Category Archives: Aesthetics

What Makes a Successful Photo?

That’s exactly the question you ask yourself when you’re looking at a successful photo. What does success depend on? There are objective reasons, of course: the photographer’s technical virtuosity and talent, the quality of the printing, the choice of subject, But those factors alone don’t add up to to a good photo; a some little anonymous, tattered, unimaginative and badly printed photo can be absolutely fascinating.

So there’s no explanation. Chance or some sixth sense can play a part – and of course some photographers are better than others at spotting or conjuring up the chance element. A photograph happens quickly and doesn’t allow for half measures; and when it comes off, it retains something of the raw intensity of its making, that grabbing of the right moment. This is doubtless one explanation for the emotion we feel when confronted with a picture that works.” – Sylvie Aubenas, Curator, Photography Department, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris

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The Advent and Death of Photographic Realism

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin overturned the by now anachronistic conception of Charles Baudelaire, who divided art into two opposing camps : on the one hand the imaginative ( true artists who want to “illuminate things” with their subjectivity) and on the other hand realists (who want to “represent things as they are” but have no real means to do so). Benjamin’s essays – Little History of Photography in 1931 and, more importantly, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936 – argued that photography had finally emancipated art from the imaginative dimension that he claimed had heretofore characterized all traditional artistic work, and as such was a watershed historical moment in the history of imagery production.

Walter Benjamin Thinking Really Big Thoughts

Even in the era of prevailing subjective pictorialism forward looking photographers took up Benjamin’s call for realism, seeing in photography a unique medium to approach and recreate the truth for other’s purviewAmong these, in America, were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine who used photography as a tool for social investigation and denunciation. In France Eugene Atget documented a disappearing Paris. 

In America, Jacob Riis fathered modern social investigative photography. Emigrated from Denmark, he initially worked as a police reporter, but then devoted himself to photographing the most disadvantaged areas of New York. In 1890 he published his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies on New York Tenements ,where he documented the life of immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then the most densely populated area of ​​the world, with over half a million people in one square kilometer. Riis’s work spurred New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to take government action to alleviate the retched social conditions Reis met there, and as such is remembered as one of the most influential photojournalists who documented the social injustices of America between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s.

Lewis Hine, a teacher at the Ethical School in New York, used photography as a sociologist, photographing the life of immigrants on Ellis Island. In 1908 Hine became an official photographer of the National Child Labor Committee , an organization created to combat child labor in heavy industry. There he used photography as an instrument of social protest, accurately representing child laborers and their working conditions.

Lewis Hine, Child Laborer in North Carolina Cotton Mill, 1890

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From 1889 to 1924 Eugene Atget documented old Paris, which was transforming itself into a modern metropolis, “manifesting from the outset the ambition to create a collection of all that is artistic in and around Paris”. He considered himself a commercial photographer, so much so that in 1890 he exhibited a small plaque outside his laboratory with the inscription “Documents for artists”. With his 18×24 bellows camera, a heavy wooden tripod he systematically photographed Paris, its architecture, shops and shop windows, along the way garnering the interest of the Surrealists like Man Ray and Brassaï, who saw in Atget a surrealist approach (i.e. highlighting and magnifying the real).

Atget died relatively unknown in 1927, although some of his prints were present in various archives in Paris.  Atget’s artistic recognition was posthumous, thanks to the interest of Berenice Abbott ,who after Atget’s death bought the collection of Atget’s negatives and prints. These are now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1930, Abbott published the first book of Atget photographs, Atget, Photographe de Paris. From this moment his fame grew, so much so that he is consecrated as one of the most influential photographers of the early modern age: appreciated and recognized both by ‘realist’ American photographers such as Walker Evans, Ansel Margaret Bourke-White and by Europeans André Kertesz , Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka.

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Why the new use of photography as practiced by these men and their successors Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka? As Benjamin noted, as a means of mechanical reproduction of nature, the photographic process removed the necessary subjectivity inherent in previous ‘artistic’ approaches to creating imagery, which by its very nature relied on the artist’s subjectivity to render. With a camera, that subjectivity was nullified; the camera recorded what it recorded (of course this doesn’t account for the fact that someone has to point the camera at something). What we’re given is an objective view, using Sontag’s words, “stenciled from the real.” While photographers may editorialize to the extent they choose certain subjects and present them in certain ways, photography’s objectivity assures us that what we’re seeing is real, it happened, and as a result we can draw various conclusions about the state of affairs it represents.

Is this type of photography still available to us in the digital age? I’d argue it isn’t, and this is one of the enduring conundrums photography must face as it goes forward. Photography is no longer mechanical reproduction, which Benjamin saw as the means by which it achieved its claim to objectivity. Ironically, Benjamin anticipated this devolution back to subjective imagery. In his view, history was not a linear story of progress where we learn from the past, but rather something chaotic and contradictory in which past mistakes are repeated by future generations. Digital technology has made photography endlessly maleable and as such has brought it back to the subjective status Benjamin identified as the defining characteristic of pre-photographic imagery. The objective link has been severed. If you use Benjamin’s criterion of truth, photography as an objective chronicle of the truth is dead.

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Grain as a Digital Artifact

Film photographers never much cared about bokeh. The first time I think I even heard the word was when we were well into the digital era, probably on some internet forum,  where the hive mind argue vehemently, and endlessly, about some non-sensical brain-splitting, optical hair-splitting issue, the functional analogue of mediaeval theological debates about just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When it comes to bokeh, what everyone agrees is this: whatever lens you buy, it’s got to have beautiful bokeh. Not angry bokeh, or harsh bokeh, or clinical bokeh. Beautiful bokeh.

Bokeh is a digital phenomenon, a photographic meme that’s taken wing with the digital herd’s overriding obsession with optics. Or maybe, upon reflection, it isn’t so silly, but rather points up what I see as an inherent flaw in the nature of digital capture – the sort of transparent, ultra-lucidity of digital files, their noiseless purity that just looks….false. I can best describe it as a certain lack of presence, a sterility in continuous digital tones, obvious in how digital capture renders clear blue skies, skies that film renders, even when blank, with a certain heft and fullness. Digital renders skies thin and transparent, lifeless in their plastic perfection.

