The Magic Wand
This weekend I posted about my experience with the new Fuji XE-1. It’s a great camera. It’s capable of making some beautiful photographs. But I didn’t say the one thing I most wanted to. My heart was screaming to say it and got over-ridden by my mind and it’s always a mistake not to listen to my heart. I wrote it because it might be helpful to some. I wrote it because these kinds of posts get traffic. And now I’m writing this one, knowing I need to say it again, traffic stats be damned.
The Fuji XE-1 doesn’t matter. There’s a bandwagon forming around this camera, and I hate bandwagons. They never seem to gather around things that truly matter.
I get asked about gear all the time. Once in a while I write something about it. And yes, gear matters in the sense that without it we’d be drawing with pencil and paper. Certain photographers have specific needs, and faster, bigger cameras can meet those needs. But you know what? In a year or two there will be a new, hot, camera. In a couple years, many of us with today’s greatest camera will be swapping it out for something new, convinced by the voices in our heads that we need it if we’re going to make photographs as good as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Avedon, Karsh, Galen Rowell, or whomever. All of whom, by the way, didn’t have cameras remotely as sophisticated as we have now. All of whom created iconic work on the cameras we now pass over in our lust for something new, for some magic wand, addicted as we are to cameras and not the photographs they make.
I’ve been saying for years that there is no magic wand. I was wrong. There is. It’s making photographs. Thousands and thousands of photographs. It’s being honest with ourselves and not trying to be someone else. It’s giving the craft time to grow and not expecting to master something overnight that others have taken a lifetime to do. It’s studying photographs and knowing what they provoke in you and why. It’s looking to painters and designers and others who work in two dimensions and learning from them. It’s relentlessly looking for light, lines, and moments. Some of us can do astonishing things with 12 strobes, and can HDR the crap out of 16 frames taken on a $40,000 Hasselblad, but still can’t make a photograph anyone truly gives a damn about. The internet is full of them: technically perfect, frequently lauded with “Nice capture, man,” and utterly forgettable. I think I’d weep if the best you could say about my photographs is that they’re tack sharp and perfectly exposed.
We’re all looking for the perfect little box with a hole in it, and they’re sexy little things, I’ll give you that. The best ones feel good in the hands and I’m the first one to tell you I love the tactility of this craft, but Leica’s red dot isn’t going to make my photographs any better. Thinking differently will do that. Wrestling with new ideas and compositions will do that. Replacing the gear catalogs and popular magazines that are packed with ads – voices telling you you can “shoot like a pro” with the newest camera – with books of actual photographs, will help you do that. Putting down your fancy D4 and picking up a completely manual 35mm camera for a while might do that, too. And yes, a small mirrorless camera like the new flock of Fujis might do that for you. Or it won’t. If you aren’t making beautiful, honest, photographs with the camera you have now, you won’t do it with the one you’re lusting for. I promise.
I know I’ve preached this sermon before. I know it gets old. I also know it might get read as a rant, but it’s truly not. The camera collectors will collect, with no interest in making something that moves hearts or opens eyes, and God bless’em if that’s what makes them happy. But most of you, at least the ones reading this, want that. So do I. We want it so badly it hurts, and the long years ahead to mastery feel like a joy on the rare days they don’t feel so damn frustrating. But things get cloudy sometimes and it doesn’t help that people like me once in a while tell you how great this new camera or that new lens is. And those people – including me sometimes – need also to be reminded that none of it really matters. Just get a camera that feels good in your hands, does what you need it do without getting in the way, and then go make photographs. How new, shiny, sexy, small, large, or European, your camera is doesn’t make a hill of beans’ worth of difference to how it moves the human heart. Astonishing work is created on old lenses, Polaroids, Holgas, old Digital Rebels, and the venerable AE-1. You won’t impress anyone, other than other photographers, with your list of L-lenses. The only thing most of us truly care about are the photographs. The rest is irrelevant. Don’t let it sidetrack you. Envy, gear-lust, and the lie that better gear will make more compelling photographs just pulls your mind and heart from making art. Beauty can be made with the simplest of means.