Perfection and Its Discontents

Every Leicaphile Loves a Good Cat Picture. This was Shot Digitally, But Looks to Me A Lot Like a Well-Printed Film Negative, Plus-X Maybe?

I make no secret of the fact that I love the look of 35mm B&W film. A properly exposed, competently printed 35mm Plus-X, Tri-X or HP5 negative has a beauty that simply cannot be matched by a digital file of whatever native quality. In comparison to the film print, the digital print will always have a certain thinness, a lack of heft, a “plastic” look. While it’s hard to put into words – given we’re talking of visual matters – it’s there, I can see it, it’s real (I think).

There’s an organic quality to a film print, as best I can tell the product of four inherent characteristics of shooting film: 1) silver grain as the light-transforming medium; 2) better highlight rendering, the result of the fact that film, unlike digital capture, does not record exposure values linearly, as does digital capture, but compresses those values at both ends of the exposure curve, giving better highlight definition (e.g. it is less prone to “clipping” highlights) and deeper, “richer” shadows (old-school film photographers know exactly what I’m saying here, digital era photographers will mostly be clueless – for further discussion, see this); 3) the inherent resolution limitations of general purpose b&w films like HP5 or Tri-X, which, to my eye, equal in look somewhere between 6 and 8 mpx of digital resolution, in combination with the less resolute optical characteristics of film era lenses, which were developed to give an appealing look within the confines of limited film resolution; and 4) the necessity of shooting at the low ISO’s required by film. Put all of four of these characteristics together holistically, and you have the “film look,” a result of both the native strengths, and inherent limitations, of silver halide as a medium.

Unfortunately, that “film look” is difficult to present online in the sense that a scanned film negative – a requirement to presenting it for web viewing – looks different from a wet printed film negative, the difference created by the digitization itself. Scanned film negatives usually have more pronounced, harsher grain that is not present in a wet printed version of the same negative, the result of the relative harshness of the scanner’s light source, which artificially accentuates grain when compared to the same sized wet print, where the enlarger’s light source is more diffuse and produces smoother grain texture. Anyone whose both wet printed and scanned and then inkjet printed the same negative knows precisely what I’m talking about, but it can’t be represented digitally because scanning is a necessary prerequisite to do so.

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The CMOS Version Leica MM

Given my preference for B&W, which to me is “real” photography, I admire the Leica Monochrom cameras, and I admire Leica sticking their necks out to produce them, an example of Leica at its best, attempting to carry on their patrimony into the digital age. However, unlike how they marketed the MM – bundled with Silver Efex and referring back to 50-60’s era B&W photography – the MM isn’t going to digitally replicate B&W film; at best, it’s going to create a new look – “digital B&W”. [ Ralph Gibson seems to understand this]. Given what was said above, it becomes obvious why a dedicated B&W digital camera can’t digitally duplicate traditional B&W photography. Stripping the color out of the capture won’t address the inherent exposure curve differences between analogue and digital capture, and the increased resolution of the Monchrom vis a vis standard 35mm B&W film compromises the look as well. Given the native differences in capture, no amount of running the Monochrom digital file through film emulation software will accurately mimic real B&W film.

Where the MM might have an advantage in replicating the film look might be to the extent it allows use of older film era rangefinder lenses. Mandler era Leitz optics give a certain signature we equate with film capture, both in the look of how they resolve details and also in the look given by lenses with the small film to flange distances typical of rangefinder as opposed to Reflex systems. Of course, this would only be true to the extent when we’re speaking of a traditional “film look” what we really mean is the look give by 35mm film rangefinder photography. If so, then the MM can’t in any way be inherently better than any other full color capture digital Leica rangefinder (e.g. M8,M9,M10) given the defining shared characteristic is a function of film to flange distance unique to any digital rangefinder or, for that matter a mirrorless design, that allows the use of traditional rangefinder optics created to take advantage of small film to flange distances. My experience with the lower resolution M8 confirms this: I’ve always thought a greyscaled M8 file with some grain added looked more like native B&W film than did the files from the MM, probably a result of the M8’s decreased resolution coupled with its ability to use film era Leitz lenses.

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The Fuji S5 Pro. Its Files Look A Lot Like Film. There’s a Reason…

Which gets me to the premise of the title of the post:  much of what we identify as the strength of film – the film look – is a consequence of its limitations, its imperfections, imperfections that are a part of its character. As digital technologies have advanced and matured, the photos they produce, while closer approaching a technical “perfection,” have lost character. As a consequence, those of us educated by experience to notice it often end up dumbing digital RAW files down to mimic the imperfect look of film.

