Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “being back.” Am I going to start cranking out thrice-weekly thousand word posts about what Aristotle would have thought about photography? Probably not, although it’s an interesting question and I think it would have fascinated Aristotle (384-322 BCE), given all its implications for the form/matter conundrum that animated Greek philosophy from Plato onward i.e. what is real – the individual thing or the ‘form’ it embodies? Does something have to be ‘actual’ to be ‘real’? Frankly, I think photography would have blown Aristotle’s mind.
So, a short diversion: According to Aristotle, no maker of anything starts completely from scratch. He/she always starts with material from which he produces something else. The maker’s materials are shapeless in a relative sense. The maker then ‘informs’ his materials i.e. forms or shapes them in a certain way to create something of a higher order. For example, the poet forms a poem from words and the poem is of a higher order than the words themselves. The material has the potential to be shaped into a higher order thing of human construction, and the process of doing so is a process of realization wherein material moves from a state of potential to a state of actuality. The maker “brings out” the material’s potential and transforms it into something with a higher reality.
The question that photography poses for Aristotle is simple: What’s the material the photographer (the maker) is shaping when he/she photographs? The thing photographed or the underlying physical substrate that creates the physical thing called a photo? If it’s the thing photographed, does the photograph possess a higher being than its subject? And what of a digital photo on a hard drive? Does it exist in actuality or does it just have the potential to exist?
One thing Aristotle would agree with: the movement of becoming a better photographer – a better maker of photographs – is also the movement to a higher level of being. The photographer realizes himself in the process turning potential into actuality. The good photographer possesses a design for the photograph he attempts to make, an abstraction that he/she makes visible to himself and others via its making. The photo he constructs is the realization of a potential. Potential of what? Aristotle would say it is the actualization of the photographer’s potential and thus a movement to a greater level of being for the photographer.
This is why you love photography: because your photography reflects the greater being you achieve via it, and love and being always increase together.
So, I’m not going to be publishing as frequently as I’ve done before, at least not for the time being because, frankly, I’ve not given much thought to my photography in the last year or so. I’ve had other things on my mind. And I’ve pretty much tapped out my thoughts on the subject, until of course Thorsten Overgaard does something stupid, at which time I will mock him mercilessly. But, just when I think I’ve said everything I want to say about photography, I think of something else, so I’m fairly sure I’ll be posting more. Whether it’s worth reading is a different story.
And I’m going to sell my film cameras, as I never use them anymore. [Wanna buy a nice film camera? Contact me. Just don’t be the guy who haggles over everything and assumes the worst of the seller, because I won’t sell to you at any price.] It is what it is. I’ve got a freezer full of expired film – easily over a 1000 ft of various B&W stock [wanna buy some film?], and it just sits there while I snap away with my Leica M and MM. Which brings me full-circle: in 2013 I started the blog as a peon to film photography and its continued relevance (with a full dose of contempt for the crummy digital cameras Leica was then producing). Now I rarely shot film and I love my M and my MM. I’ve given up fighting the good fight, because it’s not the good fight anymore. Things move on, although Thorsten Overgaard will remain a really funny guy.
The Classic B&W Film Look – Shot with a Sigma DP2x
If I’ve made one concession to the digital age, it’s that it’s sent me on a quest to duplicate, via digital capture, the classic B&W film look. By ‘film look’ I mean the ’50s era Tri-X aesthetic. I’m not interested in grainless, subtle tonalities coupled with optical perfection. Leave that to digital B&W, almost all of which, to my eye, just doesn’t look very interesting. It looks thin and plastic, like it has no depth. I could be imagining things, but I don’t think so. The differences are real, and, at least to me, they matter. B&W photography, if it’s worthy of the name, should have a certain look. Think Robert Frank’s Americans, or Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, or Trent Parkes’ Minutes to Midnight.
Above is a photo I took recently with a Sigma DP2x, post-processed in Silver Efex. To me, it’s a film image – the contrast, the grain, the tonality of Tri-X developed in Rodinal – about as close as I’m going to get without actually running a roll of Tri-X through my camera. So, it can be done. For comparison, I’ve posted a film snap below that exhibits the characteristics I’m looking to duplicate digitally. To my eye, these two photos could have come from the same roll.
Valentina and Donna, San Francisco, 2016 – HP5 at 800 ISO.
Tobacco Fields, Eastern North Carolina – Film or Digital? Hard to Tell (It’s a DP2x Silver Efex Conversion)
What I’ve learned [so far] can be distilled into a few simple observations: First, you’ve got to shoot RAW and run your files through film emulation software. No B&W jpegs using various in-camera film simulations. Pushing digital ISO and relying on digital noise isn’t going to get it either. I find Silver Efex to be excellent, especially using the Tri-X, HP5, Neopan 1600 and TMax 3200 presets as starting points.
Second, relatively low-resolution sensors give better film simulations; grain structure seems more accurate, tonalities more amenable to Tri-X contrast. 5-12 mpix seems to be the sweet spot. Something about higher resolution sensors – 24 mpix and above – translates into unnatural looking grain structure when post-processed, a look of having been added-on as opposed to being an organic characteristic of the output. It makes sense – 35mm Tri-x and HP5 aren’t about resolution so much as a particular grain patina. High-resolution output can’t be disguised with a simple grain overlay. The original Sigma Dp series – the 5 mpix Foveon – gives remarkably film-like grain output and tonality, printable up to 11×14 (which, ironically, is about the same limit of enlargement allowed by a 35mm negative, supporting the argument for the approximate equivalency of the Dp resolution to that of 35mm film), when run through Silver Efex by a discerning eye. It’s 35mm Tri-X developed in Rodinal in a digital box. Other sensors that seem to effectively simulate film output are the 10 mpix CCD sensor of the Nikon d200 and, my favorite, the 12 mpix Ricoh GXR M-mount. The beauty of this is you don’t need to spend $4000 on a Monochrom; you can pick up a d200 or d80 for next to nothing, and pre-digital Nikon primes are cheap as dirt.
