Rip Van Winkle Awakens…

Plot Summary (Source)

The story of Rip Van Winkle is set in the years before and after the American Revolutionary War. In a pleasant village, at the foot of New York’s “Kaatskill” Mountains, lives the kindly Rip Van Winkle, a colonial British-American villager of Dutch descent. Rip is an amiable though somewhat hermitic man who enjoys solitary activities in the wilderness, but is also loved by all in town—especially the children to whom he tells stories and gives toys. However, a tendency to avoid all gainful labor, for which his nagging wife (Dame Van Winkle) chastises him, allows his home and farm to fall into disarray due to his lazy neglect.

One autumn day, Rip is escaping his wife’s nagging, wandering up the mountains with his dog, Wolf. Hearing his name being shouted, Rip discovers that the speaker is a man dressed in antiquated Dutch clothing, carrying a keg up the mountain, who requires Rip’s help. Without exchanging words, the two hike up to an amphitheatre-like hollow in which Rip discovers the source of previously-heard thunderous noises: there is a group of other ornately-dressed, silent, bearded men who are playing nine-pins. Although there is no conversation and Rip does not ask the men who they are or how they know his name, he discreetly begins to drink some of their liquor, and soon falls asleep.

He awakes in unusual circumstances: it seems to be morning, his gun is rotted and rusty, his beard has grown a foot long, and Wolf is nowhere to be found. Rip returns to his village where he finds that he recognizes no one. Asking around, he discovers that his wife has died and that his close friends have died in a war or gone somewhere else. He immediately gets into trouble when he proclaims himself a loyal subject of King George III, not knowing that the American Revolution has taken place; George III’s portrait on the town inn has been replaced by that of George Washington. Rip is also disturbed to find another man is being called Rip Van Winkle (though this is in fact his son, who has now grown up).

The men he met in the mountains, Rip learns, are rumored to be the ghosts of Hendrick (Henry) Hudson‘s crew. Rip is told that he has apparently been away from the village for twenty years. An old local recognizes Rip and Rip’s now-adult daughter takes him in. Rip resumes his habitual idleness, and his tale is solemnly taken to heart by the Dutch settlers, with other hen-pecked husbands, after hearing his story, wishing they could share in Rip’s good luck, and have the luxury of sleeping through the hardships of war.

Three "Sisters" - 1

When last I considered photography for its own sake I was still teaching and had just bought my second home. That was nearly 30 years ago. At that time everything was film-based in photography and digital image making was still done by scientists in labs. But real image-making was taking place out in the field and the only real game in town was the view camera. And if you used a view camera you probably wanted an 8×10 filed camera to take along with you when you ventured out for images.

“Serious photographers” sometimes owned a Hasselblad which they tended to take on vacation. It shot roll film and gave pretty good images but even then there was a 3.25×4.25 format that was capable of image dimensions more like those on the 4×5 and 8×10 cameras and those were capable of pretty good image quality and because they were made in the burgeoning region of southeast Asia were cheaper and so more tempting to those on a budget. Lenses were made in Germany for the most part and names like Zeiss, Schneider and Rodenstock were as commonplace as Smith.

But when I ceased to do photography actively I lost touch with all of this. It was as if I slept with my eyes wide open for nearly 30 years. During that time digital photography had felled the giant of film making (Eastman Kodak) and enlargers and darkroom techniques had “gone the way of spats”. In fact wonder of wonders the lowly 35mm format had become king and the cost of a Hasselblad had grown to proportions that were breathtaking. It still packs a punch in terms of image quality but is now truly only the kind of camera that a very wealthy individual can afford or at least one who plans to make his living using it.

And as a result image making with these 35mm format cameras has undergone a complete and utter transformation. Total novices with little or no training are now marching around with devices smarter than their children because of their embedded processors. You can now make an image with your camera held between your legs and pointed at a subject behind you with your eyes closed. The camera not only chooses the exposure but focuses the lens, steadies the image by means of vibration reduction technology and then displays the resultant image on an very tiny LCD screen seconds after you have made it. And then to make matters even simpler you can apply visual effects to the image (in-camera) and wirelessly transmit them back to your laptop computer without ever having to walk a single step.