For my money, the Fuji S5 Pro digital camera, produced by Fuji in 2007 using the Nikon D200 chassis and Fuji produced Super CCD SR (Super Dynamic Range) sensor, comes as close to replicating the traditional B&W film look as any digital camera I’ve used. It may be just me, I don’t know, but the S5 files, run thru Silver Efex, even without using any specific film emulation (e.g. no specific film exposure curve applied, just grain added), have a certain solidity to them, a lack of that “plastic” brittleness often characteristic of digital black and white. After thinking about it, I’ve concluded that the S5 mimics the traditional B&W film look because of both its unique extended latitude sensor but also because of its inherent technical limitations.

The SR Sensor found in the Fuji S5 Pro – either 6 or 12 mpix depending on how you define it –  offered almost two stops more dynamic range than conventional CCDs of the same era (2007, roughly the M8 or D200 era). Beneath each micro-lens on the sensor surface are two photo-diodes, the primary capturing a dark and normal light levels (more sensitive), the secondary capturing brighter details (less sensitive). The signals from the two photo-diodes are then combined by Fuji’s in-camera software to deliver an image with extended dynamic range. What’s of interest for film users is the way the extended dynamic range is achieved. Unlike normal cutting edge CMOS sensors that give excellent dynamic range, the Fuji gives a certain type of dynamic range, a type that more closely mimics the type of dynamic range given by film, the added latitude at the highlights. Like film, you’ve really got to work to clip the highlights on an S5 DNG file.

Fuji S5 RAW Run Through Silver Efex to add Grain. No Specific “Emulation” used i.e. Tonal Range is as S5 Sensor Captured It

A lot of this is subjective, no doubt. There may be something similar to a “placebo” effect, where believing is seeing. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m as clueless as this guy when discussing my preference for the Fuji S5.*** What I do know is this: I really like my S5 for B&W capture, especially when I print as the end product. It checks many of the film experience boxes – low ISO capability (500 ISO is about as high as you want to go), having to work within the constraints of limited resolution, ability to use film era lenses (in this case, old MF Nikkors for the 50’s-70’s), excellent highlight rendering. Much like a 35mm film camera, the S5 is a camera that’s as much about its limitations as its strengths, limitations the photographer must work around, or within, the resulting images in part a consequence of those limitations.

The irony is that most people chase the film look by looking to digital cameras with ever increasing resolution, dynamic range, ISO capabilities etc, when a more thoughtful, and effective approach, might be to embrace technically less capable digital tech like the Fuji S5.


[*** “Comparisons” like this guy’s tell you nothing, typically accompanied as they are by statements like “However, there is an impression of clear intent demonstrated by that lens” (huh?) . This is the sort of fuzzy thinking cloaked as rational analysis that drives me nuts. Which begs the question: Am I doing the same thing? I suspect that some folks will see this essay as basically the same thing – a word salad dressed up objective analysis. And then there’s the cat pictures….]

Writing About Photography

Is this a picture of a broken down hobby horse, or it it something else? Or is it both, or neither?

While there’s a lot of great photography, there are few, if any, thoughtful books about photography and what it means. Off the top of my head I can think of a few worth reading: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing, maybe Barthes’ Camera Lucida if for no other reason then everyone seems to refer to it, many, I suspect, without having read it. Most of the rest is poorly written and even more poorly thought through, crammed full of “post-structuralist” academic jargon, jargon being the best evidence that the writer doesn’t have any real idea what they’re talking about. Frankly, you’ll learn more about photographs by reading Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Theo or Naifeh and Smith’s incredible biography of him, Van Gogh: A Life, both which will give you insight into what personal vision is, how one develops it  and how easy it is to compromise it unless you steadfastly guard it.

For many of us, photography isn’t simply a technology for informing or recording. It is more about the aesthetic and emotional payoff for us as the photographer, being able to create something that communicates what we see and how we see it. Every good photo has something original in its approach,  going against the grain of common seeing, evidence of the idiosyncratic way a single person sees and thinks. Good photographers, ones who create meaningful, original work, can’t do it any other way: their way of seeing is necessarily as idiosyncratic as their mind and body, and to produce photos without that idiosyncracy would be dishonest to themselves and their audience. Apeing someone else’s style is for the neophyte or the creatively barren.

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A photograph is, to use a metaphor, a visual poem. We read a poem because we want to know how the poet “sees” the subject of the poem. We read it for what Barthes calls its punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing (which in a poem is the same thing)—the poet’s style. Likewise, we read a novel or an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience. But it’s not a static one-way thing. It’s also about discovering what we think of what the poet thinks. Writing poetry is collaboration between poet and reader, both bringing their persons to the text.

