Meeting good friends, visiting Paris Photo, touring “alternative Paris”. And trying to decide whether I can live with a phone as my only camera.
If the progression in the above mission statement evokes more than a whiff of a “sublime to ridiculous” in your mind, you’re right in exercising a healthy dose of skepticism about that smartphone fad.
But, starting at the sublime end of the scale, this quick up’n drown trip to the temporary capital of the photographic world was, first and foremost, the opportunity to catch up with long-lost friends 🙂 🙂 🙂
Co-conspirer, partner in work crime and good friend Philippe and I devote over-indulgent amounts of time chatting and phoning, but we’d not seen one another in person since the idea of Covid was only known in a handful of labs, up to then presumed high-security.
Our meeting point was the Paris Photo exhibition, one that is notoriously unhealthy for my wallet, and of which my last attendance also dates back to the golden age before that #FakeNews virus took as many lives as WWI (give or take).
As the French say, one pleasure never comes alone, and this was also the opportunity to meet up with David Brookover and his great wife and friends. This was the opportunity to finally get to know each other and discuss the best print labs on the planet, possibly to organise the ultimate geek-out silver/platinum/carbon print cross-country trip ever in a couple of years. Does it get better than that?
It does, as it happens. David had also brought with him a princely gift, in Ralph Gibson’s fabulous Refractions 2 book. That book is so exceptional, I’ll write a separate review of it. Very highly recommended and appreciated (and many thanks also to Y, the person who so kindly carried it across continents for weeks so that I could enjoy it later!)
Unlike my usual workday-tripping to Paris, this didn’t involve leaving home at some ungodly hour that even eager beaver astronomers would balk at.
Arrival at the station coincided with golden hour, and the candy-coloured low-cost train at our disposal provided my first opportunity to put my grand photographic experiment in motion : can a 6 year-old midrange Samsung phone with a cracked rear face and wonky mike prove a worthy successor to 12kg of Hasselblad gear that was shipped to me inside a Pelican case, and for amounts of moolah only the Fed and drug dealers typically discuss?
My recent rail travels having proven as smooth and elegant as Trump’s handling of defeat, and with the French strike-when-families-travel tradition in full swing, those initial photographs also served as instant Proof of Progress for compadre Philippe, waiting at the other end of the steel strip. Phones can do that 🙂
When fear of transport disaster turned out to be as unjustified as that of a midterm red wave, our dandy candy steed spat us out near Bercy, where my phone faded to grey for a view over the river and towards France’s beloved ministry of
taxes finance, then back to colour for a stroll through the adjacent Jardin des Plantes and it’s strikingly hued plant and insect exhibit.
It was at this point that a first vital piece of the puzzle of my oh-so-realistic GAS challenge occured: my phone battery died on me.
Turns out a remote-work hermit-consultant life doesn’t fully prepare for the realities of untethered human beings and the contingencies of unplugged phone photography. Turns out 2000+ cycles of charge-uncharge take their toll on battery life 😉
This to say my photo shoot ended about 30 minutes after reaching Eiffel territory, with only a couple of charge % to spare for travel-note essentials such as snapping the names of the photographers whose work strikes me most, later, in the exhibition. Though even this proved too much for the geriatric machine’s power source.
Oh well. Mice and men.
Long had I desired to look upon the
Argonath Grand Palais Ephémère, the temporary wooden structure erected to host shows while the Grand-daddy Palais itself gets a thorough TLC for the olympics. Inside, the paneling hides all of the wonderful criss-cross of beams and arcs, but the translucid exterior skin provides a welcome peep into the design and build. Just lovely.
Instawham snap, check. Moving inside, the stream of other visitors made a Black Friday post-Covid revenge-spree look like a night-time senate sitting on environmental issues – that is, empty – rendering the very concept of sanitary measures as outdated as that of social media decency. Since I get beaten up by school-bug-riddled teens at karate class 4 times a week, and felt an itchy throat, I wore a mask all along. But this turned out to be reassuring for me as well, in that sardine tin environment.
