The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.
from "Agrippa" by William Gibson
I wanted to write a cool, composed node about photography, touching on the History of Photography, great photographers, technique and the artistic problems and status of the discipline,
But I don't have it in me to do this. So this is what you get instead:
Photography: a personal memoir
I will talk about what photography has meant to me up to now, and I will take the opportunity to link to many photography nodes. Thanks to the many (among them Wicker Nipple and Yossarian) that have noded on this subject.
The first photographies I remember (and the first camera, as well) are 6x6 family snapshots, taken by my father with a 120 Yashica TLR.
This is an intensely manual camera, fully mechanic. It looks like a thing from the Fifties, but it is not: it is in fact a clone of the Rolleiflex TLR.
At that time I did not suffer of brand snobbery: that is an illness I contracted later, and I got rid of it only some years ago.
I loved that camera: it had two dials, exposure times and f-stops, a photodiod lightmeter, a very smooth focus knob, a metal film advance lever and, of course, a shutter release. The shutter is, of course, a leaf shutter with X and M synchro.
All of it in metal, some of it covered in knurled plastic. A heavy camera, cold in the hands, normally protected by a patent leather case. To hold it in my hand meant to be trusted by my father.
I was supremely careful with that camera; at that time I had no idea of prices, and I placed the price of The Camera at between a small car and a house in the countryside.
But it was not the camera itself: it was the film. This particular camera eats 120 film, and takes 12 shots on one roll.
Again, money was never discussed, but I assumed that every shot was incredibly expensive; every picture had to count. And it had to be sharp, in focus, well exposed and properly framed. The responsibility connected to the shutter button was awesome.
Because of all this importance affixed to The Camera, as a kid I took maybe 10 pictures with that camera. Of course, my father would set up exposure for me. As with all TLRs, the picture in the viewfinder is inverted left to right - yet another fascinating phenomenon.
At that time I thought that exposure consisted of making a yellow needle and a fickle black needle match.
And that was an accurate enough definition, given the wide exposure latitude of negative film. I had not discovered slides yet.
All those pictures came out as contact prints, which my father would file methodically in little square books.
The development work was done by Foto Carra, a good photographer in Parma. He is still in business, and he bought himself a minilab. He still does immaculate processing and traditional wedding photography.
Some rare pictures were printed much bigger. One black and white picture of me, maybe four years old and with a butterfly resting on my cheek, was particularly good, and it was printed 50 by 70 centimeters.
It is slowly turning sepia in my maternal grandparents *tinello*. You can still appreciate the detail, thanks to the big 120 negative.
That picture has been shot in the almost dry bed of the river Ceno, on the Appennini, maybe 30 kilometers away from Parma. At that time I thought that the Appennini were far away and that Milano was practically unreachable.
That camera was the first camera I really knew and desired. But it was not my camera, it was a grown up
camera. I was to have my own camera, a kid
camera: a Kodak Instamatic
A tiny square negative
The Instamatic is (or rather was: the 110 format has lost to APS and 35 mm) a good kid's camera, in a sense.
I will describe it. I am the sort of person that can remember this camera, almost a toy in fact, but cannot remember the face of my neighbours.
I live in a world that is largely objects (and words, of course). I feel the plight of things. Bad craftsmanship irritates me.
That is why the little Instamatic never really made me happy, because it did not feel nice.
The Instamatic (one of a bevy of models, now avidly collected) was mostly grey and plastic. The lens, plastic as well, was set in a black, squarish, slightly protruding mount: on this mount you found what I now know to be a simplified diaphragm and a tiny metal lever that acted as a shutter release.
On the camera body a rotating mount could hold a flashcube; on the right side, the film advancement wheel protruded a bit from the camera body.
This wheel, when turned, would advance the film with a ticking noise which I did not like, because it seemed the sound of something that was going to break: some little tortured metal spring or plastic bit, about to bend and finally snap.
This never happened.
