So this post I came across recently scratches several itches, including bicycles, design, engineering, and photography. The craftsmanship in these machines is simply stunning.
I think I’m homing in on why I like bikes and cameras so much as objects: they represent possibilities. You look at a camera, and you can imagine the pictures you might take with it. It might be a crappy camera by some standards (the Holga cult comes to mind) but it may take you to an image that you wouldn’t have captured otherwise, or that you wouldn’t have caught in the same way. Part of the fun is, as you’re headed out to take photos or just go to the grocery store, grabbing a camera that may be well-suited or completely wrong for the situation and just rolling with it. Allowing for the peculiarities of a particular tool is all part of the fun. Sure, I could drag the d300 along everywhere I go, but I’d lose some of the perspective that playing with old cameras gives me.
Bikes can yield similar experiences. The fixed gear is not the ideal mount for many of the little rides I’ve been doing lately, but its limitations throw enough variety into the mix to make every ride different. Hills that would be a simple matter on the road bike turn into real difficulties, particularly with the legs being relatively untrained for cycling over the last few years.
Then I go out on the road bike or shoot with the d300, and I appreciate the improvements that years of development has brought us. Gearshifts are quick and certain. Metering and autofocus work nearly flawlessly. Everything just works. Nice if you need to get there sooner, or have a job to do that requires your pictures come out well.
But something is inevitably lost when technology intercedes. The user is one more level removed from the basic fundamentals of what they are trying to accomplish. The camera looks into it’s database of 10,000 photographic scenarios and decides that it knows better than you do how to adjust exposure. The carbon fiber rails on your saddle isolate you a little more from the road surface. If you never rode or shot without these filters, you may not even realize that they are there, or what they do for you.
I had the chance to experience this a winter or two ago. I was riding my vintage snowmobile at one of our lunch rallies, then I got a chance to hop onto a 2010 Rush 600. The difference between the 1980 and the 2010 sled was incredible. The power, the handling, the comfort. It was 10 times the sled. I was staggered. Progress is really a great thing.
But that new sled retails for $10k. I got my sled for $500. If anything goes wrong on the new sled, I have to go to the dealer. If something goes wrong on the old sled, I get to learn how to fix it (which is all part of the fun.) Similarly, the fixie, the old mechanical shutter on my Graflex, and the 1970-1975 Honda CB350s I’m eyeing on Craigslist (cafe racer, natch) are all … well, I won’t say they are easy to work on. But they are easier to work on than anything newfangled and computerized. They are more accessible. Sure, they will go wrong, they will need attention, and they will never work as seamlessly as the modern gear. But they have a fuckwithableness that pleases me. I will learn as much from the repairing as I will from the using, and I will get more satisfaction from resurrecting old gear and turning it useful again than simply purchasing the latest digital wondercam, turning it to “Auto” and letting the countless hours of toil from software engineers I will never know take care of all the “hard stuff” for me.
I realize that a lot of this may sound like the school of Masochism that says “hit yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop” and I’ll grant that the assertion may have some merit, but I maintain that there is no substitute for understanding the fundamental principles underlying any worthwhile activity. Furthermore, understanding is much more complete when all the modern conveniences have been stripped away.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish whittling my next bicycle seat from oak.