One’s Film (HP5 2 800 ISO). One’s Digital (Ricoh GXR M-Mount).
Which leads me to my third generalization: film era optics produce better digital files for film emulation. Highly corrected modern digital optics are simply too sharp if you’re looking to replicate film. Film didn’t look that way, a function of less tack-sharp optics. Older lenses were designed using manual computation, are inclined to flare a bit and are often softer at the edges or have some vignetting, things you don’t see in modern, highly corrected optics. These optical characteristics are also a part of what we think of as the ‘film look.’
I’ve recently bought the camera a CCD Monchrom. Leica marketed it as an evolution of B&W film photography in the digital age. They bundled a copy of Silver Efex with it, just in case. I’ve not had it long enough to make any valid comparisons, but first impressions are excellent. At the very least, it does capture B&W in a way unlike traditional digital B&W output. Below are two Monochrom snapshots run through the same emulation as the DP2x shots, followed by two similar DP2x shots.
By Anthony Lane, New Yorker Magazine, September 24, 2007
Fifty miles north of Frankfurt lies the small German town of Solms. Turn off the main thoroughfare and you find yourself driving down tranquil suburban streets, with detached houses set back from the road, and, on a warm morning in late August, not a soul in sight. By the time you reach Oskar-Barnack-Strasse, the town has almost petered out; just before the railway line, however, there is a clutch of industrial buildings, with a red dot on the sign outside. As far as fanfare is concerned, that’s about it. But here is the place to go, if you want to find the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world.
There have been Leica cameras since 1925, when the Leica I was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig. From then on, as the camera has evolved over eight decades, generations of users have turned to it in their hour of need, or their millisecond of inspiration. Aleksandr Rodchenko, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Sebastião Salgado: these are some of the major-league names that are associated with the Leica brand—or, in the case of Cartier-Bresson, stuck to it with everlasting glue.
Even if you don’t follow photography, your mind’s eye will still be full of Leica photographs. The famous head shot of Che Guevara, reproduced on millions of rebellious T-shirts and student walls: that was taken on a Leica with a portrait lens—a short telephoto of 90 mm.—by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, better known as Korda, in 1960. How about the pearl-gray smile-cum-kiss reflected in the wing mirror of a car, taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1955? Leica again, as is the even more celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945—a sailor craned over a nurse, bending her backward, her hand raised against his chest in polite half-protestation. The man behind the camera was Alfred Eisenstaedt, of Life magazine, who recalled:
I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder. But none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked.
He took four pictures, and that was that. “It was done within a few seconds,” he said. All you need to know about the Leica is present in those seconds. The photographer was on the run, so whatever he was carrying had to be light and trim enough not to be a drag. He swivelled and fired in one motion, like the Sundance Kid. And everything happened as quickly for him as it did for the startled nurse, with all the components—the angles, the surrounding throng, the shining white of her dress and the kisser’s cap—falling into position. Times Square was the arena of uncontrolled joy; the job of the artist was to bring it under control, and the task of his camera was to bring life—or, at least, an improved version of it, graced with order and impact—to the readers of Life.
Still, why should one lump of metal and glass be better at fulfilling that duty than any other? Would Eisenstaedt really have been worse off, or failed to hit the target, with another sort of camera? These days, Leica makes digital compacts and a beefy S.L.R., or single-lens reflex, called the R9, but for more than fifty years the pride of the company has been the M series of 35-mm. range-finder cameras—durable, companionable, costly, and basically unchanging, like a spouse. There are three current models, one of which, the MP, will set you back a throat-drying four thousand dollars or so; having stood outside dustless factory rooms, in Solms, and watched women in white coats and protective hairnets carefully applying black paint, with a slender brush, to the rim of every lens, I can tell you exactly where your money goes. Mind you, for four grand you don’t even get a lens—just the MP body. It sits there like a gum without a tooth until you add a lens, the cheapest being available for just under a thousand dollars. (Five and a half thousand will buy you a 50-mm. f/1, the widest lens on the market; for anybody wanting to shoot pictures by candlelight, there’s your answer.) If you simply want to take a nice photograph of your children, though, what’s wrong with a Canon PowerShot? Yours online for just over two hundred bucks, the PowerShot SD1000 will also zoom, focus for you, set the exposure for you, and advance the frame automatically for you, none of which the MP, like some sniffing aristocrat, will deign to do. To make the contest even starker, the SD1000 is a digital camera, fizzing with megapixels, whereas the Leica still stores images on that frail, combustible material known as film. Short of telling the kids to hold still while you copy them onto parchment, how much further out of touch could you be?
To non-photographers, Leica, more than any other manufacturer, is a legend with a hint of scam: suckers paying through the nose for a name, in a doomed attempt to crank up the credibility of a picture they were going to take anyway, just as weekend golfers splash out on a Callaway Big Bertha in a bid to convince themselves that, with a little more whippiness in their shaft, they will swell into Tiger Woods. To unrepentant aesthetes, on the other hand, there is something demeaning in the idea of Leica. Talent will out, they say, whatever the tools that lie to hand, and in a sense they are right: Woods would destroy us with a single rusty five-iron found at the back of a garage, and Cartier-Bresson could have picked up a Box Brownie and done more with a roll of film—summoning his usual miracles of poise and surprise—than the rest of us would manage with a lifetime of Leicas. Yet the man himself was quite clear on the matter:
I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.
Asked how he thought of the Leica, Cartier-Bresson said that it felt like “a big warm kiss, like a shot from a revolver, and like the psychoanalyst’s couch.” At this point, five thousand dollars begins to look like a bargain.
