Forget the M10: The iPhone is the New Digital Leica – Part 3

What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach. – John B. Crane, Nikon F6 Project

I did some travelling this last summer, and, while doing so, wrote a number of posts about using my iPhone 6 as my camera for the trip. The gist of those posts was that I’d discovered the benefits, photographically, of travelling light. I’d been away for almost a month, a couple of weeks travelling through Italy by train and bus from friends’ residence in Mantua and then to Paris for a further week with friends there. I’d packed the usual gear – a couple of camera bodies, both film and digital, a bag of film, the usual compliment of lenses, intending as I usually do when travelling to document the experience. Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively.

I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the photos I’d taken while away, not without first having to surmount a number of problems created by a combination of my ignorance and the potential pitfalls that always lurk on the margins of digital capture. After getting home, I tried to download the photos from my phone to my computer for permanent storage and further editing, only to discover that the photos weren’t on my phone but in the Cloud, which is fine, except I have no idea how to access said cloud, which necessitated a trip to my local Apple Store where some pleasant young woman, speaking to me deliberately as if I were some addled senior with incipient dementia, helped me jailbreak my Cloud account. Having done so, secure in the knowledge that my photos existed somewhere, I then proceeded to erase them from my iPhone, whereupon I learned that I’d also just deleted them from my Cloud. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

A push of the button and a majority of what I had shot on my trip vanished without recovery. Luckily, at some point, while the photos still resided “on my phone” I had somehow managed to save a number of them to Lightroom, how I’m not sure. There seems no explanation as to why I was able to save some and not others. Suffice it to say my photos of Italian manhole covers survived intact, which is some consolation for the deletion of the majority of others.

I’ll always be able to relive memories of the Italian sewer system.

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Which leads to the larger question: So what? So, I’ve lost a bunch of tourist snaps. I’ve still got the experience, and the memories; having lost the photos doesn’t erase that. But it’s incredibly frustrating none the less, even though I’ve no one but myself to blame. Had I been more sophisticated about how this all works, I’d have taken the appropriate steps to secure my digital files before deleting them. But I didn’t, and most of them are now gone. Forever.

I still do have about 500 of what had been over 3000 photos I’d taken. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I travelled with a film camera I could be gone for 6 weeks and come home with 20 rolls (700 negatives) and feel as if I’d sufficiently photographed what I’d wanted to, so the idea that I’d returned home from Italy and France with 500 photos shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, its different. When film was the norm, I gave thought to what I’d photograph, knowing my means to do so were limited by how much film I had. As a film photographer, I was discerning in what photographed. I gave thought to each shot I took. Ostansibly, there was a reason for any given exposure on a roll of film.

Thousands of pictures like this – gone

The ease of digital capture has changed that. We’re now able, without increased cost and with minimal added work, to photograph everything. And we do, as the files that I serendipitously salvaged from from my trip evidence – manhole covers and Pizza School handbills.Powerful, arresting, non-cliched photography seems rarer than ever, as if the ease and ubiquity of digital capture has overrun our critical faculties. The iPhone seems to have turned the craft of photography for an entire generation into something radically banal, a means to document make-up strategies and dinner choices.  We’re drowning in “meaningless, throwaway imagery shot millions of times a day,” having lost any critical discernment about the miracle of photography and its awesome power to arrest and transform discrete moments of life.

Throw into this the sad fact that digitization is compromising photography as a means of historical documentation, something I’ve written about at length, most recently here. Just this morning, a reader left a comment to that piece that speaks eloquently to the issue:

When my grandmother passed away recently, we found boxes and boxes of her old handwritten letters to/from her sister who was living overseas. But years from now, there will be no shoebox of love letters from todays’ grandma or grandpa. There will only be the cloud, made impenetrable by a lack of password. Long forgotten Facebook accounts will stand like a vast field of tombstones, many hidden from view or minimized in presence. The millions of photos taken by the average person will disappear with the loss of phones, the demise of harddrives, the replacement of computers.

