Category Archives: Film photography

Renouncing the Digital Feedback Loop (Reclaiming Your Autonomy from Technology)

A sloppy, irresolute photo taken with a film camera

Photographs are everywhere, and it’s easy to lose sight, or not even see, their reality as things in themselves. Most people have a simple way of understanding photographs, as reflections of existing  states of things. The belief is this: photos represent the world itself, even if they are windows from a particular point of view; the photographic world and the world out there are essentially the same. I call this the ‘naïve’ view of photography.

This naïve view begs the question, of course, of what to do about black and white photography. Most things “out there in the world” are not exclusively black and white or tones thereof. So, black and white photography, even within a naïve view, is an abstraction.

What of color? Well, we can agree that the color of the scene presented doesn’t miraculously transfer itself onto a roll of film or a sensor. The process of “reproducing” color photographically is a transcription, the same as any other image making process, an attempt to ‘re- create’ a state of things via an abstraction. Like any abstraction, what is transcribed and the transcription itself will always vary to some extent even when the intent is to be as “accurate” as possible. How its ‘re-created’ is a function of two things – the choices and skill of the photographer and the potential offered by the tools one uses.

So, if photos are abstractions, we have to, in the jargon of semiotics, ‘decode’ them (make the intention behind them understandable), because ultimately photographs are about communicating something. How do we do that? As a photographer and not a philosopher, I’d suggest that a successful photograph is one where the photographer’s intention has been realized, where a human’s intention overrides any intentions inherent in the camera itself.

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Vilém Flusser was a Czech born philosopher of language and communication who wrote verbose philosophical tomes no one reads anymore, assuming they ever did (that’s him, above). In 1983, prior to the digital age, Flusser wrote Fur Eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) in which he argues that cameras themselves have intentions (I presume, were you to cut through the ponderous academic jargon, he’s really talking about camera manufacturers driven by profit motives). He lists them as follows:

  •  to place the camera’s inherent capabilities into a photograph;
  • to make use of a photographer;
  • to create a feedback relationship between photographers and the camera and its products which creates progressive technological improvement so as to produce “better” photographs;
  • to produce “better” photographs.

All of which is to say, in common parlance, that the photographic tools you use and the capabilities they offer you will tend to structure the types of photographs you produce with them, by naturally pushing you in the direction of utilizing what they (the photographic tool), not you, might do best.  Examples of this phenomenon would be the “bokeh” craze currently all the rage with a certain type of gearhead, or the current fetish for sharpness, where the benchmark of the “quality” of a photograph is determined by how resolute your corners are.

Maybe it’s just me, but photographic aesthetics seem to have changed markedly since the inception of digital photography, to my mind for the worse. Optical characteristics have increasingly replaced emotional resonance as the criterion of a “good” photograph, the result of a repressive stranglehold of sharpness and resolution on the photographic imagination which is itself driven by the particular characteristics of digital capture. Flusser would say that the camera has made use of the photographer, its intentions having triumphed over the potential intentions of the human, the result of the inevitable feedback loop between tool and user. I would add that, as far as creative possibilities are concerned, this is a step back rather than a step forward.

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Of course, you could argue that the same logic applies to traditional film photography, and you’d be correct up to a certain point. The types of photographs you’re able to take with film also structure the results you get. With film photography that structuring typically takes the form of limits on what you can do, circumscribing your ability to take photos in certain situations or producing results within a limited aesthetic spectrum, setting the parameters within which the photographer must work as opposed to actively pushing him in a certain direction. There’s a big difference.

Above is a photograph by Antonin Kratochvil, a Czech born photographer and a personal favorite of mine. He’s long been known in journalism circles for his idiosyncratic approach, both technologically and aesthetically. Fellow photographer Michael Perrson describes seeing Kratochvil in a Croatian refugee camp using two old Nikons with beat-up, generic 28mm lenses, cameras “that looked like they could no more be traded for a pack of chewing gum than be a tool to make professional photos,” other photographers snickering at the Eastern European hack. Pictures he shot there would find their way into Broken Dreams, his award-winning monograph of the ecological devastation of Soviet era Eastern Europe.

As Perrson notes, what makes Kratochvil a great photographer is not his equipment but rather his unique sensibility. “He believes in the craft of photography, the skill and the ability of the photographer not to let his tools control his actions.” This simplicity releases in him the freedom to see things in unique ways. Kratochvil himself laments the ever-increasing incursions of technology into the photographic process – “technology has made it so that anyone can take ‘competent’ photos. It follows that if anyone can do this, where is the respect?” For Kratochvil, the camera is simply a tool; seeing is what’s important, and a given state of technology should never compel you to see the world in any given way.

Kratochvil strikes me as a very wise man in addition to being a superb photographer. But I’m certain that most smug digital technocrats, those whom digital precision and technical perfection have led by the nose, will find his work naive and technically amateurish, as if that was the sole criterion on which photography might be judged. Such dismissiveness is the tribute the inadequate pay to the articulate.

Buy This Book

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“In an increasingly digital world where physical objects and experiences are being replaced by virtual ones, Mr. Sax concludes, “analog gives us the joy of creating and possessing real, tangible things”: the hectic scratch of a fountain pen on the smooth, lined pages of a notebook; the slow magic of a Polaroid photo developing in front of our eyes; the satisfying snap of a newspaper page being turned and folded back; the moment of silence as the arm of an old turntable descends toward a shiny new vinyl disk and the music begins to play.

In reporting this book, Mr. Sax says he found that it was less a case of older generations reaching back to familiar formats from their youth than teenagers and 20-somethings discovering turntables and LPs, paperback novels and film cameras. “The younger someone was, the more digitally exposed their generation was,” he writes near the end of this book, “the less I found them enamored by digital technology, and the more they were wary of its effects.” These kids were falling in love with analog.” Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times

Fascinating read, repeating a lot of what I’ve been saying here, albeit much more coherently.

A Tale of Two Photographs

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I’ve spent this evening, upon request of my wife, printing pictures to send with Christmas gifts to a young lady in Italy who recently lived with us here in the States for a year. In the time she spent with us, of course, I took lots of photos of her, knowing someday we’d all be glad I did.

Above are two of them, both taken in my home during the day in the same available light. One is a film photo taken with a Leica IIIf – Tri-X pushed to 800 and developed in Diafine – and the other a digital photo taken with a Nikon D3s that I post-processed in Silver Efex using the Tri-X emulation.

To me it’s obvious which is which. And, to me, the film photo is so much more evocative in how it captures the light. I can’t think of a better example of why I love film.

Can you tell which is which?

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Addendum: As a number of readers have quickly noted, the first photo is film, the second digital. It’s very obvious to a trained eye. Below is another film photo taken from the about the same place, with the same available light as the second photo:

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Is it my imagination, or is there a depth to it, a sort of 3D heft that film gives that digital B&W lacks?

 

“Is the [insert older Leica camera model here] still a good camera?”

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The M8. First sold by Leica in 2006. My favorite “obsolete” digital Leica. It’s still worth buying, ten years later.

If you spend any amount of time perusing camera enthusiast forums, you’re going to run across this question, posted at predictable intervals, asking whether a particular digital camera “is still good.” That’s always struck me as an incoherent question born of weak reasoning and ignorance. At base, what does the question mean? The key qualifying word seems to be “still,” as in “does it make sense to be using this camera now, given all the models that have come since?” Characterizing the question that way, it does make some sense. Why should I buy older model X when I can also buy newer model Y that is claimed to be “better” than model X?

Consider the Leica M8 and its present viability versus a current Leica offering, say, a Leica M262. Certainly, you might want to consider the price differential (unless you’re a person of means who isn’t constrained by financial necessities). The M262 is the successor to the Leica M-E, which itself is an M9 minus the frameline preview lever and USB port. The M262, however, is based on the M240 but shares the body shape and weight of the M9 series. It has a 24 Mxp full frame CMOS sensor. It costs about $5000. The M8 is a 10.3 Mpx CCD camera first offered by Leica in 2006. It has the same form factor as subsequent digital M’s (a slightly fatter M6), so if your main reason for wanting a Leica is to impress people, the average guy on the street wouldn’t know the difference. You can pick one up for $1200, used. So the M262 is 4X as expensive as a good, used M8.

By most socially accepted criteria, the M262 is the “better” camera. But is it really? That’s, of course, a question only you can answer. It’s got a larger, higher def sensor, no doubt, one that theoretically allows you the ability to take “better” photos depending on how you define the quality of a photo. It’s also going to set you back $5000 as opposed to the M8, which you can pick up these days for peanuts (relatively speaking from a Leica perspective).

It seems to me that, at this point in the evolution of digital technology, this is a question in search of an argument. Unless we’re talking of a camera from the early digital era, e.g. circa 2001-2005, most serious digital cameras of whatever age meet or exceed the quality produced by traditional 35mm film cameras in terms of resolution and dynamic range. In this sense, as of, let’s say, the Leica M8, they’ve become “good enough.” Does it make sense, then, to buy an M8 when I can buy an M262? More precisely, if I’m a guy who simply wants to say he owns a Leica, what reason would I have to buy the M262 for $5000 when I can purchase my Leica cred by buying a minimally used M8 that’s sat on some guy’s shelf for the last 10 years?

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The physicist Niels Bohr, apparently a wise man of few words, was fond of telling the story of a man who a bought a parrot, only to return it because the parrot wouldn’t talk. The seller of the parrot, upon being asked to take the parrot back, replied: “Oh, forgive me. You wanted a parrot that talks, and I mistakenly sold you a parrot that thinks.” The parrot seller was laboring under what logicians call the ‘false dilemma fallacy,’ where an argument presents a set of two possible categories and assumes the subject of the argument must fall into one or the other category. In Bohr’s parable, the line of reasoning suggests that someone is either silent and thoughtful or talkative and an imbecile, a specious line of reasoning that, interestingly enough, one could argue is amply supported by the denizens of most internet photography forums. [In reality, there exists a third option, that the talkative man might have something intelligent to say, or a fourth, that the quiet man might not]. You get the point.

As to the debate about the worth of a super-ceded camera model, the same realities apply. Framed one way (via the false dilemma fallacy), an M8 today is an unworkable anachronism, hopelessly outdated in the era of live view and 256,000 ISO. This, of course, is to uncritically accept the premise camera manufacturers espouse in their ceaseless efforts to keep you buying cameras – new is the standard below which anything else is “obsolete” and of no continuing value.

Which looks pretty suspect from a critical perspective. If we’re going to discuss “obsolescence” we’ll need to first distinguish between two types:

Planned obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is the designing  and producing of products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a consumer grade digicam made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: Perceived obsolescence is planned obsolescence that manipulates the “desirability” of a product.  A superceded camera model, say, will continue to be functional, just like it was when new – no better, no worse – yet it is no longer perceived to be appropriate given new “advances” in technology or style, so it is now rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function.  Perceived obsolescence is all about what is fashionable, and what is fashionable in a consumerist economy must necessarily change from year to year. If capitalism has one driving reality, it’s that new widgets must constantly be produced to replace last year’s widgets and those new widgets must now be ceaselessly proclaimed to “better than ” last year’s widgets. Unspoken, but assumed in consumerist logic is the premise not only that the new widget is “better” but also that the old widget, the one we’ve owned and happily used without complaint, is now unworthy of further use. Of course, from a rational perspective, this is complete bullshit.

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Perceived obsolescence is now the number one “product” of the advertising that supports the camera industry. While what Nikon and Canon and Sony and Leica currently offer is technologically more advanced than what they were offering in 2006,  its arguable whether new cameras are “better” in any practical sense from what’s been available to us in the past. To automatically infer they are is to confuse the allegedly useful with the necessary, the necessary being the pivot point on which Leica has historically derived its almost cult-like following. Up until the Last decade or so, Leicas had never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity. They’ve been about making the photographic act as streamlined and efficient and simple as possible and the instrument well-built to last, characteristics modern digital camera makers have ignored in their headlong sprint to see who can jam the most features into a camera you’ll use till the next iteration comes along. If you’ve ever stared at the menu options your digital camera offers while the scene you wanted to photograph disappears, or your camera won’t function because of an error code, you’ll understand the difference.

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Josef Koudelka took this with an obsolete old film Leica and some Tri-X. He may not be able to print it much bigger than 11×14, but it’s still better than anything you’ll ever do with your M262.

Framed another way (a third option outside of the either/or dichotomy posited by the false dilemma), the M8 is still the great (but flawed) camera its always been.  Being firmly rooted in the film era, I neither need (nor want) 12800 iso on demand. Long ago I learned how to shoot in low light pushing HP5 to 1600 iso using a fast lens. Ironically, the open-aperture bokeh look so prized by happy-snappers today has its genesis in the constraints of such traditional low light shooting. As for dynamic range, well, that went out the window under such conditions as well. It’s called “the film look”, and it’s an aesthetic now prized by shooters trying to avoid the clinical “perfection” of  digital capture, and the M8, at least in b&w, does it to perfection. Run its files through Silver Efex and you”ve got something approaching scanned film with a fraction of the hassle. And when I’ve got ample light, the M8 delivers remarkable files easily printable to 20×30, not that I’d want to, mind you, as the modern fetish for large prints usually bears out the old adage “if you can’t make em good, make em big.”

in my mind, the argument should be about whether the camera you use gives you the results you want. As for what I want, it’s not sterile perfection, which, as best I can tell from a half-century of looking critically at great photography, is irrelevant to what makes a compelling photograph. What I do want, after a certain level of base technological competence, is that the camera I use get out of my way and allow me to get the picture. In that respect, just like my iiif, M4 or M5, my M8 succeeds briliantly, and I get the added Leica caché, all for the price of a middling consumer grade digicam.

 

 

 

 

The Leica Rep

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By Derek McClure. Mr. McClure is a photographer who shoots weddings, corporate and other portrait type work as needed. To escape from the commercial digitalized product flow that overwhelms his life, he shoots 35mm film with his three Leica’s –  an M7, an M3 and a Barnack iiib. He lives and works in Adelaide, South Australia. You can see his film  images on his instagram feed, @backwater_beat .

 

The glass was millimetres thick, yet it might as well have been made from solid steel. I beheld the items before me, displayed like endangered zoo creatures surrounded by a force field of glass that were designed to tempt even the most stoic of shooters. My breath fogged up the glass as I glared at the elite system that was both within and without of my reach. To the bloated rich, they were just another camera system, to everyone else they represented a kidney or a lung on the black market. The Leica M system.

I sighed and turned away from the glass case, feeling like an intoxicated drunk who had been rebuffed at ordering his last pint. I cradled my own Leica like a new born as I began my usual mantra of why I would always be satisfied with just one Leica.. and the other two that had been shelved prior to my early morning departure.

As I was about to proceed out of the store I found myself face to face with a man in a suit sporting a murse and equipped with red dot on his lapel. The Leica Rep. His visage was that of a person who had been caught in a conversation with their grandmother about a fungal growth on her goitre. The cause of his countenance was an enthusiastic camera noob peppering him with questions about megapixels and Instagram filters.

As I went to step past his eyes widened at the sight of my M7, his demeanour changing suddenly from clammy to rhapsodic as he recognised a fellow luddite. “I love your camera strap!” Apparently I was to buy the drinks and say how often I come to this place. I tightened my grip on my Hardgraft leather and wool camera strap which comfortably grasped onto my chrome Leica M7 and Summicron 50, all of which was set off beautifully by my ebony Artisan Obscura soft release.

The conversation moved rapidly as though we were at Beach Club Café pretending to order a drinks. The mention of Leica’s, lenses and photographic intentions were numerous, and growing at a fantastic rate. The Visco app enthusiast stood awkwardly with a smile plastered on her face like a jilted bride on her wedding day. “I love lamp,” she may have mumbled.

The moment arrived when mutual admiration was trumped by insecurity. The global obstacle of two photographers wrestling to impress the other, but having no real foothold in their ability to astonish the other. The stalemate to which we had found ourselves lead to the situation I should have foreseen.The Leica Rep revealed his Holy Grail. The Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH.

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All sound within a kilometre radius ceased, birds stopped in mid-air and a little bit of pee may have worked its way down my leg. “I love lamp..” I mumbled. He handed the lens to me with a knowing winners smile. I felt it slowly pulse in my hand like a beating heart newly ripped out from someone’s innards ala Indiana Jones. In my hand was the unattainable, legendary, real, and more than what I could sell one of my children for. I had never had a moment like this one where I wished I could run as fast as Usain Bolt. “How would you like to try it out for a month, we have..” His voice trailed off as I stared at the Noctilux. My heart was beating so loud in my ears that I thought it was about to implode. “Sure, I’d be keen.” I squeaked.

I gingerly handed the Noctilux back and gave him my card. A brief handshake later and I walked out of the store feeling alive. Colours seemed more vibrant, my senses alive like I had never seen daylight before. I skipped down the street as a trail of Disney creatures followed me. Their joy reflected my own as I broke into song. I twirled around like a giddy school reaching the crescendo of my canticle. I felt incredible. I slept fitfully that night dreaming of bokeh, thousands of Facebook followers and my new job at Magnum.

I never heard from the Leica Rep again.

How I Was Won Over to My Leica

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by Hector Ramos

For the last year or so I’ve visited Leicaphilia almost daily‎ looking for interesting reads on analogue and Leica film cameras. I visit other sites, too like Eric Kim’s, Steve Huff’s and Japan Camera Hunter but I like Leicaphilia the best because it helps me discover and remember why I’ve chosen film and Leicas as my medium.