Oscar Barnack at his Desk
Many reasons have been adduced for the rise of the Leica. There is the hectic progress of the illustrated press, avid for photographs to fill its columns; there is the increased mobility, spending power, and leisure time of the middle classes, who wished to preserve a record of these novel blessings, if not for posterity, then at least for show. Yet the great inventions, more often than not, are triggered less by vast historical movements than by the pressures of individual chance—or, in Leica’s case, by asthma. Every Leica employee who drives down Oskar-Barnack-Strasse is reminded of corporate glory, for it was Barnack, a former engineer at Carl Zeiss, the famous lens-makers in Jena, who designed the Leica I. He was an amateur photographer, and the camera had first occurred to him, as if in a vision, in 1905, twenty years before it actually went on sale:
Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13 by 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 Thüringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides (bearing in mind that I suffer from asthma) an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?
Five years later, Barnack was invited to work for Ernst Leitz, a rival optical company, in Wetzlar. (The company stayed there until 1988, when it was sold, and the camera division, renamed Leica, shifted to Solms, fifteen minutes away.) By 1913-14, he had developed what became known as the ur-Leica: a tough, squat rectangular metal box, not much bigger than a spectacles case, with rounded corners and a retractable brass lens. You could tuck it into a jacket pocket, wander around the Thuringer woods all weekend, and never gasp for breath. The extraordinary fact is that, if you were to place it next to today’s Leica MP, the similarities would far outweigh the differences; stand a young man beside his own great-grandfather and you get the same effect.
Barnack took a picture on August 2, 1914, using his new device. Reproduced in Alessandro Pasi’s comprehensive study, “Leica: Witness to a Century” (2004), it shows a helmeted soldier turning away from a column on which he has just plastered the imperial order for mobilization. This was the first hint of the role that would fall to Leicas above all other cameras: to be there in history’s face. Not until the end of hostilities did Barnack resume work on the Leica, as it came to be called. (His own choice of name was Lilliput, but wiser counsels prevailed.) Whenever you buy a 35-mm. camera, you pay homage to Barnack, for it was his handheld invention that popularized the 24-mm.-by-36-mm. negative—a perfect ratio of 2:3—adapted from cine film. According to company lore, he held a strip of the new film between his hands and stretched his arms wide, the resulting length being just enough to contain thirty-six frames—the standard number of images, ever since, on a roll of 35-mm. film. Well, maybe. Does this mean that, if Barnack had been more of an ape, we might have got forty?
When the Leica I made its eventual début, in 1925, it caused consternation. In the words of one Leica historian, quoted by Pasi, “To many of the old photographers it looked like a toy designed for a lady’s handbag.” Over the next seven years, however, nearly sixty thousand Leica I’s were sold. That’s a lot of handbags. The shutter speeds on the new camera ran up to one five-hundredth of a second, and the aperture opened wide to f/3.5. In 1932, the Leica II arrived, equipped with a range finder for more accurate focussing. I used one the other day—a mid-thirties model, although production lasted until 1948. Everything still ran sweetly, including the knurled knob with which you wind on from frame to frame, and the simplicity of the design made the Leica an infinitely more friendly proposition, for the novice, than one of the digital monsters from Nikon and Canon. Those need an instruction manual only slightly smaller than the Old Testament, whereas the Leica II sat in my palms like a puppy, begging to be taken out on the streets.
That is how it struck not only the public but also those for whom photography was a living, or an ecstatic pursuit. A German named Paul Wolff acquired a Leica in 1926 and became a high priest to the brand, winning many converts with his 1934 book “My Experiences with the Leica.” His compatriot Ilsa Bing, born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt, was dubbed “the Queen of the Leica” after an exhibit in 1931. She had bought the camera in 1929, and what is remarkable, as one scrolls through a roster of her peers, is how quickly, and infectiously, the Leica habit caught on. Whenever I pick up a book of photographs, I check the chronology at the back. From a monograph by the Hungarian André Kertész, the most wistful and tactful of photographers: “1928—Purchases first Leica.” From the catalogue of the 1998 Aleksandr Rodchenko show at moma: “1928, November 25—Stepanova’s diary records Rodchenko’s purchase of a Leica for 350 rubles.” And on it goes.
The Russians were among the first and fiercest devotees, and anyone who craves the Leica as a pure emblem of capitalist desire—what Marx would call commodity fetishism—may also like to reflect on its status, to men like Rodchenko, as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Never a man to be tied down (he was also a painter, sculptor, and master of collage), he nonetheless believed that “only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life,” and he went on the attack, craning up at buildings and down from roofs, tipping his Leica at flights of steps and street parades, upending the world as if all its old complacencies could be shaken out of the bottom like dust. There is a gorgeous shot from 1934 entitled “Girl with a Leica,” in which his subject perches politely on a bench that arrows diagonally, and most impolitely, from lower left to upper right. She wears a soft white beret and dress, and her gaze is blank and misty, but thrown over the scene, like a net, is the shadow of a window grille—modernist geometry at war with reactionary decorum. The object she clasps in her lap, its strap drawn tightly over her shoulder, is of the same make as the one that created the picture.
When it came to off-centeredness, Rodchenko’s fellow-Russian Ilya Ehrenburg went one better. “A camera is clumsy and crude. It meddles insolently in other people’s affairs,” he wrote in 1932. “Ours is a guileful age. Following man’s example, things have also learned to dissemble. For many months I roamed Paris with a little camera. People would sometimes wonder: why was I taking pictures of a fence or a road? They didn’t know that I was taking pictures of them.” Ehrenburg had solved the problem of meddling by buying an accessory: “The Leica has a lateral viewfinder. It’s constructed like a periscope. I was photographing at 90 degrees.” The Paris that emerged—poor, grimy, and unposed—was a moral rebuke to the myth of bohemian chic.
You can still buy a right-angled viewfinder for a new Leica, if you’re too shy or sneaky to confront your subjects head-on, although the basic thrust of Leica technique has been to insist that no extra subterfuge is required: the camera can hide itself. If I had to fix the source of that reticence, I would point to Marseilles in 1932. It was then that Cartier-Bresson, an aimless young Frenchman from a wealthy family, bought his first Leica. He proceeded to grow into the best-known photographer of the twentieth century, in spite (or, as he would argue, because) of his ability to walk down a street not merely unrecognized but unnoticed. He began as a painter, and continued to draw throughout his life, but his hand was most comfortable with a camera.
