BY ROBERT FALCONER
Photography is a natural extension of our vision. It is an intersection of art and science where we combine our own subjective perception of the world around us with our objective understanding of photography's technical aspects. Together, the two give us an 'existential eye' on our world that can be shared with others. In its highest form, photography shouldn’t merely document the reflective neutrality before us, but rather transcend reality by infusing it with our emotion and passion.
Cameras are tools with which one can express his or her aesthetic taste and personal sensibilities. Yet at the same time, cameras physically exist as expressions of those same concepts. Thus, the relationship one has with their camera(s) can, and often does, inform one's approach to making a photograph.
Despite being a professional photographer, I prefer to think of myself as an enthusiastic, life-long amateur who has amassed a certain measure of expertise over the years, and who remains eternally curious. In the galleries on this site you will find a collection of color and black & white photographs that showcase not only my professional imagery, but also my personal window on the world. I try to update it as frequently as possible.
EARLY YEARS WITH THE LEICA
It all began with a Kodak 110 Instamatic camera (Magicubes and all) when I was about 8-years-old. It was simple and primitive ... and so were the photos, if I'm honest. But it served its purpose in igniting a life-long passion.
As this burgeoning enthusiasm took root, I began eagerly eyeing my father's 1938 Leica III. Though it was already hopelessly out of date — he had purchased it from a noted British Columbia bird photographer in the mid-'50s — even by the standards of the 1970s (and I was already 'au fait' enough to realize this) it remained a magnificent piece of precision equipment. Devouring everything about photography I could read, I was anxious to take light readings, fiddle with apertures and shutter speeds, and set about clicking off my own Eisenstaedt portfolio.
If only it were that easy.
Indulging my pleas, my father cautiously conceded and let me use his coveted Leica ... under careful supervision, of course.
What I soon discovered was that the camera, while sufficiently suited to static subjects, was hopeless (at least in my hands) for capturing a kinetic world. I was no Cartier-Bresson. I did not possess his years of experience learning and committing to memory exposure settings for every conceivable lighting situation. Nor did I have his exquisite gift for timing. At least, certainly not through the III's tiny, tenebrous viewfinder.
In truth, neither did my father. More often than not his transparencies came back out-of-focus or incorrectly exposed.
It was no wonder. By the time one took a light reading, adjusted the camera's settings, and managed to focus (focusing and framing are accomplished through two separate pinhole viewfinders on the Leica III), the subject had already aged a year.
The conclusion was simple: in anything other than the hands of a master photographer, the Leica III was an impractical tool for capturing life's fleeting moments. It remained, however, a wonderful tool for landscapes, architecture and still life. Essentially, anything that didn't move. And it remains so to this day. Leica glass is magnificent, no matter its age.
PROGRESS AND THE SLR
By the time I reached junior high school, I discovered the benefits of SLR photography first-hand through the use of the school's "well-loved" Pentax Spotmatic. Though still a very basic camera, its large, bright viewfinder and built-in match-needle CdS light meter was like going from a three-in-the-tree to an auto transmission—I could shoot faster, better, and more frequently. Decisive moments were captured, decisively. (Of course, later I would learn that it's all relative. Leica III's were light years ahead of the old plate cameras that preceded them, just as today's modern digital autofocus wonders are a quantum leap beyond that old Spotmatic).
I had that Pentax booked out constantly ... and shot constantly, including much of the 'official' imagery for our junior high annual. By this time I had subscriptions to both Modern and Popular Photography magazines, and was amassing every scrap of knowledge I could about both photographic tools and techniques.
I quickly pined for a 35mm SLR of my own, and had my eyes on two or three cameras that had caught my attention. Through working part-time jobs I managed to scrimp and save enough money to afford a chunk towards a "modern" SLR. My parents, recognizing that one day there might actually be a marketable skill in all of this, generously kicked in the rest for Christmas, to my everlasting gratitude.
