Leica has just announced three “New” [read: make some cosmetic changes to an existing lens and run it as a limited edition while jacking up the price to reflect its scarcity] lenses. First is a black-chrome Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH, (shown above), made to resemble the classic Type 2 lens from the 1950s with the scalloped focus ring, all brass hood and cap, edition of 700, priced $1,600 dollars more than the standard 50mm f2 ASPH.
To put this in perspective, you can buy 4 copies of the 50mm 1.1 7Artisans lens in M Mount, give 3 of them away as gifts, keep the remainder and then also buy the standard Leica 50mm f2 ASPH, all for the same price as this lens.
The Studium of This Photo: Roland Barthes in 1980. The Punctum (For Me) of This Photo: Shortly After, Barthes Got Run Over by a Laundry Truck
” Color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black and white photograph. ” That’s a great quote, maybe my favorite thing Barthes has written. Funny I don’t remember having seen it before, but there it is on page 81 of Richard Howard’s translation of Camera Lucida published by Hill and Wang. I ran across it while re-reading the book. The quote stuck out for me because it’s so quotable, the sort of pithy bon mot that fits great in an essay about photography. And it’s by Barthes no less, so it’s got tons of “crit lit” street cred. You’d think others would have liked it and used it, and I’d have run across it numerous times in past readings, given I read a lot about photography. But no, I’ve never seen it before.
Which is further proof of what I’ve long suspected: All sorts of people – from academic ‘critical theorists’ to the pretentious no-hopers who congregate on photography websites – love to reference Barthes’ “seminal” work about photography, Camera Lucida, but few of them have actually read it. It’s the sort of book one must be conversant with when one is “serious” about photography, but in reality, nobody reads it. They just discuss it as if they had, with other serious people who haven’t read it either, repeating its fashionable jargon deliberately conceived to exclude those not in on their “discourse.”
So, assuming you haven’t read it, let me give you the Cliff Notes on Barthes’ Camera Lucida. It’s simple, and it’s this. What makes photography unique is the fact that it faithfully records the fact that something has been. Something was there, actually existed, reflected actual light rays, those light rays imprinted themselves on a film media, and the end result is an artifact – the photo – that possesses, in some significant sense, the essence, the being of that thing photographed. And this is the essence of photography as a representational medium.
Wayne New Jersey, 1974. The Studium: Me, My Brother and My Dad. The Punctum: My Brother Looks Like Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap.
Barthes then goes on to analyze what makes some photography more arresting than others. This is where Barthes introduces the idea of the studium and punctum and the distinction between the two. Every photo has a studium. The studium is simply the subject of the photo – the thing, the person, the landscape etc. – the thing that was there in front of the camera, the thing the photograph describes. One thing we know about this studium is that it existed at the time the photograph was taken. We know this because photography has this indexical relationship with the real. By its very nature, photography deals with real things.
What differentiates photos from each other for the viewer is the presence or absence of the punctum, which is the emotional significance of the photograph for the viewer. The punctum is the viewer’s subjective response – something not there but merely hinted at- that jumps out of the picture at you, that says something to you over and above what simple definitional reading of the picture would imply (“that’s a picture of my mother”), that takes you out of the four corners of the photograph and transports you to a world outside of the photograph. That’s the punctum.
To illustrate the distinction, Barthes discusses a photo of his mother, the “Winter Garden” photo, a photo he has of her as a child, standing with her brother at five years of age, assuming a certain self-conscious pose, her fingers of one hand held awkwardly in the other. The punctum of the Winter Garden photo for Barthes is this: this photo leads him back to the realization that his Mother, now dead, existed, and she existed before Roland existed, and this photography contains some part of her. She stood in front of a camera, with her brother, wearing those clothes, and held her hand like that, light reflected off of her and stenciled itself onto the physical medium of the film. The photo is physical evidence of her presence, evidence stenciled directly off the real. To put it another way, the punctum of the Winter Garden photo for Barthes is his realization of the existential reality of this particular studium. Deep.
The Studium: Semana Santa Easter Celebration in Valencia. The Punctum? Up to you.
