Seeing Both the Car Window and the Passing Landscape

In his book Mythologies, French Philosopher Roland Barthes writes about the difficulty one has, when travelling in a car, simultaneously seeing both the countryside and the car window. Our perceptual apparatus allows us to see both, but only one at a time. To see one is not to see the other. This might explain how Barthes died in excellent health at the relatively young age of 64 – run over by a laundry truck crossing the street in front of the Sorbonne while walking to one of his classes (true). Very appropriate end for a philosopher with his head in the clouds, but not the best. Heraclitus, the guy who said it wasn’t possible to step twice into the same river, died an even more philosophic death. When his doctors couldn’t cure him of  chronic illness, Heraclitus decided to bury himself in dung, thinking this would do the trick. After covering himself in manure and sitting around for a while, he couldn’t free himself and died of starvation, trapped in a pile of shit.  My wife predicts a similar end for me.

I’ve always been fascinated by photos through windows. You may have noticed. It’s also been an interest for others more notable – Frank, Koudelka,  Kratochival, Winogrand, Friedlander, Moriyama et al. There’s something compelling about the constructed reality produced by the confluence of the reflector and the reflected. These photos help educate naive viewers that photographs don’t mirror or objectively recreate a ‘reality out there’ but rather are their own reality. And, to my mind, these photos refute Barthes’ claim that we can’t see both simultaneously – we can, via a photograph, at least as a fusion of the two that creates its own new reality.

*************

Roland Barthes was born in 1915 in Cherbourg, on the Atlantic coast of France, and raised by his mother in Paris after his father died in WW1. As a teen Barthes developed tuberculosus, resulting in an extended stay in a sanatorium, thanks to which he missed WW2. It also allowed him time to develop a wide range of intellectual interests. From this enforced self-education, Barthes became an early theorist of Semiology – the science of signs and meanings – whereby he attempted to explain human activity by analyzing how signs (signifiers”) construct reality.

Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), considered the ways in which we employ language to think, yet are constrained within the confines of language itself, language whose meanings are arbitrary, not fixed. For example, brides wear white for weddings in America, but in China, Korea, and other Asian countries white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals. Is one culture ‘wrong’ about what white means? No. The meaning of white is not set in stone but is merely an agreed convention. This is true of all meanings in all cultures. To understand a culture, we need to first understand how meanings are produced, circulated, consumed and understood by those within it. Why? Because these meanings create that culture’s experience of the world.

Barthes was appointed to the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1960. His next work (Elements of Semiology, 1965) looked at the primary elements of human existence – food, clothing, shelter – and how we talk about them. Semiology – the science of signs – breaks each act of communication into a signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word, gesture or object (a photograph, for example); the signified is what that word, gesture or photo means. To take an example,  a red rose can signify different things, depending on context: If I give one to a woman on Valentine’s Day it means “I love you;” if I am confronted with an image of four of them at the liquor store it’s a reminder I’d be wise to buy a bottle of Four Roses bourbon; if I see one on a t-shirt in Lancashire UK it probably means the wearer is a fan of the Lancashire Rugby team. And then there’s what Barthes calls an something’s “degree zero” of meaning: that is, its status as just a thing – in our rose example, just a piece of flora. Practically speaking however, it’s impossible to see anything this way, because as humans we seem compelled to read meanings into objects. A rose is never just a rose.

Likewise, using the same semiotic analysis, a photograph is never merely a photograph, just an innocent copy of something out there. It’s much more loaded than that. Like every other object of perception, we attach certain meanings to it, meanings dependent on the cultural context. Semiotics rejects the naive understanding of the photo as a transparent window through which we see a slice of reality, a faithful copy of a “thing out there.” While Barthes doesn’t write of it, I’m sure he’d chuckle at the story told by Picasso, now old and venerated, who, visited in his Paris studio by a vulgar nouveau-riche, was asked why he had painted his portrait of Dora Maar  in an abstract manner that clearly “didn’t look like her?” In reply, Picasso asked the man what his own wife looked like, and the man showed him a B&W photo of her he kept in his wallet, to which Picasso replied “so, she’s flat, without color and 2 inches square?”

Picasso’s point being that the “degree zero” of the painting or photo – its reality as a thing – is just a piece of canvas or paper with some markings on it, while what we read into it is what it represents, it’s “meaning.” Picasso was directing the man’s eyes from the signified to the sign itself,  in so doing demonstrating that pictures don’t inherently “represent reality” or anything else but rather that we read the reality into them.

Anyway, back to Barthes.

