Author Archives: Leicaphila

Robert Frank and I Agree: Photography Should Be Fun

I’ve not been posting much lately. I’ve been busy, the website crashed for a while, I’ve just finished writing a 25-page proposal for a photography exhibit entitled The One and Only New Truth, and I’m trying to finalize a maquette of Car Sick. Photography hasn’t been ‘fun.’ It feels more like an obligation.

I’ve just finished reading RJ Smith’s biography of Robert Frank, American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank. After publishing The Americans, Frank stopped photographing. He was sick of it. It wasn’t fun; it was now an obligation. At its best, it had functioned as a pre-verbal means of showing a truth, something he couldn’t articulate with words or logic. Frank was remarkably obtuse in explaining his photography. He hated it when people asked him about it. That wasn’t the point, his explanation. A flowery explanation might be facile and clever…but wrong. Just look at the pictures; you didn’t need his help.

He never really went back to still photography, having transitioned to film. Only in his later years, living in the Nova Scotia wilds, did he dabble again in photography. His choice of camera was a Polaroid, something quick and easy, without artifice, that gave him lucky accidents. Frank always claimed that his best photography was accidental, nothing much really, just random snaps that produced serendipitous results. Of course, it was more than that; it was an eye that had been rigorously trained to understand the exceptional in the serendipitous when it occasionally occurred.

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By chance, having finished Frank’s book, finished my proposal, put aside Car Sick for a few days, I opened a box and found a series of polaroids I’d taken on a trip to the west coast in 2005. I had just come back from Paris, where I had been involved in all sorts of photography related stuff. I was sick of it, much like Frank was sick of his photography, apparently sick enough of it that I decided to leave my cameras at home and take an old Polaroid and some outdated film. I’ve posted some of the photos. Nothing special, but fun. I’m sure more than a few of you will think they’re shit. Be that as it may, I like them. I was clearly having fun again.

What I Don’t Want for Christmas

I don’t want a Leica watch. For that matter, I don’t want a Leica camera. I don’t need another Leica. For that matter, I don’t want or need any other camera, whether it’s a Leica, a Fuji, a Nikon, a Sigma or any other shiny new thing that promises to ‘complete my photographic journey.’ I’m not on a ‘photographic journey’, which is stupid adspeak designed by some clever guy in a hi-rise on Madison Avenue to bypass my critical faculties in the interest of selling me his widget. Even if I was, a new camera wouldn’t get me anyplace my current crop of cameras – all bought back then with the understanding that they were going to somehow make my photography better, my journey complete – can’t get me.

I’m sick of technical squabbles and little minds arguing irrelevant issues as if they were a matter of great import. News flash: the camera you use doesn’t matter. Not one fucking bit. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you stop obsessing over whatever new technological gimmick Leica or Nikon or Fuji is selling you, the sooner you’ll open yourself up to what really matters, the things that will make ‘your journey’ better. One thing I have learned is this: equipment is irrelevant. Nobody’s photographs got any better, or any worse, because of the equipment used. It’s like thinking the brand of instruments played on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is the reason it’s a 20th-century American music masterpiece ( it is, BTW, and I will fight anyone who is ignorant enough to claim otherwise (although you can make an argument that Bringing It All Back Home, released just 5 months prior to Highway 61, is even better)).

I’ve been looking at a lot of superb photography recently, enrolled as I currently am in a graduate seminar that requires me to look at photography. I’ve learned an incredible amount about photography in general while studying the specific genre of photography called photojournalism, which is surprising since I thought I basically knew everything there is to know about photography, its history, its theory, its practice. In fact, while I know a lot, in the larger scheme of things I know very little. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of one’s ignorance; it can motivate you to put aside a lifetime of unconsidered opinion – the common sense ignorance one reflexively absorbs via one’s culture – and actually think about things minus the preconceived notions that inhibit what we think…and what we see.

