I upgraded my camera recently.
Before I get going down this mental cul-de-sac its probably worth mentioning that it's standard, neigh, de rigeour, to begin "blog posts" (do they still call them that?) with a folksy, familial thesis. I checked the handbook. It's called the Garrison Keillor Law. Which itself is also the name of the 'no touching' stature in the state of Wisconsin, but I digress.
I like digressing. Makes the writer feel like a personal trainer for the reader. C'MON IF YOU WANT THIS TO PAY OFF YOU'RE GONNA HAVE TO DO 2 MORE PARAGRAPHS ABOUT CAMERA STUFF UNTIL WE GET TO THE MESSAGE. That's the benefit of a low-stakes blog on the least visited page of your own website. It's a 24/7 open-mic night, basically, where you can try anything out.
Anyway. I upgraded my camera recently. I had a Canon 6D that got me a fair amount of work, and for all intents and purposes was all the camera that I'd ever need. I really loved it. I got it at Dury's Camera in Nashville — it was a full-frame camera which blah blah blah meant that it made things look really pretty. The backgrounds were creamy and dream-like. Sunsets really looked like sunsets. Pictures of the dog (easily 1/3rd of all pictures) made our derp-faced wolf-relative look like a model.
Without boring you senselessly with camera semantics, I picked up a used Fujifilm X-Pro2 from a wedding photographer somewhere in New England. She said she had to dig it out of a box "in the attic" before she mailed it off, which I like more than someone babying the camera. I really like the idea that this was the bastard red-headed step-child of their camera setup, that they had just gotten sick of it and put it in a box in the attic (Tangent: I once knew a red-headed stepchild (true! a former neighbor!) who deeply resented that phrase).
Not to go all Carrie Bradshaw on you, dear reader, but: I began to wonder. Does the camera make the photographer, or is it the other way around?
I sold the Canon at Precision in Austin. Precision is Austin to the Nth degree: it used to be a small camera shop and now it's a big, semi-corporate behemoth where sales and growth are seemingly more important than feeling welcome. This is edging into a Yelp review, but the point is that its a good place to do a clinical transaction and not an emotional one. Handing over anything that has paid your rent is a hard thing to do. They take your baby into the back room and look it over, prod it, poke it, and then give you a dollar amount easily 1/3rd less than expected, and you're supposed to be OK with that.
I promise this pays off. I'm doing that Julia Cameron 'Morning Pages' shit where you write in the morning. To be perfectly fucking honest the coffee hasn't kicked in yet so if you've made it this far, print this page out and get 20% your next Jamba Juice. They won't accept it but if you stand at the front of the line long enough they'll have to, and also, minor displays of anarchy and non-commercialism are good for the system. Fight the man. Anyway.
The money from the Canon went towards a Fuji 50mm 1.4 lens. The guy selling it was trying to get me not to buy it. "You'll be back in a week to get THIS," he said, holding up a $900 lens that was "infinitely more versatile." "If you want to take your photography to the next level of professionalism," he said, "This is the one you'll want." "That lens," he said, pointing to the 1.4 in my hand, "Is the worst in the lineup."
Not to spoil the ending for you, but he was completely fucking wrong.
I'd done enough homework to know that Robert Capa had a 50mm 1.2 lens when he was shooting color. Going into a camera store and talking about Robert Capa is the equivalent of playing "Stairway to Heaven" in a Guitar Center, but I was adamant about trying, at the very least, to find something close to that. I'd spent the whole week before looking up as much as I could about LIFE Magazine photographers and what they used. I can't afford a $5,000 Leica, nor do I want to go The Full Brooklyn (never go The Full Brooklyn) and start shooting film, so I worked hard at figuring out what the closest thing was to what I wanted.
After 14 days of research, I can tell you 2 things.
1 - Most people are terrible photographers. I say that with love, also with full knowledge that you could take any word except for 'are' out of that sentence and it would still work.
