Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

The Camera Always Lies – But So Do Your Eyes

By Christopher Moss. Mr. Moss is a retired family physician who has been taking photographs for 45 years, still with a strong preference for film

I was thinking recently, as all photographers probably do, about the way I make photographs. I’d had the experience of taking a few rolls of film and finding one or two pictures that worked out particularly well, and had enjoyed the experience of discovering a nugget of what seemed like gold amongst the dross. This was the one that started me going:

I’ll admit that this kind of found photograph is how I make the pictures I feel the most pride about. Perhaps I’m gradually learning to better predict what will work out to be pleasing, but I don’t have the temperament or the skill to plan a photograph in advance, arrange my subjects, and then take the image I had envisioned. Having thought about it for a few days, I started on a line of thought that led to some ideas, currently only dimly perceived, but again with a nugget of truth.

Photo-realistic Painting versus Photography

Somewhere in the early seventies, my father, once an amateur photographer and by then obsessed with painting, had taken me with him on a day trip to London to visit several art galleries. I think he was looking for inspiration, and we both came away with one painting in particular as memorable. Below is Annigoni’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth: This was my first exposure to a photo-realistic painter, and we spent some time with our noses as close as we could, marvelling at the invisible brush strokes. My father had principally made the trip to look at Impressionists, and he was of the view that a clever painter wouldn’t try to record exactly; he would hint at things and let the spectator’s brain fill in the details far more accurately than a brush could do. But for all his skill, Annigoni, and photo-realism in painting receives little respect, and the first assumption I’m going to make is that this is because he doesn’t show us the world changed slightly through his painting, he simply records it like some kind of human Xerox machine.

Years after this visit, I came across Anthony Burgess’s definition of art as the use of a medium, so arranged by the artist as to re-present the world to an audience in such a way that it teaches them something new about it. Well, Annigoni didn’t show us something new, only what was there already, and which we think we already can see. There might be another factor at work, though this is pure speculation: if you have ever seen the drawings of savants who have that particular gift you will have been amazed at the accuracy of their draughtsmanship, and perhaps you will know that unlike the way we might draw by first making an outline and then refining it, savants tend to start in one corner and fill their canvas with complete and finished detail, gradually working across until they reach the other side.

Truly, brains be different. It may be that gifted photorealistic painters are also working in some way alien to the rest of us, and that neuronal atypicality which we often characterise as cold, aloof, and mechanical discourages that introduction of that human element that makes an artistic representation have the quality that Burgess referred to—we learn nothing new in seeing it as there is no sense of seeing through another’s eyes. And yet, photographers are given that respect for their work. The camera, which is said to never lie, is being used to present us sights that do more than simply record a small slice of reality at a particular moment. How is this the case? Why is photography worthy of more artistic respect than photo-realistic painting? I’m going to suggest that it is because the camera does lie, in that it does record the world in a different fashion than our own eyesight, and there are simple optical (and far more complex neurological) reasons for this. We’re going to have to delve into the physiology of human vision.

Eyeballs and Image Processing

This isn’t going to be hard, as I’m simply going to remind you of the things you ought to have been taught in school biology classes. Eyeballs are often compared to cameras, and the analogy holds true from the cornea backwards, but not once we get to the retina and the complex image processing that takes place in the optic cortex. Both are light-tight containers with a hole in the front. The cornea and lens function together to focus light rays on the light-sensitive film, sensor or retina. The iris functions just as the aperture of a camera lens does, controlling the amount of light entering and subtly altering depth of field. But things break down at the retina, where instead of pixels or grains of silver halide evenly suspended in an emulsion, we find the light-sensitive nerve endings known by their shapes as rods and cones. Rods are very sensitive to low levels of light, but pretty much only detect light or dark. Cones are far less sensitive, requiring more light to respond, but they can detect colour. A tiny area at the centre of the retina on the optic axis called the fovea is populated with mostly cones, and when you look at anything, you are using your fovea. This gives a well-focused, high resolution colour image. The rest of the retina is mostly populated with rods, giving a lower resolution image, with relatively poor colour vision. Because nearly all of our optic cortex is devoted to processing the input from the fovea, we see whatever we are looking at very well – it’s sharp, clear, detailed and has exquisite colour rendition.

We actually have very little idea what we are seeing in our peripheral vision, and we can’t find out by trying to concentrate upon it – the moment we flick our eyes over to something at the periphery we see it instantly with the fovea and we are convinced that it was this sharp and this clear all along. This is the trick used by our visual system to make the most efficient use of our neural capacity, a kind of just-in-time image processing that lets us manage— very well—with only having good vision at the fovea. If it were possible to record the image in our brain it would probably seem unbelievable to us, sharp, detailed and coloured in the very centre, but low resolution and unsaturated outside that centre.

