Category Archives: Leica Photographers

Magical Thinking and the Illusion of Continuity


“With the introduction of a perpetual upgrade program, every LEICA M8 will forever be a state-of-the-art digital camera. Today’s and tomorrow’s users will always be able to incorporate the latest refinements and developments in handling ease and technology. It is our aim to secure your investment in the LEICA M8 for the future. While other digital cameras quickly become outdated and are replaced by newer models, our new concept extends the value retention and resistance to obsolescence embodied in the Leica ethos. Over time, we will gradually offer new product features and developments as upgrade options, declares Steven K. Lee, CEO of Leica Camera AG. Our customers can therefore still invest in the photographic tools they need without worrying that they will miss out on improvements and technological developments along the way.”


The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.

As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value  because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.

The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers,  at a pace in the rear of the digital pack.  This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.

Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.

The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.


So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.


Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I  he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.

Yevgeni Khaldei’s “Reichstag Leica” To Be Auctioned


The camera used to take an iconic image that came to symbolize the Russian victory over Nazi Germany is to go on sale at auction this November in Hong Kong. Photographer Yevgeni Khaldei, who worked for the Soviet news agency TASS, shot the image of Russian soldiers waving the Hammer and Sickle flag from the top of the Reichstag using a Leica III, sometime after the building had been captured.yevgeni-khaldeis-leicaRussian Reichstag Dude

The camera, bearing the serial number 257492 is accompanied by an Elmar f/3.5 50mm lens with the serial number 471366 and is set to be auctioned on 30th November. Auctioneers Bonhams has set a guide price of $HK 3,000,000-4.500,000 (equivalent to £230,000-340,000 or $390,000-580,000).

Reichstag Camera

Jorge Fidel Alvarez: Street Photography With a Leica M Film Camera

WHN38-30Jorge Fidel Alvarez, Wuhan, China, 2014. Leica M6 and Tri-X.

Everybody does “street photography” these days. Go to Tumblr or Flicker and you’ll find reams of it posted day after day. Most of it is not very good, nothing but throwaway looks with no internal dynamic to make you look again. Just.people.on.the.street. Really good street photography somehow rises above the pedestrian view, revealing a greater narrative within a sliver of everyday life. There is always something surprising about it, something unexpected that draws your eye and makes you want to look again. It poses a question, draws you in for a second look, gives you a glimpse of something incongruous, something you don’t expect to see in the way you’re seeing it, inviting a unique interpretation for each idiosyncratic viewer.

Take the above photograph by Jorge Fidel Alvarez: A man, presumably, with a bizarre mask stands facing the camera, something decorative hanging over where he stands; his demeanor unreadable, maybe slightly menacing.  The scene radiates something indefinably sinister. An elderly Chinese woman stands in the background, smoking, staring at either the masked man or the western photographer. I wonder: who in her mind is normal, and who is exotic?  The photo fascinates me, but I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at, so I look at it again and fashion a narrative to fit what I think I see. The photo suggests various interpretations; its up to me, the viewer, to work it out for myself. (The masked man is actually a welder using a homemade steel mask, which, after the stories we’ve told ourselves, almost seems irrelevant).


Good street photographers shoot a lot. The father of modern street photography, Garry Winogrand, using a Leica M4 film camera, shot over 12,000 rolls of film between 1971 and his death in 1984. When he died at the age of 56 he left over 6500 undeveloped rolls of film. Winogrand’s heirs, today’s street photographers, work in a digital age where photographs are cheap and ubiquitous, easier than ever to take, store and share. With the advent of camera phones, public resistance to strangers with cameras in public places has lessened. Yet exceptional street photographs remain as rare in the digital age as in Winogrand’s day. And almost no one shoots the street with film anymore. The ease of digital capture makes street shooting with film a proposition for only the most dedicated and hardcore film fanatics.  So I’m fascinated when I see great street work done on film. Jorge Fidel Alvarez is a great street photographer, and he works with film.


Alvarez is a French photographer living in Paris. He is a 2004 graduate of SPEOS, Paris, where he studied under Georges Fèvre (master printer for Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka, among others). The Institut Culturel Français en Chine (The  French Cultural Institute in China) recently invited Alvarez to Wuhan, China to shoot that city’s streets and exhibit the resulting work at the New World International Trade Center in Wuhan. The plan was simple: fly Alvarez to Wuhan for nine days of shooting whatever caught his eye, back to Paris for two weeks to process, select and print his work, and then back to Wuhan to exhibit 20 prints,, opening reception May 29, show to run through June 12. (details)

Jorge in Wuhan

Jorge Fidel Alvarez, May 29, 2014, New World International Trade Center, Wuhan, China

Alvarez, who uses digital for his paying work as an architectural photographer, chose to use a Leica M4 and M6, with 25mm and 35mm lenses, while in Wuhan. (At least one Chinese reviewer found his choice of “antique cameras” memorable.) He shot 70 rolls of 36 exposure Tri-X over the course of 9 days.


