I Like Old

68,484

(The number of views for Sebastiao Salgado’s TED Talk.) I’m just going to say this, Salgado is the best documentary photographer alive. You could argue actual composition and style, and there are others that are good, but when you boil down longevity, impact, scale and influence there is nobody even in the same range. Now, I’m lumping guys like Edward Burtynsky in another category of work, but that is my own personal preference. And I don’t put Salgado in the “conflict photographer” group either. Perhaps I should define Salgado as a “classic documentary photographer,” but that would be confining because he transcends the traditional outlets and the art world, but ultimately that is not what this post is about.

Can you guess what these numbers correspond to?

305,482
363,366
402,343
652,118

Yep, you guessed it. Camera reviews.

As you can see, these numbers are not even close, and oddly enough the geeks watching these reviews are planning (mostly talking) to hypothetically (Because most don’t actually make photographs.) do the kind of work that Salgado is doing only at an absurdly inferior level. Personally I think this is why people laugh at photography and our “geek” legacy. I also find this wildly depressing, and I think it’s been getting worse over the past decade. I think if the rest of the creative world actually cared they would feel sorry for us. Yes, I said “us” because I was spawned from the photography world. Multiple times per week someone asks me about gear, either what camera to buy or what I think of some new model. I have my standard, canned answers because frankly I detest talking about this stuff. “Whatever is small and whatever you are willing to carry,” is my number one response because I actually think this response is helpful and I truly believe it. When it comes to new cameras I have another canned autoreply, “I don’t know.” I should probably add, “I don’t care,” but that might sound a tad smug, so I’m currently holding back on that little caveat. Even if I wanted to keep up with the new models I’m pretty sure I would not be able to unless I quit my job, rid my life of all things meaningful and holed myself up with a case of Jolt Cola and some cheap hooch. But more importantly, WHY would I even want to do this? The absolute truth is your camera has so little to do with your images it’s almost irrelevant, but don’t tell that blasphemic tale to the masses sitting through unboxing videos. (There should be a minimal jail sentence for anyone caught hatching one of these devilish creations.) Heck, I did a test on my own YouTube page years ago with a “What’s in my Bag?” post and a “New Camera at Smogranch” blast. The “What’s in my Bag” video has almost 5000 views, which for me is massive because my mode of promoting my YouTube page is neglecting to tell people I actually HAVE a YouTube page. And to say the video is low quality is an understatement of supreme proportion.
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But something else dawned on me. I like old stuff. I like stuff that has been in my hands long enough to feel like it is actually mine. I like stuff I have a connection with. I’ve got a friend who buys almost every new point-and-shoot digital camera that comes out. No joke. All brands. Then he calls me and says “Okay, I’m serious this time, THIS IS THE ONE.” Then, two weeks later it’s on Ebay, and I get the follow up call. “Oh man, that piece of crap would’t focus and the skin tone was horrible.” I let him finish talking then I hang up on him. As you can see, I’m in need of new soles. I could buy new shoes, but I don’t need new shoes. I need new soles. These shoes finally feel like they are mine, and if anyone reading this knows me you know I wear these almost everyday. This will be my third set of soles for these particular babies. When I look down I know what I’m going to see, and more importantly I know what I’m going to feel.

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The same can be said for my camera. It’s the same boring model I’ve been using for twelve years. It’s not the only camera I have, but the rest, with the exception of one, have been with me for about the same amount of time and some much, much longer. (I did buy a new system in the last two years, but it was only new to me, and had already been discontinued roughly a decade prior to me acquiring it.) There is no guesswork. There is no awkward moment. There is no learning curve. In fact, the only thought I give toward them is choosing a format. That’s all I need. The burden of choice is lifted and I just going into the field to look and see.
As many of you know, I’ve taught a few classes here and there over the years, both here at home and along some distant shores. Many modern students are defeated by the newness of their equipment before they ever set foot on photographic ground. I look over to see them staring at new everything, their conversation filled with menus, buttons and custom functions, not to mention the software woes on the backend. It just doesn’t work, nor will it ever. Now, if you love the gear more than the actual photographs, yes it will work, and there is no shortage of all things new. I say this not being contrite, but I’m entirely sure that many of those watching these camera reviews have no actual interest in making photographs. This is a reality of the photography world.