The camera, as the clever reader has noticed by now, had no focus control: the focus was fixed, on the hyperfocal distance. The small focal length of the lens, and its none too wide opening provided enough depth of field to guarantee focus from 1 meter to infinity (the same trick is used on the Minox spy cameras).
The shutter had a single, fixed exposure time, and the diaphragm could be set to two positions: bright sun and clouds. I always felt sorry when I had to use the cloud setting.
Part of the problem was that at that time I felt that sun was morally preferable to rain; but what bugged me was the lack of precision. Cloudy, sunny, OK: but just how much? I already had a passion for precision, at that time. Visibly, if my father's camera needed all the fiddly dial turning and needle matching, and precise focusing, how could this little bastard plastic box have the gall of reducing the world to sunny/cloudy?
There had to be some cheating going on. I was only partially right, because in fact exposure in full sunlight follows the old and trustworthy Sunny Sixteen. But there is not such recipe for the unpredictable clouds.
I wouldn't want you to feel that I was not grateful nor thrilled by the Instamatic. No, I was grateful. I hoped that I would eventually graduate to a "better" camera, but that could wait.
The Instamatic traveled with me to skiing trips, to the seaside and was used.
The pictures taken were commented on by my parents. My main problem at that time was that I would jerk the camera when shooting, which resulted in fuzzy pictures. That, and the fact that I did not have much aesthetic sense.
I also blamed the camera, of course. This is a habit of many photographers, and of most bad photographers. I admit that it was a limited camera, but I was an even more limited photographer.
At that time I was in Scuola Media with the Salesians, and the school director even gave us photography classes. I am sure that there must have been some theory, that he mentioned negatives and prints and focus.
But I don't remember that. What I remember vividly is gloating over his Canon photographic system.
He delighted in taking the "official" school pictures, and I am sure that he delighted as well in impressing us with his camera and lenses.
That was clearly a worthy camera. It was also clearly out of my reach, and my parents would never buy one for me - it was actually what you would call semi-professional, and at that time neither of my parents (both of them at the beginning of their careers) were making a lot, there was a house to pay, school fees, one had to be reasonable. Cameras are expensive and fragile objects, not to be given to little children.
I was a very reasonable child, with reasonable desires, In those years I also saw for the first time a computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum that Engineer Caraffini brought to the school.
That too marked me, but that is definitely another story.
I was about ripe for confirmation. I had taken the required catechism, which taught me absolutely nothing about Catholicism.
A tailor had already fitted for my pudgy mass a suit called a "sahariana", in cream cloth.
Enter my uncle Walter
, after whose name I am called. My uncle Walter
is a complex character, given to sudden decisions and intermittence du coeur
It seems as if all the suddenness allowance of the family went to him, the firstborn, leaving nothing for my methodical and calm father.
So, my uncle Walter
hears that I would very much like a camera, better than the Instamatic
. In those years, about 20 years ago, there were many fixed lens rangefinder camera
s with adjustable focus, diaphragm and shutter speed
; there were Canonet
s .... these camera were (and still are) great learner tools, rugged and relatively cheap,
But that was not what Walter Sr. bought: no, he went and bought a Nikon FE, with a 35 mm, a 50 mm and 100 mm lens, all of them Series E. And a flash, and a ready bag.
It is all in the wrist
I was floored. My parents were surprised. To put things in perspective, this was the second-best Nikon camera existing at that time (the best being the F3, a professional camera). The lenses were very good glass. I was floored, and I was very much inferior to the tool I had in my hands.
So I decided that I would try to be worthy of the wonderful black machine I had in my hands. It felt heavy, solid. It had little dials, and numbers of different colours. On close inspection, little unmarked buttons and lever and clever coaxial wheels would appear.
If the lens was removed, the delicate mirror would appear, suspended in its little private temple, with walls of pleated matte black metal.
I knew better than to touch that mirror.
The camera felt good in my hands. That is probably due to the fact that it is a relatively small cameras, and my hands at that time were not big. But it was also due to the sounds it made, and to the way the lenses would fit in the bayonet lens mount: CLICK!. Positive locking. No wobbling. No excessive force.
