A Modest Proposal Going Forward

Selfie, Havana 1998: That was me, I was there, that’s what I remember. Let me show you.

I rarely receive critical or hostile comments about my posts, which is surprising, as I’m excessively, sometimes rudely, opinionated about certain photographic issues. Given past experience trying to debate meaningful topics on internet forums – typically I was thrown off any given forum within a week or two, usually the personal target of a moderator who thought proper forum etiquette required unquestioning allegiance to whatever accepted opinion currently ruled – that opinion usually the desired result of crafty advertising by camera companies constantly pushing the “new and improved” as a means of insuring financial viability – I assumed these same types with the same blinkered views would find their way over here, certainly given the Leica name associated with the blog. It’s why I went the first few years without a comments feature because, frankly, I wasn’t interested in what other people had to say. The whole purpose of the blog was to free myself from the constrictions imposed on a critically thinking person elsewhere. Hence Leicaphilia. It was my extended love letter to the wayward lover that is Leica and a middle finger to those who claimed the right to “mentor” me with facile answers to serious questions, questions they seemed unwilling or incapable of understanding let alone answering.

God knows bourgeois opinion is alive and well in Leica land. It’s inevitable that people who currently find Leica interesting would be bourgeois. It takes money to buy a Leica, and usually a certain mindset to put large amounts of money toward a photographic trinket so as to partake of a certain status. If it were simply a matter of using a camera that fulfilled basic photographic requirements with a minimum of fuss – which is what a lot of us who use Leicas claim to be the draw – then most Leica shooters should be running around with an old manual Pentax and a few lenses, given they remain wonderful cameras that you can buy cheap as dirt, or digital partisans would be content with their well-used Nikon D200, cameras whose evidence of use was legitimately earned and not baked in from the factory.

But, of course, we’re not. We’re standing in line to buy the newest Leica M or Q or T or whatever it is at that moment that Leica and their enablers tell us we must have, the latest and most up to date, because only then, we are told, will we finally possess a photographic instrument sufficient for our Promethean creativity. Of course, the logic of consumerism requires the process of technological “progress” never end. The very nature of capitalism admits of no endpoint, no time when we should be able to say “enough, I’ve got enough to do what I need to do. Everything from here on out is superfluous to requirements.” Were we to get to that point, Nikon, Canon and Leica would all go out of business.

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

 This reminds me of so many things

Surprisingly, what I’ve found is that there are a lot of really thoughtful, intelligent, experienced people who read the blog and agree with me about most things. I assume it’s because it’s not the same old thing that one finds in most camera/photography blogs, where the emphasis is usually all about gear and the gear discussion is typically weighted towards the next new thing without anyone stopping to think about where the whole thing is heading and why we need it to head that way. It does make sense: internet forums tend to attract the most neurotic and rabid partisans of any given subject; normal people, enthusiasts with a sense of perspective, typically aren’t found on internet forums debating the bokeh of the Aspherical Summicron. They’re more interested in meaningful photographs and the means to create them, which involves discussion and understanding of photographic history and various aesthetic choices. This isn’t to say that a certain level of gear talk isn’t interesting or normal. It is. Appreciation and discussion of the tools we use should be part of that discussion, but it needs to be seen in context.

It seems to me that modern photographers too often confuse means with ends. By this I mean that we’ve become fixated on the tools we use and not on the purposes we’re using the tools for. Of course, this neurotic focus on photographic tools didn’t start with the digital age; film users were, and are, just as fixated on the technical aspects of the craft as today’s digiphiles. What’s changed is the pace of technological change, now so fast it’s almost impossible to keep apace. No sooner has some technological advance been introduced then it’s been made obsolete by the next advance. This hyper-accelerated pace of technological advance, unique to the digital age, seems great in theory, but in practice its only benefit is that camera makers can continue to claim a reason to sell us a new camera every 18 months. Baked into this process is a cynical duplicity on the part of camera manufacturers and their Madison Avenue agents- claim your latest offering to be a necessary advance, something that makes the previous iteration -the one you told us 18 months ago to be the greatest thing ever- obsolete, worthless, of no value. Rinse and repeat every 18 months or so, ad infinitum, then let the dupes and fellow travelers, the “reviewers”, drive the process forward. No one seems to ask “to what end?” As such, there’s no equilibrium to be reached, no point at which we’re allowed to say yes, that’s it, this is all good enough, I don’t need anything else to effectuate my photographic intent, thank you.

