Author Archives: Leicaphila

A Short Sabbatical

Leicaphilia is going on a short holiday. I should be back fairly soon. Till then, go dig around in the archives. There’s 425 posts since 2013, much of it nonsense, but some of it worth reading again. Cheers.

Sean Flynn’s Black Paint M2

Black Paint Leica M2
Sean Flynn Leica M2
Black Paint Leica M2
Sean Flynn Leica M2

This black paint Leica M2, serial number 1130008, was owned and used by US press photographer Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn. Flynn used this camera to cover the Vietnam War and Israel’s Six Day War. Flynn often accompanied US special forces units in hostile areas. On April 6th, 1970, Flynn with his fellow photojournalist Dana Stone motorcycled into Cambodia. Neither was ever seen again. It’s thought that both were kidnapped by the Vietcong and given to the Khmer Rouge before being executed. Sean Flynn was declared legally dead in 1984.

His M2 was found in his Paris apartment after his disappearance. Why he didn’t have it with him when he disappeared is anyone’s guess.

Sean Flynn with His Black M2 and Chrome Summilux

The camera, still in good working order, was auctioned off by Leitz Photographica Auctions in 2018 for an unspecified sum. It shows the obvious signs of wear of a black paint Leica used in extreme conditions. It was auctioned equipped with steel-rim Summilux 1.4/35 no.2166593 (from the last series of 200 lenses made in 1966). Attached to the camera was a short strap made from a parachute cord, with steel ring from a hand grenade.

Sean Flynn Leica M2
Black Paint Leica M2

Chasing the [B&W] Film Image

The Classic B&W Film Look – Shot with a Sigma DP2x

If I’ve made one concession to the digital age, it’s that it’s sent me on a quest to duplicate, via digital capture, the classic B&W film look. By ‘film look’ I mean the ’50s era Tri-X aesthetic. I’m not interested in grainless, subtle tonalities coupled with optical perfection. Leave that to digital B&W, almost all of which, to my eye, just doesn’t look very interesting. It looks thin and plastic, like it has no depth. I could be imagining things, but I don’t think so. The differences are real, and, at least to me, they matter. B&W photography, if it’s worthy of the name, should have a certain look. Think Robert Frank’s Americans, or Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, or Trent Parkes’ Minutes to Midnight.

Above is a photo I took recently with a Sigma DP2x, post-processed in Silver Efex. To me, it’s a film image – the contrast, the grain, the tonality of Tri-X developed in Rodinal – about as close as I’m going to get without actually running a roll of Tri-X through my camera. So, it can be done. For comparison, I’ve posted a film snap below that exhibits the characteristics I’m looking to duplicate digitally. To my eye, these two photos could have come from the same roll.

Valentina and Donna, San Francisco, 2016 – HP5 at 800 ISO.

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Tobacco Fields, Eastern North Carolina – Film or Digital? Hard to Tell (It’s a DP2x Silver Efex Conversion)

What I’ve learned [so far] can be distilled into a few simple observations: First, you’ve got to shoot RAW and run your files through film emulation software. No B&W jpegs using various in-camera film simulations. Pushing digital ISO and relying on digital noise isn’t going to get it either. I find Silver Efex to be excellent, especially using the Tri-X, HP5, Neopan 1600 and TMax 3200 presets as starting points.

Second, relatively low-resolution sensors give better film simulations; grain structure seems more accurate, tonalities more amenable to Tri-X contrast. 5-12 mpix seems to be the sweet spot. Something about higher resolution sensors – 24 mpix and above – translates into unnatural looking grain structure when post-processed, a look of having been added-on as opposed to being an organic characteristic of the output. It makes sense – 35mm Tri-x and HP5 aren’t about resolution so much as a particular grain patina. High-resolution output can’t be disguised with a simple grain overlay. The original Sigma Dp series – the 5 mpix Foveon – gives remarkably film-like grain output and tonality, printable up to 11×14 (which, ironically, is about the same limit of enlargement allowed by a 35mm negative, supporting the argument for the approximate equivalency of the Dp resolution to that of 35mm film), when run through Silver Efex by a discerning eye. It’s 35mm Tri-X developed in Rodinal in a digital box. Other sensors that seem to effectively simulate film output are the 10 mpix CCD sensor of the Nikon d200 and, my favorite, the 12 mpix Ricoh GXR M-mount. The beauty of this is you don’t need to spend $4000 on a Monochrom; you can pick up a d200 or d80 for next to nothing, and pre-digital Nikon primes are cheap as dirt.

