Photography and Aquisition

When I first “got serious” about photography I fell pray to the aquisition fallacy. Despite already having a perfectly good rangefinder camera, I bought at significant expense a Nikon F70, and then when I wasn’t satisfied with that I upgraded to the fully professional F90x. Considering which lens to buy for my trip to Germany, I perused at length Ken Rockwell’s comprehensive collection of photographic equipment reviews and articles, and decided (on Ken’s recommendation) on the old AF 28-85. I learned as much as I could about different sorts of film, and became a preacher for the virtues of slide film.

Now, this acquisition was not consumerism for consumerism’s sake – I also read at length about photographic technique, especially the photo.net textbook (especially the chapter on light). And I think the photos I took in Germany turned out pretty well. However, when I found a tiny rollei 35 at a Salvation army for 5$ (they thought it was broken), I started to realize that the price of equipment had nothing to do with the quality of photos you could take. Worse, that flexibility of equipment was often a detriment – it’s almost as if too many possibilities for great photos (i.e. from carrying many lenses, or zoom lenses, flashes, filters, etc…) means you can’t concentrate on any particular one. I found that carrying around my rollei in my pocket produced amazing pictures. The camera itself is a big of a pig – a problematic light meter, completely manuel exposure, manuel focus and no rangefinder (you have to guess based on your distance from the subject!). But the reality was I always had it when the light was good, when the subject was intriguing, because it fit effortlessly into my pocket. It taught my that photography is primarily about the subject, not the camera.

I don’t shoot the rollei much anymore. Dave bought me an Olympus Stylus Epic, which does pretty much what the rollei does except in an automatic camera. I don’t shoot that much either – it doesn’t have the magic of the rollei, and it just doesn’t seem to make sense to shoot print film anymore. Up until very recently, I shot for the most part on Canon point and shoot digital cameras. These are great – they don’t get in the way, have great colour and image stabalization. But mostly they just take pictures, like these ones, and these, pictures of your friends, pictures of trains, and from trains.

Very recently, however, I picked up a Nikon D50 – I decided to get back into “SLR Photography”. What is SLR photography, after all? It certainly isn’t “good photography” – there are just as many horrid pictures taken with SLR cameras as other sorts. Maybe it is photography which is particularly influenced by the extra capability which SLR cameras sometimes have. For instance, many of the photos I took recently at the ROM could not have been taken on anything but an SLR camera. For instance, look at this picture:

Taken at F 1.4, the photo has a creamy softness to it which you simply couldn’t achieve without the kind of lenses available (almost) only for SLR cameras. Sure, you can get lenses this fast for certain expensive rangefinders, but you shouldn’t because the depth of field at F1.4 is so shallow that a rangefinder is not really have precise enough focus to take advantage of a lens like this. So, there are good photos you can only take with an SLR – but there are also good photos you can only take with small cameras, i.e. any photo which you could take when you wouldn’t be carrying around a big camera.

So: big cameras are good, small cameras are good – but aren’t big and small cameras just more equipment to acquire? What is fallacious about acquisition if all this different equipment is all so great? I think the answer is that the “fallacy” is not purchasing the equipment, but assuming that it’s the equipment which will do the work for you.

I don’t think that the acquisition fallacy is even specific to photography, rather, it’s just the basic structure of the elusive object of desire in capitalism as manifested in the purchase of photography equipment. The promise of the price-tagged object motivates our purchase – makes us willing to trade our own time and energy (money) for a thing which promises to fulfill us. Of course, nothing we buy can, on its own, through its inner power, fulfill us. We become fulfilled only through our own active engagement with the world. This engagement involves things we buy, but it is never made by those things.

So, today, when I acquired a new lens (the Nikon 70-210mm F4 (constant) AF), have I fallen pray to the acquisition fallacy? On the one hand perhaps yes – this is a lens I’ve been lusting after ever since I first began reading Ken Rockwell’s nikon lens reviews (read the review here to see why). On the other hand, only time will tell – if I’m able to use the lens to take great photos in Europe this May, then its purchase will certainly be justified.

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