The game changer, Part 2 | The sound of silence
Three months ago, I wrote the first installment of an ode to the camera that has become a game changer to my photography—the Fuji X100. I have hesitated writing this concluding installment because I do abhor discussing camera gear. Sure, I will indulge in conversation with a few comrades-in-arts about gear, but rarely will I initiate such discourse. Concentrating so much on gear rather than the art itself is distractive and detrimental for many reasons, especially when it becomes a scapegoat for when an image does not come out as hoped. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the lens’s focusing motor but within ourselves for it is our eyes, mind, and heart that makes a photograph.
The tools that we use to produce our work, however, can and do affect our emotions and creativity. Some writers feel their creative juices flow better with a gel pen and high-school style composition book rather than typing on a MacBook. Indeed, I still handwrite my notes in class while many others prefers to type. Although being adaptable allows us humans to get the task before us done with whatever instrument we have on hand, having a flowing and organic interface with that instrument can improve the experience many fold.
This notion of seamless integration of humans and the things around us has been an ongoing study for ages, influencing many aspects in our lives from architecture to ballpoint pens. The pragmatist would argue that such inquiry is a pointless exercise, that function should always triumph over form. Conversely, the artist may counter that with a bias for form and aesthetics. I see a fine balance of form and function, complementing one another, to be the most ideal. Indeed, it a balance of the two that exists in nature. One only needs to look at one’s own body to see this. Noted designers have taken this to heart in their creations, from Frank Lloyd Wright to the practitioners the Bauhaus moment such as László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to Apple chief designer Sir Jonathon Ive.
By far the easiest camera I have used that allows me complete creative control are without a doubt my Canon DSLRs. While they possess unfathomable technology and great ergonomics for fast operation, they lack one vital thing—soul. I have made excellent photographs with my Canons, but the process itself of using one has often been cold. They are clearly pragmatic machines—excellent ones at that—but still lifeless. I never got that feeling with my Canons that Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about with his Leica: “It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it.” The game changed when I acquired the Fuji X100.
My first time using the X100 was the same day I was mentoring Annamaria (of Vidachrome Photography & Travel) on a street shoot around downtown in early February. Given that difference between the familiar Canon interface and that of the foreign Fuji, I had to adapt and ended up learning by the seat of my pants. For instance, with a Canon, I was accustomed to filling in the viewfinder to compose; what one sees is what one gets on a DSLR. With the X100, on the other hand, the viewfinder shows more than what would be captured; one must compose the shot within frame lines floating in the viewfinder, just like using a rangefinder such as a Leica. On a DSLR, one gets a voyeuristic, tunnel-like view while composing, isolated and lonely. On a rangefinder, one gets a view of the world outside the photographic frame, inclusive and present.
Conversely, while the X100 and its window to the world makes me feel present in the scene, it also allows me a sense of stealth. First and foremost, it resembles an old film camera. I recall once at a bar while drinking Scotch with my buddy and fellow photographer Adam when a man walked past our table and asked me if my X100 was a Leica, for he thought it was one of their older film rangefinders. A waitress at another pub once said to me after bringing out my drink, “Nice film camera!” while pointing to the X100 hanging off my shoulder. A bouncer at a “beercade” (arcade and bar) said the same thing. Why is this important? The X100’s resemblance to an old film camera helps to ease my subjects’ hesitations and timidness. With few exception, people either pay little to no attention to someone shooting with a small film camera or do notice but become more curious than frightened and threatened. DSLRs with their modern design and much larger, clunky lenses become the elephant in the room. They scream of paparazzi, creep, voyeur. That is why several years ago I modified a Canon EOS 450D to use as a “street shooter,” making it look beaten up and paired it with an old manual lens in an attempt to make it appear less imposing and threatening.
Even with my modified street-shooter, however, I still felt exposed and conspicuous, and especially immediately after pressing the shutter button when the slap of the mirror and chirping whine of the shutter resetting would alert all around like a fart during a dinner toast. The X100, on the other hand, is nearly silent with its leaf shutter. It does not make a fuss about what it does. There is no CLACK CLACK CLACK belched out from a DSLR. Instead, there is only a soft and subtle whisper of a click; a retractable pen is much louder. There is but the sound of silence.
