My arms were already exhausted from hours of holding aloft one of my most prized possessions as I marched around Bowling Green, Ohio, keeping pace with a sizable crowd which I would have avoided a week earlier. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to use this precious thing, as it would mean that the safety of the diverse voices I accompanied had been violently challenged.
The Canon FD 300mm f2.8L is a striking lens: released in 1981 as part of a trio of fast-aperture, super-telephoto lenses, their white barrels and red rings would in ensuing decades become synonymous with professional photographers shooting any significant sporting or news event.
Stuck on the couch in the middle of a quarantine while eyeing the used listings for Canon FD mount lenses, I fantasized about what my life would be like owning such a lens. “They have so much cachet. Gigs will flow in just for owning it, and it will pay for itself!” As soon as the pandemic’s over with.
But days later, mounted to a Sony A7III and a tripod, the nearly six and a half pounds of camera and my fancy new (old) lens had become just a tool to document the protests. The combination of the lens’ fast aperture and extremely long reach, along with the Sony’s low-light video capabilities, would be indispensable for capturing potentially crucial information in the event that outside antagonists caused trouble, or if protestors were met with unreasonable force by the police.
While my original intentions for procuring the lens were entirely different, I felt a responsibility to offer whatever talents and resources I had when my community of the past three years joined cities nationwide to protest the horrific slaying of George Floyd. This material thing I had previously coveted was now liable to be destroyed, to slow me down, or—if I were careless with my documentation—be detrimental to the security of the people I was trying to support. But a loss of gear is nothing. I was on the streets that night out of concern for the college town community that had slowly grown on me.
Growing up in hilly central Virginia, the expansive flatness of northwest Ohio was a visceral shock when I moved to Bowling Green for graduate school. For months after my move I had unfairly maligned the landscape, but it was here among a bustling and tight-knit community of musicians, that I first began to learn the process of shooting film.
Carrying my camera everywhere proved a healing distraction from composing music, challenged me to find beauty in my surroundings, connected me more deeply to the people around me, and generally allowed me to become more “in the moment” in the way that us film photogs regularly wax on about. With states locking down to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, the importance of engaging with my community became all the more clear as soon as my regular haunts became inaccessible and my routine was upended. With recitals cancelled and classes going online, I was no longer photographing my friends making music in a packed Bryan Hall, capturing them celebrating in the murky interior of The Stone’s Throw, or benefiting from their second pair of eyes directing my attention to overlooked beauty in Wintergarden.
The town without its people proved too difficult a subject to photograph, and it was in no time that I grew sick of capturing the same scenes over and over from the perspective of the living room couch. One of the few activities that kept me engaged was helping one of my housemates to get started with shooting film on his newly acquired Olympus OM-1, giving him a crash course in basic exposure settings and developing his first rolls of black and white in the kitchen. But my own practice was floundering. As many of us have after receiving their stimulus checks, I turned to shopping to ease my depression. Afterall, if I’m tired of shooting the same scene repeatedly, shouldn’t a new lens offer more possibilities with the same material?
Enter a two-fold solution in the form of the Canon FD 50mm Macro f3.5, and the 300mm f2.8L already discussed. Mountable to either the digital A7III or my film workhorse Canon FTb, I could finally capture the invisible worlds in my backyard, as well as the suddenly very distant townscapes seen from my second floor bedroom window.
Learning to use my new equipment gave me all of the stimulation I was looking for, and opened me up to genres of photography I had never attempted before (give someone nothing but time and a long enough lens, and they will invariably become a novice birder).
In no time, the excitement to leave the house and take pictures again was finally renewed. I had envisioned a project that would result in pictures with a unified aesthetic: noticing how Kodak Pro Image 100 can have a subtly yellow hue in low light conditions, I began to plan night excursions. Scenes of a freshly soaked street, seen and shot through eyes still heavy from the midnight alarm. The play of artificial light and wet created precisely the mood I wanted, plunging the small midwestern town and nearby Toledo in a cyberpunk motif that played into the surveillant nature of the 300mm.
In the process of scouting out these scenes, I started to realize the depth of what I was missing due to the pandemic – the ebb and flow of the town’s energy with students coming and going during the academic year gave me life. It is reductive to view the impact of the pandemic simply through the economic lens of what places and institutions suffer financially when their people are gone; knowing for certain that I will never again see droves of undergrads on Main street making gentle (and sometimes, not so gentle) mistakes downtown has opened me up to a deeper loss.
When the moment came for the people of Bowling Green to turn out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, I was proud to join the demonstration and accompany friends in order to reclaim some of this lost energy, and divert it towards a cause of undeniable importance.
It is important to acknowledge that being a white photographer, I will rarely ever encounter issues with the police, and will almost certainly never lose my life for holding a camera. My privilege allows me this security, so it was important to use my resources to serve those who aren’t so secure. I’ll be moving away from Bowling Green within months, and I have no idea what will transpire in this town by then, but for now I am happy to report that I have no pictures worth holding onto from this first night of protest.
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