Author Archives: Leicaphila

Inventorying an Obsession

As my wife frequently reminds me, I tend to go overboard with my obsessions. In my professional life, I wear a suit. I love good suits. Double-breasted suits to be precise (yes, I know they’re not currently “fashionable;” I don’t care, as I despise the whims of fashion in any context, whether it be clothing, lifestyle, music, art, photography, literature etc). Good Italian double-breasted suits – Armani, Canali, Zegna. I just went to my closet to count my suits: 32. Of course, gotta have shoes to go with the suit. I like Allen Edmonds; I’ve got 19 pair.

A few years ago I was ambling down Main Street downtown, all dressed up in my Armani suit, when I was approached by a local newspaper columnist. He asked me about my suit, said he was writing a column on how badly dressed area professionals tend to be. We commiserated, shared a laugh at the yokels with their baglike “two for one” Joseph Banks suits, he took my name and off I went. A week later I read his column; he names me the Best Dressed Guy in town. 1.3 million people in this town, mind you, half I presume are guys. I had to chuckle. Not bad for a kid who at 18 was a high-school dropout who drove a laundry truck in Paterson, New Jersey to pay the rent and who owned one ill-fitting suit bought at JCPenney which I used for the infrequent wedding or funeral of a friend.

What I didn’t tell him was that I buy all my suits used, on Ebay. The Armani I had on that day, with a tag from some high-end clothier in California, I’d paid $35 for. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $100 for a suit. Same with the shoes. I’m lucky; I’m a perfect 42 regular and a perfect size 9 shoe. If you know what you’re looking for, you can score some killer deals on used suits. Just make sure the pant waist and length are good and the jacket falls into place by a natural logic.  I rarely alter them in any way. Take em out of the box, have em pressed and start wearing them. So what if the original owner is dead. As long as he didn’t die with the suit on, I’m good with it.

If there’s been one obsession as long-standing and profound as my camera obsession, it’s motorcycles. I’ve had at least one almost continuously since I was 12. Gotta be a sportbike – light, aerodynamic, fast. At the height of my cycling insanity I had 6 in the garage, a few Ducatis, a few Aprilias, the stray KTM, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda. 20 years ago I was spending insane amounts of money ( insane for me at least) buying, selling, modifying, tracking, racing motorcycles. I retain the broken bones, permanently concussed goofiness, dead friends and depleted bank accounts as proof. Luckily for me, I woke up a few years ago and said “enough is enough,” shortly after I attended the funeral of a friend, 34 years of age and with the world by the balls, who killed himself on a typically insane group ride through North Carolina backroads, and then a few weeks later came milliseconds from killing myself and an innocent cruiser rider out for an easy Sunday ride who had decided to make a U-turn in the road at the crest of a hill. Safe enough to do if you assume everyone else behind you is doing approximate legal speeds; much more dicey when some idiot (me) is hammering up the road at closing speeds of 145mph on a 400lb 180hp bullet. Luckily we both survived our encounter. I went home, took off my leathers, cleaned out my shorts, and vowed never again. Sold all my bikes (except one, which sits under a tarp in the backyard). I have no interest in riding it. Funny how that works.

400lbs of head-warping, sphincter clenching fun. Forged Magnesium Wheels, Full Titanium Exhaust, Ohlins suspension, all the usual go-fast engine work etc. Pushed out about 180 rear wheel hp. I’d reached such a level of insanity that it often didn’t feel fast enough.

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Presently, I’ve whittled my obsessions down to three: bikes, books, and cameras. Bikes I’m keeping in check. Just have four (well 7 really, if you count the 3 around town bikes) and given one or two always seems to have a flat tire or broken spoke or something, that seems about right. You need at least one ‘climbing bike’ (very light), 2 general road bikes (with varying wheel depths) and one ‘winter training bike’ (to ride in the rain and muck). A couple need to be carbon framed, one needs to be aluminum framed, and, for authenticity’s sake, you should have an old steel frame, preferably a hand-built lugged frame from the 70’s, rebuilt with modern groupset and deepdish carbon wheels that can serve as an excellent pedagogical device as I dump younger hotshot cyclists on their 13 lb carbon bikes while climbing extended 7% grades. I’ve pretty much got all that covered.

