It’s Not the Tool

By Mark Twight. All photos by the author. You can see Mark’s work at www.marktwight.com

I was born in the mountains. I grew up middle class in an American city. I climbed mountains professionally for twenty years, making first ascents in the Americas, Europe and Asia. In those years I wrote articles for magazines, shot pictures to illustrate them and gave multi-media presentations in the U.S. and Europe. Later I wrote two books on the subject. Both won awards and were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Polish.

Mountain climbing and movie work allowed me to travel to incredible places I would not have otherwise seen. Antarctica. Bulgaria. Israel. Iceland. Japan. Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan. Norway. Argentina. Bolivia. Australia. France, Italy and Spain. Detroit. Alaska. China. Russia. Kazakhstan. Canada, of course. And all over the American West.

I have carried notebooks, a pen, open eyes and a camera in every place but I am not a photographer. I have a camera. I point it at things. I know my way around it, the darkroom and the computer. My attitude and the fact that I do the things I photograph gives me unique perspective. Although I am not now the man of action I was, what I did informs what I do. And what I will do in the future.

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I was anti-Leica for years. I thought it was snobbery. I shot an old Fujica HDS in the mountains because it was waterproof but eventually the fixed 38mm lens was too tight. I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 24mm even though it was enormous compared to my partner’s Rollei. Later I graduated to a Nikon F3, and a Angenieux 70-210mm zoom. I learned my way around the darkroom, developed and printed through many, many nights and eventually got back to Nikon optics and an F5. Despite the magnificent utility of the Nikon, my experience working in black and white introduced me to the Leica brand and the famous shooters who used it. I couldn’t afford to invest so I found adequate enough cons to outweigh the pros.

Then I did a job that paid enough to buy a M6 and 28mm lens. I compared it to my F5 with a 20-35mm f2.8 lens and once I saw the results I switched wholesale. In the mountains Leica lenses easily outmatched my best Nikon primes. The 28mm Elmarit held details when overexposed, captured astonishingly rich color, and separation. I loved pointing into the sun. I shot muddy cyclocross races, sand-boarding the dunes, and in the snow. I carried it in the Alaska Range and even when temperatures dipped to -30F, when plastic film canisters shattered, the camera functioned without problem. In 2001 I bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera because it supposedly had a Leica lens, then a Canon S80 for its manual functions, then a G9, and later, a compact S100. As a reaction to muddy details at relatively low ISO values I bought a full-frame Nikon D800 so I could use my old 20-35mm but it was no pocket camera so a Sony RX1R with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens came next.

Instead of a darkroom I had Lightroom. The film in the refrigerator expired. I sold one M6 body. Eventually, I gave another to my friend because I knew he would use it. The beautiful Leica lenses sat idle. Regret nagged at me. I lived with it easily for years but it grew. And itched. I knew that sooner or later I would scratch. Then on a film set in 2014 Zack Snyder handed me his Leica Monochrom and said, “If anyone should have a camera that only shoots black and white, it’s you.” I laughed but he was right, the Gym Jones website had been exclusively black and white from its launch in 2005. That statement matched my vision and attitude. I didn’t want it to be easy to read so I floated white text on black. The viewer had to want it. I converted all images to black and white to remove the distorting influence that color can have. What remained was raw, and essential. When I finally bought a Monochrom – 13 years after I put the last roll of film through my M6 – it felt like coming home.

I pulled the lenses from their cases and relearned how to focus manually. My love for taking and making pictures returned and within a year I’d traded the RX1R for a Leica Q and carried it with me everywhere. I loved the fact that — shot at f1.7 — the images had remarkably shallow depth of field for a 28mm lens. The Q easily handles high ISO so even this night owl can make pictures, and the auto-focus is snappy. I can’t change my spots though so I still convert color images to black and white with Silver EFX in the digital darkroom. Black and white is still the way I see. Kiss or Kill.

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Spending so much time staring at images on a large monitor made me a pixel Nazi. On the screen, with the ability to ruthlessly zoom in to any aspect of a picture creates a very different relationship to the image than I have when I stand back and appreciate the totality of fine print. Dissecting local contrast at 4:1 can break the heart of any image.

