We continue to climb higher and higher up the mountain pass. I can feel gravity pull me deeper into the bucket seats, and I’m using all my core strength to stay steady enough to frame and fire off the next shot. The sound of the engine is punctuated by the sound of the shutter release, the gears of the car turning in unison with the gears of the film advance lever. Manual shifting and manual focus. All of it working together as my friend and I both revel in these moments in which our two individual passions collide as we careen around the next tight switchback. The two of us each operating a twenty-year-old machine with unadulterated joy. Each machine in our possession for no real reason other than aesthetics.
As I’ve dug myself deeper into photography, and specifically the film photography rabbit hole, I have begun to explore the idea and importance of aesthetics in our lives more carefully. The question that has calcified itself for me is, “Why do we collect things in our lives for no other reason than aesthetics?” If you have something that you love, is its aesthetic experience all you truly need to justify owning it, collecting it, spending time and money on it? For me the answer is a resounding yes, and as I chose to unpack this idea, I realized quickly that the two best examples of this aesthetic fixation in my life were classic cameras and classic cars.
So here we are, cutting our way through crisp Rocky Mountain air in a 2001 Porsche 911 while I shoot our mountainside climb with a Nikon FM3a from 2001. I would be hard-pressed to find a better duo on this brisk Colorado afternoon to help me explore the idea of the importance of aesthetics in our lives. Two machines my friend Kjael and I love dearly, two machines that hold deep personal, familial, and experiential meaning to each of us. Two machines that one could reasonably argue are outdated and outperformed by newer iterations. Yet two machines we each went out of our way to collect and will likely never part ways with, simply because of how they feel, how they sound, and the aesthetic experience they inject into our lives.
Before we get any deeper, I think it may help to clarify something. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “aesthetic” (noun) as:
This article explores how aesthetics impact our taste in art, our appreciation of beauty, and how those concepts relate to our lives and the things we choose to have in them. But more importantly, at least for me, is how the concept of aesthetics and its exhibition in a material object makes us feel, and how these aesthetic objects inform and enrich the experience of our lives.
I want to make it clear at this point (if it weren’t already), that this article is not about Porsche 911’s or even about the specifics of the Nikon FM3a. By no stretch of the imagination am I a car guy or knowledgeable enough to wax on poetically about the specifics of that revered vehicle. Regarding the camera, our own editor James has already written a full and delightfully engaging review about the Fm3a; a review that highly informed my decision to purchase my own, in fact. What I will be exploring here, is how these machines are a perfect embodiment of why collecting and cherishing things in our lives for no other reason than aesthetics is all the reason anyone really needs.
To bring up aesthetics in relation to photography has certainly been done before by better writers than I, but I think that for anyone who shoots film and collects old cameras it is a fairly approachable topic. Why would you shoot film in 2021 at all, if you did not appreciate the certain look it gives, the experience you have in shooting it, and simply how it makes you feel? Why spend money on old manual mechanical cameras if you did not inherently value their beauty, their design, the feel of the knobs and the knurling on a manual focus lens? The same questions can easily be posed on the car side of this experience as well. Why collect a twenty-year-old car that has none of the technological and creature comforts we’re all so used to these days?
In both cases the answer is simple. Because of how it makes you feel when using it, because of how it reflects your own sense of beauty, taste, artistic values, and experiential pleasure. That’s why.
Throughout our day together, driving and shooting for this piece, my friend Kjael and I talked about what the importance of aesthetics mean to each of us, and how we came to those own personal conclusions. Something that Kjael brought up was the idea of how our aesthetic preferences or choices are often a reflection of our family histories, and how leaning into your own personal aesthetic is a way to connect to that historic past and carry it into the present.
Kjael’s first experience in a Porsche 911 was with his father, and his father’s love of that car bled into their relationship together from a very young age. The experience of driving in his father’s 911, the feeling of the bucket seats, the sound of the engine, the smell of the gasoline, the pull of gravity as they rounded tight corners together. All of it left a lasting mark that still informs Kjael’s own sense of self and how he exhibits his own taste and aesthetics in his daily life. Collecting his own 911 is not just a way for him to exhibit his aesthetic sensibilities, but a concrete connection to his past and to his own father’s aesthetic choices.
The familial connection to a shared aesthetic experience is there for me in the form of the camera. My first memories of anything photography related were handling my father’s own mechanical film camera when I was very young. I desperately wish I could remember the specific model that he’d had when I was child, but I don’t. My gut tells me it was a Nikon but honestly, I’m not sure. However, I do remember him showing me how to load the film, how to crank the advance lever, how to focus the lens, and then carefully release the shutter. I’ll always remember my father carrying that camera around with him throughout my whole childhood, and I’ll never forget the day when I was ten years old that the camera was lost in the Colorado River during a canoe trip when our canoe flipped over.
The experience of holding and touching that camera stuck with me through the years. I remember the small patches of brass showing through on the well-worn corners from years of use, and how that just added to the gestalt of it all. All these years later that camera is gone and so is my father, but every time I pick up my FM3a with its own well-worn corners, with brass peeking through the original black paint, I can’t help but think of him. Of how his aesthetic tastes then are a part of my life now. I even use old Nikkor lenses on my FM3a that I found in my grandmother’s closet, and I can’t help but think of the stories she told with them, the scenes she captured and how her own sense of aesthetics informed how she shot with those lenses. I think of the stories those old lenses could tell from their time in her hands, and how I now use them to tell my own stories with my own aesthetic; how those connections so often come full circle will never cease to amaze and enchant me.
To me, it all comes down to how we choose to see the world around us, and how we choose to allow the world to see us. To exhibit one’s own aesthetic choices, whether they be in photography, writing, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the movies we watch and love, the fleeting scenes of beauty we witness and appreciate in our daily lives, or the material things we choose to collect, it all comes back to our own sense of aesthetics and the importance we place on that sense.
How we value and appreciate beauty, no matter how short-lived or imperfect. How we choose to show our tastes to the world at large. How those concepts inform who we are at our core. To lean into that core aesthetic sensibility is to lean into your own sense of self, your history and the history of your family, and what matters to you most in this life.
So, if you find yourself wondering if you should collect that camera or that car, or anything else that simply brings you a sense of joy out of beauty and the experience it gives you, I put forward that those aesthetic reasons are more than reason enough.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]