Books are a lost cause. My house is full of them. They spill out of every nook and cranny of the place. 15 years ago, the collection having reached fire hazard stage, I held a “Free Book Giveaway Party”, inviting friends who, in return for bringing a decent bottle of wine, got to take home as many books as they liked. That helped, but 15 years later I’m back where I left off,  books everywhere. My wife, who also loves books but is privy to our monthly Amazon bill, has brokered a resolution – don’t give them away, but don’t buy any more. Instead, start re-reading all of them. That should keep me busy for awhile. Makes sense, and in the last few months I’ve reread a bunch of stuff I’d forgotten was so good – Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and undoubtedly the funniest book ever written, Portnoy’s Complaint; JB Priestly’s Journey Down the Rainbow; various Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost; River of Shadows; The Faraway Nearby); and, feeling frisky, Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (I walked past Dante’s house in Florence this summer; figured I’d read his book again as an adult to see what all the fuss was about. Overrated. If I’m going to read antiquated “serious” lit, give me humanist classics without the medieval theological claptrap – The Iliad, The Aeneid etc. Even then, I’m skeptical whenever I’m told I must love something because it’s old and venerated, like Homer or Shakespeare. I get that the Iliad is a 3000 year old construction of an ongoing oral bardic tradition, but I’d easily consign it to the flames forever if it was a choice between it or Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a 20th Century masterpiece that speaks as if it were written with me in mind. As for Shakespeare, don’t even get me started (I say this as someone who in a previous life spent a semester at Exeter College, Oxford reading Shakespeare)).

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And then there’s the camera obsession, my oldest and most difficult to uproot. Difficult because I’m not sure it’s really about cameras per se. I’ve struggled to parse out the difference between a fixation on cameras and a larger love of photography. Granted, I retain a preference for the types of cameras that helped form my initial enthusiasm for photography, but if I think about it, that enthusiasm was ultimately the product of the photographs, in my case not the studied, mannered photos of an Ansel Adams, who seemed to be the one photographer even those with no interest in photography knew and admired, but even in my youth seemed to be a grittier sort, the emphasis being on what the photo conveyed and not the dexterity of the conveyance.

And maybe that’s where my ambivalence about present-day Leicas comes from. Back in the day, Leicas to me were the embodiment of that grittier photographic ethos, of photos grabbed on the fly in less than optimal conditions by ‘real’ photographers who were all about the shot. They had a certain cache that came from their status as brilliantly simple yet effective tools, tools that had been crafted to meet a specific purpose with a utilitarian efficiency. Nothing superfluous, no unnecessary adornments, no compromises dictated by prevailing photographic fashion. That seemed to me the epitome of cool, a sort of anti-fashion that in its purity rose to its own level of fashion. Fashionable precisely because it didn’t aspire to fashion; to use a Leica was to be above fashion, a statement of indifference to anything but the art of photography itself.

Now, of course, it seems precisely the opposite. Photography for the sake of fashion. Owning a Leica is now the functional equivalent of wearing the Canali suit so you can show people the tag, or parading up Rodeo Drive at 25mph on your 200hp Ducati wearing full Dainese race leathers when any decent rider in jeans and t-shirt on a Kawasaki 250 would lose you around the first set of good curves, or spending $10,000 for a 12lb Colnago bike with all the expensive carbon parts while you’re too lazy to lose the extra 10lbs around your waist. In the age of the boutique Leica, the photographic end has been detached from the means. All bling, no substance (or at least no interest in substance). Better yet if it’s bling dressed up to look like a serious working camera – weathered black paint the latest craze; throw it in that Magnum inspired Ono bag (just be careful cause you might scratch it up yourself). Hell, you can even get one weathered from the factory, weathered to precise specifications by Leica artisans. Perfect camera for the moronic ‘look at me’ Facebook/Youtube generation or some second rate derivative talent like Lenny Kravitz.

So Much Yes

Yes, I know this is satire, But still. It’s brilliant. I’d love to have this guy do some videos for Leicaphilia.

If you follow it back to YouTube, be sure to peruse the comments, which are almost as good as the video.

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This one? Satire? I’m not sure; it appears to be nothing more than a cute kid trying out film photography. Nothing wrong with that. In any event, Lindsey’s Grandpa sure has a nice M3:

On a related note, is there something inherent in Leica film cameras that compels new users to go to cafes to take pictures?

