Previous news story    Next news story

Do we value cameras as tools or objects? New exhibition asks the question

By dpreview staff on Jan 18, 2013 at 20:56 GMT

Do we value cameras for their form, or their function? An exhibition in Philadelphia which features hundreds of camera sculptures made from a range of different materials aims to examine this question. 'Reach Ruin', which is showing at The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia features several camera sculptures, created from carved stone, glass, chalk and sand.

A Pentax K1000 made of chalk - one of the exhibits at 'Reach Ruin' an exhibition currently running at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. 

According to the artist, Daniel Arsham, 'much of the time when we think about what a camera does, we think of it as a producer of images' but as well as being a photographic tool, 'many of us that use photography have a relationship with the object. If you want, call it a fetish'.

An army of plaster Nikkormat FTs. The exhibition aims to reduce cameras to their form rather than their function and asks the question how we interact with them as objects, rather than tools for creation. 

The sculptures in Reach Ruin are unpainted, and reflect their constituent materials. Arsham, who is colorblind, explains that 'the reduction of color allows audiences to experience the formal qualities of things'. By reducing cameras to their form alone, the exhibition raises the possibility that these tools, invented to create art, are themselves an artform. And even if you don't completely buy into that theory, we think there's something fascinating about seeing armies of stone Pentax K1000s and Nikkormats lined up in an exhibition space. Let us know what you think in the comments. Do you collect cameras because you need them, or because you want them?

Reach Ruin runs at the Fabric Warehouse in Philadelphia until mid-March. Click here for more details

(via be sure to bookmark its excellent Raw File blog). 


Total comments: 137
By Ian (Jan 19, 2013)

There are many types of Photographers, there are the serious guys, who really know what's and enjoy using their equipment, there are the Jewellery guys who buy cameras to show off and feel important, but never seem to produce pictures. In my 45 years in the trade there are a lot of talkers that have a lot to say.
Then there are some of the people you find on either camera clubs or on Forums, they talk with authority at great length, but none have any technical back ground, they love to tell people that there are problems with xxx camera/lens, but in some cases they do not own the piece of equipment.
The fault finders are often sad and have no real life..
Photography is an art form and is enjoyable not for spending hours finding fault, enjoy and don't moan.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 4 minutes after posting
By dokisays (Jan 19, 2013)

but isn't there a niche group of photographers that aren't really serious, and will shoot with anything just because it's fun?

1 upvote
Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (Jan 19, 2013)

Well said. There are also those which regard the camera as a means to an end, and are drawn to some device's ability to produce. Many times such cameras are lower-priced, or do not belong to the "glorified few" which top the market line. It's the same with everything we posess or use; cars, clothes, wathes...
With time and experience, we learn to appreciate the final product, and how to turn the deaf ear to those who use a price tag to value the tools.

1 upvote
By activa (Jan 19, 2013)

You summarized my thoughts, OldArrow.

By ElastickPhotographyUK (Jan 19, 2013)

This is very true, I think people do buy the equipment to satisfy a need but there is something more. Having worked in camera retail, lots of customers upgrading their gear will ask you to dispose of there old equipment. Even if its an Olympus OM-10, there is still something that makes you keep it for "Just In Case".

Really interesting piece of work.

By Knorp (Jan 19, 2013)

Whatever the artistry here, I know I do love my Leicas ... :P

By gsum (Jan 19, 2013)

This is good ....
... compared to anything that is found in the Tate Liverpool - painted logs, meaningless neon signs and, one of the main 'installations', a large room containing nothing except a video of someone throwing up. It is fourth rate rather than nth rate.
Great art is in the gorgeous and totally functional Nikon FM and, at the other end of the scale, the ugly plastic pig that is the Samsung NX100 that just happens to take great images, to mention a couple of examples.
To get back to the point that this clown is trying to make, yes I slobber over my FM but not the NX100.
The only thing that this illustrates is that the greatest artists are design engineers.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
By Mirko123 (Jan 19, 2013)

Wow, leave it to a 4th rate "artist" to ask the truly useless and pointless questions!
Not only is it pointless, the concept is completely unoriginal!

To put it mildly, this is absolute garbage and is nothing more then a pathetic attempt of self gratification!