The studium/punctum distinction is interesting, but it’s only marginally related to the book’s main point. You wouldn’t know it, however, by reading about the book in the usual echo-chamber. The studium/punctum distinction is secondary to a much larger and more important point Barthes is making: that what constitutes photography is its indexical relationship with what is real, what’s actually out there, and this relationship is unique among every other communicative media. Photographs, unique among other means of representation i.e. painting, writing or speaking, necessarily deal in the real and are evidence of the real. That’s the magic of it. While someone can manipulate an analog photograph to a certain extent, the exception proves the basic rule: photography, in the words of Susan Sontag, is the stenciling off of the real. Nothing else is, and that’s the value of photography and why it holds a special status as a communicative medium.
Think of it this way: A painter can paint something and present it to the viewer. What he’s painted may represent something that exists/existed, or it may represent something that does not exist, never has existed, a figment of his imagination or something he hasn’t seen. While he can claim it’s an accurate representation of the real, we can never know for sure. Likewise, a writer, using language as his device of representation, can write something purporting to be the truth about something real – or he could be writing something fantastical, void of reality, something that’s never been. It’s up to him to tell us, but again, we can never be certain. We have to take his word for it, and as such, it has a compromised ability to constitute what we refer to as “evidence.”
A photograph, however, by its very nature, requires something to have been there, something existing as a physical thing in time and space, something that existed. This is the essence of photography for Barthes, and it’s basically the point of the book. Photography gives us a direct representation of the real.
Cogitate on that for a while, and think about what implications it might have for ‘post-analog’ photography…
Coming Soon, Part Two: What Barthes means in the Digital Era (hint: Not many people talk about it, although it should be fairly obvious)
“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cow path to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a groove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.””
Is This a “Good Photo?” I Think So…But It Means Something to Me in a Way it Wouldn’t for You. That’s, in Large Part, What Makes it “Good” for Me. What Might Make it Good for You? Context Maybe?
I’ve spent most of my adult life puzzling over what “good” photography is, yet it’s only been in my later years that I think I have any real answer. There’s a reason for that, as I’ll discuss below.
Photography, an art form accessible to most everyone, seems especially susceptible to muddled standards of valuation. The average photo enthusiast, the type who congregates on photo-specific websites and forums, typically falls into the trap of confusing technical competency with artistic merit. As you mature photographically, if nothing else, you should learn at least one thing: whatever creates the perfect photo, it isn’t simply technical excellence. To the contrary, the pursuit of technical excellence often hijacks creativity by directing your creative energies into focusing on technical mastery at the expense of individual expression.
So, if we’re not simply speaking of technical excellence, then what? Aesthetic impact, contextual appropriateness, personal response, or some undefined mixture of the above? And who gets to choose? We all do, but some choose better than others, because they have a more refined aesthetic sense. This statement, standing alone, seems circular, but it isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, the 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) get’s closest to the truth with his claim that a person of wide knowledge and experience has a better basis to make aesthetic judgments. She’s seen more, thought more, reflected more, in the process refining her judgment and allowing her to better “see” a work of art by possessing a larger and more varied experiential foundation she can use to draw out the nuances pregnant in the work. Through her experience she has given herself the means to draw latent meaning from someone else’s work, work which, depending on the artist’s competency, allows a range of meaning. It’s a reciprocal relationship, the “best” photos possessing a range of latent meanings, meanings brought to fruition by an informed, cultured viewer.
A Simple Little Book by Dominique Pierre-Nina. It’s Full of Beautiful Work.
Above is the cover of a small book of photographs, a gift sent me by Australian photographer – and Leicaphilia reader – Dominique Pierre-Nina. Dominique sent me the book as a Christmas present, a thoughtful gesture of thanks for the enjoyment he’s received from reading Leicaphilia. (I encourage you to do something similar). Dominique’s book “A Year with the Leica M3” consists of a written introduction and 38 B&W photographs. Sounds interesting, right? Some guy loves his M3 and wants to show others what he’s done with it. Given the parameters set by the author’s presentation, that’s the extent of what I expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead I found a holistic work of real effect, thought-provoking photos that work individually and collectively, clearly the product of someone who has learned the art of seeing the beauty in everyday things. The book is more than just a collection of individual photographs; Mr. Pierre-Nina has purposefully sequenced them (I assume) so that the impact of the work is a function both of the photographs as individual works and as one larger work created by the body of photographs sequenced and presented as a coherent whole.
