Q&A: What is your history with photography?

More about me and photography.

What is your history with photography?

Photography is something I was introduced to when I was a kid. It was all around me in one form or another. We had some cheap Kodak Instamatic camera that used 126 film cartridges; that was probably the first camera I ever used. Then there was the Xmas when my dad bought us a Polaroid Square Shooter, along with one of those timers you’d stick on the side of the camera.

It wasn’t just cameras, though. There was Life magazine (we only occasionally had issues of Look), Time magazine—even TV Guide. My mom saved newspapers from the Kennedy assassinations (JFK and RFK); I particularly remember the huge photo of JFK that adorned the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 23, 1963. We had numerous Time-Life books on a variety of subjects—all with memorable photography that I could easily spend hours perusing.

Photography was something I took to early on, although most of my photos probably were not very good—and I’m not sure I ever understood either the reason for or the importance of photography in the first place. All I knew was that I enjoyed pointing the front of this small box at something and pressing a button, then getting to look at whatever it was I had photographed.

At age 13, I suddenly decided I wanted a 35 mm single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. Never mind that it had been a few years since I had last used any kind of camera. After looking through a number of photography magazines, I picked the then-new Canon AE-1. I went through so much film over the next couple of years that it was almost the stuff of comedy. I tried just about every kind of film I could think of—even infrared film—and my friends got used to me taking pictures of them all the time. Again, most of my photos were probably not very good, although I did make progress. Photography was something I was good at, even though I often lacked focus (no pun intended).

Even though there were a few things I tried early on, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to experiment with photography as an art form. I would purposely photograph things out of focus, try unusual angles, use clear objects as filters, experiment with composition, and so on. Sometimes I was successful; sometimes not.

It was when I got my first digital cameras that I really felt as though all the restrictions were gone. With film, there was always the expense of development and printing—not to mention the inevitable lag between tripping the shutter and seeing the results. (More often than not, I couldn’t be bothered: I accumulated more than two dozen rolls of 35 mm film that went undeveloped for over a decade before I threw them out.) Digital, on the other hand, allowed for instant results—and almost immediate re-shooting. For starters, I could see in the viewfinder how my photo would look; whether or not I pressed the shutter release, I could keep going until I got what I wanted. Next, I could skip the step of scanning, since it was a simple matter to transfer images from camera to computer. Plus, as the capabilities of digital cameras increased, concerns about picture quality decreased.

Digital was probably the thing that helped me most to advance as a photographer. By that time, I was on my third digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix S4); its compact size enabled me to take it wherever I went, so I regularly took photos as part of my almost-daily walks. In addition, I continued to experiment with  a variety of techniques; this continued through subsequent camera upgrades.

But it was in 2010 that the biggest change took place. Within a very short time, I was given three Polaroid cameras (two SX-70 models and a Spectra) by people close to me who would have otherwise disposed of them. I used up what little film came with them (most of it was too old), and found that I actually liked all the things about the photos that I used to consider flaws—e.g., color variations, lack of sharpness, other unexpected blemishes. These flaws seemed to give the images character that digital photographs, in all their clarity and perfection, often lack.

So, when I subsequently got a digital camera with interchangeable lenses, I also bought an inexpensive 35 mm C-mount lens designed for 16 mm film cameras (along with the appropriate lens-mount adapter). Because the image produced by the lens barely covers the camera’s sensor, it gets fuzzier towards the edges, giving it a more film-like feel. Consequently, even though the kit lenses offer auto-focus and automatic correction of distortion inherent in the lenses themselves, that C-mount lens is the one I use the most.

In March 2013, I finally began taking Polaroids again, after having bought my first packs of Impossible film. Since then, I have mostly been shooting Polaroids; despite the expense (roughly $3 a photo), I get results that I don’t achieve with my digital camera or my smartphone. In fact, because of the expense, I am a lot more selective about when and what I photograph. I have also had to learn to be more forgiving of flaws in the images, and to accept them for what they are. On the other hand, a Polaroid photo is something tangible—unlike digital photos, which I almost never bother to print.

One interesting development since I began focusing mostly on Polaroids is that the number of views of my photos on Flickr has risen dramatically. As of mid-September 2013, I had just over 150,000 views. That’s over a seven-year period. As of this writing, that number is up to 430,946—and that’s almost entirely due to people looking at my Polaroids. Whether it is because I have improved as a photographer, or simply due to that extra something the frame of a Polaroid adds to a photo is something I don’t know. I just post the ones I like.

That brings me to the present. This summer, I included 24 or 25 Polaroids in my first poetry collection, Separation Anxiety. If I can find a way to produce one without the result costing an exorbitant amount, I would love to do a photo book. In the meantime, I will keep on taking photos. It’s one of those things I do.

(5 November 2014)