It’s been a year of ULTRAexperimentation. In addition to my recent Folly Trilogy discussing three different “inappropriate” film cameras, I also wrote about another half-frame camera, and penned a couple of lens-based essays — one digging into fisheyes, and the other exploring the benefits of a particularly decrepit 90mm lens from the 1930s. For a site that purports to be more interested in the psychological aspects of photography than hardware, that’s a whole lotta gear talk.
But with the year rapidly drawing to a close, I can now reveal that those weird gear articles were, in fact, just a carefully considered diversion — meant to buy myself time to engage in this year’s real experiment: to fundamentally alter my very approach to photography.
For the past couple of decades, I would prowl the streets looking for the perfect photograph. Step-by-step, mile-by-mile, I’d scour every inch of this town hoping to bag the big one. My ratio of “shots taken” to “worn out shoes” was spectacularly low. And yet, in spite of all that walking and all that looking, I’ve yet to take a single photo I’d be proud to represent me on my non-existent Wikipedia page. Which, come to think of it, is probably the reason no one’s bothered to make me a Wikipedia page.
Facing each new publishing deadline with an empty cache of perfect photos, I’ve been forced to fill these pages with a hodgepodge of miscellany — snapshots I would shoot mostly as “justification” for having bothered to leave the condo. On their own, none seem worthy of anything beyond a participation ribbon. But, as an assemblage, they would often say “something” — even if I was never able to fully comprehend exactly what it was.
I’ve long believed my own photography’s grandest purpose isn’t to create an image that hangs on the wall, but to create a collection of images that, when bound together, communicate an entire universe of thought and emotion through metaphor and implication. When I do hang an individual photo or two, I suspect it’s due more to convention than consideration. To me, framing a single photograph is like framing a single word from a favourite novel or screenplay — its context is removed or, at best, merely implied through familiarity.
For example, if I hung the word “Rosebud” over the sofa, it would indeed conjure a world of meaning every time I gazed upon it — but that meaning would come, not from the word, but from the context in which it was used within Citizen Kane. The word, itself, is not “perfect.” It’s the concept that’s perfect, and the single word is merely the proxy for an entire collection of other words and scenes. The same thing happens when I engage with some of my favourite photographs from some of my favourite photographers — an individual image becomes more potent, because I know the context from which it came. Seeing one is a gateway toward remembering them all.
Does it strike you as “a little crazy” that someone who views photography this way, would then put so much effort into hunting for that one perfect photo? If so, then congratulations — you’ve reached the same conclusion I have, and you didn’t spend 20 years getting there.
Perusing my oeuvre to date, it’s clear my personal favourites are often the most flawed, least perfect photos imaginable. They came from the monthly “hodgepodge of miscellany,” and not from any grand design. Which lead me to wonder why I’ve been so sparing with my exposures all these years. Since my “best” photos are the ones that best represent a collection, wouldn’t such representational photos become magically “better” if the collection itself became better? And wouldn’t the collection become better if I actually allowed myself the freedom to photograph anything that interested me, rather than self-limiting my exposures so as not to ‘waste time or money’ on shots I knew weren’t “perfect?”
So my fundamental change is to do exactly what I’ve always done, except to disable my brain’s self-censoring circuit while doing so. Granted, on the surface it doesn’t really seem like change at all. But anyone who’s ever tried to rewire their brain knows how difficult that can be. It’s taken me the better part of a year, but after a lifetime of being the stingiest photographer in recorded history, I’m gradually moving into the vicinity of semi-prolific. Not “guy on vacation with a digital camera” prolific; not “mom instagramming the crap out of her baby” prolific; but “guy who spools a roll of film through a camera every five or six days” prolific.
The question, now, is “what should I do with all these photos?” Just because I’m transforming into the photographer I want to be, doesn’t mean I’m transforming into one with a place in the modern world.
One part of me thinks I should just leave them unpublished, languishing on a hard drive until it’s destroyed by solar flares or mechanical failure. There’s something poetically punk rock about that direction. After all, it’s exactly what would happen to these moments had I not photographed them — making my passion a rather apt metaphor for life itself. Another part of me thinks such conceit smacks of bad performance art, and that the photos should absolutely be published — somewhere. Somehow.
But that’s a struggle for another essay. For now, all I really needed was to just take more photos. And on that front, the year has been a resounding success.