*************A couple of years ago I bought a box of glass negatives in an antique store in Orleans. This is one of them, scanned. Tell me that’s not cool.

At least there’s no equilibrium reached without a conscious decision to get off the ever revolving hamster wheel of “technological improvement.” It’s my opinion that you need to get off the technological hamster wheel if you are to develop creatively. Fixation at this superficial level of your photography is a dead end, deflecting you from real creative issues. This is where Leica and Canon and Nikon want you – perpetually dissatisfied, yet holding out hope that the next incremental technological “advance” will finally get you there. At base, if I look back on all I’ve written the last few years, the one consistent theme of the blog is that it’s possible to be happy and creatively fulfilled working within the parameters of basic photographic needs – aperture, shutter and film or equivalent spec-ed sensor. The rest is all optional. It may be fun to collect cameras or own the latest technology or simply find a pleasant diversion in identifying with a particular brand or type of camera, but those things aren’t necessary to be a serious photographer. What’s necessary is a mindfulness of the craft and its history, an understanding of your agency within the process and a consideration of the means by which you can realize your intent.

If I look back on almost a half century of dedicated photography, I’m struck by the obviousness of the fact that the meaningful photos I’ve made during that time have nothing to do with types of cameras or with technological prowess. Relying on technical virtues for visual interest is a cheap parlour trick. One of my favorite photos ever, a print of which hangs in a good friend’s house – which I admire every time I’m there – was taken with a wooden pinhole camera, handheld for a few seconds. Just a wooden box and some light sensitive film – and a user with an aesthetic sense built up over years by reading and looking and studying and thinking. Or they’re products of an individual sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of time and the miraculous nature of photography. You don’t get there by obsessing about cameras; you get there with a broad, liberal understanding of the world and your temporary and precarious place in it.

The most interesting posts I’ve published – interesting for me, at least – are those that involve specific photographs and the photographer’s understanding of the photograph. The history of the photograph. The reason that photograph means something to someone, the role that photograph plays in that person’s consciousness, its emotional and psychological payoff.  I’d like to do more of that going forward, in addition to the usual silliness that helps me keep the gearhead impulses in perspective. I’d like to hear more from others, see the things that a love of photography has helped them articulate and how they’ve thought about it and done it. That, for me, get’s to the heart of the miracle of photography and why its remained a central interest in my life and why I keep at this modest attempt to articulate it.

20 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal Going Forward

  1. HarryBH

    Every once in awhile I begin to respond to the Siren’s call and begin to steer too close to the rocks of the Digital New. Then, in the nick of time, your words wake me and I steer away again to the calmer waters of my “old” equipment.

    Reply
  2. StephenJ

    Bloomin’ Ell Tim, I used to live on the Singel, and take a daily walk to the Cafe Heren, on Herenstraat, where they had a great pinball machine…. ding! your on the solids… We used to walk past a couple of whores (sorry sex workers) who used to do their thing there, and have a chat with them.

    I used to do shiftwork in Amstelveen, and the girlfriend (wife) was a nurse, so we both had spare time…

    You had me looking up that address of yours Eerste Anjeliersdwarsstraat, just to see where it was… Apparently just around the corner from the Cafe Heren… who knew?

    Interesting to note too, that earlier on today, I was reading another blog, which was discussing a spot near Oxford Street in London, quite a nice picture, not your style (at all at all), but I couldn’t help noticing that in that picture there were no less than six CCTV cameras… Looking at my house on the Singel, or rather looking for it, swapping back and forth up and down the canal until I found it… Not a single camera.

    Us Brits are the most observed and monitored people on the planet.

    My how we used to laugh at the Soviets, little did we know what was planned for us.

    I’ll leave it to others to comment on the picture with the men participating in the conceal a small mammal contest.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Actually, Stephen, I think the Cafe Heren is directly across the street from the storefront where I took that picture. It’s a small world, really.

      Reply
  3. Archiver

    Funny you should mention that someone who truly observed Leica values would shoot an old manual Pentax with a few lenses. I still shoot with a Pentax ME and its fantastic SMC 50mm f1.4 and 28mm f2.8.

    I love gear as much as the next person, but I’ve made the decision to regularly ask myself, ‘how do I get the most from what I already have?’