Alvarez, who has been shooting the street since the 80’s when he bought his first Leica, took up professional photography comparatively late, after a first career in IT. He has carefully studied the work of other photographers – his Paris flat’s bookshelves are lined with the work of European masters Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Koudelka, Lartigue, Doisneau, Frank. In 2003, enrolled in the photography curriculum at SPEOS Paris, he discovered the American Garry Winogrand. Alvarez’s mature work can hint at the European formalism of Cartier-Bresson and Boubat, and one see’s as well the more spontaneous elements of Frank, Daido Moriyama and Winogrand- but his vision is unmistakably his own, a fascinating amalgamation fusing the poise and balance of a studied, mannered aesthetic with the arbitrary and instantaneous.

WHN40-34bis WHN38-27WHN8-19a




Ralph Gibson Gets Old, Surrenders To Convenience

By Bruce Robbins, January 21, 2014. This article originally appeared under the title A Less Beautiful Ralph Gibson in Reprinted with permission of the author.

Ralph Gibson has gone over to the dark side, his beloved Leica MP and M6 film cameras replaced by a digital impostor that looks the same but eats pixels instead of silver. Who’da thunk it? He’s just published his latest book of photographs, Mono, all of which are digital. Ralph built his reputation on a certain look in his photographs, lots of contrast, empty black areas and sharp composition. He now believes he can achieve the same look with a digital Leica Mwhatever. Maybe he can but that’s hardly the point, is it?

Even one as ill-versed in Ralph’s work as I could quickly grasp that his photographs were organic, they had vitality and soul. More so than most other photographers’, his images lived and breathed. I saw that straight away when my pal Phil Rogers (who’s art school trained – rolls eyes) educated me about Ralph’s photography last year. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and doubtless would give zone system aficionados conniptions but, love it or hate it, it was the antithesis of the perfect digital image. So I loved it.

Gibson 2

Now, regardless of whatever direction Ralph’s future photography takes, we’ll all know that it’s not born of some deliberate combination of over-exposure and over-development – a technique arrived at over decades – but of some footering in Photoshop. No longer will it be unique. Now it’ll be just the same heavily manipulated pixel pap that I’m getting fed up of seeing on Flickr and other forums. (The Online Darkroom Flickr group is a rare exception. Check it out.)

Ralph, who was 75 last week, will now need to rewrite his personal website as well if he’s going to sell his new images there because he states, “All black and white prints are silver gelatin unless otherwise requested.” Somehow, I can’t see too many prospective buyers saying to Ralph, “No, it’s OK. I’ll pass on the hand-made, silver gelatin darkroom print. Just pop me out one of those nice, modern inkjet thingies.”

Some readers might think I’m going over the top but I don’t think I am. If you want an analogy between film and digital, I’d compare them to making a chair. Imagine if you were a craftsman who selected the seasoned wood, sketched out the design for the chair in a notebook, cut the timber to length, shaped it, carved the mortise and tenon joints, assembled it and finished it off with French polish.

Now imagine you had a computer on which you could design the chair. Imagine you could fire that design off to a CNC machine that carved the chair out of a block of wood and spat it out ready made and finished in varnish. The initial vision in both cases – the design – is the same. The latter would be the more perfect but which would you rather own?

Or here’s an analogy from the music world. You write the song, rehearse it with your favourite musicians and record it live. Or, you write the song, programme various computer-controlled synths to play the the various instruments absolutely flawlessly and record that. Which record would you rather listen to?

gibson 1

Why as a society are we so hell-bent on moving away from things made by human hand to soul-less computer-based crap? The lack of human input is so prevalent in the manufacturing process it’s palpable. I was a motoring writer for about 15 years and test drove hundreds of cars and I’d virtually no interest in any of them. They were the motoring equivalent of white goods.

Hand Built

The vehicles I like are mainly pre-1970s (although I had a soft spot for my MX5  because it was the Lotus Elan I couldn’t afford). If I won the lottery, after the DB5 and E-Type, I’d be paying visits to Morgan and Bristol and that’s it. In fact, when doing the motoring column, the only motoring magazines I actually bought on a regular basis were from the kit car industry – hand-built, you see?

Getting back to Ralph, I was aware he’d been “dabbling” with digital for years but, from what I’d read, he always seemed to be quite dismissive of it. Not in a bad way but he made it very clear that everything about his images screamed film and always would.