Starting in the early 70’s, Barthes applied his semiotics eye to mass culture – clothing, fashion, painting, iconography, typography…and photography. What he was doing now was, like Picasso in the instance above, examining the signifier itself, the painting, clothing, typography or photograph – the communicating object –  its feel and sensuality.  His interest was how signs create meanings, but it was also his attempt to alert us to more nefarious implications; as citizens of modern, capitalist culture, the self-interested workings of that culture via its scripted words and images can’t but influence what we understand as real.  In our hyper-capitalist culture, meanings constantly bombard us – via text but more and more via photographs that pretend to be neutral – with subtle but definable connotations; for Barthes, to get ourselves oriented in such a morass of meanings we must first consider the signifier itself as a filter (a “car-window”) that influences the way we see the “real” countryside beyond.

Of course, the implications of Barthes’ insights for us as photographers are fairly obvious. First, it opens up to us the fact that photographs aren’t just objective copies of something real ‘out there’ but are themselves constructed by the eye of the photographer, who is the curator of what gets seen by the viewer and the manner in which it gets seen, which then opens up the reality of photography as a creative medium – as Art – that so many would deny it. Second, it opens up the activity of the viewer as necessary to the photo’s meaning. Meaning, necessary in any coherent photograph, can be given both by the photographer but also by the viewer, and the two may not necessarily be the same.  Third, it should alert us to the power of images and their role in forming – and distorting – what we perceive. The dark side of such a remarkable technology is that it can,  in a capitalist consumer society (or in more malevolent social or political societies), be put to uses that might not serve our best interests, unless, of course, we can see through its seductive manipulations.

It’s this third implication that is the focus of Barthes’ analysis and what he’s warning us against. In doing so he’s reminding us that we, as recipients, can impose our own meanings on the texts and images we’re bombarded with. We have that power. Be critical of that photograph, Barthes is saying: It isn’t just a photo but rather an often devious means of making you see the world in a way that serve’s other’s purposes, a way that might not be your free choice and might distort your understanding. Only when you understand this will you be the master of your life’s meanings and not be mastered by a world of symbols deviously crafted to master you.

What Reality is Leica Constructing For Me With This Photo?

“Unboxing” a 1985 Leica M6

The Leica M10 Box – It’s Elaborate For a Reason

Nuclear weapons may have given us the ability to destroy the entire planet, but it’s things like unboxing videos that will make you want to actually use them.  Unboxing videos are the post-human equivalent of a striptease act. They’re an early warning system, broadcasting the fact that the machines have finally won.  – C. Donlan


“Unboxing Videos” are an internet phenomenon I will never understand. Rank them up there with eating Tide Pods and finding  Kardashian women fascinating. Apparently, I’m in a minority, however. Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with “unboxing” in the title has increased exponentially. There’s unboxing of every item you can think of, from blenders to live reptiles. If you can buy it, there’s probably a video of it being unboxed, as this attests.

Leicas make great subjects for unboxing videos. They’re expensive and desirable, things whose purchase we eagerly anticipate. Plus, they come in great boxes. Leica, like Apple, understands the symbolic significance of their cameras and the psychological and emotional aura that can be created or enhanced via a product’s presentation.

Recently I ran across an unboxing video of a Leica M6 posted by a Nelson Murray, interesting as a bit of historical documentation re: 1985 Leica presentation . Among other things, what strikes me is the relative simplicity of the packaging, completely utilitarian, functional.

*************

Compare it with the unboxing of an M10.

 

 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the Reason You Can’t Explain Why You Love Your Leica

 

This seems an appropriate photo for this discussion

I’ve just got done plowing my way through an important work of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception, which reproduces a number of his works that first appeared in various publications from 1947 to 1961. I read it so you won’t have to; trust me, you don’t want to. Like much 20th century French philosophy, it’s turgid, bombastic, over-written – and fascinating in a WTF? sort of way…. but it has obvious implications for us as photographers, and particularly as “Leica photographers” who find a certain aesthetic value in the act of photographing itself. So bear with me. You might just learn something.

According to Merleau-Ponty, philosophy has long stressed thinking as opposed to doing as the way we understand things.  This is because western philosophy has always thought of the mind as something distinct from the world: there is the thinking self and then there are physical things, and it’s the mind, not the body, that is the site of thinking and learning. This is referred to in philosophy as “dualism,” the idea that your mind is something different than stuff out there, somehow roped off from that ‘out-there,’ sort of like a puppeteer pulling the strings of your physical body after first developing an intellectual understanding of how to do things.

According to Merleau-Ponty, however, this dualistic idea is wrong. He notes that we are in the habit of saying that we ‘have’ a body, which is not correct: you are not somehow outside your body… rather you are your body. Your mind is not somehow outside of time and space. Instead, it’s part of your body, a body that thinks, feels, desires, looks ahead, reflects. Thinking always emerges out of lived bodily experience, and what we do with our bodies profoundly shapes how and what we think.

Your body is the means by which you interact with the world, and, as such, it is the stuff of the world that is the necessary food for your thinking. Humans are thinking animals whose thinking is always infused with the physical, our minds not somehow apart from the rest of nature, but necessarily “embodied, ” indivisible from the physical,  and we learn not exclusively intellectually but when our embodied mind acts in the world.

