The View From Faraway Farm: On photography


I've loved photography since I was a teenager, inspired by a high school teacher who had been a research chemist for Eastman Kodak. He was part of the team that pioneered infrared film. It was during WWII and it was a high-pressure top secret project that took its toll on the man. I can't imagine that teaching high school science in a small Vermont town was any escape from stress, but I understood his motivation. Working with him was all about the darkroom and the developing process. To him, the work with the camera just wasn't his top priority, but it was a great experience.

As a young adult, I purchased an East German Practika camera, a 35mm that had through the lens viewing. It was the cheapest camera available and it was a struggle to pay for it. Several years later I purchased a Gossen Luna Pro light meter because my camera did not have light metering capabilities. It cost more than the camera. During those years with the Pracktika, I learned a great deal, experimented with all sorts of filters and exposures, and even photographed a couple of weddings. It was an enjoyable hobby, but not one that I had a great deal of time for as my family and responsibilities grew.

I purchased my first Nikon digital camera as a recent divorcee at the age of 48. I continued in the hobby and used it for work projects as well. By this time I had begun working in Adobe Photoshop, enjoying every aspect of the experience. I had decided long ago that I had so many interests that I did not care to become a professional photographer. That and the fact that I've never felt that I had a good enough eye for composition. However, pro or no, I've wanted to be able to improve my skills. This also meant upgrading my tools. I got my second Nikon nearly a decade later and set about upgrading my lens collection. Has it made a difference? Some, but not enough for me. I'm never truly satisfied with the vast majority of the photos that I take. In all these years I've taken maybe three photos that I actually like. Having good equipment is one thing, being able to use it to create art is quite another.

I recall a conversation I had with a photography school graduate, expressing my love of Photoshop. This person's reply was "I prefer to take the photograph correctly in the first place." Really? That remark wasn't even relevant to why I use Photoshop. I enjoy altering some of my photographs for the artistic expression that it allows, not for improving the photo that I took. You run into a lot of photography snobs out there, and it can take the joy out of the hobby. I've already accepted the fact that you are not going to see world class photographs from my output. I take the Cheryl Crow approach — all I wanna do is have some fun.

The digital age has impacted photography profoundly. In the days of film, we would talk about maybe getting one or two good photos from an entire roll, and processing was expensive. Now you can shoot as much as you want, only limited by the number of memory cards that you carry. I think this makes photography better, and it makes it more affordable. If getting a great shot is a numbers game, then you now have the freedom to greatly increase the number of photos that you take. I like having more choices, allowing me to use the best shot for any work that is going to be seen by others. I have a couple of cards that have such huge capacity that it will take a very long time to fill at the rate I use my camera.

Like other activities, it can be difficult to explain how or why you derive satisfaction from it. Back in the 1970s, I got a copy of Susan Sontag's "On Photography." (Hence my use of it as the title for this work.) I got a few chapters into it and put it down. It was just too much. Maybe I can't explain why I like photography. Maybe I should simply accept the attraction to it and forget about trying to analyze it to death. The most useful and interesting book on photography that I ever read was Andreas Feininger's "Light and lighting." It was more than a technical manual. It was a rediscovery of the very element that allows us vision. It also had a positive impact on my photography. So I recently bought this new Nikon camera body and the most expensive lens that I have ever purchased and I'm hoping that the images are sharper. There are far more expensive lenses out there, and camera bodies with far larger pixel capacity. In the end, it is all a combination of what you know, the quality of your equipment, and how you use it.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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