One’s Film (HP5 2 800 ISO). One’s Digital (Ricoh GXR M-Mount).

Which leads me to my third generalization: film era optics produce better digital files for film emulation. Highly corrected modern digital optics are simply too sharp if you’re looking to replicate film. Film didn’t look that way, a function of less tack-sharp optics. Older lenses were designed using manual computation, are inclined to flare a bit and are often softer at the edges or have some vignetting, things you don’t see in modern, highly corrected optics. These optical characteristics are also a part of what we think of as the ‘film look.’

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I’ve recently bought the camera a CCD Monchrom. Leica marketed it as an evolution of B&W film photography in the digital age. They bundled a copy of Silver Efex with it, just in case. I’ve not had it long enough to make any valid comparisons, but first impressions are excellent. At the very least, it does capture B&W in a way unlike traditional digital B&W output. Below are two Monochrom snapshots run through the same emulation as the DP2x shots, followed by two similar DP2x shots.

Leica Monochrom and Silver Efex
Sigma DP2x and Silver Efex
Leica Monochrom and Silver Efex
Sigma DP2x and Silver Efex

The Photography of Jacques-Henri Lartigue

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s amateur photographic work. For me, his childhood output constitutes one of the highlights of early 20th-century photography. Born in Courbevoie, near Paris in France in 1894, Lartigue took his first photographs at age 8. For him, photography was a revelation that would inspire him throughout his life: “It was a superhuman invention. I got it all! Colors! The sounds!”

Lartigue’s early vision – private memory as photographic subject – constitutes an authentic autobiographical diary of his family life in pre-WW1 France. His images are of an affectionate and happy family environment: parents, brother Zissou, grandfather Alfred (who was one of the inventors of the monorail system and also a playwright), uncles, aunts, cousins ​​all handsome and well dressed. From the images we know that the Lartigues were well off socially – we are shown nannies, chauffeurs, loved pets.

As he became more familiar with his camera, Lartigue’s subjects and frames changed to reflect the moment: his subjects became car races in Auvergne, the bathers in Deauville and Biarritz, airplanes in Issy-les-Moulineaux and Buc, winter pastimes in Switzerland.

     Grand Prix de l’ACF, Delage automobile, Dieppe Circuit 26 June 1912

In 1915 Lartique attended the Académie Jullian to study painting, which would become his lifelong profession. Photography, however, remained his great love. The expressive knowledge he learned via painting – but also his use of the various cameras over the years, in particular their technical limits – were the means he used to create his unique photographic style.  Lartigue’s vision is of the Belle Époque, the bliss of happiness of French life before the First World War, an era also characterized by the Impressionists who painted in parallel with the innovation of the photographic medium. It was an aesthetic that gave a privileged view of bourgeois life in France in the early 1900s.

Véra et Arlette, Cannes, May 1927

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It was only in the 1960s, when he was almost 70, that his larger photographic archive became known to the general public via an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963 entitled “The Photographs of Jacque Henri Lartigue”  curated by John Szarkowski, director of the Museum’s Department of Photography. Lartigue was “discovered” as if he were a child who had miraculously captured a passing world while documenting the beginnings of the new. It wasn’t a large show, 45 early photographs from the very beginning of Lartigue’s career, now iconic. Szarkowski described Lartigue’s photography as “the precursor of every interesting and lively creation made during the twentieth century”. Richard Avedon, after viewing Lartigue’s work at the MoMA in 1963 wrote to him that “It was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my life. They are photographs that echo. I will never forget them. Seeing them was for me like reading Proust for the first time ”.