So too with photography. A photograph operates as both a document and a creation. The level at which it gets interpreted depends on the viewer. Good photography is a collaborative effort, requiring a skilled and creative photographer and an intelligent and receptive viewer. Roland Barthes makes the distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists in the head of the viewer; it may change from person to person, or it may change for the same viewer at different viewings. In my experience, a photo can mean different things to me at different times.

This, obviously, has implications for one’s ability to write “about” a photograph. If “what it means” changes even for the photographer – not even mentioning the role the viewer plays – then explaining it with language seems a fool’s errand at best. There is nothing more pretentious than photographers trying to “explain” their work. My advice for those of you who think you need to: the work speaks for itself. If you feel you need to explain, the work probably isn’t very good in the first place and your explanation will simply box you in and further diminish what little impact the work itself might have. Better to shut up and let your audience decide for themselves. What they think of it may differ from what you think. That’s OK. There’s room for both, by necessity.

The Vanishing Photograph

I recently made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly housebound woman who had been a professor in the art department of a local university. We meet over a lost dog, got to talking, she invited me inside her home. Apparently, she taught photography – traditional film photography – and is herself a photographer of some note. I was struck by the sheer physicality of her photography – walls full of framed prints, rooms full of boxed and cataloged prints, loose prints of various sizes and configurations on tables and desks. This, I thought, is “photography,” and she is a “photographer.” And then it dawned on me that most people who currently consider themselves a “photographer” probably wouldn’t have anything in common with her and really couldn’t have an informed discussion with her about the craft of “photography” because, in effect, they would be talking about two different things. Two completely different disciplines.

Traditionally, “photography” culminated in a tangible print that I’d send to a friend, put in a scrapbook, hang on the wall. That was its purpose, the end result of the process of “photography.” The good ones, the ones with some aesthetic sense, got printed, matted, framed, shown in galleries or coffee houses. The not-so-good got pasted in albums, filed in drawers, or tossed.

Today, the photo is no longer a thing, it is about something. Photos have evolved from physical things to vectors of data in a diffused, virtual “information network.” The photo has been subsumed into an information web that is the source of its reality. No web, no “photo.”

Today’s “photograph” is an abstraction – actually a bundle of layered abstractions. What matters is inserting that abstraction into the virtual networks that propagate it outward. Creative decisions? Really not necessary. Leave that to the relevant app. Just as easy to have it randomly choose the “filter” to produce what would previously have been the result of the vision of the individual creator. It’s all good, as the kids say while they upload their duck-faced selfies and food snaps to the ether. In any event, what creative decisions there remain are secondary to the systems of dissemination – Instagram, Facebook, whatever. Likewise, the camera you use is significant only to the extent that it allows streamlined access to the dissemination networks. Camera’s without wifi linkage? Like a car with a carburetor – obsolete.

Justin E. H. Smith, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII wrote recently about a photojournalist who back in the day tracked down Pol Pot, the psychotic Cambodian mega mass-murderer, spoke with him, took pictures of him with his film camera, then shopped the photos around in the traditional analogue way. This journalist contrasted his experience with that of his teenage niece, apparently a Social Network “Star” of some note, who, with her selfies and lunch photos, racks up more views on Instagram in a day than his own laborously procured pictures of Pol Pot have ever gotten, anywhere. She even receives corporate sponsorship, not because anyone deems her photos good or significant, insightful or formally compelling, but because their “metrics” signal potential for monetization. Him, well, you know.

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Photos – physical things – the creation of  Dragan Novakovic. These exist as individual, tangible artistic creations. I’m framing them and hanging them on my walls.

A few of us – those still conversant with the traditional analogue paradigm – are attempting to save a space for that paradigm. I’m increasingly convinced that the battle going forward is between the the tangible and the intangible. Advocating film photography as opposed to digital is ultimately about that. Traditional analogue processes, the kind that constituted photography as a craft, aimed at a physical thing – the print – as the final result. There’s a beauty to a finely crafted photographic print, a print that’s been matted, framed, hung on a wall, one among like others. The best – viewed as physical manifestations of the photographer’s vision – can send shivers down your spine.

With the advent of digital processes, the aim of the endeavor is the flow of information in visual form. Creative considerations exist only to the extent they aid in allowing the propagation of the information. Yes, you can print digital capture – but who does? Other than holdovers from the analogue era who still operate under the assumptions of the old paradigm, nobody. The upcoming generation – the “photographers” of the future – not a chance.