Or to the way the diaphragm blades would move, in concert, when the f-stop ring was moved.
At that time I did not understand many of the features of that camera. The importance of depth of field preview, or of having a PC connector was not obvious.
The Nikon FE can work also without batteries, albeit with only one exposure time. That seemed to me like a relic of times past.
Anyway, I was a bad photographer, and I took crappy pictures. I also had amazing bad taste, which did not help. Mr. Kitsch, that was me. Cuteness craving was a way of life in that time.
Also, in retrospect, I realize that I did not have the dedication. To become a good photographer, you have to shoot a whole lot of pictures, Thousands, in fact,
Nobody had told me that. In fact, at that time I was a gearhead. I would read the Fotografare magazine (which deserves a node all of its own), and desire huge flashes, telephoto lenses, 3D cameras.
I was, at that time, delighted by the unusual (pictures of the rare wild gerbil of the Himalaya), the very difficult (picture of a bullet in flight !) and the tacky --- generally embodied by soft focus shots of delightful young women with straw hats, standing in a dress close to a bicycle. In a meadow: could the meadow be dispensed with? Nope.
In short, there was no hope for me at that time. The following years, photographically, were the logical consequences.
Do no think, though, that I was very happy with my pictures. I did not delude myself that my very good camera was being used to take very good pictures,
But it did not matter much. Apparently, good photography was not really meant for me. I stopped buying Fotografare. I shot about five rolls a year, which is the definition of the amateur photographer. One roll could last me months.
At times, I did not even take with me my expensive camera, but a tiny crappy Ricoh that was never pleasant to use (and never very sharp, as I can see now).
This time of photographic dormancy covers ten to twelve years, during which I was busy with high school and university. This time ends in Pittsburgh
, but during this time there were two important sets of pictures taken,
Pictures of women I don't talk to anymore
First, as always, is Laura.
I was in love with Laura. I had started by detesting her for her sophistication, and had ended up loving her for many reasons, including her brains. And her sophistication, of course: that which irritated us at first may become very dear with time.
Anyway, I was in love with her, she was not in love with me, and that's about it.
When she asked me to take some pictures of a little church for her Architecture course, quite obviously I said that I would (for her I would have dragged myself over broken glass, and then eaten the glass).
But I posed a beggarly condition: that I would be allowed to take a picture of her (she had never permitted me that). Reluctantly, she agreed,
It was with cajolery that I got my first good picture. Taken in that forlorn, boring little open chapel from the 16th century, lit very softly because of the fog, this picture was (and remains) good. Laura's extreme seriousness is visible, and so is her beauty. She wears heavy clothing, a sort of overdesigned heavy overcoat with large lapels and wide sleeves. She is sitting on one of the chapel low side walls, she looks straight into the camera and she wears a little round fur hat (it was a very cold and wet day).
This all combines to give an impression of someone from another time. With very little effort, she could turn into a Renaissance noblewoman from Cremona, posing for a provincial painter.
She always grudged me that single picture.
I don't even know where she lives nowadays.
The other good picture, or rather set of pictures, was taken years later. The model was my second girlfriend, Angela.
Again black and white, to avoid color temperature and color shift problems. It was easy to take good pictures of Angela, because she liked being photographed.
I shot two rolls. At that time I thought that that was a lot of film. Nowadays, I buy film in 10 roll batches, and I would buy more if I had a bigger fridge.
Angela's pictures are good, indeed some of them are hot. I had them printed in 8"x10", I framed them myself in a type of frame that now I would never consider (not conservation grade) , and proudly exhibited them on the stairway walls. Of my home, or rather (as it was made clear) of my parents' home.
The exhibition was not appreciated. I had to take them down. Nowadays I think that my mother was right, or at least very much understandable. At times I am just satisfied with understanding people: agreeing or disagreeing would require a stronger sense of self than what I have,
These days, when I see those pictures, I see all the little defects.
The contrast is too weak (bad printing, probably also underexposure of the negative).
The background is cluttered (random junk in the background is on of the marks of the amateur).
