Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Why Your Travel Photos Suck

20160703-L1004016-Edit20160702-R1100615-EditHotel de Ville, Paris

I was lucky enough to have been in Paris this last week, where I often visit. It’s a beautiful city, full of visual treasures, though, as a photographer, it’s easy enough to be aesthetically lazy there. Most everything there is picturesque, designed to give visual pleasure. Acclimated to an American culture where public spaces are constructed for their vulgar utility and everything of value is monetized and commercially exploited, a simple walk through Paris can be a revelation. I’m not speaking now of the usual Parisian tourist trek: Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Champes Elysees, Louvre etc, which in this age of travel as mass commodity have all the authenticity and charm of visiting Disney World, but the real Paris where people live and work and carry on their daily lives. And, of course, Paris has the best food in the world, but it’s not just found in the elite Michelin rated restaurants but in the unpretentious corner cafes and patisseries and boulangeries you’ll find on every corner. If you’ve ever sat down to breakfast with a flan nature still warm from the corner patisserie you’ll know what I mean. (And for god’s sake, please do not go to Paris and sit in a Starbucks, which, given there’s a cafe about every other meter in most Paris neighborhoods, just might be the single stupidest American affectation sullying the city.)

20160704-L1004170-Edit20160702-R1100655-Edit

Ironically, competent photographers who’ve spent any time in Paris with a camera know it’s an incredibly difficult place to take interesting photographs. This is because it’s easy to fall into cliched ways of seeing your experience there – you know, the lovers kissing on the Pont des Arts, the guy with the baguette and the beret, the view from a table in a boulevard cafe, the pretty woman in a dress with the toy poodle on the rue, the de rigueur photo of the Eiffel Tower somewhere in the picture as a trope that says “I’m in Paris!” Please. Good enough for a cafe exhibition in Indiana? Probably. Been done a million times? Most certainly.

Am I begrudging those of us who’ll be in Paris once or twice in their life and want to record their experiences for posterity? No, of course not. What I’m saying is this: if you aspire to say something with your photography, aspire to say something about you. How you do that is not by recycling tired cliches that represent the stale vision of others, however scenic they’ve proven to be, but by presenting what you see and how you see it. To do that you don’t need the beauty of Paris. You need your own sense of aesthetics and interests, developed and cultivated with your particular vision.

*************

20160702-L1003833-Edit20160702-L1003797-Edit20160702-L1003824-Edit20160703-L1003959-EditEuro2016 Exhibition, Hotel de Ville, Paris

Cliched tropes can often be a barrier between you and the richness of the potential experience in front of you, something that restricts your ability to really recognize the breath and intricacy of what you’ve come to see. Looking for that perfect picture of the Eiffel, you can miss the quotidian beauty that’s all around you. Of course, the same thing can be said for the overly familiar; we can become habituated to a place and not really see it anymore. When in Paris I stay with a good friend, a lifetime Parisian. He’s also an exceptional photographer, his work exhibited around the world. In the room in which I stay there’s one of his B&W prints on the wall, a simple street scene in some non-descript lower Manhattan neighborhood. I was with him when he had taken the picture; it was of a scene I’d passed a million times, nothing scenic or remarkable, something I didn’t “see.” But he did. It’s a reminder to me that I don’t have to go to exotic places to find things to photograph. They’re there, everywhere you are.

20160704-L1004159-Edit

*All photos taken with an M8 and a 35mm Summicron. As this was a personal trip for personal reasons, I left the film Leica and the 50 rolls of HP5 at home. Actually, I really enjoyed using the M8. Still a great camera for what it is. I certainly can’t see why you’d need anything more if your interest is a digital rangefinder.

Digital Technology and Its Discontents

Kubrick 2arab

Photo A:  A Man With a Leica, Circa 1950. Photo B: A Man With a Leica, Circa 2015. What Does The One Have to Do With The Other?

I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted not having it around. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon. But the economy of means possessed by the film cameras somehow feels absent in the Digital M’s, the traditional M’s restrained simplicity having crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.

