We went to Yosemite last week, a group of us and our young kids, a vacation to breathe in that mountain air and experience the joy of nature and all that bullshit. No but really, Yosemite is deserving of its reputation for beauty.
Even the vistas from the valley floor are magnificent, like walking in the footprints of the gods. The scenery makes landscape photographers of us all – prompting even the least inclined to pull out their camera and snap a frame. It is, after all, the playground of Ansel Adams, the most famous landscape photographer of them all.
Yosemite's fame and majesty isn't just an inspiration to repeat for ourselves the exact photos that Adams took (even though I've heard rumor of tours for you to do exactly that), but to push our own technique and style to new heights. Like a squared-off slab of marble to a sculptor, a landscape photographer's raw material is the meeting of Sun and Earth, and there's no more elegant interplay between the two than Yosemite.
So it flows, if your photos of Yosemite are boring, dull, or otherwise uninteresting, you can be certain the fault did not lay with the subject.
The quest for better cameras
I began life as a landscape photographer. Not a good one, of course – only savants start good, but landscapes were what drew my eye, and what drew me into photography. I have since birth been interested in cameras, but landscapes are my lure to photography. As a kid, my friends and I would go to the tops of mountains and I would want to capture the vistas. But my photos sucked. So I sought out better cameras. And yet, my photos still sucked.
Viewing the world
When I imagine myself ten years in the future, I picture a person more staid, more wise, more thoughtful, (more fit). It's me, but with all the impatient immaturity shucked off. Someone who is successful, esteemed, level-headed, and who knows what they want. I think to ten years ago, and I imagined my future self (that is, my now-present self) in much the same way. The distance between that utopian vision and the disappointing reality shoves my nose into that terrifying truth – I'm the only version of myself that will ever exist, all others are comforting lies I wrap myself in to escape from my inability to change.
Are we not defined by our possessions? As Tyler Durden says, "The things you own end up owning you." I'm not certain which has had a larger impact on my philosophy: the environmental movement ethos "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" or the 1999 movie Fight Club. Both have changed the way I view the world, and as an adult I make an effort to abstain from mindless consumerism. (I will admit to sometimes doing a little 'retail therapy', but I just do it at the dollar store.)
As much as anything else can lay claim to it, creating beauty is the ultimate benefit to being a creature armed with conscious thought. Being capable of creativity and not nurturing the ability is a life wasted. We must care for ourselves and others, but the purpose of that care is so that we can all be free to reflect back onto the world our interpretations and fantasies. Culture is distinguished not by what we consume or what we process, but by what we make. And whether writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, programming, designing, or photographing, we all can make.
At odds with a life philosophy devoted to minimalism are the creative arts. It is not possible to both be without a wasteful glut of possessions and also engaged in exploring a tool-assisted creative pursuit. And while even something as simple as writing can have practitioners fawning over quill pens and word processors and mechanical keyboards, photography – especially film photography – can mushroom out and absorb the unwitting hobbyist's every bit of living space. The gear is not just the umpteen cameras and lenses and tripods, but the developers and chemistry and lighting rigs and studio backdrops and softboxes and scanners and product stages and shipping boxes and photo printers and enlargers and film refrigerators and bag after bag after bag after bag.
In the most recent years, I've backed away from natural landscape photography, instead swimming through the seas of cityscapes and suburban street scenes, hiking down offramps instead of mountainsides. But I've never forgotten my roots. And so a visit to Yosemite, even one encumbered with friends and family and small children – nearly the polar opposite of the quiet solitude preferable for creating slow, studied landscape photography – was the opportunity to hone new skills while revisiting an old passion.
For these photos, I used my Pentax 645NII camera coupled with one of the 55mm, 75mm, or 150mm lenses, each with a Tiffen Red 25 filter attached and Ilford Delta 400 black-and-white film loaded in the magazine. To enable the longer shutter speeds and the deliberate compositions I desired, I worked entirely on a tripod.
Yet, despite this effort, when I saw the results of these efforts I was disappointed.
For all this intentionality – I could have just shot with my cell phone – my photos are not the better for it. They do not reflect the level of consideration I was placing into each frame. This is not my best work. Given time my opinion of old work sometimes improves, but I doubt that will happen in this case. The errors are too central to the images – sloppy technique and sloppy compositions, but, most critically, ugly lighting. I cannot help but look at these images and wonder, would I be showing you better photographs if I had used a simpler technique? A simple digital camera?
The Tao of Film
While I have ample digital cameras, the last half decade has seen me grow to prefer film. I liked the tools, I like the techniques, and I liked the exact moment of the creation – pressing the shutter and doing something mechanical and chemical rather than electronic. The results, I've liked those too, but I've since learned how to imitate analog results using digital tools. That emulation of film is the entire reason I chose the Fuji X system over other digital options!
Instead of spending years learning film photography, I could have loaded from the internet someone else's Lightroom template designed to re-create the "film look", but that's not how I do things, nor would that have been as instructive. The film look is real, and enviable, and we should all strive to achieve it. But we should do so in a way that's meaningful to ourselves, so that we learn not just what the "look" is, but why the look is.
Who am I?
I may be there, at that point, ready to redefine myself by purging the film photography gear and going minimalist, slicing down to the bare-bones digital core. I am no stranger to selling film cameras. Even the holy grails of M3, 500C, Xpan have passed from my hands on an eBay transaction. But all the film and gear? That would be unsettling – who would I be if I did not have film cameras?
Popular advice on the internet for analog photographers is to always keep your original film negatives safe and secure, just like you would you RAW files from a digital camera. My natural tendency is to be a pack rat, and I've fought against this my whole life. It is simultaneously easy and a burden to keep my negatives. For years I've sat and stared at these unopened boxes of negatives, scanned to the computer and then forgotten. Today I threw them away. It was cathartic. I treasure the space their absence has freed up, both literal and symbolic. The photos on them weren't that good anyway. I delete my RAW files, too.
Ten years ago I first purchased a Pentax 645, my first serious film camera. Over the decade I have replaced every part of that system, bit by bit, to the point where none of my original parts yet remain. Is it still the same camera? Am I still the same photographer?
My first foray into digital SLRs was with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel. I still have that Rebel. I recently cleaned away all the corroded rubber, charged the battery, attached a EF 24mm f/2.8 STM lens, and took it out for a "spin." It still works. When I purchased it, I said to an older, experienced photographer that I would keep using it "until I outgrow it." He told me that that would never happen. I've had many cameras since that original Rebel, but I still haven't outgrown it.
A poor carpenter
I have not yet decided which tools I will use tomorrow to make photographs. But I will make photographs, and the results will never be good enough, and maybe one day I will stop blaming the tools. But probably not.