Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the Reason You Can’t Explain Why You Love Your Leica

 

This seems an appropriate photo for this discussion

I’ve just got done plowing my way through an important work of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception, which reproduces a number of his works that first appeared in various publications from 1947 to 1961. I read it so you won’t have to; trust me, you don’t want to. Like much 20th century French philosophy, it’s turgid, bombastic, over-written – and fascinating in a WTF? sort of way…. but it has obvious implications for us as photographers, and particularly as “Leica photographers” who find a certain aesthetic value in the act of photographing itself. So bear with me. You might just learn something.

According to Merleau-Ponty, philosophy has long stressed thinking as opposed to doing as the way we understand things.  This is because western philosophy has always thought of the mind as something distinct from the world: there is the thinking self and then there are physical things, and it’s the mind, not the body, that is the site of thinking and learning. This is referred to in philosophy as “dualism,” the idea that your mind is something different than stuff out there, somehow roped off from that ‘out-there,’ sort of like a puppeteer pulling the strings of your physical body after first developing an intellectual understanding of how to do things.

According to Merleau-Ponty, however, this dualistic idea is wrong. He notes that we are in the habit of saying that we ‘have’ a body, which is not correct: you are not somehow outside your body… rather you are your body. Your mind is not somehow outside of time and space. Instead, it’s part of your body, a body that thinks, feels, desires, looks ahead, reflects. Thinking always emerges out of lived bodily experience, and what we do with our bodies profoundly shapes how and what we think.

Your body is the means by which you interact with the world, and, as such, it is the stuff of the world that is the necessary food for your thinking. Humans are thinking animals whose thinking is always infused with the physical, our minds not somehow apart from the rest of nature, but necessarily “embodied, ” indivisible from the physical,  and we learn not exclusively intellectually but when our embodied mind acts in the world.

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Take the example of a learned skill like dancing: Merleau-Ponty’s distinction explains why highly educated, self-conscious humans like me are usually terrible dancers, what I’ve heard referred to as suffering from the “honky pox” [for god’s sake, please do not ask me to dance]. To somebody like me who intellectualizes things, I’ll try to learn to dance by memorizing a sequence of steps, thinking my mind will then know how to move my body like a puppeteer pulls strings to move a puppet. For Merleau-Ponty, I’m an over-intellectualized idiot missing the obvious: the way to learn to dance is to move one’s physical body in space. The mind does not reflect and make a conscious decision before the body moves; the mind moves with the body.

In reply, you might say that this is true for physical activities like dancing but shouldn’t apply to all intellectual pursuits. Merleau-Ponty would respond that our body is our means of having a world. Everything we learn, think or know comes from our body. For example, walking through a meadow, rafting a river, or riding a bike in the country are how we understand geography, not by sitting in a room, looking at a map. There is no way for us to learn that bypasses the body: “the body is our anchorage in a world”.

This explains why a lot of what you know, what you’re certain about, can’t be put into words. People learn, think and value with every part of their bodies, and our bodies know things that we can never fully articulate. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, and capable of being known. That’s why you can’t explain with any specificity why you love your M4, even though you know you do and you know the experience is real. And it’s why the photographic philistines, the guys rocking their Sony A7r’s and posting at DPR review, smug in their technological sophistication, think you’re crazy to be going on and on about some ineffable magic thing your Leica possesses that you claim their digital imaging device doesn’t. But it’s the reason behind the oft-repeated claim of photographers who experience their photography as somehow more satisfying, more authentic, in winding a shutter, setting your aperture, focusing you lens, developing and handling a negative – in short, interacting with your camera’s functions and the act of photography itself – instead of the incoherent act of pushing a button and staring at a screen with a nested menu of commands to produce an intangible file that exists nowhere in particular.

One of the things you’ll hear again and again when photographers who use Leica try to articulate why they prefer it over a more technologically sophisticated device is that it just feels right, it “works.” When you say that, you’re trying to give words to body experience, to knowledge gained by doing, by interacting in a physical way with your tools, not by reading a spec sheet and internalizing the data. I think the main reason photographers continue to gravitate to old Leica’s is because they ‘work,’ they’re a perfect match between form and function. They feel right.*** That doesn’t quite get at it, but it’s as close as you can articulate it. Digital advocates sometimes seem to forget that we are animals that want to move and interact in the world, we need to do things and thereby learn, not sit back and passively watch from a screen as a device makes our decisions for us.