A camera does a far better job across the whole image, where degradation is quite small at the edges and corners with well-corrected lenses. Not only does a camera allow a sharp image in the periphery, it does something we cannot with our eyes—it allows an unfocused image in the periphery. But didn’t I just say our peripheral vision is low resolution? Yes, but we can’t tell that it is so, because as soon as we look there it sharpens up instantly courtesy of the fovea now pointing in that direction. Another difference lies in the field of view. It’s often claimed that a ‘standard’ lens, say 50mm focal length for a 35mm format camera, is a natural choice as it mimics the field of view of the human eye. That might be close to the truth for one eye, but we have two, and our brains seamlessly meld the images into one larger field of view. The field of view of a single eyeball is roughly the shape of the lens in a pair of aviator-style sunglasses, being limited above by our brows, below by our cheeks, and medially by our nose. Laterally, the sky’s the limit, most of us having the ability to see slightly behind us by a few degrees. Two eyes together are processed by our brains into a very wide strip, much wider than it is high. If you have access to a large white wall it is interesting to walk up to it until your nose just touches it, Using a finger you can detect the edges of your field of view whilst keeping your eyes fixed straight ahead. Above and below your finger will appear at your eyebrows and at your cheekbones, but laterally your finger will be off the wall and, at arm’s length, somewhere out in the plane of your ears before it disappears. Even a Widelux doesn’t come close.

So when I say the camera always lies, and so do your eyes, I’m really saying they don’t see things the same way, and neither corresponds exactly with the other. Cameras allow for another distortion that we don’t have with eyeballs—the depth compression that comes with varying focal lengths. You’ve all seen photographs of a figure silhouetted against a sunset, in which the figure is unnaturally large against the sun, both appearing to be roughly the same distance from the observer. Finally, one realises that painting is a third way of seeing, of recording a view of the world that doesn’t correspond with our inbuilt vision, nor with that of a camera. It allows perspectives to be changed, colours altered, details to be represented accurately or not, all in ways that don’t match what we are used to seeing. The very perfection of a photorealistic painting (and now we know that isn’t a good name for it!—it would be better called after the way it mimics the brain-processed image we perceive from our own eyes), is perhaps why we don’t care for it as art.

The Camera’s Lies Are Its Art

So now I’m beginning to understand why a photograph that appeals to me has that effect. It differs from natural vision in several ways, and it is these differences that make it worth contemplating. For example:

1. Change in field of view. I particularly like the square format, which restricts my view to something quite unlike my own vision. In itself, that immediately primes me with the knowledge that I am looking at something created, an image rather than reality. Obviously, I can arrange subject matter within that frame in various ways, emphasising some things, minimising others, employing dead space and so on, but all the while manipulating the effect on the viewer. Other formats allow other effects, and for anything other than square I can influence how it affects you simply by choosing landscape or portrait orientation. Naturally, choosing an unexpected orientation gives even more control.

2. Changing the palette. There’s a good reason why black and white photography survives, in that it forces us to concentrate on shape and form, on patterns, placement and contra-positions, on light, dark and contrast. Colour can be rich and fascinating, but it hasn’t those same qualities, and is best used for documenting a scene rather than presenting it in a new way. Placing contrasting colours in counterpoint would be an exception, as in an abstract photograph. Toning a print adds another layer of manipulation, creating an influence on the way an image is perceived—John Berger’s 1972 BBC documentary Ways of Seeing discusses this using the example of how an image will change its meaning when different music is played as it is viewed (by the way, that series is on YouTube and deserves a close look if you aren’t familiar with it).

3. Playing with differential focus. This is the big one for me, as it is something completely unavailable in ordinary vision. A portrait with the subject in focus and a pleasingly blurred background is something I can study in a photograph. It gives a sense of 3D like depth that is nearly as good as with a stereoscopic camera. With vision, the background is sharp as soon as I look at it. A photograph with huge depth of field (think of an f64-style landscape) isn’t interesting in this way. It’s interest is in the content, if the content itself is interesting. Any Ansel Adams landscape falls into that category and we can all agree he was very successful with them. Furthermore, the use of tilt-shift lenses can alter perspective in quite unnatural ways as used in architectural photography, and exploiting the Scheimpflug principle to the full with a view camera allows thin planes of focus to be angled in unusual ways that can appeal. The depth of focus is only a few inches deep here, but the plane of focus travels back from the corner of the vehicle to the window:

Summary

Our natural eyesight, photography and painting are three separate ways of representing the world around us, with less overlap than at first appears. All three tell their little lies, and it is in these differences, often unconsciously perceived, that each can teach us something new about our world. Poor Pietro Annigoni, for all his wonderful skill, still has Rodney Dangerfield’s complaint: “I don’t get no respect!” Maybe I now understand a little bit about why that is.