When I spoke to his widow, Martine Franck—the president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, in Paris, and herself a distinguished photographer—she said that her husband in action with his Leica “was like a dancer.” This feline unobtrusiveness led him all over the world and made him seem at home wherever he paused; one trip to Asia lasted three years, ending in 1950, and produced eight hundred and fifty rolls of film. His breakthrough collection, published two years later, was called “The Decisive Moment,” and he sought endless analogies for the sensation that was engendered by the press of a shutter. The most common of these was hunting: “The photographer must lie in wait, watching out for his prey, and have a presentiment of what is about to happen.”
There, if anywhere, is the Leica motto: watch and wait. If you were a predator, the moment—not just for Cartier-Bresson, but for all photographers—became that much more decisive in 1954. “Clairvoyance” means “clear sight,” and when Leica launched the M3 that year, the clarity was a coup de foudre; even now, when you look through a used M3, the world before you is brighter and crisper than seems feasible. You half expect to feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. A Leica viewfinder resembles no other, because of the frame lines: thin white strips, parallel to each side of the frame, which show you the borders of the photograph that you are set to take—not merely the lie of the land within the shot, but also what is happening, or about to happen, just outside. This is a matter of millimetres, but to Leica fans it is sacred, because it allows them to plan and imagine a photograph as an act of storytelling—an instant grabbed at will from a continuum. If you want a slice of life, why not see the loaf?
The M3 had everything, although by the standards of today it had practically nothing. You focussed manually, of course, and there was nothing to help you calculate the exposure; either you carried a separate light meter, or you clipped one awkwardly to the top of the camera, or, if you were cool, you guessed. Cartier-Bresson was cool. Martine Franck is still cool: “I think I know my light by now,” she told me. She continues to use her M3: “I’ve never held a camera so beautiful. It fits the hand so well.” Even for people who know nothing of Cartier-Bresson, and for whom 1954 is as long ago as Pompeii, something about the M3 clicks into place: last year, when eBay and Stuff magazine, in the U.K., took it upon themselves to nominate “the top gadget of all time,” the Game Boy came fifth, the Sony Walkman third, and the iPod second. First place went to an old camera that doesn’t even need a battery. If the Queen subscribes to Stuff, she will have nodded in approval, having owned an M3 since 1958. Her Majesty is so wedded to her Leica that she was once shown on a postage stamp holding it at the ready.
It’s no insult to call the M3 a gadget. Such beauty as it possesses flows from its scorn for the superfluous; as any Bauhaus designer could tell you, form follows function. The M series is the backbone of Leica; we are now at the M8 (which at first glance is barely distinguishable from the M3), and, with a couple of exceptions, every intervening camera has been a classic. Richard Kalvar, who rose to become president of the Magnum photographic agency during the nineties, remembers hearing the words of a Leica fan: “I know I’m using the best, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Kalvar bought an M4 and never looked back: “It’s almost a part of me,” he says. Ralph Gibson, whose photographs offer an unblinking survey of the textures that surround us, from skin to stone, bought his first Leica, an M2 (which, confusingly, postdated the M3), in 1961. It cost him three hundred dollars, which, considering that he was earning a hundred a week, was quite an outlay, but his loyalty is undimmed. “More great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50-mm. lens than with any other combination in the history of photography,” Gibson said to me. He advised Leica beginners to use nothing except that standard lens for two or three years, so as to ease themselves into the swing of the thing: “What you learn you can then apply to all the other lengths.
One could argue that, since the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the sense of Europe as the spiritual hearth of Leica, with the Paris of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson glowing at its core, has been complemented, if not superseded, by America’s attraction to the brand. The Russian love of the angular had exploited the camera’s portability (you try bending over a window ledge with a plate camera); the French had perfected the art of reportage, netting experience on the wing; but the Leicas that conquered America—the M3, the M4, and later the M6, with built-in metering and the round red Leica logo on the front—were wielded with fresh appetite, biting at the world and slicing it off in unexpected chunks. Lee Friedlander, photographing a child in New York, in 1963, thought nothing of bringing the camera down to the boy’s eye level, and thus semi-decapitating the grownups who stood beside him. (All kids dream of that sometime.) Men and women were reflected in storefront windows, or obscured by street signs; many of the photographs shimmered on the brink of a mistake. “With a camera like that,” Friedlander has said of the Leica, “you don’t believe that you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.” One shot of his, from 1969, traps an entire landscape of feeling—a boundless American sky, salted with high clouds, plus Friedlander’s wife, Maria, with her lightly smiling face—inside the cab of a single truck, layering what we see through the side window with what is reflected in it. I know of long novels that tell you less.
Before Friedlander came Robert Frank, born in Switzerland; only someone from a mountainous country, perhaps, could come here and view the United States as a flat and tragic plain. “The Americans” (1958), the record of his travels with a Leica, was mostly haze, shade, and grain, stacked with human features resigned to their fate. No artist had ever studied a men’s room in such detail before, with everything from the mop to the hand dryer immortalized in the wide embrace of the lens; Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the book, lauded the result, taken in Memphis, Tennessee, as “the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see, the shoeshine going on in sad eternity.” Then, there was Garry Winogrand, the least exhaustible of all photographers. Frank’s eighty-three images may have been chosen from five hundred rolls of film, but when Winogrand died, in 1984, at the age of fifty-six, he left behind more than two and a half thousand rolls of film that hadn’t even been developed. He leavened the wistfulness of Frank with a documentary bluntness and a grinning wit, incessantly tilting his Leica to throw a scene off-balance and seek a new dynamic. His picture of a disabled man in Los Angeles, in 1969, could have been fuelled by pathos alone, or by political rage at an indifferent society, but Winogrand cannot stop tracking that society in its comic range; that is why we get not just the wheelchair and the begging bowl but also a trio of short-skirted girls, bunched together like a backup group, strolling through the Vs of shadow and sunlight, and a portly matron planted at the right of the frame—a stolid import from another age.