The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8  it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end. The respective experiences themselves bear almost no relation to each other. You might as well be engaged in different activities. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?

*************

The tools you use to create structure what you create. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that genuine agency arises in the context of submission to the tools we use, tools that have their own intractable ways. The important thing to remember, if you agree with Crawford, is that the experience we can have is dependant on the tool we chose to use. The design of a tool conditions the kind of involvement we will have in the activity. Some tools are better adapted to the requirements of skillful, unimpeded action, while other tools can prevent skillful self-assertion and can compromise the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world.

I would argue that this is especially true for photography. You can choose digital technology for its quickness and ease of use, but at the certain cost to your own creative autonomy and of your experience of the craft you are engaged in. Or you can use traditional analogue processes and more fully engage your own skillful involvement to create something.

valeAA014-Edit

Valentina, Red’s Java House, San Francisco, Arista.edu 400 @800 iso in Diafine.

*************

While the digital/analogue argument will seem a tired exercise in nostalgia for most photographers, there remain deep biological factors at play that militate against it ever being completely resolved for some of us. Historically, creating something required a tactile interaction with materials and substances, the result of a deep intelligence that could not be learned without material manipulation and embodied experiences and an understanding of the cause and effect relationship that exists between actions and their consequences.

The hand and handiwork is a major thing that sets humans apart as a species. The earliest divergence of the species that evolved into modern humans began with an evolutionary reconfiguration of the hand allowing sophisticated tool use. You can make the case that this is, literally, what defines us as human animals, and argue that rationality, what is commonly understood to be the uniquely human, came along as a byproduct of the use of tools, as sort of a evolutionary development of the neural software necessary for tool use.

Digital virtuality is propelling us further and further away from physical, tangible experience. What is lacking in the new digital photographic paradigm is the physical experience of photography, the activity that has traditionally constituted photography, the physical making as part of the creative process. The singular final print, the end result of a chosen process of varieties of film, the mechanics of the camera, the physical activities of developing and printing.

We are in danger of losing the sense of the photograph as a physical thing. A photograph is not only seen—it is touched, read, received and manipulated. It is fully appreciated only as a product of this physical relationship, and in that relationship it will always remain elusive, a handmade object irreducible to any single dimension. The most detailed digital rendering, what you might view on your computer screen,  preserves only a vestige of the physical photograph’s real, dynamic nature. Yes, you can print a digitally produced photograph, but how many people do?

*************

Contemporary photography has a certain look, a function of its technology. It’s the reason many of us still shoot film. Some of us still see certain creative possibilities in ‘The Film Look’ that aren’t given us with digital capture. So, if and when digital technology advances to the point that it can reproduce the appearance of films and formats precisely, will the process of analogue alone be enough to keep some of us using it? For hand made processes, where their idiosyncrasies are intrinsic to the print, undoubtedly. But what of industrial films, which were designed to react with light in a consistent way without variation?

To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation. We should love the doing of it and do it for that reason. And I think a big part of this is engagement in the process, and in that respect I find traditional photographic processes much more rewarding, partly because they embody a certain set of skills that reward detailed attention and experienceThe analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave. The film process is a gourmet meal cooked with attention to every step in the process. Film process – how demanding it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, but it’s also why film is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for the average guy who just wants to photograph something.

Analogue users belong to the future because they are guardians of the past. Let’s hope we film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?

The Duality of Leicaphilia

Valbray-Leica-watch-cameraWhen I speak of “leicaphilia” in what follows I’m referring to the love of all things Leica that animates many of us partisans of the iconic Leica brand. If you don’t suffer from it you probably won’t understand it. If you just read about it, without having suffered from it yourself, with all the semi-mystical attributes often ascribed to Leicas by folks who should know better, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply another irrational mania that afflicts humans in a myriad of ways, whether it be in the form of the religious or political, psychological or philosophical. Even for us long-time Leicaphiles, suffering the most from the malady, it’s difficult to justify many of our enthusiasms in our more rational moments.

