We live in a time of promiscuous image making.
I believe that, in the not so distant future, every moment of every day will be photographed. There are more cameras about than ever before, and more people using them. There are cameras in pens, in traffic lights, in computers, in sunglasses and, of course, in every handheld mobile gadget from music players to phones. There are digital cameras of such breathtaking resolution that unimagined details are revealed, and post production software to make these images even more stunning. Then there are the digital printers, capable of producing huge, crystal clear, sumptuous prints within seconds of the image being captured. And yet I carry on with film and chemicals and a mechanical camera. Not only that, but black and white film. And a lens that doesn’t even zoom. Why? People think I’m nuts.
My technique seems to cause consternation in some quarters, which I’m frankly always surprised by. I’m either dismissed as a regressive dilettante or accused of willful contrariness, usually by people who don’t know what I’m trying to do. So I thought I’d set down what my technique involves – then at least we’ll have it straight.
This is not intended to be a defence of the way I work as, quite frankly, there’s nothing to defend. It’s a choice, like why I drink red wine and not white. I also don’t claim to have invented anything here. There is nothing revolutionary about this – far from it. There are a number of us out there, using old-fashioned cameras and monochrome film.
I use a 35mm rangefinder camera – in fact I usually carry two, with 50mm lenses. I have two in case one breaks, but also so that I can have different film stocks loaded. I usually use 400asa film, sometimes pushed as far as 1600asa, but also 125asa and 3200asa films. The high film speeds mean I don’t need flash, which is handy because I hate the way flash pictures look. I don’t usually develop or print my own work as I don’t enjoy the post-production (in the sense of post-exposure) side of photography. Sometimes, of course, financial constraints mean that I must get my fingers into the chemicals, but when I’m doing that I always find myself thinking I’d rather be out taking pictures somewhere.
Once the shutter button has been pressed, the image is set. Obviously the print is worked on to get the best out of the negative, but the composition of the picture is not changed by cropping. This means that what you see on the print is what I saw through the viewfinder – a constant view, since I always use the same lens. That black frame you see around the picture is the edge of the negative, it’s like the frame around a window that I carry with me everywhere, through which to look at the world.
This, in essence, is why I use this technique – and why I’m still very happy with it – but it does have disadvantages. To say the least! Many of the great pictures of the 20th century – pictures I admire and love – would not be known, or at least would look very different, if my criteria were applied. But that’s the crux – these are my criteria, for my work. I’m not suggesting anyone else should use them, but I like to work this way. If a picture doesn’t work the way I composed it in the viewfinder, then it doesn’t get a second chance in the enlarging frame.
I think I started doing this while under the mistaken impression that the photographers I admired worked this way. In fact, of course, the great ‘original’ 35mm photographers were never so strict with themselves. If many used a 50mm lens exclusively when they started out that was largely due to the lenses being fixed to the cameras in those days. As soon as interchangeable lenses became available everyone started making full use of them, and wide angle and telephoto pictures became the norm. Equally, it seems no-one had the slightest hesitation in improving a picture by cropping.
Which brings me back to why I work this way. The reason is, in short, that I’m not trying to make a good picture – I’m trying to make a good body of work. Changing the composition of one picture by cropping it might make it more pleasing, but it will break the pattern created by all the others, that constant view. Also, I reckon, with all those pictures being taken all the time, on phones and traffic-lights, there’s no shortage of images around – and most of them don’t say very much. I hope I might, by working my own way, be able to say something more interesting about the world and what we’re doing in it by keeping the technical fireworks to a minimum and really concentrating on that little window – composing, trying to get the focus and the exposure right, and pressing the shutter.
But all of this is just technique, which is not that important. Because it’s not about technique. It’s not even about photography. It’s just me trying to make sense of the world.
[This text is taken from the introduction to my book ‘The Constant Eye, Vol. 1‘]