Lartigue remained no mere naive kid with a camera. If the 1963 MoMA photos are beautiful evocations of a lost world, the photographs that Lartigue took in the six decades of his working life constitute his enduring legacy. Kevin Moore’s monograph, Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist (2004), argues for the sophistication and enduring quality of Lartigue’s mature work. According to Moore, Lartigue, with his ability to freeze the enduring moment in time, made the snapshot a work of art. That he did is a measure of his enduring worth as a photographer.

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In 1974, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing commissioned Lartigue to produce his official portrait. In 1975 the Muséè des arts Décoratifs in Paris presented a large review of his photography, ‘Lartigue 8 x 80’, and in 1980 the Grand Palais in Paris exhibited a retrospective entitled ‘Bonjour Monsieur Lartigue‘ .

In 1979 Lartigue donated his entire work – negatives, original albums, diaries, cameras – to the French government which established the Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue, today called Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, with the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. The function of the Donation is to promote Lartigue’s work.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue continued to photograph, paint and write until his death in September 1986, at the age of 92. He left over 100,000 photographs, 7,000 diary pages and 1,500 paintings.

Wittgenstein on Photography

“We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relationship to pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Maybe I Need to Rethink This

Leica M8

The M8. I Had a Love/Hate With This Camera for Many Years

As you know, I’ve been, at best, ambivalent about Leica in the digital age. I’ve taken a lot of cheap shots at their digital cameras over the years, M digitals included. I’ve been skeptical that the Leica M film experience could be transposed to the digital age. Part of the problem is digital capture simply doesn’t lend itself to simplicity – it requires electronics and LCD screens and nested menus and all the afflatus that gives rise to digital bloat, and Leica isn’t immune to it in spite of their best intentions to keep things simple.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Leica’s continued emphasis on simplicity had become less a design ethos than a marketing slogan, or worse yet, a cynical way of attempting to paper over inferior product. It’s not like Leica, as anyone selling a widget, isn’t above self-serving puffery. Let’s face it: the M8, pleasing to look at and fondle like previous film Leicas, arrived with some serious issues: buggy electronics, color capture issues, battery problems, dismal ISO capabilities, a shutter that sounded like a construction-grade staple gun. The M9 fixed some of it, but I couldn’t help but think that Leica was over their heads in the digital age, where quality had less to do with traditional Leica hand-craftsmanship and more with technical expertise, technical expertise being the forte of large manufacturers like Nikon and Canon.

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Leica M3

And then there was the Leica ergonomic, the felt experience of operating one that was so seductive with their film M’s. The film M’s just feel right. Refined yet simple. No intercession of electronics to do things for you (before the M7 at least). Radically minimalist design, uncluttered viewfinder, big bright mechanical rangefinder. Simple wind-on, imperceptible shutter click, rewind. Advancing the film offered just enough throw and resistance to make the act pleasurable as its own experience. Many Leicaphiles carried our M’s around the house with us – why? because they stimulated that part of the lizard brain connected to the hand. Film M’s made you a gearhead.

I’m not sure that ergonomic simplicity transfers over to the digital M’s, or at least I was skeptical at best. While my M8 looked like an M it didn’t feel like one. Whatever magic they packed into the M4 was simply not there in the M8. Where the M4 felt fluidly effortless and simple, the M8 felt clunky and convoluted. Where the M4 shutter whispered, the M8 sounded like it was shooting high-velocity projectiles. Figuring out how to format a card or change ISO invariably devolved into multi-thumb fumbling of wheels, buttons, and menu options, all while your subject fleeing as if from a school shooter. Efficient it wasn’t.

But …. if your interest was traditional B&W photography, as opposed to digital hyper-realism, in spite of what sensor rankings and 100% cropping geeks declaimed, the M8’s output was astonishing. B&W from the M8 just had the look, a function of the CCD sensor and its increased IR sensitivity which produced thick, film-like B&W files. All you needed to do was add a bit of grain. I was willing to put up with the quirks – the random freeze-ups, the glacial boot-up times, the god-awful swack of the shutter – to get that B&W output. It was that good, a monochrome camera to rival the Monochrom.

