Author Archives: Leicaphila

Send Her Back

I live in North Carolina. It’s a Southern state that’s traditionally been considered “progressive” as far as Southern states go. It has an admirable history of having established and funded the United State’s first public university, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, to this day, is considered one the America’s premier research universities. It’s what brought me to North Carolina 37 years ago as a graduate student in the humanities, which was one of the best things I ever did. The state proudly refers to Chapel Hill as “The University of the People” and until recently purposefully kept tuition low so that bright kids from modest families had access to a world-class education, every bit the equal of the education plutocrat’s kids received 8 miles away at Duke University, an uber-expensive elite university in Durham. Chapel Hill (read: the State of North Carolina) educated me as both a historian and an attorney, allowing me entrance to their flagship University and essentially paying my way. I’ve since attended both Duke and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but my emotional loyalties will always remain in North Carolina with the good people whose generosity enabled this working-class boy to receive a world-class education.

When I first arrived in North Carolina, it was a solidly Democratic state, both urban and rural. That started to change in the 90’s as the divide between city and country intensified. Within the last 15 years, state government has become solidly Republican, the rural areas gaining power through gerrymandering at the expense of the urban majority. North Carolina voted for Obama twice, but in 2016 voted for Trump. There’s a reason for that. While urban areas like Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte prosper, rural North Carolina is in a death spiral – no jobs, failing education, willful ignorance and reactionary evangelical religion mutually reinforcing each other. It’s sad to see, but it’s the reality.

I mention all this because American politics is currently being roiled by a new nativism, the kind that used to tell people they could love America…or leave it. Our latest jingoism is of the “Send Her Back” variety, an unfortunate chant taken up by folks at a recent Donald Trump rally, addressed to a Somali-born American congresswoman from Minnesota at odds with Trumpism. The whole thing has, rightfully so, gotten a lot of media attention, not all of it good for North Carolina, given it occurred at a Trump rally in …. Greenville, North Carolina, a medium-sized town in rural eastern North Carolina. I cringed when I heard it had happened there, for two reasons: first, I love North Carolina and am grateful to it for all it’s done for me. My North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham) is diverse, inclusive, forward-thinking…and affluent and so unlike what most folks might think of the state based on this; and second, I’m familiar with eastern North Carolina and Greenville in particular…and I like the people there. It’s beautiful country, and the folks who live there are nice people, friendly, pleasant courteous and always ready to help when I’m stranded on the side of the road with a flat bicycle tire.

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I’ve spent the last few years taking photos throughout eastern North Carolina while biking its country roads. No need for a Leica or dedicated camera. The iPhone is the perfect documentarian’s tool – always with you when you need it, the images more than acceptable for journalistic applications. This weekend I finally figured how to download them from iCloud (why does everything digital have to be so fucking complicated?) and I worked a few up in Lightroom. My intent is to put together a series of photographs that somehow tell a truth about the people who live in eastern North Carolina and felt it OK to chant “Send Her Back” at a political rally. That’s what good photojournalism does, and I’m convinced there’s still room for it. Pictures sometimes tell truths that can’t be conveyed with words. Compelling issues like what’s happening politically in America are not simple to explain or understand. Sometimes seeing can inform us in ways words can’t. I hope the photos I’ve chosen do that.

Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

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2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

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Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?

Sigma FP Announced

On cue, SIGMA has introduced the FP, a Bayer sensored Fullframe.

Common knowledge was that Sigma was working on a new camera since the announcement of the L Mount alliance, but the assumption was that it would be a full-frame Foveon sensor. The FP uses a Bayer sensor, although there remain plans to offer the FP with a Foveon sensor in the future. Lightweight and compact, the FP measures 112.6 × 69.9 × 45.3mm and weighs just 370g (422g with the battery and SD card inserted).

