The Allure of Risk

[The Cadillac ATS-V] cranked through Turn 17 at Circuit of the Americas sideways and gentle, a froufed-up hooligan with leather and manners. But there was no fear of death, no implausible. Several times, I found myself wishing for less car, not more.

Smith, Sam. “French Connection.” Road and Track July 2015: 24.

Nikon D100 Nikkor 28 -105mm f/3.5-4.5D 1/1250 @ f4.2

Nikon D100
Nikkor 28 -105mm f/3.5-4.5D
1/1250 @ f4.2

Sam Smith in his column of the July issue of Road and Track wrote, that sometimes he finds himself wishing for less car, not more. That is, a simple and very slow car, in this case a Citroën 2CV, can have a special allure, that a fast complex one does not. Yes, automobiles are getting faster and easier to drive every year. As a consequence, something is sacrificed. Progress requires sacrifice. As ease of use increases, the risk of failure is diminished; and ultimately the excitement, and allure of many activities.

When I started djing, vinyl records were the norm. During my first gig, I wasn’t just nervous, I was terrified. I remember as I stepped past the wall of sound into the dj booth, the ground continued to shake. I stopped to gaze at all the equipment; the speakers seemed to tower past the ceiling into the sky; and the flashing lights of power conditioners, compressors, and amplifiers. Past the equipment, were people happy and dancing. The source was incredibly simple, two vinyl records rotating on a pair of 1200s and a mixer in the middle. This simplicity contained no safety nets, no help, just a massive amount of risk, and it was about time for me to begin.

My hands were trembling as I carefully cued the first record. The risk of failure is enough, no one actually wants their mistakes to be amplified through several thousand watts to everyone dancing inside, and those on the outside waiting to get in. I’ll admit that my start was a little rough, but I recovered quickly; most importantly, people were still happy and dancing.The act of playing and transitioning from record to record in front of the crowd became intensely exciting, almost like being elevated to a higher state of being. I had practiced the same actions many times before, yet never felt this way. I believe that is was the risk involved, and ultimately overcoming my fear, that contributed greatly to the intense excitement I felt that night.

The word, ‘digital,’ is often used as adjective. The digital dj, digital photographer, or digital artisan, is typically perceived as better than the dj, photographer, or artisan, who for whatever reason, is unable to use the same adjective. Yet, ‘digital’ is simply a technological advancement, an adjective that indicates that microprocessors now play a significant role in whatever word it modifies. The microprocessor also serves as a catalyst, increasing the rate of progress and what must be sacrificed. Microprocessors have made djing in front of crowds, much easier, and to a large extent, risk free. Sacrificed is the nervousness, increased alertness, and ultimate satisfaction of getting though a task without emotional injury; and sadly, the stories to tell.

One night, I witnessed things go horribly wrong for another dj. He was transitioning into a new song, artistically scratching, and cutting back and forth; when the tempo of one record began to slip. I could see him darting from side to side, working all the controls very hard to correct the error. He was really on the edge; still, but barely, holding on musically. He just needed to go a little further. I thought, if he succeeds in pulling this mix back from disaster, it will be epic! Well, I will never know, because the overloaded mixer suddenly died.

My friend and I looked at each other, and he broke the silence, “That mixer was never going to survive that abuse.” We figured things might get nasty and began to leave, discussing whether or not the dj would have successfully finished the mix. I thought there was the possibility, where as my friend, a turntablist who has won several competitions, did not, “I could tell he was finished as soon as he started.”

“Come on,” I said, “So, there’s no possible way?”

He just looked at me and smiled as if to say, “Well, he couldn’t do it, but I could.” Today, with beat sync, hot cues, and auto loop; progress and the microprocessor would ensure we all could. Look at any dj controller for sale today, you will find there is a clearly labeled button for each. While these advancements might have saved at least one character in this story from embarrassment, it certainly removes the risk, the display of skill, and consequently some of the excitement.

I do value the progress ‘digital’ technology provides. Beyond music, modern cameras allow me to operate more accurately, quickly, and creatively. There are also things I cannot do. I am unable to: match the tempos of two records within a thousand of a percent, and continually create perfect 8 bar loops endlessly for hours; or shift gears with the speed and precision of any modern dual clutch gearbox; or split a scene into more than 90,000 segments, identifying and mathematically combining each color, distance, and light value into a single solution in milliseconds like Nikon’s new 3D Matrix meter; but the better these become, even if I benefit from them, the less I care. The allure of using vinyl records, driving a 5-speed, and fully manual cameras, have nothing to do with them being better. The reason is simple, the possibility of mistakes; there exists a risk of failure.

Inspired by Sam Smith’s words, I looked for less camera to use, and found the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. The Brownie is very little camera. So little, it lacks very basic manual controls like a shutter dial, an aperture ring, and focusing. Photographically, its use is dangerous, and could possibly even be described as blissfully suicidal. Just to increase level of danger, I will not bring a light meter with me. I will guess, estimate, and shoot. I am quite confident that I have enough experience to get it right, but allure of all this, is the knowledge that if a few frames of film must be sacrificed in the name of increased risk, and a little excitement, then I have made some genuine progress.