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1935 Time Capsule

In yesterday’s mail, I received a book that I ordered on eBay, a copy of William Mortensen’s Pictorial Lighting. The book was published in 1935. My copy is from the 3rd printing (July of 1936) of that first edition. 

As I was reading through the introduction, I was struck by a particular theme: Simplification. Even in 1935, it seems, we had gear junkies! To wit:

About twenty years ago electricity invaded the studios and photographers proceeded to go quite light mad. Studios everywhere blossomed out with lights of every imaginable size and shape, squirting their rays at the terrified sitter from all angles. We had front lights, top lights, back lights, rim lights, cross lights, spot lights, umbrella lights, arc lights, incandescent lights, Cooper-Hewitt lights and Klieg lights. We had lights in banks, in tiers, in borders and in clusters.

In short, we had lights. But amidst it all there was no system, no consistency, no clear idea of the real purpose of light. The average professional was quite bewildered and enmeshed in the senselessly towering complication of his apparatus…

Mortensen goes on to explain that his lighting system, which will be discussed in detail in the book, aims to provide a simple and systematic approach to studio lighting, after which he lays out this little gem:

Far more than considerations of convenience are involved in this move for simplification. In a clutter of equipment lies the way to aesthetic, as well as economic, bankruptcy. Nothing can so distract one from the main issue in an art as the piling up of incidentals that go along with it. In photography this mania for equipment has gone to the most absurd extremes. The advertising pages of every photographic publication set forth in high astounding terms the advantages and virtues of dozens upon dozens of expensive gadgets that you simply cannot afford to be without. And thousands of pictures are ruined every day because the photographer is too concerned with his latest acquisition of equipment to pay any attention to the picture he is taking.

I know that I have certainly fallen victim (or maybe prey) to the siren call of a plethora of gadgets and gizmos over the years, and even recently, I’ve written a lot about gear I’d like to acquire. My most recent desires have been to move to gear that is simpler — more traditional photographic controls and fewer options in menus. I don’t want to have to think about my gear, but rather, about making photographs. Certainly technology can be wonderful, but only when it serves to make our lives easier.

I should note that, as far as I can tell, I am not directly related to William Mortensen.

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