Teaching A Fish To Ride A Bicycle

When I began to revisit the sites on the internet where photographers lurk I learned a great deal. But none of it made much sense. Here they introduced themselves to one another by touting the type of camera they owned. It seemed obvious that the more expensive the camera the more deference was to be paid to their opinions during a discussion. And they kept clamoring for things like live histograms, automated bracketed exposures, lenses with very shallow depth-of-field, and RAW file information.

There was not a single mention of the Zone System or any awareness of how very lowly the 35mm format was in the pantheon of photography. It had become the only game in town and the zoom lens had replaced prime lenses for all “purposes and intents”. It was like being Georgia’s Bull Connor and having fallen asleep for a very long time awakening only to find that America had somehow voted in a child of a white woman who had married an actual African. It was truly a frightening world that had changed around me. You can almost understand why Dick Cheney refused to stand at the Inauguration of Barack Obama and instead decided to sit it out in a wheel chair.

But I digress…

What could have caused all of this topsy-turvy  reshaping of the photographic landscape? In a word “progress”. Technical innovation had spawned the transistor, which had made computing more affordable and the rate of computation on personally owned computers had gone through the roof. But the real genius lay in putting a computer on a chip and embedding it into devices of all sorts.

You could now buy a toaster that understood how you liked your bread, and your automobile ignition system no longer required distributors or carburetors. These were now replace by electronic systems that could monitor the barometric pressure and adjust the firing timing on spark plugs now fed by fuel injectors and suddenly shade tree mechanics had only shade left. They would be replaced by small laptops that could be connected to a port under the hood of their vehicles and perform a self-diagnosis and report the nature of the adjustment required to set things aright.

We now are on the threshold of automotive change that will move beyond having your car parallel park itself to having it take you across country without the need of your intervention. This should save lives and effectively kill the standalone GPS system sales market in favor of personal GPS apps on your SmartPhone. I suppose that this will soon result in drunken drivers being able to get themselves home safely while asleep behind the wheel. And as their automobile enters the family driveway a sensor will detect the presence of the vehicle and open the garage door and park the car before giving a brief toot on the horn to alert the spouse to the arrival of a semi-comatose individual who barely resembles the Prince Charming they thought they were marrying. But who is nevertheless the father of their children and with their help will get him out of the car and into his Man Cave where he can safely sleep off his drunken stupor at a safe distance free of his loud snoring. Aint life grand?

In the world of cameras there has been a shift. No longer is the 35mm format the red-headed stepchild. It is essentially the only game in town. And instead there have cropped up these point-and-shoot cameras which in the usual fashion are considered cameras for “Soccer Moms”. After all manly practices like photography can only be carried out by “serious photographers” and that by definition means “manly men”. And manly cameras need to have gadgets, right? So the size of the camera body has grown in proportion to the male ego.

The pinnacle of design some 30 years ago was the petite and pocketable Leica. In point of fact however even these cameras had begun to grow in size. Male fingers were getting chubbier as the Western Diet gained a foothold around the world. And with the increase in camera body size came a concomitant growth spurt in the size of lenses. The first thing to change was the maximum aperture size. Leica lenses were among the fastest in the world and the Noctilux was highly prized.

But with the advancement of computerization came an improvement in lens design and manufacture. No longer were zoom lenses the step children of the photographic kingdom. They have become the heirs to the throne of image making. Most photographers using full sensor cameras have two lenses that form the basis of their kit. A wide to mid range zoom and then a portrait length to moderately long zoom lens. And with the adoption of these two things (1) zoom lenses and (2) fast aperture lenses came a tendency to turn a “flaw” into a “feature”, namely “circles of confusion”. Of course these little babies have grown more upscale and now go by the name “bokeh”. But putting lipstick on a pig does not make it a Super Model it is what it is. But you can always change its value in the minds of those who have to live with it. And so we have an emergent fetish for images where the background is obliterated into the equivalent of “white noise” and amateur photographers all over the planet have learned to value shallow depth-of-field the way that their forebears did the f/64 groups attempt at unlimited depth-of-field.