And I think this might be why we are now obsessed with bokeh: it’s this sterility in the very nature of digital capture that has brought to the fore our obsession with ways of masking it.

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The Woman I Love on our Wedding Day. Nice Bokeh? I’m not sure exactly what ‘nice’ bokeh looks like.

Narrow depth of field and subsequent emphasis on bokeh is a function of photography as a process.  It’s not an organic offshoot of the human experience of seeing, but rather a photographic artifact, a result of the process of capture itself. It’s certainly not replicating a natural way of seeing. It’s what philosophers refer to as a “construct,” produced by the characteristics of photographic optics.

But so is grain. We don’t see grain. Grain is a traditional artifact of the film process. Grain gives that patina of distance, the step back from the real that helps us see the obvious – photographs aren’t transparent windows onto what is “out there”, they’re opaque at best, more a mirror turned back on the photographer than the view out if a window looking out.

I’m not advocating  the position that an emphasis on bokeh (or grain) is somehow a violation of photography as a transcription of really. The underlying premise of that claim would be that there is one true way to recreate something photographically that corresponds to what is actually there, and the photographic effect we call bokeh is a perversion of that transcription. Of course, that notion is nonsense, based on the premise that photographs do, or even can, accurately transcribe reality.

The idea that photos accurately transcribe reality is a “common sense” opinion the average person holds about the basic integrity of the photograph as a reflection of what is “out there.” But it’s wrong. Some cultural philistine once sought out Picasso while he was resident in Paris. The guy wanted to tell Picasso he wasn’t a good painter because his portraits didn’t “look like” the people he was painting. Picasso asked him what he meant by “what people look like,” to which the philistine pulled a small B&W photo of his wife from his pocket, to which Picasso replied “so, your wife is very small, completely flat, and has no color?”

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What Makes this Photo? Bokeh…or Grain? Or Both?

So, bokeh is an artifice, added by the process itself, not inherent in how a scene represents itself to human vision. But so is grain. Bokeh is a relatively new phenomenon, created by fast optics that easily express – some would say overemphasize – it. Grain is produced by the silver halide process itself. Different processes, different effects.

There was a time, in the pre-digital age, when photographers tried to minimize grain, seeing it as a flaw in the process, or, at least, accepted it as the cost of shooting ‘high speed’ films in available. light. If you look at Robert Frank’s American photos they’re grainy, not, I suspect, because he meant them to be that way but rather because it was a necessary effect of getting the shot at all. Of course, if you shot extremely slow films like Panatomic-X or Pan-F, you could largely avoid it up to a certain point, but the slow ISO of those films made the trade-off difficult. Hence, the ‘grain-less’ C41 films like Ilford’s XP2 Super. Ilford actually manufactured two “chromogenic” C-41 compatible black-and-white films, their own XP2 Super and Fuji’s Neopan 400CN.  Kodak produced a similar film, BW400CN. 

These films worked like color C-41 film; development caused dyes to form in the emulsion. Their structure, however, is different. Although they may have multiple layers, all are sensitive to all colors of light, and are designed to produce a black dye. The result is a black-and white image with no silver halide grain particles.

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Grain. It’s a necessary part of this image.

As a film photographer, I prefer some grain in my images. Certainly, now more so in the digital era when digital capture makes the ‘grainless’ look normal. I love the grainy look of Robert Frank in London/Wales, Valencia and The Americans. But I don’t think he was thinking of graininess when he photographed. He was just trying to get a workable negative. It’s ironic, then, that that heavy graininess has become so associated as an integral part of the work once digital capture came along. This emphasis on grain – which I’m prone to – is something I developed in the digital era. Grain gives me a way of giving a certain heft to the image; it’s why I typically shoot film above its box speed and develop in speed-enhancing developer like Diafine. I didn’t do that back in the day. I do it now because I think it’s what differentiates the film look from the digital look. It’s also why I run all my digital files through Silver Efex to, at a minimum, add grain structure to an otherwise ‘flat’ digital file. In this sense, grain has become as much a function of digital capture as has the emphasis on bokeh.

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The Barthian Punctum is Dead. Digital Killed It.

In the film era, the photo was valued as a record. The photograph resulted in a fixed image. The best of these fixed images contained the aura effect of the image, what Roland Barthes calls ‘the punctum’, the thing that takes us outside the image to the reality it stencils. Analog was representation of the real.

Who today, except for a few film photographers pushed to the margins of irrelevancy, still respects the Barthian punctum when taking a photo? According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, the ‘punctum’ is the thing that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph creating an ‘element which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image. Punctum is the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.’ What’s important for Barthe’s argument is that the photo itself be a faithful rendering of something “out there”, that it have some connection to the thing photographed, much as Sontag talks of a photograph as a “stenciling from the real;” the instant, the conjunction of events, the link with time. In Camera Lucida, Barthe’s discusses this in the context of a photo of his mother; in some sense, the puctum of that photo for Barthes is that it was directly stenciled from his mother’s body and in some sense still partakes of her (now vanished) corporality.

What’s the Punctum of This Photo? Can You Trust It?

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Digital is the age of the reworked image. It’s no longer essential to catch the eye when the importance of the shot is only relative. You can ad lib the punctum later with Photoshop. But in doing so you’ve disconnected it from its truth value. The photo is now not a material thing directly connecting us to the real but an algorithmic formula. As such, are photographs still capable of being repositories of truth? No. Photographic digitization requires each of us to reconstruct the world, in Paul Ardenne’s words, “using image-games rather than trapping it in image-pictures.”

The transition to digitalization in image making sweeps away Barthe’s punctum: the right to trust the photo as a witness, proof “that was.” There is no truth in a digital image, the stenciled connection has been severed. The digital image can be, at best, “that could have been.” The consequences of this destruction of the photo’s essential link to truth are two-fold. First, we now must always entertain, to our enduring discomfort, that what we are being offered may, probably is, false to reality. Is this photo deceiving us? We have no way of knowing. On the other hand, subjectivist imagery has become the norm. Modifying images is no longer taboo; a few clicks of the mouse and you can reconfigure the image to go well beyond the source image in its fidelity to what’s “out there.”