This got me thinking about sharpness, which I revered when I started shooting a Leica M6. Because that’s what I thought I was seeing when I compared the M6 images to those from the F5. But maybe it wasn’t that the Leica images were sharper, instead their crisp luminosity made the wholly-adequate slides shot with the Nikon appear flat. The M6 images felt vibrant and alive, with details revealed from deep shadow, and texture preserved in areas of hotly overexposed snow. Peering through the loupe I could see greater density, or maybe depth but it wasn’t necessarily increased sharpness that caused that. Honestly, like describing taste, I have difficulty explaining why a Leica image looks different. I do know that — after almost 20 years of living with these images it isn’t as simple as cost influencing appearance. I mean, many times in the past thirty years I have spent far more and received demonstrably less.

That said I started feeling like many of my digital images were too sharp. Harsh, even. That I couldn’t appreciate them without some jpeg compression or the physical equivalent: standing at an appropriate distance. Apparently, anything above 18 megapixels is irrelevant because that’s the maximum our eyes can resolve (this is affected by viewing distance, eyesight quality, etc., and not gospel of course). Yet we chase ever-sharper resolution with 30, then 40mp and 50mp sensors. My eyes get tired first, then my brain.

Perhaps this is a question of perspective. I want to feel the emotional impact of the whole, to re-see what my eyes actually saw, to remember or re-experience how I felt when I initially witnessed the scene I “captured” with my camera. Instead, I crop, I dissect, I zoom, unintentionally stripping away emotion until only the technical remains. Or maybe 0s and 1s just lack soul. Subject, timing and composition are my antidote to binary reductionism but I am still and often dissatisfied with the outcome of the digital capture + edit equation.

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In October 2016 I serendipitously encountered Nicholas Dominic Talvola at Chris Sharma’s climbing gym in Barcelona. He shoots film with old Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras. Properly. Astonishingly. We swapped Leica stories, handed each other our cameras, and he told me about an old 35mm lens that glows when it is shot at f1.4. He shared some images with me and I knew what I’d been missing. “Those lenses are hard to find, man. Not many of them were made and you have to get the one from Germany, not Canada and in X range of serial numbers … it should have a bit of purple cast to the reflection of light off the lens.” And the rabbit hole opened beneath my feet. “You’re going to love it on your Monochrom but you’ll die once you start shooting film again.”

I remember film. And I sometimes wonder if the problem with 0s and 1s is the immediacy. The all-important Insta. Frequency over Quality. And the metaphor of it. Who has any idea what to value or what has value when the only option on these platforms is to ignore or to like? 0 or 1. And no volume knob.

Instead, I try to make photographs that involve the viewer the way I was involved in the making. The Summilux 35mm lens Nicholas told me about gave my images an ethereal glow. It softens generally without sacrificing sharpness locally, luring the viewer to engage rather than evade.

When the image is too sharp and obvious its interpretive quality disappears. We accept what we see. And quickly move on. But when the focus isn’t obvious, when lines lead, when the whole implies more than it declares then we must interpret. The image – whether written or graphic – compels us to do so. It asks. We seek answers. Our own answers. And we wonder … which I always thought was the point.

12 thoughts on “It’s Not the Tool

  1. StephenJ

    I am not sure what you mean by “its not the tool”, even though I agree with you. I use both digital and film Leica, and the difference, even though the digital Leica is clearly more able, technically, producing sharper images. The modern Leica lenses are superior too.

    However, I get more pleasure out of the images that I make with the old CL than I do with the new CL, the old M4 over the newer MP240. I develop my own colour and B&W film and then scan with a Plustek 120… Just planning a proper darkroom and not that experienced, so looking forward to the lessons that I am going to have to learn.

    I have an innate ability to upset people on fora such as this, I don’t know how I manage it? Like Van Morrison says… “it just is”. Anyway, I was saying this very thing by way of a comment the other day, elsewhere, and the response was a highly offended… “you were relying on cheap lab scans, that’s why your film photography was not as sharp” I am not sure that apart from a Hasselblad, one can get more expensive….

