James Monroe School Canon Canonet QL17 G-III Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros 2010
Banking off yesterday’s post, with the photo of me in my second-grade classroom, I thought I’d share this photo of the school building itself, on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. The building was built in stages, the first of which was erected in 1930 and was funded by the Studebaker family. This is the original main entrance in the 1930 part of the building.
Additions in 1946 and 1959 brought the building to its footprint at the time I attended (1972-79). A 2010 renovation and expansion added a great deal of space and relocated the main entrance.
My first wife made brilliant portraits. Through wit and charm, and sometimes even a little flirting, she was very good at drawing spark and life out of her subjects as she worked the shutter. She made many portraits of our young sons with her Pentax K1000, several of which were framed around our home. Two black-and-white portraits of Garrett, aged about five, somehow found their way into my hands and are framed in my living room. His eyes are full of light and joy.
I shied away from photographing people for a long time. I didn’t think I could ever be as good as my ex, so I wouldn’t even try. What a logical fallacy. But I let it be for years.
I wanted annual portraits of the boys, so we’d go to the Target portrait studio. They did reasonable work for the money. But after several years the photographer moved on, and the new one wasn’t very good. I figured I could do at least that well. So I started trying.
I bested the new Target photographer right out of the gate.
I don’t own any lighting gear, so I photographed my sons outside. Broad daylight turns out to be challenging for good skin tones. I relied on my cameras’ meters; I see I should have underexposed by at least a half stop.
I used slower films for the finer grain, but found the in-focus patch could be mighty narrow even in blazing sunlight. I got lots of soft-focus photos, and even some that were clearly out of focus. I shoot handheld; perhaps portraiture calls for a tripod. Or faster film.
I even started dabbling with 135mm lenses, because portraits are supposed to be taken with long lenses, right?
I could really fill the frame without having to put my lens right in my son’s face, which they liked. But I think a 100mm, or maybe even an 85mm, lens would be more useful.
And soon I busted out some medium-format equipment, and even started experimenting with poses, trying to do something artistic.
I still haven’t mastered the art of posed portraits. I just don’t have that ability to be engaging and charming with my subject as my ex did. She had a gift. I’m too buttoned down, too unsure of myself yet. My sons frequently look like they’re trying too hard to smile. Damion usually doesn’t bother.
But now and then I do nail it, usually at a more candid moment. Garrett was just watching YouTube videos in my easy chair when I asked him to look up. He was relaxed and content, and it shows in his eyes.
Now that the boys are moving on into their own lives, they’ll be around less for portraits. Maybe now I need to put Margaret in my lens more!
Your humble photographer Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros 2016
When I took my son to Crown Hill Cemetery for some portraits, I asked him to shoot mine, too. He’s always been my official photographer. Pretty much every photo of me I have from the last dozen years, he took. I was trying to look serious here, but I think I managed only to look bored.
I’m not impressed that you own a Leica. Or a Hasselblad, or a Nikon F series, or any other fine, expensive camera.
Far be it from me to say you shouldn’t own one. I own a Nikon F2 and an F3 myself.
But if you want to impress me, show me your work.
I never tire of looking at this photo. I made it with my Argus A-Four, a 1950s 35mm viewfinder camera made of bakelite and aluminum. It packs a surprisingly capable 44mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens. I paid ten bucks for it.
I paid closer to $100 for my Nikon N2000 and a 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor lens. That’s a bargain compared to a working F2 body. Yet there wasn’t anything I could capture with that 35mm lens on my F2 that I didn’t capture when I recently shot that lens on my N2000.
That’s not to say I enjoyed using the plasticky N2000 as much as I enjoy using my solid, smooth F2. It’s wonderful to experience such a fine instrument. An Argus A-Four feels cheap in its own right; it’s ridiculous to compare its usage experience to that of any Leica. Cameras so fine deserve their devoted and fawning followers.
Yet so many of those followers treat their cameras as museum pieces. If you’re among them, I refer you to the work of John Smith, who shoots his Nikons and Leicas all the time. He makes wonderful photographs of the northern California coast. Check out his blog here.
Some of these followers even look down their noses at cameras they consider lesser. If you’re among them, I refer you to the work of Mike Connealy, who uses simple gear to make stunning photographs. Check out his blog here.
Consider this a challenge to make good work — especially using simple, inexpensive tools.