Camera Geekery: Evolution of Intent in Modifying Cameras
As you know, I have worked on some very interesting custom cameras in the past, but the cameras I have been working on with Horatio Tan from @streetsilhouettes have been on another level. And they are polarizing. Horatio takes this opportunity to explain his vision.

Evolution of Intent in Modifying Cameras by Horatio Tan

Modifying cameras isn’t anything new. Camera enthusiasts with battered Leica film bodies have been doing this for years. Normally what they would do is repaint a camera to its original condition. And other times, cameras were repainted to look like different editions.

I was no different. That’s what I wanted to do at first. I wanted to repaint my silver M3 black.

If I were to have done that, the story would have ended – right then and there. But, it didn’t. Somewhere along the way, I concluded my initial request would be disingenuous, since I would be passing off my silver M3 as a black one. To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. Though for my sake, I didn’t want a repainted black M3. I wanted an original one in good cosmetic condition.

But then, what was I to do with this silver M3?

It occurred to me that I didn’t have to limit my modification to convention. Why must all repainted cameras conform to established norms? What if we modified a camera beyond what’s typically expected? What purpose would it serve if I converted yet another M3 from silver to black or olive or dare I say white for a dash of individuality? If anything, it would be self-serving to follow lock step like everyone else.

I figured if I’m going to modify a camera, I might as well make it obvious.

It should also be noted that I never wanted to admire my modified camera from behind closed door. That would have been a miscarriage of intent borne from the many hours labored into making these modifications come to life. I mean it would have defeated the purpose in making an eye-catching camera in the first place. It would be wrong not to use it as a working camera.

You would think that the story would end here, now that I have my modified camera. But then something unexpected happened along the way. I was so happy with the modification, I decided to do another one… and another one.

Over time with each successive modification, my ambitions for these cameras began to evolve. In fact, it became so complex that Bellamy was compelled to become a co-conspirator beyond his regular services in making design suggestion become a reality. Increasingly, it became clear to us that it wasn’t enough to merely test the limits of cosmetic modification. There had to be a greater purpose.

Plus, with what we had in store, the number of expected modifications would be too much for any one person to reasonably use. We reasoned it would only make sense to entrust these cameras to a select handful of photographers, in hopes that they may also experience these cameras in regular use.

It would be interesting to observe how intended subjects would interact with photographers pointing a modified camera at them. Would the camera be an ice breaker putting them at ease? Would it make the process of documenting strangers less inhibiting? Or would it make no difference at all?

Having said that, sharing these cameras isn’t why we’re modifying them. Sharing will become a means to an end, much like modifying these cameras were in the first place. After doing this for a full year with Bellamy, we’ve reached the conclusion that our end goal has evolved into something rather unexpected. By sharing our modified cameras, we’re bringing attention to the continued practice of analog photography to a wider audience through a collaborative process.

There is a reason to our madness.

Much of the mindset in supporting analog photography in the age of digital cameras revolves around the idea of preservation, which I find increasingly difficult to accept. From my perspective, it doesn’t seem congruent to approach the proliferation of analog photography from an underdog position of rebellious defiance.

If you ask me, it would make more sense to celebrate analog photography from a more mainstream position. We all love it. Why minimize it with turn-of-the-century convention. Instead, shout it from the rooftops and revitalize it with a fresh coat of paint. Be proud. Grab the attention of a new generation of attention deficit smart phone addicts. And hopefully, get them curious enough to take their first baby steps towards trying out film.

Still, there will be detractors out there who won’t understand why anyone would mutilate a perfectly good camera. But have I really? None of the donor bodies are new cameras. If anything, all these cameras have been given a new lease on life, having been cleaned, lubed, and adjusted to “like new” condition by professionals who truly love photography.

Besides, detractors are not the target audience of this project. If you already love film, you don’t need any more convincing. That is not to say that you cannot hate or like what we’re doing from the periphery. But like I said, we’re creating a little buzz for those who have never seen film before.

Bellamy and I still have a long way to go. We only have three cameras modified to date, with another four in the works, and another three at the design stage. Eventually, we hope to reach our goal of twenty cameras. Then the real fun begins in reaching our audience through collaboration.

How this will turn out is anyone’s guess. But I’ll say this much. Even if we don’t succeed, everyone involved will have fun shooting with these modified cameras. I know I did. And it was a blast!




Comments and thoughts are welcome. But please be mindful of your language and respectful of others.