Seems like a good time to reprint this little oldie-but-goodie.
One thing that's been a problem among photographers since the dawn of the Daguerreotype has been what I call the "Magic Bullet Syndrome." People assign "goodness" to certain technical parameters (sometimes with pretty good justification, sometimes not so good), and then fanatically pursue the most extreme available manifestations of those parameters and hysterically argue the fine points. Why? It's clearly more than mere product evaluation and technical interest. My feeling is that people are hoping for, and looking for, a "magic bullet"—some trick or technique or piece of equipment that will automatically impart specialness to the pictures they take.
"To be honest, most of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly
know such a thing?"
To some degree, this seems to be possible. I would say that my current fave camera has rewarded me with some delightful results. Then again, I got some delightful pictures with much worse cameras, too. (Actually, after using hundreds of cameras over many decades, I can say I've gotten at least a few good shots with almost everything I've ever used. Including a Kodak Instamatic loaded with color neg film that I printed in B&W on Panalure.) But the different potential of more expensive gear only encourages Magic Bullet Syndrome: people detect the incremental, provisional increase in specialness they've bought for themselves with their latest toys, and extrapolate out to absolutes—that is, they assume that ultimate specialness will be the fruit of the ultimate gear, if only they could find and afford it. (And defend it, apparently!)
'Tain't so, of course. To be honest, most of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody's pictures suck, that's how. I've seen Cartier-Bresson's contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. One of my teachers, Frank DiPerna, said that it was an epiphany for him when he took a class from Garry Winogrand and learned that most of Winogrand's exposures sucked. It's the way it is.
And what does this have to do with the "magic bullet"? Just that there ain't one. Sorry. It would be nice if you could be assured of receiving accolades and respect just for buying this or that camera or lens or what-have-you. But all of Cartier-Bresson's and Garry Winogrand's worst misses were made with the same Leicas they shot their deathless masterpieces with, and some truly great photographs have been shot with some absurdly crappy cameras.
I mean, have you ever seen a Graflex SLR? Phil Davis had one of these in his studio, which I've held in my very own hands, even attempted to look through with my very own eyes. Believe me when I tell you, brother, sister—the thing is even worse in person than it looks! Yet Dorothea Lange managed to use one of these monstrosities to take pictures with. Good pictures. Great pictures, by gosh (including the "Migrant Mother"). Proving what?
That it ain't the camera.
Dorothea Lange with her Graflex SLR
First printed in 2005 as part of a longer article at The Luminous Landscape.
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Featured Comments from:
Mike R: "You made me laugh! So now I won't get so frustrated by the results of my photo outings. Thank you."
dan meyers: "Coincidental timing about Lange's Graflex as I was in California a couple of weeks ago and saw a show at the Oakland Museum. They have her Graflex on display along with her Leica (III?), some contact sheets and proof prints. Being 6'5" I was just barely able to peer into the chimney hood through the vitrine and was astounded as I thought about what she accomplished with such a beast! A reality check indeed."
Kenneth Tanaka: Why My Photographs are Bad by Charles Maus Taylor. Published May, 1902."
Mike replies: That's utterly wonderful...might be my favorite book on photography ever. I love the first illustration in the section "Posing Single Figures and Groups" on p. 43. Now there is one lady who would rather be doing something else!
James: "I remember an instructor in a Photo 101 or 102 class at Northern Virginia Community College telling the class something along the lines of: 'If you want someone to think you are a good photographer never show them your crappy photos. Only show the good ones.'"
Mike replies: Was it me? I taught Photo 101 and 102 at Northern Virginia Community College, once upon a time.