As a general rule, ART = CR@P!
However in this example im being way, way too kind!

By Zebooka (Jan 19, 2013)

It took me few years to start thinking of cameras as tools and do not "love" them as object. And to start feel magic from the photo itself, not from particular camera or film. Now I do not select any of my cameras as the most beloved one now and shoot photos using smartphone, compact, DSLR and TLR.

1 upvote
By artma (Jan 19, 2013)

So what's new here? From Ceci n’est pas une pipe by Magritte to Cambell's Soup Can by Warhol, but most of all to Fountain by Duchamp is all already being said.

1 upvote
Ignat Solovey
By Ignat Solovey (Jan 19, 2013)

@mikeoregon I'm way younger than you (my mom was born in 1956), but I agree to you somehow. Another matter is that complexity of digital cameras is the complexity of films/plates and their development, as well the complexity of Photoshop or whatever software you use is the complexity of darkroom, especially when it comes to color. I work (PJ) with top DSLRs, I know them, I understand (to a certain degree, of course) how do they function and why. Digital cameras are not gadgets, as many people label them, they are true cameras too. I have a lot of old film cameras, I know them too, I know what happens in analog materials and why, I know how to deal with film and darkroom, and I love aesthetics of old designs. Analog cameras become fetish as digital progress and masses forget analog. I regret that digital progresses so fast, but you can do pictures you couldn't imagine on analog. And crazy menus... set them once and forget, at least on EOS 1D series. And, yes, 4x5 and 35mm ARE different.

1 upvote
By mikeoregon (Jan 19, 2013)

My first camera was a twin-lens reflex purchased in 1956. Today I use a digital SLR. The functional difference is like going from a Ford Fairlane to a BMW. However, esthetically I would prefer the reflex, it had a gleaming metal finish, bright viewfinder, simple and straightforward design I could understand. Ditto my 4x5 camera later on. Most of what goes on in my SLR is a mystery to me, so the design feels capable, but not friendly. The viewfinder and LCD are hard to use in low light, tiny buttons are fiddly, the menus are crazy complicated--a worthy tool but still needs improvement for practical usability. The all-black color seems intended to impress that the user is a Very Serious Photographer, and to harmonize with very serious black outfits. I appreciate the artist surfacing this discussion!

By Shomari (Jan 19, 2013)

My Thoughts:

Cameras, to me, in their form and function represents art and the ability to create art. I love collecting cameras and using them. That's all.


1 upvote
the reason
By the reason (Jan 19, 2013)

these days most see their cameras as objects.
For instance, everybody is saying the new m4/3s kodak is crap, without seeing one single photo from it yet. And it certainly isnt the first time it happens with a camera.
On the other hand, people just plain mess themselves when presented with a fuji x100s, even when it has been shown it renders details in RAWs like a painting.
But its so retro and beautiful...a shutter
Same thing happens with the PENs from olympus. The epl5 is clearly far superior to previous versions, yet some people are skeptical because its not as beautiful as the original.. You kidding?

By wakaba (Jan 19, 2013)

As with conceptual art - the artist needs to be heard. Otherwise the mass of flawed massproduced objects in monochrome - strong statement in itself.

As for the object debate:

A camera is lock and stock, aim/point and shoot.

Even the cheap cameras and phones simulate the mechanical noises of shutter-lockwork and spring-recharge.

The look of a camera is barbette and barrel, the more professional - the more prononounced militaresque the styling becomes.

Fat barrels and big bores are a competitive message - with all things military - the more phallic - the better.

I personally go for the best tool (best gunlock) possible and not for the objet d`art or as you say marketing category.

On the other hand:
If it served its use - the gear becomes surplus and goes to the kids room and friends kidsrooms and they do some absolutely fantastic things with the DSLRs.

To all the hoarders - give those cams away to kids - they do create amazing contet with them.

Scott Birch
By Scott Birch (Jan 19, 2013)

The only camera I own is a Fujifilm F31fd. I bought it because I wanted a portable digital snapper that could handle low-light ok. It was recommended to me on by a pro. I'll always remember my night-club photos and the event photographers with their state-of-the-art-at-the-time DSLRs coveting it. A couple went and bought their own. I have taken some great photographs with that little camera.