I have much of my old schoolwork from decades ago, as well as school notices about upcoming excursions and music recitals. Today’s students now receive emails and automated attendance forms via the school system, which will disappear with the years, too.

Like the proverbial cockroach, good paper and negatives will survive. I’ve re-begun the practice of shooting a few well chosen film images each time I go out somewhere interesting. This gives me a permanent record of the highlights of my life, which is really how it was done in the old days. Negs are saved and scans and prints are made, and my photo albums grow one roll at a time. [Emphasis added]

1976. Someone important to me, now lost to time. The negative tucked away in a binder. Photos like this have enriched my life. I’m lucky to have them

His solution has become mine as well. I’ve spent 15 years now dabbling in digital photography, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s a Faustian Bargain. What it gives in ease of use and technical perfection it takes away in its lack of moderation, which, as the Ancients knew already, is the key to all things. So, I’m now recommitted to film photography, to the ideal of a few well chosen images that will construct a permanent record of the highlights of my life. A modest project, no doubt, in an era, in theory, of almost unlimited photographic possibilities, but good enough for me as it reminds of the simple yet profound miracle of photography.

Leica’s Continuing Appeal

Lars Netopil is vice president of the Leica Historical Society and the owner of the Leica Store Wetzlar Old-town). He is also an advisor for Leica Camera AG’s Historical Archive and Museum Department. The following is his take on the continued popularity of the Leica M line and the difference between a digital and film Leica:

Q: 60 Years of M-System – a history of highs and lows, but more than anything a history of a continuity, compatibility and charisma that is unprecedented in the camera industry. And that applies to both analogue and digital. With the M Edition 60, Leica have now released a digital model that seems the very embodiment of the M concept. How would you as a historian describe the secret behind the sheer timelessness of the rangefinder concept?

A: There have been, and still are, a number of great camera systems. However, the Leica, and in particular the Leica M, are in a different league: socially, emotionally and in terms of prestige. David Douglas Duncan voiced this when I spoke to him just recently. At an age of nearly 99, he looks back over 60 years of the M as an experienced photographer. You have already named one important factor – the system’s uncompromising compatibility. An M3from 1954 can still receive the full Leica service, and can be used with all contemporary M lenses without restrictions. This is globally unique in several ways. If you consider every M lens produced over the past sixty years to always have been the best in the world, this compatibility is certainly far from insignificant. Along with all of its technological merits, the prestige, according to Duncan, certainly also plays a part in the secret. To draw a parallel to the automobile market: A customer who buys a Ferrari, even just for the purpose of driving through Frankfurt, still has the winner’s podium of Formula One somewhere in his mind. Also, the Leica always was and still is a fashion item. This is something we currently notice most strongly with our customers in China. There, you “wear” a Leica – regardless of whether each and every customer necessarily utilises the true image capabilities of the lenses, or not. There is another factor I would like to address, and that’s the system’s permanence. A photographer who buys an analogue M does so for a lifetime. The same goes for M lenses.

It is very interesting to see the Leica M Edition 60. In essence, it is a digital M7 that has been stripped back to ISO control, TTL exposure meter and optional aperture priority mode. For the purpose of pure, truly concentrated photography it is probably the most attractive digital camera currently on the market. But it is digital nevertheless, meaning: an electronic product in the widest sense, whose validity is subject to a finite time period. To use an analogy: The tires on your car will one day have to be discarded, regardless of their superior quality, and even regardless of whether you wore them out on the road or kept them in perfect condition on your cherished collector’s car – even then, they will crack with the strain of time at some point. In the same vein, no matter how high-end the digital M’s opto-mechanical rangefinder may be, the rest of the camera is more or less a computer. This is why Leica made an excellent decision in creating the Leica M-A, illustrating a very clear commitment to analogue photography. In sixty years time, a contemporary M-A will still work just as remarkably as an M3 from 1954 does today. And the same goes for the M lenses, some of which will be 120 years old by then.

Determining the Shutter Count on the M8/M9

Less than 1000 actuations

“Shutter count” is a big issue when selling your digital camera, rightfully so as it gives a good idea about how the camera has been used. Digital cameras, being exclusively electronic, have a limited usable lifespan directly correlated to amount of use, unlike mechanical film cameras that tend to be maintained better by frequent use.