As far back as 2001, Leica were trying to tempt him with digital cameras without success. Listen to what Ralph said in an interview at that time, “Digital photography is about another kind of information. Digital photography seems to excel in all those areas that I’m not interested in.

“I’m interested in the alchemy of light on film and chemistry and silver. When I’m taking a photograph I imagine the light rays passing through my lens and penetrating the emulsion of my film. And when I’m developing my film I imagine the emulsion swelling and softening and the little particles of silver tarnishing.

“But anyway, the big emphasis in digital photography is how many more million pixels this new model has than the competitor’s model. It’s about resolution, resolution, resolution as though that were going to provide us with a picture that harboured more content, more emotional power.


“Well, in fact, it’s very good for a certain kind of graphic thing in colour but I don’t necessarily do that kind of photograph. So when it comes to digital, I have to say that digital just doesn’t look the way photography looks: it looks digital. However, I strongly suspect some kid is going to come along with a Photoshop filter called Tri X and you just load that and you’ve got yourself something that looks like photography (laughs).” My italics, Ralph’s laughter.

Photography or Digital

Now, everyone is obviously free to change their mind but I’m not sure there have been any developments in digital in the last few years that would negate anything Ralph said about his own view of photography or the materials he used. Did you see the way he spoke of “photography” and “digital” as two separate entities? Does that mean he’s no longer a photographer?

Why would a photographer who has built a considerable reputation using film ditch it in his 76th year? Is he getting too old to spend hour after hour in the darkroom or did Leica make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? Or was it the sudden realisation that all his earlier utterances about swelling, penetrating and softening (will that pass the censors? – ED) were wrong all along? Or was that just art speak designed to impress the pseuds?

Here’s Ralph’s (wholly unconvincing in my opinion) justification for taking the wrong fork in the road. Note that he concedes he’s now offering a less “beautiful” product.

These words about making images could be written in English, French, or any number of languages we know exist in the world,” he said in promoting his book.

“I am writing both about images and my life long relationship to the creative process. We could talk about the moon in many different languages but it would still be the moon being described.

“So when I work in digital, I might be describing the same subject but in a different language, a somewhat altered syntax. But the subject is the same. And the very moment I discovered that I could get my “look” on digital, I was convinced that this was a new language that I wanted very much to explore.

“Imagine my excitement after 55 years in the darkroom. It must be said that the silver-gelatin print is still more beautiful than the ink-jet but at the rate technology is progressing it is not inconceivable that the substrates will become even more desirable. For the moment I am totally inspired and enjoy picking up my Leica and expressing my thoughts and visual ideas. I have always liked picking up my Leica…”

Sorry, Ralph, mate. You’ve just gone from designer label to store bought.


Postscript: On February 1, 2014, Leica announced a limited edition Leica Monochrom “Ralph Gibson Edition, priced at 21,000 Euros (around $28,000). A total of 35 units were produced.


Gianni Berengo Gardin Talks About His Love of Film Leicas


Gianni Berengo Gardin is an Italian photographer who has worked for Le Figaro and Time Magazine. Considered a artistic heir to Henri Cartier-Bresson, like Bresson he has long used and admired Leica rangefinders. His work has been published in more than 200 photographic books and shown in the most prestigious galleries and museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Now 82, Gardin boasts a personal archive of more than a million pictures.


Q. How long have you used a Leica?  A.  Always: although in the fifties I used a Rolleiflex 6×6 because the clients preferred medium format to the smaller, 35 mm film, but I always had a Leica III in my bag for my own use. Then in 1954, when Leica released the revolutionary model “M” bayonet, I was among the first in Italy to buy it in a shop in Venice, where I lived. I had to pay for it in installments because German quality has always been expensive here in Italy. Since then I’ve owned and used, in order, an M2, M4, M6 and M7, and I still continue to use my M7 as my primary camera, even today. 

Q. It is still worth spending a significant amount on a simple Leica rangefinder when the market offers all kinds of models with all kinds of features at prices far more competitive? A. In the 50’s, the excellence of a Leica camera was clear. Today, the high level of optical and mechanical reliability remain, although the qualitative gap compared to other brands has narrowed. However, what remains important for me is the tradition of Leica. I feel a responsibility when I use my Leica, a responsibility to carry on the great photographic tradition of photographers from Dorothea Lange to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith, Josef Koudelka.


Q. You still prefer the film: Why? A.  I trust its archival properties. I’m afraid that digital capture, without a physical medium,  can not be sustainable over time.

