Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

 

Why do people go to Art School? (I wish I’d have asked myself when I was young; it might have saved me a lot of time, money and diverted energy). More specifically, why do people enroll in undergraduate programs in “Photography” or pursue an MFA in the same? Or, more commonly, why do we take ‘Seminars,’ either from recognized ‘experts’ or worse yet, from more rebarbative ilk, the boorish, flim-flammers peddling their nonsense to photographers who happen to use certain equipment? Why do a certain subset of us – ‘street photographers’ –  feel the need to pay good money to follow a self-appointed expert around for a day? What could we possibly learn? What could an ‘expert’ possibly ‘teach?’

I once asked this question to a semi-famous photographer who occasionally gives “street photography” classes through The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Nice enough guy, but he evaded the question by mumbling some platitude while his eyes shifted nervously. Gotcha, I thought at the time, my bet being, deep down, he knew he had nothing to teach other than slavish imitation. My wife took the course. She enjoyed it. Did she become a better photographer? Probably not in any significant way she couldn’t have learned on her own with some minimal attention.

I’ve asked myself this for years, given I went to ‘Art School’ back in the day.  Was I someone who sincerely desired to express himself creatively…or was I just another sheep looking for the simple answer and thus easily led to believe in the expertise of others? If the whole endeavor was legit, what was I expecting to learn? Technique? Visual skills? Camera skills? Interpersonal skills? Street smarts? I’m stumped.  I’m willing to entertain that such pedagogical opportunities might have been of some value to me as a wannabe creator; I just don’t remember my motivations or expectations. Maybe readers who’ve attended these things – or “Art School” no less – might chime in.

So, as I usually do when I’m confused about something – good classicist I am – I go back to the Greeks for edification, ( which is a good general rule for life). Can we be taught “creativity?”

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

The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

The Ancients certainly didn’t think so. The Greeks generally understood creativity to be the product of what Plato called mania, inspiration, or Aristotle called ecstaticos, genius. You either had it or you didn’t, and it came and went on its own schedule, irrespective of how hard you tried to conjure it. Paradoxically, the greater the effort to conjure, the less likely it would appear. This is because the Greeks considered such mania to be of divine origin, the gift of your “muse.”  You can’t force the hand of a god, and to attempt to do so is hubris.

 Specifically, the Greeks understood the Muses as the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature, and music. The Muses were mythological beings who breathed inspiration and creative knowledge into mortals. The Muses lived on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods when they weren’t inspiring mortals. That’s the Olympians above, getting down and dirty to the ancient Greek equivalent of a Muse garage band.

The Muses did not teach at university nor did they offer weekend creative retreats or paid seminars. That’s because inspiration, the pre-condition of all creativity, couldn’t be taught.  The best mere mortals could do was to encourage the muse-inspired student and teach him to properly channel his mania when it appeared. This Greek idea of inspiration held the day in western culture through the 19th-Century, when Romantics (think of Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, etc) updated the idea of creativity and its sources…and ended up in the same place as the Ancients. They stressed the fundamental non-reductive individuality at the heart of all creativity and believed no group instruction could teach it.

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

Helpful Hint #1: People Lying in the Street Make Great Art. Especially if They’re in Paris

My experience in 50 years of attempting creative endeavors is that the Greeks were right (they’re pretty much right about everything, actually). You can’t teach creativity; at best you can teach slavish impersonation of another’s style, which, obviously, is something distinct from creativity. What you can do is encourage inspiration. A teacher can pass along the enthusiasm necessary to be creative. The muses need to do the rest.

The Bauhaus, a 20th-Century German Modernist art and design movement, also believed that creativity couldn’t be taught. The Bauhaus promoted the radical simplification of forms, rationality and functionality. What’s interesting about Bauhaus theory is that they did believe craft was a fundamental pre-condition to any creative attempt. You couldn’t be creative if you weren’t competent to employ your tools in the cause of your creativity. As such, art instruction is legitimate for teaching the basic rules, techniques, and procedures of your chosen craft. Art teachers are really technicians. But that’s as far as they can go.