Along with the removal of the “sacred aura” that traditionally attends a photo, there is now an infinite potential for playing with the photo. No regrets, no remorse. Photography is no longer a repository of images plucked from the real but a combinatory and endlessly fluid medium of self-serving half-truths i.e. lies.

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Is the M11 Really That Much Better Than the M8?

We are obsessed with sensor megapixel counts. The Leica M series has steadily progressed from a 10 mg M8 to the current 60 mg M11. I’m here to convince you that, while it sounds like a quantum leap in one’s ability to shoot and print larger files, it really isn’t that big of a deal in the real world, more of an artificial tech race to sell newer and newer cameras. Of course, sensor technology has also come a long way, certainly with higher sensitivity, but the megapixel race is essentially irrelevant after about 10 mgs. A modest 10 mg M8 is capable of making stunning enlargements of almost unlimited size (with a few caveats discussed herein). Oh, and by the way, the M8, with its increased IR sensitivity, makes a killer B&W camera.

A 60 meg image from an M11 can be printed bigger than one from an M8. We all know that. What most of us don’t realize on how many variables that truism depends, and the surprisingly small sensor strength you actually need to produce acceptably viewed prints. Maximum print size is subjective, depending upon your viewing distance and acuity standards.

Rule #1: research has shown that viewers usually view normal sized photos about 15 inches away from the photo. This means that if your photo looks sharp when viewed at 15 inches or more, you’re good.

Rule #2: 240 ppi prints look sharp when viewed at a distance equal to the print’s longer dimension. This means that the scanned 6 mg prints I’m currently printing for exhibition will look just fine at a viewing distance of 1 foot (12 inches) because a 6 mg sensor can print an 8×12 print at 240 ppi and 12 inches is closer than people usually look at prints. That’s not bad. Now if I blow that same scan up to 16×20, given the 15 inch viewing standard, the print isn’t going to be acceptable.

But, as prints get bigger people naturally stand further away to view them. This means my 16×20 6 mg print can look just fine if the viewer steps back just a bit from 15 inches, which is probable given the larger print she has to take in. As for big prints, extrapolate this all out (see below) and in reality, this means that a 20×30 print from the 10 mg sensor of the M8 looks acceptably sharp when viewed from 32 inches or 2.67 feet. (Who views a print that large from 15 inches? No one.). 24 mg sensors like that in the Leica M240 can make 30 inch prints viewable from as little as 18 inches away. Put on your thinking cap and let’s parse that out for how we get there and its real world implications. There’s also a third rule we need to take into account.

A 3 Mg EOS-1D Professional DSLR, Circa 2001. We used this in Studio at SPEOS in 2003. We made really large prints from it.

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Rule #3: you can produce an unlimited maximum print size when that print is viewed from about twice the print’s longer dimension or further. This is because it all depends where you stand, and, of course, viewers stand further away the larger the size of the print. Above is an extremely modest 3 meg sensor Canon EOS-1D circa 2001, (with a smaller sensor than Leica’s first digital camera, the 4 mg Digilux). Print an image at the EOS-1D’s native resolution which gives a print 8 inches wide (at 250 pixels per inch, or PPI) and hold it 16 inches away; you’ll have and acceptable looking print from that distance that’s indistinguishable from the same size print from a 60mg M11. Next print the same 3 mg image at 16×20. That 16×20 print will need to be viewed from at least 40 inches or more (3.35 feet) from the viewer in order to look as sharp as the same size from the M11. If both 3 mg Canon prints have the same viewing angle relative to your eye, they will look equally sharp at those respective viewing distances (1.3 ft and 3.3 ft), despite the huge difference in print size (20 versus 8 inches). Of course that ration theoretically applies as the print gets bigger, but people don’t view really large prints from close up, so as a practical matter a 40×60 print from that Canon, given how far back people are going to stand to take it in, is going to be acceptable at most people’s natural viewing distance based on the size of the print.

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Most prints are viewed at a distance of at least 15 inches. A 240 PPI print from a 6 mg sensor can look sharp when viewed at 12 inches or greater, so printing basically any current sensor’s native pixels at 240 Pixels Per Inch (PPI) appears sufficiently sharp for most people.

A Formula for maximum print size when viewed as close as 15 inches: Maximum print size = longest dimension in native pixels divided by optimal 240 PPI. A 24 meg M240 captures 6000 x 4000 pixels. Take the longer dimension of 6000 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 25 inch print, which will look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches. Maximum print size and minimum viewing distance have a linear relationship: for example, doubling the observers’ minimum viewing distance to 30 inches lets you print the longer dimension up to 50 inches for a 24 MP M240.

Likewise a 10 mg Leica M8 captures 3872 x 2592 pixel. Take the longer dimension of 3872 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 16 inch print, which should look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches or further from your eyes. Enlarging this image by doubling its long side to 32 inches will look sharp when viewed at least twice as far away (30 inches or 2.5 feet from your eye which seems reasonable given the size of the print). Tripling the long side to a 48 inch print should be viewed at least 3 times as far away (45 inches or 3.67 feet), which again seems reasonable given the size of the print).

The bottom line: unless you’re printing really big prints to be viewed at very close distances, sensor resolution doesn’t much matter.

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Editor’s Note: Credit where credit is due. I learned much of this from this excellent, but overwritten article.

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Composition

“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glace. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier Bresson.

I once met HCB, a few months before his death. He was at a gallery show in Paris where I’d stopped in. He, of course, was the center of attention while there, rightfully so; a legend in our field. Although, I must say, I’m conflicted about him. His photography is obviously one of the 20th century’s benchmarks. His written thoughts about what he did and how he did it – well, let’s just say I find a lot of it not helpful, the standard word-salad that comes along with any attempt to articulate the meaning of visual art, where the meaning is ultimately not reducable to language. You either get it or you don’t, and when you do it’s not capable of being articulated verbally.

