One winter, in days as a curate, I attended the Friday evening meetings of a local camera club. I knew nothing about photography and hadn’t a camera (well, not the sort of camera one might have taken to a club meeting), but had a friend who was an enthusiastic amateur. Mostly the talk was of f-stops and shutter speeds and was of little interest to a passing outsider, but the anoraks and geeks sometimes allowed speakers who talked of photography in an altogether different way.
One Friday, there was a visiting speaker who was invited to address the subject of what makes a good photograph. “How do you decide on whether it will be a good picture?” asked one of the club members.
The man smiled. Putting the tip of his right index finger to the tip of his left thumb and the tip of his left index finger to the tip of right thumb, he created a rectangle. He closed his left eye and raised the the hand-made rectangle to a point where it was in front of his right eye. “Look through that lens and decide if the picture is good”. His message was unambiguous, if you couldn’t find a good picture with your fingers and thumbs, then even the best of photographic equipment would be of no use.
The expectation that bad material might be transformed by good apparatus is nothing new. The principle of garbage and and garbage out was recognized by Charles Babbage as long ago as 1864, writing Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, he commented:
On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
How Babbage would react to the confusion of the 21st Century can only be imagined. Listening this morning to Bloomberg television this morning, the matters for a panel discussion included the new iPhone 6, which had apparently sold ten million units up to that point. “What was its virtue?” asked the chair of the discussion, “speed” answered a proud owner, as if speed in itself was somehow something necessary.
Speed of what, though? Speed of download of videos from YouTube? Speed of uploading images of one’s kitten or puppy? Speed of transfer of pictures of one’s girlfriend or boyfriend? Speed of garbage? Do people imagine that the price of a phone changes the quality of their communication?
The photographer using his fingers and thumbs took better pictures than those with state of the art equipment. A friend is a hospital consultant and university medical school lecturer, he is as skilled at communication as the photographer was in taking pictures; he has a very old Nokia phone.
No camera, nor phone, nor computer, nor any other piece of apparatus, can make something of quality if the quality is not there at the beginning. Garbage in and garbage out.