***Postscript: Shortly after publishing this piece, a reader named Lee Rust replied with his description of what I’m trying to get at, an articulation I’m including here on the face of the post because I think it’s gets close to the heart of that ineffable quality of using a Leica that one experiences via usage:

“The Leica M film cameras are a sensory delight. The shape, size, weight and surface textures have been consistent over many decades and are naturally suited to the hand. Just like a baseball, they are meant to be gripped and there’s nothing that sticks out and pokes. The controls are simple and clearly marked, and the buttons, dials, rings and tabs find the fingers with unambiguous tactility. The lenses are compact, the viewfinder bright and uncluttered and the rangefinder simple and direct. The shutter makes soft but complex sounds, especially when the slow speed gears add their springy little bounce. The winder advances the film and sets the shutter with a quiet creak and affirming click. The separate bottom plate and hinged back door make the loading of each new cassette a deliberate ritual of preparation and expectation.

For those who are attuned to it, a Leica M film camera makes the composition and exposure of each frame into a discrete physical experience that is quite separate from the resulting photographic image.”

11 thoughts on “Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the Reason You Can’t Explain Why You Love Your Leica

  1. Rob Campbell

    A nice argument for the film Leicas, and one that resonates with my love for the 500 Series ‘blads, Nikons F and F2, but not the later F3 and F4s; introduce compulsory batteries and you may as well go digital.

    I believe it’s also possible to feel much the same, instinctive way about the digital Nikons I have, admittedly basic ones (D200 and D700), if you set them as near as dammit to all manual. I would, however, admit to a love for auto ISO; there was no particular pleasure in light meters. I know there’s the school of thought that says that with enough shooting mileage you don’t need a meter. I think that may be a valid act of faith with photographers who generally don’t have to face their own negatives. For anyone else, desired exposure/development control is vital – not open to guesswork. Work with transparencies, and you discover the facts of film life pretty damned fast! Digital seems to be far more forgiving or, instead, Nikon’s Matrix metering is a very clever cookie indeed.

    Body and mind as one. Yeah, inseperable in the living, but then how do you explain the desire to do something when you know your body won’t let you do it anymore? The logical situation should be that if totally as one, perfectly integrated, the desire for the once attainable (but no longer so), is automatically exorcised as physical conditions dictate otherwise. I don’t think it works that way; I know it doesn’t, unfortunately. This twenty-year-old soul lives in a very real old man’s body.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      Auto ISO is a funny thing. I love it in analog (Ilford XP2 with ISO 50-1600, changeable in mid roll) and never use it with digital even though it would be so easy. I never understood why I insist on doing it backwards.

      I don’t think I’ve even tried the auto ISO functions on my digital Leicas or Canons, and only use it occasionally on compact point-and-shoots, mainly when handing them off to family members so I can be in a few pictures as we travel.

      Now with my M5 loaded with Ilford XP2 I pretty much just pick whatever aperture I want, make sure I have a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold and rely on the film’s vast exposure latitude to do the rest. This is especially odd as the M5 has, in my opinion, the best light meter ever built into a camera body.

      I use that meter often, when shooting anything other than XP2, but there is a strange pleasure in shooting a film with little regard to exposure other than the creative effects of aperture and to a lesser extent shutter speed.

      Reply
  2. Thomas Rink

    Can’t speak about using a Leica, since I use a digital camera. But this could explain why for me, walking around is important for picture making. Pulling over with my car and getting out to make a roadside picture never worked for me.

    Best, Thomas

    Reply
  3. Lee Rust

    The Leica M film cameras are a sensory delight. The shape, size, weight and surface textures have been consistent over many decades and are naturally suited to the hand. Just like a baseball, they are meant to be gripped and there’s nothing that sticks out and pokes. The controls are simple and clearly marked, and the buttons, dials, rings and tabs find the fingers with unambiguous tactility. The lenses are compact, the viewfinder bright and uncluttered and the rangefinder simple and direct. The shutter makes soft but complex sounds, especially when the slow speed gears add their springy little bounce. The winder advances the film and sets the shutter with a quiet creak and affirming click. The separate bottom plate and hinged back door make the loading of each new cassette a deliberate ritual of preparation and expectation.

    For those who are attuned to it, a Leica M film camera makes the composition and exposure of each frame into a discrete physical experience that is quite separate from the resulting photographic image.

    The first generations of the digital M cameras were larger and noisier, with new controls and interface complexities. After a decade of development, the haptics and shutter sound of the newest M10 are pretty close to the comfort zone of the film cameras, but the electronic imaging abstractions will forever prevent the digitals from becoming the simple pleasure machines that the film M’s have always been, and always will be.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s cute: the Nikon F also forced one to remove the base, making tripod use a bugger. Of course, there are those who refute tripod use with M Leicas on principle, but my own, albeit limited, experience with the film camera (M3) was only on tripod: my last boss used it with a 21mm to shoot room sets for BBC tv because it’s wides were better than those he had for his F.

