Author Archives: Leicaphila

Heinrich Hoffman’s Leica

Leica IIIa “Heinrich Hoffmann, Berlin”, 1935 Leitz, Wetzlar. No. 178859. This Leica IIIa with engraving “Presse-Hoffmann, Berlin Nr. 6” is the camera of notorious NAZI press photographer and journalist Heinrich Hoffmann, Munich, later Berlin.This Leica IIIa with serial number 178859 was sold on November 8, 1935 to “Monsieur Hoffmann de Munich”. With Hektor 2,5/5 cm as originally equipped.

Heinrich Hoffmann (12 September 1885 – 15 December 1957) was a Nazi politician and publisher, a member of Hitler’s intimate circle and Hitler’s official photographer. Hoffmann received royalties from the use of Hitler’s image, even on postage stamps, which made him a millionaire during Hitler’s years in power. After the Second World War he was tried and sentenced to four years in prison for war profiteering. He was classified by the Allies’ Art Looting Investigators to be a “major offender” in the plundering of Jewish art, as both art dealer and collector. Hoffman’s art collection, which contained many artworks looted from Jews, was ordered confiscated by the Allies. He recovered the art in 1956 by order of the Bavarian State.

Letter from Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH to French owner of the camera confirming its authenticity

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Benito Mussolini greeting German ldr. Adolf Hitler, whose right arm is in a sling after he was injured during an assassination attempt planned by his own military officers. (Photo by Hoffman)
Hitler admires a model of the Volkswagen car and is amused to find the engine in the boot. He is with the designer Ferdinand Porsche (left), and to the right Korpsfuhrer Huehnlein, Dr Ley, Schmeer, and Werlin. (Photo by Hoffmann/Getty Images)

What Exactly Does it Mean to Have “Good Taste”?

If You Don’t Like This Photo, You’re Not a Very Good Person.

As anyone who has perused a ‘photo critique’ website knows, there’s a fine line between respecting others’ right to their bad taste and opting to participate in it or encourage it. There’s a lot of truly awful photography peddled via the internet..or, at least, that’s my take on it. Most people would reject my judgment as snobbish. Taste is taste; who am I to pass judgment on the tastes of others, right?

The question is the degree to which peoples’ inability to agree about aesthetic matters is itself something we can agree on (i.e. it’s all simply a matter of ‘taste’), or is there something objective we can point to when arguing for an aesthetic standard? Is my claim to recognize ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ creative expression simply subjective or does it entail an objective standard that I’m in possession of?

The post-modernist belief is that the plurality of aesthetic points of view is the necessary result of the diversity between human beings. This is a good thing, and we should celebrate the fact that we are all free to judge for ourselves what appeals to us. We moderns think of aesthetic disputes as reflecting a person’s ‘taste’. There’s no arguing over taste, the assumption being that taste is subjective and therefore unimportant as a means to differentiate people. I don’t believe that, and one look at your average photo enthusiast website should be enough to convince you I’m right. I believe a proper understanding and recognition of superior aesthetics is something one develops. It’s a skill learned like any other. Some people possess a better understanding of it than do others who are too slow to understand what they don’t know – think of it as the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to aesthetics.

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This is a Good Photo. Those 3 Birds Make It. Somehow I Forgot To Include it in Car Sick.

The Ancient Greeks agreed with me. They believed in an objective standard of the beautiful, a standard that was, in theory, available to any rational person. In the Euthyphro, Plato, via the voice of Socrates, claims that our disagreements always involve one of two subjects: ethics – how to act – and aesthetics – what is beautiful – in his words those that have as their subject matter “the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.” In various Platonic dialogues, you’ll often read of some horny old philosopher praising some nubile young boy for his noble birth, his virtuous character, and his handsome body, all at the same time. That’s because in ancient Greek, the word “kalon” (‘noble’ ‘virtuous’, ‘handsome’) fused aesthetics and ethics into one thing. The beautiful was just, and the just was beautiful. Likewise, the trite or banal or vulgar was ugly and unjust, and those who mistook it as beautiful were compromised personally. They were, in a real sense, deformed.

