Learning To Lean Into Life’s Unknowns – by Brian Cox

This project started as a way to get back to basics and mend my sometimes volatile relationship with photography.

I love photography and camera’s equally. They are like children in that I love them both equally but in different ways. In true sibling fashion they can sometimes be at odds with one another. As a photographer I’ve always liked to believe that I’m able to get good images from any camera I choose to use. As a camera lover I’m always jumping down the rabbit hole of the thinking how much better my photos could be if I only had XYZ camera. I suppose these photos were a subconscious attempt to please both passions.

I first got into photography in the early 2000’s as a college student. This was when digital was still in its infancy stages and out of reach for a poor college student. All I dreamed about was one day being able to afford a DSLR. In today’s age its easy to forget how revolutionary it was to “see” what you are shooting real time. In my mind film was a soon to be obsolete process, but I could buy many rolls of film for the cost of a DSLR. Film camera prices took a nose dive. Some of the cameras that were out of reach a few years earlier could be had for pennies on the dollar. It was during this time I started shooting medium format. I started with the venerable Holga then I got a Yashicamat TLR, then a Mamiya C330 TLR and matching lenses (what a beast that camera was).

I soldiered on shooting film and buying cameras but as more time passed it was getting more and more inconvenient. After graduating college darkroom space became harder to come by so I resorted to getting my film processed. I became pseudo digital, scanning processed negatives and doing post process work digitally.

I eventually bought my first real digital camera. An aps-c sensor Canon Rebel in the mid 2000’s. I remember the excitement of shooting and then viewing images on the back of the camera. After every shot I would obsessively look at the back of the camera to check exposure and composition. Yes, I was one of those people. I essentially forgot everything I learned shooting film. I no longer needed to  visualize what I wanted the end photograph to look like.  I didn’t need to worry about composition or focus. If it wasn’t right I could easily correct or worse yet machine gun it and hope for the best. I forgot all of the hard earned lessons from shooting film.

I eventually started seeing cracks in the armor of digital. In my film days I took dynamic range for granted yet I had to work so hard in those early digital days to not blow out highlights.  I discovered noise and how ugly it was compared to film grain. I learned about interpolation and how sensors actually work vs how film captures light. In hindsight it seems obvious digital wasn’t all I thought it was going to be. Unfortunately I took sides with my love of camera’s and gear instead of my of love of making photographs. I decided my camera wasn’t good enough yet I couldn’t afford a camera that would make my photographs better.

This was during the rise of social media. Everyone became a photographer overnight. No need to print pictures anymore just put them on Facebook. I started questioning my love of photography since now it seemed anybody could do it. I felt the bar for what was considered good photography was at an all time low. I grew tired of being on the mental hamster wheel, believing I needed the latest and greatest to make good photos and also feeling drowned out by social media. With my passion waning I made one of the most regrettable decisions I have ever made in photography. I gave up. I wasn’t going back to film, I wasn’t going to compete with everyone’s camera phone or likes of Facebook. I actually became bitter about it all. Friends and family would ask about my photography and I would always have an excuse as to why I wasn’t doing it anymore or try and change the subject.

Over time I thought I had pushed my love of photograph way down deep. So deep I considered photography as just another hobby I had back in my twenties. The years went by and life moved on. Then something happened… I had kids.

As a parent you want to capture every moment of your children’s life.  The dormant love of photography started rearing its head again.  I wanted to capture every moment, yet I honestly wasn’t happy photography was making an appearance in my life again. I didn’t want to face all the issues that led me to leaving photography. I also wasn’t going to stoop to taking pictures with a phone or my now really outdated DSLR.  What a mental conundrum I was in. I came to the conclusion I would buy a camera just good enough for shooting the birth of my son and family photos.

I went on that way for a while. Using my little point and shoot Canon S95 as strictly a tool for capturing moments of my kids life. As with any passion you can only deny it so long. It was through shooting my kids that photography began knocking at the front door. Very gentle knocking at first which gave way to louder knocking. Eventually knocking turned into pounding.  I tried to ignore it, treating it like an unwanted door to door salesman. Go away I don’t want what you are selling, but oh how I wanted it so bad.

I eventually had to face this devil.  It wasn’t all at once as in the way I gave up on photography. Photography would knock and I started opening the door just enough to have a conversation but not welcoming this guest into my home. Little by little I began warming up to the idea of getting back into photography.

If we were going to have a relationship, I wasn’t going to fall victim to past failures and mental frustration. I was going to do it because it brings ME joy. No more worries of my gear not measuring up or not feeling validated because my work is competing with all of facebook and Instagram. Photography was going to be for me this go around.

It’s a relationship I am still working on to this day. I started buying cameras again, but only outdated digital cameras that I found of interest and could afford. First it was the Canon 5D mark I, then the original Ricoh GR digital, then an Olympus PEN E-P1. Each camera I bought became a reason to get out and take pictures.  This eventually led to the purchase of a Panasonic GF1 for $40.  The camera that took these photos.

