After playing around with scanning some of my old Michigan negatives, I've been considering buying a view camera, to make negatives for scanning on the V700. Camera shopping makes me feel "schizophrenic" in the common-parlance usage of that term (we use it to mean "torn in two directions" or "exhibiting an incompatible dual nature" which is really not fair to the clinical meaning, and obscures the real disease...man, I am really going to have to watch it with these constant digressions).
Anyway, part of me suffers from standard choice-angst like any other amateur aficionado. Adam McAnaney told me the other day about the German expression "Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual." I actually very much like the literal translation, supplied by auto-translator: "Who has the selection, the agony has," although Adam's more succinct "Choice is torture" is, er, less tortuous.
But the other half of me has the opposite problem, which is a certain contempt for the choosing. My experience over the years is that I've been able to make pictures with darn near any camera I like well enough to use, and I don't really care about all the fastidious details. (Well, except when I'm shopping.)
I'm not saying I don't like cameras as well as the next geek or gearhead. I do. But there's also a part of me that realizes that "all cameras suck," as one famous photographer once put it to me—or, more precisely, every camera takes a stab at some theoretical ideal and—this is the important part—falls short.
I've had some pretty nice cameras over the years, but I've also had some wretched ones. For a time I shot with a quite cruddy-looking broken Pentax SPII (an M42 screwmount camera, for those of you who remember such things) that had a broken meter and large pieces missing from the lens, and I took some of my all-time favorite pictures with it. More recently, in 2003 or thereabouts, my first digicam was a cheesy 3-megapixel Olympus that had a shutter lag that should have been measured in fractions of a month. But I took some pictures I still love with that one, too.
I did my unofficial apprenticeship with a studio photographer who had been one of my teachers in art school, who did all of his large-format jobs with a camera that was so compromised that the arcana of its use amounted to a secret initiation or series of shibboleths; to get it to work there were a dozen things you needed to know about how to get around its manifold infirmities. He did most of his work with it. It was absolutely ancient. It had been cheap when it was new, and, when I made its acquaintance, it was bruised and battered, held together with the proverbial baling wire, chewing gum, and duct tape. It was really a disgrace. I hated it rather spiritedly. I remember once—in front of a client—having to put a wide-angle lens on the thing, which then put the front part of the rail in the picture; but the standards couldn't be moved forward enough to eliminate this problem because the rail was dented. I had to excuse myself and put in an agitated phone call to my partner hoping very much that I wasn't going to have to scrub the job because I didn't know how to get the rail out of the bottom of the picture, and he patiently explained to me how to disassemble the standards and the rail and put it all together again on the right side of the dent. Ah, so that was the trick. Yet another initiation rite surmounted.
The second or third digital camera I ever tried was my doctor-brother's Nikon 950, and I had a blast with that thing, although I think most of the pictures ended up getting erased, justifiably. He had to pry it out of my grasping fingers to get it back. That tradition goes back a ways with me: when my cousin Katie got a Kodak disc camera for Christmas when she was about ten (it was the latest thing at the time), she asked me if I'd like to take some pictures with it, and before either of us knew it I'd exposed all three of the discs she got with it. She was shocked, as three discs' worth of film probably would have lasted her until the leaves were turning colors the following Fall. I hope I replaced the film for her, although I don't remember.
I'm not saying I'd frame any disc-camera pictures and put them on the wall, obviously. Horses for courses, and some nags won't run.
The tradition of "making do" has a long and honorable history among the illustrious, too. For every bonafide equipment freak like Ansel Adams, there's an Edward Weston who bought his most-used lens for $5.00 at a Mexican flea market (granted, those were the days when $5.00 would rent you a room in a rooming-house for a week, but still). He managed to take some nice pictures with it, somehow. Alfred Stieglitz's camera was so decrepit that he kept a string tied around the middle of the patched and saggy bellows, which he had to hold up with his free hand while he pressed the bulb with the other hand. He took some decent pictures, too, did Stieglitz.
And here's where I have to admit my prejudice. I actually like my cameras to be well-worn. I like plain, hard-wearing, utilitarian objects. I'm contemptuous when I see people proudly protecting their minty babied gear from the incursion of a scratch or a ding. I bought a couple of new Olympus OM-4T's once, and I sat around watching TV in the evening scratching the paint off with a nickel (the "champagne" color of a titanium OM-4T is paint; raw titanium shows fingerprints). Yeah, yeah, I know that deliberately aging a camera is every bit as precious and affected as trying to keep it in pristine condition (I justified my Olympus vandalism by calling it theft-proofing). But I like my users to look like veterans. Perfect cameras are embarrassing. Hey, I said it was a prejudice.
Part of me suspects that the anxiousness of shoppers to buy the very best camera possible—down to fractional measures of obscure capabilities, and shouting matches online with recalcitrant jerks who just refuse to see the superiority of one choice over another—comes down to insecurity. I can actually feel that with view cameras, because they're one type of camera I've never been very confident with.
Another significant aspect of that anxiousness/insecurity is that it's hopeless. Half the time, when I use really expensive, deluxe cameras—and I've used a fair number over the years, both when I've owned them or when I've reviewed them—what impresses me is not entirely how wonderful and pleasing they are, but also that they still have obvious flaws, or at least idiosyncrasies that you'd have to get used to working with. Cameras are unexceptional in this respect: even the best ones will break, or need service, or will get some feature wrong for our individualized taste, or be missing some feature that is familiar to us from a lesser example that would have been easy enough for the makers to include. They are, in other words, still just cameras.
The only perfect camera is one that you've been using for so long that it fits like an old shoe and you're so used to its foibles that you forget there's any other way.
So I end up feeling that my obsessive shopping is something of a fool's errand—especially when it comes to view cameras. Show me any view camera that works and, hell, I'll make do. Even if it's not the latest thing with all the proper features. And especially if it's in good enough shape that doesn't actually need any baling wire, chewing gum, and duct tape....