A Black Chrome Leica M4: According to me, the “best camera ever made.” What, precisely, do I mean by that?
The term “Gish Gallop” was coined by Eugenie Scott to describe the debating strategy of one Duane Gish. Gish was an American biochemist turned “Creationist,” who would sucker real scientists into debating him in public. In its original context, it meant to spew forth massive amounts of complete claptrap, pronounced as if it were settled fact. In addition to the Gallop, Gish was known for simply ignoring any objections raised by his opponents and proceeding headlong with his inanities as if they were universal truths. Gish was actually a pretty effective debater, in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact that he was – in vulgar terms – completely full of shit, cravenly repeating outlandish claims as if they were obvious truths. And, most effectively, he actually believed his nonsense and did so with a shamelessness that was, well, disarming if not downright confusing, causing those who knew his claims to be spurious to question themselves. Mr Gish was, essentially, a precursor in the scientific arena of Donald Trump in the political. Say it loud enough, and often enough, and with enough conviction, and most people will assume you know something they don’t and will believe you.
There are a lot of Gish acolytes on internet photography forums, especially those forums that traffic in the religion of various brand hagiography, whether it be Nikon or Fuji or Canon or Leica, those who I refer to as the [Camera X] True Believer. For those practiced in the ham-fisted sleight of hand of the Leica True Believer, the trick is to unleash so many baseless yet oft-repeated claims that us who do, perhaps, feel bound by the truth, face a dilemma. Either we can ignore you, or we can waste our time trying to combat your offenses, usually while being branded an anti-social internet troll by a forum “Mentor”, ( usually some retired guy, an insurance exec or orthodontist, who bought his first Leica in 2004) because he’s taken offense to the claim that his photographs of smiling people at swap meets may not possess mystical qualities solely by virtue of having been taken with a 4th generation ‘Cron.’
The effectiveness of the Gish Gallop School of Leicaphilia is the result of the following unfortunate fact: it takes exponentially more energy to refute untruths than it does to produce them. This is the unbearable asymmetry of bullshit, amplified now even larger with the advent of the internet photography forum, where anyone who bought their first Leica (or Canon or Nikon or Fuji) in the last six months and has access to a dial up connection is now an expert. So the problem is this: given the asymmetrical requirements of a proper response, do you simply ignore the bullshit, and thus help further propagate it, or do you go down the rabbit hole with your True Believer? Either way, you lose.
As for me, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, other than maybe being able to spot harebrained thinking (i.e. Bullshit) when I see it.
Leica photography seems remarkably susceptible to outrageous claims, probably because their price, and hence exclusivity, make Leica products fertile ground for the magical thinking that usually accompanies the ownership of what economists call Veblen Goods. Veblen Goods are things for which the demand is proportional to the outrageous price, an irrational contradiction of the law of demand that would have driven Adam Smith nuts. Veblen goods are goods in demand because of their high prices, the price itself making them desirable as status symbols. Conversely, a decrease of the price of a Veblen Good would decrease demand for the thing itself, because now it would just be another undifferentiated product amidst a world of undifferentiated products. Weird, irrational, ostensibly stupid – but true from a psychological perspective.
While certainly true from a psychological perspective, the enjoyment given by a Veblen Good – a Leica M, say – often produces convoluted explanations attempting to justify one’s purchase and use. You’ve seen it a million times, the True Believer’s attempt at explaining why he or she spends 4X the price for a Leica. A perfect example of the weird, irrational nature of the justifications of some Leica owners can be seen in the following post I ran across some time ago on a photo-enthusiast forum. Someone posted the following:
1. I don’t think Leica worth its price.
2. I recently bought a Leica M9 and I am dreaming of the Leica Monochrome.
3. Contradiction? I don’t think so. The look of the images produced by Leica is so different from any other camera (and I have lots of them), that in the last couple of years I only use Leicas. I hate their price, I adore the results.
Contradiction? Yeah, I think so. Something is either “worth the price” or it isn’t. In logic we call this the Law of the Excluded Middle. Something either is or it isn’t. It can’t be both. A Leica can’t both not be “worth the price” and yet be desirable enough that you’re buying more than one, which, by default, proves you consider it “worth the price.”
Much of this wooly-headed thinking arises from the basic conceptual mistake we often make when assessing the “worth” of a consumer item – that there can be only one factor you’d consider when deciding something is “worth the price,” and that is a camera’s functionality as a tool. This is an “objective” analysis and justification of quality. The problem with this Leicaphile’s claim is that he’s used the strategy of justifying his desires with objective criteria (“the images are so different”) that simply don’t stand up to objective scrutiny. If we’re speaking of rangefinder versus SLR quality, there might be marginal differences noticeable by the most discerning, given a rangefinder’s ability to utilize simpler, more efficient optical designs without the penalty of an SLR’s extended film to flange distance required to accommodate a mirror box. But if it’s down to two rangefinder systems – an M system or a Hexar RF for example – the quality difference of the photos produced is largely in one’s head.
And that’s OK. It’s consistent with the more productive idea that, past a certain threshold level now met by most mass produced photographic equipment, quality is a subjective experience, found not in the tool itself but in the response of the user to the tool. It can be something as simple as the heft of the thing and how it feels in your hands; or, the feel of the use, or the simplicity of its function; or the aesthetics of the camera as a thing apart from its function. These are all valid perspectives, and certainly have a value in themselves not susceptible to quantification. They can’t be quantified because they are subjective. This doesn’t mean they’re not real or the people who value them, and pay extra for them, are somehow foolish or deluded.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues recently. You might have noticed that blog posts here have slowed down recently. You’d be correct. I’ve spent the last few months busy with daily living, but also having made a conscious decision to slow down and think about what I’m doing. If you’re a 50’s era jazz buff, as I am, you’ll be familiar with the term “woodshedding.” For a jazz artist – Sonny Rollins, say – it meant to step away awhile and refamiliarize themselves with their instrument. For Rollins, feeling stagnant creatively, it meant stepping away from a career at its peak and relearning how to play his sax. Given he lived in Manhattan, his ability to do so was complicated by finding places to blow a saxaphone at all hours of the night without keeping everyone around him awake. He ultimately found the perfect place to woodshed – the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge in the early morning hours, where he stood and played almost every night for more than a year. [This seems the obvious place for a gratuitous plug: Rollin’s Saxaphone Collossus, his 1956 masterpiece, remains one of the 3 or 4 greatest popular albums of the 20th century. Go buy a bottle of good bourbon, a nice snifter for drinking it neat, and drop a needle on a copy. Like fondling a black chrome M4, one of life’s inexplicably profound pleasures, absolutely real but incapable of being quantified.]
So, I’m currently engaged in my own pedestrian version of woodshedding. I’ve put my cameras down, actually sold a bunch of them as well, and am letting my experience as a photographer just be. It’ll be there when I come back. I always do. But I’ve found, like Mr Rollins, that sometimes stepping away is necessary. In the meantime, I’ll keep posting to Leicaphilia when I feel the need – of course, you are always welcome to send in your submissions.