*************

Take the example of a learned skill like dancing: Merleau-Ponty’s distinction explains why highly educated, self-conscious humans like me are usually terrible dancers, what I’ve heard referred to as suffering from the “honky pox” [for god’s sake, please do not ask me to dance]. To somebody like me who intellectualizes things, I’ll try to learn to dance by memorizing a sequence of steps, thinking my mind will then know how to move my body like a puppeteer pulls strings to move a puppet. For Merleau-Ponty, I’m an over-intellectualized idiot missing the obvious: the way to learn to dance is to move one’s physical body in space. The mind does not reflect and make a conscious decision before the body moves; the mind moves with the body.

In reply, you might say that this is true for physical activities like dancing but shouldn’t apply to all intellectual pursuits. Merleau-Ponty would respond that our body is our means of having a world. Everything we learn, think or know comes from our body. For example, walking through a meadow, rafting a river, or riding a bike in the country are how we understand geography, not by sitting in a room, looking at a map. There is no way for us to learn that bypasses the body: “the body is our anchorage in a world”.

This explains why a lot of what you know, what you’re certain about, can’t be put into words. People learn, think and value with every part of their bodies, and our bodies know things that we can never fully articulate. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, and capable of being known. That’s why you can’t explain with any specificity why you love your M4, even though you know you do and you know the experience is real. And it’s why the photographic philistines, the guys rocking their Sony A7r’s and posting at DPR review, smug in their technological sophistication, think you’re crazy to be going on and on about some ineffable magic thing your Leica possesses that you claim their digital imaging device doesn’t. But it’s the reason behind the oft-repeated claim of photographers who experience their photography as somehow more satisfying, more authentic, in winding a shutter, setting your aperture, focusing you lens, developing and handling a negative – in short, interacting with your camera’s functions and the act of photography itself – instead of the incoherent act of pushing a button and staring at a screen with a nested menu of commands to produce an intangible file that exists nowhere in particular.

One of the things you’ll hear again and again when photographers who use Leica try to articulate why they prefer it over a more technologically sophisticated device is that it just feels right, it “works.” When you say that, you’re trying to give words to body experience, to knowledge gained by doing, by interacting in a physical way with your tools, not by reading a spec sheet and internalizing the data. I think the main reason photographers continue to gravitate to old Leica’s is because they ‘work,’ they’re a perfect match between form and function. They feel right.*** That doesn’t quite get at it, but it’s as close as you can articulate it. Digital advocates sometimes seem to forget that we are animals that want to move and interact in the world, we need to do things and thereby learn, not sit back and passively watch from a screen as a device makes our decisions for us.


***Postscript: Shortly after publishing this piece, a reader named Lee Rust replied with his description of what I’m trying to get at, an articulation I’m including here on the face of the post because I think it’s gets close to the heart of that ineffable quality of using a Leica that one experiences via usage:

“The Leica M film cameras are a sensory delight. The shape, size, weight and surface textures have been consistent over many decades and are naturally suited to the hand. Just like a baseball, they are meant to be gripped and there’s nothing that sticks out and pokes. The controls are simple and clearly marked, and the buttons, dials, rings and tabs find the fingers with unambiguous tactility. The lenses are compact, the viewfinder bright and uncluttered and the rangefinder simple and direct. The shutter makes soft but complex sounds, especially when the slow speed gears add their springy little bounce. The winder advances the film and sets the shutter with a quiet creak and affirming click. The separate bottom plate and hinged back door make the loading of each new cassette a deliberate ritual of preparation and expectation.

For those who are attuned to it, a Leica M film camera makes the composition and exposure of each frame into a discrete physical experience that is quite separate from the resulting photographic image.”

The Leica CL: The Compact Film Camera That Killed the M5

Leica CL with 40mm Minolta M-Rokkor f/2 (Image Red Dot Cameras)

[Editor’s Note: This is an article co-writtenby William Fagan and Mike Evans and first published some months ago at Macfilos, an excellent photography website hosted by Mike Evans (That’s Mike to the right, with a red dot on his forehead).  William is a member of The International Leica Society and an avid Leica collector. Mike is a former journalist and communications professional who started the Macfilos blog in 2008. Mike has written for Leicaphilia before. While Macfilos started as a blog about Apple and the then-new iPhone,  it has since developed into a photography source, with lots of good Leica content among other things. A keen amateur photographer, Mike is “involved in the Leica world” and enjoys close relations with Leica UK. He’s also got a good sense of humor and is a nice guy who generously allowed me to steal his content.]