    Over the years, I’ve amassed a large number of cameras, and have been experimenting with my old Canon 30D again, particularly now that I’m much better at Lightroom and photography in general. I still regularly use the Sigma DP1 and DP2 which are 10 and 9 years old, respectively, which makes them about 35 in digital camera years. Even my M9 is now 8 years old, and I recently returned from Hong Kong with a batch of photos with the wonderful qualities that I’ve come to expect.

    Do I want new gear? Sure, why not. Have I maximized my ability to use old gear? Not yet.

    Reply
  4. Wayne

    Your point on the never ending desire and push toward the latest is well taken.

    Oddly, in my personal experience, important improvement, i.e. self-improvement, has pretty much always required a move away from the latest and greatest. The further I recede, the greater my appreciation for the importance of foundation………Current trends and opinions take on the insignificance they often deserve.

    An example would be the raging drive toward the blessings- make that, demands- associated with higher and higher ISO. I was sucked into it. Now, I find myself in search of ever lower ISO film. The feeling of growth and accomplishment associated with creating a beautiful photograph on ISO 3 film goes very deep; makes me want to grab my 90-year-old Barnack Leica and take it out for another spin….Shoot at something……..Anything.

    I own other ancient cameras. None of them have passed the test of time as well as that old Barnack. I have it with me now, laying in the bottom of my computer bag. 50mm 2.5 Hektor is attached; it is loaded with Svema FN-32 (ISO 32) film that was manufactured about the time the Berlin Wall came down. I could have any number of different cameras (some, much newer) in that bag, but none have proven to be as reliable as the IID- a four digit converted IA. That is why I love Leica: they created something I can recede with……….Forever.

    Reply
  5. Darren Kelland

    My problem is something slightly different. I lust over old cameras and every time I think that I have completed my collection, I see something else.

    A number of years back my uncle passed me his Pentax K1000 which had lain in his garage for a number of years. I had great fun with it including winding to exposure 40 on a roll and then realising that actually I hadn’t loaded the film properly… In many ways that was a moment where I realised everything that I needed to know about using film. It takes care, precision, craft and experience. Even then it can still go wrong. Shortly after that I bought my M3. My wife as pregnant and I wanted to take the first photograph of my son on an iconic camera and on film. You can bet your bottom dollar I made sure that my camera was operating correctly for that decisive moment. When he is older he will know that the first photograph of him was taken using a legendary camera (rather than an iPhone!).

    Since then I have added a number of 35mm and medium format cameras to my collection. I love the aesthetic, the simplicity and the reliability of mechanical cameras. I often crave an M6 and even (dare I say it) an M8. There is something indefinable about owning Leica cameras that draws many photographers in. They help tell a story and many of them have their own stories also. I will never part with my M3 although it may have to share my affections with others cameras from other iconic manufacturers and it may meet some of its younger siblings in days to come.

    Regardless, it has etched a particular role in my personal history and that of my family and I know that when my son is old enough he will still be able to use the camera that his first ever photograph was taken on.

    Reply
  6. Rob Campbell

    Funny thing, but my initial interest in photography didn’t stem from images, it was born from a fascination with adverts mainly for Leica during the late 40s/early 50s. I must have been very young at the time, and my “creative” instincts were all with paint and pencil. Yet, something about the design of those pre-M bodies was just so amazingly attractive…

    Today, what feels like hundreds of years later, the attraction has advanced an inch to the birth of the M3, a camera I never owned, but that my final employer did, and from which I was to print quite a lot of pictures…

    I’d still like to own an M, but a digital one: the 10.

    Reality and convenience tells me that in the end, film or digital capture, the shooting buzz is identical if you let it be and don’t complicate life for yourself by employing all the bells and whistles that come as part of the contemporary camera package. The best way that I know to achieve that purity is never to leave the house with more than a single camera and lens. You have to concentrate and not try to do everything at the same time. It really works.

    Reply
  7. Nick

    Another very good article that raises many questions.

    First of all, most forums are de facto dedicated to maintaining ad nauseam the liberal and consumerist doxa of their sponsors. In addition, it is impossible to develop a thought that is somewhat argumentative and nuanced, the “Tweeter” mode and outrageousness having too often the last word. The worst is the clear feeling that everyone speaks in his corner by exposing without restraint or distance his pseudo-moods or his pseudo-convictions. Even if the questions mentioned are sometimes interesting, threads of discussion often end in misunderstanding, invective or off-topic.

