Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

Motorized Moments

This month's assignment is to write about news magazines. Is Dirck kidding? People get their general news from newspapers, television and the web. Somewhere along the way the large, national newsmagazines became relatively unimportant. The magazines blame television; yet, they have competed with them by providing just as much brainless coverage of showbiz and starlets and soft news while failing to provide anything unique in terms of hard news coverage. The exception to that in the United States is The Economist, a magazine with limited circulation and and less news photography than you would find in one issue of The New York Times.

Times change. The day when people waited anxiously for their copy of Time, Newsweek or U.S. News to find out "what was really happening" are over. These magazines never successfully redefined themselves in a changing world to provide something that was uniquely theirs. It's a little unnerving to go to a newsstand packed with specialty magazines and see the diminished, sometimes almost nonexistent, presence of the weekly newsmagazines.

So, let's not talk about them. Let's talk about something that really advances photography - or at least film - motorized cameras.

It's hard to think of a day when most cameras used by photojournalists were not motorized. Of course, it's difficult to motorize a 4x5 Speed Graphic. But I actually saw a motorized sheet film holder. Portability made Grafmatic holders and film packs more practical even if they depended upon a human motor.

35mm cameras didn't even have thumb winds, although the now deceased Professional Camera Repair made a little ratcheting bar that attached to a wind knob and let you turn it more rapidly with your forefinger. If you wanted a real motor you had to buy a Robot or a Hulcher, cameras that were designed with remote work and sports more in mind than a fleeting expression in a portrait.

However, as 35mm cameras became more and more the mainstay of photojournalism, more and more motors appeared for these cameras. If the thumb wind and Tri-X were the obvious dawning of the new age of photojournalism, electric motors were the sleepers. (I don't feel I should go so far as to say "sleeping giants.") Norm Goldberg designed and built a motor for the Leica, a camera which held a unique place in the evolution of photojournalism. Eventually, this motor was sold by Leitz. The SLR manufacturers had a tougher design job, but they produced motors also.

And, all of a sudden, photographers found that motors were useful for other things besides sports and space launches.

As photojournalists, we are sketchers, not painters. We look at an event and try to pick out that tiny moment that makes it special. When an artist sketches a portrait, very quickly he has a basic likeness. Then - a little change here, try a little change there - and after enough changes, he happens on the one that turns it into a good portrait of a specific person. Very quickly, we line up the basic shot. And then we start clicking and hunting for that special moment. I am fascinated by the motorized equipment that lets us do that more easily.

I use point-and-push cameras; they are all motorized. And, yes, I use them professionally and know two other photographers who also use them professionally. In the old days, nobody paid any attention to somebody shooting with a 35mm camera. They were small and often thought of as not a camera a professional would use. Today, the 35mm is bigger and the wary subject more sophisticated. Thanks to a Minilux and a Contax T3, I can be thought of as unprofessional jerk not worthy of the subject's attention or hostility. Thanks to the motors I have a better chance of succeeding as a professional jerk.

My Hasselblads have motors on them because I use them primarally for portraits and am trying to catch that fleeting moment where the portrait is a little more interesting than a passport shot.

66.6% of my 35mm cameras have motors. Of the ones that don't, 50% have rapidwinders made by Tom Abrahams. There is no way with a thumb wind that I can advance the film on a 35mm without pulling my eye away from the viewfinder. And you will never make an interesting shot of a politician if you take your eyes off of them for even a second. So, even if he is not going to have two interesting expressions in rapid sequence, I feel better photographing a politician with a motor.

The truth is, my thumb has grown weak and probably couldn't do the job if it tried. In part, the weakening of the thumb has come about because many of my cameras don't even have thumb winds, only motors. I can't thumb wrestle any more, and I can barely hitchhike.

On the rare occassions when I am a painter, rather than a sketch artist, I use a view camera - no motor. But I have to tell you, that is because I don't know how to paint with oils or acrylic.

For me photojournalism is about the moment - or the motor - or both.

Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

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