Garry Winogrand’s M4
I recently found a picture of Winogrand’s M4. The metal is not just rubbed but visibly worn down beside the wind-on lever; you have to shoot a heck of a lot of photographs on a Leica before that happens. Still, his M4 is in mint condition compared with the M2 owned by Bruce Davidson, the American photographer whose work constitutes, among other things, an invaluable record of the civil-rights movement. And even his M2, pitted and peeled like the bark of a tree, is pristine compared with the Leica I saw in the display case at the Leica factory in Solms. That model had been in the Hindenburg when it went up in flames in New Jersey in 1937. The heat was so intense that the front of the lenses melted. So now you know: Leica engineers test their product to the limits, and they will customize it for you if you are planning a trip to the Arctic, but when you really want to trash your precious camera you need an exploding airship.
If you pick up an M-series Leica, two things are immediately apparent. First, the density: the object sits neatly but not lightly in the hand, and a full day’s shooting, with the camera continually hefted to the eye, leaves you with a faint but discernible case of wrist ache. Second, there is no lump. Most of the smarter, costlier cameras in the world are S.L.R.s, with a lumpy prism on top. Light enters through the lens, strikes an angled mirror, and bounces upward to the prism, where it strikes one surface after another, like a ball in a squash court, before exiting through the viewfinder. You see what your lens sees, and you focus accordingly. This happy state of affairs does not endure. As you take a picture, the mirror flips up out of the light path. The image, now unobstructed, reaches straight to the rear of the camera and, as the shutter opens, burns into the emulsion of the film—or, these days, registers on a digital sensor. With every flip, however, comes a flip side: the mirror shuts off access to the prism, meaning that, at the instant of release, your vision is blocked, and you are left gazing at the dark.
To most of us, this is not a problem. The instant passes, the mirror flips back down, and lo, there is light. For some photographers, though, the impediment is agony: of all the times to deny us the right to look at our subject, S.L.R.s have to pick this one? “Visualus interruptus,” Ralph Gibson calls it, and here is where the Leica M series plays its ace. The Leica is lumpless, with a flat top built from a single piece of brass. It has no prism, because it focusses with a range finder—situated above the lens. And it has no mirror inside, and therefore no clunk as the mirror swings. When you take a picture with an S.L.R., there is a distinctive sound, somewhere between a clatter and a thump; I worship my beat-up Nikon FE, but there is no denying that every snap reminds me of a cow kicking over a milk pail. With a Leica, all you hear is the shutter, which is the quietest on the market. The result—and this may be the most seductive reason for the Leica cult—is that a photograph sounds like a kiss.
From the start, this tinge of diplomatic subtlety has shaded our view of the Leica, not always helpfully. The M-series range finder feels made for the finesse and formality of black-and-white—yet consider the oeuvre of William Eggleston, whose unabashed use of color has delivered, through Leica lenses, a lesson in everyday American surrealism, which, like David Lynch movies, blooms almost painfully bright. Again, the Leica, with its range of wide-aperture lenses, is the camera for natural light, and thus inimical to flash, yet Lee Friedlander conjured a series of plainly flashlit nudes, in the nineteen-seventies, which finds tenderness and dignity in the brazen. Lastly, a Leica is, before anything else, a 35-mm. camera. Barnack shaped the Leica I around a strip of film, and the essential mission of the brand since then has been to guarantee that a single chemical event—the action of light on a photosensitive surface—passes off as smoothly as possible. Picture the scene, then, in Cologne, in the fall of 2006. At Photokina, the biennial fair of the world’s photographic trade, Leica made an announcement: it was time, we were told, for the M8. The M series was going digital. It was like Dylan going electric.
In a way, this had to happen. The tide of our lives is surging in a digital direction. My complete childhood is distilled into a couple of photograph albums, with the highlights, whether of achievement or embarrassment, captured in no more than a dozen talismanic stills, now faded and curling at the edges. Yet our own children go on one school trip and return with a hundred images stashed on a memory card: will that enhance or dilute their later remembrance of themselves? Will our experience be any the richer for being so retrievable, or could an individual history risk being wiped, or corrupted, as briskly as a memory card? Garry Winogrand might have felt relieved to secure those thousands of images on a hard drive, rather than on frangible film, although it could be that the taking of a photograph meant more to him than the printed result. The jury is out, but one thing is for sure: film is dwindling into a minority taste, upheld largely by professionals and stubborn, nostalgic perfectionists. Nikon now offers twenty-two digital models, for instance, while the “wide array of SLR film cameras,” as promised on its Web site, numbers precisely two.
Lee knows what is at stake, being a Leica-lover of long standing. Asked about the difference between using his product and an ordinary camera, he replied: “One is driving a Morgan four-by-four down a country lane, the other one is getting in a Mercedes station wagon and going a hundred miles an hour.” The problem is that, for photographers as for drivers, the most pressing criterion these days is speed, and anything more sluggish than the latest Mercedes—anything, likewise, not tricked out with luxurious extras—belongs to the realm of heritage. There is an astonishing industry in used Leicas, with clubs and forums debating such vital areas of contention as the strap lugs introduced in 1933. There are collectors who buy a Leica and never take it out of the box; others who discreetly amass the special models forged for the Luftwaffe. Ralph Gibson once went to a meeting of the Leica Historical Society of America and, he claims, listened to a retired Marine Corps general give a scholarly paper on certain discrepancies in the serial numbers of Leica lens caps. “Leicaweenies,” Gibson calls such addicts, and they are part of the charming, unbreakable spell that the name continues to cast, as well as a tribute to the working longevity of the cameras. By an unfortunate irony, the abiding virtues of the secondhand slow down the sales of the new: why buy an M8 when you can buy an M3 for a quarter of the price and wind up with comparable results? The economic equation is perverse: “I believe that for every euro we make in sales, the market does four euros of business,” Lee said.
