Category Archives: Film photography

Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.

Is CCD the New Film?

Are these about to become “hip?”

“A lot of interviews I read on photography sites end with a sort of adage about the best camera being the one you have with you or how film inspires you to just think and shoot rather than pixel peep. I think photography is more than just capturing an image though; it’s also about imposing your vision on it. The best camera is the one that’s right for the vision, with the right noise profile, lens distortions, etc. “


DPReview has a very interesting article about Sofi Lee, a Seattle photographer who shoots with “vintage” (read 8 years or older) CCD lower resolution digital cameras, essentially her reaction against the clinical excellence of modern digital photography:

At the time, I observed to myself that the re-emergent fascination with film was probably ephemeral, specific to the current zeitgeist and highly rooted in nostalgia. So I asked myself, ‘What will be the thing people look back to next, after film?’ I started digging through Flickr archives of photos taken on older point and shoot digital cameras, or ‘digicams’ as some people called them, and felt there was something different about them.

They stood out in a way apart from modern digital files: The dynamic range is narrower and the shadows have a character that looks different from those of modern CMOS cameras [due to the lower pixel count and simplistic noise reduction.

Apparently Ms. Lee studied at a “commercial photography trade school” in 2014 and watched many of her peers either shooting film or trying to recreate the aesthetics of film in editing. “There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking ‘too digital’ as well as instructions on how to add more of an ‘organic, analog’ feel to your images.” Her response was to embrace the technical imperfections of older CDD digital tech.

Ms. Lee is obviously of the digital generation i.e. her interest in photography dates to the digital age, which might explain her reflexive (and wrong) dismissal of film photography as “ephemeral” and rooted in “nostalgia.” She might want to read a book or two about the history of photography before she makes facile statements about the “ephemeral” nature of current film use. I suspect she’s never run a roll of film through a camera in her life and wouldn’t know what to do if she tried, which would explain her ignorance of, and antipathy to, film. One could obviously make the same criticisms about her fixation with dated CCD technology, the impulse being the same, the means simply being different. What’s interesting to me about the piece is that she articulates the same criticisms of digital capture as film partisans and does so in an articulate way.  I suspect as well that at some point in the near future someone will lend her a film camera and she’ll have her own Eric Kim moment. 

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.

Makes Really Deep Gudeshon. Comes With Free Shipping.

Above, a nice looking early production IIIa, model G -(not to be confused with the IIIg) with a 50mm Summar being offered on Ebay by a Japanese seller. Looks nice enough, asking price  $962.94 US, which, in addition to being a weird number, seems a little high.

What’s interesting about the camera is the seller’s description, which looks like it’s been run through Google Translate one too many times:

1935 – The Barnack Leica Leica ‡Va made in 48 years. Shed is a window is good parentheses.??I am speaking of Leica, I believe that Barnack rather than the M-type.??Rugged feel I feel the machine love.???With respect to the operation, there is no problem at all strong.???Double image also meet at infinity.??Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 lens is bright non-coated. Since the non-coated that will be fluffy in the backlighting, but such order light and cloudy or rainy day, you make a really deep Gudeshon.??? You have passed from manufacturing more than 70 years, it has maintained a generally good condition. Operation is also light.???* Also has exhibition of a classic camera that has been across the hand any person Over the decades. Purchase of direction and viscous qualitatively more nervous those seeking the status of the new par, please do not.???* Also because it exhibits elsewhere, please let me know before you buy.??Manufacturer: Ernst Rights Wetzlar??Model: ‡Va??Year of Manufacture: 1935-48 years??Lens: Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 (. Although there is a clouding of about 1mm in the front lens edges, will no problem because before peripheral ball but there is mixing of fine dust, wipe scratches less very clear)??Shutter: T, Z (B), 1-1 / 1000??Film: 135??Distance Meter: range finder??Exposure meter: None (or single exposure meter, shalt use a smartphone exposure meter app)???Appearance: big crack, Atari not, the impression that has been carefully used???Accessories: domestic metal hood, domestic UV filters, Russia made of a non-genuine cap, a little tired genuine snapshot performance case (when used with the Zumaru is, remove the front)

I’m not trying to mock the seller. God only knows what I’d come up with if I were trying to describe a camera in Japanese. That being said the description made me chuckle. And it does look to be a nice camera, so I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by the failure of the description. I will note that I recently bought a set of lightweight bicycle wheels from a Chinese Ebay seller at a ridiculous price. They were described as possessing “exceptional Kentucky..very strong Kentucky. You will enjoy.” Got em last week. Nice wheels. I’m enjoying them.