Unfortunately, the first few iterations of digital Leicas – the M8 and M9 – don’t allow easy access to shutter count data, ( not sure about any models past the M9, so this could presumably work for those as well if actuation totals weren’t made available in a menu) with most folks resorting to investigating EXIF data from the camera files and then converting certain hexadecimal numerical values (typical digital Leica weirdness; I’m sure there’s someone somewhere trying to make the argument that this lends greater authenticity to the experience of determining shutter count).

There actually is a way to determine shutter count via your M8/M9 without resorting to a slide rule:

Turn the camera on.
Press the right arrow key 4 times.
Press the left arrow key 3 times.
Press the right arrow key 1 more time.
Press the info button.
Scroll down to body debug data.
Press Set.
Scroll down to NUMEXPOSURES.
Turn camera off to exit.

Simple, like all things Leica.

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*You’ll find a 9150 actuation M8 for sale here at reduced price of $1350/shipping. I refuse to sell this on Ebay. Someone will get a really nice M8 if that’s your thing.

Makes Really Deep Gudeshon. Comes With Free Shipping.

Above, a nice looking early production IIIa, model G -(not to be confused with the IIIg) with a 50mm Summar being offered on Ebay by a Japanese seller. Looks nice enough, asking price  $962.94 US, which, in addition to being a weird number, seems a little high.

What’s interesting about the camera is the seller’s description, which looks like it’s been run through Google Translate one too many times:

1935 – The Barnack Leica Leica ‡Va made in 48 years. Shed is a window is good parentheses.??I am speaking of Leica, I believe that Barnack rather than the M-type.??Rugged feel I feel the machine love.???With respect to the operation, there is no problem at all strong.???Double image also meet at infinity.??Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 lens is bright non-coated. Since the non-coated that will be fluffy in the backlighting, but such order light and cloudy or rainy day, you make a really deep Gudeshon.??? You have passed from manufacturing more than 70 years, it has maintained a generally good condition. Operation is also light.???* Also has exhibition of a classic camera that has been across the hand any person Over the decades. Purchase of direction and viscous qualitatively more nervous those seeking the status of the new par, please do not.???* Also because it exhibits elsewhere, please let me know before you buy.??Manufacturer: Ernst Rights Wetzlar??Model: ‡Va??Year of Manufacture: 1935-48 years??Lens: Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 (. Although there is a clouding of about 1mm in the front lens edges, will no problem because before peripheral ball but there is mixing of fine dust, wipe scratches less very clear)??Shutter: T, Z (B), 1-1 / 1000??Film: 135??Distance Meter: range finder??Exposure meter: None (or single exposure meter, shalt use a smartphone exposure meter app)???Appearance: big crack, Atari not, the impression that has been carefully used???Accessories: domestic metal hood, domestic UV filters, Russia made of a non-genuine cap, a little tired genuine snapshot performance case (when used with the Zumaru is, remove the front)

I’m not trying to mock the seller. God only knows what I’d come up with if I were trying to describe a camera in Japanese. That being said the description made me chuckle. And it does look to be a nice camera, so I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by the failure of the description. I will note that I recently bought a set of lightweight bicycle wheels from a Chinese Ebay seller at a ridiculous price. They were described as possessing “exceptional Kentucky..very strong Kentucky. You will enjoy.” Got em last week. Nice wheels. I’m enjoying them.

What Do You See?

 I love the photo above. It’s one of a small number of photos I come back to when I review what I’ve done (…and yes, I took it with a Leica, an M8). Which is interesting, because most viewers will scan it visually and move on without much further thought. Aesthetically it’s properly done; were I to submit it to an art school critique, viewers would probably say it’s competently framed, formally interesting, if i’m lucky might use rhetorical cliches like “original,” “strong”, authentic.” Some with a picturesque bent might quibble about the decisions I’ve made, noting the pole that divides up the horizontal plane in a way upsetting to the rule bound. I can see someone saying it’s interesting… but what’s it supposed to be about? I can hear the critique moderator now talking of the mirroring of the pole by the crosses…or maybe the crosses by the pole, a commentary on man’s need to be heard etc (if you’ve ever endured an art critique you know how pretentious they can be; my standard response when I’m asked what a photo or painting “means” is to say I don’t know. That’s for the viewer to decide).

