There’s a meme I keep seeing on Twitter to the effect of, “Telling a photographer their camera ‘takes good pictures’ is like telling a cook their oven bakes good cake.”
I will tell you, I got my back up a little about this. Sometimes your ability to do good work is truly limited by the quality of the tool of production.
I don’t know if a good cook could produce great work in my Sophomore year oven. Honestly, to this day I’m not conclusively sure the thing heated up past 200 degrees.
In my contrary angst I clicked through the meme to a delightful blog post from photographer Erin Farrell, who maybe was the patient zero of this wave of strident photogs? Erin put “takes good pictures” to the test – handing her pro camera to her amateur brother to shoot a friend’s daughter, and then shooting that same girl in the same location herself.
The results? You have to read her post to see, but the essence is that even her brother’s best shot with a heavy-hand of pro touch-up doesn’t compete with her middling shots directly out of camera.
Then I thought about guitars. What if someone stopped me after a show and said, “your guitar plays great songs!”
I think that phrase is more illustrative of the photographer’s dilemma than the camera example, because the divisions are clearer. A guitar isn’t as smart as a camera – it has no automatic mode; it can’t focus on faces. As the songwriter, I’m the one who dreamed up the melody, wrote down the words, and decided on the arrangement and dynamics.
The guitar can’t do any of that for me. Like the photographer, it results from my skill and years of experience.
What the guitar did was give it tone. Depth. Credibility. If your favorite guitar player played your favorite song on a crappy guitar it would still be your favorite song, but it wouldn’t ring as true as their original. I am not a huge guitar snob, nor am I the best guitar player, but I categorically won’t play on other people’s guitars – my guitar is as much a part of my sound as my voice.
If an aspiring songwriter told me “your guitar plays great songs” (and they have, more or less, because I love to let other people play my guitar), I would thank them and tell them about Breedloves and why I like playing them. Because, even if my songs might be better than their song at the moment, the better tool is going to help level the playing field – and help them improve.
In short, the nicer guitar will play great songs.
That, in turn, made me think about cameras again. E is a degreed photographer, and I love her prosumer Pentax digital camera. In Paris she frequently let me shoot with it even though I also had a low-end “point and click” camera to shoot with.
Below are two photos of one of my favorite works of art, Cupid and Psyche, which lives in the Louvre. Both were taken by me with no coaching from E, though with different cameras on different days and with different light. Both are the best shot I took out of many with each of their respective camera, based on the limits thereof.
Which camera took the “great” picture? Click through for full size.
Bottom line? Some cameras take great pictures, and some guitars play great songs – but they need a certain alchemy from the taker and the player to do their magic.
I have now been back from Europe and installed in my house for close to three days.
I’m slightly afraid to go outside. Half because I know I’m going to compare everything here to Paris and London, and here will lose out in every instance. But also because as I surround myself with my city the impressions of those other places will begin to fade.
Prior to (and during) the honeymoon I was eager to grump that I don’t understand the worth of spending money to go places. Even afterward that’s still true – when I tallied our total expenses last night I almost cried, even though they came out almost exactly as what I estimated.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the places. I loved Paris, and I liked what little of London I saw well enough. I just don’t enjoy vacations – being idle. On our slowest days in Paris I hated it, but when we turned Paris into work – multiple museums and neighborhoods to visit in one day – then I enjoyed being in Paris. When we turned London into a scavenger hunt – snapping photos and visiting shops – then I enjoyed London.
I would love to live in Paris – to be able to enjoy Paris while I am at rest. Paris was the one place I’ve ever been where I felt totally in-place, even as I stumbled through their language in every interaction.
Philadelphia can’t be Paris, no matter how many French books and newspapers I stowed in my garment bag. But I can bring that swim or sink vacation mentality back to Philadelphia – move or drown, create or die.
If I move fast enough, the scenery stops being significant.
A terrifically well-reviewed and relatively rare-to-see Sondheim is playing (and is completely and utterly sold out for the entirety of its run).
At the end of our block there are two high-end camera shops, facing each other, both of which carry Panasonic cameras (neither carry the one I’m trying to find).
Around that corner there is an entire street of guitar stores, in the middle of which sits a sheet music store that carries every domestic and imported sheet music book I have ordered from Amazon in the last three years (there is literally no sheet music I have left to buy).
Across from Hairspray is a terrific Mediterranean restaurant that serves breakfast until 15:00 (service was paralyzingly slow, even when we were the only people there).
