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The Tri-X Factor

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Bryan Appleyard, From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

Kodak’s Tri-X is the film the great photographers love. When Kodak started collapsingfinally filing for bankruptcy in January 2012some of the greatest photographers in the world panicked. Don McCullin immediately ordered 150 rolls of Kodak’s Tri-X black-and-white film. “I rang up my stockist and asked for them right away. I thought it was the end of my life. I don’t even know if they are still making it.”

Relax, Don, they are. After the company emerged from bankruptcy, a new company, Kodak Alaris, took over film production and, so far, it seems committed to producing Tri-X. But don’t relax too much. You are going to have to shoot those rolls pretty soon. Films, unlike digital sensors, have to be cared for. They need to be stored in fridges and even then, like supermarket food, they have expiry dates. This did not deter Anton Corbijn, the photographer and film-maker, from panic buying on a far larger scale than McCullin.

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“I bought 2,500 rolls. My studio in Holland has three floors and there’s a fridge on each floor, all full of Tri-X. They must all be near their expiry date now. I don’t know what to do.”

McCullin shoots Tri-X alongside digital. Corbijn shoots almost nothing but film, Tri-X for black-and-white and Kodak Portra for colour. They are veteransMcCullin is 78 and Corbijn 58but they are not Luddites and they are not wallowing in nostalgia. They are intent on preserving an artefact, a practice and an art form that, they say, simply cannot be matched by the technologies of digital photography. They are also keeping alive a cultural moment defined by one brand of film.

 Self-portrait with woman and donkey, Paris, 1999

It was on Tri-X that McCullin captured some of the most powerful images of the Vietnam war: the shell-shocked American soldier with the thousand-yard stare and the fallen Vietamese soldier with bullets and family snaps scattered about him. It was on Tri-X that Corbijn took some of the greatest rock’n’roll photographs, including his documentation of the capering genius of Tom Waits, which has now run for nearly 40 years. In fact, if we include just a few other Tri-X usersHenri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka and most of the finest of the photographers who worked for the Magnum agencyit becomes clear that this film may be the most aesthetically important technology in photographic history. The story of Tri-X is unique. It goes to the heart of how we see and what we see and what we may be losing as billions of casual, digital snaps are taken daily and as photographic integrity is subverted by the dead, flawless, retouched faces of actors and models that gaze blankly out at us.

As a commercial product, Tri-X is 60 this year. It first appeared in 1940, but only as a sheet film for large-format cameras. In 1954 it was released as a roll film for 35mm and medium-format cameras. In effect, it launched the golden age of black-and-white photography that was to last until the 1980s, as well as a new, urgent style of newspaper and magazine photography. It did so, first, through a simple technological innovation. Films are rated by their sensitivity, measured by what used to be called an ASA number, now known as ISO. The higher the number, the more sensitive (“faster” in photo-jargon) the filmor sensoris to light, though the cost of high sensitivity may be an increase in grain or “noise” in the image. Tri-X was rated at 400 ASA, very fast for its time (modern digital cameras can go up to 26,000 or more). But it was also flexible and forgiving. Even if your exposure was slightly wrong, you could still get a decent shot and Tri-X could easily be manipulated in the darkroomit became common chemically to push its ISO up to 800 or 1,600. Faster, more flexible film meant that professionals could now use the same film for outdoor and indoor shots and amateurs could be reasonably sure that their pictures would come out.

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“I was technically awful when I started out,” says Sheila Rock, a photographer who made her name with shots of London punks in the 1970s. “I used to wonder if my images would come out, but with Tri-X they did.”

“Tri-X allowed me to make mistakes, of which there were many over the years,” Corbijn says, “and I somehow always got a print out of it.”

The more important innovation, however, was aesthetic. It is hard to describe exactly the look of a Tri-X picture. Words like “grainy” and “contrasty” capture something of the effect, but there is more, something to do with the obsidian blacks produced by the film and with a certain unique drama that made the rock photography of the Sixties and Seventies so powerful and distinctive. Steve Schofield, a British photographer, now in Los Angeles, who first encountered Tri-X in the Seventies, has a different word: “I got these incredibly contrasty negatives that still somehow managed to render detail in both the shadows and highlights. It’s got that steely look, not warm like lots of other film bases. It’s that basic look from Tri-X that I’ve tried to incorporate into my work which is now mostly shot digitally and is now colour…that monochromatic palette, but interpreting it with a simple colour base. If I do ever need to shoot black-and-white, I always prefer film and always opt for Tri-X.”

Another good word is “dirty”. In the early 1950s, monochrome photography was still dominated by the pearly perfection that came in with the black-and-white films of the Thirties. Those pictures had a wide tonal rangemany shades of greybut they tended to look flat. Tri-X, with its narrower tonal range, seldom looked flat and its harder, steelier style fitted the mood first of the realism of the Fifties, then of the casual, go anywhere, do anything mood of the Sixties. This dirtinessa product both of Tri-X’s grain and its ability to work in low lightwas the photographic correlative of three movements in other art forms: the Angry Young Men in literature, the School of London in painting, and the socially engaged work of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the cinema. It was an aspect of an age that rejected the cosy, the safe and the merely glamorous in favour of the dynamic, the unstable and the pungent smell of lived life. From this emerged, in the Seventies, Anton Corbijn, perhaps the supreme artist of dirty Tri-X. In his early work, the dirtiness was intensified in the processing and the result was stark, imperfect shots with very visible grain that felt more realistic than any perfectly developed and processed shot.

