Why are you taking pictures?

I call photography my "hobby," but it's more like my compulsion. Sure, I strive for beauty – developing my aesthetic eye, attempting to master my medium, reviewing and curating what I've done – but all of that came years after I started making photos. I am not seeking perfection for perfection's sake. Rather, any artistic proficiency I command is merely bait on the fishhook. I want to draw you in, make you study the photo, until you see what I see, how I see it.

San Jose, Cinestill 800T, Pentax 645NII

Photography is communication. The best photos are short stories. A title and caption and notes can provide some context, but the image itself tells the tale. And the stories I want to tell? Well, they can speak for themselves. They are small, rarely dramatic, sometimes ironic, and perhaps gradual to engage. But maybe, as the momentum of a collection builds – small story after small story after small story – by the end I have communicated something larger, and showed you my perspective. And if I'm really lucky, done everything right, and you're receptive, well, then we may have a transcendent moment, one where you've connected with my story.

San Jose, Lomo Metropolis, Pentax 645NII

Taking photos of the things that interest me in the places I do, it is not uncommon that I am confronted by a defensive stranger, demanding, "Why are you taking pictures?" They mean, of course, "of my things," afraid that my interest in their things portents burglary or something worse. But the question – "Why are you taking pictures?" – taken less literally doubles as a prompt for meditation. Why indeed am I taking this photo? Why am I not taking photos of something else? Why take photos at all? Why am I not home watching TV?

San Jose, Portra 160VC, Hasselblad 500C

The plainest answer is so banal, that if I were to give it voice, it would sound a mockery. "Because I like the way the car is the same color as the building." "Because the shadows of that fence are interesting." "Because the way the sunlight lands on your house is aesthetically pleasing." "Because that shade of ochre is fascinating."

San Jose, Ektachrome E100SW, Pentax 645NII

But, why take photos at all? "Because it's what I do." I actually said this one time, over in downtown San Jose. This guy was angrily yelling at me from a mechanic's shop, and it was the first thing I could think so say. This was not a well thought out approach to handling this situation; my obliqueness did not de-escalate matters. "I can't prove it right now, but I promise you nothing bad," I said another time. That had better results, if only slightly.

Santa Clara, Sensia 100, Contax S2

But taking pictures is what I do. The truth is, as little as strangers on the street want to hear it, I am taking photos because I'm compelled to. I have to. It's how I interact with the world. It's how I show the city it's own reflection. It's how I honor the places and things that fascinate me.

Campbell, Lomo Metropolis, Hasselblad 500C

the year 2020

The meme of 2020 was to hate on it, and to wish for the next year to begin. Truly, awful things defined the year 2020, and it became apparent that we now live in the world that 80s dystopian sci-fi novelists wrote nightmarish stories about. But, despite all that, my photography compulsion continued on. My photos surely reflect the smaller scope of my world – travel is absent, friends have vanished – and the total number of photos I took dropped by a quarter. And yet, my photography is a solitary act, so in some respects, little changed.

"Orange Wednesday" – when the sky went dark from the wildfires – Provia 100F, Nikon F80 Zoom – Lomo Babylon 13, Contax S2

the gear

I pared down. A lot. By the end of the year, I was primarily using only three film cameras and one digital – the Pentax 645NII for medium format, the Contax S2 and Nikon F80 for 35mm film, and the Fujifilm X-T3 for digital. Much of the other flashy gear I've showed off in previous years? Gone. Sold off. No more on my shelf.

However, the "honorable mention" film camera of 2020? The Bronica RF645. I've never even before mentioned it on this blog. I bought it, used it, and sold it all in under a year. This is fine, we had a good run, but there's no point in holding onto something that I know I won't use. It's a great camera, but at the end of the day, I prefer the Pentax.

Bronica RF645 Nikon F80 with a Vivitar 20mm f/3.8 lens attached Pentax 645NII with the 105mm f/2.4 lens adapted via Fotodiox

I also played with oddball techniques last year, including shooting pinhole cameras, finally wrestling the Lomography Sprocket Rocket into making something good, playing with the Advantix system, and using the Fujica Half to make Half-o-Ramas.

7-frame Half-o-rama on LomoChrome Purple film The Fujica Half which I made it on Using the Sprocket Rocket with Kodak Ultramax A 6x17cm pinhole photo on Portra 400NC

the film

I continued to shoot a lot of expired or weird films, and Provia 100F when I'm not. Old rolls of Portra NC and VC and obsolete Ektachrome variants flowed through my cameras, as well as rebrands like Lomography's Babylon 13, and the mysterious UltraFine Extreme. In total, 27 distinct film stocks made their way into my photo catalog, as I continue to dance whimsically from type to type, never content to standardize.

the stash

but am I a better photographer?

All this gear and lenses and cameras and film stocks obviously don't matter if I don't know how to use them. So... do I? I mean, I feel like I do. I feel like I'm improving, even. I know techniques I didn't know a year ago. I am more confident with my practiced, reliable compositions, yet still push myself to experiment and attempt new approaches. But where can I point at a photo and say, "See? Here, this photo, right here, this proves I am better!"? I can't.

San Jose, Lomo Metropolis, Pentax 645NII

Perhaps this is the result of growing more perceptive. I know more, and thus I am also more attuned to the flaws in my own work. Things I could have done better if I was just more patient, more bold, more willing to push myself.

Willow Glen, Velvia 100F, Pentax 645NII

I look at the photos others make, and wonder why I can't be more spontaneous, better with people, more observant of a scene. But that's good. It means I'll continue improving. Hopefully.

Campbell, Lomo Metropolis, Pentax 645NII

So another year has passed and here I am, still taking photos, changed but not really but still kind of.

And as always I will finish this out with some more photos. Click on them to see them bigger.