The thing is, it's ugly. I have never bonded with it or seen it as an object of desire in that aesthetic sense. It never looked great. It feels 'cheap.' The buttons are tiny. I think now I handle it less and hanker after something new for this irrational reason. I love my Rolex even though it's inaccurate. I like my MacbookPro even though it's not the best laptop any more. It's not rational, but there it is.

I feel silly for writing this but I'll probably buy a new camera this year, something that looks and feels beautiful as well as being capable of taking good pictures.

By cgarrard (Jan 19, 2013)

Letting go - Is often times the hardest thing to do.

By whiteheat (Jan 19, 2013)

I just can't see the intrinsic value in any camera's form, that is, I can't see the beauty in any camera's shape. I value a camera for it's function. Cameras just don't seem to look sexy, the lines, the proportions and form are just wrong. That said, some cameras look better than others. For example, the Fuji X100 'looks' much nicer than any DSLR, but I could never describe it as an object of beauty. Personally, I view the camera as just a tool. Nothing more.

Gordon L
By Gordon L (Jan 19, 2013)

Whiteheat, they may be just "tools", but guys are all fetishists about their tools. You are fooling yourself.

1 upvote
By DaveMarx (Jan 19, 2013)

Wow, he's rediscovered the totemic value of tools!

No sooner did our ancestors start making tools than they started building better versions.

"Why me want your spear? Mine just as sharp!"

"Here, hold it..."

"Oooh, this feel goood in hand! And your spirit carvings on shaft much better than my crude scratches..."

Tools are a fundamental expression of our humanity. Mankind = Toolmaker. Further, we identify ourselves by what we do, and we nearly always use tools to do it. If we take pride in our accomplishments, we'll value the tools we used. If we admire someone else's achievements, we honor their tools and get our own copies - we want some of our hero's mojo.

P.S. Anyone who thinks professionals don't care whether their equipment looks "professional" has never been one. What self-respecting pro wants to be mistaken for an amateur?

And why aren't current models (of anything) valued as classics? Quite simply, becoming a classic takes time.

By Marty4650 (Jan 19, 2013)


Tools are created out of necessity. To be of any value they must work. But, sometime after a tool is invented, someone tries to make it look better. Eventually, swords and shields became works of art.

Since photographers are artists (of a sort) they would be more likely to appreciate design than other craftsmen and artisans.

There really aren't many very good but ugly cameras that become hits in the marketplace. But there are quite a few very beautiful but only average cameras that have sold well.

1 upvote
By DaveMarx (Jan 19, 2013)

Do artists have a greater appreciation of their tools' aesthetic qualities than "non-artists" have for their tools? I assure you, auto mechanics debate the relative beauty of various makes of open-end wrenches, not just their functional merits.

Those schooled in the arts may be better able to articulate why something is "beautiful," and can employ concepts like proportion, symmetry, perspective, harmony, etc. to describe what they encounter, but what's wrong with uneducated, visceral appreciation? "I know nothing about art, but I know what I like," may not be as flattering to the artist as a compliment from a schooled peer, but there's something to be said for art that anyone can appreciate.

Whether it's called ornamentation or industrial design, it's an expression of the makers mastery of their craft - that they can transcend the requirements of mere utility. There's little doubt that this "language of quality" is used to sell objects of lesser merit.

1 upvote
By bobbarber (Jan 19, 2013)

Well, old film cameras are meant to be pulled off the shelf and adored. That's the way I see it, anyway. I can't imagine getting rid of them. And I'm not a hoarder.

Gordon L
By Gordon L (Jan 19, 2013)

Hey Bob, yup, you are right on. I have made photographs for a living for more than 40 years, and have owned a lot of cameras. They are lovely machines, we just love to click the shutters and focus the old ones even if there is no film in them. I've been buying up film cameras for a few years, just because they are so cheap. I won't ever use most of them, but I just can't resist them. I'm shooting a roll of black and white film right now with a pristine Pentax Spotmatic F I got at a thrift shop for $14.99, cheap thrills.

By whtchocla7e (Jan 19, 2013)

If comfortable shoes help you walk farther than the non-comfortable ones and you want to walk farther then go ahead and wear the comfortable shoes.