[Editor’s Note: For those interested in visual neurobiology and how it structures what and how we see, Margaret Livingstone’s Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing is an excellent full-length treatment of the issues discussed above.]

Thinking About Photography

 I think it’s time to put the shoes on again…

By Dr. Henry Joy McCracken. This is an expanded version of the article which first appeared on Dr. McCracken’s excellent blog insolublepancake.org

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on 52 rolls. I quite enjoyed this and I got to wondering as I did when I started film photography in 2015 what the origin of this attraction really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. His quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

 Mobile phones are destroying photography (with Yeti)

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is of a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent exhibition, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, just think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!

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But — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? This of course a subject often discussed here on Leicaphilia. I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent Maison Europeénne de la Photographie, I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery [Editor’s Note: The Maison’s library is one of the coolest places in the world if you’re a photographer. I recommend everyone spend a few weeks there buried in the books]. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, “”What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls”. Here I would like to expand on the first part of that article.

Now let’s go to the library…

So, what do the philosophers have to say today? Around this time, I heard about the death of British critic John Berger, who was famous for his influential “Ways of seeing” series. The first episode, which you can see here on ubu.com is excellent (and you should be thankful that the shirts are only in black-and-white). It starts with Berger taking a knife to a painting in a gallery and ends with him turning to the camera and insisting that we must be skeptical. Many of the ideas in his program are taken from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction”, which essentially says that each work of art there is an “aura” which is diluted when it is removed from its original context. It makes sense, I think everyone would agree that Caravaggio paintings are better in churches rather than in art galleries or at home on the sofa.  And what about today, with our endlessly reproduced digital images?

 Look closely!

Trying to answer that one I quickly got deeply into writings on photography and images, featuring such luminaries as Sontag, Barthes, Baudrillard, Sartre and more recent writers like Manovich and Lechte. I even came across Flusser, previously mentioned here on Leicaphilia. Being the empiricist that I am I quickly felt I was on unstable ground because a lot of the writings seem to be based on reasonable-sounding assertions which are in fact mutually contradictory. You basically get to choose the point-of-view you like the sound of. So, that’s what I am going to do here, because the point for me is to try understand the emotional reaction one can have when confronted with different kinds of images. What’s worse, considering these philosophers, and I am sorry to level this old criticism: many of them don’t even take photographs!

Well, the one who does take photographs is Baudrillard, so perhaps we should pay more attention to him. His idea in Simulacres et Simulation is that today in our society the (symbolic) representation of things has actually displaced the things themselves [Editor’s Note: Thomas de Zengotita’s magnificent book Mediated is a must read for understanding how representations drive how we think and act]. He has a ‘hit list’ of what bad things can happen to images, and the last one sounds to me suspiciously like a digital image: “it bears no relationship to reality and is its own ‘simulacra'”. So this seems to me what digital images are, simulacra, and perhaps we instinctively realise this when confronted with a purely software-defined image which has been stripped of it’s “aura” by incessant (perfect) digital replication.

 Is this part over yet?

In the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You might argue that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software” (in my readings I learned that, amusingly,  motion-picture films are only ever processed by “open source” developers, ones for which the chemical formula is known). But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as the idea of capturing only a single image a time is now completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely so successful because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls on a film Leica for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

Another Parisian moment (at the observatory wall)

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My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. There was just one close-to-retirement prof in his department who taught the students how to scratch film negatives. Fun, but much faster in software. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. One of the philosophers I read (you can guess which one) insisted that, in fact, the image does not exist as a physical object. This certainly goes in the direction of the equivalence of digital and analogue technologies.

But… there is a difference. My conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything because the act of scanning and “dematerialisation” of the negative is a pretty contradictory activity after all that I have said here. However, that would mean a lot more time in the badly-ventilated Observatory dark room…

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.