In this, the Greeks were in agreement. Classic Greek thought made a distinction between subjects that could be taught and those that could not. As noted, creativity, for the Greeks, fell into the later category.  Creativity was emperia, something which you didn’t gain via being taught by someone else, but rather something you “absorbed” via the grace of the gods. It was a gift that came and went on its own terms. In intellectual terms,  mania was not susceptible of theory, which was a prerequisite of all knowledge that could be taught. According to the Greeks, whatever could be taught had 1) a body of information, 2) a set of methods to apply to that information, and 3) a theory of how to apply the method to the info. Such subjects were called techne – crafts or sciences subject to rules – what we moderns call ‘techniques.’

To be Continued. Part Two – the Relationship of ‘Technique’ to ‘Creativity’ Or…. Will Using a Leica Make You a Better Photographer?

The 35mm Film Look

Fomapan 400 @ 800 ISO

I’m currently experiencing the nostalgic embrace of 35mm film. I’ve just bought a Nikon F100 for next to nothing (it’s crazy how cheap superb film cameras not named Leica are these days). My F5 has been dusted off ( that damn thing is a brick!) and my M5 is once more following me around the house.

I’m also embarked upon the Sisyphean task of developing over 300 rolls of film  – 100 or so Tri-X, 100 or so HP5, 50ish Kodak XX, 50ish Fomapan 400, all shot at 800 ISO and developed in Diafine. Just finished scanning my first 8 roll batch, some HP5 and some Tri-X mixed together (that’s the beauty of Diafine; everything gets developed the same irrespective of ISO, and you don’t have to stress about developer temp either).

These are a couple of keepers from those rolls, bulk scanned via a Pakon 135 scanner, minor exposure and tone adjustments in LR/SEP. They look like film in a way a digital file can’t be made to look. They lack the crispness of digital files but more than make up for the lack with a certain holistic ‘warmth’.

Or maybe not. Who knows. I just know I love film. Maybe you don’t. That’s OK…maybe.

Leica M5, 35 VC 2.5, HP5 @800

Nikon S2, 35 VC 2.5, Tri-X @ 800

The Photographer as the Creator of Infinite New Realities – How Cool is That?

 

Post-Modernist Thinker of Big Thoughts, Gilles Deleuze, Paris

French philosopher Michel Foucault says that photographs form spaces called heterotopia, a concept he uses to describe places and spaces that function as something new, a unique space which is neither here nor there, simultaneously both physical and mental, spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. According to Foucault, photos do not “capture images: they do not fix them, they pass them on” and we are then left with utterly different spaces: images that are also “events” and “passages” and that are “absolutely unique;” photos construct “events’ that make possible the exploration of an “infinite series of new passages.”

Put in non-philosophical jargon, what Foucault is saying is that photographs always contain more than the merely visible; there are the inevitable associations to places and spaces via the imagination of the viewer and the thoughts, memories and life experiences they bring to their encounter with a photograph, which may change from time to time, from look to look, from viewing to viewing.  For Foucault, past, present and future space are necessarily conflated in the conceptual act required of recreating the visual reality of the photo, and in so doing, we create a heterotopia, a new space enclosing, while simultaneously opening up to, a new world.

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

Me, Territorializing Myself via the “Double Movement” of an Assemblage, circa 1974….or, as we call it in America, A Bathroom Mirror Selfie

What is the means by which photography forms this new reality?

The photograph is a site of what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “territorialization” – both de-territorialization and re-territorialization – post-modernist jargon for the claim that a photo both simultaneously gains and looses meaning, depending on who is looking at it, in what cultural era they’re doing so and with what distinct viewpoint.The act of viewing photos is always, at base, a conceptual process that is both productive and destructive, a “double movement” where the photo both accumulates meanings (re-territorialization) and is divested of meanings (de-territorialization).

Photographs are what Deleuze calls  “assemblages,” configurations of linked conceptual components in intersection with each other.  “An assemblage is the result of this process, and can be thought of as constituted by an intensification of these processes around a particular [photo] through a multiplicity of intersections of such territorializations.”  In other words, when looking at a photograph taken by Robert Frank, say, in 1958, its current meaning and interpretation may be completely different to the reading of the same photograph in the era it was taken, given the current cultural and social realities and the distinct concerns of the viewer necessarily embedded in those social and cultural realities. It’s the same photo but different assemblages.

