On Cameras and Search

I have been considering buying a new camera for the past few weeks, and it's been almost a decade since I actually bought a camera. The last two cameras I owned were gifts/handed down. Over the past few years, though, I have relied on my phone to take photos, and have realized that miss the intentionality of shooting with a camera. There is something fundamentally different about going out into the world with the expressed purpose of taking a photo, as opposed to just snapping at random with my phone. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy the random snapping. I really do. Instagram is far and away the most accurate public representation of my life, and the only social app that I would be sad to lose. And I love the ability to take photos immediately with no explicit concern for composition, light, etc, etc. But still. I miss real photography and more to the point, I miss cameras.

I received my first "real" camera when I was around twelve, a brand new SLR Pentax, which I carried around like a purse, always slung over my right shoulder. Prior to this I had shot with a variety of point-and-shoots and disposable cameras (hey, remember those?!). But this, which I received as a birthday present, was not only the most expensive thing I'd ever owned, but also the most precious. More precious than my bike, my books, my walkman, my stereo, or well, anything else I can remember prizing at that age. It was something that I handled with care.

Pretty close to my first camera, via jacme31 CC Flickr.

Pretty close to my first camera, via jacme31 CC Flickr.

One of the first sets of serious photography (well, it was very "serious" to me) that I remember taking (and actually liking) was of a burned-down house in my neighborhood. I was walking around the north end in Boise, and was about half a mile from home, when I discovered a house that was nearly burned to the ground, a ghosty structure still half-standing, charred. It was twilight and the sun was filtering through the skeleton house and illuminating piles of ash, blackened furniture, and faded boards. There was a bright yellow sash of caution tape around the house, which of course, did not stop me from entering the structure. I snapped a role of black and white film, at the time 24 photos. Much has been written about the ubiquity of photos in the digital age, and I don't have much to add on that account, but I do vividly remember being very careful with my photos and very aware that I had only 24 chances to capture something good. The idea of a throw-away shot was not something that I believed in. I don't have any of the photos from that day, with the exception of this, a poorly-scanned version of a print that I had long ago.

From the burned-down house, circa 1994.

From the burned-down house, circa 1994.

Perhaps what was so magical about that time (aside from that fact that everything is somewhat magical when you are twelve) is that I developed the photos myself. I took a class at the community art center, which to this day, remains one of the most important educational experiences of my life, where I learned how to develop in a dark room. This is an experience that no one past a certain age will likely ever have. Are dark room classes still offered anywhere? Despite the practical obsolescence of film, I hope they are. It wasn't so much the magic of images appearing on paper (though there was that) but for me, it had more to do with the physicality of the activity. The exactitude. The use of one's hands. Exposing the film for a certain period of time, moving the paper from liquid-filled buckets, all lined up on the table, and eventually shaking the developer off and hanging the photos from a string across the room. The strange red light, the solitude and extreme quietness, and the repetition of each step. All of this appealed greatly to my methodical side, but it was also a way to use my hands that was entirely alien to anything else I did with them.

All of which is so say, that I have been feeling lately that I would like to take more photos with something other than my phone. Although the dark room experience is more or less dead to me now, I want to capture, at least in part, some of that magic that I felt as a kid. I actually can't believe how infrequently I use the cameras I currently have and as I was examining them (a Canon Rebel and a Nikon CoolPix) I realized that it was the physical form that bothered me. They are so slick. So modern. All smooth, plastic and metal. Quiet. Limited buttons and mechanical movements. Which is, more or less, the way my phone feels. And come to think of it, my laptop, my tablet,  and well every other digital device in my world. What I really wanted was a digital version of my old Pentax.

And so, I began my search where one begins such things: Google. Within about ten minutes I was incredibly frustrated by both the pure lack of useful information as well as the inability to compare cameras/specifications in one place. At one point I literally had every major camera manufacturer open in individual tabs, while simultaneously attempting to figure out where I could actually buy the camera I wanted, which bizarrely is not possible through most manufacturer sites. Then, I thought: I should just go to a PHYSICAL CAMERA STORE. Of course there isn't one in Bloomington, unless you consider Best Buy a camera store, which I do not. So I made my way to Indianapolis, where there isn't exactly a plethora of camera shops, but at least there are a couple. I really don't know how to describe the experience of shopping in a physical camera store, other than to say that it was demoralizing. Two main reasons why: first, a terrible salesperson, who didn't give me any useful information whatsoever about the camera I was looking at, and second, all the cameras are under glass, so it's impossible to get at them without having a salesperson pull one out. All in all, it was a totally unwelcoming experience, which left me feeling cold. I would be willing to chalk this up to one bad store, but since I went into two, and had identical experiences I wonder if camera stores are just shitty now? Just the ones in Indy? I don't know, but I can't remember ever having such a bad experience in one before, but hey, it's been a long while since I've actually been in a camera store. So, I went back to the internet, where on and off for a few days, I scoured for useful information, which as it turns out comes primarily from individual bloggers who (bless them) take the time to obsessively recount every feature of a camera and include samples photos taken with said camera. There are a handful of good camera blogs and tech blogs that feature cameras occasionally, but why isn't all this information centralized in some way?

Maybe it's just because I've been semi-removed from the camera world for so many years, but it never occurred to me that in 2014 it would be so damn difficult to simply gather information about a variety of different cameras. The thing about the information age is that, yes, it's there; I can technically access all the information in the world about cameras, but the problem is: it's not in any coherent container. It's just out there. And through an endless (yes, it was endless) series of clicking, I more or less figured out what I needed to know and narrowed down my options. I can't imagine I am the only person who has had this experience. And I have a decent amount of knowledge about cameras. Imagine knowing absolutely nothing, and trying to navigate this landscape of random blogs, retailers, and manufacturers. 

One of the biggest problems designers will have to tackle in the future (and preferably in the present, though few people seem to be doing it) will be a meaningful visual organization of massive amounts of information. Yeah, Google does the sorting, but the display of a vertical list of links feels like a totally primitive way of approaching search. Considering the camera, which really isn't THAT big of a data set. How many working camera models could reasonably exist right now? A few thousand? This doesn't seem like an impossible problem to solve, but the problem is that it's not just cameras. I could be trying to buy a fridge or a sofa or a car. It just so happens that I had this experience while shopping for a camera. One can imagine that this kind of eternally frustrating search experience exists for nearly every product. Of course, there is a lot more to be said here, but instead of fully fleshing out this argument (which I will do someday), I'm going to leave you with some beautiful cameras that I found while I was in the mire of endless clicking: 

Argus C3, refurbished by ILOTT

Argus C3, refurbished by ILOTT

Canonet, refurbished by ILOTT

Canonet, refurbished by ILOTT

Leica X2, Paul Smith Edition

Leica X2, Paul Smith Edition