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Jean Gaumy, La Dune de Pyla, France 1984

Above is a photo by Jean Gaumey. I’d never seen this photo until a few days ago, when I stumbled across it while on a non-photography related website. Gaumy, while a Magnum member, seemingly isn’t that well known here in the States (or at least, I’d never heard of him, which may be a different matter entirely). It’s just a picture of a guy and a woman and a dog. In this sense, it reminds me a lot of Gianni Gardin’s 1959 photo below:

Both are simple subjects, simply visualized, but both remarkably evocative and powerful. Their power isn’t derived from any technical sophistication – both are shot with film, Gaumy’s looking like he used a 28mm optic, Gardin maybe that or a 35mm – but from an eye sensitive to subtleties of spatial relations, body expression, light, and mood, Both suggest something more than the sum of what’s pictured, the photographer skilled enough to offer an image for the viewer’s imagination. None of this has anything to do with the camera used. All of it has to do with the unique idiosyncrasies of the photographer’s understanding of the world.++

++ And, IMHO, the incredibly evocative power of the traditional B&W film look.

“Mise en Abyme”: The Image Within the Image

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, 1937

I love the photo above, taken by Surrealist ‘Art Photographer’ and photojournalist Lee Miller. There’s something dislocating about it, something difficult to read at first glance, something disorienting about the reality on which you as the viewer stand, a function of the questionable dimensionality of the photo itself. Produced by the indexical process of analog photography, it’s something more than an indexical account of the real, a view turned to a subjective vision by what appears to be an interplay of literal and fictive frames.

Portrait of Space is a “mise en abyme” or an image-within-an-image. It’s a visual puzzle, a play on ambiguity and the permeability of boundaries. The title itself is part of the puzzle. What’s the subject of this ‘portrait?’ Given the multiple frames, it’s up to you to identify what space is the subject. Is it all of it, or some part of it? What can be considered inside and what outside?

Pretty cool that all of that can be summoned up via an indexical photograph that, in the words of Susan Sontag, “stencils off the real”. It’s testament to the infinite creative possibilities inherent in our simple ‘documentary’ medium.

In actuality, the photo is taken within a tent in Egypt. The viewer looks out onto a desert, through a window with a torn mosquito net, the tear itself serving as a frame. A wooden picture frame hangs from the net above the tear, creating a second frame nested with the window frame which itself is nested within the frame of the photo. The appears to be a stone border demarcating the landscape within the netting tear and the window frame. Beyond lies desert. Above, occupying various ratios of different frames, and about 2/3 of the image, is sky with wispy clouds.

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I realize, in reviewing my work over the years, the “mise en abyme” trope is something I’ve been intuitively drawn to since I started photographing things. Maybe it has something to do with having an early education in the arts, where one learns to think of visual art, whether painting or photography, as layered abstraction, although I find that I was doing things like shooting out car windows or using windows as frames within photos since I was 12. So who knows?

Of course, it’s at the root of whatever is inspiring me to publish a book like Car Sick, and hopefully it’s part of the reason many of you good folks have reserved a copy. In any event, the photo above is something more than some funky statues in some god-forsaken place somewhere; it’s the view out a car window of those statues, which introduces a layer of complexity absent in the straight shot. Now the photo infers a viewer of those statues, a viewer in a vehicle, the vehicle itself in a certain relationship to the statuary, the viewer in a certain relationship to both the statues and the vehicle. The interpretive possibilities of the photo have expanded exponentially, all with the inclusion of the sense of a car window that brackets the view.

So that’s the idea I’m selling you in Car Sick. Think of it not as a collection of marginally interesting, semi-competent views out of car windows – think of it rather as a brilliant collective “mise en abyme“, a celebration of image-within-image, “in which notions of inside and outside, are endlessly placed and displaced”, as critic Patricia Allmer noted of Miller’s work, challenging you the viewer with its layered details, made possible by the artist’s [that’s me!] “unique sense for presenting a slice of dislocated reality. “

Color and Photography

I’ve never cared much for color photography. Never shot it in the film era, don’t pay any attention to it in the digital era. Not that I’d be so militant as to buy a Monochrome; it’s much easier to simply chimp, edit and print RAW files in B&W. It’s partially a function of when I came of age photographically – the early 1970s, when B&W constituted the majority of both journalistic photography and whatever photography aspired to personal expression. Color photography was the product of the inconsequential snap-shot, the throw-away photo taken with the Instamatic. Color photographs were thin and transparent, lacking the visual ‘heft’ of B&W. They valued the superficial – color! – at the expense of the visually complex – form. I’ve carried these prejudices with me into the present.

