The Art of Coarse Photography

The Art of Coarse (fill in your own blank) was an amusing series of books aimed largely at the amateur sportsman. It purported to be an instruction manual for the less accomplished to hold themselves out as expert. I suspect it would be regarded as a precursor to “The Bluffers Guide to….“. I have a sense that there has never been a book on Coarse Photography although doubtless there have been many thousands of Photography Course books. I think I need one.

A charming but seemingly humourless Swede has taken against a comment I made in a forum about film having more soul than digital. I should have realized that the Bjorn Borg of photography would immediately seize upon this as an opportunity to embark on a metaphysical debate.  However perhaps there is a need for some rules around the sport of photography. What are the clichés that rule the game we play or art we pursue? Did the tennis of Maria Bueno have more soul than that of Serena Williams and Rod Laver’s backhand more than Jimmy Connors? (In case you are in doubt, the answer is yes to both).

The Swede’s starting (and finishing) point is that the camera is a tool. That is it. Any soul comes from the individual. And he denies the existence of the soul. End of story. So that is rule number one – the camera is simply a tool to allow the desired amount of light to strike the film or sensor. You decide how long the aperture should stay open, how wide an aperture you wish to use and what speed ISO to use. Pretty simple really, isn’t it.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are using a Hasselblad or a Brownie Cresta 3. Its the photographer that counts. I have a lot of sympathy with that, to be honest. I saw some images on Flickr recently that really made me look twice – fascinating shots of Hong Kong. Quite different from the usual clinical images of The Bank of China Tower or The Star Ferry. Had I looked closely I would have noticed that they were taken with an iPhone. Not even an iPhone 4 but, heavens above, an iPhone 3. How retro can you get. And the processing was done with a $0.99 app. Hmmm. Sling out the Noctilux and the M bodies, here comes the era of the iPhone. I left a short comment, complimenting the photographer and asking how we achieved the effect. He duly explained and that is how I came to  learn of such modern sorcery.

But let’s get back to the source of the spat. I actually googled Swedish philosophers. Wikipedia listed 29, none of whom I am familiar with. So let’s call my antagonist Noggin. Our secular humanist asserts (is that a recognized philosophical term?) that film and digital are uniform and only the creator (with a small ‘C’) of the image adds anything beyond the mechanistic process. I am afraid I still beg to differ. I can even argue that the choice of film is an artistic decision in its own right. I get a very different result if I use  Tmax 400 rather than Velvia. For a start I chose black and white over colour. Now I could of course take the colour transparency, scan it, process it in Silver Efex Pro, use the T max 400 template and hey presto, I have the digital black and white offspring of a colour saturated dia film.

If though I stick to my chosen film and process it normally the digital representation on my screen will still look very different from something taken with the latest over-hyped mini computer. I confess to having fallen prey to the most recent hype and I do own a Fuji X100. But although it does have a remarkably good high ISO output the images still look very cool and clinical to me. Not a bit like film. So whilst I understand Noggin’s general thrust I do find a soul in film that I miss in digital.

Now I am sure that what Noggin was getting at is that a good or even great photographer can produce breathtaking images with pretty much any camera. I am sure Henri would have found it  much easier to capture the decisive moment with a LX5 or an X1. And whether I have an M9 or a Hasselblad or indeed an iPhone 3 I am not going to take pictures like Henri, or Ansel or Steve. My picture of Sai Kung girl isn’t going to captivate the world like Afghan Girl. And rightly so. My chances of taking an iconic image are minuscule, even if I live my 3 score years and ten. On that point Noggin and I doubtless agree. I will always be Thor Nogson to Noggin.

So let’s finish with rule 2 in a series of 2. It is the photographer that counts. But I am afraid that Noggin’s attempt to convince me that Pablo’s work was entirely independent of the brushes he used has failed. There is an old joke about a man who owned a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately Rembrandt made lousy violins and Strad couldn’t paint to save his life. I think Picasso should have stuck to the Cello like Casals. And I don’t mean Rosie.

Feel free to add your own rules.

And this weeks finale poses the question: which is real and which is Memorex? Or M3 versus M9?