“Grain is life,” Corbijn says, “there’s all this striving for perfection with digital stuff. Striving is fine, but getting there is not great. I want a sense of the human and that is what breathes life into a picture. For me, imperfection is perfection.”

The urgency of its images made Tri-X the first choice of reportage photographers, from great artists like Cartier-Bresson and McCullin down to the snappers on the local paper. All you needed was a Nikon F cameraexpensive but tough and absurdly easy to use compared with today’s professional camerasand a few rolls of Tri-X and, maybe, a darkroom in your bathroom, and suddenly you could call yourself a photographer.

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It should be said that there may have been some magical thinking in all this. Tri-X produced brand loyalty that produced superstitious devotion. Though it was the first fast black-and-white film, it was not on its own for long. Ilford produced a competing 400 ISO film that many regarded as interchangeable with Tri-X and, in any case, long before Photoshop came along, the great darkroom craftsmen could do almost anything with printing and processing. “We could always do what you wanted in the darkroom,” says Mike Spry, a printer at the firm Downtown Darkroom who handled the films of David Bailey, Patrick Lichfield and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Snowdon). “The great thing about black-and-white as opposed to colour was that you could change things around.”

Though it is true to say that professional digital photography of the face has converged on the dead, waxy, heavily retouched style that dominates the glossy magazines, it should also be remembered that good old-fashioned darkroom technique also involved extensive retouching. The finished product was different but no less manipulated.

Nevertheless, it was Tri-X that created the possibility and then the demand for urgency, contrast, grain and drama in photography. It revitalised photography as a whole, but black-and-white photography in particular. In doing so it drew attention to the fact that, in spite of the incursion of colour and all the billions of hues and shades of digital, there remains something natural and true about the monochrome photograph, something that springs directly from the camera itself. Sebastião Salgado refuses to consider colourhe regards it as an offensive distractionand has had his Canon digital cameras adapted so that the screen on the back shows only black-and-white.

It was also thanks to Tri-X that the wave of grainy, dirty reportage pictures changed high art photography. Art photography in the Sixties and Seventies, even in high fashion, was all about dirty grainy realismand, of course, black-and-white.

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“They were great times for printers like me,” Mike Spry says. “Just as hairdressing became an art form in those days, so did black-and-white photography.”

Corbijn’s doctrine that grain is life expresses a great truth about the Sixties and Seventies way of seeing the world. The age was defined by a rebellion against safe perfection and a quest for truth in experimentation, danger and dirt. Nothing captured this moment better than Michelangelo Antonioni’s extraordinary film “Blow-Up” (1966). A Bailey-like photographer called Thomas, played by David Hemmings, makes extreme blow-ups of some monochrome shots he has taken in a park and discovers, emerging ghost-like from the grain, a corpse. But the truth of this corpsehe returns to the park to check that it is really therecontrasts with the bright, high-resolution, high-colour, hallucinated and erotic fantasies of Swinging London. In the end, Thomas is seduced by the unreal. He turns away from the truth of the grain and embraces grainless hippie unreality, a choice symbolised by his willingness to retrieve a non-existent tennis ball. It is hard to imagine a more vivid statement of the legacy of Tri-X and of its centrality not just as a film but as an idea of the age.

In the late 1990s Sebastião Salgado faced a crisis. Ever since the 1960s he had been shooting Tri-X, but he was not sure he could go oneither as a Tri-X user or even as a photographer. He specialises in long, heroic expeditions to produce his astounding pictures, most familiarly of the effects of industry on the third world. As airport security tightened, up to and after 9/11, he found it harder to persuade officials that his cases containing hundreds of rolls of film should be spared the X-ray machines. The signs say these machines do not affect film, but Salgado insists they do, especially if, like him, you pass through six or seven airports in a single trip. “The grain”, he says, “loses its structure.” The people at Kodak, meanwhile, have passed Tri-X through X-ray machines many times and they insist that it is not affected. Salgado, and many other pros, remain unconvinced.

His career and his next great work, “Genesis”, were saved by Canon. They claimed their latest digital cameras could match the quality of film and, after testing in the early 2000s, Salgado agreed. He now shoots everything on digital. Yet this is still a contentious point. Some say it is a simple matter of how many pixels can be packed on a sensor. Film photography, as an analogue form, produces pictures by allowing light to fall on chemically coated celluloid, creating an analogue of the scene in front of the lens. Digital, in contrast, collects light through a series of tiny sensors and then creates an electronic copy of the image. Film has very high resolution and early digital cameras with, say, 5 megapixels5m sensor pointscould not match this. This does not mean their photographs were less realistic, just that they could not be blown up beyond a certain native size without breaking down. For professionals, this makes cropping a digital photograph very costly in terms of available resolution, though software is available that interpolates additional pixels by working out what would be there if the resolution were much higher. Pixel counts have been rising steadily, and both Sony and Nikon now offer cameras for less than £2,000 that deliver 36 megapixels, a level of resolution that probably exceeds the capability of any 35mm film.

But, of course, it is not that simple. Squashing ever more pixels on to a sensor makes for technical problems and, in any case, it may not be the point. Film versus digital, McCullin points out, is still a debate among professionals and they are not talking about megapixels. Film is about more than just resolution, it is about authenticity. Film has other, more mysterious qualities.

“Film has more depth,” Sheila Rock says, “it’s the depth of going into a picture which I don’t find with digital. It’s much flatter. Some say it’s getting much better and I do see some things that have impressed me.”

