion, slip on a pair of Lululemon yoga pants and disappear, blending seamlessly with a million other women on the streets of Vancouver? I like to think she does all these things. She is, after all, my comrade.
grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ultrasomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. This third act of pummeling has yielded a new photography book, Instinct, which has given Mr. Simpson a fourth vocation — pounding on doors in an attempt to market the darn thing.