Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shop Class

Photography has always required the photographer to be some kind of nerd.  The level of nerdyness depends on the kind of photographer you are.  Imagine the obsessive introversion it must have taken to make wet-plate negatives off a donkey cart in the Sierra Nevada in the time of Edweard Muybridge.  In some cases, the nerdyness is partially mitigated by the ballsyness it takes to get all that camera crap into the right place at the right time.  It takes a lot of effort and a lot of risk.  It's expensive.  It's tiring, the work never ends.  The constant challenge might be the best thing about camera craft.  It is always testing you.

Cameras are getting easier than ever to use.  Phones are amazing cameras.  Cameras are phones.  Sometimes, there's just one button.  You'd think this would all make for less work.  It does, but it doesn't.  It means you spend more time with the computer, more time with the gadgets and more time figuring out ridiculous ways to get your camera into some difficult place.  And it's all changing so very fast.  As soon as you figure it out, it's old news.  Maybe it means you spend less time thinking about the pictures.  Maybe you've made a mistake.

If you're not careful, the gear and gadgets and contraptions consume all of your energy.  You can be left with a pile of very amazing switches and buttons, reciting a litany of statistics for some robotic eyeball.  You forget the image, the story, the moment of photography.  You are a mouthbreather with some toys.  You have crossed the line.  On one side was the Artist.  Now there is only the Nerd.  Overthinking reigns.

I imagine it's the same for many of us.  Whatever medium you're working in, the constraints of it can consume you.  That focus is supposed to give you power, not just limits.  Whatever your trade, gear can always tempt the Nerd to overwhelm the Doer.  These nerds are all around us.  You know them well.  They have the thing that can do that thing and this thing, but it's another game altogether to actually do something with those tools.

And tools they are.  A good photographer can make a great photograph with anything.  The same holds true for a filmmaker.  We have lots of sophisticated gear, and the faster it gets more sophisticated and simpler to use, the faster we build more complicated systems.  The whole game is to have the technology down to such a reflex, you don't stay in nerd mode when it's time to do art.  What button do I push?  What settings, blah blah blah - that's not something you want to be thinking about in that crucial moment when the light and the subject and the emotion and your camera and your crew are all in the right place at the right time.  No time for nerdyness.  Only time to react.  And the right movement, the right buttons, and the right connection aught to all be part of your natural reaction.

Of course, it takes a nerdy journey to get to that place of comfort where your tools make sense.  It can take years.  But the pressure today with photographic gear is to get up to speed as fast as possible.  New tools are being created and discarded at an amazing rate.  You don't have years to get good at the next best thing.  When I started doing this, I never imagined that the desire to get a good shot (or just keep up with the Joneses) might eventually make me an amateur radio model pilot.  As if cameras weren't already nerdy enough.

All this is to say that the process of learning your gear down to a reflex can be painful and ugly and expensive for you, as well as repellent to potential mates.  But ultimately, despite the mistakes and ugliness (or maybe because of them) the process is rewarding in at least two ways.

1.  The things you are working with, the technology you are fighting, the conditions you are up against - these are all inanimate objects.  They are components of the universe that may never necessarily be under your control.  In the process of learning to work with them, you learn to bend and mold yourself to take advantage of them.  When you're up against a challenge or a problem, or you experience a setback, the personality of these inanimate objects are not to blame.  You might have to fix something 65 times.  Things just happen, they work the way they work, and there is only so much you can know at one time.  There is only one personality in the equation.  When you're working through a complicated system made of physical parts, you're really working on yourself.  It's not a new idea.  See: Motorcycles. Robert Pirsig.  Matthew Crawford.  Eadweard Muybridge.  Francis Chichester.

2.  You will eventually become good at that thing you were trying to figure out.  That is, unless you give up.  New lens?  Drone pilot?  Rope work?  Color correction?  Compression algorithms?  Valve lapping?  Carburetor tuning?  All just nerdy by themselves.  All potentially important ingredients to a great image or an amazing ride you might never forget.  And after you're through cursing the tools and begin to really use them, maybe someone else will get something out of it, too.  At least when you see the picture, you'll remember how hard you worked.