Q. Have you tried a digital Leica? A.  Yes I’ve used a digital Leica. The quality is excellent and it certainly gives you the advantage of flexibility and speed, but for my type of work its not so important to see the result immediately. It is said that older men are attracted to younger women: for photography, for me its the opposite.  Instead of looking for the latest model I an romantically faithful to the classic models of the past. In my bag there will always be three film camera bodies and two wide-angles – a 35 mm and 28 – always allowing me to be close to my subjects. 


The Tri-X Factor


Bryan Appleyard, From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

Kodak’s Tri-X is the film the great photographers love. When Kodak started collapsingfinally filing for bankruptcy in January 2012some of the greatest photographers in the world panicked. Don McCullin immediately ordered 150 rolls of Kodak’s Tri-X black-and-white film. “I rang up my stockist and asked for them right away. I thought it was the end of my life. I don’t even know if they are still making it.”

Relax, Don, they are. After the company emerged from bankruptcy, a new company, Kodak Alaris, took over film production and, so far, it seems committed to producing Tri-X. But don’t relax too much. You are going to have to shoot those rolls pretty soon. Films, unlike digital sensors, have to be cared for. They need to be stored in fridges and even then, like supermarket food, they have expiry dates. This did not deter Anton Corbijn, the photographer and film-maker, from panic buying on a far larger scale than McCullin.


“I bought 2,500 rolls. My studio in Holland has three floors and there’s a fridge on each floor, all full of Tri-X. They must all be near their expiry date now. I don’t know what to do.”

McCullin shoots Tri-X alongside digital. Corbijn shoots almost nothing but film, Tri-X for black-and-white and Kodak Portra for colour. They are veteransMcCullin is 78 and Corbijn 58but they are not Luddites and they are not wallowing in nostalgia. They are intent on preserving an artefact, a practice and an art form that, they say, simply cannot be matched by the technologies of digital photography. They are also keeping alive a cultural moment defined by one brand of film.

 Self-portrait with woman and donkey, Paris, 1999

It was on Tri-X that McCullin captured some of the most powerful images of the Vietnam war: the shell-shocked American soldier with the thousand-yard stare and the fallen Vietamese soldier with bullets and family snaps scattered about him. It was on Tri-X that Corbijn took some of the greatest rock’n’roll photographs, including his documentation of the capering genius of Tom Waits, which has now run for nearly 40 years. In fact, if we include just a few other Tri-X usersHenri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka and most of the finest of the photographers who worked for the Magnum agencyit becomes clear that this film may be the most aesthetically important technology in photographic history. The story of Tri-X is unique. It goes to the heart of how we see and what we see and what we may be losing as billions of casual, digital snaps are taken daily and as photographic integrity is subverted by the dead, flawless, retouched faces of actors and models that gaze blankly out at us.

As a commercial product, Tri-X is 60 this year. It first appeared in 1940, but only as a sheet film for large-format cameras. In 1954 it was released as a roll film for 35mm and medium-format cameras. In effect, it launched the golden age of black-and-white photography that was to last until the 1980s, as well as a new, urgent style of newspaper and magazine photography. It did so, first, through a simple technological innovation. Films are rated by their sensitivity, measured by what used to be called an ASA number, now known as ISO. The higher the number, the more sensitive (“faster” in photo-jargon) the filmor sensoris to light, though the cost of high sensitivity may be an increase in grain or “noise” in the image. Tri-X was rated at 400 ASA, very fast for its time (modern digital cameras can go up to 26,000 or more). But it was also flexible and forgiving. Even if your exposure was slightly wrong, you could still get a decent shot and Tri-X could easily be manipulated in the darkroomit became common chemically to push its ISO up to 800 or 1,600. Faster, more flexible film meant that professionals could now use the same film for outdoor and indoor shots and amateurs could be reasonably sure that their pictures would come out.


“I was technically awful when I started out,” says Sheila Rock, a photographer who made her name with shots of London punks in the 1970s. “I used to wonder if my images would come out, but with Tri-X they did.”

“Tri-X allowed me to make mistakes, of which there were many over the years,” Corbijn says, “and I somehow always got a print out of it.”

The more important innovation, however, was aesthetic. It is hard to describe exactly the look of a Tri-X picture. Words like “grainy” and “contrasty” capture something of the effect, but there is more, something to do with the obsidian blacks produced by the film and with a certain unique drama that made the rock photography of the Sixties and Seventies so powerful and distinctive. Steve Schofield, a British photographer, now in Los Angeles, who first encountered Tri-X in the Seventies, has a different word: “I got these incredibly contrasty negatives that still somehow managed to render detail in both the shadows and highlights. It’s got that steely look, not warm like lots of other film bases. It’s that basic look from Tri-X that I’ve tried to incorporate into my work which is now mostly shot digitally and is now colour…that monochromatic palette, but interpreting it with a simple colour base. If I do ever need to shoot black-and-white, I always prefer film and always opt for Tri-X.”