My advice to you is two fold. First, get a camera, commit to it and put all the rest away in a locked compartment. Then give the key to a trusted companion under the promise that when you come to them in a sweaty frenzy claiming you REALLY need those other cameras because your Zupperflex 5000 is only good at street photography and your Zupperflex 5001 is the ONLY thing that will work for your softcore “poolside” glamour “work” your friend will, as promised, kick you in the teeth as hard as they possibly can. Second, use your chosen camera until it wears out. NOT until a new model is released, or a new software version flies down from the ether. USE THIS ONE CAMERA UNTIL IT WEARS OUT.

I know a few non photographers who have done this. People who love to shoot for the love of shooting who never went down the equipment rabbit hole. They ask me to look at the mirror in their battered FM2 or their 5D Mark II shutter with 500,000 exposure, the camera in one hand and the shutter in the other. These people know, the have seen the light and know the light comes from what it in front of you, not what is in your hand. Find something and grow old with it.

And people this is the FUN part, and I guarantee your imagery will IMPROVE. Less distracted photographer equals better photographer every damn time. And what’s so great about this is WHEN you imagery improves it illuminates the reality that the rest of the nonsense really doesn’t matter. Slowly your gear will become just a distraction because you will be consumed by your imagery, by the light at 3:43 PM, by a location or by something you haven’t quite put your finger on yet. Your gear will become a reflex used to scratch a creative itch and the thought of taking time to watch a YouTube clip about something new will finally strike you as absurd. It’s a learning process that has nothing to do with technology or screen time. It is about an ongoing conversation with good friends.

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23 responses to “I Like Old”

  1. Brendan says:

    But that means you have to put some effort and some dedication into photography- who has time for that these days!?!?

    I jest, but unfortunately only slightly. Arguing about gear distracts from actually using it and trying to communicate through its medium. Digital photography has increased the reach of photography to those who would have never picked up a camera in the past, but are more attracted to technology for technologies sake. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s the noise that’s generated from that activity that tends to drag you down.

    I’ve been meaning to comment on the last few posts, they’ve been refreshing and to the point.

  2. A Bonet says:

    I wish I would have read this a week earlier. I didn’t go down the rabbit gear hole but spent a good amount of time beating myself up over not buying a new DSLR and instead spending it on new (to me) glass for my trusty poor beaten up Bronica. I don’t want to sound smug or like a tool but hell, new lenses to fall in love and loath with and bookoo money left to buy many fancy flavors of film. I’ll gladly spend the time shooting over unboxing videos and figuring out custom dials and what not. Thank you for the inspiring words.

  3. christian says:

    Thank SO much for this post – we need thousands of it a month! 🙂 I just recently got into a ‘a discussion’ with a photographer who proclaimed that he was joining instagram but by gosh, was not going to use filters. I tried to point out, to no avail, that with digital photography being a construct, every camera was a ‘filter’ —- and a few other points…but
    I remember taking a film photo course several decades ago. One of the users of the school’s darkroom would develop and print his stuff and then grouse about the quality of it. Then the next week he would show up with a Bronica, and go through the same drill, again. Then he showed up with a Mamiya, same results. Eventually he worked his way up to a Hasselblad and predictably the results stayed mediocre.

    I honestly think we photographers should stay away from posting/publishing our work with technical info at the bottom. Can you imagine a painter subtitling a painting with “sable-hai brush #16, 2 inch pallet knife, Daniel Smith burnt umber….on Dick Blick Canvas….’

    Seriously, for our own sanity, especially now in the computer age, we need to force a slow down in camera, hardware and software buys, or we will all go nuts.

    • Smogranch says:

      Christian,
      Great point. And we wonder why photography is considered “outside” of the art world. However, real photographers, the ones doing the great work, don’t spend ANY time on this stuff. It’s the geek nation what keeps the industry afloat by buying all these crazy things, and writing about them, again and again. “This time it really works.” It’s sad and lame.

  4. Sean Breslin says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I have two Leicas and two lenses that were all built between 1969 and 1990 apparently. When I bought them I promised myself that I would be the last person to ever own them all and I’m sticking to my decision. No more new (used) gear and no more selling.

    By the way, I once stumbled across a YouTube video of a box opening for a camera strap. Unbelievable!

  5. Salgado is superb. TED kind of sucks. It’s about boiling down things, however cool, to ten minute trivialities for superficial people.

    You’re dead right about gear. My stock response to this sort of thing is evolving toward ‘I hate cameras. They are the thing between me and my pictures’ although I am rarely cranky enough or drunk enough to deploy it in that form.

    Here’s something to think about. The fascination with gear over pictures is driven by an industry that sells gear. They use advertising to create this demand for gear, this feeling that the right gear is all that stands between you and greatness. And what’s the biggest component of those ads? Pictures, of course!

