Inventorying an Obsession

As my wife frequently reminds me, I tend to go overboard with my obsessions. In my professional life, I wear a suit. I love good suits. Double-breasted suits to be precise (yes, I know they’re not currently “fashionable;” I don’t care, as I despise the whims of fashion in any context, whether it be clothing, lifestyle, music, art, photography, literature etc). Good Italian double-breasted suits – Armani, Canali, Zegna. I just went to my closet to count my suits: 32. Of course, gotta have shoes to go with the suit. I like Allen Edmonds; I’ve got 19 pair.

A few years ago I was ambling down Main Street downtown, all dressed up in my Armani suit, when I was approached by a local newspaper columnist. He asked me about my suit, said he was writing a column on how badly dressed area professionals tend to be. We commiserated, shared a laugh at the yokels with their baglike “two for one” Joseph Banks suits, he took my name and off I went. A week later I read his column; he names me the Best Dressed Guy in town. 1.3 million people in this town, mind you, half I presume are guys. I had to chuckle. Not bad for a kid who at 18 was a high-school dropout who drove a laundry truck in Paterson, New Jersey to pay the rent and who owned one ill-fitting suit bought at JCPenney which I used for the infrequent wedding or funeral of a friend.

What I didn’t tell him was that I buy all my suits used, on Ebay. The Armani I had on that day, with a tag from some high-end clothier in California, I’d paid $35 for. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $100 for a suit. Same with the shoes. I’m lucky; I’m a perfect 42 regular and a perfect size 9 shoe. If you know what you’re looking for, you can score some killer deals on used suits. Just make sure the pant waist and length are good and the jacket falls into place by a natural logic.  I rarely alter them in any way. Take em out of the box, have em pressed and start wearing them. So what if the original owner is dead. As long as he didn’t die with the suit on, I’m good with it.

If there’s been one obsession as long-standing and profound as my camera obsession, it’s motorcycles. I’ve had at least one almost continuously since I was 12. Gotta be a sportbike – light, aerodynamic, fast. At the height of my cycling insanity I had 6 in the garage, a few Ducatis, a few Aprilias, the stray KTM, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda. 20 years ago I was spending insane amounts of money ( insane for me at least) buying, selling, modifying, tracking, racing motorcycles. I retain the broken bones, permanently concussed goofiness, dead friends and depleted bank accounts as proof. Luckily for me, I woke up a few years ago and said “enough is enough,” shortly after I attended the funeral of a friend, 34 years of age and with the world by the balls, who killed himself on a typically insane group ride through North Carolina backroads, and then a few weeks later came milliseconds from killing myself and an innocent cruiser rider out for an easy Sunday ride who had decided to make a U-turn in the road at the crest of a hill. Safe enough to do if you assume everyone else behind you is doing approximate legal speeds; much more dicey when some idiot (me) is hammering up the road at closing speeds of 145mph on a 400lb 180hp bullet. Luckily we both survived our encounter. I went home, took off my leathers, cleaned out my shorts, and vowed never again. Sold all my bikes (except one, which sits under a tarp in the backyard). I have no interest in riding it. Funny how that works.

400lbs of head-warping, sphincter clenching fun. Forged Magnesium Wheels, Full Titanium Exhaust, Ohlins suspension, all the usual go-fast engine work etc. Pushed out about 180 rear wheel hp. I’d reached such a level of insanity that it often didn’t feel fast enough.

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Presently, I’ve whittled my obsessions down to three: bikes, books, and cameras. Bikes I’m keeping in check. Just have four (well 7 really, if you count the 3 around town bikes) and given one or two always seems to have a flat tire or broken spoke or something, that seems about right. You need at least one ‘climbing bike’ (very light), 2 general road bikes (with varying wheel depths) and one ‘winter training bike’ (to ride in the rain and muck). A couple need to be carbon framed, one needs to be aluminum framed, and, for authenticity’s sake, you should have an old steel frame, preferably a hand-built lugged frame from the 70’s, rebuilt with modern groupset and deepdish carbon wheels that can serve as an excellent pedagogical device as I dump younger hotshot cyclists on their 13 lb carbon bikes while climbing extended 7% grades. I’ve pretty much got all that covered.

Books are a lost cause. My house is full of them. They spill out of every nook and cranny of the place. 15 years ago, the collection having reached fire hazard stage, I held a “Free Book Giveaway Party”, inviting friends who, in return for bringing a decent bottle of wine, got to take home as many books as they liked. That helped, but 15 years later I’m back where I left off,  books everywhere. My wife, who also loves books but is privy to our monthly Amazon bill, has brokered a resolution – don’t give them away, but don’t buy any more. Instead, start re-reading all of them. That should keep me busy for awhile. Makes sense, and in the last few months I’ve reread a bunch of stuff I’d forgotten was so good – Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and undoubtedly the funniest book ever written, Portnoy’s Complaint; JB Priestly’s Journey Down the Rainbow; various Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost; River of Shadows; The Faraway Nearby); and, feeling frisky, Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (I walked past Dante’s house in Florence this summer; figured I’d read his book again as an adult to see what all the fuss was about. Overrated. If I’m going to read antiquated “serious” lit, give me humanist classics without the medieval theological claptrap – The Iliad, The Aeneid etc. Even then, I’m skeptical whenever I’m told I must love something because it’s old and venerated, like Homer or Shakespeare. I get that the Iliad is a 3000 year old construction of an ongoing oral bardic tradition, but I’d easily consign it to the flames forever if it was a choice between it or Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a 20th Century masterpiece that speaks as if it were written with me in mind. As for Shakespeare, don’t even get me started (I say this as someone who in a previous life spent a semester at Exeter College, Oxford reading Shakespeare)).