Of course, that’s ancient history, certainly by the 80’s with the introduction of ‘professional’ color films, which was itself the result of larger trends in visual media – the rise of color television as the common visual medium, replacing print media like LIfe and Vu and Look as defining the visually normative. You see the change most obviously in the transformation of photojournalist imagery from the 60s to the late 70s and onward. Compare Larry Burrow’s B&W Viet Nam photos – while thematically distinct from the WW2 photographs of Capa etc, still sharing a common B&W visual language – with the late 70’s color work of Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Both are exceptionally skilled and thoughtful photographers; what differentiates their work is the medium they used. To my eye, Burrow’s work has an emotional impact that Meiselas lacks; it’s almost impossible for me not to aestheticize Meiselas’s work, even though some of it is remarkably gruesome. It’s the color, which seems to connote two things to me: banality, and cheap beautification. Understand, I’m not accusing Meisalas of cheapening what she photographs, rather, I’m reflecting on my own inherent biases and using them as an example of how each of us constructs meaning from photos.

Susan Meisalas, “Cuesta del Plomo”, showing a half-devoured body on a hillside outside Managua. Gross…but I can’t help thinking of how beautiful Managua’s landscape must be. Need to put that on my “to visit” list.

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Above is a photo that will probably find its way into Car Sick, the book I’ve been shilling for the last few weeks. While it looks like a B&W film photo (nice Tri-X contrast and grain) it’s from a RAW file taken with a Ricoh GXR (10 years old now, and “obsolete” or so I’m told, it remains a remarkable camera, especially when using the M-Mount mated with an older LTM optic; why anyone shooting “leica style” would need anything else is completely beyond me). The “original” leads off the post; a banal color snap of no visual interest. But monochromed, with some pronounced grain added, a hint of light fall-off at the edges of the frame, now, to my eye, it’s just right, the perfect confluence of B&W contrast and grain and film era optics to produce my idea of what a photo out a car window should look like. 5 years ago I’d have a vague sense that I was ‘cheating’; now I couldn’t care less. I’m tired of arguments about media and technique. It’s the image that counts; who cares how you get there (up to a point: see below for the usual qualifications). The point is the aesthetic. I understand and have internalized the B&W aesthetic, maybe in a way that photographers born after 1980 can’t. I ‘see’ in grainy B&W. Luckily for me, there’s seemingly no Instagram ‘filter’ for my look, so I get to claim it legitimately. Instead of selecting a random ‘filter’ on a photo app or social media site, I learned it the hard way. I earned it; it’s been incorporated into my vision. It’s how I see, not some pre-selected veneer I’ve made an arbitrary decision to paste over my subject. My style is, in some way, my subject.

What’s remarkable to me is how foreign this is to today’s photographers. Raised with the easy color capture of digital – but also raised in the visual language of color TV and the ubiquity of public advertising – color is their normative way of seeing, which it should be, right? Talk to them of B&W and they’ll reply, “The world is color. We should reproduce it as such. It’s B&W which is artificial, necessary only for so long as the technology hadn’t matured to the point to transcend it as a limitation. It’s no longer needed. we’ve moved past it.”

Except that, ironically, one can argue that this new visual language- the language of color that’s become synonymous with photography since the 1980s – is the ultimate artificiality now at the core of photography. It is so because it further obfuscates for us the inherent artificiality of photography as a medium. We hold a 3×5 piece of paper with 2D colored ink (or silver halide) representations engraved on its surface and consider it a transparent slice of the real. Its color is one more means of obscuring the fact of its artificiality, of its inherently constructed nature. It seduces us, the viewer, into thinking we’re seeing an objective representation of something real out there, when what we’re really looking at is a piece of paper of abstracted signs in our hand.