    But I think he misunderstood my point, which was that the older lenses and cameras… what people call analogue, might be technically inferior, but the results are very much superior in terms of how they look to a human eye. I am not sure how to describe that, it is beyond simple explanation, although I am aware that plenty of people try to do it. Mr. Puts for instance.

    Which is why I don’t understand the title of your piece, you arrive at a similar conclusion to me, and you understand that you are the same photographer, with whatever tool you use… But you prefer the older tool…

    To my mind, that means that “it IS the tool”.

    Reply
    1. Mark Twight

      Stephenj,

      This is not a question of old/analog being inferior or modern/digital being superior, this is a dissertation about spirit, about feeling. Ultimately, the tool used is irrelevant. I use the tool that will help me feel what I am seeking in the moment: it could be a Leica III or a Makina 67, it could be a Fuji GFX or a Canonet or an old Kiev III, and it might be the actual image that causes the feeling but sometimes it is the simple act of carrying the tool while seeking the image, and how holding it shapes the way I see. In this way, it’s not the tool, it is USING it that affects me.

      Reply
      1. StephenJ

        I am sorry Mark, but I never stated that I thought that it was such a question. I did not intend to follow up your riposte, but subsequent comments that seem to suggest that I am being critical, which I am not, force my hand.

        I am sure however that you will accept that in virtually every paragraph you talk about how one piece of equipment or another did or did not satisfy your particular needs at a given time.

        It’s OK, this is what most people who hold a camera decide. The only reason that I posited my question, was that I thought by the title, you were going to suggest something new and profound.

        There are some very nice pictures here and on your website, but you know that anyway.

        You certainly have more confidence than me, Tim has asked me in the past to submit some snaps, but even though I have started down the road, I have never got as far as actually doing it.

        I have been snapping more than fifty years now, mostly with the only camera I had at the time, usually something cheap and Japanese but bought new.

        It is only in the last six or seven years that I have owned more than one, indeed since my dad died, I have had camera diarrhoea and gone through at least twenty different machines, all of them old and previously used, except the Ondu 6×12 and the digital CL and even that uses old lenses with a mount converter, I have cameras ranging from 1932 to 2018.

        I regard photography as walking meditation, as such it can sometimes be therapeutic reading what others have to say about this kind of attention to one’s inner being. As an interested amateur, I do not believe I will ever develop a style or become repetitive, that is for the professionals, indeed it is precisely that sort of prostitution that they are paid for.

        At my level, you start out with a place to go, an idea in your head, and an appropriate, sometimes preposterous tool in your hand and see what happens, e.g. pin-holing is often very satisfying as well as being hell. My last go on the beach at Dungeness at around 35 degrees with a 40mph freezing wind blowing in from the sea, was a hoot! At least when one goes to the arctic, one expects and prepares, I just decided on waking that it might be a good wheeze.

        I tend to avoid the blogs where the latest kit is unboxed and held aloft like Excalibur, they can be very tedious and they are not motivating in any way. I don’t like comparison sites, but one cannot avoid making some technical remarks when talking about a technical pursuit.

        Reply
        1. Mark Twight

          Stephen, thank you again for sharing your perspective. I agree with the idea that photography, especially walking with a camera, is good, active meditation. The quality and depth of my meditation is sometimes, often perhaps, influenced by the tool I carry, by the pace enforced by that tool—by the mental condition appropriate to the tool. For me, the tool is the trigger, the gateway, to the emotional state.

          I am curious about your reference to photographic style, that it is (or can be) a limitation imposed by professional work. I think we cannot help but develop a style because how we see and act is tied to our character. Thomas Carlyle wrote that, “You may see how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings; his courage or want of courage is visible in the word he utters, in the opinion he has formed, no less than in the stroke he strikes. He is one; and preaches the same self abroad in all these ways.” I believe it is the same with the camera: how we see, and what we see is within us, and consciously rejecting that is the artifice.

          Finally, if you have been shooting for 50+ years and Tim has asked you to submit some images and words, please do (!) because I am sure you have seen some wonderful things in that time, and more interestingly, captured instants that can only be seen—and seen as important—by your individual “eye”.