 

The recent introduction of a modern Leica CL has focused attention on the original CL from the 1970s. ‘CL’ stood for ‘compact Leica’, a compact rangefinder camera, which was manufactured in Japan by Minolta for Leica between 1973 and 1976. Minolta also sold a version of the camera called the Leitz Minolta CL and later Minolta developed a more advanced version called the Minolta CLE.

Whatever happened to the Leica CL? Many consider it was too good for its boots. It arrived at a time of great flux in Wetzlar, when the company was undergoing yet another identity crisis. The popular and successful M4 had been superseded by the advanced — very underrated but ultimately too ‘unconventional’ for mainstream success — Leica M5. The M5 model was produced in small numbers between 1971 and 1975. Despite its advanced features, including light metering, it wasn’t well received, not least because of its large size. In desperation, Leica brought the M4 back from the dead, shortly before the company’s Canadian phase when the unmetered Leica M4 re-appeared in two new guises, the M4-2 and the M4-P.

But in the background at this time was the Leica CL, a smaller camera which was designed in cooperation with Minolta and intended to be a more compact rangefinder alternative to the M5, but sharing some similar features such as metering. After its launch in 1973 it succeeded in that goal. Too well, unfortunately. Many adopted it because they wanted the light metering ability of the M5 but in a smaller package. The CL outsold the M5 (65,000 v 33900 according to the production numbers) and many believe that this is the reason Leica halted manufacture in 1976. It would be another eight years before light metering came to the M with the introduction of the M6.

Still wrapped and unopened after 40 years: Part of a trove of CLs bought recently by Red Dot Cameras (Image Mike Evans)

Admirers

Designed jointly by Leica and Minolta and manufactured by Minolta in Japan, the Leica CL is often considered a “mutant” camera, even sometimes being labelled as “not an actual Leica” by Leica purists. But the truth is that this unconventional pairing of manufacturers has been a primary reason for the camera developing a close group of admirers.

The Leica CL is a 35 mm compact rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses in the Leica M-mount. It first appeared in April 1973 and was released in the Japanese market in November 1973 as the Leitz Minolta CL. Both the Leica CL and Leitz Minolta CL were manufactured in a new Minolta factory in Osaka.

The Leica CL has a vertical-running focal-plane shutter, with cloth curtains, giving ½ to 1/1000 speeds. There is a through-the-lens CdS exposure meter mounted on a pivoting arm just in front of the shutter, similar to that on the Leica M5. The exposure is manual and is set using a needle system. The shutter is mechanical, but the shutter speed set is visible in the viewfinder just like the M5. The camera can still be used without any battery. There were two special C lenses produced for the camera, a 40mm f/2 and a 90mm f/4, both made in Germany. The finder’s framelines are for a 40mm, 50mm or 90mm lens. The 40mm and 50mm framelines appear when a 40mm or 50mm lens is mounted and the 40mm and 90mm framelines appear when the 90mm lens is mounted.

Leica CL with the 40mm Rokkor (Image Red Dot Cameras)

The original CL is a superbly compact and relatively cheap camera on which to use M-mount lenses, but it does not have a rangefinder as precise as that of any Leica M body. The rangefinder base of the CL is 31.5mm and the viewfinder magnification is 0.60, leading to a small effective rangefinder base of 18.9mm. This is probably too short for accurate focusing with lenses longer than 90mm and fast lenses used at full aperture. Some users report the camera is rather fragile, especially the rangefinder alignment and meter mechanism.

Sixty-five thousand serial numbers were allotted to the Leica CL, and this number does not include the Leitz Minolta CL. 3,500 examples of the CL received a special “50 Jahre” marking in 1975, for Leica’s 50th anniversary.It is also said that 50 demonstration examples were made. They are completely operational, with the top plate cut away to show the internal mechanism.

Here is an example of the 50th anniversary model from William’s collection with the 40mm and 90mm lenses, a special leather purse to contain the camera plus 40mm lens and a thin haze filter which fits between the rubber lens hood and the front element on both lenses.

Leica CL 50th Anniversary model from William’s collection (Image William Fagan)

Leica M5

The Leica M5 is a 35 mm camera by Leica Camera AG, introduced in 1971. It was the first Leica rangefinder camera to feature through-the-lens (TTL) metering and the last to be made entirely in Wetzlar by hand using the traditional “adjust and fit” method.

Leica M5 sales were very disappointing, and production was halted in 1975 after 33,900 units (from 1287001 to last serial number 1384000; 10750 chrome and 23150 black chrome bodies). Cost was an issue for the M5 body. In today’s currency (Consumer Price Index Integer) the price is around $4200.

Rangefinder camera sales were seriously undermined during this period by the predominance of mass-produced SLRs, primarily from Japan. In addition, Leica continued selling the M4 in 1974 and 1975, and the Leica CL was fully represented in the market by 1973. The UK Leica catalogue for 1975 lists the M4 and M5 and the CL.