I have always wanted a Leica, ever since I saw an Edward Weston photograph of Henry Fonda, his noble profile etched against the sky, a cigarette between two fingers, and a Leica resting against the corduroy of his jacket. I have used a variety of cultish cameras, all of them secondhand at least, and all based on a negative larger than 35 mm.: a Bronica, a Mamiya 7, and the celebrated twin-lens Rolleiflex, which needs to be cupped at waist height. (“If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly,” a scornful Cartier-Bresson said.) But I have never used a Leica. Now I own one: a small, dapper digital compact called the D-Lux 3. It has a fine lens, and its grace note is a retro leather case that makes me feel less like Henry Fonda and more like a hiker named Helmut, striding around the Black Forest in long socks and a dark-green hat with a feather in it; but a D-Lux 3 is not an M8. For one thing, it doesn’t have a proper viewfinder. For another, it costs close to six hundred dollars—the upper limit of my budget, but laughably cheap to anyone versed in the M series. So, to discover what I was missing, I rented an M8 and a 50-mm lens for four hours, from a Leica dealer, and went to work.
If you can conquer the slight queasiness that comes from walking about with seven thousand dollars’ worth of machinery hanging around your neck, an afternoon with the M8 is a dangerously pleasant groove to get into. I can understand that, were you a sports photographer, perched far away from the action, or a paparazzo, fighting to squeeze off twenty consecutive frames of Britney Spears falling down outside a night club, this would not be your tool of choice, but for more patient mortals it feels very usable indeed. This is not just a question of ergonomics, or of the diamond-like sharpness of the lens. Rather, it has to do with the old, bewildering Leica trick: the illusion, fostered by a mere machine, that the world out there is asking to be looked at—to be caught and consumed while it is fresh, like a trout. Ever since my teens, as one substandard print after another glimmered into view in the developing tray, under the brothel-red gloom of the darkroom, my own attempts at photography have meant a lurch of expectation and disappointment. Now, with an M8 in my possession, the shame gave way to a thrill. At one point, I stood outside a bookstore and, in a bid to test the exposure, focussed on a pair of browsers standing within, under an “Antiquarian” sign at the end of a long shelf. Suddenly, a pale blur entered the frame lines. I panicked, and pressed the shutter: kiss.
On the digital playback, I inspected the evidence. The blur had been an old lady, and she had emerged as a phantom—the complete antiquarian, with glowing white hair and a hint of spectacles. It wasn’t a good photograph, more of a still from “Ghostbusters,” but it was funnier and punchier than anything I had taken before, and I could only have grabbed it with a Leica. (And only with an M. By the time the D-Lux 3 had fired up and focussed, the lady would have floated halfway down the street.) So the rumors were true: buy this camera, and accidents will happen. I remembered what Cartier-Bresson once said about turning from painting to photography: “the adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world.” That is what links him to the Leicaweenies, and Oskar Barnack to the advent of the M8, and Russian revolutionaries to flashlit American nudes: the simple, undying wish to look at the scars.
Weight: 9 ounces (255 grams) Filter Thread: 40.5mm Extension from Camera Body at Infinity Focus: 1.62″ (41mm) Elements: Six elements in Four Groups Minimum Aperture: F16, click stops
The Leica thread mount Topcor 5cm f/2 is considered one of the best normal M39 lenses of the pre-Summicron era. Some even claim it a match for the Summicrons of the 60s and 70s, at F5.6 and beyond on a par with the most recent versions of the Summicron. (It’s funny how much better Leitz optics are claimed to be unless of course, you’re selling a non-Leitz-made LTM, all of which apparently are “as good or better” than the Leitz version. I fall in with the “as good or better” crowd, finding the ’50s era Nikkors and Serenars typically more robust than that era’s Leitz’s and thus usually in better optical condition today).
Tōkyō Kōgaku Kikai K.K. (Tokyo Optical Company, Ltd.) was established in Tokyo in 1932 and started making lenses in 1935. Initially producing larger format lenses and lenses for the Japanese military, the company made LTM lenses after the War. These LTM lenses were first branded “State”, then “Simlar”, “C.Simlar” before “Topcor”. Topcor optics were considered fine optics back then. Topcon lenses were sharp, indicating a high degree of optical design skill, and build quality was good, on par with ’50s era LTM lenses from Japan and Germany. Mechanically it compared to the LTM Nikkor-s 5cm f2 and to Canon LTM lenses. My early production chrome “Topcor 5cm f/2” (no “s”) came attached to a 1956 Leotax F and has the look and feel of a typical ’50s era fast prime. It’s beautifully machined heavy chrome.
The Topcor 5cm f/2 was sold with the Leotax series of rangefinder cameras from 1956 through 1961, available on the F, T, K, FV, TV2, and T 2L models. They don’t appear to have been sold separately from the Leotax. Early models were chrome, later models black: in 1956 the chrome Topcor f/2 5 cm lens appeared, replaced by the new chrome Topcor-S f/2 in 1957 and updated to the black and chrome panda version in 1958. A black aluminum barrel version was released in 1958. When the Leotax G arrived in 1961, its lens offering was a black Topcor-S 5cm f/1.8. (This new Topcor-S f/1.8 looks similar to the aluminum-bodied f/2, including the 6 elements in 4 groups optical design, 10 aperture blades and 40.5 mm filter thread, but the front elements are noticeably different). All versions of the f/2 feature an optical design of 6 elements in 4 groups, 10 aperture blades.
