I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Cameras I own: Yashica MAT-124 G

Aka, ‘this aint no instagram, buddy’. Part 3 in a series. Read part two. Part one.

This camera stands out on the shelf, and for good reason: it’s big, it’s old, it looks like a machine. And that it is. The Yashica MAT-124 G is a camera I picked up (for much too much money) when I was living in Tokyo and became ever-so-slightly obsessed with street photography and old film cameras (the camera was made some time in the 1960s). It’s my only TLR (Twin-Lens-Reflex), and my only medium-format camera. In layman’s terms that means it takes big square photos, not small rectangular ones.

A fountain at Zenkoji temple, Nagano

The evolution of cameras as mechanical devices is interesting to experience for yourself: the twin-lens system (where you look through one lens, and the photo is taken with the other) was a very simple mechanical solution to the problem of how to see what the camera ‘sees’, and made for cameras with very few moving parts. The lack of a mirror reflex system (as required in an SLR) made for a very quiet shutter as well. Focussing was a genuine mechanical action of turning a knob and moving the lens mechanism backwards and forwards. I could understand how it worked. It was a box for capturing light.

Akihabara, Tokyo

And capture light it could! Like many of my older cameras, its light meter was long dead, but I bought a small mountable light-meter from Voigtlander, because I wasn’t willing to take the risk of relying on “sunny-16” or taking guesses with this one, partly because the film and developing was expensive, partly because I thought the camera deserved a little more respect. It was a worthwhile addition, particularly for taking shots in dark conditions. It took a while to line up a shot, focus, check the light meter reading and take the shot, but it was worth it: the quality, mood and depth of the images still beats any other camera that I own.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Its size meant that it also got all sorts of strange looks from passers-by, but because it’s a top-down viewfinder (you look down in the top of the camera to focus), it looks like you are fiddling with your camera rather than lining up a shot, which made it great for candid shots on the crowded streets of Tokyo.

I pretty much stopped using the camera when I returned from Japan (I think I shot maybe only one or two rolls of film in Australia). It wasn’t just that the novelty had worn off (fun as it was, it sure was cumbersome). I really couldn’t justify the expense, and had been overtaken by the digital camera mindset of “take hundreds of photos and edit like crazy”. Instagram on my iPhone is fulfilling my ‘old looking square photos’ needs for the moment, but I’m sure one day I’ll want to go back to the slow photography of the TLR.

Rational reframing

Or, adopting the language of your clients as a manifestation of design rationality

As I work on the design of a prototype for the Circus Oz Living Archive I’ve been playing around with some basic experiments in reframing. It is a bit of a language game: by changing the way we talk about [something] we can change the way that we think about [something]. I started with a question: we are building a prototype, but what is a prototype? The answer could be very simple: a prototype is a thing, designed to test an idea.

This is where the language game begins. What else is a prototype? A prototype could be an introduction (perhaps the first time a client has interacted with a product or idea). A prototype is a tool (for data collection). A prototype is a rhetorical device (by leaving things in, or taking them out of a prototype, you are making an argument for/against certain aspects). A prototype is a process. You get the idea…

By asking the question, “if the prototype was x, what form would it take?” I am trying to force myself to leave behind my implicit understanding of what a prototype is for: perhaps a prototype can be for much more than testing and solving a particular design or technical problem. Schön calls this imposition of a ‘new way of setting the problem’ a ‘frame experiment’. This kind of experiment forces a reflection on your practice, or ‘Reflection-in-Action’ [and sorry about the sexist nature of the designer as ‘he’ in this passage]:

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. His inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation. 1

This kind of frame imposition can lead you to strange and interesting places. One of the paths that I’m interested in pursuing in my PhD research is the idea that performance practice and interaction design practice share certain qualities. This gave me a new frame to work with: What if we consider the ‘prototype’ analogous to the ‘rehearsal’?

Work with me here: A prototype shares much in common with a process of iterative development in a performance context. The rehearsal and the prototype are both tools to develop, explore, communicate and evaluate ideas. The prototype, like the rehearsal, encourages improvisation and reflective feedback. The prototype, like a rehearsal, can take place in a context similar to that of its final outcome. The prototype, like a rehearsal, can be understood as a means to an end, a version of an artefact that is subject to change, a collaborative work in progress.

One of the well known problems with the use of prototypes in interaction design is that it can be very hard to communicate to a client what a prototype is, and what a prototype is for. You can make the prototype as ‘low fidelity’ as you like, but this can lead to the client thinking that it is ‘broken’, you can make it ‘high fidelity’ which can lead to the client thinking it is finished (and so only providing superficial feedback) 2, you can carefully ‘filter’ your prototype 3 to test for a single quality, but this doesn’t let the client experience how the design might be used in a real world context. It can be really hard to get a client engaged in a process like prototyping.

I would say a lot of these issues actually arise from communication/language problems. A designer intuitively understands ‘prototype’: what it means, what it affords. But this is a technical, professional language. What if instead we adopted the language of our client, using a metaphor for prototype that they can understand?

According to Löwgren and Stolterman:

‘a designer has to have a solid understanding of the complexity involved in being rational. When a designer works with a client, she has to be able to appreciate the client’s understanding of rationality, in relation to her own understanding of it. A basic appreciation of that relationship is fundamental to the communication between designer and client. Rationality is therefore not only a matter of how to do things, but a precondition for good communication’ 4.