Often cited as also contributing to the poor sales are the larger size and weight, the departure from the classical M design, the impossibility of attaching a motor winder, as well as the incompatibility with certain deep-seated wide angle lenses and collapsible lenses (i.e. 28 mm Elmarit below serial number 2 314 920) – see furher details below.The larger body dimensions also prevent the use of many M series accessories, such as external hand grips, quick release plates for tripod heads, or the Leica Lens Carrier M. The M5 is actually wider than the Nikon F, the camera that started the slide in the fortunes of Leica. There is an interesting story beyond the scope of this article about how the Leica company ignored the warnings about the threat from SLRs from its own engineers and then delayed the introduction of the Leicaflex until it was too late to recover. The M5 represents a failed attempt to make up lost ground.

Leica reverted to the M4 and its M4-2 (often called ‘the camera that saved Leica’) and M4-P developments, until the coming of the Leica M6, which offered built-in metering, albeit through the use of more electronic circuitry, while retaining the classic M design.

Here is a size comparison photo of some items from William’s collection, including a CL with 40mm f/2 Summicron and the M5 with a chrome 50mm f/2 Summicron and the M4-2 with a black 50mm f/2 Summicron. For proper comparison the M4-2 is wearing an MR light meter as the other two cameras have built-in metering.

The CL, M5 and M-42 with MR light meter — examples from William’s collection (Image William Fagan)

The M4-2 can be used with the M4-2 winder, which William has, but he decided not to mount it as neither of the other two cameras can be used with winders.

The CL and the M5 were designed to be used with PX 625 1.35 volt mercury oxide batteries, which were subsequently banned. They can be used today with Wein Cells or be modified to take modern PX 625 A 1.5 volt alkaline batteries. Williams article here deals with these issues in the context of an M5.

The M5 is now a relatively uncommon type, and their price on the second-hand market is comparable to that of the M6. M5s were discovered by Japanese collectors in the late 1990s and their price experienced a sharp rise at that time.

Boxes of new CLs and CL lenses discovered recently by Red Dot Cameras after lying in storage for over 40 years (Image Mike Evans)

Lenses for the Leica CL

The CL was sold with two lenses specially designed for it: the Leitz Summicron-C 40mm f/2, sold as the normal lens, and the Leitz Elmar-C 90mm f/4 tele lens. Both take the uncommon Series 5.5 filters. A Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm f/2.8 was also briefly produced but it is said that only 400 were made and they are now valuable collectors’ items

The lenses specially designed for the Leica CL can physically mount on a Leica M body, but Leica recommended not doing so because it would not give the best focusing precision, allegedly because the coupling cam of the C and M lenses is not the same. However, some people say that it is unimportant and that they can be used perfectly well on an M. Indeed in Williams experience he finds that the 90mm C lens is one of the most accurate 90mm lenses on an M.

When sold with a Leitz Minolta CL, the lenses were called Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 (later just Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f/2) (see picture at top) and Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. It is said that the 40mm was made in Japan by Minolta while the 90mm was made by Leitz and is rare. With the later Minolta CLE, Minolta would produce lenses of the same name but with a different coupling system, the same as the Leica M lenses. A new Minolta M-Rokkor 28mm f/2.8 lens was introduced as well. All these lenses can be mounted on the CL too. Rokkor-branded lenses for the CL and CLE take the more easily found 40.5mm filter size.

The CL can take nearly all the Leica M lenses. Exceptions are some lenses that protrude deep into the body and could hurt the meter arm, which resembles a swinging lollipop. Such lenses include hese include: 15mm/8 Hologon, 21mm/4 Super Angulon, 28mm/2.8 Elmarits before serial number 2314921. The eyed lenses, including the M3 wide-angle lenses, the 135mm/2.8 Elmarit, and the 50mm/2 Dual Range Summicron, cannot be mounted either because they are incompatible with the body shape. The 90mm/2 Summicron and 135mm/4 Tele-Elmar are incompatible too. The collapsible lenses can be mounted but they must not be fully collapsed to avoid contact with the meter on a ‘swinging lollipop’ and Leitz advised to stick an adhesive strip of adequate width to the barrel, to limit the collapsing movement. Another limitation is that the rangefinder is only coupled until 0.8m. The same issues also apply to the M5, which also has its meter on a similar swinging arm, visible here.

William had to put an adaptor on this M5 in order to persuade it to show its ‘lollipop’.

The M5 with “lollipop” meter arm saying cheese for the camera (Image William Fagan)

Resurrection

The CL was consigned to history and, eventually, Leica got itself back on track with the M6, the M7 and, latterly, with a blossoming range of digital Ms.

