I’ve been reading reviews of Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution and wondering whether to buy it. It looks interesting. And then I came on a Newsweek photo essay about him which included an intriguing photograph of him with his camera case. That’s when I discovered that he was a serious photographer, so of course I then went looking for his pictures, but before I got to any I found this essay by him on WSJ.com.
Let’s begin with how photography has changed. Ansel Adams’s iconic images of the Sierras were taken with an 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera, a wooden contraption with bellows in which the photographer saw his subject upside-down and reversed under a black cloth. Joel Meyerowitz’s stunning photographs of Cape Cod were taken with a similar mahogany Deardorff view camera manufactured in the 1930s. These cameras produce negatives that contain up to 100 times the amount of information produced by a contemporary top-of-the-line digital SLR like a Canon EOS 5D or a Nikon D3. View cameras allow photographers to shift and tilt the lens relative to the film plane, which is why they continue to be used by architectural photographers who want to avoid photos of buildings with the converging vertical lines caused by the upward tilt of the lens on a normal camera. And their lenses can be stopped down to f/64 or even f/96, which allows everything to be in crystalline focus from 3 inches away to infinity. (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham were part of a group called “f/64” in celebration of this characteristic.)
Perhaps the most important feature of these older film cameras was their lack of convenience. They had to be mounted on tripods; it took many minutes to shoot a single frame; and they were hardly inconspicuous. In contrast to contemporary digital photographers who snap a zillion photos of the same subject and hope that one will turn out well composed, view camera photography is a more painterly activity that forces the photographer to slow down and think ahead carefully about subject, light, framing, time of day, and the like. These skills are in short supply among digital photographers.
Older cameras were far better built. A few years ago I was given a Leica M3 once owned by my uncle, who joined the U.S. Army to get out of an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. He was sent to Germany where he acquired the Leica around the time I was born. This camera, with its f/2 Summicron, a classic, fast, tack-sharp lens, still takes beautiful pictures. How many digital cameras will still be functioning five years from now, much less 50? Where are you going to buy new batteries and the media to store your photos in 2061?
Where indeed? It turns out that Fukuyama is also an audio buff with strong views on the capacity of MP3 compression to ruin audio quality.
And of course I had to check out what a GigiPan Epic 100 would cost. Answer: £414 on eBAY.