The Enduring Beauty of Things Made to Last

Above is one of the first SLR cameras I owned as a kid, A Mamiya/Sekor 528TL. I was 12. It was an amateur’s camera, a fixed lens SLR with telephoto and wide angle attachments. I didn’t keep it long. What I wanted was a Nikon F. You could change lenses on the Nikon F. To a 12 year old, that seemed incredibly cool, the ability to change lenses. The Mamiya was decidedly not cool, so I convinced my parents that I needed a better camera and the Mamiya went wherever unused cameras went back in 1970.

A few years ago I ran across one on Ebay and bought it on a whim – it was $10. I figured, why not, I’d put it up on the shelf as a piece of nostalgia, maybe even use it occasionally when feeling in a retro mood. Once I got it in the mail I realized my initial 12 y/o’s assessment of the camera had been pretty much correct. It was a piece of junk, made in Korea, obviously thrown together without much thought to precision or longevity, a 1970’s era throw-away.

Which is unusual. Film cameras back in the day were typically built robustly, made to last, not in thrall to a consumerist ethic that required replacement with “better” technology every 18 months or so. Not that manufacturers wouldn’t have liked us to be buying a new camera every 18 months; it was just that the mechanical technology was static in a way that didn’t lend itself to constant upgrading, so cameras were typically built solidly, with longevity and robustness as a selling point. You’d buy a camera – a Nikon F or a Leica M – with the understanding that you’d keep it for a lifetime. There might be newer models to come along, something a little sexier, but basically the same technology presented in a new package.

Where it all began to change was with the introduction of electronics in cameras – meters, and then auto exposure and auto focus – and the pace of technology dictated that cameras became consumer goods, something with a limited technological shelf life that required upgrading at fixed intervals. As such, the notion of robustness, building something with longevity in mind, became an anachronism. Of course there were exceptions – the M5 and M6 come to mind, as does the Nikon F2 and Canon F1.

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This all came back to me the other day as I was out riding my new (to me) Schwinn Paramount road bike. Growing up, I admired fine road racing bikes the way I admired fine cameras. And back in 1970, at least here in the States, there was nothing more desirable and exclusive than a Paramount. I remember seeing one hanging in the window of the bike shop, a beautiful jewel of a bike, ridiculously expensive and out of reach for most people, certainly for a kid like me. One day, I told myself, I’d have a Schwinn Paramount.

The Paramount has an interesting history. It was first produced by Schwinn, a large American bicycle maker, in 1938, and remained essentially the same bike up through the mid-80’s, when bike technology started a progressive trajectory much like cameras. Schwinn hired an old world master frame maker –  Emil Wastyn – to build frames for Schwinn’s professional six-day racing team. Emil ran a bicycle frame shop not far from the Chicago Schwinn factory. Soon, a select number of Paramount-labeled bikes began to appear for sale to the general public.

During the next twenty years, Wastyn hand-built all Schwinn’s Paramounts at his shop. The earliest Paramounts followed his signature styling (balled-end seat stays, for example) and keyhole-styled lugs. Over the years, Paramounts gradually evolved their own specific style – particularly the famous slant trimmed seat stays which remained in effect for 50 years. Schwinn also produced a variety of machined components to complement the frame – beautifully crafted wide-flange hubs, stems, handlebars and even pedals, each marked with the Schwinn name in script. By the 60’s, Schwinn had brought hand-built production in shop and offered Paramounts with top of the line Italian Campagnolo components, with corresponding prices to match.

Think of the Schwinn Paramount as the Leica of American made racing bikes, the best, most refined version of a steel framed road racing cycle, a no-expense spared hand built machine with functionality as its premier design feature, nothing extraneous or thrown in for fashion. Like Leicas, they’ve become collectors items for guys my age, nostalgic for the things they wanted but couldn’t afford in their youth. Technologically, they’re simple, 22 lb fully mechanical lugged steel framed and shiny chromed artworks. Most collectors hang them on the wall and never ride them, which is a shame, because, as I’ve discovered, they’re still sublime to ride even 50 years old.

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My 1969 Schwinn Paramount P-13

Above is my Paramount, which I’ve owned for all of two weeks. I found it on a whim on Craigslist in Richmond, VA, a 200 mile ride from my home in North Carolina. It was being sold by the original owner, and he had receipts back to his purchase of the bike in 1969. It wasn’t period correct in that he had upgraded the drive train to a 90’s era Campagnolo 8 speed with modern style shifters, but it still had the same beautiful box section wheels with high-flange Campy hubs, and the drive train upgrades were top of the line Campagnolo circa 1992. And it looked in good condition from the pics he posted. And it was cheap. I called him, paypalled him the asking price sight unseen, then rode to Richmond to pick it up. The bike was pristine, obviously cared for, almost new, and mechanically, everything worked perfectly. I drove home marveling at my good fortune.