      Springy little bounces would be the last thing I’d desire from my shutters and especially at slow speeds!

      I’m not sure how to read your second paragraph: are you suggesting that shooting with the M film cameras meant you had precious little idea how your shot was going to look if you worked other than stopped well down?

      Regarding you last paragraph, does that kinda imply that the digital M Leica cameras make it hard to work as near dammit manually?

      I find it strange how folks can cling on to difficult features and turn them into positives. Equally, it worries me that even Nikon could make the F3 battery-dependent other than for one silly speed, and the F4 into a supposedly self-loading device that defeated my best efforts every first time. That’s why I sold it in order to revert to the older model, the 3. You mostly knew where you stood with that, as long as you had batteries. On that level I agree with the drift of your post that old was sometimes better.

      Rob

      Reply
  4. base+fog

    I charged through “Phenomenology of Perception” in college. Lyrical. Don’t forget poor Herr Schneider who, when touched, could tell he was being touched but not where. The photographer becoming, not just one with the camera, but borderless, non-positional. I suppose that would be the ideal except I always find myself in the world and not among it. 8/10 is fine.

    Reply
  5. Lee Rust

    Rob, it sounds like you’re a Nikon kind of guy. No problem there. I’ve got three myself… D700, D70 and FM2. Great cameras, and they do what they do very well, but I’ve never felt very attached to them. If they all disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss them… but I would miss my Leicas.

    Back when the M2, M3 or M4 were in production, journalists and professionals used them daily. Now, not so much… Leica Ms were surpassed for these purposes first by SLRs, then DSLRs and now mirrorless. Today the M rangefinder, both film and digital, is either an obsession for a tiny slice of sincere enthusiasts or an expensive prop for photo poseurs.

    So if you’re not a poseur, why use one? There’s no question that the M design is antiquated, inefficient and slow. Even the newest digital version is sluggish by current standards. But these days that’s the whole point. It’s like fast food vs slow food. There’s a time and place for speed, but which experience do you savor? If your personal taste in photographic apparatus runs toward Leicas, there’s no contest.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Funny thing is, though I used Nikon for my 135 format stuff, I never owned a Leica of any kind. Yet, it was probably the first brand that I became aware of as a kid – other than the Kodak Brownie that was in the house – and that first attraction must have been around ’50 or so, before the M range, so probably the lllg or similar?

      Anyway, my skepticism wouldn’t preclude me owning a digital M if I felt willing to spend more on photography stuff, but that’s not gonna happen. Probably a throwback from working days, but I never bought equipment unless I really had a use for it, and that’s stuck with me. Maybe it prevented my going broke!

      Rob

      Reply
  6. wayne

    A good piece.

    For me the physical component of intellectualism has always been the most important. I cannot cite the whole by heart, but Maya Angelou wrote:…”People always remember how you make them feel” in one of her writings. I think it pertains to things as well; it is likely the reason I retain so many of the film cameras I have purchased: each, in a given situation, provides a sort of ecstasy in physical use…..The cameras satisfy even before the photo comes to light. At this moment I am thinking about the magic of looking into the focusing screen of a Rollei 2.8 Planar on one of those wonderful overcast days that allows use of the screen without difficulty associated with glare: the image just jumps to clarity. It feels like the process of creation.

    Who cares if others do not agree? It puts me in my own world. Which, I guess is, at least in part, Merleau-Ponty’s point.

    Reply
  7. Rob Campbell

    “People always remember how you make them feel…”

    That’s a brilliant yet simple observation; I wonder why it doesn’t figure often in writings online? Perhaps the physical absence removes the visual side of the inspired emotion – for better or for worse – and so the mental image that we carry of unseen people is far more dilute than of the ones we’ve met. But we still know whether we do or do not take to them, even if our mental picture of them is probably wildly inaccurate as, I suppose, it would have to be.

    I do remember some people, clients, who made me feel good about my work just because of that positive vibe they projected towards me; their identity remains but their facial features are naught but a blur today. It happens even with people you know very, very well: my wife passed almost ten years ago, and were it not for a few remaining photographs, I would find it very hard to bring her face accurately to mind: more, she exists in my mind as an amalgam of herself at different ages and for some reason I visualise her in her forties more than later in life or even much earlier, and we met when she was fifteen.

    There’s so much we don’t really know or understand about life…

    Reply

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