For Plato, your ‘tastes’ irrevocably reflect your status of personhood. They indicate your progression in the state of being. They are a badge of your refinement, a refinement developed through your concerted effort. It takes a lot of intellectual and spiritual work to recognize the beautiful and embrace it when most others cannot or will not. It takes knowledge and courage to reject the facile sub-standard banalities that so often are publically celebrated as virtuous. Plato has no problem with you pointing and laughing at the guy sporting the Canonikon with 17-280 kit zoom who would look at Robert Frank’s The Americans and criticize it for not respecting the Rule of Thirds.

Your tastes in effect define you as an ethical person. In fact, your tastes constitute an ethics in themselves; if you have “bad” taste, you are, in some sense, a “bad” person i.e. deficient in some way. Likewise, having “good” taste makes you a “good” person, and this aesthetic divide between two human beings obstructs their ethical relations. I suppose it’s why I find the usual suspects – the guys flogging their association with Leica as a badge of their creativity, when in fact it’s just the opposite – so pathetic. Plato would find them pathetic too.

Charles Baudelaire Hates Photography

A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers – Charles Baudelaire 1859

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, a book of poetry titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), is about finding beauty in the industrializing world of the mid-19th century. Baudelaire’s work influenced a generation of French poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. Think of him as the Patti Smith of his day. He is considered the father of the aesthetic movement now known as ‘Modernism’ and is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the experience of urban life and the responsibility of the artist to capture that experience.

Baudelaire was, paradoxically, deeply ambivalent about modernity and specifically, the role mechanism played in the productions of creativity.   Baudelaire’s 1856 poem, Correspondences  reduces the ‘Realist’ aesthetic (i.e. the description of things as they appear, of which Photography as a practice is concerned) to irrelevance. Baudelaire saw 19th-century ‘Realism’ as something new in human history, a secular version of what the Greeks called metanoia: a change of mind, a new way of looking at oneself and the world… but it was mistaken. Reality was actually an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena. Photography, rooted in ‘Realism,’ could never represent this true reality.

In this 1859 commentary on photography, Baudelaire critiques the public’s fascination with photography.  “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists because nothing that exists satisfies me….  I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.”  Baudelaire’s anti-materialist perspective and this commentary on photography will influence Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after his death.  Baudelaire’s aesthetics will subsequently be used to support every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism. As such, understanding Baudelaire’s thinking about photography can teach us much about the assumptions underlying both photography and modern art.

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Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 was first published in the Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. This selection is from Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art. Jonathan Mayne editor and translator.  London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955.

“During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the di­vine in the French mind. The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. In matters of painting and sculpture, the present-day Credo of the sophisticated, above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary), is this: “I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good rea­sons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dis­sident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent ob­jects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber-pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art.” A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry-maids in a car­nival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the per­formance, the operator flattered himself that he was re­producing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the di­vine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peepholes of the stereoscope, as though they were the attic-windows of the infinite. The love of pornography, which is no less deep-rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction. And do not imagine that it was only children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies; the world was infatuated with them. I was once present when some friends were discretely concealing some such pictures from a beautiful woman, a woman of high society, not of mine—they were taking upon themselves some feeling of delicacy in her presence; but “No,” she replied. “Give them to me! Nothing is too strong for me.” I swear that I heard that; but who will believe me? “You can see that they are great ladies,” said Alexandre Dumas. “There are some still greater!“ said Cazotte.

As the photographic industry was the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies, this universal infatuation bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance. I do not believe, or at least I do not wish to believe, in the absolute success of such a brutish conspiracy, in which, as in all others, one finds both fools and knaves; but I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contrib­uted much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce. In vain may our mod­ern Fatuity roar, belch forth all the rumbling wind of its rotund stomach, spew out all the undigested sophisms with which recent philosophy has stuffed it from top to bottom; it is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mor­tal enemy, and that the confusion of their several func­tions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled. Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature. Let it hasten to enrich the tourist’s album and restore to his eye the precision which his memory may lack; let it adorn the naturalist’s library, and enlarge microscopic animals; let it even provide information to corroborate the astronomer’s hypotheses; in short, let it be the secre­tary and clerk of whoever needs an absolute factual exac­titude in his profession—up to that point nothing could be better. Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!

         I know very well that some people will retort, “The disease which you have just been diagnosing is a disease of imbeciles. What man worthy of the name of artist, and what true connoisseur, has ever confused art with industry?” I know it; and yet I will ask them in my turn if they believe in the contagion of good and evil, in the action of the mass on individuals, and in the involuntary, forced obedience of the individual to the mass. It is an incontestable, an irresistible law that the artist should act upon the public, and that the public should react upon the artist; and besides, those terrible witnesses, the facts, are easy to study; the disaster is verifiable. Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down be­fore external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness?