I understand, and I’ve often used this blog to try and deflate some of the more pernicious claims seriously addled Leicaphiles sometimes make – you know, your Leica makes you a better photographer, or you’re not really serious about photography unless you use a Leica, or there’s an identifiable ‘Leica Glow’ one gets when using Leitz optics, or one can easily identify negatives and files produced by Leica cameras and Leitz lenses, or your M8, with its obsolete sensor and abysmal DXO score, somehow still produces files rivaling what you can get with a Nikon D5.

And then there’s all the ancillary crap attempting to hitch its wagon to the exclusivity that association with Leica can provide – bags, grips, leather cases, thumbs-up contraptions, lens hoods, soft release shutters, red dots, black dots to cover up the red dots, replacement leather skins of various textures and hues, and my personal favorite for ridicule, Frankensteinian dual hot-shoe brackets that allow you to mount both an external finder and meter on the top of your diminutive little IIIf, akin to putting a lowering kit and spinning neon wheels on your beautiful vintage BMW 2002.

*************

I don’t pretend to be a ‘fine-art photographer’. Photography for me is a process of documenting things, of keeping records. As a documentarian, I try not to romanticize the tools I use. And, while, emotionally, I’m still stuck in the film era, from a practical perspective the ease of digital wins out when I need something with a minimum of fuss or on a deadline. (When I need something absolutely permanent, however, film always wins out). My philosophy, when it comes to choosing a camera to use for a given need, is this: grab whatever works best. Lately, that usually means a Nikon D3s or, if quick and easy, a digital Ricoh, or, for what’s really dear to me, a film camera, preferably a rangefinder – an M4 or M5, a Hexar RF, a Voigtlander Bessa R2S or a Contax G, all great cameras –  or a Nikon F5 loaded with HP5.

20150502-20150502-R1086580-Edit

Amsterdam, 2015, Hexar RF and 28mm M-Hexanon, HP5 @ 800 in D76

It’s really only peripherally about the camera you use. It’s ultimately about the photographs you create, and the photos you create are a function of your technical mastery of your tools coupled with your aesthetic and reportorial sense. It’s about understanding shutter speed, aperture and depth of field, mastery of exposure; using the correct lens for a given task; understanding how perspective changes with distance and focal length; understanding the physics of the color of light; and last, and most importantly, knowing what’s important to point your camera at.

Having said all that, I’m just as susceptible to all the nonsense than are the unapologetic fanboys who give Leica a bad name in more serious circles. I obsess over the particulars of thoughtfully made photographic tools — the tiny details done just right, the haptics of a knurled knob or the aesthetic balance of chrome and vulcanite, the muffled ‘thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter.

Damn if I don’t spend a lot of my time fondling my film Leicas, ‘exercising’ the shutter while waiting for the decisive moment, or just simply carrying them around with me, admiring them for their mechanical beauty. Right now my enthusiasms seem to be centered on a Leica IIIg with cool vintage 5 cm lenses attached. Of course, tomorrow it might be different; I could very well pick up an M2 and switch emotional gears, now proclaiming it the coolest camera ever, or a black M4 mounting a Summicron that feels sublime in use. It need not even be a Leica. It could be a Nikon S2 or SP or F or even an F5, a Hexar RF or my current obsession, a Bessa R2S. Consistency, I must admit, is not my strong suite when it comes to my irrational attachment to film cameras. In this I am in agreement with Salvador Dali, who advised that it’s best to frequently contradict oneself so as not to be predictable, because the worst, the most boring one can be is predictable, consistency being, as Oscar Wilde once noted, the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The sorts of fondler’s interactions many of us enjoy speak to a need that is embedded in our relationships with traditional film photography, a tactile enjoyment of the process of photography and the pleasures given by the finely crafted tools we’ve used in that process. A fascination with, and admiration of, the tools themselves is part of what drew us to photography in the first place, and us fondlers have no need to apologize for this.