One More Reason to Use Film

I’m currently reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci written by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Da Vinci was an amazing man (I’m certain he’d be a street photographer were he alive today, but that’s a discussion for another day).

We know so much about Da Vinci because of the voluminous note and sketchbooks he kept, many of which have survived since his death. According to Isaacson, more than a quarter of his notebooks, more than 7000 pages, remain available to us some 500 years after Da Vinci’s death. Meanwhile, in researching his biography of Steve Jobs, with Job’s assistance, almost all of Job’s emails from the 1990’s were found to be unrecoverable.

Think about that for a bit.

 

Using as Opposed to Collecting

A Like New Black Nikon F: One More Beautiful Thing I Don’t “Need”

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that i’ve been periodically selling off equipment in a professed attempt to de-clutter my photographic life. [More to come shortly.] I woke up one day and realized my collection of ‘must have’ cameras and lenses had grown ridiculously large. I’m not necessarily against owning a collection of cameras, it’s just that, when it comes to photography, I’m not a ‘collector’ but rather fancy myself a user. You’d think that having a lot of cameras and lenses would be beneficial for someone who intended to use them for specific purposes, but in reality it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that the multitude of choices you’ve given yourself make choosing more difficult. Faced with the decision of what to pick up and use, I find myself defaulting, usually grabbing the same camera and the same lens as always, saving myself the trouble of having to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes along with justifying whatever choice I would have otherwise made. And then there’s the emotional component, you know, the fact that I got such and such camera at such and such time and such and such place and did such and such thing with it back in the day, all part of the myriad of irrational factors we consider when we make value judgments about the things we own. Such are the anxieties that come with affluence.

You’ll also know that I tend to lapse into abstract discussions about things as I’m doing here, a habit I’ve possessed since young (my favorite book as a teenager was Nausea by JP Sartre (!)), and have an annoying habit of citing obscure thinkers to make a point. From a psychological perspective, it’s probably overcompensation, something I learned early on as a non-conformist teen with a middle finger up to any authority; when faced with the specious claims of those who claim authority to speak, you can often shut them up by one-upping them with competing claims based upon arcane sources, given that those in positions of authority dread admitting you might know arguments and authorities they don’t. Using this method, many years ago already I had come to the realization that most of those who claim authority over a subject are usually full of shit, their claim to it easily deflated with some critical argument.

One thing I have concluded, with certainty, is that cameras, however beautiful or iconic they might be, are still just things produced and meant to be used. You can put them on a shelf and admire them, but the satisfaction that brings is fleeting because, at bottom, they’re tools to be used, and where they find their meaning is in their use.

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A Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, disassembled, cleaned and calibrated by Mr. Sweeney himself. Is it a rare, super-cool lens to use with your Leica? Yes. Do I “need” it? No.

But I digress. The reason for this post is to sell some stuff. In this case, really good stuff, the stuff I’ve been holding off selling in the hope I’d find a reason to keep it, because, frankly, I’m getting down to the equipment I have a real emotional attachment to insofar as one can be emotionally attached to things. It doesn’t help that the IRS is sending me letters suggesting I owe them money and hinting at extraordinary measures to collect it if it’s not immediately forthcoming. So much for emotional attachments. The IRS notwithstanding, I’d recently reached the conclusion that my photographic life would benefit from some further downsizing. Specifically, I’ve concluded I “need” the following: 1 film rangefinder camera with 21/35/50 lenses. And 1 digital camera with a lens. That’s it. The rest, nice as it might be to have, is redundant and certainly not required.

What I actually have at this point is this (even though I’ve been gradually selling off things now for the last year or two):

  • -A mint black Chrome Leica M4 ;
  • 2 Leica M5’s, one black, one chrome, the chrome version needing a new beam-splitter but otherwise quite nice;
  • a Leica IIIg, in need of a general overhaul;
  • a Leica IIIf, also in need of maintenance;
  • A chrome Leicaflex SL body;
  • A standard prism user black paint Nikon F with a stuck shutter;
  • A standard prism black paint Nikon F with perfect 50mm f2 Nikkor-H, the nicest Nikon F I’ve ever seen and definitely a collector;
  • a Nikon S2 in need of a CLA;
  • A Bessa R2S with Voigtlander 25mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses and a few Nikkor RF lenses as well;
  • A Nikon F5 with a slew of manual and AF Nikkor lenses;
  • A Contax G2 with 45mm Planar and data back who ISO button is stuck that I’ve been using to take one picture of myself in the mirror everyday for about 6 years now;
  • A very nice, seldom used Leica M8;
  • A Ricoh GXR with M module;
  • A Ricoh GXR with Ricoh 28mm, 50mm and zoom modules

Frankly, as my wife periodically notes to me, that’s ridiculous.