         Could you find an honest observer to declare that the invasion of photography and the great industrial mad­ness of our times have no part at all in this deplorable result? Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material sci­ence as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?”


Next: Walter Benjamin, (1982-1940) German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist critiques Baudelaire’s critique of photography.

I Just Don’t Get It

Above is a limited edition “Correspondent” version of the Leica M-P digital rangefinder, “designed by Lenny Kravitz”, currently for sale on Ebay for 15k. The special edition is “strictly limited” to 125 sets worldwide. This is 029/125.

It’s not a bad looking camera if one simply takes it for what it is. The ‘artificial’ weathering is fairly tasteful if that’s your thing, and it doesn’t have Lenny’s signature, which would irrevocably mar an otherwise nice camera body. My question is: Why would Leica think that Lenny Kravitz would have any significance for a Leicaphile…or for a collector for that matter? I’m truly stumped. The incongruity of calling it a Lenny Kravitz “Correspondent” Leica is even weirder. Leica could have simply released the camera without the Kravitz designation – a limited edition “Correspondent” MP. Price it accordingly.

This is not to denigrate Lenny Kravitz. He’s a talented guy doing what he does. Let’s not confuse him with Robert Capa or Susan Meiselas however. The whole thing reflects poorly on both Leica and Kravitz. The irony is that the digital MP is a really nice camera – I’ve been playing around with one for a few weeks, and I like it. And, while I’m not that up on Lenny Kravitz, the one thing he does that I’m familiar with evidences some musical chops. But, given gimmicks like this, it sort of creeps me out to be seen in public with a digital Leica. Being out and about with a Leica used to give you massive street cred back in the day – then, a beat-up M4 with a ratty 35mm Summicron. Now it conjures up rich poseurs and clueless dilettantes, which is a shame. And Leica has no one but themselves to blame.

So, what’s in it for Leica in naming it after a B-grade rock star? And what’s in it for Lenny Kravitz?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…..

Everything Must Go!

This was sent to me by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

Once upon a time – actually a fairly recent time – my email address found its way onto the distribution list of Thorsten von Overgaard. “von” Overgaard (the ‘von’ being added a few years ago, after he married a princess) sent me numerous invitations to his free “Masterclass”. Apparently he wished to share with me some of his secrets, totally free. Actually, he’s been bombarding my inbox for some time now. Thorsten really wants to share his photography knowledge with me. And it’s all free. Nice chap, I thought.

I’d been around the world photographing people and things, won some awards, had a museum show or two along the way – nothing super-special, never photographed a Royal though. What I’ve learned through all of it: stay humble and stay hungry…and you’re never too good to learn a thing or two from a recognized expert. To assess Mr. Overgaard’s credentials, I checked his website. Lot’s of bokeh, his motto “Always wear a camera,” and a publicity photo of him with a strip of 35mm film wrapped around his face. Working photographers stopped using film for their pro work in, oh, 2003 or thereabouts. What the fuck was that about? Back in 2003, as I understand it, Overgaard, yet unaware of his royal roots, was working as a coal miner or something like that. Maybe he was shooting film in the coal mine. Well, his class is free; what have I got to lose, right?

I took the plunge and joined his webinar. It began with a ‘host’ reviewing von Overgaard’s numerous accomplishments and then introducing him. After his intro, Thorsten commenced to share what he had learned in a long career photographing royalty, celebrity, and armed conflict around the globe. As for inside information – it was, according to Overgaard, “all about the light,” light being very important. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d really thought about that before. Light. Important. We could learn more if we ordered his book The Freedom of Photographic Expression, wherein everything was laid out in simple, easily understood terms. Plus, it had many of his award-winning photos, photos that used light to great effect, especially if you used a Leica. Leica was important as well. It was all there in the book. Some guy from Canada seemed to think the book was worth every penny: “Exactly what I craved. Excellent book. I plan to attend one of your workshops this year.” C. S. (Toronto) During this, comments running along the right side of the screen exclaimed, “Incredible masterclass,” “I’m learning so much,” “This is incredible!”.