Salgado knew this and he wasn’t quite prepared to go all the way to the digital look. He still wanted his all black-and-white pictures to look like Tri-Xand they do.

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“I went to the exhibition of ‘Genesis’ at the Natural History Museum,” Rock says. “I looked really closely at the pictures and I thought they were Tri-X, but I was told they were digital prints.”

When I asked Salgado how this was done, he shrugged. He did not know: all he did know is that his technicians could produce the Tri-X look he liked. He never touches a computer and his post-production work is done by assistants at his studio in Paris. In fact, and this is a sign of the image-making times, many widely available digital photo-editing programmes now offer “film emulation”. You can simply scroll through a list and pick which type of film you want. Click on Tri-X and your picture will instantly be transformedgrain, drama, dirt and all. It works veryto devotees, alarminglywell.

This software trickery, inserted into the digital algorithms to mimic an old manual craft, is another symptom of the now familiar phenomenon of analogue defiance, a rebellious hunger for the pre-digital world. Sales of vinyl records are now going up again, resistance to e-books can be fierce and, in New York, an art magazine called Master Cactus has emerged, which is only available on a tape cassette. In photography, the company Lomography has carved out an odd little niche market for plastic and toy film cameras whose dodgy construction produces bizarre and unpredictable effects. Polaroid cameras are on sale again and Fujifilm has produced its own version of instant snappery with the Fuji Instax film. Online, the 100m-plus users of Instagram can apply filters to give their pictures a variety of retro, filmish looks. People seem to be perversely drawn to the shortcomings of film photographythe light leaks of Lomography’s toy cameras, the strange starkness of small Polaroids and even, on Instagram, the corner-vignetting produced by vintage lenses.

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Analogue defiance is a real and increasing force in the marketplace. It may be converting only a few to all the hassle and artistry of film, but, as a symbolic statement, it has had enormous impact on camera design. Film cameras, even the most expensive, were simplicity itself with only, in essence, three controlsfocus, aperture and shutter speed. Professional or “prosumer” digital cameras have so many controls, it is impossible to list them all. And they are operated by a very user-unfriendly set of buttons. These were discouraging amateurs from trading up, so over the past few years manufacturers, led by Fuji with its X range, have been making retro-looking cameras with old-fashioned wheels and switches. This was so successful that even Nikon, one of the big makers of professional digital cameras, went so far as to produce the Df, a digital camera designed to look like the old Nikon F on which so much Tri-X was shot. It is an absurd and ungainly product costing over £2,700, which, by my reckoning, means you are paying at least £1,000 for the knurled metal knobs on top.

If that all represents a 180-degree turn away from digital perfection, some have gone even further, rejecting the perfect via a kind of 360-degree turn. Google Street View famously, notoriously, set out to photograph all the streets in the world using car-borne digital cameras. Two artists, Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, decided to use selected images from the millions thus produced to create eerie works of art. These were technically poor photographs, but evocative nonetheless. It was, in its way, an attempt to resurrect the art of street photography, an art taken to a very high level with Tri-X in the hands of photographers like Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson. In their day, street photography was welcomed and safe; now it is dangerousyou can get accused of paedophilia, suspected of being some kind of snooper or, by police, of being a potential terrorist. Even worse, some of your subjects will know all about image rights and release contracts. Street View seemed to solve the problem.

But it was nothing to do with film and most of the analoguesque software gizmos are strictly for amateurs. So the question now becomes: if it can be done digitally right up to the standards required by Salgado, is there any point to Tri-X? Is there any point to film?

There is an old slogan among reportage photographers: “F8 and be there”. F8 is usually the optimum aperture on the lens, the setting that gives the best performance and is most likely to get the shot. “Be there” is just about the absolute necessity of your physical presence at the action. It is the necessity that overrides and underpins all others, so when, in 1948, Cartier-Bresson rushed to take a picture of Nehru announcing the assassination of Gandhi, it did not matter that it was out of focus, ill-lit and streaked with lens flares; all that mattered was that Cartier-Bresson was there to pluck something, anything, from the chaos of events. And, of course, he plucked a masterpiece.

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It is this existential truth of photography that professional film-users fear is being lost in the increasingly virtual digital world. “Film is honest,” says Sheila Rock, summarising the views of them all, “Tri-X is honest.” Dishonesty, in this context, can be seen on any newsstand. The business of digital retouching is dictated by the demands of the American star system. Rock, who is obliged to use digital for commercial work, was even told by one client in response to her tastefully retouched images that “American women like to be more perfect”. The result is a universal digital convergence on a style that makes the stars of the covers look like Stepford Wives, robotic and impersonalthey might all be Jennifer Aniston or they might not, it does not matter. Anton Corbijn recently got one of his Tri-X shots into a glossy, but not until they’d asked him if it could be done in colour. He explained that, with film, the shutter click is terminal, at least in this respect.

Corbijn is regarded with envy and awe by many of his peers, but he does not call himself a professional“there is so much I don’t know”and he believes in the power of limitation to increase your creativity. This is why he sticks to film: it does not have the vast flexibility of digital, a flexibility that detracts from the power of the moment when the shutter fires. He is passionate about the material process of making a photograph from film.

“When I started, I felt that I didn’t want a normal job in photography, I wanted that sense of adventure when you meet someone and take a picture. I felt that digital is more like a job. You look at the screen to see if you have it right, then you take another picture. When I come back from a trip, I don’t know what I have exactly. I have to get it developed, so I won’t know for a couple of days. I like the tension of not knowing exactly what you have.”