The SIGMA FP w/ L-Mount 45mm

As mentioned, the FP uses a 24.6MP BSI-CMOS sensor with a traditional Bayer filter, not the Foveon sensor. This sensor is placed inside a body that has been extensively weather sealed and fitted with a 3.2-inch 2.1M-dot touchscreen, SD card slot, HDMI port, flash sync port, mic and headphone ports, USB 3.1 port, and remote shutter port.

The FP will be modular in design, with accessories including a hot shoe, LCD viewfinder, handgrips and etc.

Give SIGMA some credit. While Leica is producing “Urban Jungle CL’s” SIGMA is sticking their neck out with truly innovative cameras. Get back to me when they introduce the Foveon version.

Leica’s “Urban Jungle” CL

Leica has introduced a new CL model, designed “in collaboration” with French-Italian “photographer” and mega-yacht owner Jean Pigozzi, based on the original CL released two years ago.  Mr. Pigozzi is the same guy who in 2017 designed the Sofort “LimoLand” instant camera. Mr. Pigozzi’s “affinity for small, unobtrusive cameras and his love for the Leica brand inspired the French-Italian photographer, entrepreneur and art collector to design the ‘Leica CL URBAN JUNGLE by JEAN PIGOZZI’. ”

Mr. Pigozzi’s 67 Meter Yacht. True

Apparently, what’s “new” is the leatherette covering, which reflects the undeniable panache of Mr. Pigozzi, and a new “award winning” grey rope strap “to match the body’s styling” [Who knew there were awards for camera straps?] Internals are the same as before – a 24.2MP APS-C sensor, EyeRes viewfinder, Maestro processor and Elmarit-TL 18 mm f/2.8 ASPH lens, which gives the user an effective focal length of 27mm. It’s available in Leica stores for $3950 as of June 25.

Somehow, I can’t escape the incongruity of the uber-rich claiming identification with the “urban jungle.” Then again, this is Leica World, where fake aristocrats and third tier pop stars with no photographic chops get feted as visionary creatives.

Leica and Sigma

At Photokina 2018, Leica Camera AG announced a strategic partnership with SIGMA, referred to as the ‘L-Mount Alliance’. The collaboration enables SIGMA to use the Leica’s L-Mount for SIGMA bodies and to offer both cameras and lenses utilizing this lens mount.  The L-Mount lens mount is currently used in the Leica SL full-frame camera system and the Leica CL, TL2 and TL APS-C camera models. L-Mount lenses can be used on all these cameras without adapters and without any functional limitations.

In particular, SIGMA plans to offer a full-frame Foveon sensor body with L-Mount capacity by 2020. The sensor is reputed to be 60 mpx.  Coupled with Leica optics, it should be a killer in terms of resolution.

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Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Board, Leica Camera AG: “For photographers, the ability to choose from a wide range of lenses for their system of preference is extremely important. Especially in the strongly growing market for mirrorless system cameras, users seek increasingly greater product diversity to fulfill a wide range of different photographic needs. We have therefore decided to work together with SIGMA as an immediate response to these needs. SIGMA is a highly respected company that has become firmly established especially in the areas of optical design and lens manufacturing and is able to perfectly complement our existing portfolio of L-Mount products. We are convinced that we and our partners can realize mutual and sustainable growth for all our products.”

Kazuto Yamaki, CEO, SIGMA: “SIGMA is joining this alliance to develop mirrorless cameras benefiting from a short flange back. As SIGMA strives to develop high performance, high quality, and innovative products, this alliance will strengthen the level of completion and the extensibility of our camera system and provide greater user benefits. Leica is a magnificent company that has been contributing to photographic culture for more than 100 years. Together with SIGMA’s unique, high performance and high-quality products, the L-Mount will evolve as an extremely attractive system for users.”