After a few minutes, I went back to doing my own work.  Over the course of the next hour I checked back a few times, finding what appeared to be greatly satisfied customers streaming compliments as Overgaard pitched his products, which apparently are designed to comprise a “system.” von Overgaard sells his complete package for $5,688.  But today, and today only, we could get the whole thing for $479.99. The complete package. Shipping, of course, was extra. A number of satisfied customers remarked that that seemed an incredible deal. Hell, just think how much a Leica cost. I had to admit – that was a helluva discount. Plus, if you wanted the best, you had to pay for it. No doubt.

In my brief and random returns to the webinar, I did see one comment complaining that there wasn’t really any instruction going on.  However the overwhelming majority were saying how great the webinar was.  Just for fun, I wrote a comment, “Where’s the substance?” and was kicked out of the webinar and summarily banned.  

What I took from all of it? It’s all about the light, and his book will explain it better. Imagine my surprise when I saw you can now pick up a copy for 9 bucks, when a week ago it was $197 before shipping. That’s a 97% savings.

The Art of Seeing Well

It is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover. The drive to live life more alertly being an instinctive need, whether you are an artist by trade or desire, the art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned. -Michael Kimmelman

What’s the point of photography? Maybe the bigger question is: what’s the point of looking at things, really looking at them? That’s what we’re doing when we photograph. Granted, we’re placing a value on preserving how something looks, whether it be a lover, a pet, a glimpse of what we daily encounter…. but we’re also attending to it in the moment. That’s why we value simple photographic tools – mechanical rangefinders the perfect example – that get out of our way and allow us to experience the moment without having to ‘interface’ with a machine and its requirements.

A good example is the difference between using my M5 or my Ricoh GXR with the M module. I rarely even use the meter in my M5; I find it more a disturbance than a help. What I like is the big, clear 35mm window, no clutter, just a focusing patch and you’re done dealing with the machine. Look at the light, set your exposure and forget the little details. The rest is looking. The Ricoh? Great little camera, but I’m constantly fiddling with something – a menu, an ISO setting, something flashing on the damn LCD – my attention drawn away from what I’m trying to see. It’s the story of every digital camera I’ve ever used; once you reach a certain level of competency i.e. you’ve distilled the photographic act down to its basics, all those technological ‘aids’ – those things camera makers promised us would make our experience better – just get in your way.

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For that matter, what’s the value of what we as photographers create? What’s the value of looking at a photo hung in a gallery or museum or published in a book? Why is it so important to us? For me, the point is the process of perceiving itself. It meets some primal need humans possess. But it also has to be disinterested to be an aesthetic experience. Looking at porn isn’t aesthetic, no matter how well done; the reason it isn’t is because we’re motivated by something other than the enjoyment of beauty. A genuinely aesthetic experience of beauty is aimless. We only fully apprehend the experience when we remain disinterested. A vested interest in what you’re looking at gives you tunnel vision. You see what you’re looking for, and as such, you don’t really see.

Photography allows me to move through the world with an attitude of detachment, in a state of heightened awareness. I’m always looking…which means I’m seeing things people habituated to their environments typically don’t. That’s pretty cool; we’re not here long. Best to pay attention while we are.

Photography – or, more precisely, film photography, where there’s typically a lag between what we see and how we see it reproduced by the camera – amplifies the enjoyment I get in looking. It allows me a second chance to see something I’ve already seen and to see it with new eyes. It’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to photograph the people I love. I’ll run a roll of HP5 through my camera in a day or two, just shooting domestic scenes around me – my wife, the kids, my dogs – and throw it in the pile of rolls to be developed at some later time. That invariable means a year or two down the road, when I’ve accumulated enough unexposed film to shame myself into doing something about it. When I develop them I’m always amazed at what I get. The banal circumstances of my domestic experience seem somehow re-valued and take on a larger meaning. The photo puts them in context. I understand what I see – and value it – just a bit better.

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Howard Axelrod, in The Stars in Our Pockets, addresses the technological processes that remove us from having to pay attention. GPS is an instructive example: with it we passively navigate our environment without reference to its larger context or where within that context we fit. It’s all end result – do we get there, or don’t we. (He doesn’t address the larger issue – that we’re also using a machine to move through space which itself mitigates our environmental interaction). Axelrod asks, “Will we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?”