“There’s nothing like going to Vietnam,” says McCullin, echoing the thought, “when I had to sit on the film for six weeks with a mental memory of the images I took. I had to be patient and carry all that film back to England. It became more precious by the week. And then you went to the lab wondering whether what you had was as good as what you thought you had. The waiting and the torment gave an edge to the whole procedure. Now, with digital cameras, you are looking at the screen on the back after every shot. It becomes an instant thing like fast food, it takes something away from the original menu.”

On top of that thrilling anguish, there is the manual craft of the darkroom where either the photographer himself or his trusted technician would use a bewildering array of methods“ducking and weaving with bits of wire and stuff,” McCullin saysto manoeuvre the image as close as possible to the one in the artist’s head.

All this is being lost as darkrooms close and companies stop producing one type of film after another. Of course, many things are gained, but the full cost of digitalization in many fields, not just photography, is yet to be accounted. Kodak say that film in general and Tri-X in particular is safe. Yet I felt a pang when I asked how they were going to celebrate the diamond jubilee of their greatest film, and they said they had “no definitive plans we can share as of today”.

Never mind, we can do it for them by remembering Tri-X’s black-and-white golden age and celebrating its continuation in the works of Salgado, Rock, Corbijn and, of course, McCullin, the old master. He was off to India when we spoke.

“An Indian dawn with Tri-X,” he said, “it’s like being in heaven.”

Happy birthday, Tri-X, and many more of them.

You Deserve Something Nice

A Beautiful Refurbished Contax G2D (Databack) with Zeiss/28/45/90. This could be yours.

Contax G2D with 28/45/90 Zeiss lenses. $1900/shipping. This G2D has been completely refurbished by Nippon Photo Clinic in NYC to the tune of $584 (receipt for work will be sent with sale). It’s back to immaculate condition – new top plate, internals all gone over (ISO button had stopped working), everything calibrated to spec etc. Everything works perfectly, no LCD bleed, viewfinder bright and unclouded. I suspect it’s as nice as you’ll find. Comes with 28 Biogon, 45 Planar, 90 Sonnar. All are in excellent condition – no haze, fungus, smooth operation etc – except that the 90 Sonnatr has a minor rub mark that doesn’t seem to make any practical difference.

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Zeiss Planar 50/2 for Leica M. $650/shipping. Like New, Pretty much perfect. No wobble. No Box.

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Leica M240 with EVF, Leica battery, charger, thumbs up, VR leather case, and all boxes (VC lens not included) $2850/shipping. Excellent operating condition. Don’t know the shutter count but it can’t be much. Rangefinder/viewfinder clear and contrasty. LCD screen covered and unscratched. Cosmetically, good shape, has a small scratch on the right side of top-plate and bottom plate from scraping up against a concrete wall; other than that, nothing of note. EVF works great. VR leather case really nice. Comes with camera and EVF boxes, one genuine Leica battery, one Leica charger, and a silver thumbs-up.

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Black Paint Canon VT, Excellent Cosmetically and Mechanically. $450/shipping. Beautiful camera, everything works, shutter speeds accurate down to 1 second, shutter clean and unblemished, viewfinder/rangefinder bright and operational.

Email me at leicaphilia@gmail.com

Sucker Needed

These lenses may have been pointed at Joseph Stalin

Someone on a Canadian internet site is selling the above items – a Hecktor 3.5cm and Elmar 13.5cm 4.5 and assorted crap – for $3000 US, claiming they were owned by Stalin’s secretary. Got the written receipt and everything. Unfortunately, you can’t confirm through the seller because she killed herself some years ago. The Elmar doesn’t have a serial number.

This could all be true and completely above-board. It might not. Who knows?

— This very special lot belonged to the private collection of Major-General Alexander Poskrebyshev (1891-1965), chief of the special department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and Joseph Stalin’s “faithful dog”. —I obtained this lot from Alexandra Sergeevna Poskrebysheva, daughter of Elena Alexandrovna Poskrebysheva, who was the Major General’s daughter from his third marriage to Ekaterina Grigorevna Poskrebysheva (maiden name Zimina). In 2014, after exchanging a few back-and-forth emails, Alexandra sent me the items from Moscow via Russian Post. The tracking number (search RA212147803RU on Pochta.ru) shows her name signed on the bottom: Poskrebysheva A S

In the package, she included a handwritten signed certificate (in Russian and English) that confirmed the legitimacy of the lot’s historical heritage. The certificate reads:”This certifies that this Leica leather case obtaining two Leitz Wetzlar prime lenses with the ranges of 135mm and 5cm, as well as two manual measuring/viewfinder accessories, belonged to the private collection of the Soviet Major-General, Alexander Nikolaevich Poskrebyshev, Chief of the special department of the Central Committee of Communist Party. (signed) Alexandra Poskrebysheva, daughter of Elena Poskrebysheva”

My communication with Alexandra, a respected doctor in Moscow, was very pleasant and productive. Sadly, when randomly searching her name last year, I found out that Alexandra took her own life in December of 2017, at the age of 49 years old (article in Russian: https://www.pravda.ru/news/society/1361859-vnuchka/). Another article (https://www.mk.ru/social/2017/12/05/v-moskve-posle-otravleniya-gospitalizirovana-vnuchka-aleksandra-poskrebysheva-sekretarya-stalina.html) suggests that the woman was very lonely and likely depressed.