My international student – Nicki – watching me unbox my new printer, asked why I needed it. Because I want to print my photos, I replied. I like to have a physical thing, a photo, as the end product of my work, if for no other reason than once it’s printed out I’m certain to have at least one permanent copy. Plus, I can matt it, frame it, hang it on the wall. She looked at me quizzically, as if I’d suggested she remove her earbuds and go listen to some Tommy Dorsey on the Victrola. Why, she replied, would you do that when you can keep them in “the cloud” ?

“Be In The Now”

Me, NYC, December 2003. Photo by Jorge Alvarez

Above is a scan of a photo of me in NYC in 2003. During that year’s Christmas holidays I swapped my Paris flat for a similar walk-up apartment on W. 23rd St in Manhattan. A friend from Paris flew to NYC with me. We spent a week exploring the city, film Leicas in hand during the day, at night doing the normal things two guys temporarily unleashed on the town tend to do. If I remember correctly, it snowed like crazy for a day, and we spent that day walking lower Manhattan, reduced as it was to a small town, city sounds muffled by the snow, the usual pedestrian bustle gone, no cars or taxis running the streets. A magical NYC afternoon. I hadn’t thought much of it again till today, a day dedicated to cleaning up my workspace in anticipation of a new printer (I’ve just ordered a Canon Pro 100 PIXMA printer, having tossed an almost new Epson R3000 because of print head clogs. I will NEVER buy another Epson printer…”fool me once” and all). In so doing I found a box of old photos and decided to scan some of them, the one above included. It brings back a lot of really good memories – a great friend, NYC, a time in my life that meant something important to me.

I’m lucky never to have lost my childhood wonder of photography. It’s easy to forget how few people, historically speaking, have lived in an era where one had the ability to capture a moment in time via a photograph. Photography was only invented less than two centuries ago, and it’s only been with the introduction of the Kodak and the Leica 100 years ago where the technology advanced to the point that photography could be enjoyed by regular people. Yet, as a culture we seem completely oblivious to it all, as if it’s just a normal feature of everyday life. It’s not, and we as photographers, of all people, should never forget it.

My mother recently gave me an old photo of my Great Grandmother that had hung on my Aunt’s wall for years. My Aunt died and my mother inherited the picture which she was kind enough to give to me, knowing how much my Great Grandmother meant to me as a child. She lived with us until her death in 1970 at the age of 99, so she was more like a grandmother to me, very kind, a sweet old Dutch woman who used to give me coffee flavored sweets against the wishes of my mom. She also taught me how to tie my shoes. The photo was taken in 1896 in Amsterdam, at CJL Vermeulen’s studio on Heerenstraat 6 to be exact (all of this is written on a card glued to the back of the photo). She would have been 25 at the time. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but I can still see in the photo the features of the woman I knew. That’s amazing, that a simple photograph has allowed me to see her as she was long before I was even born, gives me even now a window into a reality long past.

A few days after returning home from visiting my mom I had lunch with my ex-wife, a woman with whom I had lived in Amsterdam in 1996. She had no idea about the photo just given me by my mom. She gave me a photograph, of me, in Amsterdam, the one to the right. I remember exactly where she took it; I was standing on Beursstraat, a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where my Great Grandmother stood for her picture a hundred years before. Tell me that’s not cool. There’s a certain kismet about that coincidence, the universe playing a little joke on me, or maybe just a reminder that time can be a slippery thing, the present a stage for the past, the past a harbinger of the future.

 

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Me and my Grandfather, 1979

I admire Zen Buddhism, its simple austerity, emphasis on personal tranquility and its historical encouragement of education and art. Much like the Quakers (of whom I’m an erstwhile member), Zen Buddhism offers religious experience without dogma or institutional control. However, I don’t agree with their complete focus on living in the moment, the “now” at the expense of the past (or future). Everything is not “about the now.” It’s cute as a sound-bite, a pleasing soporific reminding us not to miss the moment. But it’s wrong if it minimizes or denies the profound role that past experience plays in shaping who we are at present. We are the products of our experience, our beings the sum total of the “then.” Consciousness of our past and awareness of the future is what makes us human. Cats and cattle can “live in the moment,” must live in the moment, because they’re not capable of the abstract thinking required to place oneself outside of the present.  The fact that we can is what separates us from them, it’s what makes us human. Without the past we’re unmoored, lost, without the future we’re incoherent. Living completely “in the now” is the tragedy of the Alzheimer sufferer, a spiritual and emotional life reduced to the level of brute animality. Beauty lies in the moment, yes, but the moment is evanescent, always slipping beyond our grasp. In the blink of an eye it’s a memory, and there’s no more potent means of keeping alive, reliving and refocusing the power of that moment than to memorialize it with a photo.