Once you get to your destination you can look back and ask yourself, did I need these shoes to get here? You can then waste precious seconds or minutes of your life pondering over this question. A smart person will turn right back around and keep on going. It was never about the shoes but if they helped in motivating you to take the first step and then keep on walking - you've made the right choice.

1 upvote
By AbrasiveReducer (Jan 19, 2013)

Working in the luxury camera business for some years I often pondered this question. Eventually I realized the answer is unknowable. It's like asking who built Machu Picchu or why BMW drivers are arrogant. Is a Timex more accurate than a Rolex? Some things are not meant to be understood.

By Nikonworks (Jan 18, 2013)

The artist should have collected data on the types of cameras people have and how many days a year they remain on their shelves unused, and if they are using othe cameras at the present time as the others sit on a shelf.

The partial destruction of the clay cameras speaks too loudly and distracts me from perception of the form of the cameras. It may also suggest something negative about the psycological framework the artist lives by.

I have six DSLR's on the shelf and a Sony R-1, all of which I have not used since I bought my Nikon P7700.

They sit on the shelf not as my collection, but because thay all paid for themselves through my photography and I don't want the headaches of selling, nor the low trade values.

I haven't given it much thought but maybe they are equivalent to the notches on a six shooter the TV cowboys would make when I was a youngster.

By CameraLabTester (Jan 18, 2013)

Those objects pictured above would be entirely different when dipped in chocolate.

To be specific: Chocolate Hazelnut flavored.

To be more specific: Chocolate Hazelnut with strong Vanilla.


By Photomonkey (Jan 18, 2013)

Objects for sure. Just look at the endless chatter about the cameras and lenses, endless photos of brick walls and cats etc.
They are tools only to a few.
The rest are consumerists that the manufacturers have painted large red bulls eyes on.

1 upvote
By RussellInCincinnati (Jan 18, 2013)

Fairly jerky thing to say in part, because brick wall photos tend to be tools for easy technical communication of qualities of lenses. Rather than a sign that people's artistic expressions are so pathetic that they can only think to use their cameras to take pictures of brick walls.

M DeNero
By M DeNero (Jan 19, 2013)

I'll take cat photos over photos of lenses any day! One look at your gallery had me chuckling over the irony.

Personally I think the answer to the question is "both". Good industrial design is a powerful thing, even to true photographers.

By Photomonkey (Jan 19, 2013)

Of course it seems jerky to some. I made the comment because for many the point seems to be to own the object not to actually produce work with it. I see it on a daily basis online and locally.
As for the photos of lenses they were made so as to sell the lenses not to admire them.

By rjjr (Jan 18, 2013)

I think of some older film cameras as functional works of art that can be used to make art, but not so much with today's offerings.

Comment edited 13 seconds after posting
By marike6 (Jan 19, 2013)

I get the attraction of old mechanical film cameras, and have owned many but I have to disagree about today's offerings. The Leica M9, Fuji X100, or D4 for that matter are no less aesthetically pleasing than an old Hasselblad or Nikon F2. We can romanticize classic film cameras, but really the only difference between film and digital is mode of capture.

Once you have a fascination with an object from the perspective of industrial design, it makes little difference what year it was created or what is on the inside of the case.

By bobbarber (Jan 19, 2013)


I agree with you completely except for one thing. You can get more into the innards of mechanical film cameras, especially the simple ones. I feel like I'm confined to the outside of the camera with digital. There are some old film cameras that it is fairly simple to lubricate, or replace simple parts, and that just changes everything for me. That is completely missing with digital. Digital cameras are more tools to me. I don't carry them for form.

Nishi Drew
By Nishi Drew (Jan 19, 2013)

Yes, a mechanical camera is under your control in how it functions. You press the button and the gears and springs will move about to operate the shutter and film advance and aperture and then you wind it all up again. Nowadays with the electronic full auto digitals, that button pressing isn't physically doing anything, you're giving the camera a command for which it goes ahead doing it's own programmed thing. It feels distant, and the user is in less 'control'.
Like modern and classic cars, these days so much of the input, even steering is just electrical signals, you're not actually turning the wheels but telling the computer that you want to turn an X amount and then the car would be driven accordingly.