The L-Mount was introduced by Leica Camera in 2014 with the Leica T. A diameter of 51.6 millimeters was chosen to make the L-Mount suitable for use both with full-frame and APS-C sensors. A short register of 20 millimeters enables a short distance between the lens and the sensor, which in turn enables considerably more compact construction – particularly helpful for developments in the wide-angle lens segment. L-Mount bayonets are manufactured from wear-resistant stainless steel and with four flange segments that prevent canting and ensure particularly secure and precisely positioned lens attachment. The standardized L-Mount contact strip ensures trouble-free communication between the electronic components of the lens and the camera – including the possibility of installing future firmware updates for lenses to react to technological advances and exploit the full performance potentials of the lens.

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A 4.7 Meg Foveon JPG from the Sigma DP2x, RAW Capture, Developed in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) 6.6. Click on it to see full res. It’s stunning how much a measly 4.7 Megs resolves

I’ll admit it: I’m intrigued by SIGMA’s Foveon cameras. If anything could turn me into a pixel-peeping tech geek, it’s a Foveon sensor, if only because you can’t help but admire what it’s capable of. The Merrills and Quattros are remarkable for their price – literally medium format IQ in a pocket camera. Plus, they’re wonderfully understated. They aim to do one thing well – produce medium format quality from an APS-C sensor, and they’ve succeeded.  They’ve had to entertain some compromises to reach that goal, but they’re marginal in relation to the payoff, which is stunning detail and color fidelity. Both the Merrills and the Quattros (a slight variation on the 3 layer sensor theme) are built for hard-core photo enthusiasts, nothing superfluous baked into them to appease dilettantes or videographers, no modes, no HDR, no facial recognition or any other bullshit designed with your assumed stupidity in mind.

It’s interesting to me that Leica has chosen to partner with SIGMA, of all people. I’m assuming they’re interested in the potential of the Foveon technology and how the Foveon sensor can resolve Leica’s exacting optics. Additionally, It’s going to allow SIGMA to produce optics to be used on their SL, T and C models, which will undoubtedly prove popular given their (assumed) significantly lower price. This seems to be a partnership that makes sense, focused as it is not on the production of status objects but dedicated photographic instruments.

A 14.8 Meg Foveon JPG from the Sigma DP1 Merrill, RAW Capture, Developed in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) 6.6. Click on it to see full res. Yikes.

Loving the Unloved Camera

 

B&W From the Fuji S5 Sensor

I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog. It’s been that way as long as I remember. Back in 1966, when I was 8, I thought – no, I knew – Muhammad Ali was both a great fighter and an even greater human being, and my holier-than-thou aunts and uncles and teachers and friends, who hated him because he wouldn’t go kill Vietnamese, were all full of shit.  His explanation for why he wouldn’t be inducted into the US Army cut through all the patriotic war-mongering nonsense and made perfect sense to me – no Vietnamese had ever called him nigger, which was more than he could say about his fellow Americans who insisted it was his duty to go kill them. An unassailably elegant and irrefutable answer. I remember lying under the covers with my AM radio, listening to Ali fight Ernie Terrell – the guy who refused to call him by his chosen name, calling him “Cassius Clay” instead – strangely satisfied when Ali gave Terrell the savage beating he deserved, each time he hit him asking him “What’s my name?” As a grade school kid in 68, while the proto-fascists I went to church school with brainlessly wore the Nixon buttons their parents pinned on them, I was all in for Eugene McCarthy and then Hubert Humphrey. I even preferred the Stones to the Beatles, thinking “Paint it Black” was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.

Ten years later, I was buying an M5 as my first Leica. Enough said. I’ve carried that contrarian attitude into the digital age. I’m enamored of oddball cameras – specifically, the Ricoh GXR with its swappable sensors and M-mount, and the Fuji S5 Pro with its 12 mp “extended dynamic range” SuperCCD SR sensor, which to my mind produces the nicest digital B&W files I’ve ever seen (this includes files from the Leica MM). While I’ve bought and sold any number of high-resolution full-frame D800’s etc, the Ricoh and the S5 Pro are the cameras I most often grab, even today. They’re cheap as dirt too. While the consumerist herd chases marginal technological gains at maximum cost (just what camera makers and their online shills tell them they should be doing). you can feast on their throwaways at minimum cost.

