Sunday, May 15, 2011

Michael Sebastian: Collector vs. Photographer

I am a camera collector. I've always been a camera collector. But sometimes I'm also a photographer, and it's so confusing....the B&H, KEH, and Adorama boxes just keep coming, but the pictures still suck....

If there were a 12-step program for camera addicts, thus would I introduce myself to the group. Imagine the scene: a tremulous circle of clammy camera-tweakers in a dingy VFW hall; screw-mount Leicas, Rolleiflexes, and 500-series Hasselblads draped around our necks like oversize St. Ansel medallions; film-advance levers worn as smooth as rosaries as we bare our souls to anonymous, similarly-afflicted strangers.

Each of us in his turn---women are not excepted---would tell woeful tales of bank accounts emptied, and dreams of artistic renown waylaid, by the all-powerful Camera Jones. Commiserating all around, we'd end with cookies and punch, giving thanks to our Higher Power (AKA Spouse With Checkbook.) We'd part company, momentarily unburdened, rejuvenated with fresh artistic resolve---until the next new camera came along to distract us with opiate vapors from the real work of Doing Something Worthwhile with the things. Binge, Regret, Binge again.

Probably no other form of artistic expression is as bound up as photography in the technology used to produce it. The Photographer sees the image, and the Technician masters the device that produces it. This mastery is frequently mated to a keen love of finely-wrought machines, so the Technician abides with his cousin, the camera Collector. All these personae exist to some extent in each of us. The problem, though, is that, while the Technician lives only to serve, the objectives of Collector and Photographer are seriously at odds.

Collector exalts the camera as a functional bit of industrial sculpture. Photographer, on the other hand, regards the camera as but a means of art-making. For her, a certain disdain for one's tools, but a steadfast monogamous fidelity to the chosen few, is essential if she is to make serious art. The Collector makes an occasional dainty exposure, then tucks the object of his love gently back into the Billingham or display case, lest dust or smudge sully its pristine leatherette. The Photographer, by contrast, sees her D3 smashed by a third-world riot cop, files the insurance claim, and replaces the camera with all the emotional investment of a plumber deploying a new drain auger. This utilitarian mindset gives the Collector hives.

I have been aware of this Collector / Photographer duality almost since the day I picked up my first camera, a family hand-me-down Bakelite Brownie, four decades ago. I'm quite sure that, in my eight-year-old mind, the camera---with its smooth Art-Deco-ish lines and beguiling clicks and buzzes--- was initially more fascinating as a device than as an image-making tool. Soon, though, Photographer appeared, and he and Collector learned to get along about as well as siblings confined on a long car trip. Lately, though, this coexistence has been downright turbulent, as I strive to make work at a higher level, and to find the tools best suited to that undertaking, while throwing the occasional shiny chrome bone to the Collector.

This week I received a ship notice for a long-backordered, scarce camera I'd ordered months ago, while Collector was momentarily in the driver's seat. Luckily, between the ordering and the shipping, reason had schooled Photographer that I neither needed, nor could afford, this camera. Too bad; the shiny new toy shipped before I could cancel it. Heartened, Collector sensed another default victory, but Photographer thwarted him yet again, through the agency of my saintly-patient wife. She refused delivery on Photographer's behalf, and the package returned whence it came, unopened, temptation forestalled. Score one for Photographer, who lately could really use the leg up.

Since the Brownie I have owned cameras TNTC---Too Numerous To Count, as we describe our microscopic censuses of deranged blood cells and urinary bacteria---and I've loved something about each one. In the actual use of them, I've discovered their limitations and best uses. Some of Collector's favorite cameras have been Photographer's least favorite tools; conversely, some of the better tools were the cameras that least excited Collector's passion. I'm so sorry, RZ67. The Hasselblad was just so...slim...so...shiny and angular. I respect your work, but the heart wants what it wants.... Er, you wouldn't maybe consider taking me back, would you?

This is a different issue than the thoroughly discredited notion, "if only I had a Canikosonytaxblad zillion-megapixel digital back I'd be the next William Eggleston." We've all internalized the shibboleth that it's the vision, not the camera, etc, etc, and we all profess to believe it. I'm well past the point of investing my next camera with super-powers. More problematical is that studying, acquiring, and becoming acquainted with a series of beautiful cameras, however fulfilling in its own right, takes mind-space and energy that could be devoted instead to furthering one's actual image-making skills and visual sensibility.

Camera collecting, per se harmless, is the ultimate expression of genteel photographic procrastination. Swiping the MasterCard is far easier than the slow and sometimes tedious job of making better photographs.

6 comments:

  1. http://consumptive.org/2011/04/30/the-means/

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  2. You have nailed this affliction accurately. Will there be cookies and orange nice at the meeting?

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  3. Being a Kentuckian, I'd vote for bourbon at a meeting of camera junkies.

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  4. http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2011/01/cameras-i-have-known-and-loved-1993.html

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  5. I'm right there with you, though my recent acquisitions have leaned toward the scrappier, proletarian versions - "the poor man's ________" - arriving from Ukraine and other far-flung locales. Four blog posts in the last two months have been dedicated to new members of the family. I am trying to make art with them, too, and maybe it's easier because none of them have sacred-object status.

    Don't get me wrong, though. That M2 is still on my list.

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  6. This is the most articulate expression of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) i've ever read. I'll be quoting this, "the camera as a functional bit of industrial sculpture" for years to come!

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