THE CANON EF AND A1
Enter the Canon EF. Though not the most up-to-date 35mm SLR by the time it arrived in my hands, it benefitted from being a camera that was ahead of its time in many key respects, offered top-of-the-line features and build quality, and, most importantly, was in mint condition. It was also a camera I had admired for several years.
"Black Beauty" (as it subsequently came to be known in later years), was based on the body of Canon's professional F1 camera (which competed head-to-head with the Nikon F2 and F3). The EF, however, offered Silicon photocell metering (more accurate and sensitive than the old CdS meters), shutter priority automation, a viewfinder with complete information, electronically governed shutter speeds down to 30 seconds, multiple exposure capability, an exposure memory lock, a mirror lock up, and a bevy of other features that were well in advance of anything I had used before. By this time Canon had discontinued production of the EF, as the AE-1 had already become their most popular model, and, along with the A1, had heralded the company's ceaseless march towards full electronic control. Many other manufacturers (Nikon among them) remained resistant to largely replacing mechanical engineering with printed circuits, CPUs and solenoids.
Owing to my days shooting with the Leica, I probably still had a latent appreciation for fine mechanical engineering, though I was happy to benefit from the advances in electronics, provided they didn't get in the way, or detract from the picture making experience. The EF was very satisfying in that regard, with a perfect balance of electronics and mechanicals. The camera was a constant companion and traveled with me to a number of countries and locations. (When I retired the EF to gain the advantages of the more "advanced" Canon A1's motor drive, I soon realized I'd made a mistake. The A1 marked the beginning of an emphasis on packing SLRs with far more electronic features than most photographers would ever need or want. And while I long ago sold the A1, I retained my EF; to this day it remains the better picture taking tool, IMHO.)
EXPANDING PHOTOGRAPHIC HORIZONS AND THE SWITCH TO NIKON
By my university years, I began doing photography for the student newspaper. I was growing a bit disenchanted with the Canon A1 for what were — looking back on it now — silly reasons (it's a terrific machine, if a bit less robust than the Nikons of the time), but I still needed the capability of a motor drive. Autofocus was in its infancy with cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 7000, but not yet dependable.
Several photographers I knew were shooting Nikon, and the paper had one or two Nikkor lenses in its stable. At the same time I was offered an opportunity to apprentice with an established city newspaper photographer to gain greater insights into the craft. Of course, he shot Nikon as well and had an arsenal of lenses.
I soon sold the A1 and managed to cobble together enough money for a second hand Nikon F3 and MD-4 motor drive. All of this, during the middle of my University Fine Arts course in photography. This was my first introduction to a brand I'd coveted for years ... and continue to use to this day (although more recently I have begun shooting near-exclusively with Fujifilm X-Series cameras - more on that in a bit).
THE INTERIM YEARS
What followed was a historic period in photography where camera makers were struggling to determine how technology would define their products, even as that same technology was about to forever change picture making. Autofocus and the stillborn Advanced Photo System (APS) were merely stepping-stones for what was to follow. Even before the tide of chemical imaging began to gradually recede, one could see the Tsunami of digital photography approaching fast in the distance.
Meanwhile, by the time autofocus heavyweights like Nikon's F90 (N90) arrived, I'd already upgraded my F3HP to both that model and the F4S. I began experimenting with new techniques. Landscapes, nightscapes, and architecture were still in the mix, but I also began shooting more images of people. Nikon's multi-sensor balanced fill-flash system enabled a greater range of photographic possibilities, without the complex and time-consuming guide-number calculations of the past. For Nikon, at least, all this advanced technology was finally being employed as a means to a photographic end ... as opposed to an end in itself (Canon's eye-controlled focus comes to mind).