By rjjr (Jan 19, 2013)

marike6 posted:
"it makes little difference what year it was created or what is on the inside of the case."

What's going on inside the case is actually what I'm more interested in.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
By marike6 (Jan 19, 2013)

@rjjr Yes, for an engineer, camera technician or computer scientist, the inner workings of a camera matter. For viewing cameras as art, as objects to be studied by designers, it's inner workings matter only a little. For the photographer, a camera's output and usability are what is important.

By rjjr (Jan 19, 2013)

@marike6, I appreciate them for the inner workings, the external housing design and the functionality. But the inner workings is the part I find most intriguing about the machine itself.

By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Jan 18, 2013)

I wouldn't call it fetish, but I do have some similar feelings about my current camera. Up until the 70s good cameras were held in high esteem by their owners; some of them, as the Pentax K1000, the Leicas and the Olympus OM, had a cult following. This is lost in the digital era, but cameras like the Fujifilm X-series could just retrieve that cult status cameras once had.
By comparison the DSLRs of today fall in the 'tool' category. There's nothing really attaching in them and their owners tend to appreciate them for their performance, rather than their looks. I'm not being frivolous here: the old cameras I cited were beautiful AND had great image quality. That added to their appeal and amounted to the very high pride in ownership those cameras brought to their owners.
That's what makes the mirrorless concept interesting. Now we can have cameras that look good and take great photos. And it was my camera, the Olympus E-P1, that started the ball rolling.

1 upvote
By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Jan 18, 2013)

Lest you think the meaning of this artwork completely passed me by, let me say cameras are - no matter how much attached we are to them - mere objects; photographs remain, cameras just come and go. What's important about photography are the photographs, not the gear. I believe that's the point of these sculptures. (At the same time, however, cameras can be artforms.)

1 upvote
RedDog Steve
By RedDog Steve (Jan 18, 2013)

The K1000 was only popular because it was cheap but still attracted interest because of brand recognition. The Spotmatic paved the way for the niche that the K1000 filled.
No digital camera will ever reach these realms because no model will have a production run of more than a few years, there's just too many advances being achieved in chip technology.
If sensors could be changed out like film was we'd have something.


By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Jan 18, 2013)

I agree, rd. None of the cameras produced these days will make it to the history books. (Not even the Ricoh GXR, the only interchangeable-sensor camera in production...)

Gordon L
By Gordon L (Jan 19, 2013)

Umm, wrong, the Canon AE1 used to be the most popular slr of all time, the Canon Rebel overtook the AE1 a couple of years ago. The Spotmatic, popular as it was (I have three of them) never reached those numbers.

By ManuelVilardeMacedo (Jan 19, 2013)

Gordon, we're not talking popularity here. It's about how aesthetics can influence a camera reaching cult status. In such respect the Canon Rebel is a really bad example. It is a mass-market camera that is a paragon of the democratization of photography (and I hold nothing against such democratization: it helped me get into photography after all). No matter how successful it was, it can't compete with the AE-1 in terms of aesthetics. And it certainly isn't prone to reach cult status either.

By skimble (Jan 18, 2013)

as long as their is someone who appreciate this kind of art we can be assured next exhibition is about shoes. We have to let them have the freedom of creativity. It is up to the individual to like it or not.
Its called consumer world, remember Henry Ford :-)

1 upvote
By Matt1645f4 (Jan 18, 2013)

Brilliant concept. I like my cameras to be functional and pratitcal, i'm a big fan of fuji's X series which have blended a beautiful design with outstanding image quality and made a camera that you dont just use but enjoy using, and can admire as a object.

By mgatov (Jan 18, 2013)

Nikon or Canon = tools
Leica or Alpa = objects

Though to be fair, this would apply to the Hermes editions or commemorative issues.

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
1 upvote
By Hugo808 (Jan 18, 2013)

Have you not seen the Leica Photographers Gallery then? I think there's a lot of extremely good work there and most of it seems to have been done on old film cameras...