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Leica M240

This is all prelude to the fact that I’m having to rethink my opinions these days [shock!]. I bought a used M240 a while ago, not expecting much, and found that I really liked it, as in really. Wanting a digital camera to compliment my aging GXR and my exasperating Sigma SD Quattro (another love/hate thing), I’d thought of the usual alternatives – an X100, X-Pro, D4s – and then decided against them. It was time to buy a digital M.

To make a long story short – I liked the M240 so much I splurged and bought the camera I’d always really wanted – the Monochrom, the original CCD version based on the M9 platform. Found a nice one with an updated, non-corrosive sensor. I’ve totally fallen in love. It’s a digital M4. It’s got the feel. Hell, it even looks just like a black chrome M4. As for output, I’m convinced there’s a roll of Ilford HP5 rated at 800 ISO hidden in there somewhere.

An M5 w/ HP5 @ 800 ISO, an M240 DNG Run Through Silver Efex … or a Leica Monochrom?

So, going forward I’ve decided to go all Steve Huff on you, amusing you with various posts about the Mono and the M240 and how they compare to an M5 with HP5. This weekend, I’m going out with the M5 and a 35mm VC loaded with HP5, the Mono and the M240 and see how they each render the same subject. If you’ll indulge my geekiness, I promise no 100% crops or duplicate shots of fence posts. I’ll try to keep shots of the wife and cats to a minimum.

Leica Monochrom
Leica M9M

Leica is F**king With Us Again

Leica M10-P Reporter

Leica Camera has announced a limited edition M10-P “Reporter” as a homage to press photographers.

The M10-P Reporter features a dark green design and Kevlar covering, a high-strength synthetic fiber used in ballistic-protective clothing.  This Kevlar covering will gradually turn the same color as its top and base plates through exposure to sunlight, “developing its own patina, which means that each camera will become a unique signature of its owner.” Leica M10-P Reporter sells for $8,795.00 and is limited to 450 units. No word on whether there will be a subsequent Lenny Kravitz version.

My Question: is there a guy who sits at a desk in Wetzlar tasked with thinking up shit like this that will drive us crazy?

The Leica M10-P Reporter in pre-patina state

Memento Mori: Ohno Tsuneya, Oct 9, 1937 – Dec 23, 2017

Post-War children watching kamishibai in 1955 – from Human Symphony: The Photo Exhibition of Tanuma Takeyoshi, from the exhibition catalogue. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. 2004.

By Shuya Ohno

[Editor’s Note: This was sent to me by reader Shuya Ohno as a beautifully designed PDF presentation. Unfortunately, I’m not sophisticated enough to publish the PDF as received, so I’ve reformatted it for publication. It’s a loving tribute from a son to a father and how that father passed his love of photography – and a Leica M3 – to his son.]

My father – Ohno Tsuneya – was born into a peaceful small town in the hilly countryside of Saitama prefecture, a few hours by train from Tokyo. His hometown, Chichibu, nestled among small mountains provided an ideal playground for a young mind to explore fields of wildflowers filled with insects, forests reverberating with cicadas all summer, and brooks and streams with nymphs, tadpoles, crayfish, and minnows. In town, he gathered with other schoolchildren on Sundays and spent his pocket change on candy so he could listen to the local kamishibai busker tell stories with his hand-painted pictures depicting fantastical illustrations of ghouls and heroes.

Like any boy during that time, he played baseball – that American import that’s also quintessentially Japanese. Like me, my father was slight in build, tall and lanky. Not athletic but loved to hike, ski, and explore. When the fever of war swept across the country, my father like all the young boys his age were indoctrinated at school to defend the motherland, and with their spindly arms taught to hold and wield bamboo poles as spears to poke at straw effigies of enemy soldiers.

My father in baseball uniform. Date and photographer unknown.