2 - Striving for perfection is impossible. The dangers of being a gear-head in any genre (cameras, cars, whatever your fancy) is that more often than not you just end up like a fetishist, anxiously awaiting the dominator to punish you with more choice, biting your bottom lip looking at a spreadsheet of specs.
So I got this lens. And it's noisy. The motor whirs way louder than the lens that came with the XPro2. It sometimes hunts for autofocus. Maybe 10% of the time it focuses on the wrong thing, as if the lens itself was going "um, sorry, I was thinking about something else." But when it works, it creates art. Here's the thesis, buried way down here: I love it, because it does that I think it perhaps more valuable than anything else. It creates happy mistakes.
It was a happy mistake to meet my wife. It was a happy mistake to find work writing. It was a happy mistake to write anything of worth in the last decade: you don't know what's going to happen until you press the button. Too often, especially over the last couple of years dealing with a combination of insecurity and self-imposed writer's block, if you sit down and go, "ok, I'm going to create Something Great™" then it never works out because you've already set the framework.
There's a couple of interviews with the hip-hop artist Earl Sweatshirt where he talked about "the dangers of over-writing." I love that about him. It's why he's done 3 albums of difficult hip-hop that sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom at 5am. He's not applying layer after layer of gloss, he's kind of just capturing the moment. There's a danger, too, of tying any piece of art to the moment — god fucking knows how many Serious Think Pieces™ have fallen by the wayside being tied to transiesnt news events — but for the purposes of narrative, perhaps it's best to strike for the middle, art for art's sake, rather than art for the artist's sake or art for the consumer.
I like the fact that the lens just captures the moment. It doesn't feel clinical. The fact that you can hear it whir and go "aw geez" as if it were an old man trying to get out of a comfy chair, that makes it way, way, way more interesting than if it were something that could do anything perfectly.
If you keep striving for perfection, it won't work. I say that as somethat tried, probably from 2014 to 2018, to create "something that lasts", some art piece. I was way too careful about it. I have probably 30 or 40 first-thirty-pages of drafts on my laptop/iPad of shit that I started unorganically, as if I'd sat there and gone "ok! Let's make history!" like some sort of castaway Duck Tales villain. I'll look at the stuff that's worked in my career and most of it is things that I've managed to half pluck from thin-air with little more than an idea of where I wanted it to go. The other maybe 50% is things that were planned well and had a good home with a good editor.
Stephen King has great advice in 'On Writing' (which you should pick up anyway, because it's fucking brilliant, as is the audiobook version, shockingly) which is to write with the door closed and edit with the door open. Jackson Pollock would famously ask his wife "Is this a painting?" — NOT 'is this a GOOD painting' — which is an important distinction, to let it be its own thing, and not the writer/artists idea of a good thing, because that in and of itself could be limiting.
Bob Ross — the sadly deceased painter-slash-lifestyle-gure — was oft quoted as saying "happy mistakes" when he painted. That's code for fucking up + skill + technique = landing it. Even BB King talked about his own style once, saying (paraphrasing massively here) "Yeah, I couldn't play like the other guys, so I kind of winged it. I wanted to make the guitar sound like it could sing. Well, I made it sing like me, not like anyone else." That's from a clinic BB did in the '80s that has miraculously found its way onto the internet. BB King, the literal founder of modern blues, saying more-or-less "yep, I fucked up so well that I found my own style and ran with it."
I'm not embracing the idea that I'm in any way as talented as whom I've listed above, simply that they embraced their limitations. That's a much, much happier proposition than having (metaphor alert) all the paint colors and the most beautiful canvas, or (second metaphor alert) the most expensive Leica camera with the most amazing lens. Endless possibilities and perfection means more often than not you find yourself lost. You find yourself through fucking up, through running around the darkened room enough times to know where the walls are. You can push those boundaries later, when they're ready.
This whole post started about a camera lens and ended up being about art. Which was unplanned. And a happy mistake.