By IronRock (Jan 18, 2013)

Leica or Alpa = work of art + image capture tool

By ptox (Jan 18, 2013)

I wonder what proportion of the participants in the regular brand/model/sensor/glass insanities on these forums will have the self-awareness to see the truth behind the artist's conception.

(Who knows: maybe he arrived at his idea after visiting this very site...)

Chris Noble
By Chris Noble (Jan 18, 2013)

This artist seems to have discovered something that everyone else already knows. Is he aware of an object called "the automobile"?

By Imagefoundry (Jan 18, 2013)

Love this.

By bodos (Jan 18, 2013)

Is there a point that I'm missing?
Or is it about another artist's 15 seconds?

1 upvote
By D1N0 (Jan 18, 2013)

Camera's are booth tools and objects. Unless they are broken. Then just objects. (except for people who disagree with me). People who view there camera as a tool care less about it's appearance and people who view their camera as an object care less about it's possibilities. There are many gradations in that.

Comment edited 34 seconds after posting
Juraj Lacko
By Juraj Lacko (Jan 18, 2013)

IMHO varies from person to person. Pro's take cameras as tool but hobbists take it as tool and object. Now is ever so popular the retro look cameras and people are willing to pay premium for it as object. Cameras are not really that much different from let say cars. Some people take their car as it would be a family member....

1 upvote
By Sdaniella (Jan 18, 2013)


Some tools are far more effective than others.

If one is doing a lot of pp after using the tool, then the initial tool either isn't so good or the tool user isn't so good.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By Managarm (Jan 18, 2013)

Or the computer is the real fetish... ;)

1 upvote
By Hugo808 (Jan 18, 2013)

It's an interesting question, but after reading the forums here people seem to fetishise the perceived improvements of the next model in the shop as though this will somehow improve their photography, so cameras can never get familiar enough to be cherished as objects. They are just temporary tools that the manufacturers are only to keen to see us replace.

It's not like the old days like when my Pentax spotmatic was used weekly for 20 years, that won't happen with a D90 (if you remember even that far back!)

Bangers and Mash
By Bangers and Mash (Jan 18, 2013)

Absolutely!! It seems that many people today are not able to be satisfied with what they have, even though it works well for them. Great photography comes with years of learning and experience, and that doesn't come about by the latest and greatest of toys. Just look at what individuals like Ansel Adams produced with the equipment he had in his days. Need I say more!

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
By billybones1918 (Jan 18, 2013)

Adams used many different cameras and combinations over the years.

By Lightpath48 (Jan 18, 2013)

I'll come out on my cameras certainly being fetishes. As a photo retailer I witnessed the transformation in customers many times, as they got caught up in the esthetic and functional beauty of the equipment in their hands. I believe this may partly be the reason for so many on photo discussion boards passionately defending their choice of brand and model. Sometimes our relationships to cameras and lenses is defined in terms of love affairs, infatuations or longterm relationships. I remember the tactile and visual experience of unboxing my X10 recently. When in the field with it, these qualities almost eclipse its functionality at times. Bordering on idolatry, or is "fetish" a better word? The folks at Fujifilm have done a fine work in this little piece. I can't imagine what a Leica M might do!

By graybalanced (Jan 19, 2013)

For the other side of Lightpath48's comment, that's why camera and electronics manufacturers try so hard to create an "emotional bond" with the customer through their product design. The example of Fuji is excellent in the way they went for the "retro" appeal. See also: Apple

By OldSchoolNewSchool (Jan 19, 2013)

I would normally consider a camera only a tool, except I must admit I wouldn't own an ugly camera, even if it did take great pictures. (Yes, one's opinion of "ugly" may vary from another's.) But I do believe the average person looks at their camera as a tool, given the fact that they will use it only 12 to maybe 60 months. Most of our film cameras of the '50s through '90s were used at least 8 or 10 years, so we actually had time to "bond" with our equipment; not so much the case with digital cameras that often get replaced on a whim.

Calico Jack
By Calico Jack (Jan 19, 2013)

It's a tool. A means to an end. Maybe redundant SLR and DSLR bodies will become jewellery much like VW bonnet/hood badges, thus become adornments or you could fill them with cement and use them as paperweights or doorstops, thus they become useful objects.

Bottom line is who gives a stuff?

Total comments: 137