What is a camera? It’s an elemental question, but one I have to ask. This question quickly evolves into others for me. What is a camera today? Does it mean the same thing in the digital age? And why do I still pursue traditional photographic technologies when all social and economic pressures are pushing me to think otherwise?
The first of these questions is the both the simplest and hardest to answer. A camera is simply a tool for recording the physical facts and phenomena of life, based on the notion of light as energy and that all things are endowed with this energy, all things are embodied with light. More philosophically, however, this question becomes a bit more complicated.
“I see this, and if I can prove it is real, than I must be real too. Then how I feel about it must be real too.” The camera gives us license to make this type of declaration. It allows for us to record or document this place that troubles us the most, and to position ourselves within it. A camera is presence, or least provides us with the residue of our own presence; “I’ve had these experiences, and now have traces to prove it.”
Today, I’ll venture to say, the power of photography as been diluted by the sheer volume of it present in our lives. There are phones that take photographs, cameras the size of business cards, and an inbox we all have filled with pictures from dating services, war photographs, and titty pictures. By nature, capitalism works by consuming and commodifying anything threatening or powerful. Thus, I sometimes believe, photography has been weakened by volume. Cameras are taken for granted, are now conveniences rather meaningful ways to interact with and to challenge the world.
It’s also worth negotiating some of the other the technological changes in photography. Once, photography was chemical. It was grounded in the light sensitivity of metals, brought forth with different combinations of salts, developing agents, and light. Now, photography has been simplified, at least in the of the photographer negotiating these physical combinations, and is now about cells storing light “information.” In some respects, when we consider how much of photography today is consumed on the Internet, photographs are no longer objects, but simply ideas (can I stretch that to say that cameras are no longer objects, but rather are ideas? Are no longer recording instruments, but rather are storage units?).
The most important question here – at least for my own sense of self – is not about the essence of cameras, but is why I continue to work with tools that are challenged as irrelevant, tools with economic and social viability being challenged everyday?
Here is the best I can answer. Processes have meaning. Materials have meaning. And within these, an important self-discovery and relationship exits, one I’m still trying to understand.
At a time in my life when I most needed to be heard (I know this is all times, but I think I am referring to a development psychology, a time in my life when my individuality as an adult was being pronounced), I discovered photography. Most important here, was a sense of power. With a camera in hand, I felt I understood something, and that my discoveries were able to take a meaningful and articulate form. As a young man needing to be heard, needing to pronounce myself as being separate from my family, friends, and culture, this was very powerful. When I first discovered photography, I discovered a meaningful sense of myself.
There are physical characteristics of photography that still mean a great deal to me. I like all the connotations of making pictures with precious metals – with gold, with silver, with platinum. I like all the connotations of drawing with light (reading light, literally and metaphorically), metal, and chemistry. As a young man drawn to the works of James Joyce, William Blake, and Frederick Sommer, I romanticized the alchemy of photography. Within this alchemy, so I felt (and still cling to today, however tenuously), rests a sort of gnosis, an essential experience about how I can understand and relate to my life.
I like the curl of a good black and white paper in my hands. The feel of the tightly pressed cotton in the paper base, the slight shine of light playing off the surface of the image.
I like sitting in the dark, and feeling the aura of light – the physical presence of light – the physical power of light, emanating from my enlarger and the easel.
I like not knowing, and working from the dark. In traditional photographic materials, there is always a dark space of not knowing. This is a time between the film being placed in the camera, capturing the image, developing the negatives, and ultimately processing the negatives onto paper. Within this lies a sort of chance and mysticism; both seem essential to me as image-maker. There is also a lovely metaphor here for me (a literary intelligence sometimes plagues me), of working from dark to light, from blindness to sight, from speechlessness to speech.
All of this, all of this power and love, lies in the material. I’ve come to associate all of this with smelling like fixer at the end of the day, with a light-headedness that comes from a day working with sulfur. All of us, in our own ways, cling to the sources of meaning offered in our lives – through religion, money, family, wherever we find it. At the core of my relationship with photography is an empowered self, an empowerment that comes from reaction. And by reaction, I mean in every sense – a reaction to the matters at hand when I am armed with a camera, the physical reactions of light and chemistry, my reaction when I see something that feels true emerge as a ghost of an image into something I can hold time and again.