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

For Foucault and Deleuze, photographs are creations of the highest order, unique heterotopias redolent of infinite meanings lost and found. Your crummy photographs aren’t simple banal, uninspired documents of fence-posts, cats and/or your adorable kids, they’re the portal to a unique new conceptual reality – “assemblages,” formed from the intersection of your inner mental, physical, psychological, visual and spiritual dimensions at an historical moment in time with all its subjective components. Silly you, you probably had no idea. This is why we need Post-Modernist philosophers, to teach us this.

In all seriousness, we’ve become so incredibly habituated to photographs, we’ve lost sight of their remarkable nature, that maybe that’s a good enough reason to wade through the turgid jargon of thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze to get at the pearl of wisdom hidden therein, to be reminded of the miracle contained in the simple snap of the shutter. Be thankful I’m doing it for you.

It seemingly means nothing to us that we have the miraculous capability of freezing a moment otherwise destined to vanish in time…and thereby creating something new, unique. That’s a remarkably profound gift photography gives us, more so when we understand it in the way articulated by Foucault and DeLeuze – as the creation of an utterly new reality nestled inside a larger reality we share with others. The fact that we’re capable of doing so, with the simple machinery of a light-tight box, should inspire awe in you. Never forget how amazing photography really is.

Surplus to Requirements

Sigma SD Quattro w/ Sigma DC 17-50mm f2.8 EX HSM Lens w/ box, charger; pretty much new. I bought both body and lens new, maybe 500 shutter actuations since then. I refer to this Foveon camera as “digital Panatomic-X.”  Shot at 100 ISO the 29.5/59 mpix files are stunning, easily the equal of 6×9 medium format. The Foveon files make for beautiful B&W conversions. Shots DNG RAW files, which makes for easy RAW conversion. Just don’t shoot above 400 ISO. $675 shipped

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

On a related note: A year or so ago I sold my Hexar RF to a reader; can’t remember who. That person hopefully wants to sell it back to me. If so, they should contact me at leicaphilia@gmail.com

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

Ricoh GXR w Leica M Module (12 mpix) and Ricoh EVF (Electronic Viewfinder). Like New $575 shipped.  The M Module features a 12.3 MP APS-C CMOS sensor with no low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter and a micro-lens layout tailored specifically to optimize the short flange distance Leica M lenses. The lack of a low-pass filter means sharp images, as one would expect, better, in my mind, than the 18 mpix M9.

What I especially love is the ability to use various adaptor mounts that allow you to mount old Nikkor MF non-AI, E-Series, AI and AIs lenses on the M Module. Given it’s live view, you don’t need rangefinder coupled adaptors, which means you can put anything on it via the correct adaptor (eg. Nikkor to M, Pentax to M, Leica R to M etc etc. Plus, Steve Huff, who communes with dead people, likes it, so there’s that too.

My absolute go-to camera for street photography – these are incredible bargains for a digital body for your Leica optics. (Most everything “street” I post is shot with this camera).

I’ve got three of these I like them so much. Seems a little excessive, so I’m selling one. These are getting harder and harder to find in new condition, so don’t be a dummy – buy it. You know you want it.

 

Odd Ends

Ever since the beginning of man we have wondered about what happens when our body dies. Do we move on? Is there a Heaven? A hell? Will I be able to have my Leica serviced there?

If you’ve ever wondered, Steve Huff (yes, that guy), has the answers. Apparently, when not rapturously expounding upon the “classic rendering” of Voigtlander’s latest ASPH M mount lens, Mr. Huff produces and sells home-made “Portal” devices that allow you to speak directly to dead people.  (I am not making this up).  Rumor has it that Thorsten “von” Overgaard has bought one to correspond with Louis XIV.