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE DEATH OF KODACHROME
As I continued to experiment more and more with the technology at hand, digital finally arrived on shore with unassailable certainty. All new technology goes through a teething period, and just as with autofocus before it, early digital cameras left much to be desired. But the writing was on the wall. Much as digital had all but replaced the analogue delivery mechanisms of the music industry two decades earlier, so it was to be with photography. Film would join magnetic tape. There was a melancholic inevitability to it.
For me, that inevitability was punctuated on December 30, 2010, when the last roll of Kodachrome was processed at Dwayne's Photo, in the small Kansas town of Parsons. Kodachrome was a staple of many, myself and my father before me included. (In fact, I still have a new roll of Kodachrome 64 in my freezer.) Some of the most iconic images of the 20th century were captured on this prized film; photographer Steve McCurry’s famous 1984 'Afghan Girl' National Geographic cover among them. (McCurry actually convinced Kodak to let him shoot the very last roll of Kodachrome to come out of the manufacturing plant in Rochester, New York, a journey you can watch in the video below).
Fortunately, film shooters still have the excellent Fujichrome Velvia 50. For the time being.
Without getting into a protracted discussion about the pros and cons of digital photography vs. film photography (which has been argued at length elsewhere), suffice to say that the benefits of digital far outweigh the disadvantages. It's unlikely Alfred Eisenstaedt or Henri Cartier-Bresson could have envisioned checking their photographs the instant after they took them, or imagined being able to take thousands of photos on a single medium, or develop their images without the need of carcinogenic chemicals (though Cartier-Bresson did not develop his own film).
One can argue if this might have helped or hindered the creative process of these masters, who were products of the technology and environment of their times. As I said at the beginning of this post, the relationship one has with their camera(s) can, and often does, inform one's approach to photography. It certainly has for me.
I now shoot digital image files almost exclusively. Having subsequently retired my F90x and F4S, I use the Nikon D7000 (after having briefly owned the Nikon D2x) and the Nikon D3s, respectively. When it debuted, the former was perhaps the most powerful DSLR on the planet for its size and price-point, while the latter is one of Nikon's hall-of-fame cameras—a seminal pro-DSLR that changed the industry when it was announced back in 2009. Both remain superlative image-making tools.
In 2011 I also became a Fujifilm X-Series camera user, with the adoption of the X100. This remarkable, retro-inspired digital wonder enabled photography to happen in the most unobtrusive of ways and with a minimum of size and weight. It traveled with me to Africa that year, and despite a few niggles (chiefly surrounding autofocus), led me to acquire the company's flagship X-Pro 1 camera, my early thoughts about which you can read more here.
In 2015 I was invited by Fujifilm to become an official X-Photographer, a tremendous honor, and I now regularly use the X100T, X-Pro 1, and X-T1 alongside my Nikon gear for both personal and professional assignments. Update: I am now almost exclusively using the X-T4, X-Pro2 and X100V cameras; my X-Pro1 and Nikon D3s having been all but retired.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
For most photographers, myself included, the march of technology has increased the odds of capturing decisive moments ten-fold. Allowing the camera to judge exposure and focus in fast moving situations, and then being able to check those images immediately, is an incontestable advantage.
However, for landscapes, architecture and still life, the advantages of automation disappear altogether, quickly demonstrating that while the camera 'takes' the image, the photographer 'makes' the photograph. All of which takes us right back to the Leica III.
Digital photography and the advent of the Internet have enabled photographers globally to share their images with the world. Shooters who might have only seen local or regional exposure, now have a larger audience. Of course, while empowering those with talent, the digital revolution has also created a lot of background noise as well. Technology equalizes; talent does not.
At the end of the day, however, as an expression of art, photography is a highly subjective medium. The words on this page are my experiences; the photographs on this site, my personal artistic expression. Some of my work I like, some of it I loathe (the latter typically doesn't make it into the gallery!). Others will no doubt feel the same way. What's terrific about this medium, however, is that it is fluid. Photographic technology evolves, and with practice, hopefully so does the photographer. We strive…
"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again." ~Henri Cartier-Bresson