Another good word is “dirty”. In the early 1950s, monochrome photography was still dominated by the pearly perfection that came in with the black-and-white films of the Thirties. Those pictures had a wide tonal rangemany shades of greybut they tended to look flat. Tri-X, with its narrower tonal range, seldom looked flat and its harder, steelier style fitted the mood first of the realism of the Fifties, then of the casual, go anywhere, do anything mood of the Sixties. This dirtinessa product both of Tri-X’s grain and its ability to work in low lightwas the photographic correlative of three movements in other art forms: the Angry Young Men in literature, the School of London in painting, and the socially engaged work of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the cinema. It was an aspect of an age that rejected the cosy, the safe and the merely glamorous in favour of the dynamic, the unstable and the pungent smell of lived life. From this emerged, in the Seventies, Anton Corbijn, perhaps the supreme artist of dirty Tri-X. In his early work, the dirtiness was intensified in the processing and the result was stark, imperfect shots with very visible grain that felt more realistic than any perfectly developed and processed shot.

“Grain is life,” Corbijn says, “there’s all this striving for perfection with digital stuff. Striving is fine, but getting there is not great. I want a sense of the human and that is what breathes life into a picture. For me, imperfection is perfection.”

The urgency of its images made Tri-X the first choice of reportage photographers, from great artists like Cartier-Bresson and McCullin down to the snappers on the local paper. All you needed was a Nikon F cameraexpensive but tough and absurdly easy to use compared with today’s professional camerasand a few rolls of Tri-X and, maybe, a darkroom in your bathroom, and suddenly you could call yourself a photographer.


It should be said that there may have been some magical thinking in all this. Tri-X produced brand loyalty that produced superstitious devotion. Though it was the first fast black-and-white film, it was not on its own for long. Ilford produced a competing 400 ISO film that many regarded as interchangeable with Tri-X and, in any case, long before Photoshop came along, the great darkroom craftsmen could do almost anything with printing and processing. “We could always do what you wanted in the darkroom,” says Mike Spry, a printer at the firm Downtown Darkroom who handled the films of David Bailey, Patrick Lichfield and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Snowdon). “The great thing about black-and-white as opposed to colour was that you could change things around.”

Though it is true to say that professional digital photography of the face has converged on the dead, waxy, heavily retouched style that dominates the glossy magazines, it should also be remembered that good old-fashioned darkroom technique also involved extensive retouching. The finished product was different but no less manipulated.

Nevertheless, it was Tri-X that created the possibility and then the demand for urgency, contrast, grain and drama in photography. It revitalised photography as a whole, but black-and-white photography in particular. In doing so it drew attention to the fact that, in spite of the incursion of colour and all the billions of hues and shades of digital, there remains something natural and true about the monochrome photograph, something that springs directly from the camera itself. Sebastião Salgado refuses to consider colourhe regards it as an offensive distractionand has had his Canon digital cameras adapted so that the screen on the back shows only black-and-white.

It was also thanks to Tri-X that the wave of grainy, dirty reportage pictures changed high art photography. Art photography in the Sixties and Seventies, even in high fashion, was all about dirty grainy realismand, of course, black-and-white.


“They were great times for printers like me,” Mike Spry says. “Just as hairdressing became an art form in those days, so did black-and-white photography.”

Corbijn’s doctrine that grain is life expresses a great truth about the Sixties and Seventies way of seeing the world. The age was defined by a rebellion against safe perfection and a quest for truth in experimentation, danger and dirt. Nothing captured this moment better than Michelangelo Antonioni’s extraordinary film “Blow-Up” (1966). A Bailey-like photographer called Thomas, played by David Hemmings, makes extreme blow-ups of some monochrome shots he has taken in a park and discovers, emerging ghost-like from the grain, a corpse. But the truth of this corpsehe returns to the park to check that it is really therecontrasts with the bright, high-resolution, high-colour, hallucinated and erotic fantasies of Swinging London. In the end, Thomas is seduced by the unreal. He turns away from the truth of the grain and embraces grainless hippie unreality, a choice symbolised by his willingness to retrieve a non-existent tennis ball. It is hard to imagine a more vivid statement of the legacy of Tri-X and of its centrality not just as a film but as an idea of the age.

