“Why are you carrying the camera,” asked my colleague the curmudgeon. We were having lunch around the corner from the school. He in fact is much nicer than he pretends to be, an affable fellow who wanders the hallways offering observations about our work as scholars and teachers. The most compelling photography is an attempt to penetrate the surface, because appearances deceive, first impressions more so. Thus the cliche about capturing the character of an individual or even a community.
His inquiry gave me an opening. I always use that opportunity with strangers: I request that they allow me to take a shot when they are curious about the camera. He did not believe me, however, when I told him I had brought the equipment for a picture of him. When he posed, he made a face, which likely will turn out to be better than any forced smile.
People wonder about cameras. They have become common in the developed world; a person without a smartphone, capable of producing images as well as transmitting a call and accessing the internet, is unusual, perhaps wilful, assuming they have the economic means for such a gadget. Our gear has changed though. The norm is the smartphone, not a separate device.
The casual restaurant, specializing in Indian food, that we dined at is not far from a gathering of exuberant folks, there day and night, likely engaged in the entrepreneurial activity of downtown, not necessarily approved of even in a jurisdiction such as ours, with legalized marijuana. They congregate outside an electronics store advertising discounts with exclamation marks, including on cameras. Whenever I pass — and most people not customers give them space — I ponder why this location, and what arrangement, explicit or implicit, they have with the legitimate business whose doorway they are more or less blocking constantly. I am tempted to ask if they would consent to a quick group portrait. It seems best to have permission. There could be a misunderstanding otherwise.
That is the answer to the question, “Why the camera?” I am an enthusiastic amateur. That is what the clerk at the shop that develops my film said the last time I dropped off a roll. He explained most of their clients were committed to this hobby. The staff there recognize me. I am glad to be a regular. I am not the customer with the greatest volume of work though. Those are the medium format nature photographers who, I was informed, bring dozens of 120 rolls following their excursions. They are communicating the spirit of a place, and I am awed simply hearing about their output. I am delighted to bump into another film photographer. To a person they have been friendly, welcoming conversation.
To be dedicated to the avocation requires having a camera at all times. The famed “decisive moment” cannot be controlled by the artist, by definition. It is a coincidence: the event and the observer. You have to be ready, which is about awareness of the world and hardware on hand. Family and friends become accustomed to it. Those who are not familiar might react of course. A film camera should be less threatening than a digital rival, since it is more limited in terms of light (I load Ilford HP5, set to 1600 speed) and reach (the Contax G2 with a 45mm lens is for medium distance work), and it lacks video and sound. It probably is more off-putting, if someone would rather avoid being recorded altogether, regardless of format, because a layperson assumes the film camera can do much more and the operator can too. If I wished to document the happenings on the sidewalk, surreptitiously or flagrantly, I would pull out my iPhone. That would attract notice.
Perhaps the smartphone is as good as a digital camera, at least for street use. But there is no smartphone that exposes film (now there is an idea for crowdsourcing; the optics and the physics might work with a tiny frame, the size of those long ago discontinued Kodak discs with terrible quality). I prefer film. Many of us, myself included, have tried to express in objective terms why we like film, while others have scoffed at our exposition as so much subjective rationalization. So maybe it is purely personal, what a philosopher would deem a “desideratum,” that which is desired. Such a thinker, analyzing the matter, would further describe it as an “incommensurable,” an item without an agreed-upon means of measuring. In a diverse democracy, people are enabled: each envisions her own aspiration, and behaves accordingly. Pluralism respects that, because there is no authority decreeing the single version of the good life.
The less intellectual — which is no disparagement, but the opposite — would say it’s just fun to shoot film. Analog endeavors are intrinsically more tactile than their digital counterparts. The point is to engage in the process, as much as to have the finished product. The camera is an extension of the eye. It becomes another part of your body. You perceive through the lens even if you are not looking through it. That is why you need to carry the camera.