Unraveling the “mystical and unapproachable” in photography

One of my more regular correspondents, Michael Colby, wrote me with a two-pronged query: “I’d be interested in reading a blog entry about what set you on the path of being a photographer?” He also asked “I still remember, when I was in high school trying to get into serious photography, visiting a camera store. It was almost a mystical and unapproachable place. I take it that serious camera stores were not “consumer friendly’ in the way that any retailer has to be today.” The answers to both his points are intertwined within my own experiences as a young photographer.

I got into photography in high school. I was failing the French class that was supposed to meet my foreign language requirement and I needed something to transfer into so I could maintain a decent grade point average. I took the basic “Industrial Arts” class that was offered. Over a semester, we drilled some holes in both metal and wood, we did some silk-screen printing and we had a few weeks worth of an introduction to photography. Dipping the exposed piece of photo paper into the photo chemicals and then watching the image appear was pure magic. I was hooked.

Throughout the rest of high school, tough I took the other classes to prepare me for college, such as physics, English and mathematics, I was completely engrossed in photography. I had an excellent high school photography teacher, Mike Coppenger, who taught me everything he knew about the art, optics and chemistry of photography and then he turned me lose.

Throughout high school, I had always attended summer school so I had more than enough class credits to graduate from high school a semester early. The final semester I was in high school, my days consisted of elective classes in photography for the school newspaper and the school year book. I also earned class credits for independent studies that I worked on, under Coppenger’s supervision. Finally, I spent a couple class periods each day working as a lab technician for him.

The summer after high school I needed a job and I naively applied at the local camera store. The owner, an older guy with a stereotypical artist’s beard and beret, hired me on the spot. I now realize that he did so because he saw that I understood some of what my correspondent, Colby, described as “the mystical complex image of photography.” The store was subsequently sold to a younger man with more experience in retailing, who better understood what Colby called “The traditional, serious vibe that camera retailers maintained before the “consumerization” of 35mm SLRs, that said photography was a serious venture for serious people, not for the uninitiated, inexperienced, and young without money.”

Dave Rogers was my boss for the second half of that summer and for summers thereafter, throughout the four years I was in college. He always welcomed me back to the store if my other summer plans fell through. He was also was thrilled to hire me to work at the store during the busiest time of the year, the build up to Christmas and the post-Christmas return/exchange season.

Because I was young and earnest, I apparently had a knack for convincing folks to exchange (rather than return for a refund) the cameras they had been given as gifts, usually for a more sophisticated version. Trading them “up” was something that every sales-person would try to do. Being so new to the “temple of knowledge” that was built around serious photography, I came across to buyers as trustworthy, compared to my grizzled, veteran salesman peers.

During my first year out of college working as an aspiring photojournalist, I used to work shifts periodically at the store. Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the end was coming for the camera store as a “mystical and unapproachable place.” Color negative film was becoming wide spread and the one-hour mini-lab would soon follow. One innovation after another soon followed through the ‘80s and ‘90s right up to today’s digital revolution.

The funny thing is that today I still think that there are places for aspiring photographers to go to unravel the “mystical and unapproachable” in photography, but it is rarely the camera stores. Most so-called camera stores today are little more than electronics retailers selling imaging products.

Specialty stories like Samy’s in California http://www.samys.com/, Calumet across the nation http://www.calumetphoto.com/ and Levine’s in Boston http://www.eplevine.com/ are some of the last places to go to get serious technical information on photography. Today, the best places to unravel the “mystical and unapproachable” in photography is in photography workshops. The good news is that every imaginable topic in photography is covered in some workshop, somewhere. The bad news is that such wisdom no longer comes included in the purchase price of the camera, as it once did.

One response to “Unraveling the “mystical and unapproachable” in photography”

  1. I’m honored to be mentioned.

    I still recall that feeling of how the local camera store in the community of my adolescence felt like a mysterious and not altogether friendly “shrine” to photography and to cameras.

    I don’t ascribe to the camera store as a shrine experience or philosophy but i do decry its polar opposite, the Walmartization, Targetization and Best Buy-izaton of the experience where there is no mystery left (and apparently any knowledge to share about photography or cameras).

    Although the tools have become commodities, that doesn’t mean the skill is a commodity.

    I recall the heydays of the excitement surrounding “desktop publishing” software in the late 80s and early 90s. I learned (by first hand experience) that using desktop publishing software does not make one a skilled publisher or layout person. Likewise, economically priced graphics programs do not make one a graphic artist.

    The tools required to be skilled in these things (e.g. photography, graphic arts, page layout, generating presentations) used to be expensive, emphasizing the value of the skills required be proficient. While technology and commoditization has dramatically lowered the cost of the tools, it hasn’t made the skills any more ubiquitous. Lots of “instamatic” quality images get shot using pro-sumer DSLRs bought at Target, Best Buy and Walmart.

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