I’m not advocating living in the past. First and foremost, it’s important to live for the future. You need a point on the horizon to move toward. That’s what makes us human. You should always have something to wait for, plans not yet realized, goals not yet reached. At the same time you should be immersed in the past, reliving it, sharing it, learning from it. This is how you keep the past alive. My Great Grandmother and my Grandfather, both now long gone, aren’t truly gone until their memory dies. A photo can preserve that memory. That photo above keeps my Grandfather alive in a very real sense. I can picture him there, sitting at his table, remembering all his particulars. That’s truly remarkable, that I could do that after 40 years, and it’s a function of having that photo which brings it all back to me. That’s my history right there, that’s where I come from, who I am. I get to share it with you.

One more reason to take photos.

Leicaphilia’s Annual Gear Purge

Ricoh GXR with A12 Leica M Mount  Module and Ricoh Electronic Viewfinder

$675/shipped

– comes with box, charger, battery etc – almost new. Everything works perfectly.

The Ricoh GXR with M Mount module  is one of the great bargains if your’re looking for a digital M. Good examples of this are becoming rarer to find in new condition. Love this camera. Prefer it to the M8/9. I’ve got two copies, one superfluous to requirements. Please do not make me put this on Ebay.

 

 


You can contact me with questions at leicaphilia@gmail.com

 

The “Right to One’s Image”

This Photo Might be Illegal

Long ago, before your phone was also your camera, it was a first-class pain in the ass to shoot street photography in Paris. The French, peculiar people they are, are very particular about the “Droit à l’image” (Right to One’s Image) issue. Frankly, it can be incredibly tiresome dealing with French people who seem to think it’s their business what you do with your camera in a public space. In the States, we’re relatively habituated to people pointing cameras in public spaces. Under American law, if you’re in a public space, you’re fair game. Of course, this hasn’t stopped freedom loving Americans from bitching at me when I’ve pointed a camera in their general direction, but I’m on firm legal ground when I’ve told them to go pack sand.

In France, meanwhile, I’ve had people threaten to call the police because I was taking pictures of inanimate objects in public. Arrogant people, the French, although I love them dearly in spite of their obvious faults. And God help you if their child could possibly be somewhere in the picture – I’ve almost come to blows with aggrieved Parisians about the issue. My standard response is “Yes, call the police. Let’s talk to them about it” at which point they’d cut and run after a few choice words, or, if that didn’t work, I’d suggest they engage in an anatomically impossible sex act and then ignore them, which seemed to either force the encounter to an unpleasant conclusion or, in rare instances, send it nuclear. More on that some other time.

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Sitting on Your Front Porch in Mississippi? Fair Game

The gist of Droit à l’image des personnes en France is a simple oneIf the subject of the photograph is a person, that person has a right to oppose the use of his imageThis right derives from the French civil concept of private life.  Essentially, what it means is this: before being able to use the photograph in question, you must ensure that the person photographed does not expect privacy of his personal image and that he does not oppose the publication of this image. Unlike other countries (e.g. The States) this right to one’s image includes images taken in public, including group photography during something like a street demonstration.

The person whose image is at issue can oppose use its use by invoking Art. 9 of the French Civil Code which protects the right of every individual to respect for his/her private life. Contrary to a misconception seemingly prevalent in Paris, it’s not the taking of pictures in public itself that is a violation of the right, but rather the diffusion or publication of photographs where both the context and the person are easily recognizable. Try explaining that to some large French guy currently in your grill, spittle flying, demanding you delete the photo you’ve just taken on that picturesque Parisian Boulevard.

Meanwhile, These People Could Sue the Hell Out of Me

Like most things, the devil is in the details.  Any photographer who is content to shoot for his own personal and private use does not violate the law (e.g see: Court of Cassation, Criminal Chamber, October 25, 2011, appeal 11-80.266,  “… the taking of photographs without the consent of the persons appearing therein having been made in a public place, the offense provided for by article 226-1, 2 ° of the Penal Code does not apply.” And if you really want to get legalistic, even in France there exists the right to photograph and publish persons of “public interest” without their express permission. As such, if I see Sir Thorsten von Overgaard – obviously a “public figure,” married as he is to Princess Joy – out and about with a gaggle of acolytes taking his street photography seminar, I’m within my rights to take his picture, as authorization is not required of “public figures” given a recognized “right to information”, “right to information” meaning photographs of public personas in engaged in public activities. The suckers following him around, off limits.