Lately, I’ve gone full-bore contrarian, having developed a thing for Sigma’s Foveon cameras, now owning the DP2, the DP1M and the sd Quattro.  The Foveons are the oddest of odd-duck digital technology – slow, clunky, limited to daylight capture, but producing remarkable files when done right, the sd Quattro and DP1 Merrill versions producing stunningly detailed color files easily the better of what I was getting from my D800E. The Merrill, with dedicated tack-sharp 28mm Sigma lens, I bought for $350. That’s crazy.

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Sidewalk Mosaic, Omaha, Nebraska. Sigma DP1 Merrill

In 1907, the Lumière brothers of France introduced the first commercial color photography process, called Autochrome.  The Autochrome process used a filter of grains of potato-starch colored red, blue and green (the primary colors of light). This starch filter was spread over a glass plate, and colors were recorded horizontally i.e. all at the same surface level.  In later years, color film photography evolved by a method in which three layers of photosensitive material were stacked vertically, and processes using a horizontal orientation, like the Autochrome process, were forgotten. It’s this vertically stacked RGB layered capture that gives the classic color film look.

Ironically, with the advent of digital photography, vertically stacked RGB capture disappeared and horizontally-oriented Autochrome- like color capture again became standard, (absent the potato-starch). Apart from Sigma Foveon sensors, digital cameras use monochrome “Bayer” sensors that capture Red, Green and Blue light intensities horizontally i.e. all on the same sensor level. Because these sensors do not capture color data but only luminosity values, a color filter with a mosaic of pixels for the three primary colors – red, blue and green (RGB) – is mounted on top so that color data can be represented. But each light-sensing photodiode (a “pixel”) has a one-color filter, which means that each pixel can only represent one color, the data for the other two colors being ignored by the pixel. A color “interpolation” process known as demosaicing is then performed on the image, restoring the colors lost by individual pixels.

Digital sensors are monochromatic – they measure luminosity, not color. Pixel sites on a digital sensor are light meters: they measure the brightness of the light. That’s it; they don’t register color. What represents the color is the filter placed over the pixel and the interpolation algorithm that guesses the missing colors by analyzing the neighboring pixels and then adding the missing colors back in.

Having been continuously improved over an extended period, this image-processing method is now good enough for most folks. But too often, because colors are interpolated from neighboring pixels, the subtle color nuances of the original subject are lost. Color filter arrays also generate color artifacts – colors not found in the original subject – during the demosaicing processing. This is due to the action of the color filter (generally a Bayer filter), which tries to regulate the color distribution if the subject contains too much detail (high-frequency areas). Conventional digital cameras using a Bayer color filter also have an optical low pass filter, interposed between the lens and the sensor, in order to suppress color artifacts. The optical low pass filter acts on the images resolved at a high level by the imaging lens, its job being to eliminate any detailed elements likely to generate color artifacts (high-frequency areas above a certain level), immediately before they reach the sensor. So it can effectively suppress the generation of color artifacts.

The bottom line of all of these workarounds to produce color – color array filters, low pass optical filters to suppress color artifacts caused by the array filters, interpolation algorithms – is that all of it, separately and together, cause a diminution of the fine detail recorded by the monochrome sensor. In other words, we pay a price to transform a native monochrome sensor into a color sensor, and that price is loss of resolution and lack of color fidelity.

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DP1 Merrill

Sigma’s Foveon sensor takes a different approach. Rather than a single layer of pixels, the Foveon has three layers, which take advantage of the fact that different colors of light possess different wavelengths. Pixels on the top layer of the Foveon sensor can see every color of visible light. The second layer sees only the green and red parts of the spectrum,  since the thickness of the top layer serves to filter out the short-wavelength blue light. The third sensor layer sees only the red part of the spectrum, since the thickness of the top two layers is such that it filters out the mid-wavelength green light, allowing only the long-wavelength red light to reach the bottom.  An algorithm then examines each separate pixel layer  and — by analyzing the relative proportion of luminosity reported by each layer — determines the actual color of each pixel on each layer.