Photography as Magic

BBB--2

We’ve all got one photo we’ve taken that resonates with us. It won’t win an award, which isn’t the point. The point is that It has a meaning for us, and we keep coming back to it when thinking of the photos we’ve taken we really like. Above is mine, taken in 1970 when I was 12 and just learning the fundamentals of film photography. It’s of two kids in my neighborhood. Nothing special, but it reminds me of my  childhood – my aspirations, the shape of my personality even at that early age, by extension people now old, people now dead. The kid down the street who died way too young; the dog next door I adopted as my own because I wasn’t allowed my own pet; friends I’ve lost touch with long ago; my father, long gone.

I thought it was cool simply as a good photo back then. I still think it’s cool, and I still think it’s a good photo. Not bad for a 12 y/o kid. But it’s become something more than that for me now. Each time I look at it a rush of involuntary memories come back to me, memories shaken loose by a simple decision, long ago, to point my camera at something and click. This is the enduring magic, for me, of photography. Photography can make you feel young again  – or yet. It can give you a visceral connection to the past, providing a clarity that memory, always reconstituting itself, cannot. In spite of its inherently abstract nature – the reality that stasis is a constructed illusion, as Roland Barthes spent a book arguing – it still can possess an authenticity that can’t be rationalized away. Those people there, in that picture, once stood in front of that camera, 50 years ago, just like that. That, to me, is magic.

 

Life is Good

20160930-r1099706-editAbove is a picture of what’s currently in front of me, Friday, September 30th at around quarter to 5. The wine is a Dutton-Goldfield Russian River Zinfandel, circa 2006. I uncorked it last night after arriving home from an 85.5 km ride at 28.6 average km/hr (statistics courtesy of Strava) on my Formigli custom made road bicycle, but, feeling slightly gassed, corked it back up with the idea that I’d drink it later (today).

Next to it sits a Leica IIIg with incredibly cool Carl Zeiss Jena 5.cm f1.5. It sits on a book I’m currently reading, and enjoying – Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking. Next to me, snuggled up against me, is Buddy, a curious looking hound I rescued from the local APCSA a few years ago, who just happened to become my best friend. Lucky me. The IIIg has no reason to be here except that I’m just enjoying its company. While it’s loaded with a 36 exposure roll of HP5 (after of course, snipping the film leader just so to make sure it’s loaded properly), I don’t anticipate I’ll be using in in any capacity. I’m just admiring it. I brought it out here just to look at it while I enjoyed my Zinfandel.

What’s the point of this? Who knows.

How I Was Won Over to My Leica

2016-02-10-0002

by Hector Ramos

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talking Leicas with Astrophysicists

20160701-R1100511-EditParis Observatory telescope. This 60-centimetre telescope, installed in 1890, was designed by French astronomer Maurice Loewy (1833-1907). Loewy was Director of the Paris Observatory from 1896 until his death.

In spite of my obvious critical stance toward many of the fruits of the digital age, it certainly has its benefits, one of which is the ability to connect people of like mind across distances. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to share your interests with others, you did so on a local basis. Now the world is open to you. Through this blog I’ve been lucky to meet interesting, intelligent people from around the world – the Far East, Africa, South America, Europe – and also around the corner where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So I was pleasantly surprised, while travelling recently, to receive an invitation to visit from Dr. Henry Joy McCracken, an Astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and a dedicated Leica film shooter. Dr. McCracken works in a contemporary building located on the campus of the Observatoire de Paristhe foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centers in the world. Its historic building is located on Boulevard Arago in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris.  Louis XIV started its construction in 1667, completed it in 1671. It thus predates the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, founded in 1675.

While the Observatory is open to the public on a very limited basis, nobody gets up on the roof and in the cupola where the telescope is found. Dr. McCracken brought me up on the roof and into the cupola. The telescope there is very old, very big and very impressive.

20160701-R1100506-EditOn the Observatory Roof with Dr. McCracken. Behind him is the cupola where the Observatory telescope is housed. And yes, that’s a film Leica Dr. McCracken is sporting.20160701-R1100518-EditInside the Cupola20160701-R1100525-EditGraffiti Scratched into the Stone Wall in a Space Under the Cupola

The irony of our meeting is that, while we connected through Leicaphilia, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of Leica film cameras and film photography as a viable ongoing means of photographic practice, only one of us was sporting a film camera – and it wasn’t me, which, I’m sure, gave Dr. McCracken pause even though he was a gracious enough host not to note the obvious to me. I had with me an M8 with a Amedeo adaptor and vintage Nikkor attached; he had with him a beautiful M6 with 50mm Summicron that someone had given him, loaded with Tri-X. Of course, there was a reason I wasn’t toting a film camera, as I claim I usually do, and it was because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the hassles of film on an international trip – the X-ray scanning and rescanning, the repeated explanations at security about what exactly the bag full of home-rolled film cassettes actually contained, the time spent developing and scanning the developed film once home etc; all of the reasons normal people embrace digital and see the continued use of film as quixotic in the extreme. If you were to accuse me of being a hypocrite, you’d be right. Consistency is not my strong point, although, in my defense, I am in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, requiring one to be as ignorant today as one was yesterday.