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Pretty Much “Perfect” Black Chrome Leica M4 # 1381902 (1974). Selling this will hurt.

In deciding what to sell and what to keep (for now), I’ve taken into account what I’d recoup from selling a given item, as an example, the Nikon F5. It may be the most sophisticated, bulletproof film camera ever made: incredibly robust, full of all the features we now expect of DSLRs, it sells for a fraction of its true photographic worth. A quick trip to Ebay sees them selling for $200 and up. That’s nuts. Keep batteries in it and that camera will be working long after I’m dead, plus you get to use the full range of Nikkor lenses, manual focus lenses dating back to the 50’s all the way up to full frame AF Nikkors being produced today. All of that is worth more to me than $250 in my pocket, irrespective of how few times I use the camera. The F5 I keep. Likewise, the cameras that need service. Sell em now for next to nothing or have them serviced and sell them for what they’re worth. So, the Chrome M5, IIIg, IIIf, user Nikon F, the Nikon S2 and the Contax G2 all stay. Next step is to get them serviced, sometime down the road. Which leaves me with a working F5 and tons of optics for it, a Bessa R2S with 25/35/50/85/135, a black M5, a mint black M4, a mint black Nikon F with mint period correct 50mm Nikkor-H that’s apparently been on the camera since new (since it seems as unused as the body and plain prism), a little used M8 and two Ricoh GXRs.

The M5 I keep, as I’ve had it 40 years and is the one camera I’ve always said I’d never sell although it would make sense to sell the M5 and keep the Bessa with its Voigtlander Nikkor mount lenses. Given this, I’ll keep both. As for the digital bodies, I’ll keep one GXR with the 28, 50 and zoom modules.  If I can’t meet my photographic needs with

  • a Nikon F5 and about 20 Nikkors of various size, shape and focal lengths
  • An M5 with a 21/35/50
  • A Bessa R2S with a 25/35/50/85/125
  • A Ricoh GXR with 28 and 50 modules

then clearly my “needs” are driven by something other than what’s necessary.

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Selling this one too. Got the boxes and all the ancillary stuff. Just don’t need it.

How does someone who’s always considered himself above the petit-bourgeois consumerist mindset end up with so much pretty stuff? Good question. It sneaks up on you; while you’re busy chuckling at the lost souls on the photo forums commiserating with other lost souls about which new Fuji body they need to replace last year’s Fuji kit, which 6 months ago replaced the 2015 Fuji, you yourself are engaged in the functional equivalent, buying another camera just because, telling yourself your motives are somehow better, less suspect than the neurotic consumerists who populate the usual sites. You’re not. You’re just another American who’s bought into the idea that happiness comes from stuff, especially really nice stuff like used Leicas.

[ So…., a bunch of things – the M4, the M8, the F, the CZJ Sonnar etc – will be going up for sale on the “For Sale” page of the site. They should be up in a day or two.]

 

Carl Zeiss Jena LTM 50mm 1.5 Sonnar For Sale….For $5500!?!

Ran across this Ebay listing by Breguet Camera for a Zeiss Jena 50 1.5 Sonnar:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Ex-Carl-Zeiss-jena-sonnar-50mm-f-1-5-LTM-for-Leica-screw-mount-L39-Prototype-/311619439379

Asking price $5490.

I’ve written about this lens elsewhere. Wonderful vintage rendering, perfect mate for your film Leica if you’re looking for something other than arid, clinical digital excellence or you just want something unique.

I’m confused why they’re asking so much. Typically these are going for +/- $750 these days. They’re claiming it’s a “prototype,” which can mean anything (my understanding is that most of these were “prototypes” in the sense that they were assembled to various specs and standards depending on what was in the parts bin and what could be scrounged up at any given time i.e. there was never a ‘standard version’ of which an original could be considered the “prototype.”) I’d be interested in hearing from folks in the know (are you out there Brian Sweeney?) why Breguet thinks it’s worth what they’re asking.

UPDATE: This from “Sonnar Guru” Brian Sweeney (that’s what I call him; Mr. Sweeney, who knows more about LTM Sonnars than any other man on the planet, is too modest to claim the guru title for himself):

It looks like a custom conversion, not a factory prototype. I’ve used one of the original Factory Prototype 5cm F1.5 Sonnars in Leica mount- looks nothing like this. I think Zeiss made ~50 prototype lenses in 1932. They are the older style design with no filter ring. The earliest 5cm F1.5 that I converted using a J-3 mount is from 1934, with the newer style machining that is compatible with the Russian lens mounts. As far as pricing- it only matters if someone pays the asking price, the asking price of this lens is ridiculous.I have a 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” from the same batch. I converted it to Leica mount. I asked $450 for the last converted Sonnar that I sold, a beautiful Bloom on a 1936 5cm F1.5. Maybe in 50 years someone will call it a prototype…

Notes From Home

Me, somewhere in Italy,  a la Vivian Maier

As some of you may have noticed, Leicaphilia went dark for a bit, partly out of negligence and partly from ambivalence. This summer saw a number of personal and professional issues come to the fore – let’s call it an existential interlude – (“crisis” probably being too strong a word) – the end result being that keeping up with the site got pushed way down on my list of priorities. An interesting thing happened along the way, however: I got lots of emails (and even a call to a relative) inquiring about my well-being, which is nice. I do appreciate them all. And yes, I’m fine, thank you very much. Other than being 15 lbs heavier from eating too much pizza and drinking too much wine while in Italy, I’m good.

The larger question, the source of the ambivalence, remains the issue of whether this blog – the emphasis on film photography generally and Leica film cameras in particular- has anything  left to say. I’ve been publishing it for 5 (?) years, or thereabouts, and it often seemed to me that recently I’ve been simply refashioning the same argument over and over e.g. I love old mechanical film Leicas, I love both the craft and the aesthetics of film photography, and I think we do photography an injustice when we consider the practice of film photography an anachronism. So, I was seriously considering just shutting it down without further ado and going back to whatever else I’d go back to were I not thinking about such topics.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), based on the response I’ve got after going dark, some of you seem to miss it and think it fills a niche. I was especially taken with a guy who contacted me through the Leica Forum to inquire what was up. He liked the blog because it was the only place on the web where someone might discuss both photography and Wittgenstein. I like that, and he’s right: I’m of the opinion that Wittgenstein and others, ostensibly “philosophers” without any real connection to photography as a practice, might have interesting ideas which apply to how one thinks about photography and what we do as “photographers.”

Paris, August 2017. Shot with an iphone

My recent trip to Italy and France – which I documented in my last few posts – also contributed to the ambivalence. While I took an M4, a few lenses and bag bag of film, I ended up barely using them, opting instead to use my iphone 6, as much an impromptu decision as a calculated plan. I just got sick of dragging a camera bag everywhere I went, and I saw no real need to reflexively engage everything with a camera to my eye. For travelling light, you simply can’t beat a camera phone, and it helps when it doubles as your phone, laptop, map, compass, flashlight, ipod and notepad. But I also saw two exhibitions of film photography – one of various photographers at Museo di Roma in Trastevere, the other a Walker Evans exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris that I was fortunate to be walked through before hours (knowing people has its perks) – both of which renewed my belief that nothing digital is capable of matching the simple beauty of black and white film photography.

7 am, Paris. Cycling through Paris early morning is a great way to see the sites

Now home, I’m procrastinating dealing with the seemingly inevitable problems that come along with iPhone photography, the first and most obvious of which is that most of the photos I took are no longer on my phone but in ‘the Cloud,’ and, of course, I can’t get into ‘my’ Cloud. Meanwhile, the 8 rolls of film I took are waiting to be developed, no ‘Cloud’ or password or whatever the hell else needed. Just some Diafine and an 8 roll tank. More to come soon, I promise.

 

Is Resistance Futile?