*************

Our often irrational attachment to our old cameras, I think, is ultimately about a desire for permanence in an endeavor whose technologies now evolve at warp speed. The charms of really nice film camera are many: the look and feel of tools well-crafted for long use, the familiarity created by using them for decades. It feels nice to use a camera for a long time. Do you remember the digital camera you were using 15 years ago? Mine was a Nikon d100. And there were those funky experiments that wrote their files to 3.5-inch floppies. Remember those? See where this is going? In 15 years, at our current pace, you won’t even recognize your ‘capture device’. In any event, I have no interest in having to learn the nuances of a new technical device every other year.

toughest Leica

Its why I love my iiif and iiig, my M4 and M5, my Nikon F and S3. Mechanical cameras, and the technology they embody, can be passed down from fathers to sons and daughters without the need of technical manuals. Learn the traditional skills of photographic capture: aperture, shutter speed, film speeds, and you’re able to figure out the marginal differences of any mechanical camera in a matter of a minute or two. In learning to master it, it becomes an habitual extension of your way of seeing, rather than a device that stands between you and what you see. I can pick up an M4 after not having touched one for years, and can still immediately operate it almost unconsciously. If I let my digital camera sit for too long, invariably I’m scrolling through menus and submenus trying to figure out some basic operation, usually standing flat-footed while what I grabbed the camera for plays itself out unphotographed.

The advance in digital technologies is stunning, but it has vitiated quaint notions of any practical longevity for a camera, even those, like Leica’s, that still pay lip-service to the idea that you might purchase a camera with longevity in mind. Camera product cycles now track the cycles for computers, because your digital camera is a computer. Manufacturers fight to see who can cram the most buttons on the back of their latest image capture device, and ‘camera nuts’ dutifully hand over their money for the latest best new thing.  Hard-core consumers, longing for the next thing even as we’ve just laid hands on the current version, are where the money is, so as we queue to buy the latest ‘must have’ camera we reinforce and reward manufacturers and help perpetuate the very process by which we remain dissatisfied, perpetually craving the next update. I suppose, given the realities of consumerist capitalism,  these cycles are inevitable and will remain with us as Nikon and Canon, and to a lesser extent Leica, cram more “new and improved” digital cameras down our throats well into the immediate future.

*************

When it was new, a Leica M4 camera cost a lot of money.  Fast forward to 2016, and a simple online calculator using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicates that the relative purchase price of an M4 today would be $7,080.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $1500 (approximately what a black M4 would cost new in 1974) by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1974 to 2015. So, a new Leica M4 in 1974 cost about the same, in real dollars, as a new Leica MM costs today. But the difference is this: when you bought the M4 you expected to use it for decades.  I have an M4 made in 1974. It still works exactly as intended and I use it often. It’s not just a collector’s piece that sits on my shelf. I will eat my hat, however, if that MM you buy today will still be in your bag in 15 years, let alone working.  And forget 40 year-old Monochroms. In a relatively short time you’ll have to sell it at a loss, or its electronics will fail and you’ll be out-of-pocket for its replacement with something else.  This is the current reality now that cameras have gone from being something like a durable good, as was the M4, to a consumer electronic commodity that you replace every two years or so.

Maybe, leicaphilia isn’t simply about fondling and exclusivity; maybe it’s also the most prominent manifestation of a fading photo-cultural memory that many of us value highly and don’t want to see disappear. I’m convinced there remains a market for modern cameras (even with electronics) that are intuitively simple and built, cameras that eschew the technological dead end in favor of efficiency and directness of function, yet we often sneer when someone like Leica gives them to us.  Some of us still like the notion of over-built even if there is less intent to keep something forever. It speaks to a psychologic longing for some sense of permanence in a temporary world.

Part of what makes us leicaphiles, more than just the fetishization of a particular camera, is the appreciation of the tools we’ve traditionally employed as photographers, when a Leica or a Nikon, Canon or Hasselblad film camera was the simplest, best means to do what was important. Our camera was our tool, and we built a relationship with it that lasted for decades. It’s this that’s been lost in photography’s evolution, a sense of rootedness and tradition that spanned product cycles. A simplicity and directness, a tactile pleasure in the use of our photographic tools, seen in the continued appeal of slow-boat analogue techniques and of old Leicas.