What we’re viewing on that piece of paper (or screen) is someone’s coded representation of their subjective interpretation of the real, subjective in the same sense that Cezanne’s paintings of late 19th Century French life were subjective takes on that life. And just like paintings, some photographs are more compelling than others, they being so not because they more accurately reproduce reality than that they create a coded reality that compels us as viewers. It’s why we venerate Robert Frank while laughing at the junk that gets posted on enthusiast websites. And it’s why some people – myself included – continue to shoot in B&W. It’s how we see.

Up and Running

Sorry about the blackout. It couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, having just asked everyone to fund my book…and then disappeared after taking in a quick two grand. Fortunately, it was just a ‘scheduled update’ that went wrong, and I’m lucky to have a friend with the knowledge to fix things.

I’ll be back to posting in a few days at most. For those who’ve contributed to my gofundme page, Thank you. I owe you a book. It’s coming, I promise. I’ll keep you updated as it progresses. I’m still taking donations. I’ll leave it up for another week or two, and how much I take in will determine the print run. I assume it’ll be +/- 80. I’m excited about it. Thanks for your support.

In the meantime, I’m reading RJ Smith’s bio of Robert Frank, American Witness, and following it up with Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos.

Help a Brother Out, Part Deux

A few days ago I asked whether anyone would be interested in buying a book of pictures taken out of my car window. I figured I could guilt-trip a few of you into buying one. Surprisingly, between reader’s comments and private emails I’ve had over 70 readers request a copy and numerous folks asking for more than one. That’s really nice of you, and I truly appreciate it.

I’m not in this to make money. I’m good, thank you. What I am interested in is getting my work out there to people who might enjoy it, or learn something from it, or teach me something about it. My sole criterion in putting together the book is quality; quality of the photography and quality of the physical book itself – not some shitty POD book but a professionally done work that highlights the best of almost 50 years of snapping photos from the car. No throw-away images to pad out the work – I started with over 200 photos and edited down to +/- 80 final images. The criteria for inclusion of a given photo were three-fold: 1) does it work standing on its own; and, if so, 2) does it work as part of a larger narrative; and, if so, 3) is there a logical place within the sequencing where it maintains these two strengths? If I could answer Yes to all three questions, it’s in the book; if not, even if it’s a great single image, I tossed it. I tossed a lot, under the theory that usually less is more.

Much of it is film photography, much of it taken with a Leica of some sort, but that’s not the point. The point is to present traditional B&W photography that depends not on technical gimmickry but rather on the strength of the images themselves and what they both denote and connote, both as stand-alone works and as they’re sequenced into a loose narrative. I say ‘loose’ because photo books that focus too tightly tend not to interest me past a cursory viewing. The photobooks I keep coming back to – masterpieces like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity – respect the viewer enough to allow him/her to create the narrative. For the same reason, there won’t be much text. You get enough of that here. In this sense, it aspires to be “Leica photography” in the best sense – quick shots caught on the run that say something, less dependent on technique than the photographer’s vision. If you’re looking for a photobook pimping for Leica or purporting to highlight the strengths of the Leica camera or optics, go elsewhere; this ain’t it. It’s not about the camera; it’s about the images.

Trim size will be 10×8 inches (width 10 inches, height 8 inches), paper heavyweight photo stock quality, sewn bindings, linen hardcover, +/- 120 pages with +/- 80 Black and White photos reproduced via CMYK printing. I’m making a limited edition run of 80 copies.

Price of the book will be $35/shipped within the US, $45/shipped worldwide.

I’ve started a “GoFundMe” site here, where you can contribute. Your contribution there will serve as your payment for the book itself. Of course, if you want to contribute less than $35, you’re welcome as well, but that would be sort of stupid because you wouldn’t be getting the book. Of course, you’re welcome to contribute as much as you want, but I don’t expect it and, if you’re feeling remarkably generous and contribute, say, $350, I’m sending you ten books.

I’ve seen proofs of a mock-up, and, it’s pretty good, not to blow my own horn or anything. It works. The last thing I’m going to do is send out bad work. Who knew photos out car windows could be so cool?