According to Huff’s “paranormal” website:

Each 2019 Classic Portal device is assembled, painted and tested by me, Steve Huff. The 2019 Classic Portal will feature the main amp, a custom extended grill, copper wire grill “cover” as seen above, LED lights in RED or YELLOW or BLUE (your choice), a dual mode reverb that is dialed in and has a frequency that spirit loves in one mode and a second mode with an echo delay that repeats what was said. It also will feature basic noise reduction (to eliminate static from radio boxes), Voice Control AND Direct Line Reverse mode. Voice control is sort of a pitch shift but seems to help with response, as it does alter the sound frequencies. I have tested over 14 pitch shift settings and found the one that works best for me. Direct line reverse mode is a custom pedal loaded with my reverse algorithm. Turn this on with the reverb and all audio going into the Portal will be reversed. So it should sound like nonsense. If you get forward speech then it is unexplained but spirits manipulate audio to speak, and this mode proves it.

I will also include an 6-8 hour rechargeable battery that is attached, making this the most portable portal ever. Each Portal Classic 2019 will also be painted in a custom paint scheme with auto quality clear coat applied for a deep shine and a more sturdy finish.This one will not come with any fancy crystals, gold wire, magnetic energy or orgonite. It will not have gold plated cables or the audio analyzer that is seen in some of my other devices and it will have a smaller capacity battery.

What it will have is a much lower cost while still being very effective for contacting the other side. The price to pre order a 2019 Portal Classic will be $1499.00 SHIPPED within the USA. These will ship in a 14X14X14 box, in a cocoon of bubble wrap.

Apparently, he’s not making them out of orgonite anymore, to keep prices down. These new, improved portal machines are only $1499/shipped, so you too can be conversing with dead people. Act now before they’re gone. [Editor’s Note: We have written Mr. Huff asking him to send a Portal to us for review. We’ll keep you updated.]

I have one question: Is Steve Huff completely batshit crazy, or is this some sort of sick joke?

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

Famous Leica Photographer Terry Richardson Endorses This Post

On a lighter note, Leicaphilia just received the following email from “Angel M”:

hello:

I visit your blog repeatedly and read all your recent post which are very interesting.

One of our website is all about Sex and Sex Toys. We usually work a lot to really make it more informative to our viewers.These info will be helpful for those who search for the same info. Actually both of our very own websites are in same category.

We recently offer a FREE detailed infographics about “The Master Sex Swing Guide”. If you are interested we are pleased to share it to you to look over.

Please let us know your interest about this email.

I’ll be expecting your response.

Best, Angel

The Look of (B&W) Film

Wally Enjoying some Quality Time with the Wife – From a Fuji S5 Raw File

While I generally dislike almost everything about digital photography, one of the few things I’ve grown to love about it, as a matter of practical adaptation, is its versatility. (My dad would refer to this as “making chicken salad from chicken shit.”) You can start with a RAW file and create any variant of end result you prefer – color, B&W, sepia etc.

An old B&W film guy, I tend to remain one digitally, which means B&W output, which means, at the least, greyscaling RAW files. Unfortunately, simply greyscaling RAW files without more leaves you with what to me look like thin, plasticky photos that scream digital capture. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, if you like that look, but I think digital B&W looks like shit when compared to a good B&W negative wet-printed or scanned. It’s why the Leica MM Monchrom, a great idea in theory, never really interested me. You could argue that it instead of being a throwback to traditional B&W photography, it actually produces files that accentuate the worst aspects of digital B&W.

Enter “film emulation” software, which, surprisingly enough, attempts to take a digitally captured RAW file and create an end result that emulates the look you’d get were it to have been taken with a given film stock. Nik Silver Efex is the best example. Nik (now defunct) extensively researched the looks of various film stocks and produced algorithms that best mimicked the printed result of these films. Unlike what various self-appointed digital experts who give advice about the software seem to think, it isn’t simply a matter of applying an overlay of grain typical of a given film, but rather additionally, and much more importantly, replicating the characteristic exposure curve of a given film.

A Simple Greyscale. No Grain, No Film Exposure Curve Applied

What a lot of digital era photographers don’t seem to understand is that film captures light in a manner different from a digital sensor. A sensor doesn’t have an exposure curve; it captures light in a consistent linear fashion. Its “exposure curve,” if you could call it that, looks like a straight line ( see over there). What that means practically, is that, for example, if the light in one part of the photo is 4X the amount of light in another part of the photo, it will faithfully be recorded in such proportions by a sensor.