As the youngest of four siblings, my father had freedom to play. His father, a local politician, was a man of airs and appetites, a connoisseur who raised renowned hunting dogs that he had imported from Scotland. All the filial duties and expectations to succeed fell on my uncle, my father’s elder brother who my father no doubt worshiped.

WWII and the devastation of the country left Japan with per capita income less than that of India at the time. Late in the war, Tokyo in a single firebombing raid saw over 100,000 civilians killed, over a million homeless. Food was scarce. My mother’s mother sold off kimonos to buy rice, and sewed the rice into blankets to smuggle from the countryside to Tokyo for family. My father’s mother had to smuggle rice from more rural areas back to Chichibu. After the war, Japan threw itself into the long arduous task of rebuilding the country and society. My grandfather Ohno Tetsu died in 1950, during the American occupation of Japan. He was 46 years old.

My grandfather (second from right) with his prized hunting dogs. Date and photographer unknown.

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My uncle Ohno Mitsuya, boarding steamer to travel to San Francisco from Tokyo Bay. He is flanked by his two sisters, my aunts Noriko (left) and Kazuko (right). My father is in the back, second from left. Date and photographer uncertain.

My uncle Ohno Mitsuya sailed to the US to study journalism at the University of San Francisco. He never returned. Suffering from Marfan’s syndrome, he died presumably of a burst aortic aneurysm. He was only 23 years old. My father was still a teenager – and was now the only man of the house.

He came out to Tokyo to study at 9 years old, and eventually went on to study medicine at Jikei Medical University – the school he would later return to as a researcher and professor. He met my mother, Taniguchi Makiko when he was a student, bicycling across town to see her.

My mother was born on the first day of summer in 1940 in Tokyo, though her family hailed proudly from Kagoshima, the southern holdout of the last of the samurai. Her father Taniguchi Eizo served in the capital as an attorney for the City of Tokyo. During the war, her family fled to the countryside near Hiroshima after their house in Tokyo was firebombed. Eizo continued to work in Tokyo. On August 6th, 1945 my mother was 5 years old, playing when she and her mother saw a flash in the sky in the distance – it was the first atomic explosion and the end of the war. Eizo did his legal duty and served as a defense attorney during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The Taniguchi family: From left, my mother, Makiko, held by her sister Hamako, sister Hiroko, her mother Emi, younger brother Masamitsu, father Eizo, and sister Fusako.

Like my father’ father, Ohno Tetsu, my mother’s father Taniguchi Eizo died in 1950. He was 56 years old.

My father was 13, my mother was 10 years old when they lost their fathers. My mother’s mother, Emi, died after struggling with severe depression for eight years. My parents came of age without having a father in their lives.

My father hiking.
My mother’ student portrait.

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My father loved photography – the art, the activity, the ritual, the tools. One of the last times he and I shared an outing was a brisk February Sunday in 2004, a day before my 38th birthday. We spent the afternoon at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to see a retrospective of Tanuma Takeyoshi.The exhibit spanned 60 years of Tanuma’s career, beginning with images of post-War children in Tokyo from 1949 that he took as a young apprenticing photojournalist.

In 1956, the Family of Man exhibition came to Tokyo. Tanuma was inspired by this exhibition and went to see it again and again. So did my father. The exhibition is still regarded as a grand undertaking, 503 photographs from 68 countries – its magnitude matched only by its own hubris and that of its curator, the photographer Edward Steichen.

My father, Michi, and me on Bear Mountain.

However naïve it may seem today, the driving aspirations and ethos of the exhibit, to capture and encompass humanity in its multitudes as a single connected family, was situated firmly in the liberal ideology of its time, reflected in the contemporaneously articulated charter of the United Nations:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and… to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

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My father before a camping trip, camera ready at his hip.

The post-war Japanese intellectual of the late-Twentieth Century was an amalgam of times and cultures. Adorned with a black beret or a bucket hat, tucked into a turtleneck, the aficionado of culture and the cool connoisseur of consumer goods practiced as an amateur naturalist, a hobbyist polymath, and a citizen of the world. Simultaneously Modern and Romantic, the intellectual eccentric saw himself as hero, like a Sherlock Holmes – a Victorian avatar that still stubbornly abides in Japan.