As such, the Foveon sensor doesn’t add or discard color. Different wavelengths of light (i.e. different colors) penetrate the Foveon sensor at different depths, achieving full-color capture in a single-pixel site configuration. No color filter is required. Like modern color film cameras, it uses a method that captures all the colors vertically. Because it does not need color interpolation or a low-pass filter, the Foveon produces natively sharp images without the need of computer interpolation. It’s why Foveon images have a truly nuanced, sharp feel and are visibly superior to Bayer images of the same resolution.

The benefits of Foveon tech: 1) Increased color purity — The camera is able to determine the color of light on every stacked photosite, rather than approximating each color based on the relative luminosities of several neighboring photosites; 2) Increased resolution — Each pixel in the final image contains accurate luminance information, as measured by the sensor’s photosites (in contrast to a color filter array, which must interpolate a luminance value for each pixel); and, 3) Less noise (at low ISO settings) — Because each photosite doesn’t have a colored filter in front of it (nor, possibly, an anti-aliasing filter to alleviate the moiré patterns inherent in the demosaicing process), the top sensor layer requires far less signal amplification than a Bayer-type sensor, meaning less noise.

I can attest to one thing. The Foveon sensor produces very subtle color files, photos that look a lot like traditional film color, without the artificial saturated effect often produced by Bayer sensors.

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Omaha. DP1 Merrill

However, I’m a B&W photographer, and my interest in camera technology is typically limited to B&W capture. For a B&W photographer, Bayer filters and interpolation algorithms are useless. A sensor has the ability to record an unadulterated monochromatic version of the scene before it without interpolation or filtration. And yet the Bayer sensors holds us hostage to its colorization schema, which we then greyscale out as unneeded. Unfortunately, all the image degradation remains. Not so with the Foveon. Shouldn’t there also be some advantage when shooting monochrome?

Somewhere Over the Midwest. Sigma DP2

So, I’m embarked on a new learning curve – figuring out how to maximize the Foveon sensor for B&W. My sense is that it has the potential to produce a unique B&W look, super-sharp and detailed as opposed to the luscious creaminess of the S5 Pro’s B&W output. Digital Panatomic-X. Now the goal is to figure out how. The RGB layers open up intriguing possibilities and make all sorts of things, common in the film age, theoretically possible again ( including, unfortunately, having to work with ISO in the 100-400 range, which to me is a small price to pay for what you’re getting in return, which in the DPM series is 6×9 format quality in a pocket camera). Back to glass filters maybe?

Omaha Zoo. DP1 Merrill

Sometimes….

….I just don’t feel it.

I am currently completely and utterly bereft of ideas. I’m experiencing the flipside of creative inspiration. I literally have nothing to say. I’m assuming it’s something that every creative person experiences – creative stagnation. I’ve currently got it bad. So, what more appropriate thing to do than write about it.

I’ve been sitting on the following thought for some time now, having had written it out and, like how I usually write, expected the rest to then write itself:


“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Rene Magritte

19th Century French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé (aka Étienne Mallarmé), said there were two kinds of languages: parol brute, which named things, and parole essentielle, which was language in the abstract, language that distanced us from things. Brute language aided in representing things; essential language created the fictive, self-referential realities of consciousness. For Mallarmé, parole essentielle was the language of all Art, for all Art was ultimately self-recognition, self-recovery, self-remembering, processes which were as mysterious as Being itself. It’s a distinction we as photographers intuitively understand, the distinction in photography between reportage and Art.


Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything to add to flesh out what I consider to be an essential point about creativity made by Mallarmé. Ironically, maybe the fact that I have nothing to say proves his point – creativity is ultimately self-referential i.e. it’s about what’s going on in your consciousness, not what’s going on around you. Thus, I agree with the poet Charles Simic: when the world or the people in it make no sense, the best you can do is keep quiet and listen to the silence of the night. Or, as Paul Ricoeur said, “Something must be for something to be said.”

But Art is also about experiences language can’t get at. Martin Heidegger would say that the truth of Being cannot be uttered – language can only hint at it. Writing is, at best, a rough translation of the wordless truth into words. Can visual representations like photography better get at the essential nature of things? Heidegger would say no, visual art can’t translate Being either, but it can get us closer than the written or spoken word. The gap between Seeing and Being is less than that of Saying and Being. In this, Heidegger is a Wittgensteinian….to a point. The labor of the visual artist – you, the photographer – is to point to what can’t be put into words. Notice, however, the act of pointing isn’t the truth itself.

With that in mind, below (and the one above) are a few photos I took while out on a bike ride the other day. They are images made during a fleeting moment when something I saw sparked a self-recognition, a self-remembering. Articulating it further wouldn’t be of much use even if I could, which I can’t without sliding into untruth. Truth matters. That’s the cool thing about photography: you get to point to truths you can’t put into words. But, as Mallarmé understands, there’s the truth with eyes open and then there’s the truth with eyes closed, and they’re often two distinct things.

 

Be Your Self (or… Learn the Difference Between Creativity and Emulation)

“The Self is the Way the Individual Structures Experience.” Erik Erickson

I’m amused by ‘photo critique’ forums, where people post photos and solicit comments from others. The assumption, I suppose, is that others will offer constructive criticism that I can use to improve my photos. If that’s the point, count me out. If I’m using photography as a medium for creative expression, why should I give a shit what someone else thinks of my work? It’s my work, the expression of my self; what could someone else instruct me about that? The futility of asking for aesthetic advice from other people seems to me self-evident: Allow other’s advice to color your self-expression and it’s no longer self-expression.  

This is an inherent problem in ‘Art Education.’ Most students don’t make the kinds of work they claim to admire. Rather, what they make is work that emulates successful work previously made by others, work that’s become recognized by the Academy as worthy. The irony, of course, is that the work students are taught to consider worthy and seek to emulate was itself most likely ignored or misunderstood or critically panned when made.

Strong, adventurous, challenging work is always unusual, mainly because so few people have enough confidence in the legitimacy of their own creative impulses to resist the practical influences that dumb-down real individual expression. And it’s usually only recognized with a good amount of hindsight, while the average and uninventive is too often mistaken at first glance as significant. Think of van Gogh, laboring away in painful anonymity, or Jackson Pollock, who “traded” paintings for food with his big-hearted Long Island grocer neighbor, after which the grocer would throw out the paintings as junk (can you imagine being that grocer’s heir?). Last time I was in Amsterdam I walked past the line for entrance to the van Gogh museum. It extended out the door and wound at least a half-mile down the street, tourists lined up in the thousands just to look at the paintings he couldn’t give away a century ago, while the bloated, mediocre history-piece paintings hung in fashionable salons during van Gogh’s lifetime are vanished into irrelevance, seen now as the derivative, uninspired crap they are.

Judging excellence via popularity is always a mistake – popularity usually being the product of the lowest common denominator (e.g. Kenny G. a better jazz saxophonist than Dexter Gordon? Rod McKuen a better poet than Fernando Pessoa? Thomas Kinkade a better painter than Edward Hopper?). It’s the dynamic that brings us the banalities of pop culture – Hollywood and syndicated television recycling the same trite formulas ad infinitum, Bill O’Riley History books and Dr. Phil pop psychology – the mistake of equating good with what comforts the sensibilities of the most common.

