What would the Mona Lisa sell for? If the Louvre put it up for sale the bids would be half a billion dollars or more. What did da Vinci put into it? It was painted on a panel of poplar wood. The paint was ground pigments in an oil base probably prepared in da Vinci’s own studio. What is it really worth? Probably a few dollars. So what’s going on here?
Well, back to the pencil. The value is not in the materials used to create the art; it is in what the artist does with those materials. So, if I can create art with a pencil, or a panel of wood, or some pigment ground in linseed oil, what do I need as a photographer to create photographic art.
I have a table at local camera shows. It is great fun and I sell a lot of film cameras. It is often students who are taking courses in the photographic arts that want film cameras because part of their course work is to experience film.
But I see them looking for a camera with a light meter and automatic exposure. The only manual aspect they will accept is the focusing. Being students they are cost conscious and so they are usually looking at an “A” series Canon film SLR or maybe an inexpensive twin lens reflex. They are going after a pretty advanced pencil! But I’m not sure their instructors are on the right track.
If you want to teach art, take the machine out of the equation. Get down to creating art with the most basic of instruments. Simple lens, no focus, fixed aperture: throw them into the deep end of the graphic arts pool with …. wait for it …… a pencil. A decent photographic pencil looks like a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye: f/16, 1/30th of a second, 620 film. With this camera a person has to learn pretty quick about light, about shadow, about film, about shapes and forms. Oh, and a working decent Hawkeye should cost you $20.00. If you want a collector grade copy about $40.00.
So what can you do with it? Well, take pictures of course. It has a single
element lens with a fixed focus. Where it is focused is a bit of a mystery because the lens is so poor that you can’t tell where the focus point is. Its out there beyond 15 feet somewhere. So why would you waste your time with this camera?
Well, as a teaching instrument it has some strengths and those strengths happen to be its weaknesses. Here is what I mean …. To get a decent image onto the film you have to struggle with every aspect of photography. And then, because you don’t have great focus, you have to seek out images that rely on composition, on light and shadow. You have to find the art in the scenes before you in advance of clicking the shutter.
Turner’s “Snowstorm” is one of those incredible paintings with no detail at all. And yet you can see the image clearly. Hi resolution is not essential to art.
I have said often that it is a shame that modern cameras are so sharp and give us so much detail. Frequently an image needs less detail and more form, texture and shape. Think of William Turner: wonderful fantastic canvases and not a detail in sight. The weakness in the Hawkeye, its poor focus and strange image effects, forces the photographer to think about his art. The photographer is forced to think like Turner with a camera.
Choice of film is important. Because of the fixed focus and shutter speed, not only must the photographer be aware of the light before him, but he must chose a film with wide latitude to cover as many shooting situations as possible. Being stuck with the ISO speed of his film,
a fixed f/16 and a single shutter speed the mind is forced to work with these fixed assets. The variables are the light, the shadows and the time of day, A light meter becomes invaluable. Knowledge of what the film can do becomes an asset. There is no choice but to learn.
This is a simple photo of a street scene that demonstrates the depth of field of this camera and its ability to handle sunlight and shadow.
The image on the left is in sunshine and shadow. Very contrasty. Above is the opposite – very soft and low contrast. And yet the Hawkeye can handle both if attention is paid to overall light available and film speed. These are the variables. The rest is the choice of how the scene is to be presented – this is where the art meets the technology.
So is it possible to take a decent picture with this camera? Yes it is! However, not every picture will work. We are going to do our sketch with a very blunt pencil. Our image will be under certain light conditions, it will rely on the play between light and shadow and the arrangement of shapes within the image. Every image will be a challenge and every roll of film a lesson in art.
I now have seven Brownie Hawkeyes from Canada, South America, Rochester, New York and from France. They all work and I do shoot with them. A couple of those images are here. I don’t pretend to be making art with the pictures I show you with this article but maybe I can challenge someone to do exactly that. All of the images with this post are from a single roll of film of 12 images. I think these are the best three. Look at them carefully. Yes, these cameras suffer from terrible weaknesses but they challenge and teach you.
And by the by, look at the camera itself. Get one and examine it. The design is brilliant. It is an incredible combination of industrial design and practical beauty. For what it was intended for it was brilliant, then and now.
When the photographer masters the difficulties of this particular “pencil” it is possible to take a fine photograph. This image depends on light, shadow and form. As it enlarges the leaves and branches break down into pencil smudges of graphite or charcoal. Enlarged to 30 or 40 inches on a side, it becomes magical. A better camera never made anyone a better photographer.