“If Only I Had a Leica”

picture yourself

For Leicaphilia by Dax H.*

Leica is a camera to last your lifetime and perhaps your heir’s lifetime. Buy one or two and you will never need another unless you’re a combat cameraman, (they get broken, flooded and wore out) or you’re into long telephoto or extreme wide or fisheye or microscopy. In this case you probably need an SLR.

Leica M bodies and lenses are superb, virtually flawless. If you shoot slides/transparencies you will perhaps see the quality difference depending on what camera/optical system you’re comparing it to.  If you get your exposures spot on, If your chosen processor gets the processing spot on.  As for prints, the old saying is “exposed through a Leica, printed through a Coke bottle bottom”.  If you’re printing through a generic enlarger lens, perhaps dirty, at a less than optimum f stop, film plane not parallel with the easel, you will not see any of the Leica magic in your prints. If you have the skill and knowledge for complete control over everything from the moment of exposure until you hold and view that dry print, then you can say you are holding a Leica image. Few people can say this truthfully.

There’s the old saying “If you can’t make them good, then make them big”. If you want a big print, use a bigger piece of film. To understand why, try this simple experiment: take a 35mm camera, with a normal 5cm lens, (a Leica with a Summicron will do). Load it with your favorite B&W film. Then beg or borrow a 2 1/4 camera such as a Yashica Mat 124. Keep it cheap, no need for a Rollei or Hasse. Load your cheap Yashica with the same emulsion you’re using in the Leica. Take them both out on a tripod with a cable release and shoot. Process both rolls together in the same chemicals and then print the 35mm negs and the 6 by 6 negs to 11 by 14 inches. Print them with the same enlarger. You will be amazed at how much better the 6 by 6 print looks compared to the 35mm enlargement, even when exposed on a relatively cheap 6 by 6 camera. Square inches of film always wins, no matter how “perfect” the 35mm lens is.  If you wish to make prints no bigger than a 5 by 7 or 6 by 9 inch print then 35 mm is brilliant! A properly controlled print from a full frame 35mm negative can rival (I didn’t say beat) a contact print from a 5 by 7 negative. If you only make 4 by 6 prints produced by commercial photo finishers, it makes no difference if you expose that film through a Leitz lens, a Argus C-3, a NIkon lens, as long as that camera and lens are working up to specification, the film is fresh and your exposures are correct. At 4 by 6 inches you will have to do close side by side comparisons to see a difference and on the same roll on the same day, due to chemical and equipment changes at the printers. I see no advantage image wise in using a M series Leica system for commercial, machine made prints for less than 5 or 6 times enlargement.

*************

Dear Lord what a slave I’ve been to my Leicas. In the past 40 years I’ve been a caretaker and bodyguard for my Leicas, worrying about knocking them into solid objects, having them stolen, tying the camera bag to a table leg when out to dinner, slinging it under my arm in a suit coat while trying to dance with a lady, not going in areas where it will be recognized by punks that will mug me for it, trying to keep it dry in the rain, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, locked up when not at home.

I am now a retired combat cameraman/ photojournalist/ picture maker. My Leicas – a IIIF, three M3’s, one M2 and a M6 –  are still locked up. So are my Nikon F and F2AS and the Hasse and the Rollei TLR. I still use them on the odd occasion; they are brilliant cameras for the working man, I’d say the best a photographer can get. Most of my shooting now is either printed by myself, (yes, on a Leitz enlarger), to either 4 by 6 or 5 by 7 inches, (not big but very good). If I want bigger prints, I grab a 2 1/4 camera or a 4 by 5 or a 5 by 7 camera. I can only display so many 16 by 20 prints on the walls of my house. If I’m not doing my own B&W prints, then I shoot color and have it printed by a semi-custom commercial printer.