Many of the photographs would work as stand-alone works, studies in form and content. While they do so, they benefit from being placed within the larger context. The context here is that chosen by Mr. Pierre-Nina. The context in which they’re been situated adds something to the work, something that’s not present in the individual photos themselves, no matter how interesting they are individually. Without context, you might no “see” their full content; with proper context, they transform from individual works to works engaged in cross-talk with other individual works, in doing so forming a larger coherent work, the book, the exhibition, whatever.
Two Sequential Pages – Left hand Page, Right hand Page. Ostensibly Nothing in Common…But They Work Together
It’s more than just content and context given by Mr.Pierre-Nina, however. It’s also about my receptivity to it. The Kantian critique above – the importance of the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic back-history that the photographer brings to the work – applies as well to the viewer. Visual art is always a two-way transaction between creator and viewer, its power the result of a reciprocal relationship between creator and viewer. The aesthetic value of any work will always be latent until recognized – better yet, discovered – by the awareness of the viewer. Mr. Pierre-Nina is lucky enough to have found an able viewer – in me. While I haven’t asked him, I’m certain he’s shown his book to others – family members, friends, a lover maybe – and been met with the polite patronization all gifted artists are familiar with. Why? Because the reciprocal relation necessary to its proper appreciation has broken down on the viewer’s end. To put it bluntly, they’re incapable of appreciating the work because of their own deficiencies. The photographer has done his job – the failure lies with the viewer, who hasn’t done his/hers.
If, as I do, you agree with Kant, then both the photographer and the viewer have certain responsibilities in the mutual transaction of understanding and enjoying photographic presentations. Mr. Pierre-Nina can try to give you that context through words, or he could place them with a larger sequence where the sum of the work starts to explain what he sees as their meaning. In either event, assuming he’s done his part, you as the viewer need to bring to the interaction a basis of knowledge and an aesthetic sensitivity formed from that knowledge, to make them coherent. No matter how competent an artist Mr. Pierre-Nina might be (and a good part of that competency is presentation), you as viewer have the responsibility to draw the meaning from them.
Which leads us back to Mr. Pierre-Nina. I don’t think he truly understands his photography – in the sense that I don’t think he can articulate via words what it might mean, what it might suggest to an engaged viewer. I’ve come to that conclusion after having first read his explanation of the work and then looking at the work itself. This isn’t a criticism of him. It’s a reality of the reciprocal relationship that creates the meaning of a creative work. His explanation, reproduced here, might tell you something of what he thinks about his photos, and that’s helpful to a certain extent. But it isn’t the final word. What Mr. Pierre-Nina thinks isn’t the end of the matter. What he thinks of his work doesn’t do it justice; it’s an impoverished understanding of what is truly remarkable work. If anything, this is a compliment to Mr. Pierre-Nina, a man who possesses an admirable humbleness about his work when in fact the work is exceptional. Really.
Likewise with the photo that leads off the piece. Standing alone, it doesn’t say much. At best, you might agree that its “interesting”. It needs context to be more. That’s my role as the photographer, and I fail if I don’t give you the context to make sense of it. But you fail me if, as the viewer, you are unable to properly parse the latent meaning of what I’ve offered you, unable due to ignorance, inexperience, closed-mindedness, arrogance. What separates excellent work from simple pretty pictures can often be as much a result of what the viewer brings to the experience than does the photographer.
This should tell you something: Be careful who you show your work to.
Which leads me to my next subject – Immanuel Kant tells you How to Make Beautiful Photos of Ugly People – coming soon.
Every Leicaphile Loves a Good Cat Picture. This was Shot Digitally, But Looks to Me A Lot Like a Well-Printed Film Negative, Plus-X Maybe?
I make no secret of the fact that I love the look of 35mm B&W film. A properly exposed, competently printed 35mm Plus-X, Tri-X or HP5 negative has a beauty that simply cannot be matched by a digital file of whatever native quality. In comparison to the film print, the digital print will always have a certain thinness, a lack of heft, a “plastic” look. While it’s hard to put into words – given we’re talking of visual matters – it’s there, I can see it, it’s real (I think).