I have a rule that guides me in assessing whether I should pay attention to, or better yet, spend my money on, works of popular culture: the more a given work – a book, say, or a record album, or a movie – is breathlessly lauded via popular media, the less likely its worth my serious attention. I can think of very few ‘next great things’ that ultimately possessed any staying power. That’s not to say that I haven’t derived fleeting enjoyment from a Karl Ove Knausgaard book or a Vanilla Ice song [editor’s note: yes, Vanilla Ice. My Czech girl played me his “Ice, Ice Baby” song in the car the other day. Granted, it’s not mid-60’s Dylan goes electric brilliant, but that’s a great song when you get past the fact that it’s Vanilla Ice]; it’s just that I’ve learned the difference between transient emulation and true works of genius (genius meant in the sense the Ancients understood it, as a quality of work that transcends trends and fashions, reputation and fame, works that abolish time and place of origin).

The word genius is Latin in derivation. In Roman antiquity, it described the guardian spirit of a person or place, a spirit that linked the person or place to a particular fate. Like the Greek daimon, your genius was your unique singularity, the spirit that followed you from birth to death. It was your fate, your singular destiny. As such, it couldn’t be taught, and it couldn’t be identified to you by others. It could only be recognized by you, recognized and assented to. You would know it when you heard it. Surrender to it and it would take you where you were meant to go. Listening to others could only obscure its voice.

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Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is a painting I did in 2005. I like it, but I’m not especially proud of it; it’s just something I did back then. Other people seem to like it. It hung in my office for years, and visitors would often comment on it. When I told them I’d painted it, they’d often get a look – part disbelief, incomprehension, admiration, dismissal – although almost everyone professed to like it. Mixed up in all of it were notions of class, education, taste, expectation. Complicating matters is that I don’t really think of myself as a painter; rather, I was a guy who painted for awhile until I tired of it and moved on. I had to do something with the paintings, so the better ones I hung as decoration.

People often mistake the painting for a Pollock. I wish. Granted it does look like something he might have done. And that, frankly, is the reason I don’t consider myself a painter, and that canvas nothing special. The larger issue is this: Does this painting reflect me? Or is it simply a well-crafted emulation of the creativity of others? That’s the difference between honest Art and wall decoration.

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is another of my paintings, done about the same time as the first one above. Nobody I know likes it. My wife hates it and refuses to have it hung in our house. God forbid that we hang it in our backyard cottage that we Airbnb. But …. I love it. It speaks to me. When I painted it I wasn’t attempting to do anything but create something unique to me. When I was done I said “Yup,” that’s good, just like that.” It wasn’t meant to be anything but my own. If people were to ask me what it means, I’d reply “damned if I know…but I like it.”  If people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

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There’s always the accomplished – those who claim a further competence – who are only too happy to critique your work, usually for a price, no less – the portfolio reviews by recognized or self-proclaimed “experts,” the photo workshops, the weekend seminars. I’ve never had a portfolio review or attended a seminar, but I have studied photography in institutional/academic settings, and I have never – not once – received criticism or advice that assisted me in any other than a marginal way; in fact, most of it, if it did anything, temporarily diverted me from the path I was on and should have been on. “Experts”, whether they be at your local camera club or they’re the Curator of Photography at the Met may, at most, be able to help you with the how, but they’ll never have a clue about the what, those things that resonate with you and that you’re capable of giving back distilled through your own unique consciousness.

If I could recommend one way to become a better photographer, it’d be to develop your own way of seeing and the rest will take care of itself. The simplest way of doing that is to think about what you want to say and not necessarily how to say it. In other words, have something to say and you’ll already have found the proper way to say it, the how being embedded in the what. This will have the added benefit of making your work your own and not derived or copied from someone else’s. Nobody but you can tell you how to do that. Speak out of your own experience; speak what you believe. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Dig up some of the earth you stand on, and show that.”

Can You Teach Creativity? Part Two

Studio Class, 1978, NYC. It Was About This Time I Decided I’d Rather Drive a Garbage Truck Than Photograph “Product”

[This is a follow-up to a previous post, wherein the claim was made that you can’t teach creativity…but you can teach “technique”.]