When I shoot 35mm I now use a Voigtlander Bessa R with either a 61LD Industar or a Industar 50 or a Jupiter 8 or a Jupiter 3. My other casual-use cameras are a Zorki 4 or a FED 1 or a Kiev 4. All with FSU lenses. They are great fun. For a 4 by 6 inch print it doesn’t matter what camera or lens you use as long as it meets specification. Even at 5 by 7 these “cheap” cameras will compete in image quality with virtually anything using the same size film. They’ll never be treasured by my heirs, have virtually no resale value and as one fellow said “He who steals my cameras, steals junk”, but they are fun to shoot, produce wonderful images and I don’t worry about them. I can go out and enjoy myself. Of the cameras mentioned the Voigtlander is my go-to camera. It’s superb. [Editor’s Note: Yes, the Bessa R’s are superb. I have a Bessa R2S that I use for my collection of Nikkor S lenses; it’s a simple, well-made film camera with a big, bright viewfinder, easily one of my favorites.]

bessa r

My advice: stop worrying about the camera you use and have fun! The key is using the correct camera for the job. Don’t get hung up on myth and mystique. The camera is only a tool, and what a fun tool it is. Any camera and film of today will produce images that Sudek, Stieglitz, Atget, or Bresson would be proud to record. You will see more difference and character in your images by just changing a film and or developer combination than you will by changing camera brand or lens brand.

You have now heard the results of my lifetime of experience with Leica cameras reduced to a few paragraphs. Make what you like of it. Now go out and make some worthwhile and memorable images and stop losing sleep about what your images will look like if “You just had a Leica”.

Dax H. is a retired combat photographer. Now 66, he has supported himself 100% from photography since he was 16 years old. He started with a Speed Graphic and flash bulbs and a IIIf Red Dial with a Summarit 1.5. 

Ignore Everybody

20131021-20131021-DSC06178-Edit“Whoever cannot see the unforeseen sees nothing.” Heraclitus

Robert Frank called photography an art for lazy people, and I agree with him, as far as that goes, especially in the digital age where you can point your automated camera at something, apply some funky filter with the push of a button to what you’ve captured, and send it out on social media for the world to see, a finely finished product with nothing much to say.

It’s actually saying something that’s difficult.  Successful creative works are never the product of technological factors. They make no concessions to current taste and listen to no counsel but their own. This is not to say, however, that there aren’t foundational skills you need to master as a precondition to saying what you want to say. Developing the skill sets necessary to be creative is rule based. Once you understand the rules, you’re better able to get out of your own way and let the process and your own creativity bring you to someplace unexpected.

Likewise, slavishly ape-ing others isn’t going to get you there either. Emulating either the conceptual or formal decisions of other photographers will not teach you where those decisions come from or how they were arrived at, but is merely a shortcut to your own creative solution, since your mentor has done all the legwork. Structured creative guidelines can easily become comfortable formulas that inhibit unanticipated solutions. A photo workshop is a bus tour; real creativity comes with the unstructured walk.

20150301-20150301-Paris 2013-2

*************

The solution to creating your own vision is to identify and observe the “rules” and then learn to break them. Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and your imagination. But don’t confuse true creativity solely with a false concept of “originality.” Enduring, authentic aesthetic choices are rarely without some stylistic antecedent, but are historical and culturally specific, grounded in cultural tradition. So look at other work, lots of it. Not just any, however, but the stuff that’s lasted, that’s remained relevant across constantly changing, ephemeral fashion. You can’t move your thinking beyond an established aesthetic if you don’t know where that aesthetic begins and ends. On the other hand, too close of a focus on a given aesthetic can result in a closed perspective. Originality can only exist with a standard from which to deviate.

So, the “rules” are pretty simple when it comes to creative pursuits: Learn to use your tools. Learn the formal and conceptual ideas that govern the use of those tools for your given creative end. Learn the history of your medium and acquaint yourself with the best of what’s previously been done in the field. Then, ignore it all and take your own way.

20150617-20150617-R1088731-Edit

“Exactly What It Was Like”

dog

By Wayne Pinney for Leicaphilia.

I am the perennial novice. I own leica M film cameras, as well as a IIIg and IIIc. Hand developing film has opened a great new world. This photo of my daughter’s peagle (beagle,  pekingese mix) was taken recently with my Ricoh GR Digital I- the original 8.1 MP camera. I have been using it a lot lately for the reasons much like the ones articulated here. The Ricoh is so convenient, and at high ISO does an exceptional job of duplicating film grain in B&W mode.