I suppose what HCB is saying here is that a successful photograph is one where life offers us the form, we choose the content, and the goal is to fit in the content in a way that results in pleasing form. We “work in unison’ with the forms we’re presented to bring balance to the whole, modifying perspectives by moving a certain way, by coincidence of line etc. When successful, we produce a photograph that has both pleasing form and content. It’s interesting to me that HCB never really went further and talked about the role of content in the equation. In this respect he was a ‘Formalist’, someone whose aim was to produce a form that was pleasing to the eye. The content might as well be irrelevant. A guy on a bike, a kid with a jug of milk, a guy looking through a fence; all of it benign, pretty, not saying much except as it’s pleasing to the eye. And I think that it’s ultimately his failing as a photographer. His work is the equivilant of Muzak; it’s pleasing, but at a very superficial level. It ‘says’ nothing, really.

I think that’s why I prefer later photographers, those like Josef Koudelka who came after HCB, internalized his ideas about form but also chose content that had a message. Koudelka’s Gypsy photographs are of a magnitude of insight HCB could never aspire to. They are both beautiful formally and emotionally powerful via their subject matter while teaching us something as opposed to merely flattering the eye.

60’s ‘street photographers’ like Winogrand and Friedlander went in the opposite direction – a complete rejection of form for content. At least insofar as Winogrand is concerned, the content became a sort of joke – who could produce the most arresting content irrespective of whether it said anything of value. I think of Winogrand’s work as simply an extended joke, and attempt to produce manufactured photographic realities that produce strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Ultimately a party trick. Friedlander at least was saying something of value – extended meditations on American car culture and self – expression respectively.

I’ve lead off the piece with a photograph I’d taken in Paris. It has both pleasing form but also has content that (hopefully) speaks to something about the subjects involved and the photographer who took it. While it might have a bit of the vibe of an HCB photograph (Paris, street, candid, movement), it’s not something he would have taken, probably because its form isn’t strong enough on its own. But it does possess a content that says something – something about beauty, about the appeal of the beautiful, about how some people simply can’t see the beauty that surrounds us and walk right by it locked into the minutia of their daily existence, how others long for that beauty. That’s what makes it a good photo, and it’s also an analysis that Bresson would have missed, and why he’d have passed it by without another look.

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Film and Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification is a person’s ability to resist an immediate ‌reward so that they can get a more valuable future reward. A reward can be defined as anything that brings comfort or pleasure. 

Delayed gratification necessitates imagining yourself in the future. Many people equate delayed gratification with self-control or willpower, but more importantly it involves a future expectation of a more valuable reward.

You often hear Gen Zer’s saying that a main reason for their interest in film photography is the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results. Somehow, that interval between the photo and its realization imparts a weigh to the photo that a quick instantaneous review on a screen lacks. It’s an unintended future reward film gives us in the digital age.

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve just finished developing a huge backlog of film that had been accumulating since 2012. Part of my reward is getting to look back on my life when I was healthy and well. It wasn’t that long ago. The photo that leads off this post is me sitting on Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP winning 2009 Yamaha while attending a race weekend in Indianapolis in 2015. In addition to being evidence that I actually did do it, I can look back and see myself relatively young and healthy. Knowing that, 7 years later I’d be in the process of dying wouldn’t have entered my mind that day.

Life is funny that way. What I’m experiencing now has taught me to value each day because its of infinite worth. I hope that’s what you take from this, in addition to thinking I was a pretty good-looking guy back in the day (or at least that’s what my wife tells me).

Directly above is another newly discovered photo – me in a hotel room in Barcelona in 2004. Nothing special about the photo, but for some reason it resonates with me. Again, I was young and healthy and I was fortunate to be visiting someplace interesting. I’m taking the photo with a Leica M4, the best meterless M Leitz produced. For some reason I sold it. I should have kept it; one thing I’ve learned is to never sell a film Leica unless you have compelling reasons to do so. Whatever the reason I sold it, I’m certain it wasn’t compelling. Another life lesson learned.

Wouldn’t it be great if we learned our life lessons with enough time left to benefit from them?

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Digital Tri-X: I’ve Reached The Holy Grail

I suspect that all of us Leica guys who learned our craft in the film era have a somewhat irrational fixation on “High Speed” Kodak Tri-X B&W film. It’s the film we grew up rolling into cartridges, shooting (oftentimes pushing to 1600 ISO), developing and printing. A complete end to end process.

Kodak first introduced Tri-X 1940 in sheets rated at ASA 200 and tungsten 160. It was one of Kodak’s first “high-speed” black and white films back when ASA 25 was the norm. Kodak released Tri-X in 35 and 120 formats in 1954, available in two speeds, ASA 320 (320TXP) and 400/27° (400TX) although I could never figure out why. Tri-X 400 was the more common of the two, available in 24- and 36-exposure rolls of 35 mm and rolls of 120 as well as 50 and 100 foot 35mm bulk rolls. Tri-X 320 was available in 4×5″, 5×7″, and 8×10″ single sheets.

Tri-X has undergone a number of minor engineering changes during its long history. An early change in ASA (ISO) speed from 200 to 400 around 1960 due to changes in the ASA standard rather than the film. In 2007 Kodak re-engineered the film for finer grain, receiving the new designation 400TX in place of TX or TX400. The amount of silver in the film stock was reduced. Lot’s of fans weren’t happy, suspecting the stock of morphing into a more tame version of the modern TMAX Kodak offerings.

Tri-X 400 and D76 go together like eggs and ham. Tri-X rated at ISO 400 when processed in D76 remains among the faster yet resolute black and white films today. In the film era, Tri-X photographers could change their results by using different developers (high acutance developers give more sharpness but more grain too) and by push-processing the film to higher ISO sensitivities. Pushing Tri-X to ASA 800 in a standard developer generally gets good results and pushing to 1600 is doable as long as you know what you’re doing i.e. using highly diluted developers with little or no agitation and extended development times. This is “stand” or “semi-stand” development, and can allow speeds up to EI 3200 or 6400. Of course, pushing past 800 and you’re going to have a lot of grain and contrast irrespective of the caution you take, especially if you agitate vigorously which some do to accentuate the grain.

My preferred method of shooting it is to rate it at ISO 800 and develop it in Diafine, a two bath speed enhancing developer that gives a true ISO for the film of 640. But then again, I develop everything in Diafine. It’s the closest thing to a miracle developer we have.