My intent had been to strip the frame, sell the vintage Campy components and replace them with a modern groupset with modern wheels. As such, I’d have the best of both worlds – a beautiful hand built steel lugged frame mated to modern lightweight components. One ride on the bike changed my mind forever. Its 10 mile shakedown ride turned into a 6 hour, 100 mile ride – without the usual earbuds and ZZ Top blasting away over the creaking of the carbon fiber frame – cruising eastern North Carolina farm roads. Used to riding 17 lb carbon fiber bikes, I assumed my Paramount ride would feel heavy and slow and harsh, probably accompanied by the metallic twang of misaligned gears and loose nuts and bolts. Instead, the Paramount rode perfectly quiet, the 50 year old hubs rolling along with a smooth effortlessness I’d never experienced before, not a rattle anywhere on the bike, everything solid and purposeful. And it felt light. Sprinting out of the saddle or climbing hills was a revelation of what a bike should feel like. In short, the Paramount offered something close to perfection, a sublime experience of a machine perfectly matched to its function.

It made me think of my Leica M4, produced during the same year as my Paramount. From a technical perspective, hopelessly outdated, laughable almost when compared to the M10 or the D800, good only for nostalgia. In reality though, it’s just the opposite, the Paramount and the M4 two examples of machines of profound elegance, perfectly made for their intended purpose, made with an artisanal pride and built to last seemingly forever, unlike today’s “imaging devices” and 15 lb carbon fiber bikes.

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Just Shoot Me If I Ever Become This Guy

I hate nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, old stuff is just shitty old stuff, as my Mamiya 528TL proves. I don’t ever want to become that guy with the M4 and the beret who fancies himself Josef Koudelka with all the period correct lenses etc, or the old guy with the 60’s era wool jersey and the leather helmet out for his Sunday “L’Eroica” retro ride. That attitude doesn’t befit the inherent worth of the M4 or the Paramount, two beautiful hand crafted machines that work perfectly for their intended use, and as such, are not “vintage” and will never be obsolete.

I’ve been riding the hell out of the Paramount since I’ve gotten it. It’s shined up perfectly, cleaned top to bottom, not a scratch on it, but I’m intent on riding it hard, using it for its intended purpose, much like I still use my Leica film cameras. They weren’t made to put on a shelf or hang on a wall. They were made to be used, and the pleasure of their use will prevent them from ever becoming obsolete, which is not something you can say for a camera or a bicycle you can buy new today.

The Existential Dilemma of an M5 Lover

Readers of the blog are well aware that I’m fond of the M5. As far as metered mechanical M film bodies, I think it’s the best of the bunch, ergonomically superior to the classic M bodied M6. As for the M7, it really isn’t a classic M given the electronic shutter and step-less aperture priority automatic exposure control.

I’ve owned a slew of M5’s over the years, my first purchased in the 70’s. I’ve also owned an early classic (i.e. non-TTL metered) M6, and it’s also a beautiful camera, although the M5 feels to me more solid and refined, and all of the M5’s are TTL metered with an excellent spot meter. As for the ergonomics, I like the M5’s match-needle meter reading, much preferring it to the M6’s annoying red diode meter reading. I also love the M5’s overhanging shutter speed dial combined with the shutter speed shown in the viewfinder, which allows you to keep the camera to your eye while fiddling with the shutter speed. With the M6, you’ve got to take the camera from your eye to see what shutter speed you’re using. The M5 seems to load better too; it’s the only M that seems fool-proof to load. Little things, I know, but better nonetheless. And maybe I’m just imagining things, but the M5 viewfinder seems bigger and brighter than the M6’s.

I even like the aesthetics of the M5. Granted, the classic M profile of the M6 is a thing of beauty, an example of the timelessness of the design. As for the M5, its design met with criticism when introduced and for many it’s still an acquired taste, but I’ve always found it elegant in its own way, designed by Leitz from the ground up for functionality, as evidenced by the original 2 lug design so that the camera would hang vertically on the strap, although Leitz subsequently bowed to traditionalists and added a 3rd lug allowing the camera to hang in a “normal” horizontal position. In any event the M5 is a classic example of form following function, which is the design gold standard. I like the fact that its different, a unique M. While most Leicaphiles have never used one, they’re prone to repeating the same tired criticisms first leveled at the M5 by its initial detractors in the 70’s – ugly, too big, not a “real” M etc etc. Usually, you simply need to pick one up and use it for a bit – and then it makes perfect sense. It’s a superb camera, to my eye simple yet beautiful, and simple and functional in use.