In the late 1990s Sebastião Salgado faced a crisis. Ever since the 1960s he had been shooting Tri-X, but he was not sure he could go oneither as a Tri-X user or even as a photographer. He specialises in long, heroic expeditions to produce his astounding pictures, most familiarly of the effects of industry on the third world. As airport security tightened, up to and after 9/11, he found it harder to persuade officials that his cases containing hundreds of rolls of film should be spared the X-ray machines. The signs say these machines do not affect film, but Salgado insists they do, especially if, like him, you pass through six or seven airports in a single trip. “The grain”, he says, “loses its structure.” The people at Kodak, meanwhile, have passed Tri-X through X-ray machines many times and they insist that it is not affected. Salgado, and many other pros, remain unconvinced.

His career and his next great work, “Genesis”, were saved by Canon. They claimed their latest digital cameras could match the quality of film and, after testing in the early 2000s, Salgado agreed. He now shoots everything on digital. Yet this is still a contentious point. Some say it is a simple matter of how many pixels can be packed on a sensor. Film photography, as an analogue form, produces pictures by allowing light to fall on chemically coated celluloid, creating an analogue of the scene in front of the lens. Digital, in contrast, collects light through a series of tiny sensors and then creates an electronic copy of the image. Film has very high resolution and early digital cameras with, say, 5 megapixels5m sensor pointscould not match this. This does not mean their photographs were less realistic, just that they could not be blown up beyond a certain native size without breaking down. For professionals, this makes cropping a digital photograph very costly in terms of available resolution, though software is available that interpolates additional pixels by working out what would be there if the resolution were much higher. Pixel counts have been rising steadily, and both Sony and Nikon now offer cameras for less than £2,000 that deliver 36 megapixels, a level of resolution that probably exceeds the capability of any 35mm film.

But, of course, it is not that simple. Squashing ever more pixels on to a sensor makes for technical problems and, in any case, it may not be the point. Film versus digital, McCullin points out, is still a debate among professionals and they are not talking about megapixels. Film is about more than just resolution, it is about authenticity. Film has other, more mysterious qualities.

“Film has more depth,” Sheila Rock says, “it’s the depth of going into a picture which I don’t find with digital. It’s much flatter. Some say it’s getting much better and I do see some things that have impressed me.”

Salgado knew this and he wasn’t quite prepared to go all the way to the digital look. He still wanted his all black-and-white pictures to look like Tri-Xand they do.

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“I went to the exhibition of ‘Genesis’ at the Natural History Museum,” Rock says. “I looked really closely at the pictures and I thought they were Tri-X, but I was told they were digital prints.”

When I asked Salgado how this was done, he shrugged. He did not know: all he did know is that his technicians could produce the Tri-X look he liked. He never touches a computer and his post-production work is done by assistants at his studio in Paris. In fact, and this is a sign of the image-making times, many widely available digital photo-editing programmes now offer “film emulation”. You can simply scroll through a list and pick which type of film you want. Click on Tri-X and your picture will instantly be transformedgrain, drama, dirt and all. It works veryto devotees, alarminglywell.

This software trickery, inserted into the digital algorithms to mimic an old manual craft, is another symptom of the now familiar phenomenon of analogue defiance, a rebellious hunger for the pre-digital world. Sales of vinyl records are now going up again, resistance to e-books can be fierce and, in New York, an art magazine called Master Cactus has emerged, which is only available on a tape cassette. In photography, the company Lomography has carved out an odd little niche market for plastic and toy film cameras whose dodgy construction produces bizarre and unpredictable effects. Polaroid cameras are on sale again and Fujifilm has produced its own version of instant snappery with the Fuji Instax film. Online, the 100m-plus users of Instagram can apply filters to give their pictures a variety of retro, filmish looks. People seem to be perversely drawn to the shortcomings of film photographythe light leaks of Lomography’s toy cameras, the strange starkness of small Polaroids and even, on Instagram, the corner-vignetting produced by vintage lenses.


Analogue defiance is a real and increasing force in the marketplace. It may be converting only a few to all the hassle and artistry of film, but, as a symbolic statement, it has had enormous impact on camera design. Film cameras, even the most expensive, were simplicity itself with only, in essence, three controlsfocus, aperture and shutter speed. Professional or “prosumer” digital cameras have so many controls, it is impossible to list them all. And they are operated by a very user-unfriendly set of buttons. These were discouraging amateurs from trading up, so over the past few years manufacturers, led by Fuji with its X range, have been making retro-looking cameras with old-fashioned wheels and switches. This was so successful that even Nikon, one of the big makers of professional digital cameras, went so far as to produce the Df, a digital camera designed to look like the old Nikon F on which so much Tri-X was shot. It is an absurd and ungainly product costing over £2,700, which, by my reckoning, means you are paying at least £1,000 for the knurled metal knobs on top.

