How Aesthetic Choices are Made

SERENDIPITOUSLY — almost by accident.

Back in the early’70s, when I was about a junior in high school, I was a photo bug. I had saved my pennies from my after-school job cleaning a vet clinic and put Nikkormat FTN camera and a couple of lenses in layaway. It was a dream camera. It took advantage of the truly superior Nikkor optics and Nikon’s Spotmatic metering to come as close to a perfect autoexposure as you could get at the time.

I shot Kodak Tri-X Pan film — a black-and-white 35mm movie film (though the emulsion was available in other formats), rated at ASA 400 (iso 400). I developed my own negatives and “pushed” the film two F-stops to ASA 1600 in development, using a developer called Diafine, along with Kodak’s house brand stop bath and fix. (Sodium Hyposulfate used to “fix” the silver salts in a grain-based “continuous tone” grayscale image. Diafine was magic to us amateurs, because it would develop a Tri-X negative (as well as Ilford, Agfa, or Fuji black-and-white negative films) perfectly, without regard to the speed it was shot at. Never did figure out how it knew. Magic. I truly hope it made its inventor rich.

I was a nerd before the term was invented — I think. I geeked out over photography: I lusted after the next better camera than mine (the legendary Nikon F), more lenses, a perfect darkroom, the Cadillac of enlargers, hard rubber print developing trays, calibrated glass-bulb mercury darkroom thermometers, print dryers, and so-forth. I spent all my pocket money on film and chemicals. I raged to make beautiful photographs. I “specialized” in candid shots of my schoolmates and focused on the pretty girls. I made some truly gorgeous shots — mostly by luck, because I didn’t understand as an artist at a gut level what it was I was doing. That didn’t happen for a very long time.

What I did get fairly good at was snap-shooting — seeing an image in scene and capturing the moment. I could even do it without really thinking. I practiced it as a method for getting candids without spooking my subjects. (For some reason people don’t like having their pictures taken and can get pretty shirty when you try.)

I would lock the mirror up The mirror was part of the through-the-lens magic of the single-lens reflex camera, but, in Nikon cameras, it was like a machine gun. The mirror, in concert with motor driven film magazines is the noise you get in the barrage of a gaggle of Japanese tourists or paparazi looking for the latest upskirt oops of the flavor of the week. A good candid photographer wants to be invisible. So you locked the mirror up. Otherwise, it flopped up, out of the way, in synch with the shutter, temporarily blinding the viewport, so locking it up eliminated the vibration and made it so you couldn’t (didn’t have to) look through the lens at the moment the shot was taken. Thus, the shooter would have to exercise a little Zen discipline and know where the lens was pointed through kinesthetic sense and Kentucky windage.

Then I’d stop the lens down all the way — F16 or F22, making the aperture as small as possible, and set the focus ring on Infinity. The last two adjustments were calculated to bring maximum depth of field to the image, keeping the most possible objects at all distances in focus. You would have made several general scene readings for light and to arrive at a good shutter speed for the environment (generally a 125th of a second would capture enough light to give a clean, contrasty image while being fast enough to freeze most motion). You’d hold the camera in close to your body to brace it and keep it from moving as best you could, and aim the camera by looking out over the barrel of the lens at your scene and trip the shutter or use the timer, which was a lever on the front of the camera and delayed the shutter for 15 seconds. You couldn’t do fine composition this way — you’d have to do that in the printing process in the darkroom. But you’d gather the most imagery you could.

I still do that with digital cameras. Cell phone cameras don’t react fast enough to the controls. And the mini-SLR’s (like the Coolpix L) rely too much on autofocus. (Shooting with autofocus through a car windshield can be an exercise in frustration for a perfectionist — the wrong thing is always out of focus.)

But we’re here about aesthetic choices. Around that time, my step-paternal grandfather moved out from Norwood (home of the GM Assembly Division) to the burbs, where he tended a largish lot (which is still in the family), including a thriving vegetable patch.

One summer, he broke down his roto-tiller to rebuild the engine or some-such. On one family visit to the country, the tiller’s engine was sitting on a sheet of cardboard in the driveway. This was a machine that was, perhaps, thirty years old or older and looked every day of it. It had what Og calls witness marks to beat the band. There was rust and other corrosion (of other metals), flaked and abraded paint, stains from gas and oil ground into the surface of it. The different metals and forming methods — cast, ground, milled, torch cut, etc — made for incredibly complex and beautiful patterns of texture.

I shot about a half-roll of film of the thing and, a week or two later, had some — as I say — gorgeous prints (done on matte paper, if memory serves), one or two as large as 11 x 14, which was a freakin’ poster to me back then. I showed them to my mom, who remarked that she thought I had an eye for industrial photography. It was tantamount to a throwaway line. But it encouraged me. And I ran with it. I started shooting a different aesthetic. Instead of looking for sleek, conventional beauty, I started appreciating textures of corrosion and decay, and various materials, and playing more with light than surfaces — looking for depth and space.

I stopped carrying a Coolpix around a couple of years ago, but I have a Coolpix L310 that I might start taking to work with me, to see what I get different with from my cell phone camera.

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