The Photography Paradox

About a year after my brain injury, things had improved and stabilized enough for me to consider finding something to do with myself.  We had a good, although somewhat out of date, 35mm camera.  We had gotten reasonably proficient with it years before, but had been in the closet for longer than we had used it

Over that year, I had learned the path to relative success with tasks was to break them down to their simplest parts and then to stretch their execution out over as much time as possible.

With a mechanical camera, or one at a manual setting, a photographer has 3 settings to consider:  aperture, focus and shutter speed.   The camera’s orientation is a fourth factor, although it is outside the camera’s mechanics. And of course square filmed cameras did exist.  Finally the photographer had to choose what film to use.

So I reasoned that keeping as much  of this the same as I could would free up as much of my cognitive abilities as possible for the various accidental tasks necessary.  I opted always to use a fully stopped down aperture, Kodak Gold 100 film (readily available at the time and of medium ie affordable quality) and portrait orientation.  That left me with shutter speed and focus at “the decisive moment”, and of course the ephemeral, extra-camera act of composition. (We had a couple of lenses, but at that point I used just the normal lens.)

I could have approximated the effect of all this with a point and shoot camera, but I don’t think any used 35mm film, and none of them had anything close to the lens quality I had grown used to from my previous photographic enthusiasm.

Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography) Easter, 1982
Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography)
Easter, 1982

I found the results encouraging.  My sense of composition seemed unaffected by my injury.  And while the doing of it was taxing, it felt more like growth than destruction. (A photo from the first roll of film taken in this  experiment is at right.)

Over the next 10 years or so, I slowly not only re-aquired the knowledge and skills I had in the past, but extended them considerablily. I now had multiple lenes, filters, a tripod, remote shutter release, a variety of films,  shades and reflectors and 2 camera bodies.  (My friend, George the barber gave me much of this extra equipment when he made the move to digital.)  I got a film scanner and I learned enough digital photo processessing for my needs.

The problem was that at the point of taking a picture, with my increased knowledge, too much had to occur in too short a time.  The ephemneral light of the woods with its interplay of a sun shifiting into different intensities and frequencies with the shortening  morning shadows of the trees and the randomness of clouds obscuring the sun meant there simply was no way to plan out enough to make it manageable. The decisive moment required too many decisions.

Binghamton - Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant Copies Without Originals
Binghamton – Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant
Copies Without Originals

I called my dissatisfaction with this state of affairs the photography paradox. The more I knew, the less I was able to do.  Sure I could have returned, to the enforced simplity of that first roll of film, but I had seen gay Paree (at right).

So I took fewer and fewer photos, and then stopped altogether.  This point coincided with some health problems unrelated to my injury, and family responsibilities that required most of my limited attention.  By the time these things were better enough for me to onsider returning to photography, the digital had taken over.

Gone was the local camera shop, the easy availability of film, its processing and printing.  To resume film photography would require as much re-learning, new learning and new equipment as would going digital.

Digital cameras were becoming popular while I had been photographing, but now they defined the photographic world.  The capabilities of digital cameras were impressive then, but now they are astonishing.  In short digital photography is now a substantially different medium from what is was.

As I have learned more about this I can see that my own personal photography paradox may be a metaphor for digital photography, displayed digitally, conceptualized digitally.  For me, the more I knew, the less I could execute.  Now much more of not just the knowledge but also decision-making needed to make a photograph resides in the various digital technologies involved.  The photography paradox becomes then,  the less one knows, the more one is able to execute.


4 thoughts on “The Photography Paradox

  1. Loved reading this, Bob. I am positive that I have had the opportunity to be friends with some of the smartest folks in the world. And you are surely high up on that list :). Nice to know you are doing so well.

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