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1970s, one of my fond memories is my dad’s Kodak Instamatic camera and photo albums. Special occasions were recorded and revisited via photo albums. I grew up in a small town without electricity, TV, phone, refrigerator or cars. My dad’s camera was considered a sign of affluence. From 1992 to 2010, I lived and worked between India; the Bay Area in California; Europe; and Australia, and used photography to keep my sanity, doing it mostly as a hobby and part time to earn some money. I had a collection of Nikon bodies, an FM2 (which I still regret selling) , F801, F4s, F5, F3 and D1x, and several lenses.  The F5 in particular was very impressive for its metering. But I remember one day asking myself: ‘This camera is better than me! I wonder how it gets ‘good’ pictures?’  Thus began my search for a more simplified camera that would allow me to make the pictures instead of having the camera do it for me.

I sold all my Nikon gear and ended up with a brand new black Leica MP and a pair of lenses: the 35mm and 75mm Summil‎ux aspherical lenses, bought from B&H. A friend who delivered them to me said ‘I can’t belive how expensive these are!’…. and I thought to myself ‘Is this all I get for selling so many cameras and lenses? What was I thinking?’ Yet, as I began to use the kit  the build quality, simplicity, and concentration required to use the system gave me a photographic rebirth and the greatest satisfaction to date compared to any camera I’ve ever used. I noticed a change in my photos which were hard to explain. But the most important was the taking of a responsibility that when the picture was great it was because of me. And if it was not to my liking it was also because of my skills as a photographer.

Enter the M8. It was convenient and produced film like qualities. I stopped using the MP and my back-up M6. But interestingly the ‘quality’ of my work dipped and I stopped enjoying my photography so much. For important work, like weddings, I always went back to the MP and M6. And always they gave me greater satisfaction than the M8. I eventually sold the M6 and the M8 together with a 28 summicron and a 135 telyt for an M9 a few years back. I tried hard to love digital. But something never clicked. I couldn’t relate to the digital workflow and digital files. I tried to mimic film but in the end I thought,’why not just use film then?’  The M9 gets used by two of my sons when they visit.

I have since tried an M3 and an M4 and have learned to eye exposure. But my current workhorse is the MP and a 50 summilux.  They always accompany me on my work travels to different countries, usually used to record moments for myself.

I am currently going through two big suitcases full of velvia slide boxes,  and Tri-x and HP5 sleeves from the last 24 years of shooting, trying to organize for printing choice images just like what my dad did. Or maybe for a website. But the images which stand out because of a certain ‘feel’ are the ones unmistakably taken with the Leicas.

 

Gear Excess or Minimalism: What Makes You Happy?

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Lately, in a conscious quest to simplify my life, I’ve found myself thinking:

  • Why exactly do I own what I own?
  • What could I sell and not miss, practically speaking?
  • Do I really need that?
  • What is it costing me to own that?

I have way too much stuff. Cameras and lenses to be exact. It’s a first-world problem, no doubt, a function of an affluence we often don’t recognize because it’s become so common. It starts with the best intentions, but usually ends up where I find myself – with a surfeit of beautiful, shiney, pleasing things I never use. Which is a shame, because the mechanical cameras and lenses I’ve collected – whether they be Leicas or Nikons or something else – deserve to be used.

When I hold onto camera I don’t use, even though just the possessing gives me pleasure, (and this is especially true for the mechanical cameras I tend to buy and collect), it does indeed cost me something, if only in the time spent organizing, contemplating, and/or servicing the camera I’ve accumulated. And it costs the larger gearhead community something too – a camera that could be being used by someone as opposed to sitting on a shelf.

So, I’ve decided to start selling off the things I can’t justify sitting on my shelf. It’s difficult, as I can always find a reason to hold onto something. But usually the reason I find is the same reason I bought it – it’s beautiful/cool/iconic/historic etc and I want it. Good enough reasons, I suppose, but not compelling enough to convince my wife, who is currently in desperate need of a shiney, new, large capacity refrigerator.

With this in mind, I’ve started a new page you can reach from my homepage entitled, simply enough, “For Sale.”  Everything you’ll find there is mine. It all works. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. I’m not selling it for any other reason than I just don’t need it.

I’ll be listing further items as current items sell, so feel free to check back in for other items in the future.