Friday, July 21, 2006

The Forward March of Progress

We live in a time of richness that we are seldom aware of. I know, we think, Plasma TV’s, Hybrid cars, TV dinners that can be heated in a microwave, what more could you ask for. Those aren’t really the kinds of things I’m thinking of. My dad -- Ted Burnett – watch salesman, Desoto driver, golfer, and someone universally acknowledged as “… a wonderful guy…” would have been a hundred years old next week. It’s one of those numbers that always makes me pause and consider a Century as such. He died in 1994 but not before having lived, in those 88 years, through the invention of the first aeroplanes, filtered cigarettes in a pack, pancake houses, cars powered by engines instead of horses, radio, malted milks, Waring blenders, and the first TV remotes. He learned of these things, and as far as I could ever tell, adjusted to them extremely well, having been happy to designate all new things, even the occasional newly constructed cinderblock building as “progress”, and with a gusto for accepting progress that was manifest in his smile.

Aboard the Delta Shuttle the afternoon flights were cancelled.
He wasn’t really crazy about vegetables. But get him near a golf course or a steak house, and you had a genuinely engaging, enthusiastic, happy American citizen. I often think that my desire to embrace new technology pales in comparision to his. Sure, I type this on a laptop on a high speed train racing towards New York, and upload it and the digital images with wireless technology now available to all of us. But in the end, we were born into an era to which change was the currency: the one thing we knew, since grade school, was that the new stuff was on its way and that we would no doubt be around to share in its joy or curse. For dad, who probably came home from the hospital (from his birth, that is) in a horse drawn cart.. the idea of a B-52 or a 747 must have been quite something.

I think of these things because today I had one of those “whoa” moments at home in Arlington. I spent the past few days in Virginia, printing pictures, making a presentation at an Ad agency, photographing the Chairman of the Fed, visiting the Corcoran Museum for a photo show, and eating at Red Sage, a swell café in downtown DC whose brisket is legendary. Today, in picking up the mess I made in the first three days, I remembered that in August I have a commercial shoot for which the clients want film, not digital. I still shoot my trusty old Speed Graphics (see National Geographic this month for a story on Katrina done with this gear), my 60 year old press cameras which require a certain methodology and discipline to shoot with. They are not very forgiving. But they are beautiful, and it’s worth keeping in mind all the little things necessary to make them hum because the final product is so singularly nifty. In 2003 the more nimble side of me started shooting with a Canon 10D digital camera, which has been supplanted by a 20D and 5D over the past three years, as the technology and quality of the cameras has advanced. My wonderful Canon EOS3 and EOS1 35mm film cameras may as well have been sitting at the News Café in South Beach, sipping pina coladas and eating ropa vieja in Panama hats, for all the use I have asked of them. They are, frankly the finest reflex film cameras ever made: precise, sensual to the touch, and deliver the goods everytime you let them. Yet, like my thousands of colleagues, the lure and so-called ease of “digital” meant that the film cameras, just at that moment at the top of their design, were just sitting in a cabinet. So, today I took them out of said cabinet, found some Fuji film, and shot a roll on each, just to be sure that they work, and that I work with them. It was frickin hilarious.

This reporter, underdressed for the White House, testing the blessed film cameras.
Most of you know that film comes in length’s of 36 exposures, right? For years it’s been the standard. In digital, with a big memory card, even on the highest quality setting you can get a couple of hundred pictures without reloading anything, except, perhaps, your brain. So you just keep shooting and shooting and shooting. It is a new kind of relationship with the camera. I think most photographers have gotten lazy. We assume the unending store of memory will cover our little mistakes, and indeed it can. But it doesn’t take away from the laziness. So I loaded the first EOS3 with a roll, shot a few pictures of me in the mirror so I could tell later WHICH camera was which. Then I shot very un-scientifically, you know like those polls they do on MSNBC with the gravelly voiced Rita Cosby, or on CNN with the gravelly faced Anderson Cooper, all over the studio and outside on the deck. At the end of 36 images, the film rewound automatically into the cassette, and I was ready for the next one. I changed lenses, started shooting, setting the MODE for Aperture, and shot the same images I’d done with camera 1. It was all cool, until I realized I had forgotten to LOAD FILM into the Camera. It was a totally DUHHH moment. Hey Dave, you ninny, put FILM in the camera. They work better that way. Once I realized what I had done, I actually loaded film, shot away, then did the same, with a large “what kind of a jerk AM I” look on my face as I did the last two cameras (another Canon, and a Leica). That film will tell me if the cameras and meters (oh, talk about lazy!) work ok. Light remember those things that told you what to set the camera at… before you could look on the BACK of the camera and SEE what you just shot. I see how in three short years I have forgotten so much of the simple craft elements which I spent 35 years learning. It’s easy to forget. It’s easy to be lazy.

Now, as I sit on a very crowded train (and I’m on the train for another of the technology issue reasons… storms have closed the airports, and it’s the only way to get to NY) in the company of a lot of people who are also aero- refugees, taking the Shuttle substitute. Inevitably, because the train is quieter than flying, you hear more of the conversations and in this day and age, you really let yourself in for it. What I didn’t realize when I boarded was that the two most boring individuals on the East Coast would be two rows behind me having one of those conversations, the snippets of which could turn you into an iPOD hermit. I don’t know about you, but when I hear things like ….”and God said…” , “ I’m a run down vessel in a run down body”, “.. he’s clearly angry with us..” , and “this one I got in Manila…” it’s time to hoist the earphones into Operate position.

Two really boring guys: the guy on the right is smart!
I suppose Ted Burnett would have figured out a way to have a chat with these guys, maybe get them on the Muni course for 18 holes, play ‘em dollar-dollar-dollar, and maybe walk away, contented, with a couple of their bucks. That kind of upbeat attitude about life was his greatest legacy to his family. So when I hear another snippet, just now, “.. all the New York airports are closed. We’ll be in the city long before those people even get out of the airport…” I’ll happily settle into my seat, reflecting on the film I shot today, and the simple joys of doing something right. Now and then. We’re just sayin. David.


Anonymous said...

What I like best is your test of a Panasonic.

Anonymous said...

Nice pectorals, Burnett. Can you post more of those wedding pics?