Happy Holidays

2018 is the year when Leicaphilia took on a decidedly philosophical bent, for no other reason than you can only say so much about the cameras themselves without repeating yourself.

With this in mind, my holiday wish for you comes as a suggestion. Go out and treat yourself to the following musical albums, all of them contemporaneous with the age of the iconic film M’s (clearly, there was something in the air back then). Each of them is a saxophone quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums), and each a recognized jazz classic. Make sure you play them on a good sound system with excellent bass, and crank up the volume; similar to rock n roll, 50’s and 60’s era quartet jazz needs to be played loud:

  • Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins (1955)
  • Giant Steps by John Coltrane (1959)
  • Go! by Dexter Gordon (1961)
  • Night Dreamer by Wayne Shorter (1964)

What does this have to do with photography? More than you think. Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve wrote of elsewhere, considered music the only art capable of expressing the truth of being itself. Visual arts like photography were two removes from ultimate reality, as they were at best a representation of a representation. Music, being formless and non-representational, directly accessed the reality of being by bypassing the intellect and appealing directly to your “will”, which for Schopenhauer was the ultimate real thing that moved you and the heavens and the earth.

So, go listen to each of them while nursing a glass of bourbon (no need for an expensive bottle, just a decent no frills traditional bourbon like Four Roses, Makers Mark …or Rebel Yell if you’re seriously short on cash). Whatever you do, do not put ice in your bourbon (I cannot repeat this enough).  Bourbon in hand, Dexter Gordon blasting from your speakers, enjoy a bit of Dionysian revelry on this the most Apollonian of Western holidays.

It May Not Be About the Tool. But It IS About the RIGHT Tool

Leica: The Camera That Made Miracles. Why? Because It Was Compact Enough To Be There When You Needed It

A few days ago I spent a cold and uncomfortable evening on the porch of an abandoned house on Route 222 outside of Saratoga, North Carolina, basically the middle of nowhere. I’d been halfway through what was to be a hard workout (for me) – drive out of the city, park in Middlesex NC, where I’d start my ride, ride due east on 222 then south on 43 into Greenville, grab something to eat, turn around and hammer it back to the truck before it got too dark. 140 miles, give or take, flat well-paved roads, not much traffic, a cold but sunny day with little wind. Perfect.

My intent was to ride a good hard pace – (for me, at that distance, 17-18 mph average) – and to do so I’d grabbed a set of 60mm carbon wheels shod with lightweight “race” tires, $70 a pop ‘Michelin Pro4 Competition Limited’ tires, the idea being to minimize rolling resistance and tire weight. Plus, they’re very sexy, fast rolling and “supple” (whatever that means) and all the fast guys run them. This turned out to be a mistake.

Ten miles north of Greenville, I had my first flat. From, there 30 miles into the return journey, sun going down, I’d had 4 flats and was out of tire patches and CO2 cartridges to pump up tubes. One more flat and I was walking. A mile or two east of Saratoga, just a crossroads on a map, I heard the now familiar “swoosh” of my tire decompressing. A few minutes later I was sitting on the porch, 40 miles from my truck and 90 miles from home, freezing my ass off. Luckily, I begged a ride from a friend, who road the 120 miles from Chapel Hill to rescue me. Luckily as well, I’d loaded an audio recording of Homer’s Odyssey on my phone, which kept me company while I waited. My ride arrived just as Odysseus was sailing past the Isle of the Sirens, tied to the mast, wax in ears, his attempt to resist the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song. Funny, I thought, how the universe sends you these little hints…and how often we ignore them.

I’d no one but myself to blame for the 3 hours I spent huddled in my sweaty riding gear, 3 degrees Celsius, pitched darkness, waiting for my ride. I’d been out in the boondocks by myself, riding on a set of super-sexy “race” tires that offer little in the way of puncture protection, when I should have been riding a good set of heavy duty training tires, marginally slower and heavier, but strongly puncture resistant.  I’d chosen the wrong gear for the ride.

Two days later, I tried the same ride, but this time with Continental ‘Gatorskin’ training tires, which are known to be impervious to most anything that would flat a “faster” tire. Supposedly, they’re 8 watts slower than the Michelins. 8 hours, 30 minutes on the bike, 138 miles there and back, not one flat. Clearly, the right tire for the ride.

