Gleanings: Friedrich Nietzsche, his typewriter, cameras and the creative process

old typewrite

This gleaning is from an episode in the life of Friedrich Nietzche, famed philosopher of the west and how it relates to the relationship between photographer and his camera.
I love Nietzche, he is one of the very few philosophers that fully understood that ideas have consequences. He is the secular prophet of this century, he successfully predicted that it would be the bloodiest because he forsaw the logical consequences of certain ideas…..but let's not digress into philosophy, I'll never get out of it. Something very interesting happened in his life around 1882 that can be bridged to cameras: He got himself…..a typewriter.

On technology

Technology changes our lives more than we would like to admit. Before cell phones we could remember phone numbers but now we ask the person to repeat the number to have time to put it in our phonebooks. When writing was very expensive (both in education and the tools) people remembered right about everything. Talebearers in India today come to vilages and tell stories 24 hours long (Not in one chunk but still!)…why would we do the same when we can just pull out a microphone and record it? I'm not saying it's a bad thing but we must realize that tools are not inocent, we have a relationship with them, and it changes us. An example is form the life of Friedrich Nietzsche.


Nietzsche's typewriter

Nietzsche's vision was failing, focusing on a page for to long would give him great headaches. To continue writing he got himself a Malling-Hansen Writing ball (Highly collectible item nowadays) and mastered touch typing. He could type away and not look at the page, but something very subtle happened: His writing style changed.

Nietzsche's typewriter. The Goethe and Schiller Archive, Weimar, Germany
Nietzsche's typewriter. Copyright: The Goethe and Schiller Archive, Weimar, Germany

One of Nietzsche's friends, a composer, noticed that change. His stiff prose became even more so. He himself admits that ” “Thoughts” in music and language often depend on the quality and paper”. Nietzsche agreed and replied “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”. A german scholar noted that the philosopher's prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style”.

It is a large admission to state that the tools you use take part of the creative process. You ARE dependent on the tools because without the tools you can't do anything. The most basic definition of the tool is that it's an extension of the self. The most basic tool is the stick, allowing you to reach further than your arm, now the stick in it's most glorious and complex form is the space shuttle, allowing us to reach beyond the moon. As a photographer, the tool that we must use is of course the camera, and it affects the creative process.

The camera and the creative process

Like it or not the camera is an integral tool to the photographic process. Your camera matters because you are limited by it, just like your reach is limited by how long and good your stick is. Your camera also takes part in the process (it affects you, it isn't just a tool) not only because it allows you (or disallows you) to do certain things but also because of it's looks. The low down is that there is some pictures you just can't get because your camera is limited and you will want to use your camera more if it's enjoyable to use and pleasing to your eye.

Ergonomics are important because you will be stuck with the camera for a while, and it's as simple as having the pleasure of owning a beautiful thing. Trust me when I tell you that the looks sold more cameras than any other aspect.

The camera is a sort of filter where your Vision goes through, that means sometimes it adapts. I used to be a 50mm guy…….now, because of the Ricoh GRD I'm more 28mm. It's the same Vision, but because I switched my tool, it outputs differently. My Vision hasn't changed but the expression of it did.

Photographer-camera relationship

We have relationships with people, and what is interesting is that we have different relationships with different people, we do not have two exactly the same kind of relationships with two different people. We stay the same, but we differ depending on who we talk to. You are not the same with your parents, your spouse, your kids, your siblings, etc. It is the same thing for cameras, you are the same but will act differently with different cameras. The way you act with a DSLR is not the way you do with a Point and Shoot for example.

Expressing your Vision trumps everything, but like I said before, not every camera will let you express yourself the same way. Some cameras have idiosyncrasies, shortcoming and other quirks that you must learn to live with or do without them. The most important thing is not to let the camera lead the relationship, but you do. Or else the camera will own you but you don't own the camera, the difference between a camera owner and a photographer.


You can't help being affected by the camera, but what you can do is remediate. I don't know what Nietzsche thought of his change of style, I have to take that he found it pleasing and closer to his intent than before or else he would have re-mediated his style. Sometimes the camera affects you in a positive way, someway that you find closer to your Vision. That happened to me when I went wide angle as before I was 50mm and 200mm prone. But most of the time, when you have a camera, especially a new one, you will have to remediate or else you won't find yourself in your pictures.

When you have a new camera, it's more a process of exploration in a relationship “What can we do together?” and less a process of self expression. For the past week or so I've been in this mode, pretty much shooting to shoot with a camera and not as a matter of self expression……I've let the camera control me instead of the opposite. But I believe it's a necessary part of the photographer-camera relationship because you have to learn first to use a camera like the back of your hands to be able to express your Vision fully. It's already getting back as I am getting shots that I would get from the GRD IV, a camera I have mastered to convey my Vision.

Cameras affect you, there's no way around it. If I gave you the camera you are used to, a film camera, a twin lens reflex and a Holga, I guarantee you would be all over the place creatively. Sometimes this is beneficial to your Vision as it shows you a direction you did not see previously (Like Nietzsche) but most of the time it will need to be bent to your will for the sake of expressing your Vision.

PS: Read The Shallows, a good book where the author explores our relationships to technology.

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10 thoughts on “Gleanings: Friedrich Nietzsche, his typewriter, cameras and the creative process”

  1. Thanks, my friend, for your thoughtful article. It’s always a pleasure to see what you’ve been thinking about.

    1. And thank you for the comment Jim!

      It’s been on my mind ever since I realized I acted a bit differently depending on the camera.

      1. Damn it Olivier! HE’S A DOCTOR, NOT A PHILOSOPHER!
        Also, fantastic article and very insightful – you seem very in-touch with yourself creatively 🙂

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