20160701-L1003744-Edit-2These markers are found throughout the Observatory grounds. Something to do with the Meridian Line

So, did this trip help soften my antagonism toward digital Leicaphiles? Yes, it did, actually. I enjoyed the time spent with my M8 immensely. It’s a wonderful camera, offering the simplified Leica experience digitally. I borrowed a 35mm Summicron from a Parisian photographer friend and shot exclusively with the M8, the Ricoh GXR and the D3s staying in the bag. Along the way I lent it to a photographer who for years used both an M4 and M6 but never saw the use for a digital Leica – always saying “I just don’t see the point” when I’d enquire as to why he no longer used Leicas but now used professional Nikon DSLRs. Sitting on his Paris balcony, a few drinks in us both, I handed him my M8 with his Summicron attached. He picked it up, fired off the photo below and said “feels pretty much like a film Leica.” Yup. Pretty much.20160706-L1004281-Edit

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So, back to my thoroughly enjoyable day at the Paris Observatory, courtesy of Dr. McCracken, who, I should add, is an excellent photographer in addition to being a fine human being and a very intelligent guy dealing daily with issues that most of us simply aren’t smart enough to understand, let alone discuss. He publishes 52 Rolls: One Roll of Film for Fifty Two Weeks, where he shoots a roll a week and posts the photos on his blog.

As part of my tour, Dr. McCracken brought me into the bowels of a building on the Observatory campus where is located the darkroom that was once used to develop the Observatory’s photographs. Down a few flights of steps and behind a locked door stood a perfectly functional darkroom, still stocked with papers and chemicals with expiration dates from the 1990’s. Apparently, it had been locked away and forgotten, a sad commentary on the state of analogue photography. Fortunately, he has rescued it from disuse and it is now, again, being used for its intended purpose, although certainly now not in any official Observatory capacity. At the very least, it made me feel good that it has been resurrected and that maybe, just maybe, this blog might have had some little thing to do with it.

20160701-R1100578-EditThe Paris Observatory Darkroom

After my tour we settled in for a cup of coffee on the terrace of Dr. McCracken’s building, where we were joined by fellow Astrophysicists. We discussed, among other things, Dark Matter, String Theory, whether the Universe is expanding or contracting (its “bouncing” apparently), and, parenthetically, why we still all loved film cameras. We talked about the incredible vistas digitalization has opened to science, but we also discussed the problems that come along with our move from analogue to digital. Someone noted to me that there still existed, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Institute, negatives from more than a hundred years ago that charted the positions and conditions of the cosmos at that time, and that these offered a contemporary scientist the ability to go back and recreate those conditions in light of new theories or data, necessary work if you subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science changes. With digital data, so susceptible to degradation and loss, he noted, scientists 100 years from now might not have access to the same sort of data from our era, so eager are we to embrace new technology without thinking through the full consequences for the ongoing transmission of scientific culture. Who, I asked, is thinking about these issues? No one, he replied.

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20160701-R1100486-Edit-2The Observatory Stairwell

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Dr. McCracken, off I went. Somewhere in the Marais, I lifted my M8 to take a photo of something, and as I did a gentleman walked past me with a curious look on his face, turned around and tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the Leicaphilia guy?” he asked, to which I replied, yes. That’s me.  A nice enough guy, we spoke some time, him being a reader of the blog. He, of course, had a beautiful Pentax MX film camera with him, although he assured me there was an M2 at home. I, of course, had my digital M8, another slightly uncomfortable situation which he was gracious enough to ignore.

And so now I’m home, having gone through my DNG files and processed the keepers. You’ll notice that they’ve all been processed to emulate the film look. I’m not sure what I should think about this. Is this “cheating,” inauthentic in some way? Even if it is, who cares? Isn’t it the end result that matters? In any event, I feel vaguely like a poseur, someone who advocates one position while acting in accordance with another. Regardless, I think I really like my M8. Will it become my tool of choice? Probably not, and probably for those same archival issues articulated by the Astrophysicist. But who knows.