As I look at the photo, I find that I love it…..more than many other photographs I have taken of cherished moments and people. Tonight, a thought occurred to me regarding the magic of such photos: Is it possible that their magic is related to the fact that the camera, when used on the spur of the moment, and without benefit of preparation,  captures something exactly as the chaos of the moment dictates how the brain receives and stores it……something that, because of its fleeting blurriness defies spoken description?……taps deeply into that nebulous thing that makes photography so unique?  You know, that thing Barthes struggles with. As I look at the photo, I keep thinking: “Yeah! That is exactly what it was like.”

Wayne Pinney is a self-described “perennial novice” who lives in SE Indiana.

An Astronomer Falls in Love with a Film Leica

HJMCC-5

By Henry Joy McCracken for Leicaphilia.

“Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s”

I’m an astronomer, and have been interested in astronomy for as long as I remember. I wonder if there is a connection between this and my interest in images and photographic images. Astronomers of course can only take the pictures or spectra, they can never interact with their subjects. Some people say, half-jokingly, that it isn’t really experimental science in the strict sense of the word because we can never actually do any experiments. For a photographic analogy, in our work we are more Cartier-Bresson than William Klein or Garry Winogrand, the latter of which was always cracking jokes and interacting with his subjects.

Nevertheless, I was always interested in taking photographs of terrestrial objects too. I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s, and I remember pleading with my mother to let me take one picture, just one picture with the only camera we had at the time, a polaroid instant camera, and finally she gave in, and I took a picture of our garden. I must have been six or seven. I waited, and anxiously peeled apart the backing layers. My blurred thumb was in the middle of the frame: nobody had told me how to take photographs! I’m trying hard here not to fall in the classic Irish trap of writing an autobiographical text, because that’s not what I want to do, but it’s amusing to note that there reason we had these cameras at all was simply to take pictures of headstones. My father made tombstones, and there was no catalogue or internet web site of course, so my mother and I were sent out to take pictures of the ‘greatest hits’ of the local cemeteries, and for that you needed a camera. We soon upgraded to a Pentax K1000, and I was allowed to pictures of tombstones with it. I still have that camera today, almost thirty years later, and it still works, although the meter is broken.

hjmsc 1

Time passed. In the early 2000s, I switched to a small digital camera and shortly afterwards I moved to Paris. For me at the time it seemed one of the most important attributes of a camera is that it should be small and light, as I wanted to always have it with me when I was traveling; no, I didn’t know about Leica back then. To be honest, I never really thought much about photography since this switch to digital, even though I continued to take snapshots. Finally, I bought a better electronic camera and got rid of all the zoom lenses. I learned the latest software tools and stalked around the streets of Paris taking random images with my fixed focal length lens, as you are supposed to do. I looked at books of all the great photographers once again, and went more often to the museums. It is easy to be educated about photography here in Paris. Then a strange thing happened. I realised that I was spending a lot of time on the computer manipulating the colour and tonality of my images. Directly out of the camera they looked very flat and neutral, as they are supposed to. These digital images are supposed to be a literal representation of reality, but something was always lacking. Should I increase the contrast? Reduce the contrast? Convert to black and white? I couldn’t decide. The images were perfect, but just not right. Well, I said to myself, if you are spending all your time converting your images to black and white, why not just shoot directly in black and white with a film camera?

HJMCC-3

I like to be in control, so this proposition seemed crazy at first. I couldn’t give my negatives to someone else to develop. It would mean mixing up chemicals and developing in our small Parisian apartment and scanning the negatives afterwards: no space for a darkroom. But I thought I would give it a try. I bought a roll of HP5+ for the old K1000 and took 36 photographs, getting it developed at a shop in town to start with. My first reaction when I saw the first scan from one of these images on my computer screen was, “yuk, this is out of focus”. But it was not out of focus. It was simply because I was displaying the scan of a 35mm negative full-screen on a high-resolution 27” monitor, something which was never meant to be done. You have to understand my background: I’ve spent many years working with the largest digital images from the largest astronomical cameras. They are some of the most technically perfect electronic detectors ever constructed by humans. These cameras have revolutionised astronomy and made possible enormous advances in our knowledge of the Universe in the last few decades. But, despite this, there were one or two images in that first roll which were interesting, and I decided to continue.

