Category Archives: Film photography

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

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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Flusser-Foto1

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

analog

“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

valeaa017-edit 20150930-dsc_1341-edit

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:

valeaa019a-edit

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