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And then there’s the camera obsession, my oldest and most difficult to uproot. Difficult because I’m not sure it’s really about cameras per se. I’ve struggled to parse out the difference between a fixation on cameras and a larger love of photography. Granted, I retain a preference for the types of cameras that helped form my initial enthusiasm for photography, but if I think about it, that enthusiasm was ultimately the product of the photographs, in my case not the studied, mannered photos of an Ansel Adams, who seemed to be the one photographer even those with no interest in photography knew and admired, but even in my youth seemed to be a grittier sort, the emphasis being on what the photo conveyed and not the dexterity of the conveyance.

And maybe that’s where my ambivalence about present-day Leicas comes from. Back in the day, Leicas to me were the embodiment of that grittier photographic ethos, of photos grabbed on the fly in less than optimal conditions by ‘real’ photographers who were all about the shot. They had a certain cache that came from their status as brilliantly simple yet effective tools, tools that had been crafted to meet a specific purpose with a utilitarian efficiency. Nothing superfluous, no unnecessary adornments, no compromises dictated by prevailing photographic fashion. That seemed to me the epitome of cool, a sort of anti-fashion that in its purity rose to its own level of fashion. Fashionable precisely because it didn’t aspire to fashion; to use a Leica was to be above fashion, a statement of indifference to anything but the art of photography itself.

Now, of course, it seems precisely the opposite. Photography for the sake of fashion. Owning a Leica is now the functional equivalent of wearing the Canali suit so you can show people the tag, or parading up Rodeo Drive at 25mph on your 200hp Ducati wearing full Dainese race leathers when any decent rider in jeans and t-shirt on a Kawasaki 250 would lose you around the first set of good curves, or spending $10,000 for a 12lb Colnago bike with all the expensive carbon parts while you’re too lazy to lose the extra 10lbs around your waist. In the age of the boutique Leica, the photographic end has been detached from the means. All bling, no substance (or at least no interest in substance). Better yet if it’s bling dressed up to look like a serious working camera – weathered black paint the latest craze; throw it in that Magnum inspired Ono bag (just be careful cause you might scratch it up yourself). Hell, you can even get one weathered from the factory, weathered to precise specifications by Leica artisans. Perfect camera for the moronic ‘look at me’ Facebook/Youtube generation or some second rate derivative talent like Lenny Kravitz.

6 thoughts on “Inventorying an Obsession

  1. Douglas Gottlieb

    I can relate.

    Collections and “identity” are easily entwined.

    My collection obsessions:

    Used to include music. Vinyl. Then CD. Now, no obsession. Digital took the fun out.

    Used to include movies. Tapes. LaserDiscs: big, like vinyl. Mmmmmm. And DVD. Now, see above.

    Used to include books. Then digital. See above. But what was obsession for all books is now all about PHOTO books. So occupying twice as much space per title and 2-5X the cost. Ouch.

    Cameras. Too many to use. Too many to keep track of. But they are so nice.

    I am a camera.

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  2. Leicaphila Post author

    Thank you. I never know if I’m simply sending this out to the blogisphere and nobody’s reading it, or if they are, whether they’re rolling their eyes while I become increasingly grumpy and misanthropic.

    Reply
  3. Ross

    “Presently, I’ve whittled my obsessions down to three: bikes, books, and cameras.”

    If you happen to love music and the gear that plays it back, why not try your hand at vintage 1960’s hifi. There’s a lot of fun and reward in it, especially if you do your own repairs and modifications. Very hands-on and with a terrific aesthetic in the end result.

    Reply
  4. Scott Howard

    Excellent. I got out of Leica World on 12-8-14, after 15 years of sending my screw camera and 50 Summitar out many times for repair, and getting them back in the same or worse condition. Only when I sent my M4 to Leica New York for a CLA did I actually get something fixed…it was like new, and it was 40 years old, the 117th M4. The day after I got out, I started buying Nikon F stuff, and whereas I never did build the whole Leica kit I wanted (since only 1998), in six weeks, I had the Nikon kit I wanted (since 1975, when I was 10). But do you know the worst thing about Boutique Leica? The insane prices on the new stuff has driven up the prices of the old stuff! M3-era lenses have doubled, more or less across the board, in the last decade. The camera prices haven’t changed much, except for the recent hoopla over the M3 being the ultimate Leica pushing them almost up to M4 Land. But it appears that all the digital shooters who stick screw and M lenses on their toy cameras to shoot video suddenly couldn’t afford new lenses, so demand for old ones skyrocketed. My Nikon kit=3 F, one plain prism, 35 1.4, 50 1.4, 105 f2.5, 200 f4, 50 & 105 shades, used Tamrac bag=$1515. An M kit, roughly equivalent: 3 M2, 35 & 50 Summilux, 90 Elmarit, 135 Elmarit, same bag, would be roughly $8500. And the Nikons didn’t need their rangefinders rebuilt, or new shutter curtains. Same 1964/5 titanium curtains. The fact that they made 860,600 of them means that even if there were Nikon Weenies (modified from Ralph Gibson’s Leica Weenies), they could never jack the prices out of shooter range. So thank you, trendoids, for making sure I’ll never be able to leave Nikon World & stop using the best cameras I’ve ever had!

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