Michael Sebastian

photography, creativity, and other stuff that moves me

Finding the right tools

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Chaos and clutter having finally brought my home-office space to the point of uninhabitability a couple of weeks ago, I was forced to start cleaning it out. I have more still to do, but at least I can now walk across the room without having to climb over things. And I made a re-discovery that sent me down memory lane; prompted some further thoughts about finding the right equipment for the work you want to do; and reminded me how limiting it can be to use the wrong equipment, knowingly or not. More on that anon.

My first task was to reorganize the storage cabinets where office supplies (shared by my wife in this joint-use space) and photographic gear reside. There are four of these 6-foot steel cabinets lining the back wall of our basement-office. I put my hand on just about every item in each cabinet, deciding its fate. I threw away quite a bit of stuff, and consolidated, reorganized, and relabeled the rest so I can actually find things. I still have the rest of the office to tackle—chiefly, the embarrassing crap-midden that is my desk—but at least now I’ll have the cabinet space in which to store other things I decide to keep. So far so good.

The third cabinet from the left contains, among other things, unused “legacy” cameras. Among these I found my venerable Nikon F3, given to me by my parents as I completed my internal-medicine residency training 21 years ago this summer. It was my first “real”, professional-level camera, and I made a lot of pictures with it during that phase of my photographic life. I haven’t shot with it in nearly 5 years; it still had a roll of original T-Max 400 in it. Feeling nostalgic, I decided to take it out for a spin. While it shows some use, it’s in good working condition, and all I had to do was replace its batteries to get going. I found myself wondering why I had put it away, largely untouched, for so long. It is, after all, a fine camera, used heavily by pros back in its day. After shooting a few rolls, I had my answer: 35mm, if it was ever the right tool for my eye and work, isn’t the right tool now.

Allow me a moment’s digression. Like other people for whom photography is a passion rather than a job, my photographic career has proceeded in fits and starts over the years, with periods of intense interest and activity interrupted by prolonged fallow times, as life’s other obligations took precedence. I started making pictures at around age 8, using beater cameras gifted by family members. My first one was a brown-Bakelite Kodak Brownie that used 620 film; I also briefly owned a Zeiss Ikon Contina 35mm with no rangefinder and a broken light meter. It had a sweet lens, and was a beautiful machine to look at. Alas, not even Carl Zeiss could gainsay Newton’s laws of motion, as they apply to cameras and pavement.

But my early pride and joy was my Hanimex Praktika 35mm, with its undistinguished 50mm no-name screw-mount lens. I remember my excitement—I was about ten years old—when I marched down to the camera counter at the Farmers Branch, Texas Montgomery Ward to buy the Praktika. I confidently plunked down the fifty-odd dollars for this marvel of East German engineering, money I’d earned helping my father conduct a big family garage sale that summer. The Praktika was the first single-lens reflex camera I ever owned. And, having purchased it with the proceeds of my own toil, I was proud of it. I shot with it throughout middle- and high school, as my interest in photography waxed and waned, and finally withered to almost nothing during college—I studied, and played, hard, in those days.

But sure enough, in my last year of college, my lifelong recurrent itch flared once again. I scratched it with yet another beater camera—but a better class of beater, a very used Nikon F2 with a balky metering prism and a 50mm lens with a bent filter ring. This $200 investment carried me for a couple of years, until it, the Praktika, and much of what little else of value I owned were taken by the burglar who visited my New Orleans med-school apartment one night. That, plus school pressures, put paid to my photographic activities for about the next five years.

Enter the F3, which showed up in my last year of internal-medicine residency in Birmingham, Alabama. Another photographic resurgence ensued as I graduated and entered private practice there, and had a bit of time on my hands. It was a time of transition into the “real world”; frankly, I was bored, a lot, and not at all sure I’d made the right career choice. I shot a lot with the F3 over the next two years (I even had a motor drive!); but these were also the years of my Ansel Adams phase, so the Nikon shared time and mind-space with the Sinar F I bought from a local studio photographer who had thrown in the towel. I also picked up a fairly complete medium/large-format darkroom kit that I installed in my rented house’s spare bathroom. I produced a lot of work, but very little that would make it into my posthumous retrospective.

