From Dutch Masters to the Digital Age – Be The Camera You Want to See in Your Life

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” – Christopher Isherwood

A Room With a Zoom

Life happens. But if you’re not present to witness it, how can you write the copy?

The camera records life in the moment, and unlike humans, it does it without commentary, focal length by f-stop. The photographer remains emotionally detached from his subject by the barrier of the lens. In the case of war, the scenes may be violent, destructive, horrific. But that small degree of separation behind the lens renders the photographer fully present like the camera itself-the non-judgmental witness. If this were not the case there would be few images to accompany the journalist’s story. Tech New Master

Fascinated with photography since early childhood, I was thrilled when my parents gave me my first recording device, a Kodak Brownie. I loved that box more than my Shirley Temple dolls. Many cameras traveled with me through life, and with more audacity than knowledge or sense I stumbled along and learned about them the old fashioned way, through trial and error. But the camera dearest my heart was the Kodak Retina IIa. Made in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1950s, the all manual Retina was inexpensive and easy to use. To get some time exposures, I recall setting up my tripod in the middle of Tokyo’s busiest street, the Ginza at night. It was the equivalent of New York’s Times Square and there was just enough traffic to catch streaming taillights and blinking neon signs. I thought I was being outrageously creative while the ever polite Japanese acted like I wasn’t there. Collectors can still find these vintage Retinas on line in their original leather cases.

Camera Obscura Meets Leonardo

Cameras have been with us for centuries. (Camera is the Latin term for room; obscura is Latin for dark.) The development of the camera obscura took two paths. One led to the portable box we use today, the other to an actual room. The term camera obscura was first used by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler for astronomical applications in the early 17th century. But its use harkens back to the 5th century BC when the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room.

As an example, enter a dark room on a bright day. Make a small hole in a window cover and look at the opposite wall. There in full color is the world outside the window – upside down! The law of optics says light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material they become an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. Doing it is simpler than reading about it.

Historically, Leonardo Da Vinci left explanations and illustrations of the camera obscura in his notebooks. Many 16th century models were large rooms used to observe solar eclipses. All the Dutch painters-Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals used these devices to create their masterpieces. Today new camera obscuras are being built around the world. They are invaluable to students and professional artists alike. Google has lots of information about the subject and shutter bugs can experiment with it, which is more fun than navigating today’s digital technology.


A friend just purchased a Panasonic Lumix FZ-200 DSLR camera with a 25 to 600mm 2.8 aperture lens. Less expensive than today’s high tech Canons and Nikons, it will do everything you can do better. It can do anything better than you. Problem is, my generation requires a Ph.D. to fathom its voluminous online only instructions. There was a time you could get into your car and drive. Today you have to study a manual that gives you so much useless information you begin to think you suffer from D.D.- digital dementia. Sorry, I don’t do texting when driving and I don’t like multi-tasking. An old meditation master told me those things divide the mind and he was right. Navigational maps are nice especially when they talk to you, but sometimes I feel like the late Andy Rooney of CBS. I miss holding that colorful ESSO work of art in my hands, wrinkles, coffee stains and all. Ah, the intoxicating scent of paper and ink.

“Let me be the space for that.” –Eckhart Tolle

“Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance,” is the first of a prophetic 20th century film trilogy depicting different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. Early in the 21st century the need for speed, the race to keep pace is already reflected in our rapid speech patterns, poor attention span and obsessive compulsive multi-tasking. Our kids talk to each other with their thumbs up and their heads down. As human communication becomes increasingly dehumanized, technology is trumping the arts and we are the poorer for it.

In applying scientific knowledge for practical purposes the late Steve Jobs used inventive genius and imagination in a big way to propel us into the digital age. Combining creativity with technology Jobs engaged both sides of his remarkable brain to show us the shape of things to come. Children of those who come of age in this century will journey to deep space in the next. May they carry with them only the best of us as the species we’re meant to be. I like being a camera with its shutter open, passive – not thinking; just present.


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