Now it’s all ambiance as the new digital CL takes over the hallowed name after 40 years (Image Leica Camera AG)

The CL, as a film camera of course, was potentially just as capable as the M4 and M5. They were all, as we say these days, full frame. In those days full frame meant ‘not half frame’. It is interesting also that, whereas in the 1970s Leica was trying to make up ground on cameras with flapping mirrors, these days Leica seems to have left flapping mirrors behind with its move to EVF’s. A whole new era of Compact Leica (CL) photography has commenced with the launch of the new CL with EVF last autumn.

Thanks to Red Dot Cameras for supplying the shots of the Leica CL. According to Mike, It’s a good place to look if you’re in the market for a Leica

WTF?

Apparently, Sire von Overgaard has now graduated to a Kingship.

Many years ago, while a graduate student at Duke University, I took a seminar  Personology: Method and Personality Assessment and Psychobiography taught by Dr. Irving Alexander, Professor of Psychology at Duke, who has literally written the book on the subject. In short, it’s a method that uses a person’s written output and self-presentation to assess signature like unconscious features of a given person’s personality, fascinating stuff that leaks out of people’s attempts to present a coherent face to the world. Mr. Overgaard is just begging for a Psychobiography, and I may just be the man to do it. Stay tuned.

In any event: 90% Discount! Get whatever it is while it lasts. And, in a spirit of competition, I’m matching his 90% off sale with one of my own. Details here. Use code “IMSTILLGETTING RIPPED OFF” to claim your discount.

The Enduring Beauty of Things Made to Last

Above is one of the first SLR cameras I owned as a kid, A Mamiya/Sekor 528TL. I was 12. It was an amateur’s camera, a fixed lens SLR with telephoto and wide angle attachments. I didn’t keep it long. What I wanted was a Nikon F. You could change lenses on the Nikon F. To a 12 year old, that seemed incredibly cool, the ability to change lenses. The Mamiya was decidedly not cool, so I convinced my parents that I needed a better camera and the Mamiya went wherever unused cameras went back in 1970.

A few years ago I ran across one on Ebay and bought it on a whim – it was $10. I figured, why not, I’d put it up on the shelf as a piece of nostalgia, maybe even use it occasionally when feeling in a retro mood. Once I got it in the mail I realized my initial 12 y/o’s assessment of the camera had been pretty much correct. It was a piece of junk, made in Korea, obviously thrown together without much thought to precision or longevity, a 1970’s era throw-away.

Which is unusual. Film cameras back in the day were typically built robustly, made to last, not in thrall to a consumerist ethic that required replacement with “better” technology every 18 months or so. Not that manufacturers wouldn’t have liked us to be buying a new camera every 18 months; it was just that the mechanical technology was static in a way that didn’t lend itself to constant upgrading, so cameras were typically built solidly, with longevity and robustness as a selling point. You’d buy a camera – a Nikon F or a Leica M – with the understanding that you’d keep it for a lifetime. There might be newer models to come along, something a little sexier, but basically the same technology presented in a new package.

Where it all began to change was with the introduction of electronics in cameras – meters, and then auto exposure and auto focus – and the pace of technology dictated that cameras became consumer goods, something with a limited technological shelf life that required upgrading at fixed intervals. As such, the notion of robustness, building something with longevity in mind, became an anachronism. Of course there were exceptions – the M5 and M6 come to mind, as does the Nikon F2 and Canon F1.

*************

This all came back to me the other day as I was out riding my new (to me) Schwinn Paramount road bike. Growing up, I admired fine road racing bikes the way I admired fine cameras. And back in 1970, at least here in the States, there was nothing more desirable and exclusive than a Paramount. I remember seeing one hanging in the window of the bike shop, a beautiful jewel of a bike, ridiculously expensive and out of reach for most people, certainly for a kid like me. One day, I told myself, I’d have a Schwinn Paramount.

The Paramount has an interesting history. It was first produced by Schwinn, a large American bicycle maker, in 1938, and remained essentially the same bike up through the mid-80’s, when bike technology started a progressive trajectory much like cameras. Schwinn hired an old world master frame maker –  Emil Wastyn – to build frames for Schwinn’s professional six-day racing team. Emil ran a bicycle frame shop not far from the Chicago Schwinn factory. Soon, a select number of Paramount-labeled bikes began to appear for sale to the general public.

During the next twenty years, Wastyn hand-built all Schwinn’s Paramounts at his shop. The earliest Paramounts followed his signature styling (balled-end seat stays, for example) and keyhole-styled lugs. Over the years, Paramounts gradually evolved their own specific style – particularly the famous slant trimmed seat stays which remained in effect for 50 years. Schwinn also produced a variety of machined components to complement the frame – beautifully crafted wide-flange hubs, stems, handlebars and even pedals, each marked with the Schwinn name in script. By the 60’s, Schwinn had brought hand-built production in shop and offered Paramounts with top of the line Italian Campagnolo components, with corresponding prices to match.

