Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

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.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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*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?

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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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.

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“Exactly What It Was Like”

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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.