Enter real life, once again. Bored and frustrated with medical practice, I quit after those two years, and moved to North Carolina with my new wife to do residency number two, in anesthesiology. The camera and my darkroom stuff got packed away (except for my Beseler 45MXT, which sat in the empty dining room of our next rented house for 3 years!) and largely forgotten, again until just as I was about to graduate and begin my anesthesiology practice in Memphis, Tennessee. Once there, I made a few fits and starts photographically, but the demands of work, home, and soon, children, didn’t allow for much beyond snapshots with the F3. The Sinar went into deep storage, while the Beseler was again relegated to a patch of unused floor. We stayed in Memphis for 5 years, until my practice imploded (long story.)

Looking for a place to land, I followed my wife to her native Kentucky in late 1998. We’ve been here ever since. (By the way, though it may seem like I was in the Witness Protection Program, all this relocation is not unusual for a physician just starting out in practice, especially one who switches specialties.) I didn’t do much photography beyond family snaps for the first few years here. I shot the F3 some, and snapped away with one of those Minolta clamshell APS cameras, bought in Tennessee when child number one was en route. I also dabbled a little with a Kowa Super 66 that had belonged to my wife’s grandfather, but did nothing serious with it, or with the F3.

But once again, life intervened, and with it came a reawakening, yet again, of my passion for making pictures. I left my practice here for a different one, and started shooting more. I finally bought a used Contax 645 system in late 2004, an acquisition that marked the start of my latest phase of photographic effort, which has continued unabated ever since. During this time, I’ve bought and sold a few cameras, but I’ve stuck with medium-format (and the occational 4×5) for the vast majority of my work throughout this latest period—which I expect will end when I do.

[Writing this, I'm impressed at how my photographic resurgences seem always to have come at a time of other life change. I had never noticed this association until just now, writing this story. This probably indicates how deeply the desire to make images is woven into the fabric of Mike---I reach for it especially when other things seem uncertain or in-transition. I leave it for the shrinks to determine what that means.]

Back to the present. What does any of this have to do with my recent reunion with the F3? Getting it out of the cabinet had me thinking back to my transition from 35mm to medium format six years ago. What had prompted my seemingly definitive move away from 35mm film to medium format (excepting a lamentable side trip through cropped-sensor DSLR)? After all, the Nikon is a featherweight even compared to the Contax 645. It’s fun to shoot, easy to carry, and is made for mobile, run-and-gun photography. I had traded in this ease and convenience for the weight and sloth of medium format, but why?

I got my answer after I processed and scanned my 35mm-Reunion-Tour rolls last weekend. From a technical standpoint, compared even to my more pedestrian medium-format efforts—and to anything I produced with my D300—the 35mm pictures suck. Really they do, even taking into account that I was mainly shooting to verify that the camera was still working, and that I could focus the thing and remember how to use its center-weighted averaging (what, no matrix?) metering capability properly. It was a technical exercise, not an artistic one. I finished the legacy roll of TMax I’d found in the camera, and shot a roll each of Ektar 100 and BW400CN. The images are across-the-board technically inferior, and aesthetically disappointing.

In retrospect, then, it’s no wonder that I had stopped shooting 35mm film. I had stumbled upon medium format using a no-frills hand-me-down camera; and found that it was then, as now, the obvious tool for me. Beyond medium format’s superior image quality, I like the deliberative shooting pace and mindset its bulky, manual-everything cameras force upon the user. I like the square or near-square images made by medium-format cameras; 645 is about as rectangular as I want, and even then I often find myself cropping off a sliver of image along the long edge. (6×7 is Close To Heaven.) 35mm image proportions just seem too wide; I waste a third of that frame.

I am slowly transitioning to digital now—expect a future post on that—but I still love film, and will likely continue to shoot it for some time.  But whither the F3? With additional practice and improved technique I feel certain I could make technically better images with it than this recent batch. There’s a good bit of sentiment attached to that old Nikon, and I’d love to love it again. But I just don’t think that the (relatively) tiny, crowded, grainy, tonally-squeezed 35mm negative is a fit for the kind of work I’ve been doing since I discovered medium format. I think I am by nature not a small-format photographer, and it’s only in the last few years shooting larger formats that I’ve really made work I’d consider of first caliber. There’s really no going back for me.

Anyone want a used F3?

Written by Michael

February 28th, 2011 at 2:35 am

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