Still, the exhibits and company made it all so worthwhile. The ill-framed triptych below is the last photo my phone let me snap during that day, but here are the names of a few photographers really – really – worth checking out (according to my tastes):
Viewing such a wide array of intentions and approaches to the craft always reminds me why I feel photography (and filmmaking) are so much more interesting to me than other pictorial arts. No offense meant to others, this is just a personal opinion.
Seeing so much talent, straying so far, in ways so varied, from a technique known for merely “depicting reality” is both fascinating and heartwarming. In a world hellbent on normalising us, and a market geared towards dumb machines taking control of the creative process, artists are the solution.
End of day one.
Day two – and a recharged phone – saw us neglect our nice little balcony in favour of a time-saving breakfast in the common room.
In place of the spectacle of the grey shadows chased down chimney pipes by growing streams of golden photons, we were greeted by the spectacle of a startling young woman with enough makeup for a zombie marathon, albeit far more elegantly laid out, filming herself pouring coffee into her cup to the tune of accordion music blaring from her pink gold iPhone, and the bewilderment of sleepy eyed neighbours.
Weird and wonderful humans, right? 🙂
Our plans for this day combined the lofty goals of scientific research – settling once and for all the phone meets camera debate – and cultural exploration via a 10 mile long hike through alternative sites and street art walls of the North East of the city.
But it was off to a bad start. At least mood-wise.
Our first stop, deep in the booneys at the corner of No and Where, turned out to be closed until 12 (Whisky Tango Foxtrot), and seemed to open its activities only to women and people of gender minorities. Touchy subject, probably with excellent motives (such as providing shelter against abusive arsewipe blokes, presumably). But, at that time in the day, my point of view on fighting exclusion with more exclusion would not have been safe for work. So, this cranky old male decided to take his business elsewhere, rather than wait.
But it didn’t take much painful soul-searching to realise the reason for my early-morning pouting was linked to the previous day’s Aladdin cave of human genius. Compared to the works of art on display, what I was doing at the time felt kinda menial, insignificant and pointless. Who cares about chairs aligned next to a canal shot by an elderly smartphone, right?
As years pile on, each erasing more colour from my hair, the realisation of just being a grabber – rather than a creator – feels more and more unsatisfactory. It’s not that I’m pathologically incapable of making good photos of stuff I chance upon. But the lack of meaning behind the process must be getting to me.
And there is little doubt that all this camera vs phone hoopla is merely a reflection of the internal debate around the very purpose of my photographic journey. A solution won’t emerge from this emotional quagmire through comparing gear, but only by elucidating what it is I want to do with my remaining time and pixels. Thinking is bearing fruit. The tunnel lights up, some way in the mid-distance 😉
Skipping much of the North-East quickly lead us to La Villette, and its canal. Definitely no longer alternative, beautified, gentrified and pleasantified as it is. And the riot of shapes and colours soon put some spring back into my menial step.
This was, after all, a rest week-end, and a pleasant one.
So the pointless camera vs phone shootout soon resurfaced as a palliative strap over a deeper wound that can wait a little longer to be dealt with.
If pointlessness was to survive one more day, it would do so in full extatic colour. The deeper debate is of some importance, if grabbing remains my sole future. But the resulting photographs don’t have to scream “Why so serious?”, right?
Recent camera releases failed to totally enthuse. And the cost of replacement of my phone with something like an iPhone 14 Pro takes me deep into real camera territory. Going against my natural inclination towards smaller (and less obscenely priced) phones would only make sense if shooting with a phone does something for me in the first place.
It does. Kinda.
Simplicity is key here.
David had one other surprise in store for me on Friday. After reading some of my comments about the weight of my X1D and glass, he threw an unexpected dead donkey gauntlet in the shape of a massive Nikon Z9 body with a 58/0.95 Noct lens. Rumour has it the Scots considered it for the tossing event of their Highland Games but reverted to felled pines instead, after excessive numbers of back injuries.
That thing. Heavy.