Tri-X was the film used by working photojournalists throughout the 50’s to the 70’s. It was manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the U.S., Kodak Canada, and Kodak Ltd in the UK. Kodak data-sheets once recommended different processing times depending on where the film was manufactured. Its sales declined in the 1970s and 1980s due to the falling price and increasing popularity of color film. Since the advent of digital photography, Tri-X is pretty much dead except as a vanity film for those of us trying to recapture the magic of our lost photographic youth. Given the ease of digital, and the various ways we’re now able to ’emulate’ the Tri-X look digitally, shooting 36 exposure rolls of Tri-X with all the attendant issues seems to me quixotic at best. There is hope, however.

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An Actual Tri-X Photo, 800 ISO Developed in Diafine.

‘Conflict Photographer’ Don McCullin has used Tri-X to excellent effect his entire career. McCullin, as of 2014 having accepted that Tri-X will one day no longer be available, is dreading the time. “I think in many ways it’s the news we’re all expecting at some point,” he says, “and having heard the rumours about Kodak I’ll be going out in the morning to buy 100 rolls to make sure I’ve got some stashed away!

“I would simply say that Tri-X is probably the greatest film ever to come into existence. I used it throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, and I’m still using it in its medium-format form today for my landscape work. It’s still my favorite material. In terms of what film to use, there was no decision to make,” he says. “Tri-X was by far and away the best material around for the job I needed to do. There were other films that were also very good, such as Plus-X, but they were much slower and were best used when you weren’t likely to have the need to shoot in difficult conditions.

“I loved Tri-X because it was so versatile. You could always push it a stop to 800 ASA and give it longer in the developer to get you out of trouble if you had to. It meant that if the weather was bad or you were shooting indoors, you could carry on working.”

At the heart of Kodak Tri-X is grain. Over the years other ISO 400 B&W films have used new chemical technologies and are much smoother (Kodak TMAX 400, Ilford Delta 400, and Fuji Acros 400). But the rough and gritty feel of Kodak Tri-X continues to be popular, especially with those after a more traditional look. Grain is different than digital noise, regular in structure, tighter and less blotchy. Tri-X is also fairly high contrast, and has a tonal response that renders blues as lighter than reds or greens in black & white.

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Digital Tri-X. Nikon D200, 90’s Era 24mm Nikkor AF, ISO 800 RAW, Run Through Tri-X Silver Efex Exposure Curve and Grain Emulation

It’s instructive to note that the clasic Tri-X film look wasn’t based solely on the film’s inherent qualities and/or the manner in which it was processed and printed. The “Tri-X Look” was a function of any number of film era variables – less resolute film ( approx 6mp equivalent), less resolute film era optics that softened the inherent grain. Duplicating this with a digital camera is an art unto itself. I’ve found that 24+ mpg sensors give files that are too dense for the grain emulation of Silver Efex, even when increasing size of the grain to match the increased density. Modern corrected lenses just don’t seem to work either; results are too sharp and ‘clinical.’ Likewise, my Leica M9 Monochrom’s files are just too clean and don’t look right once you subject them to film emulations. And Forget about the Foveons, even though they remain my favorite for digital B&W; too sharp and tonally subtle…why dumb down such beautiful output? They’re more like digital Panatomic-X.

In my experience, the perfect digital camera set up to duplicate Tri-X via Silver Efex or simply with grain emulation in Lightroom is the 10 mpix CCD Nikon D200 coupled with an early AF Nikkor or a manual focus E-Series Nikkor shot at ISO 800. The Ricoh GXR 10 MP M-mount with a classic Summicron (or a Jupiter 8 for that matter) is also a good option. The limited dynamic range of the D200 CCD sensor shot at 800 seems similar to the native dynamic range of Tri-X (it also gives just a hint of noise that the emulated grain covers seamlessly), and the softer, less clinical rendering of the 70’s – 90’s pre-computerized era Nikkors seem a good match for the types of film era lenses people like Don McCullin was using to such beautiful effect. So, after much experimentation, my Digital Tri-X setup is a Nikon D200 with a 24mm 2.8 AF Nikkor, shot at ISO 800 in RAW, developed in Lightroom and then sent to Silver Efex for judicious (light touch) use of the Tri-X emulation curves. I typically choose the default grain amount and only make marginal edits to brightness and contrast where needed. Which is all to say that you don’t need the latest and greatest to get the results you want. It’s all about putting the variables together properly.

Voila! Digital Tri-X!

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Post-Script: Having said all this, If I had to choose between shooting Tri-X and shooting Ilford HP5, I’d being shooting the HP5. HP5 has a tonality that Tri-X can’t match…and it also has wonderful grain. And you can push it to ISO 1600 too. Like Tri-X, I shoot it at 800 ISO and develop in Diafine.

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Mere Witness?

Susan on the Cape Cod Ferry 1998

“There are photographers who are mere witnesses, who see things and scoop up events. And then there are those who say what they think in their photos – those are the artists….For them, the “I” is so cumbersome that they can’t separate themselves from it.” – Robert Delpire

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Fleeting Opportunity

Scotland Highlands 2015

“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult” – Hippocrates (460-400 BC)

I love the photo above. I found it awhile back on a contact sheet where I had completely passed it over previously. I love the uncertain mood – unknown and maybe desolate. In the isolation of the frame, I look at it and ask myself what these people are doing seemingly in the middle of nowhere, marching off to an unknowable destination.

In reality, there’s a hotel directly behind me, and these folks are obviously just out for a short walk and back, but you can’t read that from the photo itself. Maybe that’s why I passed it up first few time around, because the reality hadn’t yet faded for me and I knew that in some sense the photo was a lie. With time, however, it’s not. It’s just three people walking someplace unknown, to both them and us. Something then must have told me to snap the photo and it would come together later. A lot of the photos I’ve liked have been that way, which tells me the best you can do is often serandipitous.

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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?