It’s unclear how many 5cm F2 Topcors were made. It’s uncommon to find them these days. Although maybe 25,000 Leotax’s were produced between 56 and 61, I assume many were purchased with the slower speed Topcor 5cm f3.5, a few more with the expensive 5cm 1.5 ( the 1955 brochure for the F’s introduction lists the 1.5 and the 3.5 5cm as the standard lens options). Undoubtedly many more have disappeared over the years, stuffed in old boxes in attics or simply thrown out as junk. Both the chrome and black Topcor 5cm F2 appear for sale on eBay from time-to-time, usually stuck to a Leotax body at relatively cheap prices. Sold separately, they command a premium price. Makes no sense, but then again, nothing about vintage rangefinder pricing makes sense.
I ran across this 1973 ad for the Leica M5 and the Leicaflex SL and started thinking about the relative value of Leicas over time and how that value manifests itself today. Many of us consider our Leicas as ‘investments’ in the sense that it’s a pretty safe place to park some cash with the understanding that you’ll be able to get most, or all, or even more, out of it when you sell it. It’s a way I justify buying Leicas to my wife: we could either park an extra 3 grand in our bank account, serving no practical purpose except collecting chicken scratch for interest, or we could ‘invest’ it in the purchase of a Leica, a thing I’ll use and handle and admire and get some practical satisfaction from. I’ll take photos with it and it will inspire me to write about it on the blog. I’ll either like it or I won’t, but I’ll have the experience of having owned it, used it, better understood and appreciated it. And then, if we need the money again, I’ll sell it to a Leicaphilia reader and usually break even. Voila! Money put to good use. And a reader gets a decent deal on a decent camera that they know they can trust. What’s not to like? Of course, Leica could help me circumvent this process by sending me a camera or two to test, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. Who knows? Surprise me, Leica. I promise you an honest review.
The first thing that struck me was how expensive, in real terms, the M5 was in relation to the Leica models that had come before. If you run the purchase price numbers given by Leica through an inflation calculator, you’ll come up with the equivalent amount of circa 2021 dollars that purchase price represents. So, for example, buying a Leica Model II d in 1939 for $100 was the equivalent of paying $1900 for it in today’s dollar; a IIIg in 1958 for $163 would be the equivalent of paying $1467 for it today ( interestingly enough, the Professional Nikon, the Nikon SP, with a 50mm Nikkor f/1.4, sold in 1958 for today’s equivalent of $3,000); today an M3 would cost new $2373, the M4 $2320. Expensive, but not prohibitively so. The M5 body, were it sold today, would cost $3663. That’s a big increase in price over the iconic M3 and M4. With a decent Leitz 50mm Summilux (the lens it’s wearing in the Leica advert), it’d cost you >$6000 in today’s money. So, Leicas were pricey even back then. And the M5, now the unloved ugly duckling selling at a discount to the M2-M7, commanded a premium price over the iconic M2, M3 and M4.
It also gives us some sense of why the M5 might have ‘failed’ in the market [arguable, but that’s a discussion for another time], as opposed to its failure as an evolution of the M system [which it most certainly was not]. In addition to being technically deficient as a pro ‘system’ camera (based on the inherent drawbacks of a rangefinder) in relation to the Nikon F2 and Canon Ftn, it cost a fortune. To compare, a Nikon F2 Photomic with 50mm Nikkor 1.4, then the state-of-the-art, retailed for $600, although in actuality it sold out-the-door for maybe $500. The M5, you paid full price. Throw in $350 for a Summilux. In today’s money, that means buying a new Nikon F2 with 50mm 1.4 Nikkor in 1973 would set you back $3100, while an M5 with a 50mm 1.4 Summilux in 1973 would cost the equivalent of $6070 today. The M5 with lens was essentially double the price of the top shelf Pro Nikon with lens, which was then the professional’s system of choice.
What do they go for today? You can sell the M5 and Summilux you bought in 1973 today, almost 50 years later, for +/- $3500. It’s probably going to need a going-over by one of the few techs who still work on the M5 – Sherri Krauter, DAG, one or two others, but that’s the buyer’s problem, not yours. Not a bad return for a camera you’ve used for 48 years. An M4 body, purchased in 1969 for $2300 will fetch you $1500-$1800; a single stroke M3 $1300-$1500; a Leica II d you paid $1900 for in 1939, today, you’ll you get +/- $300. Not exactly a prudent “investment” if you’re looking for a return on your money, but certainly excellent resale value of something you’ve used for half to three/quarters of a century. Like most things Leica, what appears crazy can in reality be quite prudent. Taking it all into consideration, buying a Leica is, moneywise, pretty much a smart idea.
Buddy, Donna and Abby, Carolina Beach, Summer 2020
Stuck as I am at home, a function of Covid and Chemo, I’ve been reading a mind-numbing amount of internet arguments re: film vs. digital. Everyone has an opinion. I certainly do; much of this blog for the last 7 years has been dedicated to flogging that opinion at every available opportunity. My take: yes, there’s a ‘film look’ that differs from digital, and it’s ‘better.’ Film has an unmistakable heft to it, a solidity, that digital capture is incapable of reproducing however much you run the file through whatever emulation software you prefer. It has to do with 1) the non-linear vs. linear capture of film v. digital; 2) the organic grain structure of film and its function in capturing the image v. ‘grain’ superficially overlaid after the capture; and 3), to a lesser extent, the more “classic” rendition of film era optics v. the clinical perfection of highly corrected digital era optics. Or so we say.
FILM :Me, Jorge and Florence, Van Gogh House, Auvers sur Oise, 2014 Contax G2, HP5, D76
DIGITAL: Me in My Paris Flat, 2003, Nikon D2
So, I was thinking of all these issues as I printed the photo of my wife and the mutts above. Take my word for it – it’s a technically stunning print, wet or digital, a perfect B&W print…or at least I think so. (You can right-click on any of the three images here and ask that it be viewed in a new window..and it will bring up a higher resolution image that you can pixel-peep). Hopefully, the scan of it above gives ‘some’ sense of it as a print. Of course, given we are, by definition, debating this via a digital medium makes the whole issue suspect to begin with. But, as you know, half the fun is in debating these insoluble issues and holding firm opinions on them. So, putting that aside for a moment, and given that almost all photography is viewed digitally these days…can you tell whether this is film or digital capture? And if not, what are we arguing about anymore?
