For Aesthetic Reasons – Cameras, Cars, and Collecting

For Aesthetic Reasons – Cameras, Cars, and Collecting

2000 1125 Joe Freemond

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 Two machines that one could reasonably argue are outdated and outperformed by newer iterations.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:

    1. a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty
    2. a particular theory or conception of beauty or art a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight
    3. a pleasing appearance or effect

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.

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Joe Freemond

Hi, my name is Joe and I am a freelance photographer based in Denver, CO. My passion lies in creating authentic imagery with feeling and emotion, while embracing the journey along the way. Having grown up in Colorado I am always at my happiest when in the mountains, especially with skis on my feet and my dog Enzo at my side. When I’m not working you can typically find me exploring outside with friends, skiing, camping, backpacking, and cooking. I use mixed mediums including digital, 35mm, and medium format film with an emphasis on natural light to capture humanizing moments.

All stories by:Joe Freemond
  • Thanks for such a thoughtful piece, Joe. I resonate with the gestalt you perceive when you’re handling your FM3A.

  • Wonderful.
    – The pictures are great, very great ! Bravo ! Perfect BW. So, old lenses are great. This the reason why I am more and more looking for old lenses, because I find that modern lens have no character, … oh they are sharp, very sharp, but flat !
    – The FM3a, … this is one Nikon symphony where they have put all their soul, this the Leica spirit in one Japanese SLR with the love of perfection Japanese people have (if you have a look to some videos of JCH, for exemple Kanto cameras, … these Japanese people are at the level of German, Swiss, Americans, … reason why I do not buy anymore things from an aggressive country which products very inexpensive things because they have not the mentality of excellence, just sale …). The FM3 is probably one of the 5 best cameras which are for me : Leica M3, Nikon FM3, Rolleiflex 2.8 C, Mamiya 7ii, Leica IIIf.
    – The Porsche is perfect with this spirit, because this is class and powerful, like a Leica or the Nikon FM3a, these 2 cameras do not show outside, … a Porsche has not the extravagant look of high speed cars, like …. but inside, no difference.
    Finally, this review is very Zen !!! 😉
    I thank one more time Casuaphotophile for the excellence of the reviews here !

  • Joe, I think you expressed perfectly the reason I love my analog cameras so much. While my digital cameras are tools, they don’t evoke the same sense of presence that my analog gear does. The digital gear does what I ask, but in a cold, very impersonal way.

    Picking up one of my old SLRs gives me an immediate sense of permanence. Compact, yet heavy – the cool metal providing a sense of purpose, of a tool to be used. Knobs, levers and buttons all giving me a firm confirmation that my command was received and carried out. The gear speaks to me in its distinct language of clicks, whirrs and slaps, almost as if its asking “what’s next?”

    When I put them back on the shelf and admire their mix of metal, leather and paint; lines and curves, they sit there patiently waiting, letting me know that they’ll always be there ready to go when I am.

    I admire the cameras not just for their beauty, I admire them for their reflection of the skill and ingenuity of the people who designed and built them.

    Maybe I’m romanticizing the experience, but the reality is, at least for me, that shooting an old camera is something that stimulates my senses and so yes – that is reason enough.

    • This really resonated with me.

      I got back into film photography shooting the Nikon FM my dad bought in the late 70s. I had used this camera for my high school photography class. He later mentioned he knew where his Pentax 645 was stored, and I was off to the races. Literally.

      See, I am a car guy. On weekends, I can be found taking my 1965 Mustang for a drive to the coast, or to take pics at a local Cars and Coffee. Or, sometimes, I’ll shoot one of the vintage car races I’m attending when I’m not racing my old Formula Ford – you know, because “analog.”

      And, just as the Nikon (now shooting an FE given to me by a friend I knew from my motorsports past) connects me to the past, the Mustang was purchased new in 1965 from my grandfather. We have worked on it in earnest for about twenty five years.

      So, the connection of the mechanical clang of the Pentax’s monstrous mirror isn’t altogether different from the old car smell in the Mustang. It’s all the little inconveniences we would never tolerate Monday through Friday which make our weekends so meaningful; so connected. Just as I can imagine Dad shooting the FM, I imagine what it must have been like for my then-57 year old grandfather to have purchased the Mustang, probably on a whim. And, it probably annoyed my grandmother. And all of that makes me smile.

  • Stefan Staudenmaier March 8, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    “I have the simplest of tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

    Oscar Wilde

  • There is both GAS and CAS. I had CAS before I had GAS and so now I have both. GAS is easier as a couple of hundred cameras take up relatively little space. OTOH CAS, with 10 running cars, takes up a lot more space than the cameras. The seed of CAS started in 1969 when I got my first car from my father and which is still protected in my garage. Years later, older, more money, and more space led to more cars. My SRT-101 came along in 1972. Then eBay, in 1999, led to more cameras. Curse you eBay.

    Nice much newer 911 there. I wonder how it compares to my father’s 1973 911E Targa that he had for two years and I drove some. Interestingly the only manual shift car I know of him owning since 1950.

