Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The analog wall

SOME TIME AROUND 2003, while working as the photo editor at a daily paper, I took my last photo on film. Digital photography was on the horizon and I knew the switch was coming but I guessed that the transition from film was a few years off in the future.

I was wrong.

My heavily used Canon EOS SLR was on its last legs, so I bought what I assumed would be my last-ever 35mm SLR camera - a Canon EOS Elan 7e with a battery grip that I packed up and took with me on an assignment to cover a trade fair in Peru. It was a fantastic trip that took me from Lima to Cuzco in less than 12 hours and to Macchu Picchu in less than 24 hours.

It was a great way of getting to know my new camera and, along with a Holga I also slipped into my bag, I ended up doing some very happy shooting, coming home with an x-ray-proof lead envelope full of film.

Macchu Picchu, 2003

It was the next-to-last time I ever really used the 7e, which now sits in a bag on a shelf in my basement, next to my Bronica SQa, a pair of Rollei TLRs, a lovely wooden 4x5 view camera and the last of the trio of Pentax Spotmatics with which I launched my career as a photographer. I don't think I've run a single frame or sheet of film through them in a decade.

I began my career as a photographer just after I dropped out of college, when I suddenly found myself with a little bit of money and a lot of time on my hands. I grew up a few blocks from the (now-demolished) Kodak factory in Toronto, where my family had worked since the '20s, and was inspired to start taking pictures when binge-reading Evelyn Waugh led me to pick up a book of Cecil Beaton's photos from a remainder table.

Waugh by Cecil Beaton

But that's another story, which I'll get around to telling, piecemeal, over however long I update this blog. Almost thirty years later I'm sitting in my office where everything I ever shot on film - 18 thick black binders - sits filed in numbered plastic sheets in a bookcase behind my right shoulder. The rest of the shelves are taken up with boxes of contact sheets and prints and envelopes full of photo shop enlargements and assorted detritus from my years of shooting.

The Analog Wall

This is the Analog Wall. Behind it is nearly twenty years of my career as an editorial photographer who occasionally shot the odd album cover, catalog, publicity still or wedding to make ends meet. I had work published in the New York Times, Vogue, the Village Voice and countless long-gone mags and newspapers. It's all in there, and I haven't seen almost any of it since before my kids were born.

The analog wall not only divides my career where a technological change transformed my industry, it also demarcates the place where I changed from a photographer who occasionally wrote to a writer who's handy with a camera. Somewhere in that borderland is a moment when making a living as a photographer became an awful lot harder than it was before, and over a decade later I'm still reeling from the changes that moment unleashed.

Mostly, though, it's time to climb that analog wall and see what's behind it. I turned 50 this month, and it seems time to look at what I accomplished in the full flush of youth and energy and ambition and see if any of it is worth a damn.

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