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December 18th, 2011

From Eye To Brain To Finger To Metal…

Episode 13 of A Coming Out Story deals with my discovery of photography as an art form…

What really got it going, and I have understood this for decades, was getting my first 35mm SLR camera. Ever since that moment, that What You See Is What You Get functionality of the 35mm SLR has completely entranced me. And they’re fast. Back in the early 1970s, open aperture through the lens metering had become common on all but the very least expensive (like my Petri) SLRs. And even the stop down metering of the Petri was fast, compared to holding the camera in one hand and a meter in the other. You could compose, focus and meter all at once and get the shot without ever having to take your eye out of the eyepiece. And what you saw in the viewfinder, was guaranteed to be what you got on the negative, since you were seeing exactly the same thing the film was going to see when the shutter opened.

I’ve tried to get into other kinds of cameras, because in one way or another they interest me too. My Mamiya C 330, a twin lens reflex, for its 120 roll film format and lens interchangeability, unique to TLRs. Various rangefinder cameras I’ve tried because rangefinders and small, lightweight, quiet and easier to focus in low light situations. But none of them have really worked as well for me as the 35mm SLR. Even my Hasselblad, a 120 roll film SLR, doesn’t really quite work for me. Having no through the lens metering makes it worlds slower, more deliberate in its use, then every 35mm SLR I have ever owned.

For me, the 35mm SLR is my instrument. Back in my teen years, after I had dived head first into full fledged shutterbug land, I worked one summer at a fast food joint flipping burgers to be able to buy what I thought at the time was the best 35mm SLR made: the Canon F1.   In 1971 they had just come to the U.S. market, and I thought it just blew away the only real competition it had back then, the Nikon F.

I used that F1 all through my senior year, doing photos for the student newspaper and the yearbook. It was my constant companion in the halls and classrooms of my school. But there was another kid who was my rival back then. His name was Lindsey and he was always carrying his Nikon F.   His professional black no less Nikon F.

I respected, and feared truth to tell, Lindsey’s abilities as a photographer. He was Good. He was also bold and brash in a way I could never be, and played the part of the glamorous photo pro with that damn Nikon as if he’d been born to it. I was envious. Eventually I decided to go with invisibility instead. Since I just didn’t have it in me to be out there and fabulous and make my subjects feel and respond to the glamor of my camera’s gaze I would become invisible instead, and observe. After a fashion that style worked for me. People became used to seeing the camera that was always with me and they came to forget its presence and I got tons of good candids. I became the detached observer. That has been my style ever since.

Though Lindsey’s skill as a photographer intimidated me, I had no such feelings about his damn Professional Black Nikon F. It was his tool, but also his status symbol, and he used it to get attention as much as he did to get his shot. But before I bought my F1, I had done my research (the geek was strong in me, even back then) and my logical analytical brain came to loath the Nikon F for what I regarded then as its inferior design, and when I was a teenager I made no bones about it to anyone who cared to listen. You are never so opinionated, as when you’re that age.

Time passes, the universe expands. On a trip out to Boulder Colorado for a JWST conference, I stopped in Topeka Kansas to visit a friend. He asked if I wanted to stop by the camera store they have there and I followed along, thinking to myself that here in the middle practically of Kansas it wouldn’t be much of one.   I was wrong.   That store, Wolf’s Camera, was amazing.   Bigger and nicer even then Service Photo is here in Baltimore.   And there, in the used camera display, was an almost mint condition Nikon F2.

I asked to look at it. And when my hands got around it, and I worked its mechanism a little, something awakened inside me. Something very much like the sensation I had when I bought my that Petri 35mm SLR back home and held it in my hands for the first time.

So I bought it.

And…the good 28mm lens they also had in that case to go with it, since I mostly shoot in wide-angle. Later, when I got back home, I scanned the used Nikon f-mount lens listings at B&H and bought a better 24mm f2.8 lens for it, and a 50mm f1.4.

A month later I am reading this on a photographer’s web site, while researching information on the old Nikons…

When doing photography for art’s sake, a camera can mean everything for putting you in the right frame of mind. Like that weird inter-being nerve fiber concept in “Avatar”, a photographer connects to a camera.

This is what I have come to realize (against the better judgment of my logical analytical side) You connect creatively with your tools at a very low level, intuitive, almost nerve-ending space and it might make no sense at all to that logical part of your brain (It’s Just A Tool!) but if it works for you then eventually you just go with it.

My Left Brain frowns at the Right Brain a lot, but I have always known at an intuitive level how connected I am to a camera while I am in the zone.   Sometimes I hit the shutter release and I just know that was the one, and I feel an almost electrical pulse run from the camera through my hand and into me.   Call me crazy, but that is how it feels. Finally, when I picked up that Nikon F2 in Topeka, I had to stop denying what my creative side has been telling me all these years: the Nikons can work with me…and maybe sometimes they work better.

This isn’t anything to do with their mechanical design.   It’s this: tools have their personalities, especially complex mechanical ones, and some personalities work better with my creative moods then others.   A mechanism can feel right, can seem beautiful to that creative part of me, even if the logical part finds tons of fault with it.   Yes, it’s weird.

So it’s been with me and Nikon cameras. I could go on and on and on and on about what I don’t like about their design (ask some of my high school classmates).   But the Canons have their personality and the Nikon a different one and I am a bit astonished now, after all these years, to hold one in my hands while I’m working and just admit that the Nikon =feels= more right.

Sigh.   They say its a sign of maturity to be able to let go of old prejudices.   These are not nearly the wonderful ground breaking cameras their ardent fans make them out to be.   Yes, yes, they did break significant ground in some ways, most importantly in terms of bringing a true system approach to 35mm photography.   The Nikon F was like the Kerby vacuum of cameras…there was an attachment for anything you wanted to do with one just about.   But it was mostly a kludge.   The one thing that made the kludgery worthwhile was the camera body: weirdly, clunky designed as it is, it really is that nearly bullet proof hockey puck they all said it was.

That’s part of their emotional appeal to me now. I like solid things in my life, but especially in my hands while I’m trying to be creative.   But it’s more then that.   The Canons feel brick solid in my hands too (even more so their lenses…the Nikon lenses just feel cheap and clunky to me), and yet they have a distinctly different sense to them mechanically from the Nikon.   During the breaks while I was on jury duty I wandered downtown Baltimore with the F2 and it was a revelation. I was cursing and fumbling with its controls because every damn thing on a Nikon is backwards from the Canon…shutter speed setting, aperture setting…and yet I have never felt more at one with a camera when I was in that particular creative zone that I was in.

So…(here it comes…) I went ahead and found a good example of an F online…and bought it.   Oh…AND an all black finish one at that.   It arrived last week.

Lindsey…are you reading this?   Go ahead and laugh…

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