Author Archives: Leicaphila

Leicaphilia’s Annual Gear Purge

Ricoh GXR with A12 Leica M Mount  Module and Ricoh Electronic Viewfinder

$675/shipped

– comes with box, charger, battery etc – almost new. Everything works perfectly.

The Ricoh GXR with M Mount module  is one of the great bargains if your’re looking for a digital M. Good examples of this are becoming rarer to find in new condition. Love this camera. Prefer it to the M8/9. I’ve got two copies, one superfluous to requirements. Please do not make me put this on Ebay.

 

 


You can contact me with questions at leicaphilia@gmail.com

 

The “Right to One’s Image”

This Photo Might be Illegal

Long ago, before your phone was also your camera, it was a first-class pain in the ass to shoot street photography in Paris. The French, peculiar people they are, are very particular about the “Droit à l’image” (Right to One’s Image) issue. Frankly, it can be incredibly tiresome dealing with French people who seem to think it’s their business what you do with your camera in a public space. In the States, we’re relatively habituated to people pointing cameras in public spaces. Under American law, if you’re in a public space, you’re fair game. Of course, this hasn’t stopped freedom loving Americans from bitching at me when I’ve pointed a camera in their general direction, but I’m on firm legal ground when I’ve told them to go pack sand.

In France, meanwhile, I’ve had people threaten to call the police because I was taking pictures of inanimate objects in public. Arrogant people, the French, although I love them dearly in spite of their obvious faults. And God help you if their child could possibly be somewhere in the picture – I’ve almost come to blows with aggrieved Parisians about the issue. My standard response is “Yes, call the police. Let’s talk to them about it” at which point they’d cut and run after a few choice words, or, if that didn’t work, I’d suggest they engage in an anatomically impossible sex act and then ignore them, which seemed to either force the encounter to an unpleasant conclusion or, in rare instances, send it nuclear. More on that some other time.

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Sitting on Your Front Porch in Mississippi? Fair Game

The gist of Droit à l’image des personnes en France is a simple oneIf the subject of the photograph is a person, that person has a right to oppose the use of his imageThis right derives from the French civil concept of private life.  Essentially, what it means is this: before being able to use the photograph in question, you must ensure that the person photographed does not expect privacy of his personal image and that he does not oppose the publication of this image. Unlike other countries (e.g. The States) this right to one’s image includes images taken in public, including group photography during something like a street demonstration.

The person whose image is at issue can oppose use its use by invoking Art. 9 of the French Civil Code which protects the right of every individual to respect for his/her private life. Contrary to a misconception seemingly prevalent in Paris, it’s not the taking of pictures in public itself that is a violation of the right, but rather the diffusion or publication of photographs where both the context and the person are easily recognizable. Try explaining that to some large French guy currently in your grill, spittle flying, demanding you delete the photo you’ve just taken on that picturesque Parisian Boulevard.

Meanwhile, These People Could Sue the Hell Out of Me

Like most things, the devil is in the details.  Any photographer who is content to shoot for his own personal and private use does not violate the law (e.g see: Court of Cassation, Criminal Chamber, October 25, 2011, appeal 11-80.266,  “… the taking of photographs without the consent of the persons appearing therein having been made in a public place, the offense provided for by article 226-1, 2 ° of the Penal Code does not apply.” And if you really want to get legalistic, even in France there exists the right to photograph and publish persons of “public interest” without their express permission. As such, if I see Sir Thorsten von Overgaard – obviously a “public figure,” married as he is to Princess Joy – out and about with a gaggle of acolytes taking his street photography seminar, I’m within my rights to take his picture, as authorization is not required of “public figures” given a recognized “right to information”, “right to information” meaning photographs of public personas in engaged in public activities. The suckers following him around, off limits.

Happy Holidays

2018 is the year when Leicaphilia took on a decidedly philosophical bent, for no other reason than you can only say so much about the cameras themselves without repeating yourself.