Our hotel is so high-end that if you switch on the Do Not Disturb light they call your room to see if you actually don’t want to be disturbed, and if you don’t answer after three tries they break into your room to replace the heated towels in your NYC-apartment-sized bathroom (I had some sharp words with the duty manager, who informed me curtly that you have to call to tell her if you don’t want them to enter your room while you are away, and let them know when they can next enter your room. Is this a four-star thing I was previously unaware of since I only stay at crappy hotels? Nowhere in their extensive bedside literature does it mention this, and we had left all of our clothes, gifts, electronics, and money in plain sight when we left, since we took explicit care to light the Do Not Disturb. Now we have to go through everything to make sure it’s accounted for and not damaged).
[British Belgian restaurant]
We found an amazing Belgian restaurant where I had truly phenomenal mussels. The couple beside us told us they come from outside the city just to have dinner there, and then go home.
[American bragging rights]
Every conversation we’ve had so far in London includes, “What do you think about Obama?” to which we reply in chorus, “We love him!” We have a pretty set script we’re working from at this point. In France it was more polite questioning, but here people have been probing a bit more.
[away-from-home mattress streak]
The wedding hotel mattresses were absolutely heavenly. Like, even the night before with all the nervous energy and whatnot I slept like a rock. I would have tied one to the roof of our car if I could have. Then in Paris we had the sort of ultra-firm Ikea futon mattress that we have at home. And now we’re on a comfortably soft, well-appointed deluxe queen. Seriously, this is highly improbable success.
[water served below room temperature]
Finally, water with ice. I mean, Paris was definitely the best place ever, but I can only drink so much room temperature water in any given week.
France’s public transit workers and teachers went on strike about an hour ago. We were about four Metro stops from anything of interest; we would have been stranded if we had stayed an extra day.
[drunken plans to write a musical of a movie we watched on our first date seven years ago]
We got sortof drunk over dinner on Beglian beer and, much to the delight of our neighboring couple, debated at length how we would go about writing and staging a musical of The Princess Bride. We got as far as breaking out the songs and their titles and arguing over appropriate voice parts. We’re very into the idea at the moment, but let’s see what happens when we sober up in the morning.
Anything you’d like to add?
okay. in short:
Packed up our charming Paris flat last night after one of our best days in the city, including a beautiful stroll through Montmartre at sunset and accompanying dessert courtesy of our dear friends Dante and Jennifer. I suddenly got really good at French and yammered to anyone available.
This morning made 2nd best eggs ever and called a cab while we slowly advanced our luggage into the courtyard of our flat. Cab never came. Manually hauled luggage (mine now weighing over half of my body weight) up the street and flagged a cab to take us to Gare du Nord.
Wandered back and forth, lost, in Gare du Nord just long enough that by the time we got through customs and UK border we had thoroughly missed our Eurostar. The gentleman at the gate kindly and wordlessly moved us on to the next train and waved us through.
(aside: they have tiny bottles of wine in the dining car.)
Arrived in St. Pancras and immediately found ourselves in a taxi queue with the first rude people we’ve met in Europe – they wouldn’t let a very nice non-English-speaking family by to get to the street. I mentioned it to the steward at the front of the queue and he chewed them out before putting us in an awesome cab with enough room in the back to play Twister.
Best introduction to a country, ever.
Arrived at our guest house. Neighborhood, charming, but the weird, unintelligible lady at the desk made us wary. In three words from my wife, the room was “clean, outrageously modest,” which is very kind. Apparently, British guest houses aren’t at all like American bed and breakfasts. They are more like private-room hostels with shared mess hall breakfast in the morning, which is to say that I didn’t like that using our shower WOULD HAVE GOT THE BED WET, especially because the bed may have been made of cardboard or something else especially biodegradable and might have just dissolved into the natty rug.
Also, no internet, where all of our notes, reservations, and information live. Are you feeling me on this one?
A plan was hatched. We walked down the block to a Starbucks, got properly weak American caffeinated beverages, and used the internet to find the four-star hotel closest to the middle of London that had a concierge and wireless internet.
We then were faced with the matter of getting out of our guest house reservations, and for those of you familiar with my spectrum of creative problem-solving I’m sure you can imagine the creative scenario and accompanying major fit that I invented for the situation.
Afterward, we netted a hired taxi driver who had seriously no idea where our hotel was, even when we told him it was effectively across from the British Museum, and then we met a nice lady at the front desk who upgraded us to a deluxe room with a bathroom twice as big as my cubical, and here we are.
Since we didn’t really mention once to anyone in Paris that we were on our honeymoon we are starting every sentence here with, “well, we’re on our honeymoon, and…,” which in about three minutes should net us some fantastic dinner reservations from the concierge.