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So….I’ve currently got two of them, a black three lug and a chrome 2 lug. Both work perfectly. The black M5 (#1377140, which puts it at the tail end of black chrome M5 production in late 1973) was CLA’d by Sheri Krauter (to the tune of $450) about 10 years ago and works as nicely as the day it left her hands. Meter works perfectly. The only issue it has is that the mask showing the shutter speeds in the viewfinder has dropped out of place, so you currently can’t see the shutter speeds in the viewfinder. Other than that, it works like new, shutter speeds spot-on down to 1 second, everything – in the words of dentist Leicaphiles everywhere – “buttery smooth.”

The Chrome M5 (#1347010, production date 4/72) is an interesting piece, as I’ve written about here. It’s a 2 lug “Panda” i.e. a chrome bodied camera with black chrome shutter lever, film return lever and and hot-shoe bracket. I’ve never seen another one, and have no idea if other M5 Pandas exist. For all I know, the guys putting them together that day decided to have some fun by mixing and matching. Whatever the explanation, it’s unique. Like the black M5 it’s in great shape, having just been CLA’d by Alan Starkey in the UK. He went over it head-to-toe, and it works perfectly, “buttery smooth.”

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The point of all this is I’m selling one of them and keeping the other. One of them – I’m not going to say which – has been with me since new and I’ve developed a certain affinity for it. I’ve said elsewhere that I would never sell it, as it’s like an old friend. Of course, as readers have no doubt noticed, anything I say is subject to change without notice, which, I explain to my wife, is actually a positive quality, the result of an open mind. However, there are certain things about the other one I really like, non-functional aesthetic things subjective  in nature, and to this point I’ve been incapable of making the choice of which to let go and which to keep, which is where you come in…..

I’m offering both for sale, the black chrome 3 lug for $1100/shipped, and the chrome 2 lug for $1300/shipped, payment by Paypal or Bitcoin. *** (And no, they don’t come with the lens shown in the pictures). Whichever sells first I sell, which ever is left over I keep. Problem solved.

Frankly, if you closed your eyes and picked up both cameras, you couldn’t tell the difference in use. They both work flawlessly and should for many moons. Cosmetically, they’re both in very good condition – no dents, obvious flaws etc, just two M5’s that have been well taken care of. They’re covered by my usual return policy: if you get it and don’t like it, send it back, no harm, no hard feelings.


***Update: Chrome Panda M5 is sold.

The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

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In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

Digital Photography is Making People Crazy

Does This Selfie Make Me Look Fat?


If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where the ‘black mirror’ is – the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a television, a monitor, a smartphone. 

-Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror***


File this under the heading of “The Law of Unintended Consequences of Our Brave New World:” Snapchat selfies are making a lot of people crazy.

In an article  in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Neelam Vashi, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Boston University and Assistant Director of the Boston University Cosmetic & Laser Center, describes a digital photography side-effect he’s seeing more of recently – kids and young adults with “body dysmorphia” as a result of using Snapchat filters and editing software when they take pictures of themselves. Vashi says the pervasiveness of these filtered images is screwing with kids’ self esteem and “may even act as a trigger to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an excessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in appearance, classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.”

In an interview posted to the JAMA Network website, Vashi explained: “Photo editing can make one’s face more symmetrical, have more of these features that are considered beautiful like big eyes or a small nose. Now people are bringing in photos of themselves that are filtered, that are edited, and this can often impact them in a negative way because (cosmetic surgery) patients can have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved through cosmetic procedures and surgery.”

“I try to educate my patients,” says Vashi, “but at the end of the day, what I’ve personally found is they want the look they’re showing you in the photographs, and not the one we’re taking with standard photography.”

Welcome to the dystopian future, brought to you courtesy of digitization.

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On a related note, Wim Wenders thinks that photography is dead.


Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

Untitled, 2005, (20×30 Acrylic on Canvas)

Above is a painting I did in 2005. It’s previously been exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’ in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which means the gallery owner thought it appropriate to consider as ‘Art.’ Now, irrespective of what you think of the painting and my skills as a painter, chances are you don’t find it unusual that it’s considered ‘Art’ and was offered as a work of ‘Art’ by a gallery that’s in the business of selling such things. Putting aside critical valuation, we agree that a painting is a work of ‘Art.’ I took a blank canvas, took various pigments, and using a brush I made something, a thing, physically created by me from an aesthetic idea I had in my mind. Voila! Art.

Using those same criteria, photography as an ‘Art’ form can be problematic. Photography (still and moving) is a different sort of a creative medium. It has its subjective element – what’s within the frame will always depend on someone’s choice and interpretation – but generally we consider it objective, objective in the sense that it’s a mechanical reproduction of an existing set of visual phenomena. The second characteristic – its status as an objective reproduction, a truthful documentation, the fact that it’s a mechanical means to more or less faithfully record whats “out there”, is seemingly what prevents many otherwise broad-minded people from considering it ‘Art.’

The argument- Is photography ‘Art?’ – is as old as the medium itself. Early photographers naively thought to claim it as ‘Art’ by selectively photographing “scenic” things, thus mimicking the ‘artistic’ treatment of traditional subjects of representational painting – a more exacting form of landscape painting, where the goal was fidelity to the real. Later photographers, like Alfred Steiglitz, founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement, sought to claim it as ‘Art’ by rejecting the larger definition of Art and placing it on equal footing with other forms of expression commonly considered as Art:

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

This doublespeak, of course, is just another way of claiming its status as an art form without using the loaded word itself, to my mind ample evidence that, deep down, even Steiglitz himself felt a wee bit self-conscious about claiming photography to be ‘Art.’ Much has happened since Steiglitz’s era. From an institutional perspective, photography has been presented in American art galleries and art museums since the 1970’s, when “post-modernist” photographers like Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and Eggleston, among others, became recognized within the larger ‘Art World.’

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Whatever the official Art World line, from a lay perspective there continues to be a common-sense resistance to claim photography as ‘Art.’ Even I, who’s been involved with photography as a creative medium for most of my life, cringe when a photographer bills him or herself as an “artist”, and I’d like to explore the philosophical underpinnings of that discomfort. I suspect it has something to do with the “handedness” we associate with Art, the requirement of creating some ex nihilo, something unique and new. A precondition of ‘Art’ is that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material, whether that material be words or tones or rock or canvas. In photography, you could argue, we’re not doing that; instead we’re recording something already existent, something  whose creation resides elsewhere. I’ve touched on this subject before in a piece entitled Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statutes Be Art?).

Untitled, 2016

How about Untitled, 2016 above? Is it ‘Art’? It’s something I did in 2016. Formally, it’s remarkably similar to Untitled, 2005 above. Like the former, it’s “modern” in the sense that it’s not representational but rather its own aesthetic reality, created from the ground up by the artist. I consider it competently drawn, its color scheme consistent and complimentary, its pictorial elements situated in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I like it, and would be pleased to have a piece like it hanging in a conspicuous place in my home or, better yet, in someone else’s home, someone who valued it enough to purchase and exhibit it. Except, its not a painting. Its a photograph, a straight-up close-up of a section of a wall of a building recently torn down in the service of progress. What I did was merely isolate it from its larger context by photographing it and, with some very minor post-processing (contrast, saturation, sharpening etc), created the finished work you see, “created it” in the sense that a series of 1’s and 0’s now resides in a certain pattern on a hard disk on my computer. Its literal creation – how those pigments came to be in the manner they are – is an unintended consequence of  building paint, weather and time.

As mentioned previously, we commonly consider a precondition of Art that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material. If this is so, then the work itself – a photograph – is problematic; have I “created” anything by simply recording it? Have I imposed form on something undifferentiated, i.e. incoherent and messy, when I photograph? Haven’t I rather just seen and selected, noted for other’s benefit as it were, something that already had a certain form, essentially simply pointing out something aesthetic that already existed, created naturally or by happenstance? Could it be the fact that I isolated the view itself be the creative act? Is that enough?

Additionally, there’s the issue of uniqueness. There’s only one of any given painting. We can reproduce it photographically, yes, but we don’t consider the reproduction to be a piece of Art. Now think about that in terms of photography. Unlike a painting, I’m able to print out my photograph in any number of sizes on any number of different media, run limited editions etc, and sell each individual print as its own work of Art. Yet, irrespective of the size or the type of medium I print it on, the underlying ‘artwork’ will be the same (or will it?). [ This has become an issue with the endless exact replicability of digital capture, as opposed to old school silver halide prints where each print is a unique individual interpretation of a negative.]

I suppose I could do the same thing with the painting i.e. photograph it and present the photographic reproduction as its own work and offer it for sale in a gallery in different sizes and on various media. Why not? Except there’s something intuitively wrong with that when we’re talking about photographic reproductions of two dimensional paintings, or so I think. What’s intuitively wrong with it are two things: first, the fact that it’s a photograph as opposed to something created ‘by hand,’ and second, that it’s not the unique created thing itself.  These facts seem to change the terms of the debate.

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A Simple Picture I Took Out My Car Window Recently. If I Hung it in a Art Gallery and Titled it Untitled 2018 Would That Make it Art?

Of course, maybe the best response, and probably the closest to the truth, is the ” Institutional” definition of Art, somewhat cynical, that holds that ‘Art’ is whatever gets exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’. We decide what it is simply by defining it as such. This is what Marcel Duchamp was claiming for Art when he exhibited a toilette bowl as part of an exhibition of his work in a gallery, asking his audience to look at the toilette bowl aesthetically by placing it in a context where we are, by definition, asked to do these things. Duchamp’s definition simply requires that there be an intent on the part of the artist to have what’s presented be seen in a certain way, even if the creative act is simply the presentation itself. What then, of things created without the aesthetic intention, where the intention can be understood as conveying the state of things at any given moment, like a photograph? Can Nick Ut’s My Lai photos be ‘Art’ if they’re viewed in an art gallery? How about the found photographs  that Melissa Cantanese put together in her book Dive Dark Dream Slow that I’ve discussed before?

To my mind, learning to think of photography as an Art Form means first to recognize in a literal sense what a photograph is. It’s a two dimensional piece of paper with “indexical” markings on it. That’s it. That’s the most an Athenian citizen of Socrates’ time (Socrates himself, for that matter) or some primitive man pulled out of the forest in Papua, New Guinea, would be capable of seeing it as, because they’d not have the conceptual (as opposed to he intellectual) ability to do so, that conceptual ability given to us by the social, cultural and technical knowledge which we possess and which is a precondition to understanding it as something more. Without this embedded knowledge – what we take for granted – they literally couldn’t see the representational nature of the photo. They’d simply see the thing itself – the flattened 12×18 2 dimensional thing with a certain form embedded as part of it.

Somewhat paradoxically, I think it’s this two dimensional reality of photographs that opens the way to seeing them as ‘Art.’ Abstract painting only started making sense to me when I started thinking in non-representational terms, when I accepted the notion that paintings don’t need to be a transcription of anything; they can just be what they are, a thing, something with no function other than being its own reality. It’s what art historians term an understanding of the painting’s inherent “flatness.” Photos can be the same way. Forget for a second that Untitled 2016 was produced by a camera and in some sense depends on an existing visual arrangement contained somewhere “out there”; We can choose to see it as we’d see Untitled 2005. Just look at it, try to see what’s literally in front of you. Stop thinking of it as referencing something else. Just let it be itself. Analyse it in those terms. For that matter, there’s nothing keeping us from seeing Untitled 2018 in the same way…or is there?


This is the third in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here, Part Two here.

The Leica KE-7A

The KE-7A is a specialized black chrome M4 made in 1972 by Leitz in their Midland Canada plant and offered in a limited run of 505 pieces  for the U.S. Army. 460 of those units were acquired by the Army. Where the remaining 45 civilian pieces went is unclear.

KE-7As were fitted with modified shutters to operate in temperatures to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, were dust sealed for military field conditions and made to withstand explosive concussion (i.e. bomb blast). The 460 military versions were engraved to indicate that they were standard issue US Army property ( specifically, each with FSN (Federal Stock Number), Cont. (contract designation), and U.S. (United States) markings) and came supplied with a Leitz Midland made 50mm f2 “Elcan”.  The Elcan 50mm f2  (“Elcan” being a contraction of “Ernst Leitz Canada”) was constructed of 4 elements for minimum size for military use. Where the “KE-7A” designation comes from is anyone’s guess.

In 1972, the M4 had been discontinued and replaced by the M5. I can only assume that the Army had placed its order during M4 production and Leitz were committed to provide a camera based on the M4 design. As with all assumptions, this may be wrong.

The Zagato Leica

Zagato is an independent automobile design company and total design center located northwest of Milan, Italy. Apparently they’ve been hired by Leica to create a limited edition M10, price approximately $26,000.

My question is this: what is the Zagato M10’s purpose? Who is it being made for? To do what with? I’d feel vaguely foolish carrying one about for regular use and I don’t care who designs it, or what its made of –  it’s an M10 with non-functional design cues added to appeal to people who know the Zagato name. I’m not sure what car designers, even the best, can add to a photographic device, and the filmed advertisement for it above never articulates an answer to this obvious question. So, the motive behind the camera appears to be pure, vulgar ostentation. Why, when you could easily do so much better?

