PhotoGraphia regulars know how keen I am on gear lightness, un-bulkiness, ease of use and price. In more than one article posted here, like Panasonic GF1 and Camera Design, Dream Camera, Ditch Your DSLR and The 2.0 Digital Camera I pointed out that, unless one is specialized in sport or hand-eld night photography, or is hired by a fashion designer to wrap-up a three story building with an underwear advertising, buying and carrying around a DSLR is nonsense.
The outcoming debate took place through comments to those posts as well as in gear-oriented sites all over the Internet, where PhotoGraphia's point of view has found both supporters and denigrators. And through emails I exchanged with readers especially interested in having a personal contact with me (this is what the Web is all about: connecting people). In a previous entry I introduced the work of Jeffrey Goggin, an American photographer based in Scottsdale AZ whose poetry is deeply rooted into the night. Jeffrey wrote me some time ago to tell me a funny thing that was happening to him. I found his story very interesting, so I asked him for the permission to post his email in this blog.
He did better. He found the time to write an article, which I am more than happy to share with all of you. Comments are welcome. Read on.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED TO ME
by Jeffrey Goggin
A funny thing happened to me earlier this year. After photographing in a vacuum for more than a decade – i.e., the only person who saw my photos was me! – I decided to attend a portfolio review event in March, and then another one in May, in order to get some feedback about my Superior after dark project. (No, that isn’t the funny thing, but those who know me well did find my decision to participate in these events a source of much humor.)
The way these portfolio review events work is that over the course of a weekend, you present your portfolio individually to 10 or 12 “professionals” from various parts of the photographic industry (their experience typically runs the gamut from gallery owner to museum curator, from photography editor to working photographer, and everything in between and then some) and for 20-30 minutes, they critique and comment upon what they see.
In my case, what they saw was a portfolio of 12x16 b&w prints of images I captured at night in Superior, Arizona, a semi-defunct mining town located an hour’s drive east of Phoenix, Arizona (hence the “Superior after dark” title). At the time, I was still in the process of transitioning from film-based photography to digital photography and I was using a micro-4/3 format camera body and a couple of 4/3-format lenses, because it was compact, relatively inexpensive, and in my opinion, a more than respectable performer (even though internet wisdom opined that the results would be poor compared to photos captured using a proper DSLR).
I was stunned. I mean, my prints were good, no question, but there is no way a 12x16 print made from a 12MP file can ever be mistaken for a print made from a large-format original and especially not by a photographic professional. Not knowing quite how to react, I politely responded “Uh, no … actually, this was taken with a Panasonic GF-1,” which I then waved at him, as I happened to be carrying it with me. Now it was the reviewer’s turn to be stunned. “What’s that?” he asked. “It’s one of the new micro-4/3 format cameras,” I replied. “It’s compact, it captures decent 12MP files, and it costs less $900 with your choice of either a zoom or fixed lens. I took this photo with this very camera, although I did use a different lens than the one I have on it now.”
I handed it to him and he accepted it from me the same way Superman might accept a piece of Kryponite from Lex Luther. “Well, this is certainly an interesting little camera,” he said, handing it back to me after playing with it for just a few moments. “Of course, what I meant is that your print has a ‘large-format look’ to it, as the composition is quite formal and structured in the sort of way that large-format photographers often work. If you look closely at the print, though, you can see there is some noise in the shadow areas and a lack of detail in the highlights, as you would expect to see from a digital camera. Still, all in all, it does look fairly good … considering.”
“Ahh, so this is the way it’s going to be,” I thought to myself as I smiled politely at him and his pomposity.
Well, as it turns out, that wasn’t the only time at this review that I encountered a similar attitude. I also experienced it a few more times at the portfolio review in May and again in July, when I was showing my portfolio to a well-known landscape photographer who also happens to be a professor of photography at a nearby university, in the hope I could convince him to let me take his graduate-level, by-permission-of-the-instructor, Master Class despite having only ever taken one photography course in my life.
The really strange thing about the landscape photographer/professor’s comment, though, is that he is himself a digital photographer! Except he doesn’t use a conventional DSLR, but a 56MP standalone digital back on a technical camera. So, unlike the first dismissive reviewer I encountered, he wasn’t being critical of the fact my photos had been captured digitally, only that the digital camera I used was a fairly modest one and in his mind, not up to the standard appropriate to a photographer with “serious” ambitions, which I was very much trying to convince him I was. Hmm.
Since my reason for in participating in these portfolio review events was to determine if my images were good enough to be saleable (the consensus was that they are, although there was a further consensus that they will likely appeal only to a niche audience and probably work better presented in book form rather than as individual prints to be hung on a wall) and for taking the class was so that I could add it to my otherwise sparse C.V., I took all these comments very seriously because, as my father likes to say, “perception is reality.”
So, after doing some more research over the next few months, including talking to a few gallery owners and photography collectors, I came to realize that it takes more than an interesting portfolio and some decent looking prints to achieve even a modest level of commercial success as a photographer.
For a start, there must be a story that can be sold – er, told – with a bit of “sizzle” that gallery salespeople can use to create interest in the photographer and his work among their clientele and/or other prospective customers.
And while using a crappy camera (say, a vintage Diana or a modern-day Holga) can yield sufficient sizzle to create interest in the work of some photographers, just as using a state-of-the-art 56MP digital camera can yield it for others, using a fairly modest camera that is considered on par with what the children of a prospective purchaser might be using yields no sales sizzle whatsoever. Or at least that’s the message I was receiving from everybody that I talked to about this.
As the saying goes, if you can beat ‘em, join ‘em. And so I did, by replacing my humble micro-4/3 equipment with a not-quite-state-of-the-art medium-format digital system that nonetheless set me back the price of a good, used car. Are my photographs any better as a result? In technical terms, absolutely, which is exactly what you would expect. But in artistic terms, I am less certain, as my “shooting style” has had to change to compensate for the increased complexity and level of precision required to get the most from my new equipment (otherwise, what was the point of it, more sales-sizzle excepted?) and in turn, it appears my photos have changed a bit as well.
The take-away from all this, though, is that while people like to think the equipment used is less important than the resulting photo, I have found this is not always the case, at least so far as the commercial aspect of photography is concerned. It took me a while to come to terms with this “truth,” but I finally get it: If you want people to take your photography seriously, then you have to prove to them that you take it seriously, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to use the sort of equipment that only serious photographers use, if only to make the equipment you use a non-issue. Q.E.D.
So, you’re no doubt wondering, has any of this made a difference thus far? To be honest, I can’t say, but I can say that not too long after I started using my fancy equipment, I was approached to participate in a two-photographer show to be held in June, 2011, which, as it happens, will be my first non-group show. Was this just a coincidence or a result of the new, more serious attitude I have adopted toward my photography, which started with the decision earlier this fall to upgrade my equipment? I’ll let you decide, as I have prints to start making, mats to cut, and frames to assemble…
 The curious among you can find the two volumes of my Superior after dark project at the following links: http://www.sofobomo.org/book-128-Superior-after-dark and http://www.sofobomo.org/book-183-Superior-after-dark-Vol-Two. Rest assured that the prints look much, much better than the .pdf files!