The father of an ex student of mine called me up last week. He wanted to study photography. He had heard a lot about me, and he wanted to know if it would be possible to study with me. Normally, I wouldn’t be interested in such a job… but hearing whose father he was, I entertained the possibility. It might be a great pleasure. He explained that this is something he wanted to do for many years, and since he had retired recently, he thought he’d the time to realize his dream. What’s more, in recent years he had bought a digital camera, and found it very interesting. Our short conversation revealed that he had already picked up the importance of the aperture, and shutter speed, and the balance between them. But then he told me that he wanted to learn photography using a film camera. He had already bought a second hand box camera and that’s what he wanted to use.
A box camera. What a challenge. I asked him a few questions to determine if that was really what it was. No mistake there. It was a very simple box camera. And in those cameras, you are unable to adjust either the aperture or the speed of the shutter. Even the focus is pre-set. It is the sort of camera where you just press the trigger when you’ve got the picture you want in the viewer window. But unlike the modern digital automatic camera, which measures the light and gives you an appropriate exposure, the box camera was set for average conditions, and then in the lab, the printer corrected the effects of the exposure. It was made for people who didn’t want to trouble themselves with the little details, or for children. It was quite difficult to get really good photos in such a camera. On the other hand, occasionally, an accomplished photographer would take just such a camera and use it as a challenge. But this was a rarity, and you had to be really good to produce fine pictures with a camera like that.
First I asked him why he wanted to use this camera, and then I explained to him the drawbacks and the difficulties of the camera he had chosen. His explanation was simple. He had seen the camera and been attracted to it. He wanted to understand the characteristics of shooting with film. And he wanted to get to know the advantages of film that you could no longer find in digital photography. Well I thought his choice in camera was really inappropriate for what he wanted to learn. But I know that often a student has to be given as much freedom of choice as possible. I am willing to give advice in order to avoid unnecessary blind alleys. And there is something to be learned from any and every attempt. I told him that I would not actually teach him, but that I would be willing to answer his questions and to give him critiques of his work.
The conversation with him left me thinking about the many ways that photographers relate to their craft. Many, like this man, fall in love with the instrument, and just want to use it and study what it can do. Sometimes, a beginning photographer is totally absorbed by one subject, and just uses the camera to document his finds or work. Some start photographing as a way to make notes, or record scenes which are later turned into hand made drawings and paintings, and some desire to produce pictures that have the quality of art by way of the camera. I’ve met people who chose the camera because it seemed easier at first, and afterwards they found themselves working very hard. And I’ve also known people who chanced upon the instrument, almost by accident, and found that it did just what they wanted to do, and learned to love what it produced without suffering at all.
Some go looking for pictures, and others wait for the pictures to come to them. It reminds me of the difference between the hunter and the fisherman. I see myself more the fisherman, I sit by the stream, my back solidly supported by a large tree trunk, my line cast across the water, and I wait for the fish to come to me. Sometimes I tempt them… but usually, I try to enjoy myself as much as I can, and when they take a bite, I try to pull them in. For me, the work is in the development of the image, till it finds its place on paper. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. But I enjoy that too.