    Remain blogs where an author can express his thoughts as he wishes without fear of being interrupted. But to do so, it is necessary to have a point of view and arguments to defend it on top of a capacity for expression far beyond the verbiage that takes place in our days of communication.

    I generally appreciate what you write and how you write it. I sometimes disagree, it’s part of the rules of the game but at least there is no ambiguity (and this despite the name of your blog – Leicaphilia – that tends to make you look like a total fan of the brand). Even if once again I do not 100% adhere, your point of view at least has the merit of consistency, the opposite of what can be read on most forums.

    Your last paragraph opens up a different perspective and puts the photographer back in the history of his own production. I see a double-edged sword: We have a common history and can therefore be receptive to the photographer’s speech. As well the image can be differently interpreted by each viewer without relation with the original intention. In this case, I fear that the speech comes in opposition to the viewer’s emotion by imposing its own interpretation. Not an easy balance…

    Reply
  8. insolublepancake

    Hi tim, yes, great stuff. Thanks for keeping us on the straight and level!

    “The most interesting posts I’ve published – interesting for me, at least – are those that involve specific photographs and the photographer’s understanding of the photograph. The history of the photograph. The reason that photograph means something to someone, the role that photograph plays in that person’s consciousness, its emotional and psychological payoff. ”

    That’s interesting. My Christmas present was the Thames and Hudson re-edition of Daido Moriyama’s “Record”, his personal photographs taken over the last few decades. Do you know what his favourite photograph of all time is? It’s not a William Klein, or work by any modern photographer – it’s “Point de vue du Gras”, the first photograph of all time, taken by Niépce, which you talked about here on Leicaphilia. He has a framed print in his bedroom. He even went so far as to take a picture out of the same window himself. Now that, for me, is fascinating…

    Reply
  9. Rob Campbell

    But why shouldn’t the photographer’s own view be the one of most value?

    If not, you may as well just stroll down the street asking random people what you should be shooting next. Would you want – or even expect – an author to advertise for plots before he puts metaphorical pen to paper? If you want that sort of “viewer” importance, then you might as well commission all the snaps you are prepared to see.

    In my opinion, the viewer is only of importance in commercial work; for most snappers, doing it for the buzz, why should they give a rat’s ass about a viewer’s opinion or interpretation? If they fall into that trap, they have just tossed out the main value of amateur photography, self- expression, and replaced it with worry about possible failure to meet the expectations of some shadowy, unreal figure of their imagination.

    Reply
  10. Rob Campbell

    Has anyone else picked up on this vibe: the opening picture, the Havana Selfie, doesn’t it bring to mind the iconic Nick Ut shot of the naked little girl running away from the explosions and fire?

    To me, the dynamic is extraordinarily similar.

    Reply
    1. Éric de Montigny

      Well Rob, when i saw it, my first tought was Ralph Gibson, the malecon viewed trough the rear window of a car. Went to his site but can’t find the picture grrrr i hope i’m not mistaken with another from Tim….
      By the way i realy like his work, i mean ralph…. altough i like tim’s too. Few month ago I wrote Ralph offering to buy his focomat 1C as he dont seem to use it much these day, no answer. Hope he is not upset thiking i was pulling his leg over his digital conversion. Nevertheless i found a wonderfull 2c instead. Sorry if i’m too cryptic for those who dont know the smell of a darkroom.

      Reply
      1. Rob Campbell

        I’m one of those weirdos who never found the darkroom either difficult, oppressive or smelly (maybe because I went home to a wife who was faithful to Chanel No5) and better yet, I as able to listen to pirate Radio Caroline on 199 whenever I had to do overnight shifts; there was something almost mystical when, fingers frozen from the wash, I would catch The Mamas and the Papas singing “and the darkest hour, is just before dawn”. Stinking darkroom? Hell no, cradles of spiritual romance!

        Maybe that’s why the cat won’t reply: selling signals the death of something.

        Rob

        Reply
  11. George Feucht

    All true…

    …But it’s fun to window shop. And we’re programmed to hunt and gather.

    I’ve had my M6 for over a decade now. I bought an M240 3 years ago. The M240 fixed all of the problems of my M6.

    It is worth noting that I’ve shot exclusively with the M6 for the last 3 months.

    Give me a week of processing and scanning, and I’ll be back on the M240 again with the passion of young love.

    I think we all lust for something better, acquire it and honeymoon, fall back to our old loves, repeat. Nothing wrong with that.

    Reply

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