It is not surprising then that my father left us in the United States and returned to Japan. He had brought us, my mother and my brothers, Shinya and Michiyuki to the US when I was 6 years old. My parents remained a married couple – we were still a family – just separated by 13 time zones and 6,740 miles. He left when I was 14. I had worshiped him until then.

Family portrait with Christmas tree. Shot with a self-timer in our apartment in Fort Lee, NJ. ca. 1974

Throughout my high school days, I felt his absence, and filled it with rage. I was angry at myself for feeling angry toward my father – I felt like I was desecrating some sacred filial code. I drove my mother crazy, at times to tears. She deserved none of it. It took me into adulthood until I stopped following in his footsteps and abandoned science, until I worked feverishly making art, and then making social justice change that I felt relieved of my anger, forgiving my father and accepting and understanding him. He never saw it as abandonment, just a temporary necessity dictated by his work ethic. My mother eventually joined him after Michi graduated from Rutgers. Michi was perhaps the most American of us for having grown up in the US since he was 3 years old, but he too went to settle back in Tokyo.

Me at 17, Nara Japan
Me in my senior year of High School, 1984.

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My father taking a photograph with his Nikormat at a Bicentennial rooftop party. Photo by his close friend and colleague, Raymond Sweet. NYC, July 4th, 1976.

I inherited my father’s 1956 Leica M3 (#831611). It’s not that he bequeathed it to me. I claimed it a couple of days after he passed away. I like to believe he would have set it aside for me – but perhaps he meant to sell it. I didn’t know this M3 existed until I was rummaging through his cabinet of classic cameras, divvying up the collection between my brothers and myself. It was not a camera I had ever seen him use. He used a Nikormat while we all lived in the US. He gave that camera to my brother Shinya. My father used a black Leica M6 after that. But I knew what the M3 meant to him. We had years ago discussed its lineage and its reputation as the pinnacle of craft and industrialization, the greatest camera of the 20th century.

Industrialization and the availability of the easy point and shoot 35mm camera became a turning point for the modern world. Susan Sontag in her seminal essay, “Photography,” first published in the New York Review of Books in 1973 presaged my father’s relationship to his camera.

“The very activity of taking pictures is soothing,” she wrote, “and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.” For my family, it was not travel but immigration in 1972 – jarring and alienating. Language proficiency, or rather its lack, always kept my father a little apart from interactions, a little behind in conversations. I could always see his desire to drop the bon mot, the jokes and puns he had in his head, if only he had mastery over English the way he had over Japanese. Instead, he had his camera. Sontag continued, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.” It is a fine instrument for capturing and collecting moments but also a tool for defense.

Her essay is still incisive, perhaps more so with the advent of the cellphone. “People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture-takers, at home and abroad. Everyone who lives in an industrialized society is obliged gradually to give up the past, but in certain countries, such as the United States and Japan, the break with the past has been particularly traumatic.” Migration only exacerbates this break.

For the last two years of his life, my father was bed-ridden in the hospital. He was intubated and then given a tracheotomy, taking his voice. By the end, he lost his desire to communicate, left his thick glasses by the bed and no longer cared if he could see.

My parents at Jikei University Hosptial. My father had undergone an aortic valve replacement surgery. Complications post-surgery kept him in the hospital for two years until his passing. My mother visited him every day. I took this photo with my father’s M6. 2015

I inherited from my father, not only his camera, but also his adulation for what he glimpsed in that Family of Man exhibit – a vision of humanity suffused with dignity and love for all people, an exaltation of the everyday, the celebration of the common person, and the democratization of art

​Now I strive to take photographs that express my love for the world. And every time I pick up the M3, every time I press the shutter, it is a continuing conversation with my father. The viewfinder of this old camera is his eyes, as I ask him, “Do you see? Do you see?”

My wife, Medhanit Tekle with two local children in Aksum, Ethiopia. 2018. We were married 6 months after my father’s passing. I took this during our honeymoon with the Leica M3.

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All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag.