Category Archives: Documentary Photography

Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bois, back in the day

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

Untitled, 2005, (20×30 Acrylic on Canvas)

Above is a painting I did in 2005. It’s previously been exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’ in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which means the gallery owner thought it appropriate to consider as ‘Art.’ Now, irrespective of what you think of the painting and my skills as a painter, chances are you don’t find it unusual that it’s considered ‘Art’ and was offered as a work of ‘Art’ by a gallery that’s in the business of selling such things. Putting aside critical valuation, we agree that a painting is a work of ‘Art.’ I took a blank canvas, took various pigments, and using a brush I made something, a thing, physically created by me from an aesthetic idea I had in my mind. Voila! Art.

Using those same criteria, photography as an ‘Art’ form can be problematic. Photography (still and moving) is a different sort of a creative medium. It has its subjective element – what’s within the frame will always depend on someone’s choice and interpretation – but generally we consider it objective, objective in the sense that it’s a mechanical reproduction of an existing set of visual phenomena. The second characteristic – its status as an objective reproduction, a truthful documentation, the fact that it’s a mechanical means to more or less faithfully record whats “out there”, is seemingly what prevents many otherwise broad-minded people from considering it ‘Art.’

The argument- Is photography ‘Art?’ – is as old as the medium itself. Early photographers naively thought to claim it as ‘Art’ by selectively photographing “scenic” things, thus mimicking the ‘artistic’ treatment of traditional subjects of representational painting – a more exacting form of landscape painting, where the goal was fidelity to the real. Later photographers, like Alfred Steiglitz, founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement, sought to claim it as ‘Art’ by rejecting the larger definition of Art and placing it on equal footing with other forms of expression commonly considered as Art:

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

This doublespeak, of course, is just another way of claiming its status as an art form without using the loaded word itself, to my mind ample evidence that, deep down, even Steiglitz himself felt a wee bit self-conscious about claiming photography to be ‘Art.’ Much has happened since Steiglitz’s era. From an institutional perspective, photography has been presented in American art galleries and art museums since the 1970’s, when “post-modernist” photographers like Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and Eggleston, among others, became recognized within the larger ‘Art World.’

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Whatever the official Art World line, from a lay perspective there continues to be a common-sense resistance to claim photography as ‘Art.’ Even I, who’s been involved with photography as a creative medium for most of my life, cringe when a photographer bills him or herself as an “artist”, and I’d like to explore the philosophical underpinnings of that discomfort. I suspect it has something to do with the “handedness” we associate with Art, the requirement of creating some ex nihilo, something unique and new. A precondition of ‘Art’ is that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material, whether that material be words or tones or rock or canvas. In photography, you could argue, we’re not doing that; instead we’re recording something already existent, something  whose creation resides elsewhere. I’ve touched on this subject before in a piece entitled Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statutes Be Art?).

Untitled, 2016

How about Untitled, 2016 above? Is it ‘Art’? It’s something I did in 2016. Formally, it’s remarkably similar to Untitled, 2005 above. Like the former, it’s “modern” in the sense that it’s not representational but rather its own aesthetic reality, created from the ground up by the artist. I consider it competently drawn, its color scheme consistent and complimentary, its pictorial elements situated in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I like it, and would be pleased to have a piece like it hanging in a conspicuous place in my home or, better yet, in someone else’s home, someone who valued it enough to purchase and exhibit it. Except, its not a painting. Its a photograph, a straight-up close-up of a section of a wall of a building recently torn down in the service of progress. What I did was merely isolate it from its larger context by photographing it and, with some very minor post-processing (contrast, saturation, sharpening etc), created the finished work you see, “created it” in the sense that a series of 1’s and 0’s now resides in a certain pattern on a hard disk on my computer. Its literal creation – how those pigments came to be in the manner they are – is an unintended consequence of  building paint, weather and time.

As mentioned previously, we commonly consider a precondition of Art that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material. If this is so, then the work itself – a photograph – is problematic; have I “created” anything by simply recording it? Have I imposed form on something undifferentiated, i.e. incoherent and messy, when I photograph? Haven’t I rather just seen and selected, noted for other’s benefit as it were, something that already had a certain form, essentially simply pointing out something aesthetic that already existed, created naturally or by happenstance? Could it be the fact that I isolated the view itself be the creative act? Is that enough?

Additionally, there’s the issue of uniqueness. There’s only one of any given painting. We can reproduce it photographically, yes, but we don’t consider the reproduction to be a piece of Art. Now think about that in terms of photography. Unlike a painting, I’m able to print out my photograph in any number of sizes on any number of different media, run limited editions etc, and sell each individual print as its own work of Art. Yet, irrespective of the size or the type of medium I print it on, the underlying ‘artwork’ will be the same (or will it?). [ This has become an issue with the endless exact replicability of digital capture, as opposed to old school silver halide prints where each print is a unique individual interpretation of a negative.]

I suppose I could do the same thing with the painting i.e. photograph it and present the photographic reproduction as its own work and offer it for sale in a gallery in different sizes and on various media. Why not? Except there’s something intuitively wrong with that when we’re talking about photographic reproductions of two dimensional paintings, or so I think. What’s intuitively wrong with it are two things: first, the fact that it’s a photograph as opposed to something created ‘by hand,’ and second, that it’s not the unique created thing itself.  These facts seem to change the terms of the debate.

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A Simple Picture I Took Out My Car Window Recently. If I Hung it in a Art Gallery and Titled it Untitled 2018 Would That Make it Art?

Of course, maybe the best response, and probably the closest to the truth, is the ” Institutional” definition of Art, somewhat cynical, that holds that ‘Art’ is whatever gets exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’. We decide what it is simply by defining it as such. This is what Marcel Duchamp was claiming for Art when he exhibited a toilette bowl as part of an exhibition of his work in a gallery, asking his audience to look at the toilette bowl aesthetically by placing it in a context where we are, by definition, asked to do these things. Duchamp’s definition simply requires that there be an intent on the part of the artist to have what’s presented be seen in a certain way, even if the creative act is simply the presentation itself. What then, of things created without the aesthetic intention, where the intention can be understood as conveying the state of things at any given moment, like a photograph? Can Nick Ut’s My Lai photos be ‘Art’ if they’re viewed in an art gallery? How about the found photographs  that Melissa Cantanese put together in her book Dive Dark Dream Slow that I’ve discussed before?

To my mind, learning to think of photography as an Art Form means first to recognize in a literal sense what a photograph is. It’s a two dimensional piece of paper with “indexical” markings on it. That’s it. That’s the most an Athenian citizen of Socrates’ time (Socrates himself, for that matter) or some primitive man pulled out of the forest in Papua, New Guinea, would be capable of seeing it as, because they’d not have the conceptual (as opposed to he intellectual) ability to do so, that conceptual ability given to us by the social, cultural and technical knowledge which we possess and which is a precondition to understanding it as something more. Without this embedded knowledge – what we take for granted – they literally couldn’t see the representational nature of the photo. They’d simply see the thing itself – the flattened 12×18 2 dimensional thing with a certain form embedded as part of it.

Somewhat paradoxically, I think it’s this two dimensional reality of photographs that opens the way to seeing them as ‘Art.’ Abstract painting only started making sense to me when I started thinking in non-representational terms, when I accepted the notion that paintings don’t need to be a transcription of anything; they can just be what they are, a thing, something with no function other than being its own reality. It’s what art historians term an understanding of the painting’s inherent “flatness.” Photos can be the same way. Forget for a second that Untitled 2016 was produced by a camera and in some sense depends on an existing visual arrangement contained somewhere “out there”; We can choose to see it as we’d see Untitled 2005. Just look at it, try to see what’s literally in front of you. Stop thinking of it as referencing something else. Just let it be itself. Analyse it in those terms. For that matter, there’s nothing keeping us from seeing Untitled 2018 in the same way…or is there?


This is the third in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here, Part Two here.

Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statues be Art?)

Trocadero, Paris

Above is a photo of a portion of a statute that sits in the Jardins du Trocadero directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve long been intrigued by Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris from the turn of the century, so once there I went around trying to do the same thing. Atget, a commercial photographer, spent his career in anonymity documenting Paris and environs with an 8×10 view camera. In addition to photographing streets, courtyards, cafes and city denizens, he photographed a lot of architectural details…and statuary. Lot’s of statuary. Like Vivian Maier, his work was “discovered” by someone who made it know to the wider world after his death.

John Szarkowski, photography writer and curator of photography at the Met in New York, published a book about Atget wherein he claims Atget not merely a great 20th century photographer but “one of the great artists of the 20th Century.” The book Atget, published by the Museum of Modern Art, contains 100 duotone and tritone photos, most of people-less fixed scenes, statuary included. Below is the jacket’s cover photo:

What’s interesting, given the acclamation of Atget as a “great artist,” is that Atget didn’t consider himself an ‘Artist,’ He never tried to manipulate his photographs to reflect a specific artistic sensibility or any defined artistic principle. He was a working photographer trying to document things as accurately as possible. Yet it’s hard to argue with those who claim him to be an ‘Artist.’ His best work has an immense formal beauty somehow apart, or more precisely added onto, the formal beauty of his subjects.

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Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is a picture of a statute in the Tuileries. You could argue that it’s not the same as Atget’s; the photographer (me) attempted to impose some sort of individual sensibility onto the subject. Its a pretty straight shot…shot with a Nikon D100 modified for IR use. The only “sensibility” I brought to the photo was the composition and the choice of IR. It isn’t a straight document. Could I call it ‘Art?’   The reason I ask is because a lot of otherwise sophisticated viewers might chafe at calling Atget’s photos Art. I assume they’d say that any aesthetic value found in the photos inheres in the subject itself and not the photograph of it.

Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Above is another photo of the same statute in the Tuileries, this time with other formal and documentary elements the photographer has chosen to include. It’s easier to claim this for ‘Art,’ because I’ve presented the pictorial elements so that their relation to each other suggests a meaning, might hint at something more than what simply appears in the picture.

What about the Trocadero photo that opens the piece? Same thing, or different? I’ve got a 16×20 platinum print of it hanging in my office. I love it. Is it a photo f a thing – a documentary record – or is it itself it’s own creation when considered apart from the content? It speaks to me both formally and emotionally. I’m sure other people, visitors to my home, have looked at it and thought of it only as a snapshot of a Parisian statute I’m inordinately fond of, when in fact what I see is a photograph with its own aesthetic worth  apart from the specific subject.

In my last post I’d referenced a few photos I’d taken on a recent walk. The premise of the piece is that everyday things can possess a formal beauty. What’s important is that you be open to it. I used a couple of photos I’d taken while walking dog to illustrate.  What I hadn’t mentioned was that one of the photos, the one I’d used to open the piece, had been germinating in my mind for some time. I’d walked past the subject daily; I’d eyed it a thousand times, each time thinking “I need to photograph that.” I finally got around to doing it. I love what I got. A 16×20 is going on a wall somewhere, for no other reason than it speaks to me. Maybe it’s my eye as a painter that’s allowed me to abstract from the objective, public nature of things ‘out there’ and consider them in their formal natures. Maybe it’s my formative years having been fascinated by Walker Evan’s photography, Evans being much like Atget in his sensibilities and aims. Maybe I’m just a photographic hack massively overthinking all of this, or worse yet palming off my cliched photos as ‘Art.’ Damned if I know.

I love this. It’s Gonna Hang on my Wall Somewhere

A Deal With the Devil

Intersection, Hwy 49 and Hwy 61, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 4×5 “Wet Plate”

Above is a picture of  the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for the ability to play guitar. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out well for Mr. Johnson; while he created some great blues, he died young and broke and unrecognized, his grave somewhere unknown in the Delta. It’s been sung and talked about enough in popular American culture to have become a recognizable thing globally. The Crossroads. Located at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I took the photo on Highway 61 just north of the Highway 49 intersection so I could get the dead dog in the picture.  Seemed appropriate. If you look to the right side of the photo you’ll see the traffic lights that sit at the intersection.

The bargain Johnson supposedly struck at this intersection is what we call  “Faustian,” not really a ‘bargain’ at all, where someone trades something essential for personal gain, the gain being to receive what they think will make them happy but doesn’t. It makes things worse when all is said and done.  If you’re familiar with classical European literature you’ve read about Dr. Faustus, the famous scientist who trades his spiritual and moral integrity for knowledge and power and then comes to a ruinous end. Writing a gloss on the legend in his play Faust, Goethe took some liberties with the story, now a wager between Dr Faust, who can find no meaning in his life, and Mephisto, the Devil, who promises to give his life meaning if Faust  agrees to serve him forever after.

The the story is this: a man strikes a deal, depriving himself of a freely-willed human future in return for the quick and easy, a quicksilver shortcut to the goal, and in the process loses the good of what he possessed without gaining anything better when it’s all done, in fact, what’s been gained is a much impoverished version of what he started with. It’s called “a deal with the Devil.”

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Somewhere in the Mississippi Delta (Can’t Remember), 4×5 “Wet Plate”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d recently read Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a great read if you’re interested in the interior lives and thought processes of artists. There’s few photographers I’d class as ‘artists,’ but Sally Mann would be one of them, so I was interested to read what she had to say. In the process, I got to thinking about her use of a view camera and the slow, deliberate nature of her craft. It’s so unlike what digital, or even 35mm film, allows. I also like the results. There’s nothing more beautiful than an 8×10 b&w contact print. She’s also a Southerner, as am I, with an eye for the Gothic details of life in Deep South America. Her recent work involved a trip from Memphis to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta taking pictures of things that caught her eye along the way. She did it with her view camera and with wet plates, liquid emulsions she brushed onto 8×10 glass plates and used as the negatives for her 8×10. In addition to involving a lot of prep work, she’d also have to immediately develop the plates in the back of her pickup under a black cloth. What she gets when she gets a good shot is something really interesting, imprecise, sometimes blurry and diffuse, often with serendipitous features that give a powerful character to the final prints. It’s obviously a difficult process to master, which gives heft to the work because they’re the result of skill and hard mastery. They say “this is something that took skill and hard work and incredible perseverance, and in the end produced something beautiful.”

Which got me thinking: I’ve been through the Delta a number of times with my camera, so I know it well, and I’ve also spent some time with alternative processes, and – you know – the idea of shooting the Delta with a view camera and some funky emulsions sounded like a great trip, so I started thinking of what I’d need to do the work. I’ve got a view camera and tripod, I’ve got the time; all I’d really need to do is figure out how to do the emulsions. Or even simpler, I could do set pieces on regular 8×10 negative film – they still make it – and then contact print it. That would be a fun project, and certainly one I could exhibit if the work was decent.

But then I had a further thought: I wonder, in all of the post-processing software I’ve got loaded onto my computer but never much use, do I have a “wet plate emulation?” I searched around and, yes, I did. So…I pulled up my Mississippi Delta photos and after cropping them to 4×5 for authenticity, started running a few of them through the wet plate emulation and damn!, a lot of them looked really good. Exhibition quality if printed on good pigment paper at 8×10. It really is powerful work if I might say so myself.

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But…there’s something wrong with this. I’m not sure I can articulate it, except to say that my ‘wet plates’ and Sally Mann’s wet plates occupy two different poles of artistic merit. Assuming you think my wet plates are as evocative as Ms. Mann’s from a visual standpoint, you could say they have equal creative merit, but is that really the criterion for assessing the relative worth of our Delta work, or is there something more, something more evanescent but crucial, that’s present in her work and absent in mine?

I would argue there is. Her’s possess an authenticity that mine mimics, even though they might look similar technically. She dragged an 8×10 view camera around for 1000 miles, jugs of dangerous chemicals in tow, which relegated her going places that would accommodate her. I drove around, pointed my Leica M8 at everything and shot. At each location, she’d spend an hour or two developing her plates, drying them, inspecting them, repeating the process until she got what she wanted. I pushed a shutter and chimped the results, brought thousands back on an SD card and ran the keepers thru emulation software on my Mac.  Once home she fastidiously contact printed her best plates, producing 20 or so exquisite silver prints. I tee’d up my Epson R3000, loaded in the Moab Lasal Exhibition Luster Paper, and effortlessly printed off 40 8×10 prints that could pass in a pinch for contact prints.

So…am I going to exhibit my Delta “wet prints?” No. Because to do so would be deceptive, although many photographers born in the digital age might disagree. It’s the result that matters, right? Tell that to Sally Mann. That’s the Devil’s Bargain we’ve made with digital. What used to be the product of craft and deep skill is now just a mouse click away. We still get the same results, but the honest pride of work well done has been taken from the process. We’ve wished for one thing and received another in the guise of the quick and easy, the thing that we thought would liberate us. Same thing Robert Johnson did at those crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississsippi, the story old as civilization.

Dragan Novakovic

Manchester, 1970, Dragan Novakovic

I’ve been lucky to have met a bunch of interesting, talented people via the blog. I’m repeatedly reminded that there are photographers out there doing exceptional work in anonymity, doing it not for the recognition or acclaim but rather simply for the love of what they’re doing.

The beauty of the internet is that it’s radically democratized photography as a practice. Anyone can exhibit their work to a worldwide audience; just post it to your flickr account or any number of other internet venues where your work can potentially be seen. No more gate-keepers i.e. self-appointed experts and curators and gallery owners in positions of power who determine what get’s seen and what doesn’t, often without reference to the strength of the work itself, too often determined by who knows who and who’s seeking to curry favor with whom.

As an American living in Paris, I was often amused by the cliched work of famous photographers who’d spend a week there and then push out a book. William Eggleston’s Paris monograph comes to mind, the work weak and uninspired, nothing but the standard romanticized take on the city, done in a weekend. It got published because it was William Eggleston. Not fair, but who said life would be.

The flip-side of the problem is now there are no gate-keepers. We’re awash in images with little or no means to differentiate the original from the cliched and derivative, the excellent from the mundane, but our own judgment in determining what’s good and what’s not. That’s why it’s more critical now than ever to have some sense of the broader history of photography as an art form and as a documentary vehicle, to have educated your eye to what constitutes an arresting visual image, to what works as a series of images that tell a story and give some sense of the reality that inspired them.

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So, at least insofar as Leicaphilia is concerned, I’ve become the gate-keeper for what gets exhibited here. Frankly, having had looked at, read about, and immersed myself in photography for as long as I have, I’m as competent as anyone to identify excellent work, and the work shown here, England in the 70’s, sent to me by Dragan Novakovic, a Serbian photographer from Belgrade, is exceptional. Superb work borne of a great eye, a stimulated intellect, a mechanical film camera and some Tri-X, the sort of stuff you’re capable of when your obsessions are the subtleties of light, tone, composition, subject and emotion. I have no idea what equipment he used, beyond knowing its 35mm Tri-X; I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter, but it certainly does have the unmistakable look of what we call traditional “Leica photography.”

 

I hesitate to add any explanation to the work, to put a label on it or characterize it in a given way. Like all good art, it stands on its own. It’s simple and beautiful and thought-provoking. Each photo gives a profound sense of place and time, its own self-contained universe, yet the film aesthetic, the subject matter, the compositional and editorial choices all work together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Go to Mr. Novakovic’s website below to see the full series. Photographs like this are why I fell in love with photography. It’s also why I find doing the blog so rewarding; Dragan is just some guy who reads the blog and thought I might be interested in some old photos, those old photos being as good as anything I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I’ve got the ability to disseminate them to a wider audience, something Dragan Novakovic richly deserves. According to him:

I wish I could tell you that these photos are the fruit of a well-thought-out project and expatiate upon it (projects and concepts seem to be all the rage these days), but the truth is, they are all completely random shots. Still, some background information will help to explain why and how I came to find myself there in the first place. While in secondary school, I came upon Friedrich Engels’s book The Condition of the Working Class in England and my imagination was fired by his descriptions of Manchester. Later I read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and, after I had arrived in London in the autumn of 1968, I bought Bill Brandt’s Shadow of Light and was blown away, particularly by his northern towns photos. From then on visiting and photographing the area became an obsession with me and I finally made several brief trips to it, mostly over weekends. In short, I was overwhelmed and awed by the surreal look of the place; there was so much to see and so little time that I often found myself moving at a trot, not always pausing long enough to explore the subject and frame carefully; and I took mostly single photos of individual subjects because I could ill afford to buy film and carried on average only two to five rolls of Tri-X.


Dragan Novakovic lives in Belgrade, Serbia. You can see more of his work at http://dragannovakovicphotography.com/

The Anti-Leica

Christmas Presents to Myself: a Weird Novel About the Death of Roland Barthes (The Guy Who Wrote Camera Lucida) and a Sigma SD Quattro

I love quirky things, whether it be cameras or motorcycles or cars or music. Or people, women in particular. If I were to buy another motorcycle, it would have to be a KTM RC390. Cool little 390cc one cylinder 40 hp “thumper” engine in a dedicated lightweight track bike package that will smoke a liter bike (1000cc) when the roads start to bend a little. Maximum fun in a small, affordable package. Let the 20-somethings with their 180 hp Kawasaki’s and Yamaha’s snicker; I’m happy to leave them for dead when the pace heats up and the road turns twisty.

Likewise with cameras. You’ve probably noticed my penchant for the much-maligned Leica’s in the M series – the M5 and the M8 – and the quirky Ricoh GXR with its modular lens system. Great cameras all. The GXR is my absolute favorite digital camera of all-time. I absolutely love it. It’s the KTM RC390 of digital cameras – small, light, produces beautiful files with a certain character, performs great in the real world as opposed to on the spec sheet, and it’s different in a cool way. I much prefer it to both the D3S and D800 I’ve owned, the D3S too bulky, the D800 with unnecessarily massive files. The GXR hits the sweet spot. Of course, by an iron logic inaccessible to me, this also meant that it would be a commercial failure, which it was (general consensus was that it was a good idea in theory, but in practice just didn’t cut it for some undefined reason). There’s something about the “general consensus” that always gets my contrarian juices flowing. “Common opinion” is just that: common. Look up the definition and get back to me if you think that’s a good thing.

As far as digital cameras go, you can’t get more “much-maligned” than the Sigma Foveon cameras. They are glacially slow (as a friend says – “slower than a wet fart”), basically useless at any ISO over 400 (just like film), produce huge files and most require proprietary Sigma RAW software that runs at a snail’s pace and frequently crashes. They also, when used correctly, produce stunningly sharp and nuanced Black and White images that rival the best Medium Format. Of course, given the above, I had to have one.

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You might remind me that I’ve spent years denigrating the obsession with photographic “IQ” and wonder about the inconsistency and why I appear to be doing an about-face now. Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I am of the opinion that a 12MP APS-C sensor is sufficient for most any photographic need short of massive prints larger than 20×30 inches that need to hold fine detail. 12MP files from my GXR certainly can hold their own against fine-grained 35mm film negatives (Panatomic-X for instance) carefully shot with Leitz or Zeiss optics, and in most instances,  medium format 21/4 negatives as well. I’ve got a 40×60 inch print of my quirky wife hanging over our bed (the print is hanging over our bed, not the wife), taken with the 16MP GXR APS-C Zoom lens module. It’s stunning, even at that enlargement, the detail even when viewed close up really amazing. Why any general interest photographer would need more is beyond me. I just don’t understand the point of 36 or 42 or 50MP sensors given how people generally view and display their photos; detail in even a ‘middling’ 24MP full frame camera cannot be fully articulated on a 4k monitor or in any reasonable size print. 12MP is more than enough.

Taken with a 16MP APS-C Ricoh GXR and printed at 40×60 inches. Looks Great.

I will admit, however, there are times, very infrequent for me and I suspect for most everyone else, when you simply need the most resolute image you can get. Back in the day, you’d grab a 6×9 MF camera like a Fuji 690, or you’d rent a 4×5 or larger view camera to get what you needed. You certainly wouldn’t use your 35mm Leica, even with the sharpest Summicron. Medium format cameras were often bulky and a pain in the ass to shoot, usually requiring a fine grained film and a tripod, but when you nailed it the results were stunning. The resulting negative could be printed as large as you wanted with minimal loss of quality. That need does still exist today, even more so given the massive print sizes made available to even the most casual happy-snapper with the use of inkjet printing, at least for those absolutely needing to print big. Of course photography is not just about IQ, but it is nice to have maximum IQ in these certain limited instances and for the money, Sigma Foveon cameras offer eye-wateringly sharp images at ISO 100-400 that MF systems costing 10x as much would envy. The SD Quattro, Sigma’s latest Foveon camera, can shoot DNG and thus does away with the need to use Sigma’s abysmal RAW software. Interesting camera, cheap too.

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So, in the spirit of Christmas (i.e. buy a bunch of shiny crap you don’t need) I took the plunge and bought a Sigma SD Quattro with massive 17-50 zoom attached. I bought it for one specific purpose – to shoot very large b&w prints for a documentary series I’m doing about the old Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds here in Raleigh, a beautiful historic state mental hospital complex that’s being bulldozed to make way for a city park. I live directly across the street from its entrance and have watched it transformed from a bustling hospital that treated our most vulnerable citizens to a decaying warren of unoccupied  buildings set amongst pristine grounds full of beautiful huge old oaks. All soon to be uprooted.

Like most good things, I suspect we won’t miss any of it until it’s gone, and then we’ll realize nobody thought to memorialize it. Nobody seems to paying attention to the fact this local landmark, so important in our city and state’s history, soon will be a memory. The few I see sitting in the grass while their dogs run seem too busy looking at their phones to admire the faded beauty of the place and the majestic oaks they’re sitting under. So, given my training as a documentarian, I’ve decided to shoulder the responsibility myself and make a record of the place before its gone, and given current visual culture, nobody is going to pay me any mind if I ultimately propose to exhibit 8×10 B&W silver prints; too small, not sharp enough, simply not cool enough. What they’ll want are huge, hyper tack sharp prints. Hence the Sigma SD Quattro.

It certainly lives up to its reputation: it’s slow, and quirky and produces eye-poppingly sharp photos you can blow up to massive sizes with minimal loss of detail. To my eye, sharper and more pleasing than the files from the D800. Would I use it as I would my Leica or GXR. No, those fit different needs. But when I need big and sharp, while you can’t tell it from a computer screen, it’s about as good as it gets.

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the New Digital Leica – Part 3

What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach. – John B. Crane, Nikon F6 Project

I did some travelling this last summer, and, while doing so, wrote a number of posts about using my iPhone 6 as my camera for the trip. The gist of those posts was that I’d discovered the benefits, photographically, of travelling light. I’d been away for almost a month, a couple of weeks travelling through Italy by train and bus from friends’ residence in Mantua and then to Paris for a further week with friends there. I’d packed the usual gear – a couple of camera bodies, both film and digital, a bag of film, the usual compliment of lenses, intending as I usually do when travelling to document the experience. Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively.

I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the photos I’d taken while away, not without first having to surmount a number of problems created by a combination of my ignorance and the potential pitfalls that always lurk on the margins of digital capture. After getting home, I tried to download the photos from my phone to my computer for permanent storage and further editing, only to discover that the photos weren’t on my phone but in the Cloud, which is fine, except I have no idea how to access said cloud, which necessitated a trip to my local Apple Store where some pleasant young woman, speaking to me deliberately as if I were some addled senior with incipient dementia, helped me jailbreak my Cloud account. Having done so, secure in the knowledge that my photos existed somewhere, I then proceeded to erase them from my iPhone, whereupon I learned that I’d also just deleted them from my Cloud. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

A push of the button and a majority of what I had shot on my trip vanished without recovery. Luckily, at some point, while the photos still resided “on my phone” I had somehow managed to save a number of them to Lightroom, how I’m not sure. There seems no explanation as to why I was able to save some and not others. Suffice it to say my photos of Italian manhole covers survived intact, which is some consolation for the deletion of the majority of others.

I’ll always be able to relive memories of the Italian sewer system.

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Which leads to the larger question: So what? So, I’ve lost a bunch of tourist snaps. I’ve still got the experience, and the memories; having lost the photos doesn’t erase that. But it’s incredibly frustrating none the less, even though I’ve no one but myself to blame. Had I been more sophisticated about how this all works, I’d have taken the appropriate steps to secure my digital files before deleting them. But I didn’t, and most of them are now gone. Forever.

I still do have about 500 of what had been over 3000 photos I’d taken. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I travelled with a film camera I could be gone for 6 weeks and come home with 20 rolls (700 negatives) and feel as if I’d sufficiently photographed what I’d wanted to, so the idea that I’d returned home from Italy and France with 500 photos shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, its different. When film was the norm, I gave thought to what I’d photograph, knowing my means to do so were limited by how much film I had. As a film photographer, I was discerning in what photographed. I gave thought to each shot I took. Ostansibly, there was a reason for any given exposure on a roll of film.

Thousands of pictures like this – gone

The ease of digital capture has changed that. We’re now able, without increased cost and with minimal added work, to photograph everything. And we do, as the files that I serendipitously salvaged from from my trip evidence – manhole covers and Pizza School handbills.Powerful, arresting, non-cliched photography seems rarer than ever, as if the ease and ubiquity of digital capture has overrun our critical faculties. The iPhone seems to have turned the craft of photography for an entire generation into something radically banal, a means to document make-up strategies and dinner choices.  We’re drowning in “meaningless, throwaway imagery shot millions of times a day,” having lost any critical discernment about the miracle of photography and its awesome power to arrest and transform discrete moments of life.

Throw into this the sad fact that digitization is compromising photography as a means of historical documentation, something I’ve written about at length, most recently here. Just this morning, a reader left a comment to that piece that speaks eloquently to the issue:

When my grandmother passed away recently, we found boxes and boxes of her old handwritten letters to/from her sister who was living overseas. But years from now, there will be no shoebox of love letters from todays’ grandma or grandpa. There will only be the cloud, made impenetrable by a lack of password. Long forgotten Facebook accounts will stand like a vast field of tombstones, many hidden from view or minimized in presence. The millions of photos taken by the average person will disappear with the loss of phones, the demise of harddrives, the replacement of computers.

I have much of my old schoolwork from decades ago, as well as school notices about upcoming excursions and music recitals. Today’s students now receive emails and automated attendance forms via the school system, which will disappear with the years, too.

Like the proverbial cockroach, good paper and negatives will survive. I’ve re-begun the practice of shooting a few well chosen film images each time I go out somewhere interesting. This gives me a permanent record of the highlights of my life, which is really how it was done in the old days. Negs are saved and scans and prints are made, and my photo albums grow one roll at a time. [Emphasis added]

1976. Someone important to me, now lost to time. The negative tucked away in a binder. Photos like this have enriched my life. I’m lucky to have them

His solution has become mine as well. I’ve spent 15 years now dabbling in digital photography, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s a Faustian Bargain. What it gives in ease of use and technical perfection it takes away in its lack of moderation, which, as the Ancients knew already, is the key to all things. So, I’m now recommitted to film photography, to the ideal of a few well chosen images that will construct a permanent record of the highlights of my life. A modest project, no doubt, in an era, in theory, of almost unlimited photographic possibilities, but good enough for me as it reminds of the simple yet profound miracle of photography.

What Do You See?

 I love the photo above. It’s one of a small number of photos I come back to when I review what I’ve done (…and yes, I took it with a Leica, an M8). Which is interesting, because most viewers will scan it visually and move on without much further thought. Aesthetically it’s properly done; were I to submit it to an art school critique, viewers would probably say it’s competently framed, formally interesting, if i’m lucky might use rhetorical cliches like “original,” “strong”, authentic.” Some with a picturesque bent might quibble about the decisions I’ve made, noting the pole that divides up the horizontal plane in a way upsetting to the rule bound. I can see someone saying it’s interesting… but what’s it supposed to be about? I can hear the critique moderator now talking of the mirroring of the pole by the crosses…or maybe the crosses by the pole, a commentary on man’s need to be heard etc (if you’ve ever endured an art critique you know how pretentious they can be; my standard response when I’m asked what a photo or painting “means” is to say I don’t know. That’s for the viewer to decide).

Art School Cool, circa 1977. I’m pretty sure my standing there with those crescent moons over my head was meant to mean something – what I no longer remember. I probably went to CBGB’s that night to see the Talking Heads.

As I’ve presented the photo here, without context, the “subject ” is what you will make of it. You have only the photo and whatever interpretive scheme might be floating around in your head to make sense of what you see. That’s the interesting thing about the supposedly “objective ” craft of photography. There’s an undeniable subjective element to what we do as viewers of ostensibly “objective” photographs. Your interpretation will vary depending on the formal arrangement, the context in which it’s presented to you, the knowledge and biases you bring to the viewing. While I find most post-modernist theory turgid and incomprehensible, it’s gotten one thing right – the meaning of things, whether it be a writing (a “text” in PM parlance) or a visual representation, whether a photo, drawing or painting, resides with the reader/viewer. The meaning of the photo you view depends on you. And that’s why, presented as it is to you – little context, no explanation- you might struggle to make sense of it or appreciate it in the manner I might. You might like it, hate it, be indifferent to it, depending on what criteria you bring to your viewing and how unmoored its presentation.

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Which leads to the following reality: the means I use to present my picture is crucial to how you will understand the photo. Effective presentation is the responsibility of the photographer, and it’s what separates the successful from the frustrated. I can publish it in a newspaper or hang it on a gallery wall, or glue it into a scrapbook, whatever choice I make signaling to the viewer what I’d like you to think about the picture. I can write a caption that identifies the objective facts of the photo [Route 61, Mississippi Delta, Leica M8];  I can go further and write a caption that puts the photo in context for you [...in Money, Mississippi, about 50 yards from where 14 y/o Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and set in motion a murder that would change American history]; I might simply place it within a sequence of other photos inviting you, by process of induction, to surmise a common thread that links those sequenced into a larger whole which both helps you interpret the individual photo while imparting a larger meaning on the collection itself. The important thing is that in each individual case, the meaning is extrinsically imposed on the photo. The single photo without context means nothing. The good photographer understands that a large part of his obligation to the viewer is to put his photos in a context that assists the viewer in making sense of the photo.

Mississippi Delta.  Same day, same camera as the first photo. Ultimately chosen for the same photo series. Does this help you make sense of the initial photo?

I suppose this explains why we might differ so radically in what we consider good photography, and it points to the difference between a naive and a sophisticated understanding of photographic quality. Naive photo critiques judge a photo on its technical and formal arrangements [Is it sharp? In focus? Good tonal values? Composition pleasing? Rule of thirds applied etc]. This is the world of gearhead forums and Flickr, the reason we chase after the newest Fuji X body with the new super-duper sensor, thinking something a little better will make the difference. Stay at this level and you’ll become a proficient photographic artisan. A more educated approach looks only to whether the photo communicates a compelling meaning. It’s also why naive photo artisans tend to be confused by and dismissive of the best things being done in the field at any given time – not only are they passing judgment with inappropriate criteria, they usually don’t possess the knowledge, experience and discernment borne of broad thinking to conjure a sufficient meaning from a work, a meaning that turns the picture into something more.

 

Transcribing the Real – Part One

Above is a photograph that immediately caught my eye among the mass of photos coming out of Las Vegas in the wake of the insanity there. It was taken by Chase Stevens, a staff photographer with the LV Review-Journal. At the risk of aestheticising other people’s misfortune, it’s a beautiful photo in its own way in addition to having documentary value. Were I to know nothing about Mr. Stevens, I’d assume he’s familiar with Frank/Friedlander/Freed/Winogrand, as the photo mirrors that aesthetic, and the use of black and white references the film era. As for its documentary value, it’s less a stand-alone photo than one in a series of photographs illustrating what happened that night, but it certainly works as one in a series. You can see the series here, along with a short article about Steven’s excellent work that night.

If you clicked through the link I’ve provided, you’re probably confused, because the photo used in the link is not the one above but rather this one:

The Las Vegas Tropicana on lockdown on Oct. 1, 2017. Chase Stevens—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP 

same photo, but in color and obviously digital. I prefer the b&w version; you may be indifferent or prefer the later.

The B&W version is actually my creation (apologies to Mr. Stevens). I downloaded his photo as published and ran it through Silver Efex with a B&W film emulation that specified certain tone, contrast and grain values inherent in a given film stock (in this instance I think it was Kodak Plus X, maybe my favorite B&W film of all time, unfortunately no longer manufactured). I did it because my aesthetic sense told me, the first time I saw the photo, it should a ‘B&W photo’; that what seemed to me the obvious reference back to Robert Frank’s 1955 Manhattan cowboy photo required it be B&W:

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, but I suspect not.  I’m fairly certain that Mr. Stevens has some familiarity with Frank’s image, and the photo he decided to take that night owes some unconscious debt to Frank. I’m certainly not criticizing him in any way: that’s how creativity works. We learn by assimilating the work that’s come before, and if we’re good, we find a way to put our own small spin on an established aesthetic, the result being our own idiosyncratic photographic style. Creators who are truly sui generis, unique with no real creative antecedents, come along very infrequently, maybe once or twice a century in any given discipline. The painters Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack come to mind, in photography HCB and Robert Frank.

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The larger question for me, what led me to manipulate Mr. Steven’s photo to suite my tastes, is the issue of the “objectivity” of photographs. As photographers, I assume all of us have at some point in our photographic evolution realized that the naive belief that photos objectively show “things that happened” in an unbiased way, without containing any subjective adulteration is, well, naive.

If Mr. Stevens had done what I’d done – ran his files through Silver Efex before he turned them in to his editor, would that have constituted an improper manipulation of his supposedly objective photographs that violated journalistic ethics? If so, what if, in the race to get to the scene Mr. Stevens had grabbed an old Leica loaded with Tri-X and shot his assignment with it? How would that differ, from an ethical perspective, from him shooting the scene with an M240 in RAW mode and sending the whole thing off to the editors for selection and editing? Is one more genuine, more real than the other? And if one is, what gives us the right to say so?

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burn’s documentary on the Viet Nam War, currently running on public television here in the States. What strikes me is the incredible aesthetic beauty of the era’s photography (as distinct from the often disturbing subject matter), most of it B&W 35mm film, a beauty that digital documentary simple is incapable of. This is the photography I cut my teeth on, so I’m biased, but my opinion is that that B&W Film documentary aesthetic, de rigeur through the late 70’s, is effective in a way that digital capture simply isn’t. Is it “more real?” No. More “objective?” No. “Better?” Yes. Of course, this claim for the relative quality of one versus the other is subjective to an extent, but I’ll argue in future posts that it has an objective basis. I may even drag a few “philosophers” into the discussion. Humor me as we proceed.

 

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

Florence

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

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

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

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Naples

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

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

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