There is no such thing as a generation gap. Since the dawn of man, each generation has believed that all preceding generations are “primitive,” and all subsequent generations are “clueless.” Each generation believes that theirs is the one true “rebel” generation — the one generation that neither capitulated to the dogma of their elders, nor bowed to the stifling constraints of conformity.
Yet each generation, in an effort to carve its own unique niche, does exactly the opposite of its supposed manifesto. By consciously dismissing the practices of previous generations, each new generation is effectively guided by them — albeit in a contrarian fashion. As each generation wages war upon the preceding generations, it adopts an “us or them” mentality that, by very definition, necessitates conformity. Ultimately, each generation of “non conformists” is, in fact, acutely homogenous in thought. And each generation is, therefore, fundamentally the same as every other generation.
In all likelihood, a more exhaustive and eloquent postulation of this theory exists in any number of basic Sociology textbooks. I wouldn’t actually know because, through a misguided notion that I should become an electrical engineer, I spent the better part of my youth reading and re-reading technical tomes. Against both my nature and aptitude, I spent my weekdays, weeknights, and weekends trying to make sense of nonlinear differential equations. Meanwhile, my peers gathered in social establishments where they developed the bonds and beliefs of our generation. By consequence, since I never truly became one with my generation, I never swallowed its beliefs as gospel. I became a man without a generation — a cultural nomad.
Free from the shackles of a generational credo, I formed my own ideas, my own likes, and my own theories. I developed an eclectic collection of interests, and relished in the artistic creativity of multiple generations. Unconfined and unconcerned with “cool,” I was free to wander a cultural landscape many thousands of years in the making. I could draw liberally from every generation — picking and choosing what I liked and what I didn’t. 11th century Hurdy Gurdy music? Love it! The zeal with which the Normans subdued and repressed the religious and cultural freedom of others? Not a big fan.
The privilege to pick and choose from multiple generations is liberating. It’s also, more often than not, extremely frustrating. If your beliefs align with current generational thinking, your needs are easily met. If your beliefs diverge from current generational thinking, you’re in for a world of hurt. Need proof? Go to the iTunes store, type “hip hop,” and see how many thousands of album choices you have. But what if you want to chill to a classic 2-man hurdy-gurdy groove? Type “organistrum” into iTunes and count how many choices you have. Sadly, here in Canada, I have none. Instead, iTunes suggests that I must actually be searching for “organist.” I’m not.
In all likelihood, you’re reading this article because of an interest in photography and photographic equipment. And, assuming you’re still reading, photography is exactly the point of this entire preamble.
Do you strive to take colorful, contrasty photographs — void of noise, clear as glass, and smooth as butter? Congratulations! Today’s generation will adore your photos. Friends will fill your Facebook wall with accolades, and dozens of group administrators will request your Flickr shots for their photo pools.
Are you saving your pennies to purchase a new, wickedly sharp, distortion-free lens? Good news! Today’s lens manufacturers have joined forces with today’s software developers and, in tandem, offer you the ability to create laser-accurate geometric renderings that are sharp enough to reveal a flea in your dog’s undercoat.
Do you take all sorts of photographs of all manner of subjects in all kinds of situations, and relish the thought of having a small, powerful computer aid you in exposing, focusing, and choosing the shot? Hurray! Today’s camera developers are aggressively addressing your needs — insuring that all your photos will be exposed and focussed to comply with generally accepted standards.
Do you think the noise reduction algorithms in today’s cameras make your subjects look like plastic models? Do you prefer subtle gradations in tone over cartoonish, posterized, over-hyped contrast? Does color sometimes obliterate the emotional impact of your photos? Is a certain dreaminess and glow more important to your portraiture than being able to count peach fuzz hairs on your model’s cheek? Do you gravitate toward particular lenses because of their flaws? Do you ever want to take a picture that common wisdom would consider to be incorrectly focussed? Incorrectly exposed? Would you like to have more dynamic range without resorting to HDR photography? Have you ever missed a priceless photo opportunity because there wasn’t enough time to lift the camera to your eye and focus? Did you ever wish you could see what was going on outside your SLR’s field of view, so that you could time a shot perfectly?
No Problem! Previous generations have already addressed all of the above needs — it’s just that the current generation has abandoned past ideals and, therefore, also abandoned the equipment that was created to achieve them. Lenses were once valued for their quirks and signature looks. Although “clinical” lenses existed, they were more desirable for scientific work than for something as soulful as a photograph. Black and white negative film has extended dynamic range, along with a non-linear response curve that mirrors human eyesight more faithfully than a digital sensor. And if you add a rangefinder camera to your kit, you’ll open up a whole new world of shooting, framing, and capture options that would elude your SLR.
None of this is to say that modern lenses, digital sensors and SLRs are “bad.” They’re not. They’re just popular. But because each generation adopts an “us or them” attitude, the unpopular options of previous generations are abandoned. Diversity suffers. Choice is eliminated. Individual expression deteriorates. There’s simply no reason, other than generational tenets, to eliminate alternatives.
Personally, I’m thrilled with many of the latest advances in photo technology. With my SLR, I can practically shoot in the dark. I can mount telescopic lenses, tilt-shift lenses, and macro lenses that would never be practical on a rangefinder. But does that mean I must buy an SLR instead of a rangefinder? It shouldn’t. I should be given the option to buy both, and thus leverage the benefits of both. But since each generation feels the need to discard the methods of a previous generation, modern rangefinders are in extremely limited supply.