Sharpness is not what today I would consider satisfactory.
Yet these pictures, with their defects, are imbued with memory. They are not perfect pictures, but the little rubber slipper that intrudes in the background makes them my and her pictures. I look at them and I remember the one room apartment, our initial shyness and the trips to the Alps.
Those pictures are also imbued with death, and separation, which are the essence of photography: by its very nature, photography implies the end of the things photographed.
The idea was exposed by Roland Barthes, and I find myself deeply agreeing with it: despite the Kodak sunniness and happiness, photography and death are very close buddies,
I have lost touch with Angela. I believe she is still living in Milano. She moved and I don't have her new address. I haven't seen email from her for ages.
But it does not matter: she is a different person, by now. And I have the pictures, after all,
Pittsburgh and Eugenia
I went to Pittsburgh, I met Eugenia and I left Angela. Now, a good person, or at least a person more in touch with what he wants and feels, would have done things in a different order.
But no, I just had to have a transatlantic, long distance breakup.
In Pittsburgh, I took pictures (with no great passion or competence, of course), I showed them to Eugenia, pointing out (cringe, my fellow reader, if you too use to do this) how great the picture would have been if only it had been different. Or how, behind the uninteresting car, there was a flower of great beauty. Or that, unfocused, consumed by the grain and with heavy racconing, the boy on the bench was actually very cute.
I believe you know what I am talking about: pictures whose subject is not in the picture, Pictures that require a commentary to get the point through. Pictures, in short, that sucked. I still did not get it.
Then, goaded by the husband of my boss (and currently best friend in the whole US territory), I entered Pittsburgh Filmmakers for a course in Color Printing, taught by Sue Abramson.
The course forced me to see again. I realized that some things just cannot be photographed at some hours of the day, unless you want a certain effect.
I began to have an idea of the amount of control, obsession and precision that permits the taking of certain pictures.
And I printed color pictures. I was not a very good printer, but I did not suck either. And I realized that, as Ansel Adams said, the negative is just your raw material: the printing does the rest.
I also started reading (and contributing to) photo.net, a mildly abrasive but very supportive environment where I learned many things.
The most important teaching of photo, net is that you have to be ruthless with your pictures, if you aspire to excellence.
Behind every good photograph there is a handful of rejects, and behind every good photographer there is a dumpster brimming with discarded slides.
And the second most important thing is that the chief photographic tools for improvement are a tripod, a box of Velvia, a loupe and a normal lens (which comes to 300$, if you get a good loupe).
Somewhat inconsistently with what I said before, I ended up buying a new camera: a very smart, autofocus, motorized Nikon F90x.
I bought it largely because I wanted a camera with a good flash metering system, which means that I also bought a Nikon SB28 flash. And a 20 mm wideangle autofocus lens, a secondhand 200 mm manual focus and a really silly 35-135 zoom.
One very good thing about buying the expensive Nikkor lenses, even in manual focus, is that you can sell them easily and lose very little money; maybe 10% over ten years. In some cases, you end up actually making money.
Why Nikon ? Why not Canon ? Because my uncle (you remember, my uncle Walter) had given me a Nikon, which meant that I already had three perfectly good Nikon lenses and some accessories. And my life was complex enough as it stood without entering the nightmarish world of having two completely incompatible photographic systems.
At the end of the Pittsburgh years I was in love with Eugenia, I had a ticket for Paris (where Eugenia had moved in the meanwhile) and I had a renewed passion for photography. And a bag full of camera stuff,
One year in Paris cannot possibly hurt you
... but it can fuck you up some.
In Paris I was broke, or at least I felt broke, which, as far as one's actions are concerned, is more or less the same. You see, in Pittsburgh I had been working at CMU as a Visiting Researcher, making what in US IT industry terms would be called a pittance. But I can save, I was never in debt and Pittsburgh is relatively cheap.
In Paris, though, I was adamant that i was not going to work: I would dedicate myself to studying for the last mandatory exam and to writing my thesis, all mandatory requirement for getting my CS degree from Milan State University.