It’s this “orientation that is really a kind of wisdom” that photographic looking gives. The heightened attention it cultivates can be difficult to practice. Really looking with disinterest requires effort. You can’t do it if your attempts to do so are mediated by tools that divert your attention instead of focusing it. In a photographic context it requires the correct tool, something that remains transparent to our purposes. This is why we hold onto those cameras that become extensions of our seeing through excellent haptics and long usage. Usually I don’t even recall putting the M5 to my eye; it’s such a simple act, done so many times, that its reflexive now. The digital camera? Not a chance. Even though it’s full of the technologies that supposedly simplify my experience – auto exposure, autofocus, auto ISO, facial recognition, etc etc, they’re never transparent to the act; I’m always scrolling through some fucking menu, or looking for some dial to turn or button to push in response to some LCD readout. The camera is telling me what to see.

There’s a reason we love our old mechanical film cameras. When used competently and correctly, they allow us to give ourselves over to the moment. We can exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of what’s in front of us. That’s a remarkable gift. It’s also what’s required if one wants to produce work of any meaning, work that will help others see as well.

I Don’t Need Anything But This Leica…and This Notebook

Being both a photographer (documentary/street) and a writer (stand-up comedy/screenplays), I came to the realization that there is a correlation between the two. Because both require something of me. See, I carry a Leica and notebook everywhere I go.

When my parents took photographs when I was growing up, they took them out at Christmas, at the Jersey Shore, at backyard birthday parties. Maybe they pulled out a Kodak Hawkeye or Retina IIIc, then they put the camera away until the next big occasion.

The photofinishers famously said, “Many rolls were snow, sand, snow!”

That’s one way to use a camera–bring it out when you expect to see something “photo-worthy”, though in this phone-crazed world, that’s everything and all the time. I don’t mean shooting your lunch. So, disregarding how most people use phone cameras–more as diaries like where they parked their car, or a pic of a receipt–typically folks use cameras for special occasions.

But I have one in my pocket (IIIf fits nicely with its collapsible lens in my front jeans pocket), or over my shoulder (typically an M2, M6 or M9) all the time. Friends and family wouldn’t recognize me without one.

The difference is I’m not looking for a special occasion. I’m not taking it out to photograph.

My friends might bring a DSLR to a backyard party, but would not usually bother to take photos at Tuesday night dinner. I have my camera at Tuesday’s dinner and every dinner every evening.

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Same with my notebook. For when an idea strikes, I can write it down before I forget it. That’s so important. But I think something else is happening when I carry these items. Almost like luring the muse, asking for inspiration to find me.

The Leica and the notebook are attractors. Like magnets to metal. They bring the photographs and writing ideas to me.

If I were to leave without a notebook, my subconscious doesn’t have to be on the lookout for ideas. It knows I have no way to record them. But if the notebook is in my pocket, the ideas come. I don’t know how they do, but they do.

If I were to go out without a camera, I don’t have to look for possible photographs. Even peripherally. At the most, all I’ll see are the ones I would have missed, so better to discount everything before really taking a good look, not to get disappointed in not being ready to take the shot.

So, for me, the object, the camera and the notebook are much more than devices for photography and writing. They’re an agreement for my creative, my subconscious, to be watching and listening, because I’m ready and open to their input, their awareness.

I don’t go out to take photographs. Or to write.

But I do. Both.

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Kenneth Wajda is a photographer who loves old cameras, film photography, and storytelling with images.  Kenneth hoots with a Leica IIIf, M3, M6, Rolleiflex 3.5F, Hasselblad 500c/m, Nikon F3, among others.  Sometimes digital too, with a Leica M8 and a Fuji X100.

 http://KennethWajda.com
Street Photography: http://ColoradoFaces.com
The Wise Photo Project: http://TheWisePhotoProject.com


Analog Activity/Digital Passivity

Exposed film I’m developing 8 rolls at a time. Ah, the good old days, when photography meant working at it.

“Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.”- Thomas Merton, 1948.

At about the same time as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was complaining about the “inert subjection to vulgar images” produced by the then-new technology of television, German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger was making a similar point about the typewriter. Heidegger did so by harkening back to another philosopher, Plato, and his critique of technology and its effect on how humans create their worlds. Plato claimed that the ‘technology’ of writing degraded the primacy of the spoken to the detriment of our sense of reality; 2400 years later, Merton and Heidegger would be doing the same for the typewriter and television. Each in some sense represents a degradation of the human ability to experience the real by abstracting it a degree from reality. By removing the speaker from the spoken, Plato saw writing as a first step to the dehumanization of communication; by veiling the essence of writing and script, Heidegger claimed that the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.” In other words, the typewriter, like writing for Plato and television for Merton, removes us a certain degree from experiencing the thing itself by doing it and in so doing makes us passive observers in what were heretofore active experiences.

