Friday, April 24, 2009

3 For The Price of One

The world is changing in ways that our kids never thought would happen. If you are in the generation I’m in, the ‘graduated from high school when the Beatles were just becoming popular’ era, you have seen a helluva lot of change. I knew young ‘revolutionaries’ from Ivy league schools who, two years after carrying their red flags across Harvard Square and the President’s office at Columbia, were making a hundred grand a year working in the business side at Time Inc, and having what were then frighteningly expensive lunches that cost Twenty bucks. (In December, 1972 just days after LIFE – the weekly – closed down, one of the former staff photographers announced to me that with a bleak outlook for work – “the death of photojournalism” – we should only have a YooHoo and two hot dogs for lunch each day: total cost .. One Dollar.) For twenty bucks you could eat the fanciest lunch in the City. That’s what I would call Change: Woodstock Generation post hippies, wearing fancy clothes, living in 4 bedroom apartments on the East Side, and putting the same energy into making money as they did into raising hell. Many of these folks, my contemporaries, became the generation of parents who felt their kids should always be first in line, treated best, clothed and fed best, and first, of course. They were often seriously tedious in their parental behaviour, laying on the kids all their own feelings of ownership and entitlement. Now that the generational slam has taken place, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a series of financial panics which more or less seemed unimaginable just a year ago, many of the foundations of our lives have been shaken to the core. None of the stuff we assumed we be around ‘forever’ seems like it will be. There is an underlying tension, much of it unspoken, some acknowledged, that covers much of our everyday lives. Food, shelter, all those basics very quickly become question marks instead of sure things. And few (besides those smart enough to sell short into this market) have maintained the kind of wealth that was theirs just a year ago. Many of us, had there been an essay question about the chances of this happening, would have written that it seemed almost inconceivable that such a shake up would occur. Yet, here we are, all trying to pretend, hoping it will somehow work out, maybe not like it was, but at least something short of a nightmare.

I hear that folks are starting to buy distressed homes in Florida (I don’t see that happening in Michigan for a long, long time) and maybe things have bottomed and will start to come back. But it’s interesting to watch the way the mercantile world is trying to make the most of it (‘making the most’ of it, is something just below ‘taking advantage’ of it). Last week I saw an incredible offer, that were I someone obliged to wear a suit every day, I no doubt would have jumped on.

The haberdasher Joseph A Banks was advertising a sale, buy one suit at $299, and get to suits of equal value Free. I have to say that it’s been a while since I paid a hundred bucks for a suit (a white “colonial” in Kenya, 1989) though when I attended a labor meeting recently, and saw three of the officials present, I realized that even a suit doesn’t necessarily make the man. But it was quite surprising to see such a massive promotion.

I’d love to know if they actually sold thousands of suits (from their over stocked wearhouse) or if it was just another attempt by a well known business entity, one which expanded from a few stores to many dozens during the big 21st century boomtime, to pretend they had a smile on their collective face while secretly grabbing on to their corporate wallet. There are a lot of vaguaries in the world of commerce, no doubt, and where commerce and technology intersect, it is truly a minefield. Consider this: About 8 years ago, Canon introduced the EOS1-v ($1800) 35mm film camera, capable of shooting a 36 exposure roll of film in about 5 seconds and using the best auto-focus system in the world. The focusing and metering were amazing, and in essence this was the finest 35mm camera ever made, since the invention of the first Leica in the early 1900s. Yet, because a far less capable digital camera had arrived – costly ($20000), slow to operate, and small (3 megapixel or so) chip size, this wondrous piece of photographic machinery was to be sentenced to the trash pit of photographic history. In the news business, where most of these cameras where sold, the ability to see immediately and transmit shortly there after, a picture just shot, meant that the hours you needed to wait for the film to be processed, were hours you were getting clobbered by someone with a digi cam. It didn’t take long for that side of the photo business to change over to digital, where speed, (and now, years later) quality was far superiour to film. (No, I won’t use the term analog, and I refuse, equally, to describe shooting with a digital camera as “capture”... Capture is something cowboys do with ropes in a herd of wild horses.) So in many ways, the parallel in the economic world, in which things all became digitally powered, accelerated the downturn simply because it could. Information moved more quickly, deals either happened or fell apart, loans which shouldn’t have been made were done and became risks to all the rest of us who essentially weren’t such a risk. Now we see the way the water flows downhill, grabbing everything in its way and pushing it along. At some point we may actually start to see the plane pull out of its nose dive, (sorry, mixed metaphors!) and it would be a pleasure of course. Who wants to bequeath such shoddiness to our kids, even if they are well dressed? I for one, would love to see a world where some kind of redemption meant that the wonderful Canon 1v in my cabinet had a reason to exist, and a purpose, to accompany me in my travels to see the world. For every hard drive of images I see building up in this world (on my desk, at the office, in huge world wide agencies who need terabytes of storage) I still feel a certain comfort in the existence of a roll of film.
Films from the Bonneville Salt Flats, 1964
Simple, not prone to destruction by electrical failure or ElectroMotivePulse, capable of living at least another 50 or 100 years (who here owns a hard drive which has lived for 50 years?) film will be the place where those pictures in my heart rest. Sure, it’s not as convenient as digi; you can’t shoot and upload during a single Billy Mays ad for Oxyclean, the way my SD cards do. But should I live another 20 or 30 years, I know I’ll be happy to be in the company of that film, and that somebody else may have the chance to see it, too. (The lesson: make backups of your hard drives and keep them in a big shoe box.) We’re just sayin’... David
1964: A Sunbeam Alpine during Speed Week at Bonneville