With this in mind, my holiday wish for you comes as a suggestion. Go out and treat yourself to the following musical albums, all of them contemporaneous with the age of the iconic film M’s (clearly, there was something in the air back then). Each of them is a saxophone quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums), and each a recognized jazz classic. Make sure you play them on a good sound system with excellent bass, and crank up the volume; similar to rock n roll, 50’s and 60’s era quartet jazz needs to be played loud:

  • Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins (1955)
  • Giant Steps by John Coltrane (1959)
  • Go! by Dexter Gordon (1961)
  • Night Dreamer by Wayne Shorter (1964)

What does this have to do with photography? More than you think. Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve wrote of elsewhere, considered music the only art capable of expressing the truth of being itself. Visual arts like photography were two removes from ultimate reality, as they were at best a representation of a representation. Music, being formless and non-representational, directly accessed the reality of being by bypassing the intellect and appealing directly to your “will”, which for Schopenhauer was the ultimate real thing that moved you and the heavens and the earth.

So, go listen to each of them while nursing a glass of bourbon (no need for an expensive bottle, just a decent no frills traditional bourbon like Four Roses, Makers Mark …or Rebel Yell if you’re seriously short on cash). Whatever you do, do not put ice in your bourbon (I cannot repeat this enough).  Bourbon in hand, Dexter Gordon blasting from your speakers, enjoy a bit of Dionysian revelry on this the most Apollonian of Western holidays.

It May Not Be About the Tool. But It IS About the RIGHT Tool

Leica: The Camera That Made Miracles. Why? Because It Was Compact Enough To Be There When You Needed It

A few days ago I spent a cold and uncomfortable evening on the porch of an abandoned house on Route 222 outside of Saratoga, North Carolina, basically the middle of nowhere. I’d been halfway through what was to be a hard workout (for me) – drive out of the city, park in Middlesex NC, where I’d start my ride, ride due east on 222 then south on 43 into Greenville, grab something to eat, turn around and hammer it back to the truck before it got too dark. 140 miles, give or take, flat well-paved roads, not much traffic, a cold but sunny day with little wind. Perfect.

My intent was to ride a good hard pace – (for me, at that distance, 17-18 mph average) – and to do so I’d grabbed a set of 60mm carbon wheels shod with lightweight “race” tires, $70 a pop ‘Michelin Pro4 Competition Limited’ tires, the idea being to minimize rolling resistance and tire weight. Plus, they’re very sexy, fast rolling and “supple” (whatever that means) and all the fast guys run them. This turned out to be a mistake.

Ten miles north of Greenville, I had my first flat. From, there 30 miles into the return journey, sun going down, I’d had 4 flats and was out of tire patches and CO2 cartridges to pump up tubes. One more flat and I was walking. A mile or two east of Saratoga, just a crossroads on a map, I heard the now familiar “swoosh” of my tire decompressing. A few minutes later I was sitting on the porch, 40 miles from my truck and 90 miles from home, freezing my ass off. Luckily, I begged a ride from a friend, who road the 120 miles from Chapel Hill to rescue me. Luckily as well, I’d loaded an audio recording of Homer’s Odyssey on my phone, which kept me company while I waited. My ride arrived just as Odysseus was sailing past the Isle of the Sirens, tied to the mast, wax in ears, his attempt to resist the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song. Funny, I thought, how the universe sends you these little hints…and how often we ignore them.

I’d no one but myself to blame for the 3 hours I spent huddled in my sweaty riding gear, 3 degrees Celsius, pitched darkness, waiting for my ride. I’d been out in the boondocks by myself, riding on a set of super-sexy “race” tires that offer little in the way of puncture protection, when I should have been riding a good set of heavy duty training tires, marginally slower and heavier, but strongly puncture resistant.  I’d chosen the wrong gear for the ride.

Two days later, I tried the same ride, but this time with Continental ‘Gatorskin’ training tires, which are known to be impervious to most anything that would flat a “faster” tire. Supposedly, they’re 8 watts slower than the Michelins. 8 hours, 30 minutes on the bike, 138 miles there and back, not one flat. Clearly, the right tire for the ride.

The point being, something, great in theory, might be great for some things but not so much for others. It’s all about context.

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Freemont, NC. I was in a Tri-X and Leica Mood


“How did I come to make the Leica? Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13×18 plates, with six double plate-holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thuringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?” Oskar Barnack, creator of the Leica


There’s no question that a 6×6 Rollei gives a “better” image than than a 35mm Leica. And yet, much of the iconic reportage photography of the 20th century was taken using a Leica. Why? Because the portability and simplicity of the Leica allowed you to get the shot in the first place. A pre-condition of getting the shot is to have a camera with you in the first place.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (here, and here, and here), we’ve gotten to a place where the phone in your pocket is usually your “best” camera. Like the Leica which preceded it, it’s small, portable, simple. Not only can you take it everywhere, you do. Your iPhone is the new Leica. Granted, it’s not as sexy, it doesn’t connote a certain status or sophistication. It’s a disposable consumer good you upgrade every two years or so. So what. It get’s the shot, and that’s the point. Photography is ultimately about photographs and not how we get them. Or, at least, it should be.

