#802. Monday Post (24 Dec 2018) – Master and masterpiece, piece of gear and peace of gear…

By philberphoto | Monday Post

Dec 24
Parisians have a “thing” about severed heads, it seems…

I often discuss photo topics with Pascal, and when he says “great subject for a post, but I don’t know that I could write it. You, on the other hand…”, I know I should proceed with great care. But vanity and pride being what they are, I usually disregard his warning-in-disguise and start writing. And a couple of months later, the unsused, unfit-for-DS-consumption draft gets deleted in disgust. Let’s see if this one is any better.

That is the outside…

The differences between Pascal and I are a subject of endless fascination for me. Not the fact that he is better at photography, that was established long ago, and both of us are at peace with that. or at least I am. He on the other hand is really uncomfortable with praise, which is why I praise him unmercifully…:-)

… that is the inside

After much observation, it is my opinion (with which he strongly disagrees) that Pascal aims to be a master of photography, whereas I aim (in my dreams) to produce a masterpiece (as long as it is a pipe dream, I can afford to say masterpieces). And that is not the same.

and another one. It is a large greenhouse, after all…

A master of a craft must meet multiple criteria. Here is my definition (YMMV). 4 criteria. To make the impossible (for the common folk) possible. To do it with an air of great ease, so that it seems within the possibilities of each of us. To do it with a distinct “signature” which differentiates it from anyone else’s work. To enjoy doing it.

an Impressionist “spot” in Bougival

In other words, being a master is “who one is”, above and beyond what one does. It is a manner of being, an identity.

different view, same spot

Whereas a masterpiece is just that. Something someone has generated, produced, designed, delivered, whatever… But not only masters can generate masterpieces. And masters do not generate masterpieces each and every time.

Right in the centre of Paris… who’d have thunk it?

Now to Pascal. Why is he a master? Simply, he meets the criteria. Photography for him is a craft that hones the craftsman, an art that refines the artist. Like a master swordsman, archer, calligrapher (note the very Japanese influence, as per his last post). Hence his desire to explore (and master) all confines of this trade/art/craft, all types of gear (film, which he has done plenty of, to digital M4/3, which he has done already to MF which he lusts for, be it a Hassy X1-D or an Alpa), and now printing. And when he gets into printing, let me tell you, it is nothing less than a quest. Who are the best out there? The best processes, the best printers. He spends hours looking at references and great masters before him. He was generous enough to let me have his first print from his trip to Japan, and it is gorgeous.

Shot with and thanks to Dallas

This why he is so infuriated with certain aspects fo his Sony camera. Basically, when it gets in his way, when it does not let him be the master he wants to be. Arrrrghhhh!

shot without Dallas… and he ain’t happy that I keep my secret location… secret…

Now to masterpieces. They are not necessarily the product of masters. Sometimes chance, or happenstance. Sometimes people have just one great book in them, and then no more. Sometimes they have a one-track access to masterpieces and make the same one over and over. Photography is not technically difficult, it does not require tremendous technique that can only be acquired by many years of multiple-hour daily practice, like opera singing or ballet dancing. Being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing is technically easy, it can be beginner’s luck.

the early worm catches the… shot

That is my goal, and it is a lot less demanding than mastery. To that end, my gear is “only” part and parcel of the process. To a point, it is not my gear that might get in my way, but I who might get in my gear’s way…:-). And while I have upgraded it over the years, when it gets in my way, it is my fault, because I know it is easily good enough to produce masterpieces.

Homage to Pascal J.

Which is why I am essentially happy with my gear. Typically, I bought the same, now superseded, camera again, and my only lens is “inferior” to the mighty ones I used before. Are my shots inferior? Probably, but on a level far beyond what my ability can unleash. On the other hand, because it is so much lighter, I use it more often and with greater ease, which probably improves the weakest link in the chain…. me.

Inside a greenhouse… much warmer than outside at night…

This leads me to think that Pascal is, to some extent serving a life sentence of -relative- unhappiness with himself and his gear, because a master endlessly strives to better himself. And I am graced with a life sentence of -relative- happiness because I live the dream that one day, some day, things will click to perfection, and I will produce my masterpiece. Like Captain Ahab, who was no longer interested in filling the hull of his Pequod with vauable whale oil, but in his one crowning achievement, the killing of Moby Dick… Then I can happily call it a day, and glow in the thought of “been there, done that, got the mug and the T-shirt”.

Thanks to Dallas!

Come to think of it, I am not in such a hurry to produce that masterpiece after all….:-) It is such fun to be Don Quixote to Pascal’s Don Giovanni….

PS: these shots are the first posted that were shot with my A7RII (a.k.a. Pequomodo). Are they any better than with my venerable NEX 7? Does the fact that I am using “only” a Zeiss Loxia 25 show compared to my earlier gear bag, with Otus? Would I get any closer to a photographic masterpiece with a masterpiece of photo gear, like a Hasselblad X1-D?