*** For this reason, and in order to pay it forward, I will be donating 10% of the earnings from this sale to a mental health charity of the winner’s choice, and in their name ***

WHAT YOU’RE GETTING:1) Leitz Hektor 5cm f2.5 lens – NO SERIAL NUMBER, absolutely pristine condition, clear glass, smooth aperture and focus. +++ Rear and front caps. 2) Leitz Elmar 135mm f4.5 lens – Serial Number 231 — Great condition with some external signs of use, clear glass, smooth aperture and focus ring. — No caps 3) Leitz Viewfinder – Great condition4 ) Leitz Rangefinder – Great condition 5) Leitz leather case – Great condition 6) Two signed certificates, written in Russian and English.

Photography and the Limits of Language

“Silence is the hidden content of the words that count.” A.G Sertillanges

I’m suspicious of critics who write about photography as an art form. I don’t think I’ve ever read a critical essay about a specific photograph or body of photographs that has in any sense added to, or explained, the experience given by the photograph itself. This is not to say that there isn’t good writing about photography. There is. Sontag and Barthes come to mind, but what they are doing is writing about photography as a practice and not attempting to explain or supplement the truth of specific photos. Reason, as expressed in language, can not articulate visual truths. Reason’s last step, according to Blaise Pascal, is to recognize its limitations.

For that matter, photographers who attempt to explain their work via written captions or accompanying essays seem to me to be missing the very point of visual art itself: visual art expresses that which can’t be expressed with words. To use a metaphor of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, words are a net we strain reality through. A lot gets through the net. What the visual arts offer us is a portion of that reality that gets through the net of language.

This, I think, is the power of photography and why many of us are drawn to it in a very profound way. It’s a means of expressing things that can’t be expressed verbally. The photograph above is an example. I found it on a roll of film I recently developed. I don’t now remember its specifics – why the took it, what I saw in it, if anything at the time – but now, as a finished product standing by itself, it denotes something to me. It presents something visible to me, something that resonates with me. Whatever it is, it’s not capable of being put into words. It represents that portion of reality Kant would say has slipped through the net of language.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked on the human urge to “run up against the limits of language.” We instinctively understand that words somehow deaden the fullness of our experiences. According to Isaiah Berlin, this is the paradox of language when faced with profundity: “the more I say the more remains to be said … as soon as I speak it becomes quite clear that, no matter how long I speak, new chasms open. No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.”

German philosopher Martin Heidegger agrees with Wittgenstein and Berlin…up to a point. Much of Heidegger’s philosophy is about limits, of knowledge, of words, of expression. For Heidegger, logical thought -i.e. that which can be expressed – is not sufficient when we’re trying to talk about certain things. “The very idea of “logic” disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning,” wrote Heidegger. Wittgenstein, Berlin and Heidegger all agree there is more of life than can be articulated. Heidegger, however, makes the further claim that what happens in the interstices between words is what’s really important. This is where we find the most profound truths. For Heidegger, this is a qualitative advance on what Kant was saying. Kant (and Wittgenstein and Berlin) was saying that some reality slips past the net of language. Heidegger is claiming that the most important part of reality slips through the net.

So, how do we communicate this most important portion of the real? Heidegger attempted to do so via language. This is the paradox of Heidegger and the reason he’s so hard to understand. He is attempting, with words, to express the truth that words miss the larger truth. This is purposeful. Heidegger holds that we should try to say something about the interstices – that the fact that we recognize an interstice means that there’s something to be said about it, however vague and preliminary that might be. Not directly, perhaps, and not even particularly clearly, but we shouldn’t abandon all efforts to use words to speak about things that lie beyond language. Unfortunately, Heidegger never took the next logical step of analyzing the visual arts and what role they might play in the process of expressing what’s true. I believe he might have found a way out of his expressive paradox had he done so.

Third Man Cameras Apparently Diversifying

A Genuine Special Order black paint Leica M Owned by Busby Cattanach. Offered for Sale by Third Man Cameras in Stuart Florida.

Many of you may remember Henry Obert (aka Henry Obertiii) and Erica Obert, the hapless “Leica Experts” pawning off repainted Leicas with all sorts of faked provenances on Ebay a few years ago. ( http://leicaphilia.com/caveat-emptor-again/ ). It was a fairly transparent scam, although a number of folks with more money than sense ended up buying “genuine” black paint lenses and/or bodies for stupid money from these morons. My sense: if you’re stupid enough to fall for the con, you deserve it.

It took only a few internet searches from the comfort of my home and I discovered that Mr. and Ms. Obert were garden-variety crackheads who had bought a large stock of excess Leica parts and went into business faking black paint items and then selling them on Ebay under the moniker of “Third Man Cameras.” Some quick correspondence with Ms. Obert – Third Man’s “Office Manager” – easily uncovered the whole scam. It didn’t hurt that a few Google queries uncovered mugshots for both from a crack cocaine arrest.

Henry Joseph Obert, Leica Specialist

Just for the hell of it, having nothing better to do, today I did an updated Google search for these two and found a 2018 arrest for Henry – a felony charge of, apparently, selling counterfeit concert tickets. That’s his mugshot for that arrest over on the right. Apparently, the internet notoriety drove him out of the Fake Leica business and into fake concert tickets. Erica, meanwhile, having apparently moved on from both Henry and her job as “Office Manager” of Third Man Cameras, is currently waitressing in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

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UPDATE JULY 10, 2020

And then, one final search found this, which is sad for the poor bicyclist Mr. Obert recently hit and injured while driving impaired:

JENSEN BEACH — A Port St. Lucie man was accused of hitting a bicyclist while he was driving under the influence in Martin County.