Below are a few photos I took on my most recent ride, the one where I had enough sense to choose a decent pair of training tires. Whenever I saw something interesting, I stopped and took a picture of it. With my iPhone 8. Super simple, as it’s always tucked away in my back pocket literally everywhere I go. That day, I was seeing things in a 6×6 format. In color. Back in the day, that meant I’d have to drag my Rollei along with me, loaded with color film. The odds of that all coming together were highly unlikely, meaning that as a practical matter the picture wouldn’t get taken. With the iPhone, not only did I get the photo, I got to choose the format, the film, etc on the fly, and I could change my mind after the fact if I so desired. Had you told me 40 years ago I’d be able to do that, I’d have thought you were crazy. Today it’s a given. Think about that. That’s amazing.

 

It’s Not the Tool

By Mark Twight. All photos by the author. You can see Mark’s work at www.marktwight.com

I was born in the mountains. I grew up middle class in an American city. I climbed mountains professionally for twenty years, making first ascents in the Americas, Europe and Asia. In those years I wrote articles for magazines, shot pictures to illustrate them and gave multi-media presentations in the U.S. and Europe. Later I wrote two books on the subject. Both won awards and were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Polish.

Mountain climbing and movie work allowed me to travel to incredible places I would not have otherwise seen. Antarctica. Bulgaria. Israel. Iceland. Japan. Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan. Norway. Argentina. Bolivia. Australia. France, Italy and Spain. Detroit. Alaska. China. Russia. Kazakhstan. Canada, of course. And all over the American West.

I have carried notebooks, a pen, open eyes and a camera in every place but I am not a photographer. I have a camera. I point it at things. I know my way around it, the darkroom and the computer. My attitude and the fact that I do the things I photograph gives me unique perspective. Although I am not now the man of action I was, what I did informs what I do. And what I will do in the future.

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I was anti-Leica for years. I thought it was snobbery. I shot an old Fujica HDS in the mountains because it was waterproof but eventually the fixed 38mm lens was too tight. I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 24mm even though it was enormous compared to my partner’s Rollei. Later I graduated to a Nikon F3, and a Angenieux 70-210mm zoom. I learned my way around the darkroom, developed and printed through many, many nights and eventually got back to Nikon optics and an F5. Despite the magnificent utility of the Nikon, my experience working in black and white introduced me to the Leica brand and the famous shooters who used it. I couldn’t afford to invest so I found adequate enough cons to outweigh the pros.

Then I did a job that paid enough to buy a M6 and 28mm lens. I compared it to my F5 with a 20-35mm f2.8 lens and once I saw the results I switched wholesale. In the mountains Leica lenses easily outmatched my best Nikon primes. The 28mm Elmarit held details when overexposed, captured astonishingly rich color, and separation. I loved pointing into the sun. I shot muddy cyclocross races, sand-boarding the dunes, and in the snow. I carried it in the Alaska Range and even when temperatures dipped to -30F, when plastic film canisters shattered, the camera functioned without problem. In 2001 I bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera because it supposedly had a Leica lens, then a Canon S80 for its manual functions, then a G9, and later, a compact S100. As a reaction to muddy details at relatively low ISO values I bought a full-frame Nikon D800 so I could use my old 20-35mm but it was no pocket camera so a Sony RX1R with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens came next.

Instead of a darkroom I had Lightroom. The film in the refrigerator expired. I sold one M6 body. Eventually, I gave another to my friend because I knew he would use it. The beautiful Leica lenses sat idle. Regret nagged at me. I lived with it easily for years but it grew. And itched. I knew that sooner or later I would scratch. Then on a film set in 2014 Zack Snyder handed me his Leica Monochrom and said, “If anyone should have a camera that only shoots black and white, it’s you.” I laughed but he was right, the Gym Jones website had been exclusively black and white from its launch in 2005. That statement matched my vision and attitude. I didn’t want it to be easy to read so I floated white text on black. The viewer had to want it. I converted all images to black and white to remove the distorting influence that color can have. What remained was raw, and essential. When I finally bought a Monochrom – 13 years after I put the last roll of film through my M6 – it felt like coming home.