I couldn’t help but think of Plato (and Heidegger and Merton) while bulk developing a ridiculous amount of film that I’ve accumulated over the last few years. The COVID quarantine has given me the perfect opportunity to finally do what I’ve been putting off for years. I’ve been shooting film and then throwing the canister into a bag full of other exposed films with the understanding that I’d get around to developing it all someday. That day has finally come. I’m bulk developing and fully scanning 8 rolls a day until the backlog is resolved…after which I intend to be a dedicated film photographer again, keeping to my promise to immediately develop and scan what I shoot. It’s a great plan that makes me happy, because I really do love the hands-on experience of shooting film, the deliberateness and intentionality of the practice and the end result of a physical thing that I can file away. Granted it’s a PITA, but the doing of it brings me back to a place where photography is both a creative pursuit and a craft, and it has the added benefit of connecting you back to your photographic tools in a way that’s missing with the quick and easy experience of digital.

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I Found This Among What I’ve just Developed – Lexi, Who We Just Put Down After 14 Years, As a Younger Pup, Ever Hopeful of Snagging a Bit of Pizza. An Unexpected Gift From a Roll Exposed Long Ago. Makes Me Smile Even Today.

Aristotle spoke of entelecheia, where the end and actuality of a thing are internal to its own activity. He thought the most rewarding experiences are those things we do solely for the pleasure the doing itself generates and not those things that are done as means to an end, and he thought that entelecheia was most often a result of solitary pursuits. This has always been my experience of photography: I do it for the pleasure of doing it, nothing more. And I do it to be in my own head and no one else’s. The end results – boxes of prints and innumerable binders of sleeved negatives and hard drives filled with DNGs – are secondary results of the process itself and the rewards those processes afford us. I think that’s why the transition from analog to digital has been unsatisfying for many of us. It lessens the creative involvement inherent in physically instantiating activity and replaces it with the passivity of pressing buttons and being given a result with little physical or psychical work involved.

Doing film photography is to reorient yourself to our own embodiment. You are creating something instead of entrusting the decision to a computer and an algorithm mindlessly running in the background. It is also to be disengaged from the virtual environment, which is always fundamentally social in nature. Our use of technology militates against solitude if we define such as the absence of input from other minds. Doing photography digitally is always, at base, a collective creative pursuit even when no others are physically present. Whether via the use of apps that presuppose other’s connection to our pursuits, or simply the use of necessary technologies that are the results of input from other minds and their implicit creative biases, your creative digital decisions will always be, to some extent, circumscribed by the decisions of the people who’ve programmed the digital tools you employ or are on the receiving end of your digital solicitations.

Smell the Ink and Drift Away: Why I Find Solace in Photobooks

By Teju Cole. Reprinted from The Guardian 2/24/2020

Where can one find temporary help in this hectic world? People go on retreats, join religions, cushion themselves in headphones or lose themselves in novels. We counter the rush-hour stampede with a walk in the park, and against the public squall of political debate we set the private consolation of poetry. In an age of mayhem, everyone needs ballast and, for most people, I would guess, that ballast is made of several different things. Near the top of my personal list: photobooks. I take a photobook off the shelf and spend 20 or 30 minutes with it, and this brief immersion provisionally repairs the world.

It might be a book I’ve already looked at many times – which is even better. I’m not talking about simply looking at photographs. There are photos everywhere, and most of them are like empty calories. Many photos, even good ones, tend simply to show you what something looks like. But if you sequence several of them, in a book, say, or in an exhibition, you see not only what something looks like but how someone looks. A sequence of photographs testifies to a photographer’s visual thinking, a way of seeing revealed through choices of color, subject, scale and perspective. The photographs encountered in an exhibition might be beautiful new prints or vintage ones imbued with the aura of originality. But there are disadvantages to exhibitions: they can be noisy and crowded, open during inconvenient hours and have closing dates. With a book, though, the images and the photographer’s arrangement of them are yours for all time.

