Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.

Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search –  whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.

I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.

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Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town

Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.

I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.

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The Bois, back in the day

If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen.  An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.

Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails.  Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be? 

I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.

 

 

 

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.

The Enjoyment of Photography

I enjoy writing this blog. I find it therapeutic, allowing me to formulate thoughts in real time about things that interest me. I’ll usually start with a broad idea which i’ll gradually refine as I write, the end result bearing little resemblance to what I had initially set out to do. Writing, for me, is a process, a means of thinking through things by forcing myself to articulate them. What I end up with often surprises me, but really, the doing of it itself is the real emotional payoff.

Photography is much the same way. I’ll start with one idea which invariably will morph into something else, or it will if I leave myself open to it, which is the key to any creative pursuit- leaving oneself open to wherever your interests take you, what the Ancients would call “following ones muse.”

Paradoxically, it’s as if the best things are drawn out of you by some force separate from your willing self, coming from somewhere deeper and richer than your conscious motivations. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed in one’s muse, a creative impulse incapable of being quantified or measured, immune to rational analysis. Your muse comes and goes on its own schedule, but you connect with it only if you acknowledge it, make the time for it, open yourself up to its possibilities.

It’s remarkable what ‘the Ancients’ can teach us, which is probably the reason great minds in every generation find themselves coming back to them and why I prattle on about them on a photography blog – they have things to say which are relevant to us as photographers, things more nebulous but no less important that the technical aspects of the craft.  Stay at the level of technical expertise and you’re a craftsman, an artisan; follow your muse and you become an artist, a creator.

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It often feels like I’m treading the same ground over and over, and maybe I am. No sooner am I done with one post than I’m starting to think of the next. Ultimately, if I look at it as a series of tasks I need to complete –  creating an ongoing stream of blog posts, no obvious end in sight – the whole process seems futile, like rolling a boulder up the hill only to start all over when it comes rolling back down (itself an Ancient Greek metaphor). it’s this sense of futility, of the never ending practical demands of our goal directed daily endeavors, that creates much of the frustration and emotional emptiness of life.

Aristotle makes a distinction that applies here: the difference between telic and atelic activities. Most of the things we do aim at a final goal: photos for an assignment; a paper for a graduate seminar;  walking the dog so he can get some exercise and stay healthy etc. These are what Artistotle calls telic activities, acts we engage in for the sake of a further goal.

Goals are obviously necessary for humans, but a life exclusively goal directed is often ultimately experienced as shallow and unfulfilling. That’s because, in pursuing goals, there are only two potential outcomes  – either I fail to complete them, in which case I’m unsuccessful and frustrated, or I do complete them, they’re finished  and I now need to create and work toward a new goal. Either way, these telic activities offer me no rest and contentment, no ability to enjoy the value of having done what I’ve done, no true fulfillment. Ironic then, that it’s the model of human activity offered us by most cultures and societies down through history, and it’s the ethic enshrined at the heart of capitalism and consumerism.

How can we disengage from this goal directed treadmill that constitutes a “successful” life? Aristotle, never a man willing to accept common opinion, believed that real “success” came via contentment, and true contentment is found not in the goal directed life but rather in Atelic activity.  Atelic activities don’t aim at a goal. You do them for the sake of doing them. The enjoyment is in the doing. I walk my dog (telic);  but I can also go for a walk with my dog (atelic), no goal in mind other than the walking. Such activities are never completed: in merely walking with my dog, our aim is not to go anywhere; our aim is to enjoy the walk wherever it takes us. Atelic activities are insulated against the cycle of completion and disappearance characteristic of the telic. They are an end in itself.

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A “Wet Plate” 5×7 of an Old Tree I Used to Play Under Back in the Day

I’ve been thinking for some time about this very issue and how it applies to my photography. Thinking back, a large part of what attracted me to photography was the process itself, the end result often secondary. It’s also why I still love to use mechanical film cameras and enjoy the ‘doing’ of film photography – bulk loading film, picking film developer combinations, the entire darkroom process from developing negatives to printing them, the whole process rich in tactile enjoyment in addition to intentionality. Digital photography has taken that enjoyment from me, the digital process being about pushing buttons where once there were processes one engaged with.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of dusting off my view camera, buying some sheet film and taking some pics. Better yet, going ‘artisanal’ and doing something unique. I’ve been doing an ongoing project, documenting a local landmark before it all gets torn down and turned into whatever it is that’ll make somebody a lot of money. The project lends itself well to a slow, steady approach. Old trees, old buildings, nostalgic decay that might work well with an alternative photographic process.