If that all represents a 180-degree turn away from digital perfection, some have gone even further, rejecting the perfect via a kind of 360-degree turn. Google Street View famously, notoriously, set out to photograph all the streets in the world using car-borne digital cameras. Two artists, Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, decided to use selected images from the millions thus produced to create eerie works of art. These were technically poor photographs, but evocative nonetheless. It was, in its way, an attempt to resurrect the art of street photography, an art taken to a very high level with Tri-X in the hands of photographers like Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson. In their day, street photography was welcomed and safe; now it is dangerousyou can get accused of paedophilia, suspected of being some kind of snooper or, by police, of being a potential terrorist. Even worse, some of your subjects will know all about image rights and release contracts. Street View seemed to solve the problem.

But it was nothing to do with film and most of the analoguesque software gizmos are strictly for amateurs. So the question now becomes: if it can be done digitally right up to the standards required by Salgado, is there any point to Tri-X? Is there any point to film?

There is an old slogan among reportage photographers: “F8 and be there”. F8 is usually the optimum aperture on the lens, the setting that gives the best performance and is most likely to get the shot. “Be there” is just about the absolute necessity of your physical presence at the action. It is the necessity that overrides and underpins all others, so when, in 1948, Cartier-Bresson rushed to take a picture of Nehru announcing the assassination of Gandhi, it did not matter that it was out of focus, ill-lit and streaked with lens flares; all that mattered was that Cartier-Bresson was there to pluck something, anything, from the chaos of events. And, of course, he plucked a masterpiece.

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It is this existential truth of photography that professional film-users fear is being lost in the increasingly virtual digital world. “Film is honest,” says Sheila Rock, summarising the views of them all, “Tri-X is honest.” Dishonesty, in this context, can be seen on any newsstand. The business of digital retouching is dictated by the demands of the American star system. Rock, who is obliged to use digital for commercial work, was even told by one client in response to her tastefully retouched images that “American women like to be more perfect”. The result is a universal digital convergence on a style that makes the stars of the covers look like Stepford Wives, robotic and impersonalthey might all be Jennifer Aniston or they might not, it does not matter. Anton Corbijn recently got one of his Tri-X shots into a glossy, but not until they’d asked him if it could be done in colour. He explained that, with film, the shutter click is terminal, at least in this respect.

Corbijn is regarded with envy and awe by many of his peers, but he does not call himself a professional“there is so much I don’t know”and he believes in the power of limitation to increase your creativity. This is why he sticks to film: it does not have the vast flexibility of digital, a flexibility that detracts from the power of the moment when the shutter fires. He is passionate about the material process of making a photograph from film.

“When I started, I felt that I didn’t want a normal job in photography, I wanted that sense of adventure when you meet someone and take a picture. I felt that digital is more like a job. You look at the screen to see if you have it right, then you take another picture. When I come back from a trip, I don’t know what I have exactly. I have to get it developed, so I won’t know for a couple of days. I like the tension of not knowing exactly what you have.”

“There’s nothing like going to Vietnam,” says McCullin, echoing the thought, “when I had to sit on the film for six weeks with a mental memory of the images I took. I had to be patient and carry all that film back to England. It became more precious by the week. And then you went to the lab wondering whether what you had was as good as what you thought you had. The waiting and the torment gave an edge to the whole procedure. Now, with digital cameras, you are looking at the screen on the back after every shot. It becomes an instant thing like fast food, it takes something away from the original menu.”

On top of that thrilling anguish, there is the manual craft of the darkroom where either the photographer himself or his trusted technician would use a bewildering array of methods“ducking and weaving with bits of wire and stuff,” McCullin saysto manoeuvre the image as close as possible to the one in the artist’s head.

All this is being lost as darkrooms close and companies stop producing one type of film after another. Of course, many things are gained, but the full cost of digitalization in many fields, not just photography, is yet to be accounted. Kodak say that film in general and Tri-X in particular is safe. Yet I felt a pang when I asked how they were going to celebrate the diamond jubilee of their greatest film, and they said they had “no definitive plans we can share as of today”.

Never mind, we can do it for them by remembering Tri-X’s black-and-white golden age and celebrating its continuation in the works of Salgado, Rock, Corbijn and, of course, McCullin, the old master. He was off to India when we spoke.

“An Indian dawn with Tri-X,” he said, “it’s like being in heaven.”

Happy birthday, Tri-X, and many more of them.

Justifying the Purchase of a Leica

In one version of our lives, childhood is a series of deprivations and desires whereby we want things we can’t have, some of which we grow out of or just forget. In my case, I was seized with heartache when I entered the newly opened 8,000-square-foot Leica store on Beverly Boulevard at Robertson in West Hollywood. Until then, I had forgotten how much I wanted to own a Leica….