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State Fair

North Carolina State Fair, Raleigh 2022

Having been dragooned into attending the NC State Fair by visiting friends, I decided to try the M240 as a ‘street photography’ camera. 21mm f4, ISO 800, f8 and scale focus. Basically point and shoot. As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, my preferred ‘street photography’ set-up is the Ricoh GXR with the 21mm via the M-Mount module using the same settings. Given the GXR’s crop sensor, its the equivalent of shooting a 32mm on a full frame.

Having now experienced both, I’m still partial to the Ricoh for street work. It’s smaller, lighter, less obtrusive, and mated to the 21mm gives the perfect focal length for drive by shooting (the 21mm used full frame is simply a bit too wide for my tastes, not allowing you to get the feeling of being on top of subjects in a way the same lens on a 1.5 crop sensor does. The M240’s 24mpx sensor does, however, give you much more leeway to crop, unlike the GXR’s 10 mpx, but I’m pretty much a ‘no crop’ guy anyway). Here’s the best of what I could do with the M240 in 150 minutes at the fair. The one above and the one directly below are cropped. IMHO, nothing exceptional, but then again I was there 2.5 hours, so I wasn’t expecting a body of work. But the two previous times I’ve been to the fair with the GXR I’ve been amazed at the amount of interesting photos it’s brought back.

Another thing I’ve noticed with the larger megapixel sensors is that it’s more difficult to dirty them up in post-processing. With lower pixel count cameras – the old CCD Nikon D200 or the Ricoh, both 10 megapixel – it’s easy enough to push a few buttons in Silver Efex and get a gritty image resembling Neopan 1600 or Tri-X pushed a few stops. It seems the pixel density of 20+ megapixel sensors resist such treatment. One more reason I find the digital sensor sweet spot to be 10-16 megapixels; of course, if you’re shooting with sharpness and clarity in mind, or are looking to produce 40×60 prints, lower resolution sensors aren’t going to cut it. But for street photography you’re going to display digitally or print in reasonable sizes i.e. 12×18 max, they work.

Anyone else shoot them both? I’d love to hear reader’s preferred cameras for street work…..

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A Retraction and Apology and a Useless Photo Comparison

Donna and Nicki, Dubrovnik 2021, taken with my M9 CCD Monochrom

In a recent post I claimed that Leica’s Service Department Sucked. I’m taking that back. Let me explain.

Last September, while in Dubrovnik, I dropped my M9 Monochrom from a very low table (2 feet maybe) onto a carpeted floor. Should be nothing to worry about, except that the shutter wouldn’t fire now. I envisioned thousand dollar repairs and 1 year waits via Leica’s New Jersey Service Department. As such, upon arriving home I shelved the camera and forgot about it. I’ve got a bunch of other cameras, an M240 which I really like in particular, and I wasn’t shooting much of anything anyway. When I got my terminal diagnosis recently, I realized I needed to get the Monochrom fixed or it would probably end up in the trash after I died due to my estate assuming it was just an inoperable camera with no inherent value…so I sent it off to Leica USA and waited. They acknowledged receipt on August 23rd and then…crickets.

About 3 weeks ago I sent the Leica Service folks the following email:

Can you give me a timeframe for my repair? Believe it or not, I’m
terminally ill – have a few months left – and I’d love to get my
monochrom back for just a bit before I head off to oblivion.

To which they replied immediately, indicating they were moving my repair to the front of the line. Which they did (my apologies to all those Leicaphiles waiting for their camera to get fixed; I just jumped to the front of the line!) I’ve got my Monochrom back, rangefinder adjusted, sensor cleaned, shutter firing (apparently it was just a loose wire somewhere).

That’s good service. Thank you, Leica.

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Basic Out-of-Camera Monochromed M240 DNG File

Of course, what this calls for in celebration is a totally anecdotal ‘test’ comparing the B&W output of the Leica M240 against the M9 Mono. The M240 has a 24 mp CMOS sensor, the MM an 18 mp CCD sensor. The same lens – a VC 35mm f2.5 (great lens BTW) – was used for both, making for a ballpark oranges to oranges comparison. (Pixel peeping at x400 magnification will have to wait for another post). Above is an M240 DNG file that imported into LR and very basic adjustments made, essentially just playing with the exposure curves a bit. Directly below is a Monochrom DG subjected to the exact same initial treatment as the M240 file above:

Basic Out-of-Camera Monochrom DNG File

Like most Monochrom DNG files, it’s a bit flat. That’s OK. It’s OK, because Monohrom DNG files, as opposed to in-camera jpgs, are meant to be post-processed. Leica even sent purchasers a copy of Silver Efex along wit the camera. And as a dedicated B&W shooter I always run my files through Silver Efex for a final print or something posted digitally. (I’ve made these files big enough so you can click on them and get somewhat of a larger view). It’s there that I notice the increased flexibility of the Monochrom DNG versus the M240 DNG converted to B&W and then worked up.

Above are the M240 and the MM files respectively, again, this time worked up in Silver Efex to emulate an HP5 negative. The changes made varied between the two files; what I was looking to do was get the best end result I could be each file, and this necessarily required different adjustments.

Nothing wrong with the M240 version – it certainly can stand on its own – but the MM print just has a sharpness and pop that the M240 print doesn’t. Of course, I could have jacked up the contrast and sharpness just a bit more in the M240 print after I’d compared it to the MM print. That’s typically what we’d do in the wet darkroom, right? We’d print it again, knowing we wanted more contrast, this time using a more contrasty grade of paper and, for maximum sharpness, a grain focuser.

So what you see below is the M240 file previously edited in LR, now with some added contrast and sharpness:

Still not up to the MM final print. Arguably not as good as the previous M240 file above. Who knows. All of this is subjective and really is arguing over relatively small differences. Does it make any difference in real life? For most photographers, probably not. For those of us dedicated B&W shooters with an eye cultivated through long experience with both film and digital B&W, yes. It does.

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Modern Advertising for a Modern Camera

Leica IIIf

Leica advertising has always been stylish. Here’s two in particular that I admire. The first, above, is an early ’50s Modernist advert. Angular orientation with embedded triangles, sans serif typefaces coupled with old school italic script typeface…and the Piccadilly Circus Eros Statute. Eros is one of the primordial gods that emerged from Chaos when the world began, and is the driving force behind the unions of the primordial gods that initiated creation. Subtle. Well done. Someone was familiar with classic Greek mythology who expected his target audience to be so as well.

