Does the technology matter, and more specifically, does the camera matter?
Ahh, the 64,000 question. I have generally avoided in-depth discussions of camera equipment on the blog simply because I have always advocated and stressed the art of photography over the seeming obsession with technology these days. I also noticed that sites discussing the aesthetics of photography were quite rare.
Two recent articles on the internet motivated me to share my thoughts about this controversial subject. Ken Rockwell’s article “Your Camera Doesn’t Matter” inspired a sharp rebuttal titled “The Camera Does Matter” by the creator of the Luminous Landscape website, Michael Reichman. The cliche “it’s not the hammer, but the carpenter” comes to mind, but I’ve been through this before not so long ago…
Scrambling on a precarious ledge trying to pry my eyes from the amazing light, I made this image without the benefit of my “best” lens or camera.
“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’ while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why.’ Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” –Man Ray
But first, just to confirm I’m not a purist, some personal history of my long and deep relationship with digital technology, to which I proudly admit having a strong interest in. Way back in my early music production days of the late 80’s, the music industry went through a revolution with the advent of digital recording, MIDI, and electronic synthesizers and samplers. These were all new and very exciting tools that allowed me to create and edit musical arrangements in a way that would have been virtually impossible a few years before. Tasks that had required hours to perform were now a few mouse clicks away, and any imaginable sound or orchestration became attainable from the comfort of my private studio. (Try that 20 years earlier when the NY Philharmonic would have cost $800 per hour for a recording!) I took full advantage of the new technology, for fun and profit.
As another example, the “art” of mixing before automation (computer control of all aspects of a mix ie. level, filters, equalization, etc) required physical dexterity, hand to ear coordination, and interestingly enough, photographic memory. The ability to create a mental image of a song or composition helped me to remember the precise timing of an adjustment. This may have included 20 to 50 different changes in any given mix, ranging from level adjustments on multiple tracks, sometimes at the same instance. Remembering when to mute, un-mute, solo, raise an instrument, lower another instrument, while remaining aware of the overall effect became a mental ballet.
The introduction of mix automation completely changed this process, and I became a master of the leading digital system, digidesign’s Pro Tools. Mixes are created and edited entirely on screen with a mouse, and perfection is simply a matter of editing until the changes are no longer audible (usually because you’re so fatigued after 12-15 hours of minute changes, you can no longer discern the difference). I have proven this by pretending to make a change at the client’s request, yet they were convinced the mix had dramatically improved. After letting them in on my little secret, they were really confused, a clear sign the technology had clouded our judgement and biased our hearing. I did enjoy the precision and control, yet the excitement and spontaneity were gone.
It wasn’t long though before I began to feel somewhat at odds with the perfection that was achievable with these tools. Somehow I thought that if I allowed the performances to become “flawless”, I had become dominated by the technology, removing a human quality which the machines lacked, real organic expression. Perhaps a better description would be the lack of “soul” in the most artistic sense, represented as a lack of emotional intensity. This is not to say that all of my creative efforts were inspired and soulful, but one thing I knew for sure: by removing, or at least carefully guarding my dependence on the technology, I would have a much greater potential to create something unique and expressive. Just the possibility was the real goal, and that alone made me comfortable in my use of whatever gear was available. No matter how powerful, convenient, or automatic, they were only there to aid my imagination, without which there could only be a sterile and lifeless result.
“I tried to keep both arts alive, but the camera won. I found that while the camera does not express the soul, perhaps a photograph can!” Ansel Adams
I have carried this same philosophy into my landscape photography, and the parallels are quite remarkable. Fortunately this second time around, it all seems very familiar and comfortable for me. I enjoy and embrace all of the latest innovations, always looking to see what will really make a difference for me creatively. This can be a slippery slope I admit, as all new tools can at first seem to be improvements on what was perfectly adequate just moments before. “Moments” is of course a reference to the unimaginable pace of technology and its role in photography, not to mention our daily lives. Faster, cheaper, and better can all be motivating factors in any creative pursuit. Yet the fascination and excitement of a new lens or camera body quickly fades, and I realize yet again that only the investment of time will really improve my photography. They say history repeats itself, which brings me back to the original question regarding the role of the camera in digital photography today.
Does the camera matter? Or in more general terms, does a better tool generate better results? Is the best tool a necessary ingredient for realizing ones creative potential?
I can only offer my opinion based on a life long relationship with the “state of the art” and my struggle with these very questions. Of course the camera matters, as much as a finely tuned piano, or a priceless Stradivarius in the hands of a true master musician is the ultimate combination of artistry and performance.
But to believe that the tool has a direct correlation to what is possible undervalues what is most important about any artistic expression. Todays cameras are wonderful tools, allowing one to capture images easier, faster, and of arguably higher quality than ever before. But as David Ward said in his book Landscape Within, “the promotion of technology in photography has led to the commonly held belief that there is some transfer of creative responsibility from the photographer to the equipment.”
A successful photograph transcends the process with which it was created. The viewer is left with an impression long after seeing the image. The works of the great masters are still my benchmarks, not because I resist change or new directions in art, but because their technical execution is second to their expression, emotion, and aesthetic value.
“Simply defined, a visionary image communicates the intentionality of the artist’s experience.” Galen Rowell
This ideal should never be dependent or determined by the technology available, but rather by the intent of the photographer. If the tool at hand is a state of the art camera, then so be it. But history has shown how great works have been created regardless of the technical challenges, and photography is full of examples whether in this century or the last.
A camera IS required to make a photograph, and this combination of man and machine will always remain a balancing act between art and craft. But ultimately, the challenge is staying focused on what is truly meaningful. That can only be achieved when the focus is on the melody and it’s magical ability to heal the soul, not on the instrument or the delivery.
“The use of the term art medium is, to say the least, misleading, for it is the artist that creates a work of art not the medium.
It is the artist in photography that gives form to content by a distillation of ideas, thought, experience, insight, and understanding.” –Edward Steichen