But it felt great in the hand and looked superb to the eye. There’s that feeling of machinery and purpose that more than compensates for the knowledge that three of your vertebrae are snapping with every passing hour of use. I cant’ believe the excitement of the meetup deprived me of an opportunity to use it, which David had offered. Stupid Stupid Stupid.
Still, big & heavy ain’t the issue with Hassy or other trad monsters.
Workflow is. It should be smoother, more shareable, more fluid. Is it normal that my phone nails white balance more often than a camera costing more than its weight in white truffle? And convenience is just one example of the advantages of recent phones.
Editing on the phone, via an app that lets you correct perspective and background defocus, also rocks my boat. Auto backup. Fun presets. An inconspicuous footprint noone frowns upon. No bag hanging off my shoulder, creasing my impeccable outfits. Direct access to WhatsApp and mail. No 16th century Venitian-torture ergonomics. No forgotten cards. Or cards that fail. No computer.
Then, there’s the fact that I don’t want to be perceived as The Hassy Guy. The photographer whose images look sharp and well coloured because of his gear.
The phone has a lot going for it. And I haven’t begun talking about the “look” of phone images which, in some instances, has been honed to elegant perfection by some of the manufacturers.
And yet …
… no cigar either.
Initial images, when this ludicrous comparison idea emerged, were strongly in favour of the camera. But a Willem Verbeeck video correctly pointed out that phones are rarely used with the same amount of deliberate effort as cameras, introducing a quality bias from the start.
This immediately struck a chord, and yielded results. Processing the all-phone images on this page has made them look transparent and quite good enough for the web destination that constitutes 99.9% of my photographic uses.
And it also motivates the use of the best possible phone, in RAW, with the best possible technique, in order to close the quality gap.
But the debate isn’t about quality.
Polaroid exhibitions prove how little quality has to do with impact.
The debate is about process. Mine is to walk and grab. If that doesn’t yield images I can feel proud of, the process has to change, not the gear. And the gear is only to be considered in the context of a finalized process. Does it hinder it, help it, inspire me, deter me … ?
I used to adore Zeiss lenses for their unique blend of quality and character.
The switch to Hassy was made for the character-free lenses and high DR camera that deliver a file as close to a blank slate as possible.
Phones, like film cameras, tend to occupy the other end of the PP timeline. While my X1D and its glass let me get as much untouched data as possible to delay interpretation until the computer-based PP, phones tend to encourage finalised in-camera results. Much like Fuji cameras. And film.
Which is best for you is for you to decide.
Which is a very hypocritical sentence for me to write, since I am so obviously unable to make up my own @&$£!! mind for myself 😉 The very fact that I’m still in two minds about such polar opposites is revealing of many lingering questions.
At the end of the day, though, here is the epiphany: none of this matters.
When a photograph is intentional enough, viewers will care very little about the instruments used to create it. It is only when the technical quality of the image is vastly superior to its composition, lighting, colour, processing that it will draw any attention to itself. At that point, you have bigger worries than answering phone vs camera 😉
And I believe that is also true of shooting style. I need not worry. Grabbing can lead to interesting photographs, if the intention is obvious. Intent. That is where my focus must be, for now.
The rest of the day saw us taking a tangent from La Villette to Belleville, a decidedly more edgy part of town with interesting shops, murals, gardens, and people.
In one of the most renowned graffiti streets, a fashion shoot was taking place. All very interesting. But the most fascinating part of it was that onlookers were mostly as exotically dressed as the models. Really cool.
France being a slave to Voodoo, it is forbidden to steal people’s soul by photographing them. So you’ll have to imagine the onlookers for yourself. My guess is the public display of models is fair game. If you don’t hear from me soon, I was wrong.
Another amusing, parting, note: some of the rebels so rebelliously painting on other people’s property were displaying IG accounts.
This Son Of a Boomer remembers a time when artists very literally raged against the machine. A president challenging democracy, helped by social platforms, would have started a craze of artistic and popular protest. Now, it seems, cozying up to the barons of silicon valley is more of a thang? Sic transit.
SOB out. Enjoy the rest of the photographs, and let me know what you think 🙂 Talk soon!
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