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  • Joakim Danielson says:

    In the image with the caption “different view, same spot” there’s a spot in the water from sensor dust right above the word “spot”, I have yet to decode this secret message.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Joakim! Of course, I could decode it for you, but then both of us might end being stuck in an Ecuadoran embassy somewhere, so I think, for both our sakes, I’ll just call it a dust bunny…

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe, what a Masterpiece (I couldn’t resist) firstly your photos are excellent, yes I know you don’t consider them but others do. Sometimes I think, that as photographers we are far too harsh on our own work.The 2nd last one is an absolute cracker. This article is one I will revisit numerous times, like a previous one you wrote #320 magic Quadrant Personal Photographic Style. Congratulations.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Is a photo of X taken with a camera/lens/whatever made by Y “any better” than a photo of A taken with a camera/lens/whatever made by B?
    Philippe – that question doesn’t compute. I’ll go with it IFF both photos are photos of the same subject – then and only then does it filter through to my head, that you can make comparisons. But you’d only be comparing the gear – not the genius holding it.
    What is far more fun is to show off your photos, against someone else’s, and see who scores the biggest number of “ooohs” and “aaaahs”.
    And I must admit, I am worried here – where’s the photo with a bicycle? – I just don’t seem to be able to find it.
    Does the quality of the gear help to create a masterpiece? Purists will say “no” – but there’s a lack of realism in that notion – the gear can help. I think this one is easier to understand if we look at it this way – the gear might be a “necessary condition”, but not a “sufficient condition”. In other words, without the gear we might not be able to create a masterpiece – but merely having it will not create one either, because the creation of a masterpiece requires something more than just having the right gear. And the purists are not entirely wrong, either – talking in generalities, it’s probably “truer” to say that the gear is not what makes a masterpiece – it certainly doesn’t hurt, thought, and it may help, too – and in some instance it’s likely to be essential.
    Very dear to my heart is the example of Michelangelo’s “David”. I’m not sure which is worse – the sheer number of photos of the Eiffel Tower, or the sheer number of copies of “David”. But I do know this. Not one of the copies has the master’s magic. You can look at the copy they stuck in the Loggia, when the original was moved to the Accademia – it’s as near to being a “perfect copy” as you’re likely to get – but like all the other copies, it does NOT have the master’s magic.
    Another is the transcendental experience of tasting a perfect wine – there’s plenty of “good” wine out there – actually, there’s more “good” wine than bad wine – but very few people will ever experience the taste of a perfect wine, and those who do will never forget the experience. So what made it? – all grapes clearly aren’t the same – all soil isn’t – all weather isn’t – all barrels aren’t – and neither are all winemakers.
    Is the answer to your question to be found in another axiom? – that “genius is 1% innate and 99% hard work”? Does the creation of a masterpiece require something similar? – both your genius AND the right gear? Or is there no “one size fits all” answer?
    And is the pursuit of the idea of creating a masterpiece going to destroy the process? – does the possibility of actually achieving the creation of a masterpiece become more difficult, more remote, more unlikely, the harder we try to do it? Would it be more likely if we just stopped worrying about this, and went back to creating images, well OR badly?
    Time to make way for another perfect creation – Christmas.
    Joyeux Noël to each and every one of you, and to all your family and friends.

    • philberphoto says:

      Pete, I respectfully beg to differ. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Photography is about making pictures. Either newer gear makes them better (it doesn’t mean the gear is necessarily better, though it might help), or it doesn’t. Simple as that. Sigmund Freud wrote: the proof that analysis is a science is that it cures patients. The day it doesn’t, it should be discarded. I like old Sigmund’s approach.

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    I think this is going to be one of my favorite issues of DS. First, the photography and the article by Philippe; second, the reply by Dallas and his statement that, “as photographers we are far too harsh on our own work”; and finally Pete’s reply is more than just a snack for food for thought. He covers the subject of master and masterpiece front to back and leaves us with much to ponder.
    Only thing I would like to add is that when I was shooting film I considered a camera to be little more than a light-tight box holding film and a lens. I only bought camera bodies with manual controls. I owned two or three good light meters and a lot of other “stuff” to help me get the exposure, composition and contrast I wanted. All of my lenses were fixed focal length.
    But things have changed with digital camera bodies. The camera body can be a great asset to the quality of images produced. The improved processing engines (computers) built into them can contribute as much or more to the quality of the image as the lens.
    Doesn’t it make sense then that when assembling camera gear in a quest to become a master photographer and perhaps to produce a masterpiece, that the choice of camera body would come first and the lens(es) second? JMO :))

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Cliff, they are much appreciated! I go along with your suggestion of choosing the camera body first, but for another reason, as well as yours. The advantage of using native lenses over adapted are increasing, as the camera/lens interface are getting cleverer all the time, and more features are included. Therefore, choosing a camera body also directs your choise of lenses to a large extent.

  • Taki says:

    Thanks for your interesting Post!
    After all, I think, there are two old ways to happily go for each of you. And you, philberphoto, will take certainly many good, if not magnificent, pictures.

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