Think of the Schwinn Paramount as the Leica of American made racing bikes, the best, most refined version of a steel framed road racing cycle, a no-expense spared hand built machine with functionality as its premier design feature, nothing extraneous or thrown in for fashion. Like Leicas, they’ve become collectors items for guys my age, nostalgic for the things they wanted but couldn’t afford in their youth. Technologically, they’re simple, 22 lb fully mechanical lugged steel framed and shiny chromed artworks. Most collectors hang them on the wall and never ride them, which is a shame, because, as I’ve discovered, they’re still sublime to ride even 50 years old.

*************

My 1969 Schwinn Paramount P-13

Above is my Paramount, which I’ve owned for all of two weeks. I found it on a whim on Craigslist in Richmond, VA, a 200 mile ride from my home in North Carolina. It was being sold by the original owner, and he had receipts back to his purchase of the bike in 1969. It wasn’t period correct in that he had upgraded the drive train to a 90’s era Campagnolo 8 speed with modern style shifters, but it still had the same beautiful box section wheels with high-flange Campy hubs, and the drive train upgrades were top of the line Campagnolo circa 1992. And it looked in good condition from the pics he posted. And it was cheap. I called him, paypalled him the asking price sight unseen, then rode to Richmond to pick it up. The bike was pristine, obviously cared for, almost new, and mechanically, everything worked perfectly. I drove home marveling at my good fortune.

My intent had been to strip the frame, sell the vintage Campy components and replace them with a modern groupset with modern wheels. As such, I’d have the best of both worlds – a beautiful hand built steel lugged frame mated to modern lightweight components. One ride on the bike changed my mind forever. Its 10 mile shakedown ride turned into a 6 hour, 100 mile ride – without the usual earbuds and ZZ Top blasting away over the creaking of the carbon fiber frame – cruising eastern North Carolina farm roads. Used to riding 17 lb carbon fiber bikes, I assumed my Paramount ride would feel heavy and slow and harsh, probably accompanied by the metallic twang of misaligned gears and loose nuts and bolts. Instead, the Paramount rode perfectly quiet, the 50 year old hubs rolling along with a smooth effortlessness I’d never experienced before, not a rattle anywhere on the bike, everything solid and purposeful. And it felt light. Sprinting out of the saddle or climbing hills was a revelation of what a bike should feel like. In short, the Paramount offered something close to perfection, a sublime experience of a machine perfectly matched to its function.

It made me think of my Leica M4, produced during the same year as my Paramount. From a technical perspective, hopelessly outdated, laughable almost when compared to the M10 or the D800, good only for nostalgia. In reality though, it’s just the opposite, the Paramount and the M4 two examples of machines of profound elegance, perfectly made for their intended purpose, made with an artisanal pride and built to last seemingly forever, unlike today’s “imaging devices” and 15 lb carbon fiber bikes.

*************

Just Shoot Me If I Ever Become This Guy

I hate nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, old stuff is just shitty old stuff, as my Mamiya 528TL proves. I don’t ever want to become that guy with the M4 and the beret who fancies himself Josef Koudelka with all the period correct lenses etc, or the old guy with the 60’s era wool jersey and the leather helmet out for his Sunday “L’Eroica” retro ride. That attitude doesn’t befit the inherent worth of the M4 or the Paramount, two beautiful hand crafted machines that work perfectly for their intended use, and as such, are not “vintage” and will never be obsolete.

I’ve been riding the hell out of the Paramount since I’ve gotten it. It’s shined up perfectly, cleaned top to bottom, not a scratch on it, but I’m intent on riding it hard, using it for its intended purpose, much like I still use my Leica film cameras. They weren’t made to put on a shelf or hang on a wall. They were made to be used, and the pleasure of their use will prevent them from ever becoming obsolete, which is not something you can say for a camera or a bicycle you can buy new today.

The Existential Dilemma of an M5 Lover

Readers of the blog are well aware that I’m fond of the M5. As far as metered mechanical M film bodies, I think it’s the best of the bunch, ergonomically superior to the classic M bodied M6. As for the M7, it really isn’t a classic M given the electronic shutter and step-less aperture priority automatic exposure control.

I’ve owned a slew of M5’s over the years, my first purchased in the 70’s. I’ve also owned an early classic (i.e. non-TTL metered) M6, and it’s also a beautiful camera, although the M5 feels to me more solid and refined, and all of the M5’s are TTL metered with an excellent spot meter. As for the ergonomics, I like the M5’s match-needle meter reading, much preferring it to the M6’s annoying red diode meter reading. I also love the M5’s overhanging shutter speed dial combined with the shutter speed shown in the viewfinder, which allows you to keep the camera to your eye while fiddling with the shutter speed. With the M6, you’ve got to take the camera from your eye to see what shutter speed you’re using. The M5 seems to load better too; it’s the only M that seems fool-proof to load. Little things, I know, but better nonetheless. And maybe I’m just imagining things, but the M5 viewfinder seems bigger and brighter than the M6’s.