I pulled the lenses from their cases and relearned how to focus manually. My love for taking and making pictures returned and within a year I’d traded the RX1R for a Leica Q and carried it with me everywhere. I loved the fact that — shot at f1.7 — the images had remarkably shallow depth of field for a 28mm lens. The Q easily handles high ISO so even this night owl can make pictures, and the auto-focus is snappy. I can’t change my spots though so I still convert color images to black and white with Silver EFX in the digital darkroom. Black and white is still the way I see. Kiss or Kill.

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Spending so much time staring at images on a large monitor made me a pixel Nazi. On the screen, with the ability to ruthlessly zoom in to any aspect of a picture creates a very different relationship to the image than I have when I stand back and appreciate the totality of fine print. Dissecting local contrast at 4:1 can break the heart of any image.

This got me thinking about sharpness, which I revered when I started shooting a Leica M6. Because that’s what I thought I was seeing when I compared the M6 images to those from the F5. But maybe it wasn’t that the Leica images were sharper, instead their crisp luminosity made the wholly-adequate slides shot with the Nikon appear flat. The M6 images felt vibrant and alive, with details revealed from deep shadow, and texture preserved in areas of hotly overexposed snow. Peering through the loupe I could see greater density, or maybe depth but it wasn’t necessarily increased sharpness that caused that. Honestly, like describing taste, I have difficulty explaining why a Leica image looks different. I do know that — after almost 20 years of living with these images it isn’t as simple as cost influencing appearance. I mean, many times in the past thirty years I have spent far more and received demonstrably less.

That said I started feeling like many of my digital images were too sharp. Harsh, even. That I couldn’t appreciate them without some jpeg compression or the physical equivalent: standing at an appropriate distance. Apparently, anything above 18 megapixels is irrelevant because that’s the maximum our eyes can resolve (this is affected by viewing distance, eyesight quality, etc., and not gospel of course). Yet we chase ever-sharper resolution with 30, then 40mp and 50mp sensors. My eyes get tired first, then my brain.

Perhaps this is a question of perspective. I want to feel the emotional impact of the whole, to re-see what my eyes actually saw, to remember or re-experience how I felt when I initially witnessed the scene I “captured” with my camera. Instead, I crop, I dissect, I zoom, unintentionally stripping away emotion until only the technical remains. Or maybe 0s and 1s just lack soul. Subject, timing and composition are my antidote to binary reductionism but I am still and often dissatisfied with the outcome of the digital capture + edit equation.

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In October 2016 I serendipitously encountered Nicholas Dominic Talvola at Chris Sharma’s climbing gym in Barcelona. He shoots film with old Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras. Properly. Astonishingly. We swapped Leica stories, handed each other our cameras, and he told me about an old 35mm lens that glows when it is shot at f1.4. He shared some images with me and I knew what I’d been missing. “Those lenses are hard to find, man. Not many of them were made and you have to get the one from Germany, not Canada and in X range of serial numbers … it should have a bit of purple cast to the reflection of light off the lens.” And the rabbit hole opened beneath my feet. “You’re going to love it on your Monochrom but you’ll die once you start shooting film again.”

I remember film. And I sometimes wonder if the problem with 0s and 1s is the immediacy. The all-important Insta. Frequency over Quality. And the metaphor of it. Who has any idea what to value or what has value when the only option on these platforms is to ignore or to like? 0 or 1. And no volume knob.

Instead, I try to make photographs that involve the viewer the way I was involved in the making. The Summilux 35mm lens Nicholas told me about gave my images an ethereal glow. It softens generally without sacrificing sharpness locally, luring the viewer to engage rather than evade.

When the image is too sharp and obvious its interpretive quality disappears. We accept what we see. And quickly move on. But when the focus isn’t obvious, when lines lead, when the whole implies more than it declares then we must interpret. The image – whether written or graphic – compels us to do so. It asks. We seek answers. Our own answers. And we wonder … which I always thought was the point.