Henry Obert, 44, of the 3300 block of Southwest Vendome Street in Port St. Lucie was arrested on one charge of driving under the influence causing serious bodily harm to others.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers said around 7:35 p.m. Thursday they were called about a bicyclist hurt after being hit by Obert. When troopers arrived, they said they found the bicyclist seriously injured. It is unclear what hospital the bicyclist was taken to and what his condition is Friday. Despite multiple attempts, a spokesman for FHP was unable to be reached. Troopers said the crash happened at Jensen Beach Boulevard and Northeast Sunview Terrace in Jensen Beach.

The Last M3 Ever Made….

…is currently for sale on Ebay for $395,000. Payable by Paypal.

“The last Leica M3 and “Newest” Leica M3 made. Production serial No. 1164865. UNIQUE, RARE, OUTSTANDING and SPECTACULAR in every respect!From the last and smallest batch of 20 cameras made in 1966, this being the FINAL and LAST camera of the production line and the final termination of THE GREATEST RANGEFINDER camera EVER MADE if not THE GREATEST CAMERA ever made.A true historical find and in NEW condition, NEVER USED, IN NEW condition as it left the factory more than 60 YEARS ago!
With the original matching serial No. service card and (red + white ) rope that came with the camera, box, foam fittings, caps and allNEW! condition with the original untouhed “L” seal.Along with letters of authenticity from Leica, special order request, original matching order # from the original owner in 1968, receipt and additional letter from Leica to reiterate the authenticity of this camera. “

Seriously. Would you pay $400k for a Leica M3? And if you would, would you think of buying it on Ebay?

Henry Wessel’s Western Light

In “Santa Barbara, Calif., 1977,” Wessel took a picture of a man standing on a lawn staring at a flock of birds in flight. Wessel had been standing at a bus stop at the time. “As I approached this scene, the birds were feeding in the grass,” he said. “Startled for some reason, they took flight. I instinctually shot, exposing three frames before they were gone. When I look at it now, I marvel at how much of the world is hidden in the flux of time.”

Henry Wessel Jr. (1942-2018) grew up in Ridgefield, New Jersey. He studied psychology at Penn State University, graduating in 1966. After he came upon Mr. Szarkowski’s book “The Photographer’s Eye” and through it discovered the work of Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Wright Morris and Garry Winogrand, he abandoned psychology and pursued photography. Wessel’s photographs are deceptively simple, yet there’s ‘something’ contained within them that, while inarticulable, is noticeably present. Like all good visual art, there’s a tension contained within it, something that requires the viewer’s imagination to complete.

Wessel moved to southern California in 1969. He was fascinated by the western light from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles. “I walked out of the airport into one of those clear, sharp-edged January days,” he said. “The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it.” That physicality of light is a feature of so many of his photographs.“The high Western light that fills his pictures seems almost hallucinatory,” Tod Papageorge, former director of the graduate program in photography at Yale, wrote in an email to The Times in 2006. The Curator Emerita of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sandra Phillips, described his work as “witty, evocative, and inventive… distinctive and at the same time a component part of the great development of photography which flourished in the 1970s.” 

Wessel headed the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute, joining its faculty in 1973. He advised his students that after they took their pictures, developed the film, and printed the contact sheets, they should put them away for a year. “If you let some time go by before considering work that you have done, you move toward a more objective position in judging it,” he said. “The pleasure of the subjective, physical experience in the world is a more distant memory and less influential.”

According to Wessel, the most important photographic choices were “where to stand and when to shoot,” followed by keeping technological choices to a minimum. Learn to use one camera and one lens. By limiting your tools to a single camera – a Leica M with 28mm – your sense of how light translates to film, and then to paper, would become instinctive. Mr. Wessel was never without his Leica and always alert to what was going on around him.“Most musicians I know don’t just play music on Saturday night,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “They play music every day. They are always fiddling around, letting the notes lead them from one place to another. Taking still photographs is like that. It is a generative process. It pulls you along.”

Things to do During COVID (A Mini-Review of “Pattern Language”)

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by […]. Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, so people can sit with coffee or a drink, and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. 

Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, p. 437,439


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by Stephen Jennner

If the current “pandemic” has done anything for us ordinary folk, I suppose the chance to get off of the bus and reflect on the way we live and interact has probably been uppermost. It has also given us time to undertake a real “spring clean”, many of us are combing through our clutter, looking for stuff to throw out or retain. Every time we come across something that we had almost forgotten, the memories come flooding back. Such is the legacy of modern materialism. I have been re-reading some of Leicaphilia’s recent blogs and one strand in particular led me to re-read Camera Lucida which I had not really read properly initially, but kept on the shelf, because I liked some of the pictures. I realised also that it is a translation, and very well regarded, but perhaps less readable in English. 

There was also the recent passing of the well known English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who I knew by name, but whose work I had never read. The ritual disdain verging on the celebration of his death by the institutionalised lefty media led me to investigate. He couldn’t have been that bad after all, I thought. I read England an Elegy first and enjoyed that, so I sallied forth and bought two more books, How to be a Conservative and Green Philosophy – How to think seriously about the planet, the first of those two was the thinner, so I read that, I am currently ploughing through the second, over 400 pages. They are very readable and surprisingly accessible for being the work of someone who is described as a philosopher. 