In any event, regardless of who it’s designed by, it’s not half as cool as a nice, well-used IIIg with Leicavit, which isn’t merely a beautiful design, but was designed as a working camera by designers who were also photographers, functionality always being the best design principle. That’s what the current people running Leica seem not to understand: the timeless designs of the iconic Leica Film rangefinders were a result of functional decisions. Now, design decisions seem to be about bling.

This is a Beautiful Camera. It was designed by camera guys at Wetzlar

As for collector value, I wouldn’t put money on any digital device having long-term value as a collector’s piece, given it’s not a mechanical device but an electronic computer with all the inherent obsolescense problems associated therewith.

Instead of projects like this – designed by luxury car designers or inspired by rock stars – you’d think someone at Leica would think back to Leica’s history and proudly work from there. Is that too much to ask, Leica?  Instead of these pointless vanity pieces, why not play to your strengths and your history and design a new all mechanical film camera, you know, the kind that made you famous. Yes, there’s still a market for serious film photography, certainly a larger market than that of the Zagato M10, and it seems to me you’re the obvious company to exploit it. How about this: stress minimalism – a 35mm rangefinder w/o meter, simple mechanical shutter, manual focus M-mount with capability to use the full range of Leitz optics. Give it an updated body design, not something radical but an evolution of the LTM and/or M models and their timeless designs. Make sure it has an engraved top plate. Please do not put a red dot on it, or a dot of any color. Hand assemble it, just like the IIIg and M3. Price it fairly for both leicaphiles and Leica AG. Don’t do something stupid like giving every buyer a roll of Tri-X to sweeten the deal. Do not put someone’s name on it. In other words, act like the proud company you once were. I’m pretty sure a sufficient number of people would line up to buy it. Or, if that’s too ambitious, why not make a new run of M3’s, much like Nikon did with the S3 and SP in the early naughts…not a replica, but an actual M3 indistinguisable from the ones you made through 1966? I assume you’ve got the tooling to do it. Make some in black paint. Offer it with a Leicavit. Call it the M3R. Leicaphiles will go nuts.

Whichever of the two options you choose, you’ll be trading on the Leica name in a way that honors your history in a serious way and shows some basic understanding of why the Leica name means so much to so many in spite of your heretofore short-sighted vulgarization of the brand. You’d make a lot of us really proud, you’d make a huge splash in the camera world, you’d bolster your flagging reputation with serious photographers, and you’d probably sell a few cameras. And you wouldn’t have to pay some famous designer to do it.

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 2

“View From the Window at Le Gras”, History’s First Photograph (J. Nicephore Niepce 1826)

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophical stuff lately, broad subjects that I’m finding myself coming back to as a mature adult. I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘big questions,’ things we often take for granted – beliefs and ideas that form the bedrock of who we are, what matters to us and how we perceive the life we’re living. The beauty of philosophical inquiry is that it can shine a critical light on settled beliefs you’ve never really thought to question, things that you’ve been taught to believe, things that might appear to you as “common sense,” beliefs you take on faith or as a member of a religious orientation or a specific national culture. In my opinion, that’s a good thing, whether we’re discussing really important things like what the good life is or more everyday things like photography – what it is, why we do it, what it means – and how it might fit into a good life.

Photography is the product of the rational secular culture originating in the West but now basically the world’s default culture, a culture whose roots lie in classical Greek thought as it’s been transmitted via the Roman conquest of Europe and Asia with an overlay of Christianity that’s driven it through the Reformation and Renaissance and into the Scientific Revolution. From all of that, everyone who has electricity and an internet connection and is able to read this, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim or secular humanist, and whether you live in the States or China or Portugal or Argentina or Norway or Iran or Nigeria, share, to a great extent, a common heritage, intellectual in nature, that allows us to understand and empathize with each other, whatever the differing idiosyncratic permutations of our local cultures. And it’s that culture that’s brought us the amazing technological advances of the last two centuries, including photography.

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If you think about it, photography is pretty amazing. It would have seemed utterly miraculous to even the profound,sophisticated classical Greek, Roman and Medieval thinkers whose brilliance has formed the foundations of our shared culture. And yet, we accept it without a second thought, as if it’s a normal and natural part of life to be able to record and make permanent accurate visual transcriptions of what we perceive, with a phone we carry about in our pocket no less. Roland Barthes touched just a bit on this in Camera Lucida, the remarkable fact that a part of his mother, dead for years, remained behind as a physical trace on a photographic emulsion, an emulsion that not only allowed him to recreate her features two-dimensionally, but that had been touched by light that had touched her body and impregnated her very form upon it. Wow! Barthes was saying, think about that, my mother dead all these years, her body, her combination of matter and form, moldering in the earth, and yet I have what’s really real about her preserved right here, eternal, something more than just a painted imitation, but a transcription of the real thing itself, stenciled off of nature. Tell me that’s not miraculous.