Help a Brother Out

Above is a dummy copy of the cover of a book of b&w photographs I’m intending to publish. The tentative title of the book is Car Sick. The book’s premise is simple: it will contain photographs I’ve either 1) taken from my car, or 2) got out of the car to take i.e. it’s a view from the car. Specifically, it’s a view of America from the car.

While containing an introduction written by a third party, it will be minimal. There will be minimal text throughout, as I find photo books that tackle and pin their subjects via forced explanation to be of minimal interest. The photos will be sequenced and presented in a manner that suggests a narrative, with appropriate design and production to allow the message to be accessible to the viewer…but you’ll have to work too. My intent is to engage the viewer visually, emotionally and intellectually with a mixture of beauty, banality, sentiment, and formal abstraction.

  • The book will be +/- 140 pages with +/- 80 photographs.
  • Trim size will be 10 inches (width) x 8 inches (height, spine)
  • Photo printing: 4-color on 80# matte Titan white, 510 PPI.
  • Pages: 10 pt C1S/heavy white stock (120gms) with matte layflat lamination, bleeds, prints one side only.
  • Cover: Hardcover linen with jacket
  • Spine width: 0.2901 inches
  • Binding: PUR perfect section sown bind.

I’m not thinking of the work as a ‘book of photos;’ rather the book, the physical, three-dimensional object, is the work. Physical quality – how the book itself appears and feels – will be of paramount importance. This won’t be a POD (“print on demand”) or standardized ‘Blurb’ book; the type of book cannot be arbitrarily chosen and then the content stuck into it. The book will be a thoroughly considered production – content (editing and sequence), the mise-en-page, choice of paper stock, reproduction quality, text, typeface, binding and jacket design all considered in how such choices interact to produce the finished work.

After much back and forth, I’ve decided to self-publish i.e. I’m not going to hire a book agent to solicit a Publisher and jump through their editorial hoops for a limited production run when the internet offers me considerable resources as a self-publisher.

It will be produced by Bookmobile Printing in Minneapolis, which produces fine-art books for museums and galleries among others. I chose them for the following reasons: First, books are their only business. They are artists immersed in the world of books, and every single step of the process (with the exception of the manufacturing of the metal dies for foil stamping and larger hardcover runs) is done in house. As such, they are able to carefully oversee each element of book production and constantly maintain the highest quality standards.

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Defining the audience for a photo book is incredibly important when soliciting potential publishers. In fact, it may be the most important factor. I’ve got a built-in potential audience for the work, a function of cranking out this blog for 6 years. As such, self-publishing makes sense. Most aspiring photographers make the mistake of assuming their potential audience much larger than it in fact is. In truth, small fine-art publishers often print runs of 500 copies or less, with recognized masters selling, at best, 3000 copies. This is especially true of idiosyncratic subject matter like photos out of car windows.

Who is the book’s audience? You. Readers of Leicaphilia.

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Give me this much: I’ve written over 400 posts for you, some of it marginally thought-provoking, all of it ad-free. I’ve never begged for your money. I’ve deliberately chosen not to monetize this website so as not to insult your intelligence or to guilt-trip you into a “donation.” That’s tacky and demeaning, both of me and you; we’re better than that. I write Leicaphilia as a labor of love. No remuneration needed or required. And I’m grateful for the readership I have.

So, my question is this: Let’s assume I do enough of a print run to justify selling individual copies for $30 US. Hell, I’ll probably lose money at that price, but that’s OK. Add $5 US shipping within the US, $15 US shipping to Europe/Asia. How many of you would buy Car Sick?

Leica’s “Limited Edition” Wicker Basket

Editor’s Note: This is an actual Press Release, dated July 8, 2019, for an actual “long-awaited” Leica product:

Express yourself and capture life with Leica’s brand new accessories for women Wetzlar, 8 July 2019.

This summer Leica launches its long-awaited accessory collection dedicated to women who care about their image and the ones they create. The leather accessory collection consists of a limited-edition wicker basket and shopping tote, and two chic protectors for the new Leica Q2. The accessories are designed and handcrafted in Europe, and made from the finest Italian and Spanish leather.