There’s an organic quality to a film print, as best I can tell the product of four inherent characteristics of shooting film: 1) silver grain as the light-transforming medium; 2) better highlight rendering, the result of the fact that film, unlike digital capture, does not record exposure values linearly, as does digital capture, but compresses those values at both ends of the exposure curve, giving better highlight definition (e.g. it is less prone to “clipping” highlights) and deeper, “richer” shadows (old-school film photographers know exactly what I’m saying here, digital era photographers will mostly be clueless – for further discussion, see this); 3) the inherent resolution limitations of general purpose b&w films like HP5 or Tri-X, which, to my eye, equal in look somewhere between 6 and 8 mpx of digital resolution, in combination with the less resolute optical characteristics of film era lenses, which were developed to give an appealing look within the confines of limited film resolution; and 4) the necessity of shooting at the low ISO’s required by film. Put all of four of these characteristics together holistically, and you have the “film look,” a result of both the native strengths, and inherent limitations, of silver halide as a medium.
Unfortunately, that “film look” is difficult to present online in the sense that a scanned film negative – a requirement to presenting it for web viewing – looks different from a wet printed film negative, the difference created by the digitization itself. Scanned film negatives usually have more pronounced, harsher grain that is not present in a wet printed version of the same negative, the result of the relative harshness of the scanner’s light source, which artificially accentuates grain when compared to the same sized wet print, where the enlarger’s light source is more diffuse and produces smoother grain texture. Anyone whose both wet printed and scanned and then inkjet printed the same negative knows precisely what I’m talking about, but it can’t be represented digitally because scanning is a necessary prerequisite to do so.
Given my preference for B&W, which to me is “real” photography, I admire the Leica Monochrom cameras, and I admire Leica sticking their necks out to produce them, an example of Leica at its best, attempting to carry on their patrimony into the digital age. However, unlike how they marketed the MM – bundled with Silver Efex and referring back to 50-60’s era B&W photography – the MM isn’t going to digitally replicate B&W film; at best, it’s going to create a new look – “digital B&W”. [ Ralph Gibson seems to understand this]. Given what was said above, it becomes obvious why a dedicated B&W digital camera can’t digitally duplicate traditional B&W photography. Stripping the color out of the capture won’t address the inherent exposure curve differences between analogue and digital capture, and the increased resolution of the Monchrom vis a vis standard 35mm B&W film compromises the look as well. Given the native differences in capture, no amount of running the Monochrom digital file through film emulation software will accurately mimic real B&W film.
Where the MM might have an advantage in replicating the film look might be to the extent it allows use of older film era rangefinder lenses. Mandler era Leitz optics give a certain signature we equate with film capture, both in the look of how they resolve details and also in the look given by lenses with the small film to flange distances typical of rangefinder as opposed to Reflex systems. Of course, this would only be true to the extent when we’re speaking of a traditional “film look” what we really mean is the look give by 35mm film rangefinder photography. If so, then the MM can’t in any way be inherently better than any other full color capture digital Leica rangefinder (e.g. M8,M9,M10) given the defining shared characteristic is a function of film to flange distance unique to any digital rangefinder or, for that matter a mirrorless design, that allows the use of traditional rangefinder optics created to take advantage of small film to flange distances. My experience with the lower resolution M8 confirms this: I’ve always thought a greyscaled M8 file with some grain added looked more like native B&W film than did the files from the MM, probably a result of the M8’s decreased resolution coupled with its ability to use film era Leitz lenses.
The Fuji S5 Pro. Its Files Look A Lot Like Film. There’s a Reason…
Which gets me to the premise of the title of the post: much of what we identify as the strength of film – the film look – is a consequence of its limitations, its imperfections, imperfections that are a part of its character. As digital technologies have advanced and matured, the photos they produce, while closer approaching a technical “perfection,” have lost character. As a consequence, those of us educated by experience to notice it often end up dumbing digital RAW files down to mimic the imperfect look of film.
For my money, the Fuji S5 Pro digital camera, produced by Fuji in 2007 using the Nikon D200 chassis and Fuji produced Super CCD SR (Super Dynamic Range) sensor, comes as close to replicating the traditional B&W film look as any digital camera I’ve used. It may be just me, I don’t know, but the S5 files, run thru Silver Efex, even without using any specific film emulation (e.g. no specific film exposure curve applied, just grain added), have a certain solidity to them, a lack of that “plastic” brittleness often characteristic of digital black and white. After thinking about it, I’ve concluded that the S5 mimics the traditional B&W film look because of both its unique extended latitude sensor but also because of its inherent technical limitations.
The SR Sensor found in the Fuji S5 Pro – either 6 or 12 mpix depending on how you define it – offered almost two stops more dynamic range than conventional CCDs of the same era (2007, roughly the M8 or D200 era). Beneath each micro-lens on the sensor surface are two photo-diodes, the primary capturing a dark and normal light levels (more sensitive), the secondary capturing brighter details (less sensitive). The signals from the two photo-diodes are then combined by Fuji’s in-camera software to deliver an image with extended dynamic range. What’s of interest for film users is the way the extended dynamic range is achieved. Unlike normal cutting edge CMOS sensors that give excellent dynamic range, the Fuji gives a certain type of dynamic range, a type that more closely mimics the type of dynamic range given by film, the added latitude at the highlights. Like film, you’ve really got to work to clip the highlights on an S5 DNG file.
Fuji S5 RAW Run Through Silver Efex to add Grain. No Specific “Emulation” used i.e. Tonal Range is as S5 Sensor Captured It
A lot of this is subjective, no doubt. There may be something similar to a “placebo” effect, where believing is seeing. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m as clueless as this guy when discussing my preference for the Fuji S5.*** What I do know is this: I really like my S5 for B&W capture, especially when I print as the end product. It checks many of the film experience boxes – low ISO capability (500 ISO is about as high as you want to go), having to work within the constraints of limited resolution, ability to use film era lenses (in this case, old MF Nikkors for the 50’s-70’s), excellent highlight rendering. Much like a 35mm film camera, the S5 is a camera that’s as much about its limitations as its strengths, limitations the photographer must work around, or within, the resulting images in part a consequence of those limitations.
The irony is that most people chase the film look by looking to digital cameras with ever increasing resolution, dynamic range, ISO capabilities etc, when a more thoughtful, and effective approach, might be to embrace technically less capable digital tech like the Fuji S5.
[*** “Comparisons” like this guy’s tell you nothing, typically accompanied as they are by statements like “However, there is an impression of clear intent demonstrated by that lens” (huh?) . This is the sort of fuzzy thinking cloaked as rational analysis that drives me nuts. Which begs the question: Am I doing the same thing? I suspect that some folks will see this essay as basically the same thing – a word salad dressed up objective analysis. And then there’s the cat pictures….]
Is this a picture of a broken down hobby horse, or it it something else? Or is it both, or neither?
While there’s a lot of great photography, there are few, if any, thoughtful books about photography and what it means. Off the top of my head I can think of a few worth reading: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing, maybe Barthes’ Camera Lucida if for no other reason then everyone seems to refer to it, many, I suspect, without having read it. Most of the rest is poorly written and even more poorly thought through, crammed full of “post-structuralist” academic jargon, jargon being the best evidence that the writer doesn’t have any real idea what they’re talking about. Frankly, you’ll learn more about photographs by reading Vincent van Gogh’s Letters to Theo or Naifeh and Smith’s incredible biography of him, Van Gogh: A Life, both which will give you insight into what personal vision is, how one develops it and how easy it is to compromise it unless you steadfastly guard it.
For many of us, photography isn’t simply a technology for informing or recording. It is more about the aesthetic and emotional payoff for us as the photographer, being able to create something that communicates what we see and how we see it. Every good photo has something original in its approach, going against the grain of common seeing, evidence of the idiosyncratic way a single person sees and thinks. Good photographers, ones who create meaningful, original work, can’t do it any other way: their way of seeing is necessarily as idiosyncratic as their mind and body, and to produce photos without that idiosyncracy would be dishonest to themselves and their audience. Apeing someone else’s style is for the neophyte or the creatively barren.
A photograph is, to use a metaphor, a visual poem. We read a poem because we want to know how the poet “sees” the subject of the poem. We read it for what Barthes calls its punctum: that peculiar way of seeing, or writing (which in a poem is the same thing)—the poet’s style. Likewise, we read a novel or an essay not simply to learn something but to see through someone’s eyes, to follow the traces of their mind on the page as they come to terms with a theme or an idea or an experience. But it’s not a static one-way thing. It’s also about discovering what we think of what the poet thinks. Writing poetry is collaboration between poet and reader, both bringing their persons to the text.
So too with photography. A photograph operates as both a document and a creation. The level at which it gets interpreted depends on the viewer. Good photography is a collaborative effort, requiring a skilled and creative photographer and an intelligent and receptive viewer. Roland Barthes makes the distinction, in Camera Lucida, between two planes of the photograph: the studium, which is the explicit subject of the image, the information we learn from it; and the punctum, “that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty.” The punctum exists in the head of the viewer; it may change from person to person, or it may change for the same viewer at different viewings. In my experience, a photo can mean different things to me at different times.