But, back to the COVID clearout, since the last of our kids cleared off, the room in which he festered has been where everything material gets discarded, and was becoming impassable. So it was there that the great undermining began. It wasn’t long before I came across a pile of books, discarded but kept, because of a “one day I will read that again” sentiment. My eyes settled on a book that I have read and gushed over for nearly forty years, and I sat down and started leafing through it once again. I don’t know much about the authors, I think they are American, or at least naturalised Americans, the names look English, Japanese and Jewish, but together they have produced a universal language, which has since established a format that is used repeatedly, notwithstanding the specialised blog format, where the host invokes others to chime in by way of comment, and sometimes submit their own pieces. 

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The book is called A Pattern Language and the credited authors are Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, along with contributions by Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel”. Think of it as a photo book about issues of social architecture; there are many excellent photographs and illustrations accompanying the text, many by well-known exponents, some unattributed snappers and daubers, and I presume, some by the authors. 

The theme of A Pattern Language is in a nutshell, how to approach, conceptualise and plan for the built environment for a beautiful, practical and sustained past, present and future. It is profoundly conservative in sentiment rather than its political allegiances, regarding human beings as essentially animals that are universally similar, yet differ locally and thus and employ different ways of being, different traditions, different gods.  The layout is very structured, the book indexed by levels of what the authors regard as layers of significance.

There are several main headings which are then further subdivided, beginning with a “summary of the language”, then describing “independent regions”, “towns”, “buildings” and finally “construction”. Those main headings are further subdivided into small one or two-page chapters, which are described in levels of importance by the addition of either no, one or two asterisks appended to the title. Each chapter describes a particular aspect of human habitation along with an illustration or photograph by way of visual explanation. The photographs serve the text well, lending an added meaning that isn’t capable of being articulated by words. The book is an object lesson on the different meanings conveyed by the written and the visual, how the two are distinct yet can accommodate each other to produce a larger meaning.

I had never really appreciated the importance of the photographs until I read Roland Barthes book again, even though I had not related that book to A Pattern Language until I picked it up and read it again. The feelings that a good photograph can imbue, and the memories that resurface, being what I believe Barthes devotes Camera Lucida to. 

One of my favourite little chapters is entitled “Zen View” and the opening illustration is a painting by Pierre Bonnard. The text describes a beautiful view in Japan, including in the distance, the sea. Many a modern architect would design a massive window into the main room of the building that he is constructing. The Zen approach might be to instead, include a small window facing the view, halfway up a staircase. It is only seen as one climbs or descends that staircase, sometimes one stops, usually in a slightly different position to look and consider, every time, the prevailing conditions whether it is night or day, sunny, raining or shady, the view, the light, is different. It never bores, but since you deliberately stopped, invokes a new thought or memory. The effect is to really see. Sublime. 

The experience that I derive from this book, is that human beings all have similar needs, even though at a local level, we have different ways of solving them. They are never fixed, since newer ideas and threats regularly surface and need to be incorporated into those ways, and the best way to do this is to ensure that the paramount human urge is conservative and localist and most importantly, not de(con)structive.  In my view and that of the authors, the manner in which we can solve our global problems is by looking after our local community issues through negotiation, a public secularity, local judgements where disputes arise, and a sense of history applied to the present and held in trust, for the sake of those yet to be. It is what the ancient Greeks, and Roger Scruton (among others) sum up in one word – “Oikophilia”. The love of home and beauty, and the avoidance of mere utility. If we look after the parts that are within our scope, we can manage the whole planet, and hold it in trust for the foreseeable future. And the method for achieving this, is what the Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke described as “The little platoons”. 

Anyway, to sum up, this book is an essential read, and I note that Amazon still lists it, if anyone wants to take a punt. 

It’s Not Just Leica…

Dixie Dixon would photograph her stuffed animals as a child. Now, she’s one of fashion photography’s brightest stars, and one of the first sixteen Nikon Ambassadors in the United States. “I don’t think I’d be myself without being a photographer,” the native Texan explains.

If you’re gonna claim to be someone to aspire to photographically, and in doing so claim some affinity with the glory days of photojournalism by appropriating its technology (in this instance a plain prism 60’s era Nikon F), then at least satisfy us that you know how to operate the camera. To begin with, you might want to learn where you look into the plain prism viewfinder.

Let me get this out of the way: I’m not ragging on this young lady simply because she’s ‘attractive’ in a social media sort of way. I’ve looked at her work, and it’s competent, although nothing special, nothing you won’t see thousands of times over wherever you look. It certainly doesn’t stand out in a way that would warrant a cush advertising gig with Nikon. I suspect she’s a “Nikon Ambassador” because she’s cute and social media savvy. In fact, I’m positive.

Let’s call it the “Overgaardization” of photography as a practice. Being a photographer is now a ‘lifestyle.’ It’s about being hip and technologically and media sophisticated. It’s about ‘branding’, about creating a narrative about yourself that in most cases has nothing to do with reality. It’s about creating the reality. It’s how some blue-collar woman with a high school degree from some backwater town becomes “Princess Joy,” or her grifter husband goes from working in a sawmill to claiming he’s royalty…and a company like Leica, inheritors of a proud photographic legacy, embrace them as spokespersons for their ‘brand.’ It’s all about being ‘beautiful’ and using beautiful things and having those beautiful things define you. That’s why you should buy your Nikon or your Leica. It’s called selling the sizzle and not the steak.

As for the quality of photographic output, basically irrelevant now, given how easy we can duplicate a look or a style with a few keystrokes. Anyone can do it competently. Just push a few computer buttons and we’re all Richard Avedon. What’s really important is being thought of as hip while doing it, and that means carrying the correct camera and looking the right way while you do so. Knowing how to use it, apparently, optional.

