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.

Big Daddy Road

Eastern North Carolina is a great place to ride a bike. Flat, rural, sparsely traveled roads that traverse tobacco and cotton fields, generally friendly people who, while in their cars and trucks give you plenty of room and are happy to strike up a conversation with you when stopped at a crossroads store. Of course, this is “red state” country, poor, sparsely populated, under educated, economically depressed, where “Trump” and “Thank You Jesus” signs vie for space in small town front yards. What they’re thanking Jesus for I’m not quite sure. Most of the towns are dead, downtowns of empty decaying storefronts, civic and economic institutions hollowed out by years of economic stress, remaining residents too poor or too stupid to leave. Close your eyes and you could be in Mississippi.

Sure is beautiful out here in the sticks

What’s interesting to me is how close it is to affluence and education. The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill metro area where I live is incredibly vibrant, peopled with  graduates of the 3 major research universities there – Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State – and full of educated transplants who work in the tech industry. But go 10 miles east of my home close to downtown Raleigh and you might as well be in another country.

A couple days a week I’ll ride out east – I try to ride between 150 and 200 miles a week, and usually do it in two rides of 75 -100 miles each, rides that take the day back and forth. Often I just go and see where the road takes me, other times I’ll set a destination and ride there and back. This past week I decided to head to Big Daddy Road in Faro, North Carolina, about 60 miles or so from my front door.

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Above is the intersection of Rt 222 and N. Church St in Eureka, a rural hamlet a few miles north of Faro. Faro isn’t even a town but simply a crossroads with a church, where Big Daddy Road meets NC Rural Route 1054. I was surprised to see the historical marker commemorating the “Nuclear Mishap” that occurred here in 1961, as almost no one today seems aware of what went on out here back in the day. The marker is dated 2012, which would have been shortly after a Freedom of Information request brought to light government documents about the “mishap.” I had to chuckle when the read the marker – so clinical and matter of fact – something happened here long ago and now its history.

Except that it isn’t history. What the marker doesn’t tell you is that there’s a live, armed Hydrogen Bomb, 250 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, still there, buried somewhere in a swamp on Big Daddy Road 3 miles to the south. Apparently, a B-52 flying out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in nearby Goldsboro broke apart in flight and dropped two armed hydrogen bombs. One was found still strapped to its parachute hanging from a tree at the edge of the farmer’s field, the other was never found but is assumed to be buried “deep underground” in a swamp abutting the field. Both bombs were live; the recovered bomb had blown through all but one of its fail-safe switches. The bomb still there, well, hopefully we’ll never know.

There’s a Live 4 Megaton Hydrogen Bomb Buried in These Guys’ Back Yard. No Shit.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash

Big Daddy Road is just a road, indistinguishable from a million other eastern North Carolina rural roads. Some farms, some trailers, a few evangelical churches, lots of American flags. Irrespective of its banality, there’s a certain frisson one gets riding down it when you’re aware of what’s out there. About a mile past the swamp where the missing hydrogen bomb is supposedly located I came upon a rocket in a church yard, no signs or plaque giving any explanation. Not often you see a rocket in a churchyard, but hey, this is America, you can worship whatever you want. For all I know it has nothing to do with what happened here in 1961. Who knows?

On a lighter note, here’s a recent John Oliver piece about the “Mishap”:

A Tale of Three Cameras

Peter Davidson is a former commercial photographer who now shoots for himself with a “hopelessly outdated” M9. The photos are all Mr. Davidson’s

Here are two cameras, both important, but separated by twenty years. The Kodak Brownie 127 and Leica M6. Each a delight to hold, simple to use and each delivering that photographic experience as a photographer, I relish. The opportunity to capture some fleeting quintessential moment that not only speaks to and for me, but to others. Personally, there is no argument as to which camera was the more valuable. The Brownie of course. And not just because that Brownie was my first camera back in 1965 and the M6 merely my first Leica in 1985. No, it was because the Brownie’s simplicity enabled me to see while not thinking (or indeed knowing) how to capture that what I saw. It just worked. And basically any camera that works well, and I don’t just mean in the mechanical sense, is essentially a means to an end. They are tools. So is this strange phenomenon of Leicaphilia a love of photography or of the tool? What is going on?