That was the plan. What I actually did was that I spent the first six months there studying French, walking around, being mistreated by French people (at first I thought that they hated foreigners, then I realized that they just hate everybody, including themselves) and taking pictures of Paris.
And harboring fragile illusions.
That was when I found out about a photography course in large format, studio photography and advanced black and white printing.
The teacher was the infinitely patient Carlo, and the school had a tiny studio, and a not very ventilated black and white lab.
I went to the first class, still uncertain if I wanted to do that. And then, the smell of a black and white laboratory hit me. I had a flash back to childhood memories of visiting Carra's lab, the mysterious red light, the magic of seeing images appear on white paper.
As they say, I was hooked again.
The Pittsburgh Filmmakers color lab did not have the same feeling, because it had a dry-to-dry lab: you exposed your paper in stuffy little rooms with an enlarger, and then the paper was carried in a black bag to the processor, a large grey box that three minutes later would spit out your developed and fixed proofs.
A very convenient device, that takes much of the messiness out of small scale color printing; but it did not sound like running water. And being color printing, there was no mysterious red light; everything has to be done in total darkness.
So there I was, in Paris, taking pictures in the streets, the churches, anywhere. I tried to take pictures of people, but I did not have much luck because Parisians just hate that.
I took pictures in the streets, and I was delighted by them.
And on the other side, Carlo taught me the studio
and view camera
crafts:I learned about the Scheimpflug rule
, about the primitive technology of studio flash
es. There is a lot to learn, even in vary basic studio photography.
I religiously did my homework, and slacked somewhat in everything else. At that point I had begun to loathe intensely the last exam I had to pass (it was called TIT
: Teoria dell'Informazione e della Trasmissione). I did not give a damn about Claude Shannon
. Trellis coding
left me cold. Binary polynomial
s were not what I dreamed about.
What I dreamed about was, I admit it entirely without shame, was being a photographer.
I had not decided what kind of photographer. Photojournalism certainly looked sexy, and dangerous. You need special, titanium clad, balls to do that. Or a travel photographer: almost as exotic, but not quite so close to the fire. Less chances of becoming a backstop.
But where does one start from ? Nowadays I would say that, by taking a boatload of very very good pictures, by learning to write convincingly; and after that, by impressing a bored editor in a magazine or an agency. And by studying other photographers' work, of course (which is always a sobering, even humiliating experience).
That's what I would say today. At that point in my life, though, I thought that I already had some very good pictures. I studied them with my lousy little slide viewer, and boy, did they look good !
So, I went to an agency.
This agency is called Diaf, and it is carefully hidden in the Marais area of Paris, four blocks away from where I lived.
I made an appointment, and I was received by Mr. Hervé Gissel, to whom I am eternally grateful.
Mr. Gissel, a photo editor, plopped on a giant light table my little box of slides and started studying them with a loupe that looked like a microscope.
As he went through my slides, he mumbled "Underexposed ... overexposed ... not quite sharp ... mmm ... ah, ca c'est bien ...".
Then he smiled, and he told me
"Well, you know, what we normally do is that we take charge of the slide collection of affirmed photographers. Among your slides, there is only one which I would consider good enough for our files.
But we have about three million slides in our files, so it wouldn't really make much sense to put in just one slide."
That is what he said. I am still grateful, because he was constantly amiable in the face of my amazing cluelessness and, let us say, impudence.
I was like a kid that has just bought his first PC, learns a smattering of Visual Basic and then goes to Symantec and says "Hey buddy, ya interested in my cool calculator program ?"
In fact it was even worse than that, because CS is currently a field where there is a scarcity of practitioners and an abundance of jobs. Maybe that kid could be hired somewhere.
But in photography (apparently very glamorous), the situation is the opposite: there is an abundance of gifted amateurs and of wannabe professionals, some of whom come out of schools like RIT.
All in all, there are more photographers than jobs.
And then there was what I myself saw on his light table: my slides were not well exposed, which is what I could not see with my piddling slide viewer.