You Know You Want It

RICOH GXR w/ M Mount Module – $425/shipped

12 megapixel APS-C M Mount Ricoh GXR, with box, charger, 2 batteries. Excellent condition.

NOTE: the EVF shown is not included.

I’ve got three of them, so one must go. Think of it as the smallest and best crop sensor digital ever built specifically for M-mount lenses. At the price they’re currently selling, these are screaming deals. Paired with a scale-focused VC 21mm, it makes the perfect street photography camera, small, unobtrusive and unthreatening.

The GXR with M-mount is one of those cameras that hits the sweet spot. I’m not sure anything Leica has produced matches it for its ratio of price to function. Just like the M series cameras, the GXR M-module sensor is designed to maximize usage of Leica mount lenses with their short ‘film to flange’ distances. Given its live-view, you can also buy a cheap Nikon to Leica adaptor and use your old manual focus SLR Nikkors on it.

I’m convinced these things will be collector’s items someday, much like the Epson Rd1. They’re becoming harder and harder to find in good condition.

$425 shipped nationally within USA. $450 shipped anywhere in the world. Pay by Paypal to tvdweert@gmail.com.

Some GXR Street Photos:

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SIGMA DP2X – 14 Megapixel Aps-C w/ 41mm F2.8 Equivalent

If the Dp1 Merrill is medium format, think of the DP2x as 35mm digital B&W.  It offers a 41mm 2.8 equivalent lens. The lens is tack-sharp wide open. The detail in the files is stunning for the pixel count. Colors really pop, if that’s your thing. Like the Merrill, it’s hard to describe; you’ve got to see it to understand.

The camera with retractible lens is really small, easily fitting your pocket. It’s a great walk-around camera. The files it produces convert very nicely to B&W images with the look of 35mm film. For B&W 800 ISO is fine. Convert them from RAW via the Sigma Photo Pro software and then run them through Silver Efex, or shoot color jpegs at 200 ISO.

The DP2x uses the same 14 megapixel (2,652×1,768×3 layers) Foveon sensor as the SD14, SD15 and other DP series cameras.  No low-pass filter. Like the Merrill, shoot in either JPEG or RAW. Also like the Merill, it can be a pain in the ass, but the output is stunning for such a small camera with a 5 meg sensor.

Excellent condition, everything works perfectly. Auto lens cover attached. Comes with charger and battery.

$325 shipped nationally within USA. $350 shipped anywhere in the world. Pay by Paypal to tvdweert@gmail.com.

A few DP2x shots:

The Red Dot

I’ll admit I don’t like the red dot. It’s tacky. When Leica was Leica, there was no red dot. I’m proud to say that, when I bought my first Leica, there was no such thing as a red dot. The red dot is post- Leica M5, the M5 being both the best and worst thing Leitz ever did. Best, because it’s the last and best version of a hand-assembled M, incorporating everything Leitz had learned about interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras up to that point and, in spite of what its detractors claim (invariably they’ve never used the M5), its a better, more complete camera than the film M’s – M4-2, M4-P, M6, M7 – that came after it, which were essentially retrenchments to a fixed formula. Worst, because Leitz confused a marketing failure with a technical failure and returned to the meterless M4 in M4-2 and M4-P versions, both of which signaled Leitz’s transition from producing professional cameras to models aimed at the consumer market. Hence, Leica’s slow inexorable slide into professional irrelevancy and the rise of internet-era clowns claiming the title “Leica Photographer.”

That’s One Ugly-Ass Red Dot IMHO

The ‘Leitz’ red dot goes back to the company’s Binocular and Microscope divisions, which
used the dot on their products for many years before someone decided to impale it on the hapless R3 and M4-P. Binoculars from the mid/late 60s have a rarer black ‘Leitz’ dot. As best I can tell, the Leitz red dot first appeared on the 50th Anniversary Leicaflex SL2 in 75 followed by the1976 R3. As for the M’s, it’s first seen on a preliminary 1977 run of a few hundred M4-2, and then into full production of the M4-P, which is, with its numerous top plate markings and huge Leitz red dot, the ugliest Leica M ever, although you can get rid of the red dot easily by replacing the vulcanite. Revisionist history aside, for late 70’s – early 80’s Leicaphiles, the red dot coincided with the end of the most desired models (M3, M2, M4, and M5) and represented a perceived decline in the quality for which Leicas had theretofore been known.

  • 1980 black M4-P red dot
  • 1983 chrome M4-P red dot
  • 1987 R5, red dot moved to the right side
  • R6, R7,RE, R6.2 red dot on the right
  • M6 (1984) Leitz red dot on top center
  • R8 (1996) Leica red dot moved to the left again
  • M7 (2000) Leica red dot on top center

Leica’s final film camera, the MP (2003), thankfully did away with the red dot, although it’s been resurrected with the digital M’s and all the other assorted digital models they’ve produced. Why, I don’t know.

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Leica has learned to monetize the red dot and certain consumer’s aversion to it. Witness the M9-P upgrade, which allowed you pay $US1995 to upgrade your red dot m9 for a dotless M9-P. Granted, removal of a red dot alone didn’t cost two grand — Leica also replaced the LCD screen with sapphire glass (apparently a good thing they hadn’t bothered to use on the original M9), and threw in some new leatherette. They also got rid of the tacky M9 logo on the front plate. Gotta admit, the M9-P looks a lot better than the garden variety M9.