This, obviously, has implications for one’s ability to write “about” a photograph. If “what it means” changes even for the photographer – not even mentioning the role the viewer plays – then explaining it with language seems a fool’s errand at best. There is nothing more pretentious than photographers trying to “explain” their work. My advice for those of you who think you need to: the work speaks for itself. If you feel you need to explain, the work probably isn’t very good in the first place and your explanation will simply box you in and further diminish what little impact the work itself might have. Better to shut up and let your audience decide for themselves. What they think of it may differ from what you think. That’s OK. There’s room for both, by necessity.
I recently made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly housebound woman who had been a professor in the art department of a local university. We meet over a lost dog, got to talking, she invited me inside her home. Apparently, she taught photography – traditional film photography – and is herself a photographer of some note. I was struck by the sheer physicality of her photography – walls full of framed prints, rooms full of boxed and cataloged prints, loose prints of various sizes and configurations on tables and desks. This, I thought, is “photography,” and she is a “photographer.” And then it dawned on me that most people who currently consider themselves a “photographer” probably wouldn’t have anything in common with her and really couldn’t have an informed discussion with her about the craft of “photography” because, in effect, they would be talking about two different things. Two completely different disciplines.
Traditionally, “photography” culminated in a tangible print that I’d send to a friend, put in a scrapbook, hang on the wall. That was its purpose, the end result of the process of “photography.” The good ones, the ones with some aesthetic sense, got printed, matted, framed, shown in galleries or coffee houses. The not-so-good got pasted in albums, filed in drawers, or tossed.
Today, the photo is no longer a thing, it is about something. Photos have evolved from physical things to vectors of data in a diffused, virtual “information network.” The photo has been subsumed into an information web that is the source of its reality. No web, no “photo.”
Today’s “photograph” is an abstraction – actually a bundle of layered abstractions. What matters is inserting that abstraction into the virtual networks that propagate it outward. Creative decisions? Really not necessary. Leave that to the relevant app. Just as easy to have it randomly choose the “filter” to produce what would previously have been the result of the vision of the individual creator. It’s all good, as the kids say while they upload their duck-faced selfies and food snaps to the ether. In any event, what creative decisions there remain are secondary to the systems of dissemination – Instagram, Facebook, whatever. Likewise, the camera you use is significant only to the extent that it allows streamlined access to the dissemination networks. Camera’s without wifi linkage? Like a car with a carburetor – obsolete.
Justin E. H. Smith, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII wrote recently about a photojournalist who back in the day tracked down Pol Pot, the psychotic Cambodian mega mass-murderer, spoke with him, took pictures of him with his film camera, then shopped the photos around in the traditional analogue way. This journalist contrasted his experience with that of his teenage niece, apparently a Social Network “Star” of some note, who, with her selfies and lunch photos, racks up more views on Instagram in a day than his own laborously procured pictures of Pol Pot have ever gotten, anywhere. She even receives corporate sponsorship, not because anyone deems her photos good or significant, insightful or formally compelling, but because their “metrics” signal potential for monetization. Him, well, you know.
Photos – physical things – the creation of Dragan Novakovic. These exist as individual, tangible artistic creations. I’m framing them and hanging them on my walls.
A few of us – those still conversant with the traditional analogue paradigm – are attempting to save a space for that paradigm. I’m increasingly convinced that the battle going forward is between the the tangible and the intangible. Advocating film photography as opposed to digital is ultimately about that. Traditional analogue processes, the kind that constituted photography as a craft, aimed at a physical thing – the print – as the final result. There’s a beauty to a finely crafted photographic print, a print that’s been matted, framed, hung on a wall, one among like others. The best – viewed as physical manifestations of the photographer’s vision – can send shivers down your spine.
With the advent of digital processes, the aim of the endeavor is the flow of information in visual form. Creative considerations exist only to the extent they aid in allowing the propagation of the information. Yes, you can print digital capture – but who does? Other than holdovers from the analogue era who still operate under the assumptions of the old paradigm, nobody. The upcoming generation – the “photographers” of the future – not a chance.