© 2022 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: “Lobby 1” was shot on Fomapan 100 at ISO 100 and developed in HC-110 (Dilution H), using a Pentax MZ-S and a Pentax-M 50mm f/1.4 lens. “Lobby 2” was photographed on Fomapan 400 (pushed to ISO 800) and developed in Rodinal 1:50, using a Fuji GS645S Wide 60 camera. “Fetch” was shot with an OM Digital Solutions 40-150 f/4 Pro lens mounted on an Olympus OM-1 digital camera. “Criminal Intent” was another digital shot — this time using the Ricoh GRIII. “Empress Metaverse” and “Loo View” were shot on Delta 3200 (pulled to ISO 1600), inside a Contax G1 fronted with a Zeiss Planar 45mm f/2 lens, and developed in Rodinal 1:50.
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I’m glad you’re taking more photos. I really like looking at them and taking something from them, and for a while, there, I thought you were going to give it up!
A photograph is a well that never runs dry. Everyone in the world can draw from the well: you should just show them. In the end, people take from a photograph what they want – I know what I’m doing with my photographs, but any attempt to explain it to others seems to fall on cloth ears. Some people like them, whether or not they understand my aims, and that has to suffice.
Give it up? NEVER!
Cycle through varying levels of existential angst? ALWAYS!
Heh. I know your struggle, EgOR. I cycle between the stingy bastid and the profligate tourist almost every time I head out the door … It depends somewhat on which camera I’m carrying and just how lazy I am at a given moment. And some portion of that existential angst too. 😉
EG: I carried one of my Polaroid cameras the other day with a fresh pack of B&W 600 film in it. I had to work to make 8 exposures … and cheated by doubling one exposure with a slightly lighter setting. 5 mile walk, seven shots, four satisfying.
Then, the next day, I fitted a 50mm lens with green filter to my M10-M and did the same walk over again. 92 exposures, first scan through and 43 of them look vaguely interesting to finish render.
Part of the pressure that causes the angst is how much media I have with me … obviously using the Polaroid with a pack of film nowadays being 8 shots and $2+ per shot, I can’t afford to waste too many and I simply won’t carry more than one spare pack and suffer the additional weight and clumsiness of reloading on a walk. With the M10-M, well, a battery charge lasts for hundreds of exposures and a 64G storage card can store over a thousand DNG files—in essence, I never run out of capture capability… I’m physically and mentally exhausted long before that can happen.
What to do with all the photos: yeah, that’s another discussion. I know that, for me, I want to do another book (done one so far, a decade ago). What that book will be I have yet to figure out.
But words of encouragement: Keep Going!
I enjoy your thoughts and your photographs, and how they intertwine. I like what you see, and what you choose to publish, and what you think about.
92 exposures on a single walk? I need to recalibrate my definition of “semi prolific.” When I’m firing on all cylinders, I’ll (at best) push a half-roll of film through a 35mm body on a 5 mile walk. Shooting digital rarely yields a larger crop. This year’s output gain has been mostly about eliminating my reluctance to take shots on film (my preferred medium), and allowing myself to shoot 35mm as if it were digital. However, medium format will still drastically lower my exposure count — which is entirely due to cost-per-shot economics restraining my shutter finger. I can’t imagine owning a Polaroid — it would probably take me a year to finish an 8-shot film pack, and half of those would be ‘wasted’ just so I could finally be done with it.
I’m like you, normally: if I get as many as 20 shots in on a 135/36 film load on a walk, I’m doing great. The 92 exposures made the other day were my extreme case with a digital camera, and probably mostly because I was intent on testing that lens on as many different things as I could.
When I walk with a Perkeo II or Fuji GS645S, it often takes me two weeks to finish a 120 load, same as with Polaroid, unless I’m in a serious “see and experiment” mood.
Yeah, shooting Polaroid (or Instax) is pricey. And the capture media is tricky, and pricey, in both cases. That’s what makes it fun… and instructive. With both, just like with Minox submini, you have to work hard to make good exposures that can become good photographs. 🙂
What (a) fall. And adding that stick in Paint?
I assume “that stick” to which you refer is the one in the photo that’s captioned “Fetch?” No computer chicanery was necessary — the OM Systems 40-150mm f/4 Pro lens is just that sharp! I have to be careful not to use it too much, or it might spoil my preference for the murkier, fuzzier, grainier shots I tend to produce more frequently.
Looking forward to many more of your shots and writings. Glad you still find motivation. Always exciting to open up a new post of yours, never knowing what to experience in great images and ingenious thoughts and words!
Love Lobby 2 and Criminal Intent!
Thanks, Peter. The price I must pay for my thriving photographic motivation, is a total lack of motivation to do anything other than that.