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Next, a sometimes literate, sometimes rapturous ode to the “Best Camera Ever Made.” While it’s easy to be smug and have a chuckle at their expense, I do like these kids’ enthusiasm, and I suspect I was probably much like them at that age. That being said, enjoy the video….just don’t be a “Hatter” :

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Finally, this from “professional photographer” Kenneth Wajda. Let me preface this by saying: Mr. Wajda seems a nice man and I’m sure he’s a very competent photographer, probably infinitely more competent with a camera than me. He seems the sort of guy I could share a beer  with and learn a thing or two from. But, Dear Lord, there’s something unsettling to me about this, something undeniably disturbing about the whole thing from an existential perspective. Is that how I come across on Leicaphilia? Is this what I’ve been doing for the past five years? Is this me? If so, my apologies. Just shoot me now.

[ADDENDUM: I owe Mr. Wajda an apology. What was meant as harmless fun I realize now was a cheap shot at him. I’m all for taking cheap shots at deserving subjects, but, from all indications, Mr. Wajda is doing a great job of sharing his passion for photography and educating folks in the process. He deserves better than some fool on the internet making fun of him.]

Notes From Home

Me, somewhere in Italy,  a la Vivian Maier

As some of you may have noticed, Leicaphilia went dark for a bit, partly out of negligence and partly from ambivalence. This summer saw a number of personal and professional issues come to the fore – let’s call it an existential interlude – (“crisis” probably being too strong a word) – the end result being that keeping up with the site got pushed way down on my list of priorities. An interesting thing happened along the way, however: I got lots of emails (and even a call to a relative) inquiring about my well-being, which is nice. I do appreciate them all. And yes, I’m fine, thank you very much. Other than being 15 lbs heavier from eating too much pizza and drinking too much wine while in Italy, I’m good.

The larger question, the source of the ambivalence, remains the issue of whether this blog – the emphasis on film photography generally and Leica film cameras in particular- has anything  left to say. I’ve been publishing it for 5 (?) years, or thereabouts, and it often seemed to me that recently I’ve been simply refashioning the same argument over and over e.g. I love old mechanical film Leicas, I love both the craft and the aesthetics of film photography, and I think we do photography an injustice when we consider the practice of film photography an anachronism. So, I was seriously considering just shutting it down without further ado and going back to whatever else I’d go back to were I not thinking about such topics.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), based on the response I’ve got after going dark, some of you seem to miss it and think it fills a niche. I was especially taken with a guy who contacted me through the Leica Forum to inquire what was up. He liked the blog because it was the only place on the web where someone might discuss both photography and Wittgenstein. I like that, and he’s right: I’m of the opinion that Wittgenstein and others, ostensibly “philosophers” without any real connection to photography as a practice, might have interesting ideas which apply to how one thinks about photography and what we do as “photographers.”

Paris, August 2017. Shot with an iphone

My recent trip to Italy and France – which I documented in my last few posts – also contributed to the ambivalence. While I took an M4, a few lenses and bag bag of film, I ended up barely using them, opting instead to use my iphone 6, as much an impromptu decision as a calculated plan. I just got sick of dragging a camera bag everywhere I went, and I saw no real need to reflexively engage everything with a camera to my eye. For travelling light, you simply can’t beat a camera phone, and it helps when it doubles as your phone, laptop, map, compass, flashlight, ipod and notepad. But I also saw two exhibitions of film photography – one of various photographers at Museo di Roma in Trastevere, the other a Walker Evans exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris that I was fortunate to be walked through before hours (knowing people has its perks) – both of which renewed my belief that nothing digital is capable of matching the simple beauty of black and white film photography.

7 am, Paris. Cycling through Paris early morning is a great way to see the sites

Now home, I’m procrastinating dealing with the seemingly inevitable problems that come along with iPhone photography, the first and most obvious of which is that most of the photos I took are no longer on my phone but in ‘the Cloud,’ and, of course, I can’t get into ‘my’ Cloud. Meanwhile, the 8 rolls of film I took are waiting to be developed, no ‘Cloud’ or password or whatever the hell else needed. Just some Diafine and an 8 roll tank. More to come soon, I promise.

 

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part Two

Florence

If you’re familiar with Leica history, you’ll know that the Leica revolutionized photography because it was small and light and allowed photographers to carry it with them wherever they went. Prior to the Leica, cameras were big and heavy and cumbersome, requiring tripods and supporting paraphernalia to laboriously process the results. The Leica conquered the world not because it produced the ‘best’ photos but because it got the shot, technical specifications secondary. Thus the long storied history of the Leica in the documentary tradition.