Film meanwhile, doesn’t respond to light in this 1 to 1 fashion; rather, it does so idiosyncratically i.e. in its own individual way. This, much more so than simply the grain of a film, is what defines its specific character -what sets Tri-X apart (see to right) from HP5 for example. Typically, what happens with film is this: it’s less sensitive to low levels of light while being better able to reproduce highlights (as opposed to being “more sensitive” to highlights). Digital sensors tend to blow out highlights while film tends to compress highlight values and thus retain detail in strongly lit areas. The end result, generally speaking, is more nuance in the digital shadow detail and deeper blacks and more highlight detail with film.

And this is where emulation software runs into problems, because it’s necessarily working with a digital file to begin with, which means that it’s working with a file whose inherent highlights have already been compromised to some extent, and no amount of emulation can recreate highlight information that would be there on a film negative but’s that’s not contained in a digital file.

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

Tri-X ASA 400

So, we’ve established that film emulation software, while really cool, isn’t completely accurate. At best, it ‘mimics’ the look of film. In any event, I prefer its compromises to the unedited look of greyscaled digital.

Below are the Nik emulations of a number of traditional film stocks. To my eye, some are better than others in recreating the native look of the film: Plus-X, HP5, Fuji Neopan 1600. The Tri-X emulation doesn’t work for me, and I think that’s a result of TRi-X’s contrastiness coupled with its ability to preserve highlight detail, an ability compromised when ’emulated’ by the native limitations imposed on software working with digital files as noted above.

And yes, Wally is an adorable cat, a seven-month-old Maine Coon Cat we found at the ASPCA shelter. Boy’s got a personality, sweet as can be. There’s plenty just like him at animal shelters everywhere. Do them, and you, a favor and go take one home. Best thing you’ll ever do.

Kodak Plus-X ASA 125

Ilford Delta 3200

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP4 ASA 125

Ilford HP5, ASA 400

Fuji Neopan 1600

Ilford Delta 400

Freud and Photography

This isn’t “just” a Photo of my cat Sitting next to my TV. Freud would say its an X-Ray of My Psyche

One of the more interesting places I’ve visited is the psychoanalytic office of Sigmund Freud at 19 Berggasse in Vienna, interesting for me, at least, because it was one of the few places in Vienna I found interesting (nothing against Vienna; just personal preference. Vienna is just a little too clean and orderly for my tastes. I much prefer more down at the heels – e.g. Marseilles, Naples, Detroit). What immediately struck me were the photos that hung on the walls. Freud clearly had a thing for photography. A connoisseur of art, Freud adorned his walls with both photos and paintings and covered his shelves with various cultural knick-knacks. It’s important to remember that Freud’s psychoanalytic theories took shape and matured during the early years of photography, and, as I suspected while visiting his office, photography formed more than a casual influence on his thought.

Jean-Martin Charcot, an important mentor of Freud, used photography to record and study seizures and hysterical expressions and postures. Likewise, G.-B. Duchenne, neurologist and electrophysiologist who worked with Charcot, sought to understand neuropsychiatric patients via photographs of their faces and body postures. Freud owned the 1876 French edition of Duchenne’s Human Physiognomy, where Duchenne had published his studies. Duchenne’s photographs profoundly shaped Freud’s thinking;  Freud repeatedly used the metaphor of photography—the photographic negative, in particular— as a means to illustrate his theory of the unconscious.

Mary Bergstein, Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, suggests that “photography penetrated the cognitive style of Freud and his contemporaries,” and “documentary photography—of art and archaeology, but also of medicine, science, and ethnography—influenced the formation of Freudian psychoanalysis.” For Freud, the fragmentary and evocative nature of photography mirrored how human memory works; the mind’s eye, both conscious and subconscious, mimics the photographic lens.

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

A Deliberate Double Exposure: My 12 y/o Attempt at Profundity, circa 1970. God only Knows what Freud Would Make of It

A more interesting issue, apart from Freud’s use of photography as metaphor, is his understanding of the ontology of the photograph i.e. what is a photograph? In Freud’s era, photographs were viewed as transparent windows revealing objective truth but at the same time were thought to be subjective and dreamlike. A photo of a ruined temple, while depicting a specific place, also conjured loss, oblivion, the highly emotional reminders of the passage of time.  This produced a lot of really bad, pretentious photography (google “Alfred Stieglitz” for further details).