My international student – Nicki – watching me unbox my new printer, asked why I needed it. Because I want to print my photos, I replied. I like to have a physical thing, a photo, as the end product of my work, if for no other reason than once it’s printed out I’m certain to have at least one permanent copy. Plus, I can matt it, frame it, hang it on the wall. She looked at me quizzically, as if I’d suggested she remove her earbuds and go listen to some Tommy Dorsey on the Victrola. Why, she replied, would you do that when you can keep them in “the cloud” ?
Above is a scan of a photo of me in NYC in 2003. During that year’s Christmas holidays I swapped my Paris flat for a similar walk-up apartment on W. 23rd St in Manhattan. A friend from Paris flew to NYC with me. We spent a week exploring the city, film Leicas in hand during the day, at night doing the normal things two guys temporarily unleashed on the town tend to do. If I remember correctly, it snowed like crazy for a day, and we spent that day walking lower Manhattan, reduced as it was to a small town, city sounds muffled by the snow, the usual pedestrian bustle gone, no cars or taxis running the streets. A magical NYC afternoon. I hadn’t thought much of it again till today, a day dedicated to cleaning up my workspace in anticipation of a new printer (I’ve just ordered a Canon Pro 100 PIXMA printer, having tossed an almost new Epson R3000 because of print head clogs. I will NEVER buy another Epson printer…”fool me once” and all). In so doing I found a box of old photos and decided to scan some of them, the one above included. It brings back a lot of really good memories – a great friend, NYC, a time in my life that meant something important to me.
I’m lucky never to have lost my childhood wonder of photography. It’s easy to forget how few people, historically speaking, have lived in an era where one had the ability to capture a moment in time via a photograph. Photography was only invented less than two centuries ago, and it’s only been with the introduction of the Kodak and the Leica 100 years ago where the technology advanced to the point that photography could be enjoyed by regular people. Yet, as a culture we seem completely oblivious to it all, as if it’s just a normal feature of everyday life. It’s not, and we as photographers, of all people, should never forget it.
My mother recently gave me an old photo of my Great Grandmother that had hung on my Aunt’s wall for years. My Aunt died and my mother inherited the picture which she was kind enough to give to me, knowing how much my Great Grandmother meant to me as a child. She lived with us until her death in 1970 at the age of 99, so she was more like a grandmother to me, very kind, a sweet old Dutch woman who used to give me coffee flavored sweets against the wishes of my mom. She also taught me how to tie my shoes. The photo was taken in 1896 in Amsterdam, at CJL Vermeulen’s studio on Heerenstraat 6 to be exact (all of this is written on a card glued to the back of the photo). She would have been 25 at the time. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but I can still see in the photo the features of the woman I knew. That’s amazing, that a simple photograph has allowed me to see her as she was long before I was even born, gives me even now a window into a reality long past.
A few days after returning home from visiting my mom I had lunch with my ex-wife, a woman with whom I had lived in Amsterdam in 1996. She had no idea about the photo just given me by my mom. She gave me a photograph, of me, in Amsterdam, the one to the right. I remember exactly where she took it; I was standing on Beursstraat, a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where my Great Grandmother stood for her picture a hundred years before. Tell me that’s not cool. There’s a certain kismet about that coincidence, the universe playing a little joke on me, or maybe just a reminder that time can be a slippery thing, the present a stage for the past, the past a harbinger of the future.
Me and my Grandfather, 1979
I admire Zen Buddhism, its simple austerity, emphasis on personal tranquility and its historical encouragement of education and art. Much like the Quakers (of whom I’m an erstwhile member), Zen Buddhism offers religious experience without dogma or institutional control. However, I don’t agree with their complete focus on living in the moment, the “now” at the expense of the past (or future). Everything is not “about the now.” It’s cute as a sound-bite, a pleasing soporific reminding us not to miss the moment. But it’s wrong if it minimizes or denies the profound role that past experience plays in shaping who we are at present. We are the products of our experience, our beings the sum total of the “then.” Consciousness of our past and awareness of the future is what makes us human. Cats and cattle can “live in the moment,” must live in the moment, because they’re not capable of the abstract thinking required to place oneself outside of the present. The fact that we can is what separates us from them, it’s what makes us human. Without the past we’re unmoored, lost, without the future we’re incoherent. Living completely “in the now” is the tragedy of the Alzheimer sufferer, a spiritual and emotional life reduced to the level of brute animality. Beauty lies in the moment, yes, but the moment is evanescent, always slipping beyond our grasp. In the blink of an eye it’s a memory, and there’s no more potent means of keeping alive, reliving and refocusing the power of that moment than to memorialize it with a photo.
