I’ve been taking pictures for nearly three decades. It’s my hobby, not my profession. I’m not the best at it, but I’m also not the worst. This has been my journey.
It started when I wanted some photos for a small magazine I was publishing in Winnipeg in 1991. I bought a Minolta 3000i SLR and fell in love with it. It was a totally automatic beginner’s camera, but that suited me fine. I was a beginner. I got my shots, the magazine got published, eventually fizzled and died, and my interest in photography was born. I got serious when I moved to Calgary in 1993 and purchased a bunch of Nikon gear, including a pair of F3s and their famous 105/2.5 portrait Nikkor, and I started to get some pretty good results using that along with various Fuji films, especially Velvia and Neopan. For a while, I tried to earn money at it but, despite a few minor successes, that was a flop. I’m not a people person. Commercial photographers need to be.
Digital started to enter my photographic world around 2001, which was roughly the point at which you could get some pretty good results from cameras under $1000. I’ve been much less brand-loyal in the digital era than I was in my almost-exclusively-Nikon film years, having dabbled in Canon, Pentax, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm, along with Nikon. Brand loyalty is simply less important when you’re not buying into systems, and I hadn’t since Nikon.
Fujifilm X has changed that. I bought an X10 in 2011 and it was simply the best camera I had ever owned, film or digital. I just understood the thing, and it worked for me without my having to think about it. I felt very connected to it. I felt very attached to it. Even little things like the leather case just fit my world and let me bring it on my walks through the ghetto in the rain. I later added an XF1 as a pocket camera and, when the X-E1 came out, I ordered one. That immediately became my camera of choice whenever the shooting situation allowed me to lug it around. It really is that good. Results are everything, and the X-E1 delivers results like no camera I’ve ever owned. My X10 and XF1 are not redundant, though, each fitting into certain roles better than the others. It’s a good set of tools, and it doesn’t hurt that, to my eyes, they’re the most exquisite cameras on the planet right now, including Leica. (Update April 2016: I’m still with Fuji X, although the exact bodies and lenses are evolving as they should over time. And I still think they’re more equisite than Leica. Better imagers, too.)
Philosophy and Photography
Just as my gear has evolved, so too has my philosophy, my style and my outlook. Indeed, my very purpose has evolved quite dramatically. Some baselines remain. I still love B&W. I still love Velvia, even if it’s just a film emulation mode these days. I still believe in shooting what you have in your hand to the best of your ability without worrying about the camera you left at home. Many other aspects of my photography have evolved, though. Obviously none of this applies to photojournalism, commercial-for-hire or stock photography.
In recent months, I’ve spent a lot of time on Flickr looking at the photos generated in real life by various cameras. My findings weren’t what I expected. Generally speaking, I found the more exquisite the camera, the better the photos. In terms of photo quality, a camera’s imaging system appears to be secondary to how exquisitely the camera is built, which makes no sense but results are everything. There’s a high end cap where being more exquisite doesn’t seem to help. Leicas, for instance, appear not to take better pics than Fujis. If anything, they’re worse, perhaps because many Leica owners appear to be collectors and not photographers. Aside from that caveat, however, photo quality appears to be mainly a matter of how much care the photographer takes as opposed to how good the camera’s imaging system is, and it’s clear that photographers take more care when holding something gorgeous. This has been an epiphany to me.
In direct contradiction to this, I’ve also observed that the more you try for polished results, the less interesting your photography is, generally. Note that I didn’t say “the worse it is”. Often, a guy will sweat an image for hours, craft it carefully with the best equipment, tweak it just right after shooting it, and release a gorgeous image to the world only to find that people click a kid’s carelessly crafted cell phone shot of something interesting ten times as often. People just don’t generally find finely crafted images of mundane things interesting. Beautiful, perhaps, at least sometimes, but not interesting. The thing missing from the overwhelming majority of photography is relevance. This has been another epiphany to me.
The truth is, almost nobody cares about another amazingly detailed insect macro with a blurred background, or a beautiful flower shot that lets you see right into the world of petals. Almost nobody cares about your touching shot of the neighbourhood kids playing hockey or your freeze-frame of the waves striking the beach just so. Sure, they’ll say nice things if you force them to look, but leave them to their own devices and most of them will click a thousand kids’ cell phone shots before they ever look at the beautifully crafted photographic cliche you’re so proud of. Somehow, those cell phone shots have relevance and the tripod shots you agonized for hours over do not.
There’s one fascinating variation to this, however. People do care if the photos are part of an experience. They care if the photos tell a story. I don’t mean the story of someone else’s kid who you’ve never met but photographed in some random encounter, or the story of some homeless man you shot while walking by and will never see again. With a tiny handful of iconic exceptions, no single photo taken in passing is powerful enough to connect the viewer with a story. Instead, I’m talking about the times when you, the photographer, are doing interesting things, and the photos you take become part of your journey. That’s suddenly interesting. Sail to Antarctica and take photos of your experience and you’ll find all of your shots along the way have great relevance, including for example, shots of the Los Angeles marina where you stopped for repairs after a storm. Take the exact same photos of that Los Angeles marina without the context of sailing to Antarctica and they’re just shots of a Los Angeles marina. Nobody cares. I know you wish they would. I wish they would. It would make things easier. They don’t. Without the context, the photos have no relevance.
Where I’ve Landed
These days, my photography is entirely narcissistic. I take photos of my own life. I make no effort at creating fine art. I have nothing against those who do, but personally I don’t feel photography is a good medium for that. I make no effort at photojournalism. I respect the profession (well, somewhat) but I have no interest in pursuing it. I make no effort at electronic artistry. I don’t significantly chop my photos. Oh, I’ll crop a bit here or there, and I’ve been known to rotate images a degree or two when I botch the framing, but those are rare cases and aren’t what people think of as chops, anyway. I don’t apply “artistic” filters. Again, nothing against those who do but it’s just not my thing. Instead, my photography tells the story of my life, my journey, and the things I see along the way. Again, I call it photographic narcissism.
I’ve also abandoned any thought of making money with my photography. Even if I could, and that remains uncertain, it’s simply too much work for too little reward. There are no rich photographers. My business undertakings are more profitable. Furthermore, as far as I can see, photography is either bland and commercially viable or interesting and unsaleable. This doesn’t include photojournalism but, as I mentioned above, I have no interest in that. Most importantly, though, there’s no better way to suck the joy out of something than to turn it into work. I have plenty of work. I don’t need more. For these reasons, with the exception of a few family/girlfriend/personal shots, I’ve released every photo I’ve ever taken into the Public Domain. I wish more people would get over themselves and do the same.
Finally, and perhaps most challenging of all, I have come to realize that, no matter how good your photos are, they will be as boring as Hell unless you, yourself, are interesting. Do interesting things. Be an interesting person and it will follow as the night the day that your photos will be interesting, too. If you’re a boring person hoping your photography will make you interesting, you’re doing it backwards.
I’m not all that interesting these days. I’m working on that. I bought a sailboat. I’m equipping it to go far and wide. I’ve started walking around the ghetto at night. I sold my business and am spending half my time in South America. My photography is getting better.