Big Daddy Road

Eastern North Carolina is a great place to ride a bike. Flat, rural, sparsely traveled roads that traverse tobacco and cotton fields, generally friendly people who, while in their cars and trucks give you plenty of room and are happy to strike up a conversation with you when stopped at a crossroads store. Of course, this is “red state” country, poor, sparsely populated, under educated, economically depressed, where “Trump” and “Thank You Jesus” signs vie for space in small town front yards. What they’re thanking Jesus for I’m not quite sure. Most of the towns are dead, downtowns of empty decaying storefronts, civic and economic institutions hollowed out by years of economic stress, remaining residents too poor or too stupid to leave. Close your eyes and you could be in Mississippi.

Sure is beautiful out here in the sticks

What’s interesting to me is how close it is to affluence and education. The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill metro area where I live is incredibly vibrant, peopled with  graduates of the 3 major research universities there – Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State – and full of educated transplants who work in the tech industry. But go 10 miles east of my home close to downtown Raleigh and you might as well be in another country.

A couple days a week I’ll ride out east – I try to ride between 150 and 200 miles a week, and usually do it in two rides of 75 -100 miles each, rides that take the day back and forth. Often I just go and see where the road takes me, other times I’ll set a destination and ride there and back. This past week I decided to head to Big Daddy Road in Faro, North Carolina, about 60 miles or so from my front door.

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Above is the intersection of Rt 222 and N. Church St in Eureka, a rural hamlet a few miles north of Faro. Faro isn’t even a town but simply a crossroads with a church, where Big Daddy Road meets NC Rural Route 1054. I was surprised to see the historical marker commemorating the “Nuclear Mishap” that occurred here in 1961, as almost no one today seems aware of what went on out here back in the day. The marker is dated 2012, which would have been shortly after a Freedom of Information request brought to light government documents about the “mishap.” I had to chuckle when the read the marker – so clinical and matter of fact – something happened here long ago and now its history.

Except that it isn’t history. What the marker doesn’t tell you is that there’s a live, armed Hydrogen Bomb, 250 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, still there, buried somewhere in a swamp on Big Daddy Road 3 miles to the south. Apparently, a B-52 flying out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in nearby Goldsboro broke apart in flight and dropped two armed hydrogen bombs. One was found still strapped to its parachute hanging from a tree at the edge of the farmer’s field, the other was never found but is assumed to be buried “deep underground” in a swamp abutting the field. Both bombs were live; the recovered bomb had blown through all but one of its fail-safe switches. The bomb still there, well, hopefully we’ll never know.

There’s a Live 4 Megaton Hydrogen Bomb Buried in These Guys’ Back Yard. No Shit.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash

Big Daddy Road is just a road, indistinguishable from a million other eastern North Carolina rural roads. Some farms, some trailers, a few evangelical churches, lots of American flags. Irrespective of its banality, there’s a certain frisson one gets riding down it when you’re aware of what’s out there. About a mile past the swamp where the missing hydrogen bomb is supposedly located I came upon a rocket in a church yard, no signs or plaque giving any explanation. Not often you see a rocket in a churchyard, but hey, this is America, you can worship whatever you want. For all I know it has nothing to do with what happened here in 1961. Who knows?

On a lighter note, here’s a recent John Oliver piece about the “Mishap”:

A Tale of Three Cameras

Peter Davidson is a former commercial photographer who now shoots for himself with a “hopelessly outdated” M9. The photos are all Mr. Davidson’s

Here are two cameras, both important, but separated by twenty years. The Kodak Brownie 127 and Leica M6. Each a delight to hold, simple to use and each delivering that photographic experience as a photographer, I relish. The opportunity to capture some fleeting quintessential moment that not only speaks to and for me, but to others. Personally, there is no argument as to which camera was the more valuable. The Brownie of course. And not just because that Brownie was my first camera back in 1965 and the M6 merely my first Leica in 1985. No, it was because the Brownie’s simplicity enabled me to see while not thinking (or indeed knowing) how to capture that what I saw. It just worked. And basically any camera that works well, and I don’t just mean in the mechanical sense, is essentially a means to an end. They are tools. So is this strange phenomenon of Leicaphilia a love of photography or of the tool? What is going on?

As I’m typing this, my nine year old and hence positively prehistoric and ancient (for digital) M9 is balefully staring back at me with its even older (25 years old in fact) Summicron IV single eye. Alongside is standing my equally old 90mm Tele-Elmarit with its fine coating of lens-fungus that gives results in a kind of cut-price Thambar way. All are in beautiful mint condition (apart from some fungus of course, but that is nothing). I look after my cameras. They are my tools and I trust that if I look after them, they will look after me. I shake my head at the wannabe war photographers who love to own a brassed and abused camera because of its ‘patina’. If it was previously owned by HCB, ok. If not, no thanks.