As for the camera, this “automatic focusing” Leica is an IIIa with a 50mm Summar. Beautiful.

Leica Monochrom
Leica Advertisement

Sixty years later and this ad for the M Monochrom. Monochrome (as in black and white) design can easily appear dull. But it’s perfect here (it is a Monochrom camera after all). This one cleverly uses font-weight to bold certain letters and make them stand out against the monochrome design. The bold camera and letters give a point of focus, while the small text does two things: It draws the reader in and helps align the bolded text. It’s “edgy”. It works.

In between these two are any number of inspired advertising designs. Here are a few more I like, all of them graphically simple while drawing your eye to where it needs to go:

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With the exception of the Monochrom ad (a nice throw back to the glory days), the advertising wonks at Leitz who designed these are long gone, replaced by a new, hip generation of 20 something Parsons Design grads who have no conception of the incredibly rich history of Leitz they could draw on. Who’ve been educated, not with the Greek classics, but via Facebook and social media.

So we get the argument from authority sublimated via the cult of personality: famous people achieving their photographic vision with their newest Leica, Lenny Kravitz stalking his prey in the East Village while rocking his rosta hat and a camera designed by Jackson Pollock.

Photo by Lenny Kravitz. Leica gave This Guy a Show at a NYC Gallery. This was the Photo they Used to Advertise It. Seriously.

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Erik van Straten. Exceptional.

Meanwhile, there are more than a few Leica users quietly producing stunning work. Look hard enough on the net and you’ll find them – not, mind you in some curated corner where money is looking to be made, or amongst the beautiful people of NYC or some self-appointed expert shill man looking to make a buck off the low-hanging Leicaphile fruit – but everyday people who’ve been using Leicas forever, producing bodies of work that should humble the “Leica Photographers” producing the banal shit above. Leica needs to start recognizing them, because they’re why Leica is famous. Leica should think about returning the favor.

Dragan Novakovac. Just a Guy With a Leica.

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My Window

Bedroom Window, Wayne, New Jersey, 1975

Windows have a potency we silently acknowledge in their usage. As a child, my parents told me to keep my window open at night. It was good for me to breathe the fresh air. In ancient cultures, a window was opened at the time of death to release the soul to immortality.

The word “window” is derived from the old Icelandic word vindr, “wind” and auga, “eye.” Its literal meaning is a “wind-eye.” As windows have been called the eyes of the house, so the eyes have been called the windows of the soul. The “wind-eye” evokes the spirit of exchange, where inside and outside meet, bringing together elements of both.

Windows frame images of psychic potency. Images themselves act as windows to other realities. Dreams, memories, fantasies are windows on the psyche’s reality and the potentialities of the dreamer.

Amsterdam 2006

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Believing is Seeing

“The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the idea and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful.” – Paul Valery

In the Phaedrus, written by Plato circa 370 BCE, Socrates discusses the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. Socrates thought writing a bad thing because it weakened our powers of memory and thus altered our reality in a profound way, memory being the pre-condition of all culture. This explains why Socrates never wrote anything; his student Plato transcribed his dialogues and thus gave him to history.

For Socrates, writing allowed a pretense of understanding, not true understanding. What we read we really don’t understand in the way we do when we hear and speak: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” What’s interesting for present purposes is not Socrates’ opinion about writing but his recognition that the transition from orality to writing would lead inexorably to new modes of thinking and thus, new realities. This is also the thesis of Cambridge social scientist Jack Goody, who in 1977 wrote The Domestication of the Savage Mind wherein he traces the long-term changes in human cognition and culture brought about by the development of writing. The mode of our communication shapes what we think.

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David Levi Strauss’s recently published Photography and Belief, is about the photographic image and its relationship to what we believe to be true. According to Strauss, with the advent of digitization, we are in the midst of a second radical cultural transformation as profound as the development of writing- the move from a written culture to a culture of images. Strauss examines how digital technologies change how we look and how and what we trust by seeing.

Specifically, Strauss’s interest is the aura of believability that images provide. Photographic images have inordinate power to influence opinion, prompt action, create and direct desire. The question for Strauss is “Why?” Is their power based on an assumption of their truthfulness? If so, why do we assume images are true? As Wittgenstein noted almost a century ago already, such needn’t have been the case: “We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color or even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”

Most would answer Wittgenstein’s question by pointing to the ‘indexical’ nature of photographs i.e. they are stenciled directly off of real things and more or less represent those things as they are. Of course, there are problems with this understanding as well. Behind the curtain of ‘indexicality’, photographs have been subject to various forms of manipulation. Questions about individual photography’s faithfulness to the real have been around since its inception, although digitization has made its manipulative capacity increasingly obvious to the lay public. For Strauss, however, the long-running debate about photography’s verisimilitude misses a bigger, more important point: what is the tsunami of images we’re deluged with doing to our understanding of truth itself?

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Strauss is interested in how our new technologies ultimately undermine the connection between seeing and believing and how a shift in our relationship to images may come to threaten our very purchase of the real. Instead of discussing whether we should believe images, Strauss claims that the surfeit of images we now consume has created a new type of consciousness – a quasi-hallucinogenic “optical consciousness,” borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin – and we aren’t going to return to an earlier mode of thinking. We are, in effect, “all in” in this new world of images, where we encounter so many, so fast, our critical faculties have essentially been disabled.

The day of a single photo hanging on a wall, a subject for critique and evaluation, is gone, replaced by images that appear “in a flow” of digital presentation: “Images that appear on the screens of our devices go by in a streaming flow. Individual images are seldom apprehended separately, as a singular trace. Singular, still images operate very differently on the mind. The images in a flow are seldom dwelled on, so their individual effect is limited, creating instead a disproportionately generalized effect.” This new consciousness isn’t predicated on a choice we make about believing, or not believing, particular images; it’s, in effect, forced upon us by the volume and rapidity of the images that deluge us. We are losing the ability to ‘see’ particular images, and with that are losing a means of believing in the real. As Strauss notes, “we no longer believe in reality, but we believe in images.”

