Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lomography, Plastic Cameras, and Simplicity

While looking for something else I found this post that I wrote and then forgot to post. (sigh)

When a computer program behaves in an unexpected (and usually undesirable) fashion, the nearly universal tongue-in-cheek comment by the developer is “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.”  But even we software developers (a notori ously opportunistic group) don’t have the balls to jack up the price and tout such features and the things the program doesn’t have in our advertising.
On the other hand, that’s exactly what the Lomo website does as reasons for buying their camera.  A hundred and fifty bucks for a 35mm, zone-focus, auto exposure, plastic camera with a lens that vignettes?  Is this for real?  Of course for your $150 plus $15 shipping you also get 2 free rolls of Lomofilm (36 exposures each) and free lifetime membership in the Lomographique Society – nearly as valuable as membership in the International Freelance Photographers Organiza tion for which you also get a membership card, a handsomely engraved certificate and a lifetime subscription to their magazine.  However, IFPO membership is only $39.95, leaving you just over $140 that would buy about a half dozen of Porter Camera’s plastic 35mm zone-focus cameras and a cheap light meter. 
The Lomo promotion, IMHO, is perhaps the biggest PR hype I’ve ever seen – blatantly created to capitalize on the popularity of plastic camera photography and sell lots and lots of their cameras at an amazing profit margin.
Having gotten that off my chest and lowered my blood pressure a bit, I may as well stick my foot in my mouth even further.
While I’m at it – I don’t understand the plastic camera phenomenon, either.  Not that I dislike plastic camera work on principle.  Apart from various swap prints (many of which I like very much, thank you very much) I actually bought three plastic camera prints – not because they were plastic camera prints but because I like the prints.
I certainly understand the notion of using tools that make photography less intellectual, less considered, more spontaneous – to loosen you up and help break out of ruts.  However, I don’t understand why it is more liberating to do so with a plastic camera than, say, an Olympus Stylus or even a hyperfocused Nikon.
I understand the notion of using a plastic camera because it is fun and reveling in the unpredictability of the results.  Now unpredictability makes me crazy so it isn’t fun for me but that’s my problem.
I also understand (and highly respect) the notion of a skilled artist consciously using ‘primitive’ tools and working in a ‘primitive’ style to achieve a desired effect.  The three plastic camera prints that I bought are certainly in this category.  The artist would have had a hell of a time making them work with his Hasselblad.
What I don’t understand is the notion of plastic camera art being art because it came out of a plastic camera.  Much of the plastic camera work I see in exhibits looks like the artist worked his or her butt off in the darkroom to get a halfway acceptable print out of an impossible negative.
Is this liberating?  Is this spontaneous?  Is this fun?  Strikes me like watching a dog walking on its hind legs.  The amazing part is not that it does it well but that it does it at all.
Neither do I understand the notion (epitomized by the Lomo website headline “DON’T THINK!”) that plastic camera work is somehow superior to, more art than, more pure than other varieties of photography.  This strikes me as another square-wheeled bandwagon in the continuing parade of photographic fads.
I have been pondering the “don’t think” issue.  ‘Think’ is a very slippery word.  At the risk of getting academic about this, Webster’s New Collegiate has (in part):
• to form or have in the mind
• to have as an opinion
• to reflect on (ponder)
• to devise by thinking
• to determine by reflecting
• to center one’s thoughts on
• to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference
• to have the mind engaged in reflection
• to consider the suitability
• to have a view or opinion
Most of these definitions emphasize the analytical side of thinking and if you change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t overanalyze.” I couldn’t agree more.  Making art is a matter of synthesis not analysis and it is clear to me that paralysis by analysis leads to puzzling photographs and critical writing that are useless both to the artist and viewer, PSA salons (the bastions of going by the form book) all looking alike, and (may the saints protect us) deconstructionist theory. 
You can also change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t think about the process.” and I’ll still agree.   I can not-think about the photographic process either by using equip ment that is brick simple – an auto everything or a fixed everything – or by becoming so familiar with my equipment that knowledge of how to use it is in my fingers rather than in my mind.  If you can hold the camera above your head and still nail the framing  you aren’t using a camera you picked up yesterday.
Beyond these restatements I have increasing trouble agreeing with “Don’t think.”  I read the two definitions “to center one’s thoughts on” and “to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference” as edging us toward “We photo graph with all our senses”.  The ability to synthesize data from all our senses is one of the truly mysterious happenings in our heads.  However, the reality is that we photograph by pointing the camera and releasing the shutter.  It seems incon ceivable to me that we can do this better, in the long run, by not looking than we do by looking.  Moreover, we cannot photograph a smell or a sound or a feeling or a taste – we can only photograph to suggest the other senses. 
I suggest that statement is more accurately “We decide what to photograph with all our senses.”  If that is the case then the blindfolded photography exercise is an attempt to sharpen our attention to what our senses other than sight are telling us.  Taking better pictures when blindfolded isn’t equivalent to not thinking.  It is a wake up call about being so dominated by vision that other sensory input isn’t getting though -- and that sure as hell is a problem but I doubt that photographing blindfolded will cure it.

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