For years, I have been a proponent of “the camera doesn’t matter” philosophy, engaging in multiple and sometimes fiery online debates on the subject. In my core I still believe it but my views on the subject have altered drastically over the last two years. The revisions didn’t happen overnight but were formed through a slow and gruelling process of observation and honest self-assessment. They are side-effects in my search for new seeing, propensity for visual risk-taking and for meaning in my work. They are not the final answer but rather a snapshot of my photographic state of mind at this moment.
It was 2012 when I first bought the Fujifilm original X100. In fact, this small camera was a Fujifilm entrance into the digital camera business after a brief absence. It was the beginning of the X-series APS-C sensor-sized, mirrorless cameras. At the time, I was shooting with the Nikon SLR as were most of my friends. Even though the X100 was slow and quirky it totally altered the way I shot. Its small size, portability, electronic viewfinder, physical knobs and the fusion of old-fashioned design with the latest technology made me go out and experiment – photography became fun again.
Over the years, the small X100/S/T/F became my camera of choice along with the Fujifilm X-Pro2 paired with a few other lenses. During this period, I moved through several transformations as a photographer: from landscape to travel, from classical street to visual experimentations, which are difficult to box into one genre. I became expert in going out, observing, experimenting and creating unique visuals. I gained traction and a large following.
There was one thing that always rattled me for some reason – a thought that kept coming back to me like a boomerang. Given my dedication to seeing and the craft of photography regardless of the gear involved, these medium format thoughts were strange indeed. Each time I saw an image taken with medium format I somehow paused and pondered over it. Whether it was a portrait or a photo of a simple chair, the images had a depth and richness that pulled me in like a magnet.
Over time my obsession became a dream to shoot with medium format one day. It was a very distant dream, indeed. There were rumours about new, upcoming cameras but the only reasonable choice back then was Pentax, priced near $10,000 with one lens.
Then the GFX50S came on the horizon, a camera which I had an opportunity to test not long after its release. Finally, I had a digital medium format camera in my hands. During this time, I had the chance to go with the GFX 50S on several trips as well as shoot some urban photography here in Vancouver.
The files I was getting from the medium format were astounding but it wasn’t my biggest surprise. It was the way I had to alter my shooting to accommodate a much larger and more demanding tool. Along with my fascination for what my new companion could do came the feeling of confusion and evaluation. Why, after years of having the freedom of a small, playful tool which had helped me to produce so many great images, would I go back to a large, heavy camera like that? Aren’t you Olaf, the street photographer? After all, medium format doesn’t belong there.
Those initial thoughts led to more questions and mental tribulation. Who are you as a photographer? Is your seeing articulate? Where are you heading? What are you trying to say with your photography? Strangely enough, the camera I didn’t even own knocked me out of my comfortable warm photographic equilibrium. As much as I tried to push back with “the camera doesn’t matter” mantra I had been preaching for so long, I couldn’t stop this whirlwind from gaining strength. And it was of my own making!
Despite some concerns I soldiered on! My process of seeing and crafting images slowed down even more. I no longer felt the need to run around town or after my subject. I started observing more and more without pointing my camera. My thought process went from slow to snail-like to the point that on occasions I missed my small camera companion. I felt I had committed treason abandoning everything I believed in.
For weeks, I was experimenting and shooting with medium format. Over time, the storm clouds inside my head started to dissipate. No, it wasn’t all clear and sunny right away but it became way more welcoming. I started to focus on the long-term projects and pulled away from the constant temptation of creating something new. It is not that I abandoned the idea. Quite the opposite! Now this new thing had to be articulate. I knew that I had to say something important with my photography. At that moment, the pieces started falling into place. This medium format camera I had been dreaming about for such a long time stopped being just an itch, but started becoming my seeing machine which aligned with my current visual aspirations and plans.
It happened as I started work on my Renatus Project. This project of a lifetime – which I have been dreaming about for years – has finally started taking shape and since its start, I knew that it had to be shot with medium format. After all, I was dealing with remarkable human stories of people who had been through unimaginable drama but found redemption and kindness. These stories carry so much emotional and narrative weight that they must be matched with equally powerful visuals.
At that moment, my seeing, my photography, my future and medium format came together as one. This was the point of no return. Of course, such deliberations are often met with the cruel reality of life and financing the medium format camera became a major issue for me. One evening, one of my students who had become a friend, called me with a proposition which absolutely stunned me. He said, “I would like to purchase the medium camera for you” adding “please let me do it and this way I could photograph with you.” Despite some initial objections, I humbly and gratefully accepted his generous gift and promised to make great use of it.
Since then, I have worked almost exclusively with medium format and finally understood what Vincent Lions meant when he wrote “loss of interest in other platforms may occur” in his excellent piece, “Five unexpected side effects of medium format photography.” It was just the beginning. Who knew that my new tool would take my photography to unexpected but familiar places.
For years, everyone agreed that medium format has no place on the street. After all, the camera of choice for street photographers must be small with fast autofocus. Regardless, I started photographing urban areas with medium format. And more self-discoveries occurred. I lost interest in traditional street photography and started creating visuals which could not be easily defined.
Whether it is the first light hitting my hotel room or the mosaic of light inside the diner, I have been slowly and deliberately working to turn those temptations of light into my own imagery. What has become really appealing are the transitions of light occurring within the frame, which in medium format are gentle and borderless. I have learnt to use them as my painting tool over the canvas of my own imagination. Indeed, my medium format camera has become my new, irresistible brush.
In sum, I still believe in the truism that “the camera doesn’t matter” but based on my experience, a new tool might play an important role in the fascinating journey of self-discovery and seeing.
We would love to hear your stories. My team and I will be happy to choose the most interesting and publish them in the next issues of the Medium Format Magazine and/or on this website.
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