I’m reminded of this reality while traveling with my M4 and digital Ricohs, both of which I’ve rarely used on my current trip, mostly because I’m sick of lugging them around. I have burned a couple of rolls of film with the M4, but it’s mostly been shots of people dear to me, usually at homes of friends or out to dinner etc. And that’s because those are the photographs I want to last, because those are the photos that ultimately have meaning for me and it’s comforting to know I’ll have a negative, a physical thing to refer back to in the years ahead.

What I love about film is its permanence. In the last year I’ve been bulk scanning a lot of my negatives from when I was young and just learning photography, and what amazes me is how fresh those negatives are even close to 50 years later. Print them up again now, using the latest technology (Lightroom, Photoshop, Silver Effects, archival inkjet printing) and its almost as if I’ve been transported back through time, back again with family, friends and lovers long gone. A while ago I scanned and printed  a 40 year old negative of my first dog, a sweet little girl named Shannon I’d rescued from a shelter in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey. While our time together was short – a few years before I moved south and Shannon grew old and happy with a girlfriend’s family – she’s always remained special to me, and that photo, now framed and hanging in my bedroom where I see it every night from my bed, often triggers in me involuntary memories long forgotten, returning me almost palpably to another life and the ones I then loved. Loved ones only truly die when there’s no one to remember them anymore, and that picture, just a casual snap on an uneventful day, keeps her alive for me even though she’s been dead now for 30 years. I’m awed by this power photography possesses, the power to give permanence to these simple moments that mean everything in a life. Would that same photo shot digitally, a file nested somewhere on a hard drive, have survived for 40 years? I’m not sure. Why take the chance?

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Naples

So I’ve made a conscious decision to continue to shoot film for the reasons above. But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is that I don’t really need to lug cameras and bags around with me to document my trip. My iPhone works just fine. In fact, it works better than fine. While I’ve not yet printed any of them, at least insofar as they appear on a computer screen, they look great, at the very least a level of quality equal to that we expected from our 35mm cameras, and the ease of use is incredible, as is the ability to process the results creatively in a way undreamed of 10 years ago. All the photos used to illustrate this post were shot and post-processed with my iphone, all with a few quick easy keystrokes.

Two shots of a fascist era bulding in Naples, both with the iphone. using either Snapseed or Hipstamatic, I post-processed both right there on my phone in a minute or two.

In a real sense, given its convenience and ease of use, the iphone is the legitimate digital heir to the Leica legacy. Quick and easy, always in my pocket, I’ve gotten all sorts of photos I’d normally have missed. I think at this point, the technology having sufficiently matured, the stand-alone  camera is obsolete except for specific applications that require non-standard focal lengths or for those willing to do the extra work for increasingly marginal gains. But it will never completely negate the viability of film: When I want a photo I know will last, film it is.

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part One

I’m currently in the midst of a ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy, chaperoning two young ladies as we see all the usual sites. I’m presently holed up in a flat on a hill in Amalfi in an attempt to evade the hordes of tourists crawling over the town while my wife takes the kids to eat, drinking 66cl bottles of Nastro Azzurro bought cheap at the local CarrefourExpress and reflecting on an existential dilemma I’ve experienced while here.

Unfortunately, we’ve chosen to travel at a time when Italy is experiencing a heatwave of historic proportions, and, given that we’re not ‘bus tour’ types, we’ve had our share of sweltering trains, metros, local buses and cheap hostels in addition to the usual tourist trap indignities. I’ve traveled enough to know the drill, but the kids are learning as we go. My advice to them: learn to love it. Embrace the hassle, the inconvenience, the rude locals (they think you’re the rude ones), and remember, here you’re the stranger, so lose the cultural arrogance and you just might learn something. And one absolute rule: if approached at a bus station or Metro by someone who asks if you speak English, the correct answer is always “no.”

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Unfortunate as well, I’m also dragging around a camera bag heavy with an M4 and a few lenses, 2 Ricoh GXRs, and 40 rolls of film, batteries, chargers etc, unfortunate because I haven’t used any of it since I’ve arrived. They’ve stayed back in the flat while I’ve enjoyed exploring on foot without them, but I’ve still had to drag them from city to city on trains and buses and metros. Given the heat, I decided to use the iPhone for the travel pictures, since I never look at the pictures anyway once I’m home. The whole ‘vacation photograph’ thing increasingly seems an exercise in futility – there’s [my wife/me/the kids/some funnily-dressed foreign guy] standing in front of [Trevi Fountain/canal in Venice/Leaning Tower of Pisa etc]. Yawn. It’s the functional equivilent of taking photos of the sunset at the beach.  I’m starting to question the very idea of travel photography; in an age of visual saturation, where a thousand pictures of anything are available via a quick Google, exactly what is the point again?  If I do a cursory anthropological study of my fellow travelers, its main purpose seems to be as an emotional crutch, a means of adopting a role to help make sense of the uncertainties of travel.

