They Don’t Make ’em Like That Any More

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My friend Daryle’s 1967 Corvette is beautifully restored and stock: no hot-rod here, no flames or flashy chrome, merely graceful lines and elegance (with a big ol’ herd of horses under the hood). He did all the work except for the mesmerizing paint job (poor words to describe fine art). And how does it handle out on the road? That was his only disappointment: the ride and handling don’t compare favorably to current technologies (there’s no power steering, the suspension is stiff, et cetera). It’s definitely a rush on short drives and turns heads at car shows, but he’ll take his new Saturn everywhere else.

His experience points to a fact (an endlessly debatable one, naturally) that New Things usually offer improved performance over The Previous Models, are more comfortable, and thus (here’s the rub) more convenient.

The problem is, among the surfeit of modern ingenuity are quite a number of dogs, items we wish we’d never bought in the first place, and they cause us, each to his own, to remember and relish the good old days, a simpler time at the edges of memory when things were basic and better-made than anything on the shelves today. We can’t always prove it, but know it to be so.

Every generation finds reasons to believe this. When I was twelve my grandfather argued (actually, he stated, but that was Grandpa) that baseball players from his youth (1890-1915) would clean up against Sandy Koufax and the other Dodgers on my baseball cards. The automobiles of his era were superior, too. And on and on.

We might argue less if we would separate technology from the things delivering it.

I agree, many hand-made items were (are) preferable to their mass-produced relatives, but I can’t accede to the idea that older technologies are somehow deserving of god-like respect and superior to modern ways simply because they’re old.

As a photographer, I’ve heard too many times how large-format cameras and wet processes (darkroom developing and printing in particular) trump anything available today. Wedded to that notion is the belief that photographers using older methods are more contemplative of their Art, which is by extension more thoughtful and unique than anything created (horrors!) with a digital camera.

Would photographers who dwell smugly in that mindset hitch a team of mules to a covered wagon and head out for a couple weeks of campin’ and shootin’? (And how, exactly, do you fit an espresso machine in the back of that schooner? Where would you rent mules?)

Large cameras were here first, is all, the Nikons of their day, and the glass plates put into them came in sizes relative to the camera (4×5 models were thought to be miniatures at one time). If a 20×30 print was desired, that was how big the plate/camera needed to be: there were no enlargers (yet), only contact prints.

As years rolled by a new technology called film replaced glass plates, cameras continued to shrink in size…and ever since, it seems, photographers have found reasons to argue over which is better.

It’s an intriguing question, whether pioneer photographers would choose a wagon over a Jeep or a hundred-pound Behemoth over a Bronica, and the only thing I’m sure of is that Koufax would have dominated those old mush-ballers. No way they’d hit him. Sorry, Grandpa.

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