I would suggest that appropriating language of a client is an explicit attempt to understand a different rationality: for a designer, it is ‘obvious’ that a prototype is subject to change, unfinished, wants feedback, etc. For a performer, while ‘rehearsal’ has these ‘obvious’ qualities, ‘prototype’ sounds technical and meaningless.

This example of reframing in the language of practice is particularly interesting in the context of the Circus Oz Living Archive project, considering that one of the points of adoption for the digital archive is actually as part of their rehearsal practice. So: the prototype of the digital video archive is a ‘rehearsal’ for the digital archive, it is also a tool to use within the context of a rehearsal.

‘Rehearsal’ has pretty clear implications: this is an unfinished object; this is something open to change; this is an object with the potential for collaborative development; this is something that, while not final, will be public at some point in the future. Using this language can work the other way too: reframing ‘prototype’ as ‘rehearsal’ serves to remind me of the performing arts community context in which I’m working, and also serves to remind me of the prototype’s transience and malleability (which should help prevent me from becoming too fixated on a particular idea or design solution this early in the project).

  1. Schön, Donald A. 1991. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Aldershot: Avebury. p68 
  2. McCurdy, Michael, Christopher Connors, Guy Pyrzak, Bob Kanefsky, and Alonso Vera. 2006. Breaking the fidelity barrier. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems  – CHI  ’06, 1233. Montréal, Québec, Canada. 
  3. Lim, Youn-Kyung, Erik Stolterman, and Josh Tenenberg. 2008. “The anatomy of prototypes.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 15 (2) (July): 1-27.  
  4. Löwgren, Jonas, and Erik Stolterman. 2004. Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology. The MIT Press, December 1. p50 

Cameras I own: Ricoh GR-D

Part two in a series. See part one here.

This was the first digital camera that I actually liked using. I think in a lot of ways it was because of the look, which was largely based on the original late 90’s Ricoh GR1, only slightly smaller, and (of course) digital. I bought it because I was about to go on a long overseas trip, and decided it was finally time to make the leap from film (I really didn’t want to carry enough film with me to last 3 months). It was 2007.

Its small size and wide-angle lens made it great for street photography

When I bought the GR-D I was still in a ‘film’ frame of mind though, and couldn’t quite cope with not having a viewfinder. I shelled out for an add-on optical viewfinder that sat on the hotshoe (that’s the funny lump on the top). It was clear and bright, but it only gave you framing, no other feedback.

I liked the GR-D for its constraints, which reminded my of my film-based rangefinders. It has a fixed lens and a large amount of manual control. It was the first digital camera that made me think that maybe manufacturers are starting to ‘get it’: there are photographers out there that want a good-quality point and shoot that reflects the quality and characteristics (including controls) of good, small, film cameras. Unfortunately this ‘getting it’ hasn’t really panned out in the subsequent years, with the notable exceptions of the Panasonic Lumix GF1 (which I own and love), and the prohibitively expensive Fuji X100 (which I don’t). The GR-D never really lived up to this standard anyway in terms of speed or quality, but it was fun to pretend that the digital camera industry was getting somewhere.

Somewhere outside Reykjavik

Somewhere outside Reykjavik. Damn rocks!

My GR-D didn’t actually get very much use in the end. One month in to my travels, I managed to drop it on a rock in Iceland and damage the lens mechanism. My next camera-shop-stop was in London, and I couldn’t afford a replacement with the Australian dollar being what it was back then. I ended up shooting the rest of my trip with a Canon IXUS, which is a fine pocket camera, but comparatively boring.

You don’t get a sense from my illustration, but it was very small, light, sturdily built and quiet. A true pocket camera. My iPhone has effectively taken over my needs in that regard now, so I don’t really miss the GR-D. Plus the look of it fits right in on the shelf next to my various vintage film cameras.

Cameras I own: Canon Canonet QL 17

One of the first things that visitors to our apartment notice when they walk in to our lounge room is our camera collection on top of a bookshelf. There are 10 cameras up there: 9 of mine and one of Kate’s (a cute plastic Holga). There was a time when I actually used them all, or, at least, they have all seen a fair amount of use over the years. The 10 cameras aren’t even all of our cameras, the ones we still use tend to float around the house. I guess you could call it more of a ‘museum’ than a collection.

Somewhere in Tokyo, 2004

The Canonet is my ‘oldest’ camera up on that shelf (in terms of use, not vintage). It wasn’t my first rangefinder, but it’s the oldest rangefinder that I still have. My first was a lovely Ricoh 500G that I picked up at a second hand store when my very first film camera (a Pentax MZ50) was stolen. The Ricoh lasted well until I dropped it while moving house and snapped the lens clean off, and I found the Canonet on ebay to serve as its replacement. The Canonet became a faithful companion on my first overseas trip to Japan. I don’t think I’ve used it for at least 5 years: I opened up the back before I drew this picture and was surprised to see a half-used roll of film in there (now partially exposed to the light). I’ve no idea what’s on it.

SJ in Melbourne

The light-meter died within about a month of use and I took to setting the aperture wide-open (1:1.7 – it was fast too!) and guessing the shutter speed. This technique was hit and miss, but when I got it right, man this camera could nail the shot. The 40mm glass lens was a wonder to behold.

While obviously based on the design of the Lieca M3, the smaller, cuter dimensions and the angled rangefinder window gave this camera a look which has pretty much defined ‘camera’ in my mind for all of my life: it really is the classic camera design.