I sat down yesterday to write an article about Diafine. Diafine is a b&w film developer that I’m particularly fond of for a number of reasons – it’s super easy to use, lasts forever, allows you to push box speed with excellent results, and generally makes your negatives look great. I was going to draft the post, tee it up for publication in a week or so, then pack my bags and a bunch of film cameras and get out of town for three weeks. I’ll be In Italy and France doing cool things and definitely want to document it all. I was thinking a brick or two of Arista.edu 400 (great film, cheap, looks great in Diafine, have no idea who makes it or whether it’s rebranded something or other) an M4 with a vintage Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm Sonnar, and either a Nikon F5 with a 35mm Nikkor or, if I wanted to travel a bit lighter, a Bessa R2S with a 35mm Nikkor and 25mm Voigtlander Skopar.

Homage to Ken Rockwell (I’ve been reduced to snaps of my wife to illustrate my posts).  Arista.edu 400 @800 iso developed in Diafine. It took a lot of work to take, develop and print these pictures.

As I was sitting at my computer, an email came in from a European photographer friend. It had a number of photos attached to it, what you see above and directly below. He’s been doing this to me for years, sending me these throw-away shots he takes with his phone, and it pisses me off, because every time he sends me another I realize both what a middling photographic hack I am and how easy it all is for him.

But I think what pisses me off the most, apart from the proof of the inequity of our respective talents, is how easily digital technology has made photographic self-expression. Apparently, he takes these shots with his iPhone and a Hipstamatic app. Hell, your 8 year old kid can do this. I’m just not sure if that’s good or bad, but I suspect that it’s forever vitiated notions of photographic excellence as a function of technical skill.

So, yesterday I downloaded Hipstamatic onto my iPhone 6 and went out on my bike for a good long training ride. Along the way I snapped a few pics, edited them on my phone right there on the side of the road and then emailed them to my home computer, where they were when I returned home. I pushed a few buttons and printed them out with my Epson R3000. Here are a few below. Took me about 2 minutes from beginning to end.

So, tell me again, why are we lugging our Leicas and bricks of film through airport security; why are we obsessing about lenses and films and developers and grain and bokeh? What possible reason should I have for continuing my dogged attachment to analogue photography? And why shouldn’t I just pack my iPhone and leave the M4 and F5 at home?

Leica Reflex Cameras: Leitz’s Red-Headed Step-Children

The Leica R9. The end of the line of Leica Film SLRs

I’ve written elsewhere of my admiration of Leica’s Reflex film cameras – the Leicaflex SL in particular. It’s ridiculously overbuilt, solid as a brick, pretty much bomb proof. Plus, you get to use arguably the best 35mm SLR optics ever made; the easily obtainable Summicron-R 50mm f2 is about as good as it gets for a standard focal length SLR lens, if that’s your thing.

I currently own 2 SL’s, one black chrome and one chrome. The chrome version is essentially new. I bought it from a nice woman whose dad owned a camera store in Boston. He apparently had put it away new in the box with a Summicron-R 50mm f2. She found it on his shelves after his death, still unused [yup, the box serial number matches the body]. I bought it, and the body sits in the box, while I’ve attached the ridiculously pristine Summicron to a user black chrome SL body. Nice rig; really nice rig.

A few months ago I initiated a fresh round of gear purge, including the sale of my black chrome SL. I had intended to sell the body only, but somewhere along the way a reader (let’s call him Mr. X) asked about it and I ended up selling him the body with the pristine Summicron. I sent it off reluctantly, with a slight regret. Now I’d have one SL body (the new chrome SL) but no lens to use with it, and chances are I’d never find a new Summicron-R the likes of what I’d just sold. Oh well.  As fortune would have it, Mr. X didn’t find my SL the amazing Leica he’d been expecting (when I asked him what he didn’t like about the camera he said the viewfinder was no brighter than his Olympus OM2 and he had expected something more. Sigh.) so of course I told him to send it back. Given the SL he had in his hands had, without a doubt, the nicest vintage Summicron-R he’d ever find, and given as well my lingering regret after having sold it, I figured this was kizmet at work, the universe giving me a mulligan.

So, having been given a second chance with my Leicaflex, I did what most Leicaphiles do when they get a new Leica  – I took a lot of pictures of my cats while admiring the cool camera I was using. Not any cat pictures, mind you, but gritty black and white “Decisive Moments”, animal reportage at its finest, photos possessing that most elusive of Barthian ontological realities – the “punctum” – no doubt a function of having been produced with a legendary hand-assembled Leitz camera with a second generation “Cron-R.”