…My own passion for photography and for cameras was kindled by a summer job, at 13,  in a midtown Manhattan camera store run by Hungarian Jewish émigrés. Back then, there was a hierarchy to everything, including desire. The serious young photographer graduated from taking snapshots to a single-lens reflex camera, such as a Mamiya Sekor (popular among my friends), or, if you were more affluent, a Pentax. From there you graduated to an Olympus, and then a Nikon. Professionals used professional versions of the Nikon — which were all black. For the truly discerning, however, the object of desire was the Leica.

The Leica felt solid and was fully manual (a plus to the camera geek), allowing for maximum choice, and therefore, maximum artistic control in each photo. It sat in your hand with a satisfying heft, a solidness that spoke to its seriousness of purpose. To me, it was the embodiment of the schwarzgerat (literally “the black device”), a finely tooled exemplar of German engineering so satisfying in its design and manufacture, so intelligently made, that its use gave pleasure and conferred status and excellence on the user. The reverence in which the schwarzgerat is held has been central to several contemporary classics such as the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or the secret component in the searched-for rocket in Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I aspired to the Leica, although I knew it was way out of my league. 

Everything about it said “German,” which might have added to its forbidden-fruit status, as my parents, Holocaust memories ever fresh, didn’t buy German. However, just as the overwhelming quality of the product convinced some Jews to drive Mercedes and BMWs, particularly after Israel accepted the wiedergutmachung — reparations from Germany — Leica was adopted by many Jewish photographers, among them Robert Capa and Cornell Capa.

Jewish guilt was further assuaged by an e-mail that has been making the rounds for the last several years (I’ve received it as least three times from three different sources), variously referred to as “Leica and the Jews” or “The Leica Freedom Train.” The e-mail tells of how, as the Nazis came to power, Ernst Leitz II, son of the founder, arranged for his Jewish employees to leave Germany. He strung Leicas over their necks and dubbed them Leica sales agents, allowing them to obtain travel visas when those were increasingly hard to get. The cameras themselves served as proof and were a valuable commodity upon arrival in a foreign land. In many cases, Leitz personally arranged introductions to photo businesses in the United States and other countries for his employees. This continued until 1939, when Germany closed its borders to all Jews. Even after that, Leitz’s daughter was involved in helping to smuggle Jews into Switzerland. As Protestants, Leitz said, it was just the right thing to do and he never sought any acclaim for his actions. 


A spirit more truculent than mine might point out that Leica did not close its factories under the Reich, or move its operations to the United States or England — to the contrary, Leica optics were very valuable to the German war effort, and Leitz remained a Nazi party member. And although the company was never convicted of using slave labor, in 1988 it voluntarily paid into a fund set up for German companies to compensate former slave laborers. But this does not make what Leica did for its Jewish employees prior to 1939 any less true: Those “Leica Jews,” their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive because of the opportunity Leitz gave them…

…For many years, though, Leica had been off my radar. Then  I walked into the Leica megastore, a gleaming cube, replete with an upstairs gallery space showing the works of celebrated portrait photographer Mary Ellen Mark, Seal (yes, the singer, who is a brand ambassador for the company, as well as an accomplished photographer with special access to nude models lying on hotel room beds) and Yariv Milchan, the landscape and celebrity photographer (whose Hollywood connection is genetic — his father is entertainment mogul Arnon Milchan). It also houses a bookstore selling rare and well-chosen photo books, curated by Martin Parr of Magnum. And, finally, there are the cameras…


….One might think this would be the worst possible time to be selling expensive cameras.  In the last few years, images made using smartphones and iPhones posted on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook have made everyone a photographer or a photodiarist of their meals, pets, friends and selves. Hasn’t digital and the Internet disrupted and leveled photography?

James Agnew, the store’s general manager, sees it differently. He believes the ubiquity of photos has created a backlash, and he believes there is “overall a return to the tradition of photography and a renewed call for quality cameras and images.”

What became clear from talking with Agnew — who prior to opening this new Leica store, worked for such luxury retailers as Giorgio Armani, Chanel and Van Cleef & Arpels — is that Leica is positioning itself as a luxury company. We live in a society where driving a Bentley rather than a Prius (or, rather, driving a Bentley in addition to a Prius) is a choice that the marketplace supports. So, for every 1,000 or 10,000 iPhone photo enthusiasts, there will be some who crave, or succumb to, the quality and the allure of a Leica.

And if they can’t afford one, then, like me, they can spend time at the beautiful new Leica megastore, lusting for excellence.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. His blog can be found at