The point being, something, great in theory, might be great for some things but not so much for others. It’s all about context.

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Freemont, NC. I was in a Tri-X and Leica Mood


“How did I come to make the Leica? Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13×18 plates, with six double plate-holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thuringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?” Oskar Barnack, creator of the Leica


There’s no question that a 6×6 Rollei gives a “better” image than than a 35mm Leica. And yet, much of the iconic reportage photography of the 20th century was taken using a Leica. Why? Because the portability and simplicity of the Leica allowed you to get the shot in the first place. A pre-condition of getting the shot is to have a camera with you in the first place.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (here, and here, and here), we’ve gotten to a place where the phone in your pocket is usually your “best” camera. Like the Leica which preceded it, it’s small, portable, simple. Not only can you take it everywhere, you do. Your iPhone is the new Leica. Granted, it’s not as sexy, it doesn’t connote a certain status or sophistication. It’s a disposable consumer good you upgrade every two years or so. So what. It get’s the shot, and that’s the point. Photography is ultimately about photographs and not how we get them. Or, at least, it should be.

Below are a few photos I took on my most recent ride, the one where I had enough sense to choose a decent pair of training tires. Whenever I saw something interesting, I stopped and took a picture of it. With my iPhone 8. Super simple, as it’s always tucked away in my back pocket literally everywhere I go. That day, I was seeing things in a 6×6 format. In color. Back in the day, that meant I’d have to drag my Rollei along with me, loaded with color film. The odds of that all coming together were highly unlikely, meaning that as a practical matter the picture wouldn’t get taken. With the iPhone, not only did I get the photo, I got to choose the format, the film, etc on the fly, and I could change my mind after the fact if I so desired. Had you told me 40 years ago I’d be able to do that, I’d have thought you were crazy. Today it’s a given. Think about that. That’s amazing.

 

It’s Not the Tool

By Mark Twight. All photos by the author. You can see Mark’s work at www.marktwight.com

I was born in the mountains. I grew up middle class in an American city. I climbed mountains professionally for twenty years, making first ascents in the Americas, Europe and Asia. In those years I wrote articles for magazines, shot pictures to illustrate them and gave multi-media presentations in the U.S. and Europe. Later I wrote two books on the subject. Both won awards and were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Polish.

Mountain climbing and movie work allowed me to travel to incredible places I would not have otherwise seen. Antarctica. Bulgaria. Israel. Iceland. Japan. Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan. Norway. Argentina. Bolivia. Australia. France, Italy and Spain. Detroit. Alaska. China. Russia. Kazakhstan. Canada, of course. And all over the American West.

I have carried notebooks, a pen, open eyes and a camera in every place but I am not a photographer. I have a camera. I point it at things. I know my way around it, the darkroom and the computer. My attitude and the fact that I do the things I photograph gives me unique perspective. Although I am not now the man of action I was, what I did informs what I do. And what I will do in the future.

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I was anti-Leica for years. I thought it was snobbery. I shot an old Fujica HDS in the mountains because it was waterproof but eventually the fixed 38mm lens was too tight. I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 24mm even though it was enormous compared to my partner’s Rollei. Later I graduated to a Nikon F3, and a Angenieux 70-210mm zoom. I learned my way around the darkroom, developed and printed through many, many nights and eventually got back to Nikon optics and an F5. Despite the magnificent utility of the Nikon, my experience working in black and white introduced me to the Leica brand and the famous shooters who used it. I couldn’t afford to invest so I found adequate enough cons to outweigh the pros.

Then I did a job that paid enough to buy a M6 and 28mm lens. I compared it to my F5 with a 20-35mm f2.8 lens and once I saw the results I switched wholesale. In the mountains Leica lenses easily outmatched my best Nikon primes. The 28mm Elmarit held details when overexposed, captured astonishingly rich color, and separation. I loved pointing into the sun. I shot muddy cyclocross races, sand-boarding the dunes, and in the snow. I carried it in the Alaska Range and even when temperatures dipped to -30F, when plastic film canisters shattered, the camera functioned without problem. In 2001 I bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera because it supposedly had a Leica lens, then a Canon S80 for its manual functions, then a G9, and later, a compact S100. As a reaction to muddy details at relatively low ISO values I bought a full-frame Nikon D800 so I could use my old 20-35mm but it was no pocket camera so a Sony RX1R with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens came next.