Six months later: I have now developed and scanned more than fifty rolls of film. In one of the few film shops left in Paris, somewhere around roll number 6, I bought a second-hand Leica. I remember the first thought I had when I lifted it up: this thing is damn heavy (being used to light electronic cameras). But after advancing the film and pressing the shutter a few times I thought, hmm, now I understand…

The whole experience is paradoxical. Yes, the images are what we would call today “low resolution” but pictures of people on film look real in an indefinable way which is never matched by digital capture. After a few months of staring at scans of my negatives, I realised walking around Paris I was surrounded by these plastic digital images everywhere. I had never seen them before, really. In astronomy, photographic images were always a major pain to deal with because of the roll-over in the bright part of the density/intensity curve. But this effect, combined with grain, makes the images much more appealing to look at. No, you would never want to measure anything on this, but it certainly looks better. And no, it cannot be replicated in software.

HJMCC-7

I’m also partisan to the idea, expressed here and elsewhere, that the steady increase in resolution and sensitivity is completely pointless in terrestrial photography. In astronomy, of course, that is not the case, and we have been very grateful for our highly sensitive wide-format CCD detectors. These detectors have now trickled down from military to science to consumer. But how has this increase in creative and artistic possibilities been translated into better art? Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s. Instead of making the image, we are assailed by an enormous range of technical choices. We are now spending an enormous amount of effort adding more and more transistors into smaller and smaller components, and a lot of the smart people who were working on ambitious projects (like the Apollo moon program) are now writing apps for mobile phones. Unfortunately, image-making seems to be the “collateral damage” of this trend.

All of this seems me to be why it is so important to take pictures on film. The process of taking the photograph is separated from the act of taking the photograph. I am not able to say if it has made me a better photographer (though being human of course I would like to think that it has). But it has certainly made taking pictures more enjoyable. There is no computer involved, and today computers are involved in almost everything. For the first time in my life, I had my photographs printed and framed by a certain Parisian agency that still employs two people to make photographic enlargements. I put them on the wall in my office and at home. I look at those photographs and I know that no computer touched any part of the image, which is strangely reassuring. I was motivated to make a physical object from the images I had made, something which never occurred to me with digital images.

HJMCC-1

The Leica is also a unique tool to take photographs with. Again, I was skeptical: during my first tour around Paris with it, I couldn’t even figure out at first how to hold it without blocking the weirdly-positioned viewfinder. The ergonomics of a bar of soap, as I have heard on the interwebs. But what is great is this: you press the shutter button and after the dry click nothing happens. Nothing changes in the viewfinder, nothing changes in the camera, other than the fact there is now a latent image of the thing you have just seen through the viewfinder recorded on a small square of film. To take another image, just advance the film, that’s all. The other wonderful thing is that one is conscious of light in a way one is never with a digital camera. After a few weeks I could estimate the illumination just by looking. The other paradoxical thing: despite being completely manual, the camera is actually easier to operate than any digital camera I have ever used. You look at the sky, you look at the object you want to photograph, and you set the aperture, shutter, and focus distance. Once they are set, they never change. Nothing changes them for you. For sure there are inconveniences. We are used to the amazing
performance of digital detectors at night. But now what I find it is that when I take pictures at night on film, they actually look like they are taken at night! And it is really true what they say: these cameras motivate you to take pictures.

I plan to spend 2016 explaining to my astronomer friends just why film is so great – and reassuring them that no, I don’t think it is a good idea to replace that CCD by a photographic plate. And, of course, taking photographs on film: http://52rolls.net/2016/01/01/im-h-j-mccracken-52-rolls-in-2016/.

H. J. McCracken is an astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.