Thorsten Veblen Explains Why Your Leica Takes Much Better Pictures Than Your Nikon…And Helps You Pick Up Beautiful Women

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was a famous Norwegian-American economist and critic of capitalism. In his best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen coined the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. He argued that wasting money on pointless possessions was hard-wired into us as a species. According to Veblen, high cost is the major factor in what we consider desirable and beautiful and those purposely engaged in wasting money on such high cost items are ultimately sending signals about their desirability by signaling they have the excess means to live wastefully. It is not, and never has been, about reasonable calculation and cost/benefit analysis.

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Suppose, says Veblen, two similar cameras, one “handmade” by a German brand known for its luxury items, the other mass produced to exacting specs from high-grade materials by a highly regarded Japanese maker. As visual objects, its merely a matter of aesthetic preference – some like one, some like the other. Objective analysis (e.g. sensor ratings, pixel peeping etc) proves that they work identically and produce identical results. Yet people will pay $7999 for the handmade camera, while paying $2400 for the mass-produced one. And interestingly enough, with time general opinion will morph into the conclusion that the expensive camera, the handmade German one, actually produces better results (see “the Leica Glow”), small but important things incapable of complete articulation but there none the less.

Now, suppose we examine the “handmade” camera and find that its signs of being handmade are somewhat of a stretch, only the last few screws of the top-plate being applied by hand; and we also learn that it’s not manufactured in Germany but through a third party camera maker in Japan. None of this was divulged to the buyer given the top-plate was actually screwed onto the camera at Wetzlar before it was put into the box. Immediately, according to Veblen, this camera’s value should decline in level, much closer now to that of the second camera even while the photos it produces – the raison d’etre of the camera – remain the exact same.

Per Veblen, this is because our sense of quality “is in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness” i.e. hand-made in Germany by luxury goods purveyor equals costliness equals desirability; then, via sleight of hand, ‘better’ invariably becomes substituted for desirability.

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Veblen’s ideas have profound aesthetic implications. His insights have been explained away by many contemporary commentators as being about capitalism and the distortions it imposes on our tastes and aesthetic values. Dennis Dutton, in his fascinating book The Art Instinct, argues that these commentators are wrong. Dutton, citing Darwin’s work on ‘sexual selection’ (a corollary of “Natural Selection”) claims that the equation of costliness=better is hardwired into us as a species, arising as it does from the intrinsic connection we make with wealth and social status and better evolutionary fitness. Extrapolate such inherent biases to inanimate objects and you get the phenomenon of luxury goods. In other words, humans who engage in conspicuous waste – Porches, $10,000 Gucci handbags, Lenny Kravitz Leicas – are sending out signals about their inherent evolutionary fitness, i.e. “Look at me! Why mate with the loser with the Nikon D90 and when can have me, the Guy with the uber-expensive Leica with Noctilux!”

This is why hucksters like [von] Overgaard invariably marry their false claims of competence with ostentatious shows of wealth. This is why he hangs out with pseudo-designer meatballs who claim to make bespoke do-dads for the beautiful people. This explains the pathetic claims to royalty and the marriage to a woman who calls herself a Princess. This explains the supposed travel to exotic places accompanied by his designer leather bags. These are all not-so-subtle dog-whistles used to subconsciously subvert your critical faculties and to support his otherwise specious claims to being an important, high-status person to whom one should listen. Engage in this thought experiment: what if [von] Overgaard used a Nikon , claimed extensive knowledge about Nikons, but drove a Volvo and dressed like a solidly middle class Dane? No claims to royalty, no marriage to a Princess, no supposed elbow-rubbing with the rich and quasi-famous. Just a guy who loves Nikons and knows all about them and wants to impart his knowledge to you, Joe Nikon, to “help you achieve your photographic vision.” Would that work?

13 thoughts on “Thorsten Veblen Explains Why Your Leica Takes Much Better Pictures Than Your Nikon…And Helps You Pick Up Beautiful Women

  1. Dan Newell

    I don’t think ‘Ol Thorsten is going to look too good walking around in fatigues trying to look like Larry Burrows.

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  2. Andrew Molitor

    My favorite Veblen fact is that he died a pauper in a shack on Sand Hill Road which is now famous as the road where all the silicon valley venture capitalists have their offices.

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  3. Hank

    TvO aside – he is merely a source of amusement to me (can’t you just hear a danish version of Joe Pesci in Goodfellows “do I amuse you? Does this Leica amuse you?”) – but, after many a year, I can’t stop jonesing for a Nikon F2 Titan with the plain prism finder. What a thing of beauty, and a thing that actually works well!

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    1. Andrew Molitor

      There used to be a whole phalanx of these dudes, basically dweebs who had mastered a pretty small portfolio of pretty easy technical matter, facts and procedures, and who turned that plus force of personality into a kind of a business.