For Freud, far from simply producing a transparent image of reality, photographs manifested what cultural theorist Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious,” a term Benjamin coined to denote the visual depiction of unseen, the terrain of the imaginary. Benjamin’s concept raises the issue of the photographer’s unconscious communication. The ruined temple photo, for example, while conjuring loss, oblivion, time passing or whatever for the viewer, Freud saw also as giving entry into the coded language of the photographer’s psyche. Photography captures scenes that pass too quickly, too remotely, or too obscurely for the subject to consciously perceive. However, Freud would say that our unconscious – which is the real seat where our personal truth is found – takes in everything. The camera pictures phenomena that the photographer has unconsciously registered but not consciously processed.

Think of your unconscious as the curator of your photography. There are no accidents in photography. According to Freud, everything we present in our photos has been screened and found compelling by our unconscious psyche. Every one of your photos is your optical unconscious made visible, demonstrating the reach and complexity of your unconscious perception and, properly analyzed, gives access to the hidden psychological realities that animate you, including the style and structure of your perception, and the more nebulous regions of your psyche.

Baudelaire’s Eyes and What They Tell us About Photographic Truth

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a French poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s best known for Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), an extended Modernist prose poem about where one might find beauty in modern, rapidly industrializing mid-19th-Century Paris. Baudelaire influenced a whole generation of Fench poets including Paul VerlaineArthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, among others, and also 20th-Century artists as diverse as 60’s rock star Jim Morrison and Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. He coined the term “modernité” to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of urban life and claimed that the primary responsibility of modern art was to capture and, in so doing, transform that experience.

While Baudelaire lay on his deathbed, dying of syphilis, his mother found two photographs of him he had secreted in his overcoat; apparently, he’d been keeping the two photos on his person, a hidden, guilty pleasure of some sort.  In one (that’s it above), he stares aggressively at the camera as if trying to directly meet the unmediated gaze of the ultimate viewer of the photo. Frankly, he looks pissed off, as if the camera itself were his enemy, something put between him and viewer, something that obscured the potential of a meaningful relationship between him and the person who’d view him as the subject of the photo. 

Baudelaire had been interested in photography since the 1850s. French photographer Nadar, (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910),  was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends until Baudelaire’s death in 1867 (Nadar wrote Baudelaire’s obituary in Le Figaro). Nadar remains one of the great early photo-portraitists, his portraits held by many of the great national photography collections. 

In spite of his interest in photography and his friendship with Nadar, Baudelaire never much liked photography as a means of getting at anything subjectively truthful.  He thought the camera’s lens “a dictatorship of opinion,” a device that made an end-run around the active self-questioning required of a viewing subject. Photography could not, according to Baudelaire, encroach upon “the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary”; it was competent only as a means to document objective facts.

According to Baudelaire, only with an “embodied vision”, actively interrogating what one looked at, could you possibly gain any sense of mastery over the perceived object, and such active interrogation only became possible when the subject of one’s gaze could gaze back. Real subjective visual truth came only when there could be a reciprocal interaction of the viewer and the subject.  Rather than the one-sided transaction implicit in much of Western visual art – painting or photography – Baudelaire’s idea of a truthful visual representation would be a “forest of symbols” that looked back at you “with familiar eyes.” Using this criterion, photographic portraiture was, at best, caricature.

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

In secular Western culture, where science and rationality are presumed to give us insight into what is “true,”  we are used to seeing the material world through the lens of science, where subjects are turned into objects and placed in categories. Photography aides that process by its ability to document objective facts, and Baudelaire saw that as a legitimate use of photography. For Baudelaire, the problem came with photography’s attempt to capture the subjective. It can’t, because it can’t look back. There’s no real interaction between the viewing subject and photographic subject. Relationship, that which underlies subjectivity, is impossible in the one-sided encounter offered by a photograph. The image will always be distorted.

Compare what happens when you look at a photograph of a woman, how you look at it, with the way you look at that same woman encountered in the flesh, on the street; how you do so determines whether or not you let her look back.  “Truth” is found in the reciprocal gaze, between subject and object, between the man and woman walking past each other in the street.