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Freud Says You’re Unhappy, and That’s Why You’re a Photographer

Leicaphilia

I’ve just got done with a marathon reading of Sigmund Freud. Well, maybe not “marathon” but an extended reading including The Future of an Illusion back to back with Civilization and its Discontents, two of his sociological works published in the late ’20s. Freud is a remarkable intellectual figure, so clearly full-of-shit about historical specifics yet endlessly thought-provoking in his larger worldview. As W.H. Auden wrote at Freud’s death, “if he often was wrong and, at times absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.”

Freud says that we differ from other animals in that we consider ourselves to have a purpose ( you won’t find your dog wondering what his purpose in life is). The purpose and intention of human life is pretty simple: we strive to be happy. This endeavor has both a positive and a negative aim. On the one hand, it aims at an absence of pain, on the other the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’ relates more to the second aim. Unfortunately, the intention that we should be happy isn’t shared by the world we find ourselves in. We are threatened with unhappiness from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to inevitable decay and dissolution; from external forces of destruction over which we have no control; and finally, from our relationships with other people, all of them pursuing what they think will bring them their own happiness and often getting in the way of ours.

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Leicaphilia

Clever animals we are, Freud says we’ve developed a number of ways of trying to be happy, or at least, fending off the inevitable unhappiness reality forces upon us. The first, and most obvious, is the unrestricted satisfaction of every need (e.g. you buy yourself a Lenny Kravitz Leica and enroll in a Thorsten von Overgaard seminar, thinking somehow that’s going to make you happy, because Leica and Mr. von Overgaard tell you it will. It doesn’t work, obviously, after you soon realize you’ve been conned into spending 40 large for an M240 with fake lizard skin covering and are spending an extra 3 grand to learn about ‘bokeh’ from a carnival barker who thinks he’s royalty).

Second, there is the happiness of quietude, i.e. voluntary isolation against the dreaded external world. You withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to seek a quiet space within ( e.g. you get yourself banned from the the photo forum you’ve compulsively visited because it’s nothing but a bunch of assholes all chasing their own ego-centric happiness, all talking past each other, and you’re better off not indulging such nonsense). Included in the pursuit of quietude is intoxication, introducing chemical substances into your system that alter the conditions of your sensibility (e.g. developing a fondness for bourbon neat.) Third, there is the attack against nature, attempting to subject her to the human will via science. We send people to outer space to learn its secrets or we embark on medical attempts to control and eradicate disease, all in the name of seeking our immortality as a means of continuing to pursue pleasure (e.g. I subject myself to the ravages of chemo because I’m being told that it’ll “cure” me in the end, irrespective of the fact that if cancer doesn’t get me soon, something surely will).

Finally, Freud sees our striving for beauty – our inborn aesthetic sense – as a defense against suffering in that, like quietude or intoxication, it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs by re-creating the world we perceive, building up in its stead another world in which the unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by a view that corresponds to one’s wishes. This is ultimately what our quest for happiness via an aesthetic outlook entails for Freud. Your attempts at developing a unique photographic vision are, for Freud, a result of attempting to remold reality in a more pleasing image. I do it by shooting stuff out of car windows. Thorsten von Overgaard seeks his bliss in bokeh. For Freud, your aesthetic strivings derive from the same cause as do your religious beliefs; they are both attempts to correct parts of reality unbearable to you by construction of a wish.

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Leicaphilia

Unfortunately, for Freud, the program of becoming happy via seeking pleasure, whether via sex, or intoxication or knowledge is bound to failure. We will always find our efforts at happiness to be fleeting at best. This is because the satiation of our desires only makes us happy when it’s intermittent and experienced against a larger backdrop of deprivation. Unrelenting pleasure soon loses its appeal, as anyone who spent too long in bed with an overly available partner can attest. As for the means by which we seek our happiness, “there is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”

And yet, there is in Freud a certain admiration of, and humbleness, before man’s quest for happiness via the enjoyment of beauty that you don’t see in his analysis of other forms of human pleasure-seeking. The beautiful temporarily takes us outside ourselves, having no obvious use except as a tonic for what would otherwise be a life of chronic discontent. This, actually is much the same argument for aesthetics that Schopenhauer makes. And, unlike finding solace in religion, Freud doesn’t see the joy of the beautiful to be a delusion; beauty does exist, and we can access it to satiate our desire for pleasure. Beauty’s efficacy as a means of happiness is something, Freud admits, that ultimately isn’t explainable by psychoanalysis. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization cannot live without it.” This is because, unlike other forms of pleasure, there is no satiation in our perceptions of beauty. Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.

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Wittgenstein on Photography

“We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, the landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relationship to pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Silver Efex’s Kodak Film Simulations

Leica M240, 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Nik’s Silver Efex software. While Nik is long gone, having apparently been bought out by Google, their Silver Efex software lives on. It’s my go-to choice for converting digital DNG files to B&W ‘film’ capture; in addition to adding characteristic grain of a specific B&W emulsion, it overlays the film’s exposure curve to re-create the tonalities of the film capture. Is it perfect? No. As I’ve attempted to explain elsewhere, the fact that you’re starting with the linear exposure curve of a DNG file as opposed to a native film file with the exposure curve ‘baked in’ makes perfect emulation impossible. But it’s close, and most folks are easily fooled.

Below are the various emulations of the digital file above. There’s been no tweaking the files at all except to load them into Silver Efex and choose the film emulation. You can click on them and open them in a new window for larger jpegs. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the various looks of the different Kodak film stocks, which I think Nik did a great job of simulating. My preferences: Plus-X for a clean tonality, TMAX 3200 for a grittier look. As for Tri-X, I never much liked it, preferring instead the better tonality and decreased contrast of Ilford HP5. Of course, Silver Efex gives you the option of tweaking grain and tonality after you’ve loaded the film emulation preset, but then you’re not emulating a given film but modifying it as you might do with various developing choices, and that’s a rabbit hole I’m incapable of going down.

Panatomic – X, ISO 32

TMAX 100, ISO 100

Plus-X, ISO 125

TMAX 400, ISO 400

Tri-X, ISO 400

TMAX 3200, ISO 3200

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