The ability to approach appearing less threatening, to compose the shot and see beyond the confines of the frame, and to capture that image without audible disturbance has allowed me to become part of that moment itself. Indeed, the ability to not draw much attention to myself with this small and silent camera proved vital just one week after I had acquired it when a close friend asked me to perform the tragic task of documenting a funeral for his family. Adding to the enormity to an already solemn occasion was that this funeral was conducted with full military honours, for the deceased was a United States Marine. The one image that stands out for me (which I will not display here out of respect for my friend and his family), is that of a Marine presenting to the grief-stricken widow the folded flag that had draped the casket. I made this photograph while kneeling only a meter and a half away. If not for the inconspicuousness of the X100, I would have either ruined the moment completely with the clack of a DSLR’s shutter or missed the shot completely out of fear of being “that guy” and get dirty looks from everyone despite performing my services as requested by the family. I do not believe I would have done as well as I did if not for that unassuming little camera.
Fortunately thereafter, I have gone on to photograph much more joyful moments with the X100. From nights out at a pub,
to roadtrips with friends,
to birthday parties,
to art gallery visits,
to weekend festivals,
to even an eviction eve party at which a heavy metal band was rehearsing in the kitchen of the condemned building,
to everyday life on the streets of my beloved Chicago,
the X100 has been by my side.
Through my various experiences, I have learned that it is an unforgiving camera, demanding the utmost deliberation and volition. For instance, its autofocus system is much slower than and not as accurate as that on my Canons, forcing me to become more predicting and reflexive; shooting with a manual focus lens on my old street-shooter had prepared me for this already, however. The X100’s analogue aperture and shutter dials make up for some of the speed loss, though, as the “old fashion” controls are rather intuitive. Many X100 users have bemoaned about the disorganised and complicated menu system. I see this as an advantage, however, as it forces one to forget about it completely and shoot as though it is a mechanical film camera; just set the ISO, leave it as is, and adjust exposure with the aperture and shutter dials, respectively, relying on the meter in the viewfinder. Paradoxically, the complexities of its modern, electronic personality reveals the pure simplicity of its analogue side.
There is, of course, the aesthetics of the X100. In Annamaria’s words, “It is a sexy camera.” In my opinion, the 1950s and 1960s were the golden era for design for many things, including cameras. It all went downhill in the late 1970s and onwards; indeed, looking back at the crap produced in the 1990s, I cannot help but to cringe. What I admire about design during the 1960s particularly was the attempt to balance form and function and the revival of the modernism and Bauhaus moments from the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, it was the Ulm School of Design that emerged in early 1950s as, arguably, a successor to the Bauhaus school. From Ulm came the design genius Dieter Rams and his Ten Principles for Good Design, the third of which states: “Good design is aesthetic. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.” The X100 carries with it the spirit of the 1950s and 1960s in its form but with the function of modern technology. It is a fine balance of both.
I cannot help but to ponder about the personalities and motivations of the creators of the X100 at Fuji. I image the design team to be a motley crew comprised of a defector from Leitz, a specialist of fighter jet heads-up-displays, a devout film photographer with a stockpile of Fujichrome Astia slide film in a freezer somewhere, a camera enthusiast who was bullied and laughed at by some asshat carrying around five DSLRs and super-telephoto lenses to photograph birds in a city park, a discount Sir Jonathon Ive with a framed portrait of Dieter Rams hanging on a wall, and a hipster. To these people, I say: Doumo arigatou gozaimasu!
As always, the camera itself does not make the photograph but rather it is the photographer’s eyes, mind, and heart that makes the image and gives it life. I have photographed for years and produced good images without the X100. What that little camera has done, however, is make the process and experience all that more enjoyable. It made me fall in love with photography all over again and then some. It made me even more bold and plucky when I am out shooting, encouraging me to get ever so closer to the scene. In fact, so confident has it made me that last month, I embarked on an endeavor that I once found intimidating but now see as a trial to my skills—shooting with film, which I shall write about soon. The X100 has become to me what Cartier-Bresson’s Leica was to him: “an extension of my eye.”