The photobook was born, by one account, when Anna Atkins made an album of her cyanotype studies of British algae in 1843. Henry Fox Talbot began to issue The Pencil of Nature, with tipped-in calotype images, the following year. It did not take other photographers long to seize on commercially distributing their photography in book form. The middle of the 20th century saw the publications of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1952) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), and those two books, in strikingly different ways, became the looming influence against which almost all subsequent photobooks were measured. Even today, ask photographers what sent them down their chosen path and one or both of those books is likely to be mentioned as exemplars. The strength of the individual pictures is central to the success of a photobook (The Americans, like The Decisive Moment, is almost nothing but winners), but there are photographers of genius who have never made a truly great photobook; at best, they have made books of their great photos, which is a different matter.

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What makes a photobook great is how well it combines a large number of variables: the paper; print quality; stitching and binding; the weight, color and texture of the cover; the design and layout of the interior; the size and color balance of the images; the decision to use gatefolds or to print across the gutter; the choice to include or exclude text and, if so, how much of it, where in the book, and in what font; the trim size and heft of the book; even the smell of the ink! Every great photobook is a granary of decisions, an invitation into the realm of the senses. If a poem is great, I’m indifferent to the design choices made for the book in which it is published, unless the design is particularly atrocious. But I can tell whether a photobook has been meticulously made, or is merely a pile of pictures printed one after another. Truth be told, not all photographs in a photobook need to be great, and the real artists of the form know how to aerate their stupendous images with less forceful transitional ones.

But what a joy it is when all of those decisions seem right, when the print quality is meticulous, when a book crying out for matte paper is made with matte paper, when the color profile favors magenta over yellow, or cyan over magenta, depending on what the pictures need. The experience becomes multidimensional, and the memory of the work becomes idiosyncratically specific. I think not only of certain photographers’ styles, but also of the tactile and sensory trace of their books. The luxuriously uncut double pages of Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance are as much a thrill to the hands as her glimmering images are to the eye. Liz Johnson Artur’s self-titled book has a flawless combination of color images with those in black and white, the better to convey the effervescent generosity of her vision. The stippled deep purple cover of Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s Sightwalk is a braille-like prophecy of the delirious scatter of light within. These qualities are more enduring than whether a project is “important” or not. Investigative reports are important, but in our intimate moments it is sensibility that best restores us to our human selves. This is not to downplay the ethical dimension of photography, but to suggest that the ethical flourishes best when the formal conditions are in place to protect it.

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Of all the elements that make a photobook truly special, the most important is the order of the images. Look at this, the photographer says, then look at this, then look at this one. All books are chronological, but the feeling of being guided, of being simultaneously surprised and satisfied, is particularly intense in photobooks. I think of Masahisa Fukase’s legendary Ravens (1986), which is largely about the titular birds. It is gloomy, making great use of blur and nocturnal shooting, with a black and white palette, and set entirely in Japan. I thought about Ravens a lot when I was preparing Fernweh, though my book is superficially very different: set in the Swiss landscape, shot mostly in clear bright color in summer weather. I was aided by the way Fukase looked and looked again at the ravens, finding remarkable new ways to think about those unsettling birds. In one magical sequence, an image of a congress of ravens in the snow is followed by one of a single wing against a white field, followed by a photo of numerous corvid footprints on a lightly snowy surface, the footprints startlingly like the shapes of the birds themselves. And so, black on white was followed by black on white, which was followed by black on white – a virtuoso display of analogical thinking. This is language without words. Elsewhere, among many pictures of ravens, a sinister-looking cat suddenly appears and then a nude sex worker, and later an almost abstract closeup of a plane in flight. The trust in variation is wonderful. I tried to keep that trust in mind in making Fernweh.

In a world of deafening images, the quiet consolations of photobooks doom them to a small, and sometimes tiny, audience. They are expensive to make and rarely recoup their costs. In this way, they are a quixotic affront to the calculations of the market. The evidence of a few bestsellers notwithstanding, the most common fate of photobooks is oblivion. But it is precisely this labor-intensive and financially unsound character that allows them to sit patiently on our shelves like oracles. Then one day, someone takes one of them off the shelf and is mesmerized by the silent and unanticipated intensity. (The experience of reading a novel, by contrast, is not so silent, for the reader is accompanied by the unvocalized chatter of the text.)