Fearing permanent screen-burned retinas from this 24/7 course, I made the decision last week to purchase a manual stills camera. A dusty relic turned tangible hobby - loading film, metering the light, crossing your fingers and hoping that the developed film won’t just be 36 exposures of inky black.
In my mind, manual photography is a romantic pursuit, far removed from the simplicity of pulling your phone out and snapping away. Most of us spend our waking moments documenting our lives with our phone cameras, whether through Snapchat, Instagram, or whatever your social media tipple happens to be. And it’s not difficult to make an Instagram photo look good. You pick your favourite preset filter and you’re pretty much there. Of course, there’s a difference between capturing a sweeping vista and a snap of your sweaty spaghetti carbonara, but maybe not as much as you think. You’d probably even use the same filter.
Manual photography, on the other hand, is different. You can’t hide behind digital filters, auto focus and low-light technology. You have to think more about the rules of composition and your shooting conditions. You have to look through your viewfinder as if it were a canvas, ready for you to capture that perfect piece of still life. There’s a challenge in it, a process. I can’t just burst a load of shots and pick the best, I have 36 chances to produce something half-decent.
Enter Susan Sontag. One of the artistic greats, I picked up her ‘On Photography’ book from the library, hoping to get some inspiration for my new hobby. John Berger wrote that it was ‘the most original and important work yet written on the subject,’ the kind of praise that had me itching to get stuck in. What nuggets of genius did this book hold, that would transform me from a below-average snapper to the next William Eggleston?
Well, turns out not too much. Instead, this is what I was greeted with; ‘Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.’ Oh. So I’m a workaholic and this hobby is just another way for me to keep myself working? Talk about a mic drop! I’m sure there are other positives though, right? I read on.
‘Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.’ So my new hobby is essentially a product of my capitalism-ridden, polluted consciousness? Oh.
Turns out that Sontag’s writing was about the worst way I could have approached my burgeoning hobby. Buying that camera was mostly an attempt for me to get away from the ever-present digital screen and have a bit of fun. Now, every time I stare down the lens I’m recalling snatches of her existential prose, on the nature of self-archiving and the pathetic futility of human self-documentation…all I was looking for was a nice little escape. Cheers Susan, guess I’ll take up knitting next. Try intellectualising THAT.