          Reply
  2. Andrew

    Love it, and such great images. My favorite is the girl lifting weights.

    By the way, what is the magic serial number range for the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux you mentioned?

    Reply
    1. Mark Twight

      The lens I mentioned and love is a 35mm Summilux f1.4 pre-aspheric model. My copy was made in 1990 so not old by Leica standards. The range of numbers from the production run I found (on eBay) are: 3519796 – 3520295. I’m not sure why Nicholas specified the later, German-made versions vs. those of Canadian manufacture and I have not compared. I have read that many folks didn’t appreciate the glow, the coma, and the softness of this lens but those are the reasons I quite like it. Besides, close it down to f5.6 or so and you have a standard Leica look. Except for the absolutely rabid flare whenever the sun is in the frame. Both the girl lifting weights and the girl with the wakeboard in this article are shot with the pre-aspheric lens wide open hence the glow (and vignetting). A few more on my site: https://marktwight.com/Image/Street/18 and also /19 and /20

      Reply
  3. Archiver

    Hi Mark, thank you for the fascinating and thought provoking article. It’s not everyone who’s introduction to the Monochrom is by way of Zack Snyder on set! The first I heard that Zach shoots with a Monochrom was when he posted a picture of the new Batmobile in his Twitter account.

    Rather than turn this into a film vs digital conversation, I still think the tool is important in that having the right tool allows you to express yourself in the optimally desired way. For some it’s a super crisp and clean digital file, endlessly processed into something hyperreal. For others, its a gritty Tri-X image, or a lusciously smooth Delta 100 image. I shoot with the M9 and a variety of other cameras, but my favourite images have a certain ‘look’, a dimensionality and organic imperfection mixed with high resolution. The M9 can give me this with the right lenses, although I’d love to know which Summilux you’ve got which has these mystical properties!

    Reply
  4. Rob Campbell

    I have noticed that on the Internet, recently, people appear ever more drawn into verbal sophistry and attempts to make artificially composed hay whilst an equally false Sun shines into their eyes.

    I think our self-seeking politicians, along with the common people who abandon their own senses in order to borrow the collective cap of invisibility (the secrecy of the voting booth) proffered by political parties, act out dramas beyond their essentially doubtful perceptions, and together bear us all along the path to the edge of that abyss over which we seem predisposed to tumble. On both sides of the Atlantic, we need Jim Dandy to the rescue.

    Mark Twight has shown us some photographs with very pleasing tones and backlighting. Tones are very much a matter of processing, whether in the wet or in the computer. That said, though I never owned a Leica, as mentoned here before, I do remember printing M3/21mm negatives (for my very last employer back in ’65), and though using exactly the same films, soups and enlarger as for the Nikon work, myself printing in both cases, those Leica-derived prints managed to look as if producd on another level of expertise. I write this, having no dog in the fight. So far, I have never owned a Leica, and am hardly yet convinced rangefinder’s the system for me. But I saw what I saw, back in the day.

    Rob

    Reply
  5. Jon

    What a wonderful treat to encounter the thoughts of one of my favourite climbing writers from my years spent in the mountains, now describing with discipline and vision his thoughts on the heart and soul of the photographic act. I had the good fortune to meet Mark many years ago, while ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies on a ridiculously cold weekend in early 1988 where we all spent more time thawing the frozen engines in our vans with hot coals from the hostel wood stove than actually climbing. Mark already had a reputation for fierce ascents, which only grew, and a similar hunger and ethic in his writing. Always provocative, and turning a very critical lens on himself as much as he did the rest of the climbing community, his writings on alpinism are of a higher order than many. I was proud to read this short powerful piece; it recalled a fire within and a calling that the creative act of alpinism informs to all things in the examine life. In all of his writing, Mark speaks of utilizing the things he feels matter the most – skill, loyalty, courage, self doubt, mastery vs. dabbling – and always pulls deep from within to pursue the maximum. His thoughts are just as clear on the discipline, attitudes and integrity he holds for making images.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I’m pleased to have Mark as a reader and to publish something from him here. He is an incredibly accomplished man and an excellent writer. Google him for more information.

      Reply

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