You have two options:
It’s taken with a Leica M5, 25mm f4 Voigtlander, yellow filter, (expired) Ilford Pan-F rated at 50 ISO and developed in D76, scanned with a Plustek 7400, marginal contrast post-processing in Lightroom, output sharpening (low); or
It’s taken with a Sigma sd Quattro, Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM, effective focal length 25mm, ISO 125 DNG file pre-sharpened in Nik Sharpener, processed in Silver Efex Pro as a Pan-F emulation.
Can you tell the difference? Can you articulate why? What, if anything, gives it away? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I ran across this stunning photo in The Guardian the other day. It’s by Paolo Pellegrin, a member of the Magnum Photos agency and winner of ten World Press Photo awards. There’s something timeless about the photo, harkening back to the best photojournalism of the Leica era. What interests me is his choice of B&W, which is a conscious nod to the traditional mid-century photo journalist aesthetic even though he’s fully digital – he shoots with a Canon 5d with a limited selection of lenses. Unlike most zoom-happy digiphiles, Pellegrin restricts his use to 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm primes, which itself betrays his film era roots. He retains some misgivings about digital: “In general, I embrace digital photography as an evolution of the medium, but I dislike the ease with which it can be manipulated. When you deal with charged issues, like people in war, you need to be able to trust the photographer.”
Unfortunately, IMO, he hasn’t reached far back enough for the traditionalist nod. The photo, which I grabbed from his website and thus presumably is printed to his specifications, suffers from that ‘thin’ ‘brittle’ look of much of digital B&W ( Heidegger calls animal consciousness “world-poor” in contrast to human consciousness [he’s wrong]; I think of digital capture as “reality-poor” in contrast to film capture [I’m right]). It would be much better as a ‘film’ image I think, so I’ve taken the liberty of reconfiguring it to how I see it. You may or may not agree.
What’s instructive is how easy it is to convert an obvious digitally captured image to one that looks indistinguishable from something shot with an M4 and some Plus-X. That being the case, do we really need those old film cameras or is that just one more affectation the passage of time is proving wrong? More interestingly, is the “film” look itself now an anachronism, a ‘manipulation’ that Pellegrin thinks we shouldn’t trust? If so, are we now then, by default, stuck with world-poor digital rendering?
I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.
There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.
Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”
If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.
One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”
Italians have a word dietrologia — literally translated as “behindology.” It’s the art of looking behind the surface of things to find their meanings, the hidden meanings of things. The Italian dictionary defines dietrologia as the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.”
I’m pretty sure it’s a necessary trait for creativity, the ability to see more than the surface of the thing. Creativity is the ability to generate novel insights, to see behind the surface banality of a thing and suggest a glimpse of what it might mean if looked at from a novel perspective. To do that, it helps to have a head full of other things – things you’ve seen, and experienced and read about or heard or thought through. All of these things you weave together with what you’re observing and the end result is seeing something new.
The trick, of course, is to possess the ability to show others what you’ve seen. Successful creatives communicate their visions. Think of someone like Martin Scorcese in film, Trent Parke in photography, John Coltrane in music. They each have a unique vision that ties together their work and makes it theirs, and they possess the skill to tell that vision to others. There’s two parts to the creative equation – 1) seeing, and 2) telling. In order to be successful creatively, you need to be good at both. Unfortunately, recently I’m having trouble with both. I used to be a fairly proficient dietrologist. Lately, not so much. I’m, as they say, stuck, seeing nothing new or interesting. I’m hoping that eventually changes. Who knows. If past experience is any indication, one day I’ll wake up and see compelling pictures everywhere.
According to 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do agree to the extent that seeing and telling seems a uniquely human thing to do, and it’s something really important to us, both as individuals and as a species. And specifically, image-making – a type of seeing and telling – is a necessary part of our emotional, psychological and intellectual make-up.
Literally, the earliest evidence we have for human culture are images, paintings of animals deep within caves that date to times before we’re sure humans even possessed language. The cave paintings of Pech Merle, Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac, Chauvet and Lascaux are thought to be more than 30,000 years old. Bisons, lions and other extinct creatures cover the cave walls. What’s interesting about these pre-historic cave drawings is their undeniable aesthetic quality. Whatever their purpose, it was more than just transmission of knowledge, as some anthropologists claim (i.e. information about the location and movement of prey animals etc); there exists a vision behind these images, a felt need to communicate something aesthetically, the same thing that motivated Boticelli or Jasper Johns…or Walker Evans. Many animals are depicted in vivid color, with a sense of perspective and anatomical detail requiring significant artistic skill. Picasso was awed by their aesthetic power. “We have invented nothing,” he remarked after a visit to Lascaux in 1940.
The question is why the ability or desire – or both – comes and goes as it does. Part of it, for me, has been the exponential inundation we’ve experienced via digital media. Technologically compelling images are everywhere, and, as such, they no longer have any value because they have nothing beyond their surface glossiness. They say nothing by representing everything superficially, everything glossed over with the hyperreality of marketing. They’re meaningless visual trinkets mindlessly created and consumed, all alike in their technologically mandated perfection. They represent the antithesis of a unique vision, all surface, saying nothing.
I started Leicaphilia years ago because I thought there needed to be someone advocating for film photography before it was totally swallowed up by digital. In the years writing it I’ve come to see the issue in more nuanced terms. What I’ve been really criticizing is the conflation of excellent images with images that rely on technology for their visual interest. Maybe shooting film is a self-imposed means to marginalize the ability of technology to hijack the creative process for its own ends. But, let’s face it – shooting film is a pain in the ass. Mind you, I ‘love’ the process, but I’ve come to realize that you don’t get points for difficulty. As to its success or lack thereof, a photograph stands on its own. It doesn’t matter how you produced it. Or does it?
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.
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. “