It used to be that if you wanted the look of wet plate or emulsion transfers you had to start with a wet  plate or you had to engage in the laborious process of image transfers, and when you were done you’d have a unique, one-of-a-kind image that was the product of both your aesthetic sense and your technical skills. Galleries and sophisticated collectors loved that sort of stuff. It certainly separated you from the herd, giving you an authenticity the guys shooting handheld cameras couldn’t touch, and it often made up for otherwise uninspired, pedestrian subjects. Look! Such and such really looks cool done that way, the emphasis being on the technique and not the subject.

But we also took these slow approaches because the processes themselves had value and gave an enjoyment by their doing, an enjoyment seemingly apart from the mastery of the act itself. Did we take the slow approach to experience the activity itself (atelic), or was it that the slow approach yielded results we wouldn’t have achieved another way (telic)? I suspect it might have been a bit of both, some photographers finding enjoyment in the processes themselves, others fascinated by the unique results uncommon processes produced. Today that distinction has broken down. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, with what can be done digitally, there’s no real reason to do it the slow way if the results are what matter. Applying filters in Lightroom, however, isn’t going to give you the experience of the view camera, or the darkroom, or the tactile experience of your M4 loaded with Tri-X. Is that good or bad? Depends, I suppose, on your reasons for being a photographer.

The Zenit M: Not an April Fools Joke

 

The Zenit M

The Russian brand Zenit, in cooperation with Leica Camera AG, has designed a new digital rangefinder camera, the  Zenit M. The manufacturer is Krasnogorsky Zavod (KMZ Zenit), a designer of photographic equipment in Russia. The camera is equipped with Zenitar 35 mm f/1.0 lens, completely designed and manufactured in Russia, 100% of its components and materials are Russian-made. The lens creates an image that “doesn’t require processing, has unique bokeh and soft focus effect”, whatever that means.

The Zenit M is based on the Leica M Type 240, but has been modified both in terms of hardware and software. The design of Zenit M copies designs of the “legendary”  Zenit and Zorky cameras, it’s a full-frame rangefinder camera made for shooting under various conditions.

The official presentation took place with participation of Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of Leica Camera AG, Alexey Patrikeyev, CEO of Shvabe, and Vadim Kaliugin, CEO of KMZ Zenit.

“Zenit and Leica cooperation forms a unique alliance between long-term experience in optics manufacturing and modern technologies of Russia and Germany. With this project we for the first time declare launch of world famous Russian brand Zenit into the new segment of photography equipment market,” said Patrikeyev.

The Zenit M will be available from December 2018 in Europe and from January 2019 in Russia at both Zenit’s online store and selected photo shops.

“On purchasing the camera and the lens the users will get not only a high-quality device with elaborate ergonomic design and high optical characteristics, but a really smart camera which will provide high image quality,” claims Kaliugin.

I’m somewhat confused by who this camera is aimed at. Zenit produced bottom of the barrel junk during the film era. Now a partnership with Leica? I’m not sure the status conscious will be happy with a Zenit, which leaves the possibility that it’s a stripped down, functional digital reangfinder stressing utilitarian use without the price premium of a Leica. I suppose it’ll depend on the selling price. In any event, an interesting camera.

64 Meg Leica Introduced

Leica has announced a new S model, the S3, with a 64 megapixel “Medium Format” (45x30mm) sensor. It will retain the optical viewfinder on the S2,  which had a 37-megapixel CCD sensor, and debuted way back in 2008, when Leica’s current digital M was the M8.

Coming some time in 2019. No word on price.

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On a related note of interest for Leicaphiles, Sigma plans to produce a full-frame (24x36mm) Foveon mirrorless camera. Till now, the largest Foveon sensor is the APS-H 51MP SD Quattro H mirrorless camera. The real news is that this new full-frame Foveon camera will use the Leica L-Mount and not, as the current SD Quattro, its own SA mount. I suspect a full frame Foveon mated with L-system lenses should be a match for the S3 in terms of output quality…at a 1/10th of the price of the S3 body.

If you own SA mount lenses and want to use them with the new camera, Sigma will be able to convert some SA mount lenses over to L-Mount, while the company will also be offering a SA to L-Mount adapter.

I own the APS-C SD Quattro and love it. The Foveon sensor works by interpreting color by capturing light at three different depths, and is capable of stunning results at lower ISO, much like film, but struggles with noise at higher sensitivities. Expect the same with the full frame Foveon. Think of it as digital Panatomic-X.

Seeing Both the Car Window and the Passing Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to Barthes.

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

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

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

What Reality is Leica Constructing For Me With This Photo?

“Unboxing” a 1985 Leica M6

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

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


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

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

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

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Compare it with the unboxing of an M10.

 

 

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

 

This seems an appropriate photo for this discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

Admirers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leica M5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenses for the Leica CL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection

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

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

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

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

WTF?

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

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

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