Similarly, my digital sensors and modern lenses give me a level of image detail I could never achieve with 35mm film. Digital cameras provide me with immediate access to my captures, an easy shot-to-publication workflow, and the freedom to experiment with new concepts and techniques without the cost and complexity of film. But does that mean I must buy a digital camera instead of a film camera? It shouldn’t. I should be given the option to buy both, and thus leverage the benefits of both. But since each generation feels the need to discard the methods of a previous generation, modern film choices are diminishing rapidly — darkroom supplies must be mail ordered, and new film cameras are all but extinct.
New product developments should enhance the old ones, not supplant them. With each generation, photographers should have an increasing array of marvelous contrivances to support their photographic vision but, instead, we have a diminishing number. That’s because it’s not just our tools that fall victim to generational ideology — it’s the very idea of what makes a photograph “good” or “appealing.”
Consider, for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard 1952.” That photo is shown here as part of a “still life” study (which I obviously shot in a blatant attempt to avoid infringing on Magnum Photos’ copyright).
This is one of the most admired and respected photos of the 1950’s — an absolute classic of the medium. And, though it’s the product of a generation much earlier than mine, it still speaks to my own culturally agnostic soul. Today, a photo like this is hopelessly out of fashion. I can only imagine the derision this shot would get if it were taken this year, instead of 1952, and a young Henri Cartier-Bresson posted it to an online photography forum. The comments might read something like this…
Joe79: “It’s just a snapshot, and not even a good one. The horizon’s not even level.”
T8kPix: “Wow, nice capture but the noise spoils it. Have you tried noise reduction software? I run everything through Noise Ninja, but there are others (just search Google). I’m guessing you shot this with a Micro Four Thirds? You’ll get a more professional look if you invest in an SLR. The bigger sensor will give you much cleaner images.”
Twitterbunny: “The tonal range is too flat. Try auto-leveling it in Photoshop to maximize the contrast.”
slrSAM: “Twitterbunny is right about the image being flat, but it’s better to capture a wider dynamic range in-camera. I suggest you invest in a good flash and learn to use it off camera. Strobist.com is a great source of information, and I highly recommend all of Joe McNally’s books. Good luck! Don’t get discouraged, Henri. We all have to start somewhere.”
6Pack: “Could have been a cute picture, except you cut off his feet. Can you take it again without amputating any body parts?”
FotoXpert: “I’d clone out that girl’s arm and her dress on the far left of the frame.”
digitalTOM: “Hey, Henri! Are you French? I went to Paris a couple years ago. My wife keeps bugging me to go back, so maybe we should hook up?”
Xenon: “Dude, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but what’s with the Leica? No real photographer would use one of those. They’re just man-jewelry for a bunch of doctors and dentists who wouldn’t know a good camera if they tripped over it. You could dump your Leica and, with the money you save, you could buy an SLR and a whole bunch of new lenses. Seriously, man, that 50mm you keep using is so boring.”
Maggy: “Nice bokeh, but I would have stopped the lens down a little. It would be better if the girl in the background were in focus.”
LazerBeam: “I flagged this as inappropriate. I hope you rot in jail for taking pictures of children on the street.”
MikeK_13: “Not bad. Can you post the original color version for comparison?”
iHeartCanon: “Ever hear of the rule of thirds? You should never put the subject in the middle of the picture!! Only amateurs use the center focus point. Try using one of the outer auto-focus points instead. That will force you to move your subject away from the center, and your pictures will be better.”
TKO: “The background is really distracting. You should either crop this tighter, or use a longer lens so the people in the back don’t distract from your subject.”
Alright, I admit the previous comments were all “imagined,” but they’re not unrealistic. I’ve seen stellar images get lambasted on review sites — simply because the images aren’t fashionable, or because they don’t follow the commonly accepted practices of today’s photographic generation.
Each new generation defines its own set of acceptable tools and technologies, and it uses these to define the social and artistic aesthetics of the time. Simultaneously, these social and artistic aesthetics dictate the tools and technologies one must use in order to conform. The circle closes upon itself — insuring that contrary thought can neither invade nor escape the circle.
The reach of my writings is limited, and my voice is but a whisper against the din of each generation. But if you can hear me, even just a little, please hear this: For you young ‘uns, please realize that anything new does not negate everything old. And for you old timers, respect that the old ways are not always better. Choice is never a bad thing.
So take a step back from your generational tenets, and try something different. Try something new. Or try something old. Drop the cliques, and you might just improve your clicks.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Whistler’s Great Grandson,” “Why I Live in Cities – Reason #17,” and “Modern Love” were shot with a Leica M6 TTL, using Tri-X film rated at ISO 1600 and developed in Diafine. “Robson Street, Par 5” was shot with a Leica M6 TTL, using Tri-X film rated at ISO 400 and developed in Ilfotec DD-X. “Free Thinker” was shot with a Canon 5D, using a 70-200 f/4 L IS lens. “Duality” was shot with a Leica M9 and a Voigtlander 75mm f/2.5 Color-Heliar screw mount lens. “Mouffetard Studies” features a photograph from the book, “Henri Cartier-Bresson – The Man, The Image & The World.” I strongly encourage everyone to purchase photographer monographs and study them carefully — therein lie a wealth of answers.
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