Tag Archives: Dr. Henry Joy McCracken

Thinking About Photography

 I think it’s time to put the shoes on again…

By Dr. Henry Joy McCracken. This is an expanded version of the article which first appeared on Dr. McCracken’s excellent blog insolublepancake.org

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on 52 rolls. I quite enjoyed this and I got to wondering as I did when I started film photography in 2015 what the origin of this attraction really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. His quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

 Mobile phones are destroying photography (with Yeti)

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is of a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent exhibition, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, just think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!

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But — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? This of course a subject often discussed here on Leicaphilia. I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent Maison Europeénne de la Photographie, I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery [Editor’s Note: The Maison’s library is one of the coolest places in the world if you’re a photographer. I recommend everyone spend a few weeks there buried in the books]. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, “”What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls”. Here I would like to expand on the first part of that article.

Now let’s go to the library…

So, what do the philosophers have to say today? Around this time, I heard about the death of British critic John Berger, who was famous for his influential “Ways of seeing” series. The first episode, which you can see here on ubu.com is excellent (and you should be thankful that the shirts are only in black-and-white). It starts with Berger taking a knife to a painting in a gallery and ends with him turning to the camera and insisting that we must be skeptical. Many of the ideas in his program are taken from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction”, which essentially says that each work of art there is an “aura” which is diluted when it is removed from its original context. It makes sense, I think everyone would agree that Caravaggio paintings are better in churches rather than in art galleries or at home on the sofa.  And what about today, with our endlessly reproduced digital images?

 Look closely!

Trying to answer that one I quickly got deeply into writings on photography and images, featuring such luminaries as Sontag, Barthes, Baudrillard, Sartre and more recent writers like Manovich and Lechte. I even came across Flusser, previously mentioned here on Leicaphilia. Being the empiricist that I am I quickly felt I was on unstable ground because a lot of the writings seem to be based on reasonable-sounding assertions which are in fact mutually contradictory. You basically get to choose the point-of-view you like the sound of. So, that’s what I am going to do here, because the point for me is to try understand the emotional reaction one can have when confronted with different kinds of images. What’s worse, considering these philosophers, and I am sorry to level this old criticism: many of them don’t even take photographs!

Well, the one who does take photographs is Baudrillard, so perhaps we should pay more attention to him. His idea in Simulacres et Simulation is that today in our society the (symbolic) representation of things has actually displaced the things themselves [Editor’s Note: Thomas de Zengotita’s magnificent book Mediated is a must read for understanding how representations drive how we think and act]. He has a ‘hit list’ of what bad things can happen to images, and the last one sounds to me suspiciously like a digital image: “it bears no relationship to reality and is its own ‘simulacra'”. So this seems to me what digital images are, simulacra, and perhaps we instinctively realise this when confronted with a purely software-defined image which has been stripped of it’s “aura” by incessant (perfect) digital replication.

 Is this part over yet?

In the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You might argue that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software” (in my readings I learned that, amusingly,  motion-picture films are only ever processed by “open source” developers, ones for which the chemical formula is known). But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as the idea of capturing only a single image a time is now completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely so successful because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls on a film Leica for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

Another Parisian moment (at the observatory wall)

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My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. There was just one close-to-retirement prof in his department who taught the students how to scratch film negatives. Fun, but much faster in software. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. One of the philosophers I read (you can guess which one) insisted that, in fact, the image does not exist as a physical object. This certainly goes in the direction of the equivalence of digital and analogue technologies.

But… there is a difference. My conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything because the act of scanning and “dematerialisation” of the negative is a pretty contradictory activity after all that I have said here. However, that would mean a lot more time in the badly-ventilated Observatory dark room…

Talking Leicas with Astrophysicists

20160701-R1100511-EditParis Observatory telescope. This 60-centimetre telescope, installed in 1890, was designed by French astronomer Maurice Loewy (1833-1907). Loewy was Director of the Paris Observatory from 1896 until his death.

In spite of my obvious critical stance toward many of the fruits of the digital age, it certainly has its benefits, one of which is the ability to connect people of like mind across distances. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to share your interests with others, you did so on a local basis. Now the world is open to you. Through this blog I’ve been lucky to meet interesting, intelligent people from around the world – the Far East, Africa, South America, Europe – and also around the corner where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So I was pleasantly surprised, while travelling recently, to receive an invitation to visit from Dr. Henry Joy McCracken, an Astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and a dedicated Leica film shooter. Dr. McCracken works in a contemporary building located on the campus of the Observatoire de Paristhe foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centers in the world. Its historic building is located on Boulevard Arago in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris.  Louis XIV started its construction in 1667, completed it in 1671. It thus predates the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, founded in 1675.

While the Observatory is open to the public on a very limited basis, nobody gets up on the roof and in the cupola where the telescope is found. Dr. McCracken brought me up on the roof and into the cupola. The telescope there is very old, very big and very impressive.