    • Smogranch says:

      Andrew,
      Professional photography is being kept afloat by tech companies. Buy, buy, buy and you too can be really good. And your clients will love you. It’s a scam used as CPR. Photography is a great thing, and the industry could be great again too, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Sean Breslin says:

    I forgot to mention how these gear freaks must have their heads well and truly in the sand when it comes to our planets exhaust able natural resources.

    Is global warming really a price worth paying so that you can have the latest camera that focuses 1/100 of a second quicker than the previous model?

    • Smogranch says:

      Sean,
      GREAT point. I’ve run into so many idiots who suddenly were “environmentalists” because they were going digital, using this complete lunacy to justify their moving in a direction they really didn’t want to go. Let’s face it, you are a photographer, you are burning resources. What is required to sustain the digital revolution is so far beyond the environmental impact of film and analog photography it isn’t even close.

  7. Chris Fuller says:

    I have to admit that I have struggled with this one having once thoroughly succumbed to the world of forums and reviews of the latest cameras (I admit, however, that I have never understood the attraction of unboxing videos). I have slowly weened myself off of them over time. It began first with the photography magazines (e.g., Popular Photography) which became less useful with each issue. Then I realized that having a camera and lens for every scenario was actually inhibiting my creativity. The hobby that had once brought me so much fulfillment had become stagnant. So I shed all of the equipment and started over with less.

    I still shoot digital because it fits best with my current life circumstances (though I feel that a return to film in some form is in my future). However, I have limited myself to two cameras with fixed lenses. We accept all too often that limits curtail our creativity rather than inspire it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Chris,
      I have a lot of cameras, not compared to some, but perhaps to others, but I use what I need to give me the result I need for a project or shoot. That’s the entire scope of thought given toward the gear. Then I just go make work.

  8. ok, aside from the post you did on me. This one, “I like Old” one is by far the most excellent thing i’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I mean, “softcore “poolside” glamour “work”!!!!! I’m still bustin up.
    LOVE IT!!!!

  9. Hey, how do you like the Ernest de Labastida special edition artisan bent paper clip that affixes your rewind lever on the film back?

    You know, the more I think about Salgado, the more i’m happy with the fact that here is a man who was an economist way before he even picked up a camera. And then he was given his ability to take a picture straight from GOD.
    I think what these hipsters with their Leica MP’s forget is the fact that Salgado had already had a life full of experience and was making just the best classic documentary artisan level photography IN 1973.

    In my opinion there are very few what I consider grand master photographers, HCB being one of them, and Salgado.
    In my own continuing journey to see, the work of Sebastiao Salgado has always been major guide for how the art is to be done. I’ll alway remember the first time I saw An Uncertain Grace, That book completely changed my worldwiew on photography and the world in general.

    Great post Dan.

  10. mike a says:

    I am on a bit of a journey it seems. The digital world seems to change by the minute. We are all led to believe you need to upgrade your cameras every 6months or so. I have been a little guilty of trying to keep up even though I’m always a generation behind. When I shot film I was content with old cameras, now I’m seem to be always searching for the best high iso performance and so on. God it all has to stop. I’m so tired all this craziness. I wore two original 5d’s out. I mean mirrors and shutters falling out of them, they stayed in the shop, electronics starting to fail all the time. It’s time to simplify my life and work flow. I love old things too Daniel. I miss them.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,
      I’m lucky. I get ZERO satisfaction from those things. The only thing that jazzes me is imagery. I have what I need. What I don’t have is time and access.

  11. lionelB says:

    This is not all about now. I remember in the 1960’s and 1970’s photographic magazines were bulging at the seams with advertisements for every psychedelic ‘creative filter’ capable of being dreamt up by the Grand Masters of Kitsch. Innumerable starbursts, nicotine everything, purple zazzpow, double gradations, quadruple gradations, split filters, soft, even softer, halos …

    Hordes of amateurs lapped it all up. Truth is, you can’t buy ‘creative’ in a packet. Not then, not now.

    And did I mention Cibachrome …

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      It’s a combination of over sharing, asking for attention while using a system that guarantees you will never get it. Filters are the icing on the cake.

    • spam says:

      I agree Lionel, i don’t think “chasing the next purchase to become the ultimate photographer” is a digital age creation, its marketing. I have some old 40s magazines and they are always promoting this emulsion, or that lens, or that voltage stabilised light to make you perfect. It just is a little more ubiquitous now maybe?

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