As someone with a fairly modest stockpile of photographic equipment, I often find myself praised for not succumbing to the so-called Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Which is funny. Because while indeed, photography for me has always been more process than equipment driven, this is the exception rather than the rule. I am generally quite prone to hoarding – I mean collecting – Things. Particularly vintage, mechanical things.
At various times in my life, I have been intensely into fountain pens, bicycles, and mechanical watches. And believe me, I cannot be accused of restraint in any of these realms.
Like any obsessive collector worth their salt, I am in fact unable to answer the seemingly straightforward question ‘How many fountain pens/ bicycles/ watches do you have?’ It depends on how you count. It depends on how you define ‘bicycle/ fountain pen/ watch…’ (I mean, are we including disassembled frames here? Do fountain pens with bent nibs and petrified inner sacks count? Crusty watches with non-functional movements? How can one even begin to answer!)
But I digress. What I really want to talk about, is the relationship between collecting and photography.
I find it interesting how many people get into photography via collecting. It’s a phenomenon no doubt specific to the internet era: The collector wants to share their passion. They go online, participate in forums. They see spectacular photos of others’ collections and feel inspired. They buy a camera, view tutorials, perhaps even take classes. And in due course, they too are able to produce magnificent photos of the objects they collect. For some, this spreads into a more general interest in photography; for others it stays specific to photographing their collections. Either way, there is no doubt that new photographers are created regularly in this manner.
For me, it was the other way around. I was already a budding photographer when I began to collect fountain pens in the early 2000s. Yet, my pictures of pens were decidedly lackluster. The two interests simply did not overlap. I was interested in tableaux photography and portraiture, and I worked exclusively with film. The idea of purchasing digital equipment, macro lenses, white boxes, and god knows what else, for the purpose of ‘pen photography’ seemed absurd.
When the bicycle obsession gripped me, it was different. It was stealthy, insidious. So gradual and organic it was, I can hardly pinpoint when I transitioned from ‘photographer’ to ‘bicycle photographer.’ It was 2009 and I had just succumbed to buying a DSLR, so I already had the equipment. At first the bicycles began to creep, quite innocently, into my imagery. A portrait might include a suggestive glimpse of handlebars. A street scene would perhaps feature a commuter pedalling to work, briefcase in basket. But it wasn’t long before my subject matter began to morph toward an exclusively velocipedian oeuvre. It wasn’t long before I started a full fledged bicycle blog. And soon became a photographer of not just bicycles, but bicycle-related equipment, cycling events, trade shows, bicycle shops, bicycle manufacturers. This genre came to completely dominate my photos for nearly a decade of my life. And there is nothing wrong with that in itself. Except that for me, it was not intentional. It gripped me and carried me away, in a manner that – in retrospect – I do not think was beneficial for my creative development …or mental health, for that matter!
And then I woke up from it one day, as if from a trance, and realised it was a sort of crutch that had outlived its purpose. Escapism gone rogue. I returned to my core photographic interests, and vowed to be cautious going forward when it came to photographing Things.
Fast forward to several months ago…
I have never considered myself a watch ‘collector’ as such. But ever since childhood, I have worn mechanical watches and have accumulated quite a few over the years. Every so often, a watch will make an appearance in my photos. After one such occasion, an acquaintance reached out. He wanted to hire me to photograph his watch collection (yes, this is a Thing!). My first impulse was to politely decline. But it was something different, and curiosity got the better of me. I explained that I hadn’t the right equipment for macro photography. But tell you what: Let me practice on my own watches with the equipment I have, and see how that goes.
What followed was in equal measure frustrating and enlightening. Unsurprisingly (I suppose it should have been obvious in retrospect!) I was not in fact able to properly photograph watches without a macro lens and controlled lighting. The diminutive size was only part of the problem; far more tricky was dealing with the reflective surfaces. Those who specialise in this type of photography have my sincere admiration!
But what truly gave me pause was the state of mind this endeavour put me in. I approached the project with due diligence. I did not merely try to take photos; I researched how watches tended to be presented in the type of photos the client expected. I delved into ‘watch culture’ as it were – in the process, picking up all manner of fascinating information that sent me off on tangents. I discovered the world of watch podcasts. I joined a watch forum. I began to relate to my watches differently, to organise them thematically, to think about them more. I even erm… purchased a few more watches.
It was all quite engaging. Nevertheless, when it grew clear I could not accept the job of Watch Photographer, it came as a relief. I suppose it could have been the perfect excuse to acquire more camera gear. But I decided against that. Something about this project – or rather, the immersive effect it had on me – made me uneasy.
Perhaps it was the intense focus on detail, but I found watch photography claustrophobic. It was as if in the process of taking the pictures I could feel myself shrinking, Alice in Wonderland-like, and entering a microcosm from which I might not be able to escape. Perhaps watch photography – or macro of any kind – simply isn’t for me. Or perhaps this sensation was an echo from my bicycle-photographing days. A warning to be mindful of the power of objects – particularly beautiful, storied objects.
It is easy to lose ourselves in the act of photographing Things. So easy, that it’s sometimes worthwhile to pause, and ask: Is that really what we want?
At this point I can honestly say, that I couldn’t photograph a watch if you paid me. And for me, that is probably a good thing.
header image: 1952 Jaeger LeCoultre ultra-thin; photographed with a Leica CL and a Summarit 75mm f2.4 lens
second image: Gráinne modelling a sweater in 2018 with glimpse of bicycle; photographed with a Canon 5D and a Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm lens
last image: my well loved all-terrain bicycle which I built (with some help!) in 2012, with a 1950s Soviet Zvezda wrapped around the handlebars; photographed with a Leica M10 and a Summarit 75mm f2.4 lens
Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit www.ailbiona.com