I’ve been a working advertising cum editorial professional photographer since 1971. That means, though still spritely for a man now pushing seventy years old with two major heart attacks under his belt, my eyes are not what they were. Nor are many other things. And I’m retired. All of which means I now photograph for myself and no one else.

So to return to my opening paragraph and the M6. I didn’t know any professional colleagues in my photographic field who owned a Leica back in the day. It wasn’t really the right tool for most jobs. Or any job really. It was full frame, in 21st Century speak, and as such technically limited. The Hasselblad was much bigger and hence better technical tool. As was 4×5 film and 8×10 film. The same rule applies today of course. For 35mm, or full frame if you prefer, the SLR ruled as it still does, but that is now changing. Basically, what I’m imperfectly trying to say, is that I was a TTL man through and through. The rangefinder was alien…

With my Nikon I could see exactly what I was shooting and focus quickly anywhere in the frame and could change a film roll almost one handed in the dark. The M6 was non of those things. What it was though, was a beautiful mechanical thing. A gorgeously built icon of photography. So, finding myself with some money to spare, I bought one. And found it so slow and difficult to use it drove me mad. It didn’t suit my photographic style. So I put it away for over twenty years, bringing it out occasionally to try and master the damned thing. Gradually, very gradually, it began to grow on me as my shooting style changed and I warmed to the experience. I realised, as I had long suspected, the camera wasn’t at fault, the fault lay with me.

I discovered I only needed to return to the Kodak Brownie state. Shoot don’t think. Relax. Let the camera do the work. Trust in the camera. Finally I began to fully appreciate the quiet unobtrusiveness of the small lens/camera form factor. Less intimidating for my subjects, being humble and quiet and therefor better. After nearly forty years as a photographer, I began to ‘get it’. So, of course, I sold my M6…

And bought an M9. Why? Because while I appreciate film, it’s a total pain in the arse. All my life I’ve battled Kodachrome exposure intolerance and while I loved Tri-X granularity, the whole film processing snafus, dust, scratches and water marks I can do without. And while I loved splashing about in darkrooms for hours, frankly I haven’t got many hours left.

The M9 is a flawed camera and hopelessly outdated. On paper. However, it’s secretly a film camera. That’s because it’s limitations are clear and to get the best from the camera you must work within its limitations and not in spite of them. Then it rewards you handsomely. And really, isn’t that the basis of the whole analogue resurgence? And it’s monochrome output, if the ISO is kept below 800, is to my mind the digital equivalent of Tri-X. You see, I know what this camera does. When I pick it up I know, for instance, that I will not have pressed some obscure button and accidental changed the shooting mode. Everything is simply laid out, visible and accessible. It works. It doesn’t get in the way. I don’t have to spend hours prodding menu buttons to make it do what I want. So of course I’m thinking of selling it…

Mainly because I’m finding it ever harder to focus manually. But what to get? I’ve checked out the small compact competition and they are fine, with quick auto focusing and comparatively very cheap but compromised either by ergonomics, sensor size or physical lens size. The thing is, on the M9 the 35mm Summicron lens is tiny. Really, really tiny. The Q by comparison has a huge ugly lens on its front. And it’s too wide at 28mm. And it’s fixed. I’m not convinced enough yet to part with my beloved M9. And if I do, it might have to be another Leica. Beloved? Did I use the term ‘beloved?’ Oh dear, have I contracted the strangely communicable disease of Leicaphilia? As I said earlier at the beginning of this piece, what is going on? Or as our yoof might text, WTF?

Yes, I am more attached to this camera than I am to my other long held and venerable cameras. The M9 welcomes my hand, feels right, comfortable and reassuringly solid and dependable. As do my Nikons of course… But they, in the end, are more tools for technical photographic challenges, while the M9 is more a tool for the heart, for expressiveness and intimacy. For capturing the human experience. It facilitates creating photography of meaning. So of course, as with any favourite craftsman’s tool, it also captures the heart of the photographer. How could it not?

Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.

Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search –  whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.

I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.

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Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town

Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.

I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.

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The Bois, back in the day

If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen.  An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.

Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails.  Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be? 

I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.

 

 

 

What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.