There are many camera’s that take great photos. Then there are camera’s that are fun to shoot but don’t necessarily take great photos. I would consider this camera the latter. The shutter feel and sound is so satisfying. The dual control dial on the back makes for great one handed manual shooting. It feels like they carved this thing out of a block of aluminum. Image quality doesn’t measure up to the feeling this camera gives me.  It’s now a 13 years old, ancient by digital standards. It only has 12 megapixels. The anti-aliasing filter must be very strong in this one as it smears any background detail like grass or leaves.

Rather than give up on the camera I decided to lean into its deficiencies. I purchased an antique Wollensak 17mm f2.5 c-mount cine lens and micro 4/3 adaptor. I don’t know much about it except that it was designed for 8mm film and it was cheap. I purchased the lens right before leaving for a trip with my family to East Tennessee for the holidays. I threw it in my suitcase along with my other “go to” cameras.  After the four hour drive from our home in North Carolina we decided we needed to stretch our legs and go for a walk through the rural countryside. I took this camera and lens combination with me deciding it would be a good time to experiment with my new found lens. It ended up being the only camera I used for the trip.

I am aware vintage glass is a thing and some might view it as an old fad or a gimmick but I don’t care. I am always interested in capturing a feeling as much as the image itself and this lens does it for me. As part of my photographic journey I am realizing photography lives a life separate from megapixels, medium, lenses or the camera that was used. These images were all composed in camera using the camera’s 1:1 format (square) feature since the lens doesn’t cover the sensor. This effectively knocks the pixel count down from twelve megapixels to nine. The extreme vignette effectively means you are composing in a circle. After shooting in a rectangle for so long it was so much fun to get outside of the box and be forced to think differently about my composition.

The trip and this camera have become another mediation session with photography. These images were all taken around Greeneville Tennessee.  Specific locations include the top of Viking Mountain, Horse Creek Park, downtown Greeneville and random places around my family’s farm. I hope anyone reading this might learn something from my experiences.

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About The Author

6 thoughts on “Learning To Lean Into Life’s Unknowns – by Brian Cox”

  1. Brian,

    I’m finding so many parallels here. My photography journey started out just like you and tehn moving on to digital and nowdabbling with film as well as old digital cameras. I do have a modern mirrorless camera, but oddly enough, I fin dmore joy shooting a 10-year old DSLR for some reason. I guess its a mix of nostalgia and experience we have gained along the years to challenge ourselves to get teh best out of old cameras. Excellent article!

    1. Yes exactly. I just sold my the newest DSLR (Canon SL2) to fund a sigma dp1 Merrill circa 2012 and so far have no regrets. The SL2 was great. Super fast autofocus, many frames a second, 24 megapixels, decent image quality but it really wasn’t much of a challenge to use. The DP1 Merrill on the other hand is one of the worst modern camera’s I’ve ever used while at the same time produces some of the best digital files of any camera I have ever owned.

  2. This is a cool article Brian and I think these are really good photos. I also think it’s a very great example to teach people to improve their photography, and hence a nice fit for 35mmc. What I like is the consistent vision across this series; they really hold up well in that regard. It really gives a sense of a personal walk of observation and discovery. Often when I see people showing their work it’s all over the place – a bit of this, a bit of that, but it looks like you’ve got that licked. So pleased to read this here. If you want some constructive criticism I’d say you only need one of each subject – lose one tower and one barn, because to my eye part of the charm is the discovery of a subject, recording it, moving on. As many of your son as you like – the shared exploration is great and ties it all together. The vignetting could be problematic if you’d just added it in post, but I reckon here it adds something and says, “you are looking at a photo.” Enough – It’s clear this resonated with me; Cheers.

    1. David thanks so much for the kind words! I do sometimes struggle with choosing between similar images. Your criticism is well received. Sometimes you just have to make a decision and be ok with the “almost” image not seeing the light of day. This was a good reminder.

  3. Really well put. Like many people I suspect, I went through nearly the same thing with getting back into photography to take better/more memorable photos of kids. I remember someone saying “are you really going to capture all those moments with your kids on an iphone?” An iphone is fine and all, but you couldn’t take any of the photos above with an iphone (the 3rd photo above is really great). And I’m fairly certain my kids won’t later find the photos on my iphone like I found prints of my childhood from my parents. I could be wrong though, who knows.

  4. “some might view it as an old fad or a gimmick but I don’t care”

    Good, not letting what “some” think limit what you enjoy is what keeps a hobby from becoming a chore. I have to remind myself of that quite a bit.

    I’ve used a similar lens and camera combo and your images are much more inspired than anything I got! Thank you for sharing.

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