  • Is that you adopting a rather ridiculous pose on the front wing of the car? As a gay man I really like taking pictures of guys – of all ages. I’ve bought the seminal work by Jeff Rojas on photographing men. I’ve also collected various clipping from magazines, newspapers etc to suggest poses. Now if you had stood at the side of the little car and nonchalantly placed your hand on the roof above the door, you might have appeared somewhat cool (to use a word a few local lads adopted when looking at my Leicaflex SL bodies and lenses.)
    Perhaps they meant me?

    • I fully agree. I only need 1 or 2 cameras, but I have 14. That’s not alot for a collector, but it is a significant expense for me. My aesthetic taste in cameras is related to the best looking mechanical cameras from 1971..the year I acquired my first camera. Changed my life. I am attracted to the sharply peaked prism SLR designs of the following cameras: The Canon F-1n(old), The Nikon F with eye level prism, the Nikomat FTn, and the Konica Autoreflex T2 . There are many other fine cameras from that classic golden era, but these are my favorite models. I live every aspect of each of these cameras. For all the reasons you sited and more. Thank you for your thoughtful essay.

  • Great review! I like pairing exceptional cars and cameras. You’re explanation and advice for living well are sound.

  • Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne September 2, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    I’m not into cars, never have been, never will be. Nonetheless, to me a Porsche is a thing of beauty – one on a long, long list, mostly of things I won’t ever own, either too expensive, too rare, or generally I’m unable to find good enough ones (this applies especially to old cameras) in a condition I would consider sensible for the often ridiculous prices being asked for them.

    End of rant. On to more positive things.

    Small items bring me joy. A 1950 Rolex Oyster, inherited from a relative when I was 22, greatly loved and cherished, used a few times a year when my TAG 2000 gets put on a shelf and I want to relive my “jeunesse doree” years.

    A Mont Blanc 1980s Noblesse Oblige, also a gift – the Meisterstuk range look and feel too much like cigars for my liking – which I use often, only at home as I once lost it but miraculously got it back on a train in Indonesia (too long a story to relate here). It shares my writing time with a Parker 51 rolled gold fountain pen (part of a “graduation set” a now deceased close friend was given in 1955, and kindly passed on to me before he left this avatar some years ago) and, for practical uses like travel, a Kaweko Liliput solid brass pen with a fine nib. All useful things, of classic beauty, and still (overlooking the Rolex prices) affordable.

    This thread is about cameras, so! Four Rollei TLRs, a 3.5 E2 I bought new in 1966 and still use, two black body Ts, one Rolleicord Vb, all with accessory kits – the latter three have 16 exposure kits which I’ve found most useful during a long lifetime of Asian travel in Asia. Minimalism at its very finest. The 3.5E is now a venerable ancient, it paid my way thru university and funded a lot of my travels in Asia in the ’70s and ’80s. It looks its age and has a spot of separation in the Planar taking lens, but it goes on shooting and shooting.

    Two Contax G1s with five Zeiss lenses. To me this is one of the finest cameras made, unfortunately fully mechanical, so when they eventually “pop off” (but as yet show no signs of wanting to give up the ghost, touch wood) they will be shelf queens.

    Nikkormat FT2s. A Nikon F. On my digital shelf, a Nikon D90, two D700s, two D800s. All still used. Classics, if anything digital can be so regarded.

    Many other small things I won’t list, as the list would be entirely too long. This said, I’m fascinated that of all my treasured objects, almost all are German made. Japanese cameras are close, but for me, not quite at the high level of a Rollei, a Leica, a Contax.

    I’m no a mass or massive collector – our house is minimally furnished with an emphasis on good Scandinavian design and quality art. Printed photos on the walls, mine and those from friends. One HCB, a Minor White, an Adams. Anyone who is truly serious about photography should have a Minor White print, if only to illustrate the beauty of imagery at its most simple. Diamond quality prints.

    All my things define me. they enhance my life, they take me out of the humdrum routine of my day to day existence in these dismal Covid times, and they inspire me. I could not ask for more, or better.

    Someone once wrote that making a photograph is the only way we can preserve images for the future. I’m far from being the best photographer I know, but when I go out with a prized camera kit, I get great pleasure from not only working with fine equipment, but letting the camera, the film, the format, seep into my subconscious and, I hope, influence how I see everything around me and how I opt to record it for posterity.

    Lest I go on too long (or come across as too divinely pretentious), well, to close off all this, may I say, if I were into cars, the Porsche would be my baby forever. I did own, a long time ago when I lived in France, an old, almost clapped-out Citroen 2CV, which took me to the very basics of on-the-road joy, and kindled a great sense of something I’ve yet to define in being behind the wheel on a French country road, headed to the next bridge or to a long lunch at a vineyard somewhere over the next hill – in French, I found, there is always such a vineyard over the next hill, and this too is a great joy.

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Joe Freemond

Hi, my name is Joe and I am a freelance photographer based in Denver, CO. My passion lies in creating authentic imagery with feeling and emotion, while embracing the journey along the way. Having grown up in Colorado I am always at my happiest when in the mountains, especially with skis on my feet and my dog Enzo at my side. When I’m not working you can typically find me exploring outside with friends, skiing, camping, backpacking, and cooking. I use mixed mediums including digital, 35mm, and medium format film with an emphasis on natural light to capture humanizing moments.

All stories by:Joe Freemond