Barthes doesn’t move his discussion in this direction, but this is all very ‘Aristotelian’ (after the Greek philosopher Aristotle), notions of form and matter and what’s ultimately real. Aristotle broke down everything into two things – form and matter – and taught that only form itself is coherent and real and valuable, matter having no real value except as just the stuff we’re all made of, the clay as it were, something common to everything, while our form is what defines us as beings (i.e. your form is what makes you a human, as opposed to an elephant, while it’s the elephant’s form that makes him an elephant and not a human, even though we’re both made out of the same stuff or matter). So, in thinking of what photography does, Aristotle would say that it transcribes what is ultimately valuable about the subject you’re photographing, whether it be your house or your dog or your lover, the form of the thing. He would say that Barthes, in the act of capturing his mother in a photo, has given what is defining about her at that one instant – her form – a permanence transcending the flow and flux of matter. I’m pretty sure Aristotle would find that absolutely mind-blowing.

We meanwhile, immersed in post-modern reality, don’t think twice about it. We’re blind to photography’s miraculousness in a way Aristotle could never be, just as we’re blind to many other things that should fill us with wonder. We’re blind to it because it’s just one item that constitutes the banal background of our technological reality, one more thing that just seems self-evident and obvious to us, like the fact that we use a certain language, have certain parents, are born at a certain time and place. It just is. Nothing to see here, let’s move along to think of the things that really matter – are my photos good enough to show at the corner coffee-house, does my 4th generation Summicron have good bokeh, should I spend $6000 on a Leica M10 or will fellow photographers think I’m a lightweight because my cat pictures were taken with a D200? Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who many consider the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th century, would shake his head and say that when we do this we are blind to “being.”

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Heidegger remains a pretty controversial guy in philosophical circles, mainly because he was a Nazi, which is not something that tends to endear you to other people. His ties with the Nazis are disputed – some say, as the Rector of the University of Freiburg in the 1930’s and a recognized intellectual, he had no choice but to passively align himself in the manner he did; others point to writings and statements that seem to indicate certain affinities with Nazi theories – but they remain a hurdle you must get past if you are to engage with his incredibly rich Philosophy of Being. So, let’s put that aside for a second if that’s possible and discuss his ideas.

Heidegger’s entire philosophy is predicated on that sense of wonder I’m certain Aristotle and pre-modern thinkers would have if they’d been confronted with something like photography, but in a larger sense, wonder at the very fact that we are – what philosophers refer to as ‘being’ – which is itself something miraculous and weird and in need of contemplation and explanation. He argues that we’ve forgotten, or better yet, have never really even seen, how weird and miraculous it is that we even are, that anything is. How is it that you are you and I am me and the world is what it is? What’s that all about? He suggests that the real nature of philosophical inquiry is to explore this phenomenon, and criticizes Western philosophy since Socrates as being blind to this miraculousness, having instead pursued practical issues such as how to live and the correct way to think without taking into account the fact that we’re here and capable of doing or thinking or creating anything in the first place.

Gianni Gardin- a Sublime Photograph. My Reality is Better Because it Exists

Unfortunately, I’m not going to recommend you read Heidegger, as his writings are mostly incomprehensible except to those who’ve spent a lifetime studying him. But I think you can take something away from Heidegger and use it when thinking about photography. What I am advocating for is that, as photographers – and I think Heidegger would agree – before we divide ourselves up over trivial issues of practice and/or aesthetic theory, we should step back and think of the remarkable thing that photography is and understand that its miraculousness is the real hook that should keep us engaged and driven forward photographically. We as dedicated practitioners too often take for granted what we do and get caught up in its practical aspects to the exclusion of recognizing the gift it is, a gift we need to honor with our full attention as the doing of it is, in its own way, a spiritual practice. Whether you know it or not, it’s that that keeps you coming back to it and gives it meaning for you, something we all share.


This is the second in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here.

Is There Still Room for Serious Photographers in the Clown Car That is Leica?

Mixed Signals

As of April of this year, SlimStats, a WordPress plug-in that tracks site visits, claims that I’ve topped 1 million visits by unique IP addresses, with a little less than 5 million hits, to the site. Half of that has been in the last year.

I know, in the larger scheme of things, those numbers are small potatoes, a fraction of what established sites like Steve Huff or the other guy’s, whatshisname, but then again, how many people are interested enough in Leica cameras to follow a blog like this? Frankly, I’m amazed and baffled…but also really grateful for my readers and all they’ve contributed. I’ve met wonderful people through the site, and learned a lot from readers far more knowledgeable than me. I’ve been invited places and done things I’d never have gotten to do were it not for good folks who occasionally read me.