The collection is designed not just to keep the camera at hand but to bring Leica’s signature style to the discerning photographer on the move. Synonymous with the best design, Leica looked for inspiration from the archives which include accessories for female photographers throughout the pioneering ages of photography. The design hints for the limited edition baby blue leather shopping tote bag and pale lilac wicker basket came from a vintage ladies’ leather case made by Leica in the 1930s. For the style conscious photographer, Leica has designed a wicker with an inside pocket perfectly-sized for a Leica compact camera, limited to only 150 pieces. The body of the basket is hand-crafted from woven osier wicker. The top handle and edging are made from the finest cowhide leather in a pale lilac shade with a Leica logo embossed on the front. A further touch of style is added with the ‘I love Leica’ charm.

The elegant yet practical shopping tote was designed in collaboration with the designer atelier SAGAN Vienna and is limited to 250 pieces worldwide. This emerging Viennese brand is renowned for its Bauhaus inspired designs and carefully crafted leather hand bags.

Leica is renowned for recognising emerging photographic talent through its annual Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award and the collaboration with SAGAN is another example of supporting creative talents. The baby blue Leica shopping tote is handmade in Spain from Italian soft calf leather. The bag comes with a stylish hand braided leather handle, that also doubles up as a fastener. The outside pocket has been perfectly designed to give easy access to a Leica D-Lux or Q2. With already so many reasons to own the iconic Leica Q2, this collection adds two more. The light blue and bubblegum pink protectors are made of the finest quality cow hide leather with an elegant diamond patterned embossing. This embossing mirrors the Q2 leather and gives easy access to all controls. The protectors come with matching shoulder straps.

The accessories will be sold exclusively in Leica Stores around the world. SRP, incl. VAT, for the accessories are as follows: • Wicker basket – EUR 180 • Shopping Tote – EUR 385 • Light blue and bubblegum pink protector – EUR 175 • Light blue and bubblegum pink carrying strap EUR 85

Car Sick

I love taking photos from car windows. They’re the sort of views people don’t give much thought to and so rarely think to photograph. Yet, many of us are in our cars for a substantial part of our day, and much of what we see is mediated through the car window.

I’m intending to publish a book of photographs out of car windows. I’ve begun the process of winnowing down what works and what doesn’t. Like all photography grouping, much of it is dependent on context and sequencing. Narrative focus is what separates good work from bad.

The initial question, before questions of context, is the innate quality of the photo itself – does it stand on its own in terms of form and/or content? This leads to issues of the larger connective theme of the work – is it content i.e. all photos taken out of car windows, or is it formal similarity i.e. a certain ‘look,’ or aesthetic? My sense is it should be both.

With that in mind, here are a few in no specific order or context. I see them as having the potential to anchor a large narrative that extends the subject both in content and formal coherence.

Erwin Puts has Massive Hissy-Fit and Quits Leica World

20/10/19 18:07
For more than 35 years I have been intimately involved in the Leica world, encompassing the history of the company, the analysis of the products and the use of the products, all under the umbrella concept of the Leica World.
I have experienced and discussed in detail with relevant persons in Wetzlar (old), Solms and Wetzlar (again, new) the digital turn and how the company evolved and changed while adopting the digitalization of the photographic process and the changing world of the internet based photography. The most recent event is the evolution from a manufacturing company to a software-based company. While a commercial success, this change of heart has accomplished a, perhaps not intended, impact: the soul of Leica products has been eradicated. A renewed interest in classical products is the result. The SL and Q are currently the hopeful products for the future. The ghosts of Huawei and Panasonic can be seen all over the campus and while the M-system is still being promoted as the true heir of the Leica lineage, it is now sidelined. Once upon a time, Leica followed its own path, guided by gifted and pioneering engineers and keen marketeers. Nowadays its products are as mainstream as every other camera manufacture.
The company has sketched a future and follows a path that I am no longer willing to go.

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Next up: Thorsten “von” Overgaard threatens to stop production of Leica inspired Elephant skin leather bags due to “soulless” bokeh of recent Leica optics.