As I’m typing this, my nine year old and hence positively prehistoric and ancient (for digital) M9 is balefully staring back at me with its even older (25 years old in fact) Summicron IV single eye. Alongside is standing my equally old 90mm Tele-Elmarit with its fine coating of lens-fungus that gives results in a kind of cut-price Thambar way. All are in beautiful mint condition (apart from some fungus of course, but that is nothing). I look after my cameras. They are my tools and I trust that if I look after them, they will look after me. I shake my head at the wannabe war photographers who love to own a brassed and abused camera because of its ‘patina’. If it was previously owned by HCB, ok. If not, no thanks.

I’ve been a working advertising cum editorial professional photographer since 1971. That means, though still spritely for a man now pushing seventy years old with two major heart attacks under his belt, my eyes are not what they were. Nor are many other things. And I’m retired. All of which means I now photograph for myself and no one else.

So to return to my opening paragraph and the M6. I didn’t know any professional colleagues in my photographic field who owned a Leica back in the day. It wasn’t really the right tool for most jobs. Or any job really. It was full frame, in 21st Century speak, and as such technically limited. The Hasselblad was much bigger and hence better technical tool. As was 4×5 film and 8×10 film. The same rule applies today of course. For 35mm, or full frame if you prefer, the SLR ruled as it still does, but that is now changing. Basically, what I’m imperfectly trying to say, is that I was a TTL man through and through. The rangefinder was alien…

With my Nikon I could see exactly what I was shooting and focus quickly anywhere in the frame and could change a film roll almost one handed in the dark. The M6 was non of those things. What it was though, was a beautiful mechanical thing. A gorgeously built icon of photography. So, finding myself with some money to spare, I bought one. And found it so slow and difficult to use it drove me mad. It didn’t suit my photographic style. So I put it away for over twenty years, bringing it out occasionally to try and master the damned thing. Gradually, very gradually, it began to grow on me as my shooting style changed and I warmed to the experience. I realised, as I had long suspected, the camera wasn’t at fault, the fault lay with me.

I discovered I only needed to return to the Kodak Brownie state. Shoot don’t think. Relax. Let the camera do the work. Trust in the camera. Finally I began to fully appreciate the quiet unobtrusiveness of the small lens/camera form factor. Less intimidating for my subjects, being humble and quiet and therefor better. After nearly forty years as a photographer, I began to ‘get it’. So, of course, I sold my M6…

And bought an M9. Why? Because while I appreciate film, it’s a total pain in the arse. All my life I’ve battled Kodachrome exposure intolerance and while I loved Tri-X granularity, the whole film processing snafus, dust, scratches and water marks I can do without. And while I loved splashing about in darkrooms for hours, frankly I haven’t got many hours left.

The M9 is a flawed camera and hopelessly outdated. On paper. However, it’s secretly a film camera. That’s because it’s limitations are clear and to get the best from the camera you must work within its limitations and not in spite of them. Then it rewards you handsomely. And really, isn’t that the basis of the whole analogue resurgence? And it’s monochrome output, if the ISO is kept below 800, is to my mind the digital equivalent of Tri-X. You see, I know what this camera does. When I pick it up I know, for instance, that I will not have pressed some obscure button and accidental changed the shooting mode. Everything is simply laid out, visible and accessible. It works. It doesn’t get in the way. I don’t have to spend hours prodding menu buttons to make it do what I want. So of course I’m thinking of selling it…

Mainly because I’m finding it ever harder to focus manually. But what to get? I’ve checked out the small compact competition and they are fine, with quick auto focusing and comparatively very cheap but compromised either by ergonomics, sensor size or physical lens size. The thing is, on the M9 the 35mm Summicron lens is tiny. Really, really tiny. The Q by comparison has a huge ugly lens on its front. And it’s too wide at 28mm. And it’s fixed. I’m not convinced enough yet to part with my beloved M9. And if I do, it might have to be another Leica. Beloved? Did I use the term ‘beloved?’ Oh dear, have I contracted the strangely communicable disease of Leicaphilia? As I said earlier at the beginning of this piece, what is going on? Or as our yoof might text, WTF?

Yes, I am more attached to this camera than I am to my other long held and venerable cameras. The M9 welcomes my hand, feels right, comfortable and reassuringly solid and dependable. As do my Nikons of course… But they, in the end, are more tools for technical photographic challenges, while the M9 is more a tool for the heart, for expressiveness and intimacy. For capturing the human experience. It facilitates creating photography of meaning. So of course, as with any favourite craftsman’s tool, it also captures the heart of the photographer. How could it not?

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.