7.19.2010

A re-appraisal of the Olympus Pens as fine art cameras.


You may remember that on my little journey to west Texas I rashly took my EPL-1 and my EP-2 and a little bag of lenses and batteries.  While the older, film camera lenses saw some use I was most at home using the little 14-42mm kit lens that shipped with every Pen camera you could get your hands on.  It was a wild roller coaster back then.  The economy was still very uneven (yes, worse than today...),  I'd just basically told a publisher I couldn't work with them on a project (the West Texas Road Trip) that we'd been discussing for the better part of two months and I felt at loose ends.

When I got home I posted some images from the trip and did a little write up of the experience but I don't think I really burrowed down to discuss the nuts and bolts of the little cameras in much detail.  I think I was still processing my own intellectual fallibility and hubris.  You see, I thought any project I could think of I could make work.  But by actually going out on the trip, even without the restrictions of a publisher or commercial, outlined project,  I came to learn that I just don't have much of an affinity for the aesthetic of the wide open spaces.  I'm not in love with the ethos of the cowboy as is Robb Kendrick or Kurt Markus.  I don't think Marfa is mystical or Marathon magical.  I couldn't wrap my interests around the endless miles of driving and the vast desolation.  I felt like a character in Jack Kerouac's, "On The Road", destined to drive on mad, nonstop, junkets back and forth across the United States with only a bag of cheese sandwiches and whatever rest stops I could find.

But in retrospect I brought back quiet photographs whose code I hadn't cracked yet.  Like the one on top which speaks to me about the ebb and flow of "colonizing" territory and then letting it slip back toward its sustainable chaos.  Other empty landscapes made me think, pretty much for the first time with any diligence, about how thin the slice of our livable environment is when measured against the volume of the earth.  A few feet of soil and then rock below.  Two feet or fifty feet of vegetation, sparsely scattered around, and above that only the ether.

I guess that not every photo needs to be of craggy faced celebrities, pretty girls and buff men to have it's own subversive impact.

This tree is next to a dammed up spring.  The spring was corralled in the 1930's during our last, national economic catastrophe by people working for the FSA.   It's on a piece of public land miles from the tiny town of Marathon, Texas, at what seems to be the very edge of the earth.  If the stream hadn't been dammed would this tree exist?

And, so what does any of this have to do with dinky cameras?  A lot.  Nothing.  I know that I wouldn't have gone looking for pictures in quite the same way with a different camera.  I've harped on this but the ability to compose and see in a square format removed friction for me.  It lubricated the seeing process in a nice way.  And it's one of the reasons I come back and pick up the Pen cameras over and over again.

I love the fact that they are tiny and light.  I can carry them without regard for their weight, their bulk or the imperialism of their intention.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that a Canon 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D700 is a professional tool that commands a way of confronting subject matter.  They suffuse situations with an expectation of "serious" photography.  They are not airy and exploratory cameras the way the Pens are.  The Pens seem to defy an easy categorization and they seem to morph themselves to match your intention.  If you need them to be serious cameras you can pull off serious photography with them.  If you need them to be "Lomos" or "Holgas" you can do that too.

I find the electronic viewfinder indispensable.  I would never want to shoot one without it.  The only time I can make that work is when I'm shooting video on a tripod.  I use a Hoodman Loupe on the back LCD when I need to use the hot shoe for the microphone adapter.  If I can get away with using the built-in microphone I will.

Of the two cameras I have to say I prefer the EPL's imaging quality and quickness.  I prefer the elegance and retro design of the EP2 as an object.  Of all the lenses I've tried I always seem to come back to the kit lens.  I try to shoot at ISO 200 and I nearly always use the large/fine Jpeg setting.  I only shoot raw if the lighting has incredibly mixed color temperatures.  I try not to use either camera above ISO 800 because, no matter what the reviews say, you'll have a hard time reconciling the noise.

It's a perfect camera for an artist.  It's not a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  And maybe that's why it's a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  Its quixotic approach to imaging pushes us outside the confines of our usual, self bounded boxes enough to make photography serious in the opposite way that commercial photography is serious.  It's serious in the,  "I want to look at things and see how they look as photographs"--way instead of being, "I want to impress the guys on DPreview with the sheer technical quality of the frame and make money from clients"--sort of way.

I keep them because they aren't like my other cameras.  And that's a good thing.