Now because the landscape has changed with respect to format sizes it does not mean that humans (especially testosterone-laden males) won’t try to “get separation” from the lesser beings who wield cameras. If you cannot find an 8×10 or 5×7 or even a 4×5 camera in your local store you can certain find a 35mm body with more buttons, longer lenses and wider maximum apertures. And these types of cameras “sell big”. So big in fact that when ‘serious photographers” plunked down their money and head to a workshop held on some remote part of the American West or Western Europe they come with the obligatory fly fishing vests turned into photography jackets, with bags big enough to require a sherpa to haul it and of all things a tripod.

I’ve seen backpacks that are designed to hold a single telephoto lens for the manly serious photographer who plans to stand on one side of a gorge and shoot Ibex climbing the craggy rocks on the other side. Lens so large that they and not the camera have to be supported by hanging down from a special tripod mount so as to avoid having the camera body ripped apart by the weight of the lens. This is the world gone mad and I am Bull Conner awakened from slumber to find the “little camera” has grown to sizes that dwarf the early Hasselblads. And it uses lenses that are larger in size and twice as heavy as an 8×10 field camera!

And with all of this growth of the lowly 35mm camera comes the misplaced notion about its use. The full frame 35mm camera is the new view camera. And it wants to grow larger and more complex by the day. Frankly I have to question whether a photographer using such a small format really needs an active histogram displayed on the back of their camera, but that is because I did not realize that this format had replaced the view camera of years gone by. Remember I have been asleep all these years and awakened only a short time ago. I have been applying 30 year old principle to an industry that has clearly outdistanced its past.

Another Shift Is About To Occur

Three "Sisters" - 2

But if you are going to supplant the view camera with a 35mm behemoth on a tripod where then does one find a lightweight diminutive device that can and should be handheld and used in the grand tradition of the once petite and stealthy Leica F series? I would venture to guess that the effort made by the Nikon Corporation in designing the Nikon 1 is their answer to that question.

I may have been asleep while the 35mm was transformed into a surrogate view camera but I am wide awake now and watching the uneasiness of those who have come into their own during the era of the digital transformation of photography as they struggle with this new paradigm called the mirror less camera. What is odd is that we have come full circle in some 30 years.

The Leica was the first mirror less camera. That was what drew photographers of note to it. They understood the inherent value of a small, lightweight and indeed stealthy camera that could take pictures without intruding on the lives of its subjects. The entire notion of the Decisive Moment was about spontaneity. If you were a Leica camera user you “learned” to guess your camera exposures because if you were shooting in low light levels stopping to pull out a light meter meant you were not keeping an eye on your quarry and that after all was the real value of these tiny cameras. You could capture the fleeting confluence of animate and inanimate objects and the expressions of the former in a split second and that really did not allow time to fumble with a meter. All of your concentration had to be on the subject and on the skill with which you could focus the camera in a split second. In that world a DSLR was too slow and frankly crippled in low light because the split-screen focusing on ground glasses of the day was hamstrung in low light level conditions.

Now along comes all of this embedded technology and suddenly someone at Nikon remembers how it used to be. Only this time they have an answer for nearly everything. Not only can they now offer nearly picture perfect exposure calculation that occurs in what is essentially real time but also focusing that makes it possible to hold a camera up to ones eyes not for the purpose of focusing but merely to frame the subject and in an instant depress a shutter button and claim an image. Henri Cartier-Bresson would have been simply amazed.

But these small cameras are getting the same grief as their forebears only this time it is coming from within the 35mm camp and not from those snobbish large and medium format users. They are for all intents and purposes gone and buried (both literally and figuratively). Instead it is the folks who have been wielding the bloated and overweight cameras that have become the heirs to the Leica and the very early Nikon (which was also rangefinder cameras) that are now out of step. My father’s generation were not quite a fat as my generation has become. Neither were their 35mm cameras. They were “lean and mean” and despite the relatively poor quality of the early 35mm films capable of making images worth timeless consideration.