20160701-R1100506-EditOn the Observatory Roof with Dr. McCracken. Behind him is the cupola where the Observatory telescope is housed. And yes, that’s a film Leica Dr. McCracken is sporting.20160701-R1100518-EditInside the Cupola20160701-R1100525-EditGraffiti Scratched into the Stone Wall in a Space Under the Cupola

The irony of our meeting is that, while we connected through Leicaphilia, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of Leica film cameras and film photography as a viable ongoing means of photographic practice, only one of us was sporting a film camera – and it wasn’t me, which, I’m sure, gave Dr. McCracken pause even though he was a gracious enough host not to note the obvious to me. I had with me an M8 with a Amedeo adaptor and vintage Nikkor attached; he had with him a beautiful M6 with 50mm Summicron that someone had given him, loaded with Tri-X. Of course, there was a reason I wasn’t toting a film camera, as I claim I usually do, and it was because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the hassles of film on an international trip – the X-ray scanning and rescanning, the repeated explanations at security about what exactly the bag full of home-rolled film cassettes actually contained, the time spent developing and scanning the developed film once home etc; all of the reasons normal people embrace digital and see the continued use of film as quixotic in the extreme. If you were to accuse me of being a hypocrite, you’d be right. Consistency is not my strong point, although, in my defense, I am in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, requiring one to be as ignorant today as one was yesterday.

20160701-L1003744-Edit-2These markers are found throughout the Observatory grounds. Something to do with the Meridian Line

So, did this trip help soften my antagonism toward digital Leicaphiles? Yes, it did, actually. I enjoyed the time spent with my M8 immensely. It’s a wonderful camera, offering the simplified Leica experience digitally. I borrowed a 35mm Summicron from a Parisian photographer friend and shot exclusively with the M8, the Ricoh GXR and the D3s staying in the bag. Along the way I lent it to a photographer who for years used both an M4 and M6 but never saw the use for a digital Leica – always saying “I just don’t see the point” when I’d enquire as to why he no longer used Leicas but now used professional Nikon DSLRs. Sitting on his Paris balcony, a few drinks in us both, I handed him my M8 with his Summicron attached. He picked it up, fired off the photo below and said “feels pretty much like a film Leica.” Yup. Pretty much.20160706-L1004281-Edit

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So, back to my thoroughly enjoyable day at the Paris Observatory, courtesy of Dr. McCracken, who, I should add, is an excellent photographer in addition to being a fine human being and a very intelligent guy dealing daily with issues that most of us simply aren’t smart enough to understand, let alone discuss. He publishes 52 Rolls: One Roll of Film for Fifty Two Weeks, where he shoots a roll a week and posts the photos on his blog.

As part of my tour, Dr. McCracken brought me into the bowels of a building on the Observatory campus where is located the darkroom that was once used to develop the Observatory’s photographs. Down a few flights of steps and behind a locked door stood a perfectly functional darkroom, still stocked with papers and chemicals with expiration dates from the 1990’s. Apparently, it had been locked away and forgotten, a sad commentary on the state of analogue photography. Fortunately, he has rescued it from disuse and it is now, again, being used for its intended purpose, although certainly now not in any official Observatory capacity. At the very least, it made me feel good that it has been resurrected and that maybe, just maybe, this blog might have had some little thing to do with it.

20160701-R1100578-EditThe Paris Observatory Darkroom

After my tour we settled in for a cup of coffee on the terrace of Dr. McCracken’s building, where we were joined by fellow Astrophysicists. We discussed, among other things, Dark Matter, String Theory, whether the Universe is expanding or contracting (its “bouncing” apparently), and, parenthetically, why we still all loved film cameras. We talked about the incredible vistas digitalization has opened to science, but we also discussed the problems that come along with our move from analogue to digital. Someone noted to me that there still existed, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Institute, negatives from more than a hundred years ago that charted the positions and conditions of the cosmos at that time, and that these offered a contemporary scientist the ability to go back and recreate those conditions in light of new theories or data, necessary work if you subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science changes. With digital data, so susceptible to degradation and loss, he noted, scientists 100 years from now might not have access to the same sort of data from our era, so eager are we to embrace new technology without thinking through the full consequences for the ongoing transmission of scientific culture. Who, I asked, is thinking about these issues? No one, he replied.

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20160701-R1100486-Edit-2The Observatory Stairwell

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Dr. McCracken, off I went. Somewhere in the Marais, I lifted my M8 to take a photo of something, and as I did a gentleman walked past me with a curious look on his face, turned around and tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the Leicaphilia guy?” he asked, to which I replied, yes. That’s me.  A nice enough guy, we spoke some time, him being a reader of the blog. He, of course, had a beautiful Pentax MX film camera with him, although he assured me there was an M2 at home. I, of course, had my digital M8, another slightly uncomfortable situation which he was gracious enough to ignore.

And so now I’m home, having gone through my DNG files and processed the keepers. You’ll notice that they’ve all been processed to emulate the film look. I’m not sure what I should think about this. Is this “cheating,” inauthentic in some way? Even if it is, who cares? Isn’t it the end result that matters? In any event, I feel vaguely like a poseur, someone who advocates one position while acting in accordance with another. Regardless, I think I really like my M8. Will it become my tool of choice? Probably not, and probably for those same archival issues articulated by the Astrophysicist. But who knows.