Art School Cool, circa 1977. I’m pretty sure my standing there with those crescent moons over my head was meant to mean something – what I no longer remember. I probably went to CBGB’s that night to see the Talking Heads.

As I’ve presented the photo here, without context, the “subject ” is what you will make of it. You have only the photo and whatever interpretive scheme might be floating around in your head to make sense of what you see. That’s the interesting thing about the supposedly “objective ” craft of photography. There’s an undeniable subjective element to what we do as viewers of ostensibly “objective” photographs. Your interpretation will vary depending on the formal arrangement, the context in which it’s presented to you, the knowledge and biases you bring to the viewing. While I find most post-modernist theory turgid and incomprehensible, it’s gotten one thing right – the meaning of things, whether it be a writing (a “text” in PM parlance) or a visual representation, whether a photo, drawing or painting, resides with the reader/viewer. The meaning of the photo you view depends on you. And that’s why, presented as it is to you – little context, no explanation- you might struggle to make sense of it or appreciate it in the manner I might. You might like it, hate it, be indifferent to it, depending on what criteria you bring to your viewing and how unmoored its presentation.

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Which leads to the following reality: the means I use to present my picture is crucial to how you will understand the photo. Effective presentation is the responsibility of the photographer, and it’s what separates the successful from the frustrated. I can publish it in a newspaper or hang it on a gallery wall, or glue it into a scrapbook, whatever choice I make signaling to the viewer what I’d like you to think about the picture. I can write a caption that identifies the objective facts of the photo [Route 61, Mississippi Delta, Leica M8];  I can go further and write a caption that puts the photo in context for you [...in Money, Mississippi, about 50 yards from where 14 y/o Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and set in motion a murder that would change American history]; I might simply place it within a sequence of other photos inviting you, by process of induction, to surmise a common thread that links those sequenced into a larger whole which both helps you interpret the individual photo while imparting a larger meaning on the collection itself. The important thing is that in each individual case, the meaning is extrinsically imposed on the photo. The single photo without context means nothing. The good photographer understands that a large part of his obligation to the viewer is to put his photos in a context that assists the viewer in making sense of the photo.

Mississippi Delta.  Same day, same camera as the first photo. Ultimately chosen for the same photo series. Does this help you make sense of the initial photo?

I suppose this explains why we might differ so radically in what we consider good photography, and it points to the difference between a naive and a sophisticated understanding of photographic quality. Naive photo critiques judge a photo on its technical and formal arrangements [Is it sharp? In focus? Good tonal values? Composition pleasing? Rule of thirds applied etc]. This is the world of gearhead forums and Flickr, the reason we chase after the newest Fuji X body with the new super-duper sensor, thinking something a little better will make the difference. Stay at this level and you’ll become a proficient photographic artisan. A more educated approach looks only to whether the photo communicates a compelling meaning. It’s also why naive photo artisans tend to be confused by and dismissive of the best things being done in the field at any given time – not only are they passing judgment with inappropriate criteria, they usually don’t possess the knowledge, experience and discernment borne of broad thinking to conjure a sufficient meaning from a work, a meaning that turns the picture into something more.

 

One More Reason to Use Film

I’m currently reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci written by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Da Vinci was an amazing man (I’m certain he’d be a street photographer were he alive today, but that’s a discussion for another day).

We know so much about Da Vinci because of the voluminous note and sketchbooks he kept, many of which have survived since his death. According to Isaacson, more than a quarter of his notebooks, more than 7000 pages, remain available to us some 500 years after Da Vinci’s death. Meanwhile, in researching his biography of Steve Jobs, with Job’s assistance, almost all of Job’s emails from the 1990’s were found to be unrecoverable.

Think about that for a bit.