      Lloyd Chambers, Michael Reichmann, Ming Thein, Thom Hogan, and presumably lots and lots more, They all have (had) lots of ideas about how photography ought to be done, and how Camera Companies ought to be run, but none of them can (could) take a picture with anything resembling heart. The best any of them could manage was a more or less pleasing formal arrangement in the frame. Overgaard appears to be one of the remaining few, as interest in this sort of thing has been ticking down steadily for.. at least a decade?

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      1. Dan Newell

        Yeah well….they all don’t have a Princess like Vontootaloot. Now having a Princess may be OK for some but I like having a savings account and an unmaxed CC.

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        1. Rob Campbell

          Dan, somebody who could have chosen from a selection of European princesses chose an American commoner. I think he made a mistake: it has cost him dear, reduced him to a veiled – or not so veiled – figure of amusement across the globe. Hell, there was fairly recent family history to show him how rash and ill considered his hots.

          Folks from that altitude don’t really get to develop street smarts, and it shows. His mother didn’t have any either, poor woman, as her unfolding tragedy was to prove.

          Social mobility is a tough staircase to climb, and those who manage it have to be pretty ruthless when their tentacles find purchase. Caveat emptor.

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      2. Rob Campbell

        Andrew, LuLa’s late founder, Michael R., could indeed make some excellent, moving photographs. Hogan shows some pretty good animal and bird pictures now and again. I believe he thinks of himself more as a sports lensman. Anyway, my interface with him is totally based on gear reviews, where I consider the Nikon(s) I might buy if I go truly nuts one day, and throw natural caution and my inner sense of “do I need this thing?” to the wind.

        Selling photo trips is not something I would choose to do; indeed, the less I have to do (on the ground) with other photographers the better. Photography is something that I see as a creative process, best done without the distraction of client or competitor presence. I honestly can’t understand why any big-time snapper would want to lead a gaggle of paying amateurs unless the big-time concept was on the skids. It seems a huge step backwards to me. As several surprising people now offer these “courses” I have to wonder at just how bad the pro scene is becoming.

        That said, conversations about photography can be interesting if all parties to the occasion actually know what they are talking about. I also enjoy listening to, watching, video interviews with articulate photographers whose work I admire. The late Peter Lindbergh had some very good interviews, mainly because he had a lot of miles behind him and they were pretty good ones about which to speak. Careful digging into youtube offers quite a lot of such material, but unfortunately, also a lot of unadulterated crap. I find there’s a sort of relationship between the length of the interview and the quality. I now tend to ignore much of the six minutes stuff. A pair of photographers with interesting things to say is Sarah Moon and the late Saul Leiter. Sarah is a bit of a verbal poet, and she gets away with it because her work more than backs up her mouth; Leiter, on the other hand, had a most unusual way of expressing himself. I am not Jewish, so I might be mistaken, but I hear him as a photographic Woody Allen. Sometimes I wish that I had been Jewish; I’m sure that if I were I would have been a lot smarter, possibly a far better photographer and certainly more successful than I was. There’s something in that chosen people thing.

        A distinct drawback of looking at several different videos of star photographers is that of repetition. It’s unavoidable: unless they are consummate liars, they can only tell the same life story in one way. David Bailey is a case in point: almost exactly my age, he was an early hero, but after looking at all the videos about him I could find, boredom slips quietly into the experience. I don’t need to watch another one, hear the same jokes.

        Actually, it occurred to me today that I am becoming more interested in looking at photographers’ monographs than in shooting any more snaps of my own. Indeed, after checking the e-mails this morning, I remembered that I’d put some images into the computer recently, simply to clear the card in the camera, and I wondered what on Earth they were. I opened one in Photoshop and realised one of my nightmares had come to life: for a few minutes, I couldn’t remember how to begin shading a part of one… fortunately, it eventually came back again. That done, I closed the programme: the image held absolutely no interest for me. Conviction is essential.

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      3. Tamara

        I enjoy Hogan’s stuff because he’s practically the exact opposite of Overgaard. He shoots critters and sports and his website is all pretty nuts-and-bolts and devoid of woo-woo about achieving your creative vision.

        “Is the lion (whether African or Detroit) in focus and properly exposed? Y/N. If “N”, buy my book explaining what all the buttons on your CaNikon do.”

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  4. Brian

    A Reddit member asked about IR cut filters and what people use. Stated I had Leica, B&W, Tiffen, Heliopan, all worked perfectly and any would do. Posted a link to my test of the Tiffen filter on the M8.

    Another Reddit’r posted that yes, but only the Leica filters could be kept clean and that all the others I owned could not be cleaned properly. They were not joking. Figured they were using Leica Koolaid with Red #25 in it to clean their filters and lenses.

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      1. Brian

        I have a Nuclear Products Squeeze-Bulb type blower to repel dust particles. The 1950s device worked on the basis of the Nuclear Material in the blower ionized the air and caused the dust particles to expel from the lens. I wonder why they quit selling it? Maybe Leica is using Hot Glass filters again.

        Reply

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