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The Leicaflex SL. If you like the M3, You’ll Love This Camera

When I was 12, newly initiated into a subsequent lifetime of camera gear enthusiasm, presently lusting after a Nikon F (I couldn’t even conceive of owning a Leicaflex; it and the Alpa SLR were unobtainable objects for simple folks like me, to be dreamed of only), I ended up confronting the sad reality that my gear ownership, at least while under my parent’s roof, would be compromised. While I had my eyes set on “professional” cameras like the F, I’d never be able to afford one on my own, and I also wouldn’t be able to convince my parents – good, solid lower-middle class burghers –   to buy one for me, their reasoning being that nothing could justify buying the Nikon for $350 when I could buy a perfectly good camera for $125, something like a Minolta.  Certainly, my parents pointed out, the Minolta was more than adequate for the needs of a 12 y/o. And so, thrift and practicality having triumphed, I ended up with a brand new chrome Minolta SRT-101 with 50mm Rokker, a perfectly functional camera that I despised from the day I got it because it had no soul. How do you, as a 12 y/o, articulate to your folks that, for someone besotted with the idea of photography, your camera, in addition to meeting minimal practical concerns, needed to speak to you emotionally?

Thus began my aversion to Minolta cameras, and by extension, to Leica reflex cameras, or more particularly, the Minolta Leica R’s, tainted as they were by association with a garden variety Japanese camera producer. The original Leitz SLR’s – the Leicaflex, SL and SL2 – were designed and built by Leitz in Wetzlar, built to the same standards as the mechanical M’s. They were, and are, beautiful mechanical devices; solid, overbuilt no-nonsense teutonic instruments. But they made a marginal impact in the market because they arrived too late, the first Leicaflex appearing in 1964 5 years after the introduction of the iconic Nikon F. And, in spite of the fact that Leitz sold the bodies at a loss, intending to make up the difference through the sale of the R optics, they were expensive, maybe double the price of an F body, while the price of the system lenses made the whole notion of a Leicaflex cost-prohibitive for most professional photographers. Faced with these market realities, beginning in 1976 Leitz partnered with Minolta to produce the R3, their first auto-exposure camera, accessing Minolta’s technology and expertise and assembling the resulting SLR’s in Portugal to reduce costs. The R4 and R5 were subsequent variations on the same auto-exposure theme.

The Electronic Leica R7. Some People Love Em

In 1988, Leitz returned the R series to its roots with the introduction of the all-mechanical TTL metered R6, now manufactured again in Germany at their new factory in Solms. It was, essentially, a companion piece to the M6, a reach back to Leitz’s all-mechanical history. Given the state of 80’s era technology, it was also the first signs of Leica’s hedging of any pretense that the R system might function as a reasonable professional alternative to the Nikon and Canon professional SLR systems, although the 90’s era R7 did offer an auto-exposure alternative through 1997. Leica replaced the R7 with the R8, shortly to be followed by the R9, a completely new technical and aesthetic all-auto design, soon to referred to as “the Hunchback of Solms.” You either love it or hate it. Personally, I think they’re incredibly cool, having aged wonderfully from an aesthetic standpoint, soon to be a classic, but they’re still expensive even today and the latest R optics remain absurdly expensive. And, if your über-electronic R8 craps out, well, you’ve now got a very expensive door stop.

The Hunchback of Solms

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Which leads us back to the original Leicaflex and the SL’s. If you’re looking for an SLR with the minimalist sexiness of the M5, you can’t do better than a Leicaflex, although I’d steer clear of the original Leicaflex – no TTL metering, with an ugly rectangular metering window on the front of the pentaprism – in favor of the TTL metered SL or SL2. Leicaphiles who know better than me claim the SL2 to be a marked improvement on the SL, but I’ve owned both and can’t tell much difference between the two. As best I can tell, the “improvements” of the SL2 consist of a more sensitive meter and a mirror redesigned to accommodate the newly introduced 16 and 19mm R lenses.

As for my black chrome SL with ‘minty’ 50mm Summicron, it’s back for sale, me having exhausted its creative potential in a few months of marathon cat reportage, and also because my wife won’t let me buy a Colnago C60 unless I unload a few of my photographic toys.

A Colnago C60. I Want One.

That’s it, below. Great camera. No surprises, everything works. Meter works perfectly. the Summicron looks new and comes with the Leitz 12564 hood, also in like new condition. For $550, shipped to your door, it’s yours. If you don’t like it, send it back. Don’t make me put it on Ebay.  SOLD