So, my iPhone, in addition to being my phone, map, tour guide, compass, email/txt receptacle and mp3 player (70’s era ZZ Top, back when they were just a Texas Blues band, cranked up to max, fits perfectly while walking through Naples), is serving as my camera. And I love it. It’s so quick and easy, and its fun. Use something like Hipstamatic or Snapseed and you can do all sorts of stuff with a few keystrokes. Of course, so can everyone else, which means your claim to be uniquely creative rests solely on the emotiona/aesthetic/documentary qualities of your output and not on the fact that you took it with a D5 or M10 with Noctilux. Which is the way it should be, in spite of the fact that I still feel like I’m “cheating” in some way.

Is Resistance Futile?

I sat down yesterday to write an article about Diafine. Diafine is a b&w film developer that I’m particularly fond of for a number of reasons – it’s super easy to use, lasts forever, allows you to push box speed with excellent results, and generally makes your negatives look great. I was going to draft the post, tee it up for publication in a week or so, then pack my bags and a bunch of film cameras and get out of town for three weeks. I’ll be In Italy and France doing cool things and definitely want to document it all. I was thinking a brick or two of Arista.edu 400 (great film, cheap, looks great in Diafine, have no idea who makes it or whether it’s rebranded something or other) an M4 with a vintage Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm Sonnar, and either a Nikon F5 with a 35mm Nikkor or, if I wanted to travel a bit lighter, a Bessa R2S with a 35mm Nikkor and 25mm Voigtlander Skopar.

Homage to Ken Rockwell (I’ve been reduced to snaps of my wife to illustrate my posts).  Arista.edu 400 @800 iso developed in Diafine. It took a lot of work to take, develop and print these pictures.

As I was sitting at my computer, an email came in from a European photographer friend. It had a number of photos attached to it, what you see above and directly below. He’s been doing this to me for years, sending me these throw-away shots he takes with his phone, and it pisses me off, because every time he sends me another I realize both what a middling photographic hack I am and how easy it all is for him.

But I think what pisses me off the most, apart from the proof of the inequity of our respective talents, is how easily digital technology has made photographic self-expression. Apparently, he takes these shots with his iPhone and a Hipstamatic app. Hell, your 8 year old kid can do this. I’m just not sure if that’s good or bad, but I suspect that it’s forever vitiated notions of photographic excellence as a function of technical skill.

So, yesterday I downloaded Hipstamatic onto my iPhone 6 and went out on my bike for a good long training ride. Along the way I snapped a few pics, edited them on my phone right there on the side of the road and then emailed them to my home computer, where they were when I returned home. I pushed a few buttons and printed them out with my Epson R3000. Here are a few below. Took me about 2 minutes from beginning to end.

So, tell me again, why are we lugging our Leicas and bricks of film through airport security; why are we obsessing about lenses and films and developers and grain and bokeh? What possible reason should I have for continuing my dogged attachment to analogue photography? And why shouldn’t I just pack my iPhone and leave the M4 and F5 at home?

A $300 Noctilux

7Artisans, a Chinese lens manufacturer, has introduced a new M mount 50mm f1.1 lens, manufactured in Shenzhen, China (where they make your iPhone).  A 7 elements in 6 groups optical formula like the Nokton 50/1.1, but apparently, it’s a clean sheet design, not based on the Voigtlander offering.  It has clickless f-stops, a .7 minimum focus, and the focus can be calibrated for personal usage (focus shift, film to flange issues etc).

The most interesting thing is the price: $320 on Amazon, although you can buy one direct from China for a few dollars less than $300. As for the “Made in China” issue, your iPhone is manufactured down the the street from 7Artisans.

Mass produced, consumer grade lenses are not as hard to make as they once were – all the equipment you need can be purchased if you’ve got the cash. These days it’s pretty much a function of computers and money; you can design a lenses from the bottom up with raytracing software running on your laptop. 20 years ago you’d have needed a mainframe.

Not bad for 300 bucks, shipped.

Like the Noctilux and the Nokton, it’s a big lens. It’s also heavy, weighing in at +/- 400 grams. Unlike the Nokton, it can close focus. As for its comparison to the Noctilux, suffice it to say that a Leica polarizing filter costs $150 more than the 7Artisans lens.