Instead of a darkroom I had Lightroom. The film in the refrigerator expired. I sold one M6 body. Eventually, I gave another to my friend because I knew he would use it. The beautiful Leica lenses sat idle. Regret nagged at me. I lived with it easily for years but it grew. And itched. I knew that sooner or later I would scratch. Then on a film set in 2014 Zack Snyder handed me his Leica Monochrom and said, “If anyone should have a camera that only shoots black and white, it’s you.” I laughed but he was right, the Gym Jones website had been exclusively black and white from its launch in 2005. That statement matched my vision and attitude. I didn’t want it to be easy to read so I floated white text on black. The viewer had to want it. I converted all images to black and white to remove the distorting influence that color can have. What remained was raw, and essential. When I finally bought a Monochrom – 13 years after I put the last roll of film through my M6 – it felt like coming home.

I pulled the lenses from their cases and relearned how to focus manually. My love for taking and making pictures returned and within a year I’d traded the RX1R for a Leica Q and carried it with me everywhere. I loved the fact that — shot at f1.7 — the images had remarkably shallow depth of field for a 28mm lens. The Q easily handles high ISO so even this night owl can make pictures, and the auto-focus is snappy. I can’t change my spots though so I still convert color images to black and white with Silver EFX in the digital darkroom. Black and white is still the way I see. Kiss or Kill.

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Spending so much time staring at images on a large monitor made me a pixel Nazi. On the screen, with the ability to ruthlessly zoom in to any aspect of a picture creates a very different relationship to the image than I have when I stand back and appreciate the totality of fine print. Dissecting local contrast at 4:1 can break the heart of any image.

This got me thinking about sharpness, which I revered when I started shooting a Leica M6. Because that’s what I thought I was seeing when I compared the M6 images to those from the F5. But maybe it wasn’t that the Leica images were sharper, instead their crisp luminosity made the wholly-adequate slides shot with the Nikon appear flat. The M6 images felt vibrant and alive, with details revealed from deep shadow, and texture preserved in areas of hotly overexposed snow. Peering through the loupe I could see greater density, or maybe depth but it wasn’t necessarily increased sharpness that caused that. Honestly, like describing taste, I have difficulty explaining why a Leica image looks different. I do know that — after almost 20 years of living with these images it isn’t as simple as cost influencing appearance. I mean, many times in the past thirty years I have spent far more and received demonstrably less.

That said I started feeling like many of my digital images were too sharp. Harsh, even. That I couldn’t appreciate them without some jpeg compression or the physical equivalent: standing at an appropriate distance. Apparently, anything above 18 megapixels is irrelevant because that’s the maximum our eyes can resolve (this is affected by viewing distance, eyesight quality, etc., and not gospel of course). Yet we chase ever-sharper resolution with 30, then 40mp and 50mp sensors. My eyes get tired first, then my brain.

Perhaps this is a question of perspective. I want to feel the emotional impact of the whole, to re-see what my eyes actually saw, to remember or re-experience how I felt when I initially witnessed the scene I “captured” with my camera. Instead, I crop, I dissect, I zoom, unintentionally stripping away emotion until only the technical remains. Or maybe 0s and 1s just lack soul. Subject, timing and composition are my antidote to binary reductionism but I am still and often dissatisfied with the outcome of the digital capture + edit equation.

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In October 2016 I serendipitously encountered Nicholas Dominic Talvola at Chris Sharma’s climbing gym in Barcelona. He shoots film with old Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras. Properly. Astonishingly. We swapped Leica stories, handed each other our cameras, and he told me about an old 35mm lens that glows when it is shot at f1.4. He shared some images with me and I knew what I’d been missing. “Those lenses are hard to find, man. Not many of them were made and you have to get the one from Germany, not Canada and in X range of serial numbers … it should have a bit of purple cast to the reflection of light off the lens.” And the rabbit hole opened beneath my feet. “You’re going to love it on your Monochrom but you’ll die once you start shooting film again.”

I remember film. And I sometimes wonder if the problem with 0s and 1s is the immediacy. The all-important Insta. Frequency over Quality. And the metaphor of it. Who has any idea what to value or what has value when the only option on these platforms is to ignore or to like? 0 or 1. And no volume knob.

Instead, I try to make photographs that involve the viewer the way I was involved in the making. The Summilux 35mm lens Nicholas told me about gave my images an ethereal glow. It softens generally without sacrificing sharpness locally, luring the viewer to engage rather than evade.

When the image is too sharp and obvious its interpretive quality disappears. We accept what we see. And quickly move on. But when the focus isn’t obvious, when lines lead, when the whole implies more than it declares then we must interpret. The image – whether written or graphic – compels us to do so. It asks. We seek answers. Our own answers. And we wonder … which I always thought was the point.