Can creativity be taught? Not if the Ancients – Plato and Aristotle – are to be believed. Plato believed that creative inspiration was a type of mania. Aristotle believed the same, considering creativity to be the product of an irrational rapture, what he termed ecstaticos. If they’re correct, then ordinary teaching methods can’t explain to a student what is, at base, irrational. The alternative is to try to teach inspiration by yourself being manic or ecstatic, in effect, attempting to infect the student with your own mania. Think of this as “the Dead Poets Society” theory of teaching creativity, after the god awful movie of the same name where Robin Williams is some eccentric high school instructor teaching his kids to write poetry because he’s crazy about it. In theory, this might work occasionally, but it’s unlikely such mania can be objectively transmitted. The best the teacher can do is give an example for the student to observe.

If creativity can’t be taught, can it be nurtured? Yes, in the sense that it can be taught to be effectively expressed using your chosen tools when it does appear. How is this taught? By teaching “craft,” i.e. competence of the fundamentals of one’s creative medium. Craft, what Aristotle called techne, is teachable because it is rule-based. The craft of photography, for example, would be teachable for Aristotle, because it is subject to a set of rules – it possesses a body of information that can be mastered via a theory, and it has a theory that could be written down and handed on to students that they could apply to the body of information. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of having to spend a year wading through Stroebel and Zakia’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes will know what Aristotle is talking about….and why it isn’t the teaching of creativity itself.

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Is There Anything “Creative” About This Photograph? Or is it Just a Product of “Technique”? Or is it both?

All of this is predicated on the assumption that technique is separate from creativity. But is that true? In my experience, maybe, maybe not. At least for me, the more competent I became with my tools, the greater the creative possibilities that opened up to me. The more I knew “how to do,” the more I felt I had the capacity to express, the more my desire and ability to express. The photo above is a good example. It was driven by certain creative impulses, but it was only possible given I had the tools to accomplish my creative purposes, creative purposes which were themselves intimately interwoven with the potential inherent in my tools. In this sense, the distinction between techne and empeiria noted in Part One, becomes problematic. Could I have expressed myself in this manner if I hadn’t mastered the technique that produced the work? No, at least to the extent I couldn’t have expressed the sentiment conveyed via the medium of photography. Uneducated in photographic craft, I’d be limited to some other means of expressing the sentiment, writing maybe, or speech. In that case I’d need to be proficient in that medium.

To that extent, the idea that craft is separate from art, a fundamental premise of aesthetics since Plato, accepted by the Renaissance and currently a tenet of Modernism, is a false dichotomy, certainly so in technologically dependant creative media like photography. Like all either/or propositions, it does violence to the much more subtle nuances invariably involved in the motivations and capacities of human pursuits, certainly those of creativity as a practical activity. Unfortunately, what’s come down to us in history from the Greeks is largely the product of the Idealist way of thinking – represented by Plato – wherein reality was seen in stark either/or terms, the real versus confusion or error, with no practical middle ground.

However there were Greeks – many thinkers apart from Idealists like Plato and Aristotle – who recognized a more nuanced nature of things. Pyrrhonism – a type of skepticism – believed that anything capable of human mastery could never be understood in its entirety but yet culture required we attempt to transmit what we do know. How such information transmittal worked, well, we didn’t know. Basically, as to all human knowledge, the Pyrrhonists believed the best we could do would be to stay open-minded yet neutral, what they referred to as isotheneia (a balance of arguments on both sides) and aphasia (the refusal to make definitive judgments). In the issue of the relationship of technique to creativity, the Pyrrhonics would say…it’s complicated, and either/or judgments would only further unnecessarily obfuscate attempts to teach and/or encourage creativity.

Call me a Pyrrhonist.

With that in mind, in Part Three, coming shortly, I’ll teach you what I did, and what you can do, to become a better photographer. It’s simple really.