I’m not advocating living in the past. First and foremost, it’s important to live for the future. You need a point on the horizon to move toward. That’s what makes us human. You should always have something to wait for, plans not yet realized, goals not yet reached. At the same time you should be immersed in the past, reliving it, sharing it, learning from it. This is how you keep the past alive. My Great Grandmother and my Grandfather, both now long gone, aren’t truly gone until their memory dies. A photo can preserve that memory. That photo above keeps my Grandfather alive in a very real sense. I can picture him there, sitting at his table, remembering all his particulars. That’s truly remarkable, that I could do that after 40 years, and it’s a function of having that photo which brings it all back to me. That’s my history right there, that’s where I come from, who I am. I get to share it with you.
Ricoh GXR with A12 Leica M Mount Module and Ricoh Electronic Viewfinder
– comes with box, charger, battery etc – almost new. Everything works perfectly.
The Ricoh GXR with M Mount module is one of the great bargains if your’re looking for a digital M. Good examples of this are becoming rarer to find in new condition. Love this camera. Prefer it to the M8/9. I’ve got two copies, one superfluous to requirements. Please do not make me put this on Ebay.
You can contact me with questions at email@example.com
Long ago, before your phone was also your camera, it was a first-class pain in the ass to shoot street photography in Paris. The French, peculiar people they are, are very particular about the “Droit à l’image” (Right to One’s Image) issue. Frankly, it can be incredibly tiresome dealing with French people who seem to think it’s their business what you do with your camera in a public space. In the States, we’re relatively habituated to people pointing cameras in public spaces. Under American law, if you’re in a public space, you’re fair game. Of course, this hasn’t stopped freedom loving Americans from bitching at me when I’ve pointed a camera in their general direction, but I’m on firm legal ground when I’ve told them to go pack sand.
In France, meanwhile, I’ve had people threaten to call the police because I was taking pictures of inanimate objects in public. Arrogant people, the French, although I love them dearly in spite of their obvious faults. And God help you if their child could possibly be somewhere in the picture – I’ve almost come to blows with aggrieved Parisians about the issue. My standard response is “Yes, call the police. Let’s talk to them about it” at which point they’d cut and run after a few choice words, or, if that didn’t work, I’d suggest they engage in an anatomically impossible sex act and then ignore them, which seemed to either force the encounter to an unpleasant conclusion or, in rare instances, send it nuclear. More on that some other time.
Sitting on Your Front Porch in Mississippi? Fair Game
The gist of Droit à l’image des personnes en France is a simple one. If the subject of the photograph is a person, that person has a right to oppose the use of his image. This right derives from the French civil concept of private life. Essentially, what it means is this: before being able to use the photograph in question, you must ensure that the person photographed does not expect privacy of his personal image and that he does not oppose the publication of this image. Unlike other countries (e.g. The States) this right to one’s image includes images taken in public, including group photography during something like a street demonstration.
The person whose image is at issue can oppose use its use by invoking Art. 9 of the French Civil Code which protects the right of every individual to respect for his/her private life. Contrary to a misconception seemingly prevalent in Paris, it’s not the taking of pictures in public itself that is a violation of the right, but rather the diffusion or publication of photographs where both the context and the person are easily recognizable. Try explaining that to some large French guy currently in your grill, spittle flying, demanding you delete the photo you’ve just taken on that picturesque Parisian Boulevard.
Meanwhile, These People Could Sue the Hell Out of Me
Like most things, the devil is in the details. Any photographer who is content to shoot for his own personal and private use does not violate the law (e.g see: Court of Cassation, Criminal Chamber, October 25, 2011, appeal 11-80.266, “… the taking of photographs without the consent of the persons appearing therein having been made in a public place, the offense provided for by article 226-1, 2 ° of the Penal Code does not apply.” And if you really want to get legalistic, even in France there exists the right to photograph and publish persons of “public interest” without their express permission. As such, if I see Sir Thorsten von Overgaard – obviously a “public figure,” married as he is to Princess Joy – out and about with a gaggle of acolytes taking his street photography seminar, I’m within my rights to take his picture, as authorization is not required of “public figures” given a recognized “right to information”, “right to information” meaning photographs of public personas in engaged in public activities. The suckers following him around, off limits.