Anonymous said...

David... Thank you for a great insight on what is missing with the digital age, about a month ago I was finishing up some post work in photoshop think to myself how I really miss the tactile feel of black n white prints and how beautiful negs look on the light table, I dug out my eos-3 and bought some Tmax and have started shooting film again... It's like a warm blanket ! and the eos-3 is a wonderful tool... I want my kids to have something more than (can not open file error) when I'm gone.

SmogRanch said...

Nice piece, well written and poignant. I still use the Iv, which will probably outlast me. I still shoot all "my" work on film, but also see digital has a place in my life.
My generation was basically told it was the only means, but I think we can see that isn't exactly the case.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think we should all go back to manual focus film cameras.

It was a good way to seperate the diamonds from the glass. I'm not an elitist, it's just that I know there'd be a lot more newsrooms still alive if that were the case.

Everytime I hear of another paper going under I pick up my digicams and curse at them like a truckstop hooker (my appologies to truckstop hookers for perpetuating any false sterotypes).

Lets face it, digital cameras and the Internet are satans darkroom (read: a bad thing).

Even though my digi's have saved my ass a thousand times. And even though photoshop is like cocaine to me(although not as cheap), I am under the deep conviction that the world needs less cameras and more Photographers. Less "citizen journalists" , and more Foreign Correspondents. Less Bloggers and more Writers. Less Prêt-à-Porter and more Tailors.

And think of the money you'd save not having to buy digital "upgrades" every 14 months. That's a lot of suits.

Now...I have to go rub some bulk
HP5, and splash some Microphen, on my 40D's. It helps. Just a little, but it helps.


Anonymous said...

That Guy in the white suit would make a great Esquire or GQ Cover!

Ted From The Camera Stop

BKYoung said...

Personally, I love to wave my M3s at people cursing their failing batteries and say, "As long as the laws of physics work, this will." Even the EOS leaves a bad taste in my mouth (as the total lens mount change forced me to sell my Canon F1s.)

Now I'm trying to get the time to shed the Photoshop habit and start printing chemically again.

Meanwhile, just yesterday I was showing my wife, and anyone else in the bookstore who would look, your picture at the beginning of Life's Obama book: shot with a Speed (I assume) on Polaroid. Beauty.

Iris&David said...

Thanks for the nod on the LIFE book (there are so many LIFE and TIME and TIME-LIFE books, not to mention those great gatherings of 1960s Rock and Roll.. Music to Dust your M3 by... (Moody Blues I think) or A Tune in the Key of OMEGA D3 (definately Electric Light Orchestra.) That pic was a Speed Graphic, and yes, it goes all the way back to that time, boys and girls, when Polaroid was an actual company and made Type 55, the beautiful black and white product we all coveted (two whole years ago!).. and of course now its all black and what... I have five boxes of Type 55 left, and cannot imagine what would be important enough to actually USE 'em but of course it Use Em or Lose Em.. so sometime this year, we ll be popping those final frames..(Hint to FUJI: license the rights, and make the film.. you can make a fortune... pent up demand awaits.)