I even like the aesthetics of the M5. Granted, the classic M profile of the M6 is a thing of beauty, an example of the timelessness of the design. As for the M5, its design met with criticism when introduced and for many it’s still an acquired taste, but I’ve always found it elegant in its own way, designed by Leitz from the ground up for functionality, as evidenced by the original 2 lug design so that the camera would hang vertically on the strap, although Leitz subsequently bowed to traditionalists and added a 3rd lug allowing the camera to hang in a “normal” horizontal position. In any event the M5 is a classic example of form following function, which is the design gold standard. I like the fact that its different, a unique M. While most Leicaphiles have never used one, they’re prone to repeating the same tired criticisms first leveled at the M5 by its initial detractors in the 70’s – ugly, too big, not a “real” M etc etc. Usually, you simply need to pick one up and use it for a bit – and then it makes perfect sense. It’s a superb camera, to my eye simple yet beautiful, and simple and functional in use.

************

So….I’ve currently got two of them, a black three lug and a chrome 2 lug. Both work perfectly. The black M5 (#1377140, which puts it at the tail end of black chrome M5 production in late 1973) was CLA’d by Sheri Krauter (to the tune of $450) about 10 years ago and works as nicely as the day it left her hands. Meter works perfectly. The only issue it has is that the mask showing the shutter speeds in the viewfinder has dropped out of place, so you currently can’t see the shutter speeds in the viewfinder. Other than that, it works like new, shutter speeds spot-on down to 1 second, everything – in the words of dentist Leicaphiles everywhere – “buttery smooth.”

The Chrome M5 (#1347010, production date 4/72) is an interesting piece, as I’ve written about here. It’s a 2 lug “Panda” i.e. a chrome bodied camera with black chrome shutter lever, film return lever and and hot-shoe bracket. I’ve never seen another one, and have no idea if other M5 Pandas exist. For all I know, the guys putting them together that day decided to have some fun by mixing and matching. Whatever the explanation, it’s unique. Like the black M5 it’s in great shape, having just been CLA’d by Alan Starkey in the UK. He went over it head-to-toe, and it works perfectly, “buttery smooth.”

*************

The point of all this is I’m selling one of them and keeping the other. One of them – I’m not going to say which – has been with me since new and I’ve developed a certain affinity for it. I’ve said elsewhere that I would never sell it, as it’s like an old friend. Of course, as readers have no doubt noticed, anything I say is subject to change without notice, which, I explain to my wife, is actually a positive quality, the result of an open mind. However, there are certain things about the other one I really like, non-functional aesthetic things subjective  in nature, and to this point I’ve been incapable of making the choice of which to let go and which to keep, which is where you come in…..

I’m offering both for sale, the black chrome 3 lug for $1100/shipped, and the chrome 2 lug for $1300/shipped, payment by Paypal or Bitcoin. *** (And no, they don’t come with the lens shown in the pictures). Whichever sells first I sell, which ever is left over I keep. Problem solved.

Frankly, if you closed your eyes and picked up both cameras, you couldn’t tell the difference in use. They both work flawlessly and should for many moons. Cosmetically, they’re both in very good condition – no dents, obvious flaws etc, just two M5’s that have been well taken care of. They’re covered by my usual return policy: if you get it and don’t like it, send it back, no harm, no hard feelings.


***Update: Chrome Panda M5 is sold.

The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

*************

In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

Digital Photography is Making People Crazy

Does This Selfie Make Me Look Fat?


If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where the ‘black mirror’ is – the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a television, a monitor, a smartphone. 

-Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror***


File this under the heading of “The Law of Unintended Consequences of Our Brave New World:” Snapchat selfies are making a lot of people crazy.

In an article  in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Neelam Vashi, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Boston University and Assistant Director of the Boston University Cosmetic & Laser Center, describes a digital photography side-effect he’s seeing more of recently – kids and young adults with “body dysmorphia” as a result of using Snapchat filters and editing software when they take pictures of themselves. Vashi says the pervasiveness of these filtered images is screwing with kids’ self esteem and “may even act as a trigger to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an excessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in appearance, classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.”

In an interview posted to the JAMA Network website, Vashi explained: “Photo editing can make one’s face more symmetrical, have more of these features that are considered beautiful like big eyes or a small nose. Now people are bringing in photos of themselves that are filtered, that are edited, and this can often impact them in a negative way because (cosmetic surgery) patients can have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved through cosmetic procedures and surgery.”

“I try to educate my patients,” says Vashi, “but at the end of the day, what I’ve personally found is they want the look they’re showing you in the photographs, and not the one we’re taking with standard photography.”

Welcome to the dystopian future, brought to you courtesy of digitization.

*************

On a related note, Wim Wenders thinks that photography is dead.