A few thank-you’s are probably in order. First, thanks to everyone who has written a blog comment with a compliment or dropped me an encouraging email when I’ve periodically disappeared. These mean a lot to me, simple acts of kindness from one human to another, the sort of thing that seems increasingly scarce in the wired environment. Had it not been for the encouragement, I’ve probably have inactivated the site by now, which would have been a loss, at least for me, because I find the fact that the site remains open and needful of new content occasionally keeps me involved in my photography and intellectually active.

Second, thanks for bearing with the increased abstraction of the subjects; my orientation to photography has always had a philosophical turn and I suppose it’s easy enough for me to go down intellectual rabbit-holes that aren’t of interest to most readers. I’ve tried to leaven the heavier stuff with the more mundane, and will continue to do so given the Leica cult makes ridicule not merely easy but required – Leica-land being a place where great photographers/artists like Frank, HCB, Koudelka et al and those of us who love and use the iconic film rangefinders must share space with the social climbers, stuffed shirts and gas bags currently associated with the iconic brand. Frankly, I tape over my Leica logos not to keep people from stealing my cameras but rather to prevent them associating me with the typical clowns who’ve seemed to have colonized and conquered a once great brand.

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It’s Leica’s radical turn to banality that both miffs and fascinates me, and its manifestations have been an unspoken but obvious focus of the site since its inception. Given my readership stats, it looks as if other people feel the same way. Listen: I get Leica Cameras AG is a capitalist business concern owned by the Blackstone Group, whose primary purpose is to make money. I get that one makes money by giving people what they want to buy, and if that means producing tacky trinkets and overpriced crap, or cynically trading on the inherited goodwill and name recognition of a brand, well, so be it, that’s their right. That doesn’t mean that that’s the honorable way forward, or that I, someone whose allegiance to the brand was created by farsighted business decisions of previous owners using the same brand – decisions that stressed simplicity and excellence of design and timelessness of product – should remain loyal to that ownership group and what they’ve done simply because they’ve bought the name. I suspect that Ernst Leitz is rolling over in his grave seeing the shameful spectacle currently associated with the brand. Is it Leica AG’s fault that it attracts the hucksters and hangers-on that it does? Not necessarily, but it seems to me they’re at least silently complicit with it, what with their glow-in-the-dark designer Leicas and celebrity editions cynically cranked out to maximize their market –  or their at least tacit approval of self-promoting charlatans fleecing naive and unsuspecting consumers – that they at the very least encourage it by corporate bad taste.

Joseph Koudelka – an iconic image with an iconic Leica M….errr Exacta**

How does one square all this nonsense – what I refer to as the ‘Overgaardization’ of the brand, with its remarkable history? What does any of this have to do with Ernst Leitz, the functionally brilliant 35mm Leicas, HCB, Robert Frank, the M3, the incredible history of Leica within photo-journalism, the precise mechanical jewels which built Leica’s reputation – the Leica I,I, III, the M2, M3, M4? It seems to me that we have an obligation to the excellence that’s come before, that’s been created and sustained by the brilliance of the past, to honor and protect it and see that it’s transferred to new generations of photographers. We as traditional photographers – film users – learned in traditional forms of the practice, forms that have been in use for the past 120 years, are tasked with passing that information on to the next generation of image makers, a digital generation largely unfamiliar with photographic history who wouldn’t know of the exceptional tradition embodied by Leica without our input. We are the stewards, the trustees, of that tradition, and it’s our obligation to see that it gets properly transmitted to posterity.

Robert Frank, Self-Portrait, Paris 1999

Likewise, Leica AG are the stewards of Leica’s history. Their decisions, either cynical or far-sited, will have immense significance for the Leica brand going forward. The question is: What do they owe us, traditional Leica lovers and users, the base that got them where they are, today? I’m not sure I can answer that question, except to say that they can do a hell of a lot better than some of the tacky things they’re currently doing or encouraging by default. Certainly, they can do better than this. Frankly, I think that some of them should be ashamed of themselves.


**As noted to me by astute readers, Koudelka’s Gypsy series was not shot with a Leica but rather with an Exacta. He used 2 Exakta cameras with 25 mm Flektogon lenses and ORWO 400 film. Koudelka switched to a Leica after he left Czechoslovakia and became member of Magnum. I assume Leicas were expensive and rare in communist Czechoslovakia. I prefer to leave my mistake up, however, because it’s humbling and should remind you that you shouldn’t believe everything I say without confirming it for yourself, which is good as a general rule of life.