Rethinking The 35mm Camera

It is past time to reclaim the light and fast heritage of the 35mm format even if it means moving to a smaller sensor to do just that.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the 35mm full frame sensor size. It only exists because the early attempts at converting to digital photography meant replacing the pressure plate in the film plane with a digital sensor and keeping everything else more or less the same. At least that is what happened in the SLR world. Leica had a chance to halt its movement into the SLR kingdom and retrace its steps to produce a digital range finder camera and did just that.

Sensor size is an accident. If you remove that now unnecessary mirror and make the camera body thinner and replace the back of the camera with an LCD screen you have the makings of a truly digital small format camera. And if you can find sensors that are capable of very good image quality and couple them with lenses which are a return to those on the early Leicas in terms of size and weight you have restored the value of the small format camera as an essentially handheld image maker. This is the one painful fact about today’s digital SLR cameras (DSLRs) they are really no longer handheld. And that is what drives folks to consider the Nikon 1.

A mirrorless camera with full sensor is still going to require the heavy and bulky lenses of its DSLR cousins. Bigger lenses mean that the servomotors that do the autofocusing will have to move more mass that means slower focusing unless of course you build a bigger battery to drive bigger and faster motors and when you do you are right back to large bulky and heavy cameras and not heading towards a lightweight stealthy camera at all. You begin to realize that if you are to save the format from itself you are going to have to think outside the box. And that is where the “serious photography establishment” is floundering. Maybe they should have taken a 30-year hiatus from the  discipline as well?

If spontaneous image making is to survive it has to shed the shackles of weight and size. You cannot hope to have much in the way of immediacy if you are lugging along a 2-foot zoom lens that weighs in at 7 pounds while stowing a wide-to-slightly longer zoom lens in a backpack to which you have strapped either a monopod or a full blown tripod for those instances where you need to steady the damned thing during low light level shooting. You need to get back to the one button shooting of days gone by. At least that is my contention.

We have the ability to remove from the photographer the burden of focusing, guessing exposure and swapping prime lenses to suit the camera-to-subject distance. What we now need is additional smarts inside the camera to allow it to recognize “off beat” situations in very low light level conditions and to do so with or without external flash units. I prefer to be able to make images without flash altogether. All I want or need is a camera that has a pair of lenses that cover the 10-to-11 times focal length range with a wide enough lower end that distortion is not a big problem and fast enough to support handheld image making.

The Mantra Is Handheld

What the Nikon 1 offers is a return to handheld shooting. Handheld shooting means that you are poised with your camera and when an image insinuates itself into your brain you move in a clean and steady motion to bring the camera to your eye for framing purposes and then squeeze off a shot. You are not at any time staring down at a live histogram or otherwise examining navel lint. You are focused solely on the subject and leaving the device to capture RAW images for post processing efforts.

The RAW images that I pull off of my Nikon 1 are truly amazing in their depth of content. You can bring up shadow detail that you could swear was not even there and yet there it is. In fact the likelihood of ever having to schlep around a tripod and use multiple exposure to create High Dynamic Range (HDR) images is headed for that portion of the heavens where spats hang out on a Friday night.

I shoot almost exclusively in A3200 auto everything mode and never worry one whit. I find this amazing. My point-and-shoot cameras as good as they are have never provided at much image quality as this little beast and in daylight the exposures are consistently “spot on”. I am confident that over time the image quality will continue to go up on even the smaller sensors of the point-and-shoot cameras. Technology offers a seemingly limitless horizon of improvement. And who knows what will replace the current crop of sensors with something even more elegant.

But I am confident that the future of the handheld image making camera is what will endure after everything else is gone. I firmly believe that something as small and as lightweight as a SmartPhone will replace even the Nikon 1 camera. I am confident that interchangeable lens will eventually be replaced with a single lens of some sort that will offer limitless zoom capabilities and quality superior to even the best 8×10 view cameras of 30 years ago.

I plan to keep and use my Nikon 1 until the shutter wears out.