Baudelaire would say that modern man suffers from a distorted visual culture created by the ubiquity of photographic images.  Given the extent to which photography has been normalized and now embedded in our societal consciousness, it has led us away from the truth. It has distorted our ability to understand others. It gives us only a superficial caricature, a false representation of other people, visual images of persona as opposed to the person themselves. Capitalist consumerism uses its distortions to make us want things, playing on our imagination because the image can’t interact with us.  We see other people in this “post-truth” world, where photographed people are real only to the extent they conform to our imaginations. The image world it gives us is of strangers-as-passersby who never make eye contact. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else in this world of images, surrounded by people who are all doing the same.

Leica: “You’re a Hunter!….err, Maybe Not”

True Story: The word “Leica” is currently banned on Chinese internet searches, thanks to the Leica promotional video above, which is a shame, as Chinese plutocrats will henceforth find it difficult if not impossible to purchase Thorsten von Overgaard elephant skin bags for their Lenny Kravitz War Correspondent Leicas. The video in question depicts brave Leica toting photojournalists, who they refer to as “hunters”, confronting malevolent powers in far-flung dark-skinned war zones. Buy that M10 with 35mm Summilux, Leica is saying, and you can be a hunter too, a man of moral in addition to aesthetic integrity, heir to this noble tradition, even if you’re just taking photos for the wonderful bokeh.

The promotional video starts with the year and location of the student-led protests displayed prominently: Beijing 1989. The last shot of the video shows a photojournalist raising his Leica R6 and a reflection of the anonymous “Tank Man” in his Leitz telephoto lens. The actual photo was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum and came to be one of the most famous photos of the 20th century***.

There’s only one problem: The current Chinese government doesn’t particularly like being reminded of Tiananmen Square and their role in massacring their own citizens, and have blocked all internet searches referencing the word “Leica” until further notice i.e. until Leica AG makes this video disappear and comes groveling for forgiveness.

Leica AG, which has a large presence in China through a partnership with Huawei building lenses for its smartphones,  has gone into full existential panic mode and is now claiming that the video was not “officially sanctioned” in spite of the Leica Red Dot logo plastered over the film’s ending. According to Emily Anderson, spokesperson for Leica, “Leica Camera AG must distance itself from the content shown in the video and regrets any misunderstandings or false conclusions that may have been drawn”, the “false conclusions” apparently being that Leica AG would actually let a moral principle prevail over making money (as opposed to cynically manipulating such a suggestion to sell things) and would have any real allegiance to anything other than its bottom line. Well done, Leica.

Postscript: In the time it took me to draft this post, Leica has taken down the video. So much for being a hunter. It’s hard not having a good chuckle at this, the discrepancy between the idealized image Leica AG hawks and the more cynical reality behind the facade being hilariously obvious (ironically because Leica themselves initiated the entire debacle by creating an ad insinuating they possessed admirable ethics and you could too if you just bought one of their cameras). And never mind that, as pointed out by Leicaphilia reader Lee Rust, the iconic “tankman” photo was taken with a Nikon. Think of Leica AG as the gang who couldn’t shoot straight.

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

*** Mr. Franklin, a Magnum photographer on assignment to Time magazine, was shooting from the rooftop with Charlie Cole, a reporter for Actuel in France:I woke up in the Beijing Hotel to find Changan Avenue occupied by a line of students facing a line of soldiers and a column of tanks. I was hunched down on a balcony on the fifth floor (I think). Three others were also on the balcony: Charlie Cole, a reporter for Actuel in France and one from Vanity Fair. I tried to photograph the whole series of events, but like any photographer working in film, I was always fearful of running out on frame 36. At some point, shots were fired and the tanks carried on down the road toward us, leaving Tiananmen Square behind, until blocked by a lone protester. I photographed the protester. He carried two shopping bags and remonstrated with the driver of the tank in an act of defiance. He then disappeared into the crowd after being led away from the tank by two bystanders. The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded. In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard obscure evidence of the massacre. The film was smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student and delivered to the Magnum office in Paris.”