Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship

At a workshop I was at in 1995, Jem Southam passed on something that Paul Graham* had once said to him that turned out to be good advice: whenever he wanted to start a new project, he got a new camera. Not "new" in the sense of buying the latest-greatest, but as in "different"; for example, using a different film format, or having an unfamilar kind of viewfinder, or maybe requiring the use of a tripod. Just something to invite your eye into a new way of seeing, and that will lend its characteristics to your new work.

Now, the gearhead side of photography has never been much of an attraction to me; I like to take and look at photographs to the level of vice, but have little interest in comparative kit studies. That is not to say that I haven't owned quite a few cameras, but most of those have been bought for quirky reasons, and bought second-hand. Partly because I don't enjoy carrying a small fortune in precision engineering round my neck, and partly because the cameras I have found rewarding to use have tended to be the "interesting also-rans". Among my favourites have been: the Agfa Isolette II, the Fuji GS645, the Mamiya C330f (though not the 645, which I hated), the Olympus OM10 / XA / Mju / C5050 and -- the ultimate, the one and only -- the Koni Omega Rapid. In fact, in 30 or so years I have only bought four cameras brand new, and two of those were digital.

This is all just to say that I have just bought a fifth BRAND NEW camera: a Panasonic DMC-LX3. My wallet is in shock. Having come into a little surprise mad money, however, it seemed a shame not to spend it. I very nearly upgraded my (refurbished) Canon 350D DSLR, but thought: Why bother? I only have an A3 printer, and the Canon still does the business. Remembering Paul Graham's words of wisdom, I decided what I really needed was a pocket digital camera capable of top-quality results, to fill the gap left by the Olympus Mju that used to live in my pocket.

I hesitated quite a while over the Sigma DP-1 -- as the above list of cameras will indicate to the connoisseur, I'm a bit of a sucker for the slightly strange. Which the DP-1 certainly is. But I couldn't see myself getting used to being stuck at the equivalent of a 28mm lens. By my standards, that's virtually a fisheye. But I'm going to be very curious about the DP-2, though, with its promised 40mm f/2.8 equivalent lens.

So, after a lot of "Will I? Won't I?" I went with the Smart Money and took a chance on the LX3. It's a lovely thing, like a piece of jewellery (though I have deliberately smeared my fingers all over the LCD screen to stop me holding it like some precious freakin' daguerrotype). I am still bothered by the lack of a viewfinder; I may try a cheap hotshoe accessory finder (but I'm certainly not paying over £100 for one). But, after all, the point is to stimulate myself into new ways of seeing, and I did learn to compose on a screen with my beloved Olympus C5050. As it's going to live in a coat pocket, I've matched it with a Crumpler PP90: a nice, cheap, stretchy neoprene skin with a zip.

I have to say that so far I'm impressed. Resolution, rendering, dynamic range, handling: all top of the range. In fact, I'm slightly in awe, as I'm mainly working with JPGs (I despair of ever learning to use the supplied Silkypix software to convert the RW2 raw files...) and this is, after all, a small sensor camera. Wow. Yes, the barrel distortion needs attending to (and I believe some sneaky in-camera correction to this even in the raw files is the reason for the delay in getting RW2 conversion into anything but the egregious Silkypix), but the image quality is really rather amazing. Hey, the thing has even got a proper lens cap to worry about losing -- brilliant!

Here are two shots from yesterday's lunchtime sortie with the new camera, with which I am quite pleased. If it goes on like this, then this could be the Start of a Beautiful Friendship.

* Here's an Idiotic Thing: My partner and I used to live in Bristol in the late 70s / early 80s. We lived in the top flat of a typically Bristol converted Georgian house in the Redland area. It was around that time I first began to be seriously interested in photography, but had developed no taste or sense of history and was generally pretty ignorant on the subject. Now, I knew one of the guys in the flat beneath us was some kind of artist and having regular dealings with The Arts Council: I knew this, because we kept getting his mail. His name was Paul Graham.

To cut to the chase: when he self-published the A1 book copies were prominently displayed in our local bookshop. I thought the images were laughably bad (had this guy never heard of Ansel Adams, for God's sake?), but bought one anyway, mainly because of the novelty of having a book where the publisher's address was also ours. I didn't introduce myself, or get my copy inscribed. Just as well, as I'm sure he'd have told me to Fuck Off. I simply wasn't ready for chats with one of our most innovative photographic artists, someone genuinely ahead of the game.

And now -- now that I have developed a little taste and a sense of history -- it's one of my most treasured photobooks (and have you seen the price people are asking for copies?? If only I'd got it inscribed... "To my idiotic neighbour. Now please go away"). I learned from this, though: these days, I'm alert to and waiting for that Hendrix Moment ... You know, when you hear or see something so astonishingly new that you can't yet see it or hear it for what it is and, in self-defense, shout out "Rubbish!" along with all the other idiots.

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