When the tools trump the art we all go home.

Sarah. A photo created for one of my book covers. Rejected.

In the last few days I stepped over my own limit and wrote too much about gear, which made my head hurt. But then I was in the swimming pool and as I swam up and down the lane, keeping the black line on the bottom just over to my left, I started thinking about the nature of the tools we use to do various things. 

Since I was in the pool the first thing that came to mind was swimming. How dependent are we on the tools of swimming? Are there any tools for swimming? We have goggles to keep the chlorine out of our eyes and we have our swim suits. The goggles don't really serve any ancillary function and most people find a pair they like in the $15 to $25 range and use them for a long time. I'm on my third goggle strap with this pair. I think I've logged about two years and maybe 120,000 yards with them so far. Not a bad return.

I've been wearing my Speedo brand endurance jammers for the better part of a year and they still have at least another year of life left in them before they become disgraceful... Then I'll have to bite the bullet and spend another $45.

That's about it in the tool category for swimming. And you know what? No one I know ever discusses goggles or swim suits. We might talk about stroke mechanics or how to train better or swim more efficiently but never about the gear. The deal in swimming, if you do it competitively, is that the clock tells you all you need to know about performance. And no matter how great a pair of $1500 goggles might be you'd still have to do all the training and put in all the effort to go fast.

I write a lot of stuff. And for a lot of it I use notebooks. For a while I bought those cute, Hemmingway-esque, Moleskin notebooks and used a Mont Blanc fountain pen. But those tools didn't make me any smarter or make my writing any better. The pen did, from time to time, make my hands all inky and stained but I didn't see that as a critical performance benefit. I've since switched to generic notebooks and anonymous and less precious ballpoint pens. In a pinch I'll even use a pencil.

I spoke at a writer's group once. We talked about the "arc of the narrative" and the "use of voice" but we didn't compare notebooks or fountain pens. Hell, we didn't even compare word processors. We all seemed to know that there's no literary "magic bullet" that will allow us to dodge the daily drudge of sitting alone translating brainwaves into squiggles. 

I like the image at the top of this blog. I should, I spent the time finding the model and setting it all up. It was supposed to be for the cover of my third photography book. The one about lighting equipment. I used an old film camera for the shot and I used two old monolights and some worn softboxes as modifiers. But to me the important part of the shot wasn't the sharpness or the resolution or the lack of noise (all things that photographers do seem to talk about). The important part of the project to me was to get that insouciant look on Sarah's face. That's what it was all about. And none of the tools provides any sort of mechanism to create, augment or facilitate the look.

I guess I write about gear when I'm bored. I write about it when I've forgotten to schedule beautiful people to come by the studio and play with me and sit for fun portraits. I write about gear when I'm afraid. I might be afraid that my competitors have newer gear and will provide something I can't to a client (not likely). I might be afraid that my clients are well versed in the technical aspects of photography and that they are judging my choice of lesser gear (as rare an occurrence as unicorn sightings). I might be afraid that I'm not inspired enough and that clients will sense my lack of depth or substance. I might be afraid that I'll never work again if I don't have the shiniest bling. 

But mostly I buy the gear to use as a child uses a comforting blanket. It's a security blanket for my (yours?) raging insecurity. Why raging insecurity? Because we're in a business and an art where everything is subjective. There is no objective measure. Our compulsion to move the technical game forward is an admission that we constantly seek a metric. A means of gauging value. 

But in the end all the insecurity does is to drain our resolve to see more clearly and to be more transparent. And in being more transparent transcend the gear. 

New goggles never made me faster. New laptops never made me smarter. And I can pretty much guarantee that new cameras never made me a better photographer.

The short circuit to all this soul searching? The idea that the NEXT camera might be the one we've all been looking for. You know... the one with all the magic.