So, WHAP WHAP WHAP went the cluestick. I left, thanking him profusely for hist time. He said that maybe we would meet again in some years.
That same day I bought myself a light table and a 10x loupe.
And I embarked on my (currently still active) "Take publishable pictures you dolt" project.
I became ruthless; I threw away maybe 70% of my slides. I had so many slide boxes I started using them as loudspeaker stands, thumbtack boxes, flash diffusors, anything.
Having had a healthy dose of reality from Mr. Hervé, I was more than ready to admit that I could not make a living as a photographer.
That, plus more clues from my friend Mario, plus extra parental pressure got my ass in gear; I started boning up for the damn TIT exam, finished pounding out my thesis and went to Italy. In October 1998 I graduated. Then we went for a trip to Mali and Senegal. In February 1999, one day after my birthday, Eugenia and I landed in Mexico City.
To the Africa trip (backpacking in a hot, humid, dusty environment) I did not bring the F90, but the old trusty and fully mechanical Nikon FE. It was a good idea. AA batteries do not abound among the Dogon.
I have now spent almost two years in Mexico. During this time I have taken more than 100 rolls of slides which, you may want to know, corresponds to the roll-a-week that guarantees continued learning.
I managed to make photography part of my job. I have taken also many pictures for my own pleasure. I have seen my slides published in our magazine, in 15000 copies. It ain't the National Geographic, but it is a great satisfaction nonetheless.
Not only that: the publishing process, from the scan to the glossy paper offset printing, does not tolerate bad initial quality. Exposure is even more critical, to the point where a half stop makes quite a difference.
And of course, psychologically it is different: if you screw up on an assignment, the censure is no more that benign, all-forgiving, parental grumbling. No, if you screw up, that means that there are no pictures for the Veracruz article.
During these last five years of photographic growth (that I hope will continue: my impression is that, if one wants, there is no need to ever stop learning in photography) many people have been very supportive.
Most of all, let it be said in honor of the truth, Eugenia. She contributed criticism, encouraged me to learn and never grumbled when, during our travels, I would stop and spot meter ten different points of a scene in order to get the exposure just right.
She went so far that she catched the photography bug herself: she has already taken some very good pictures, and I believe that she will take many more and better ones.
Now that we have broken up, I would like to think that, together with the love, the passion and the tenderness that every relationship should give I have given her something more, the silver gift of making pictures.
All joy ?
Well, no. Lest you get the impression that photography is a constant fount of happiness, I will tell you something about the frustration
At the beginning, one is frustrated because one does not know. You don't know why, but the picture sucks. You can't tell if the problem is with contrast, if the lab screwed up something, or simply if the gods were adverse to you at that moment.
Subtle defects nag at you. OK, it is sharp, but not as sharp as you would like it to be. Grain ? Focus ? Diffraction ? Hand tremor ? Crappy printing ? Maybe you should do your own processing ... and fall into yet another timetrap.
Eventually, technique is mastered. You are able to take pictures of anything, in any way (at least within your domain of experience).
Portrait ? No problem, medium tele, neutral background, softbox, click click.
Landscape ? Easy: wideangle, dusk light (or dawn, but dusk is warmer), tripod, contrasty sky, polarizer maybe, wait, click,bracket, click.
Which means that you are stuck within a formula. And at that point you need to ask yourself what you want to do with your photographic abilities. OK, you can take pictures, but why would you want to ?.
This is a capital question. To document your work ? To remember certain moments ? To make a point ? To illustrate an article ? To show an unknown side of something ?
In the answer to that question lies the direction to your future growth, both technical and artistical. It is not the same to gear up for an Art Wolfe set of skyscraper photography than for an intimist reportage on Brazil.
In my end is my beginning
I will close these memories with a remark: two years ago my father realized that he was not using his Yashica any more - he found it awkward in comparison to his new Nikon.
So, he gave it to me. I have it here to me as I write. It is still a good camera. And now I can use it.
Xamot said that metanodes are not really necessary. Maybe he is right. I hope I do not sound like a pompous idiot. These are just my reflections on a subject that is dear to me.