Category Archives: Film photography

Perfection and Its Discontents

Every Leicaphile Loves a Good Cat Picture. This was Shot Digitally, But Looks to Me A Lot Like a Well-Printed Film Negative, Plus-X Maybe?

I make no secret of the fact that I love the look of 35mm B&W film. A properly exposed, competently printed 35mm Plus-X, Tri-X or HP5 negative has a beauty that simply cannot be matched by a digital file of whatever native quality. In comparison to the film print, the digital print will always have a certain thinness, a lack of heft, a “plastic” look. While it’s hard to put into words – given we’re talking of visual matters – it’s there, I can see it, it’s real (I think).

There’s an organic quality to a film print, as best I can tell the product of four inherent characteristics of shooting film: 1) silver grain as the light-transforming medium; 2) better highlight rendering, the result of the fact that film, unlike digital capture, does not record exposure values linearly, as does digital capture, but compresses those values at both ends of the exposure curve, giving better highlight definition (e.g. it is less prone to “clipping” highlights) and deeper, “richer” shadows (old-school film photographers know exactly what I’m saying here, digital era photographers will mostly be clueless – for further discussion, see this); 3) the inherent resolution limitations of general purpose b&w films like HP5 or Tri-X, which, to my eye, equal in look somewhere between 6 and 8 mpx of digital resolution, in combination with the less resolute optical characteristics of film era lenses, which were developed to give an appealing look within the confines of limited film resolution; and 4) the necessity of shooting at the low ISO’s required by film. Put all of four of these characteristics together holistically, and you have the “film look,” a result of both the native strengths, and inherent limitations, of silver halide as a medium.

Unfortunately, that “film look” is difficult to present online in the sense that a scanned film negative – a requirement to presenting it for web viewing – looks different from a wet printed film negative, the difference created by the digitization itself. Scanned film negatives usually have more pronounced, harsher grain that is not present in a wet printed version of the same negative, the result of the relative harshness of the scanner’s light source, which artificially accentuates grain when compared to the same sized wet print, where the enlarger’s light source is more diffuse and produces smoother grain texture. Anyone whose both wet printed and scanned and then inkjet printed the same negative knows precisely what I’m talking about, but it can’t be represented digitally because scanning is a necessary prerequisite to do so.

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The CMOS Version Leica MM

Given my preference for B&W, which to me is “real” photography, I admire the Leica Monochrom cameras, and I admire Leica sticking their necks out to produce them, an example of Leica at its best, attempting to carry on their patrimony into the digital age. However, unlike how they marketed the MM – bundled with Silver Efex and referring back to 50-60’s era B&W photography – the MM isn’t going to digitally replicate B&W film; at best, it’s going to create a new look – “digital B&W”. [ Ralph Gibson seems to understand this]. Given what was said above, it becomes obvious why a dedicated B&W digital camera can’t digitally duplicate traditional B&W photography. Stripping the color out of the capture won’t address the inherent exposure curve differences between analogue and digital capture, and the increased resolution of the Monchrom vis a vis standard 35mm B&W film compromises the look as well. Given the native differences in capture, no amount of running the Monochrom digital file through film emulation software will accurately mimic real B&W film.

Where the MM might have an advantage in replicating the film look might be to the extent it allows use of older film era rangefinder lenses. Mandler era Leitz optics give a certain signature we equate with film capture, both in the look of how they resolve details and also in the look given by lenses with the small film to flange distances typical of rangefinder as opposed to Reflex systems. Of course, this would only be true to the extent when we’re speaking of a traditional “film look” what we really mean is the look give by 35mm film rangefinder photography. If so, then the MM can’t in any way be inherently better than any other full color capture digital Leica rangefinder (e.g. M8,M9,M10) given the defining shared characteristic is a function of film to flange distance unique to any digital rangefinder or, for that matter a mirrorless design, that allows the use of traditional rangefinder optics created to take advantage of small film to flange distances. My experience with the lower resolution M8 confirms this: I’ve always thought a greyscaled M8 file with some grain added looked more like native B&W film than did the files from the MM, probably a result of the M8’s decreased resolution coupled with its ability to use film era Leitz lenses.

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The Fuji S5 Pro. Its Files Look A Lot Like Film. There’s a Reason…

Which gets me to the premise of the title of the post:  much of what we identify as the strength of film – the film look – is a consequence of its limitations, its imperfections, imperfections that are a part of its character. As digital technologies have advanced and matured, the photos they produce, while closer approaching a technical “perfection,” have lost character. As a consequence, those of us educated by experience to notice it often end up dumbing digital RAW files down to mimic the imperfect look of film.

For my money, the Fuji S5 Pro digital camera, produced by Fuji in 2007 using the Nikon D200 chassis and Fuji produced Super CCD SR (Super Dynamic Range) sensor, comes as close to replicating the traditional B&W film look as any digital camera I’ve used. It may be just me, I don’t know, but the S5 files, run thru Silver Efex, even without using any specific film emulation (e.g. no specific film exposure curve applied, just grain added), have a certain solidity to them, a lack of that “plastic” brittleness often characteristic of digital black and white. After thinking about it, I’ve concluded that the S5 mimics the traditional B&W film look because of both its unique extended latitude sensor but also because of its inherent technical limitations.

The SR Sensor found in the Fuji S5 Pro – either 6 or 12 mpix depending on how you define it –  offered almost two stops more dynamic range than conventional CCDs of the same era (2007, roughly the M8 or D200 era). Beneath each micro-lens on the sensor surface are two photo-diodes, the primary capturing a dark and normal light levels (more sensitive), the secondary capturing brighter details (less sensitive). The signals from the two photo-diodes are then combined by Fuji’s in-camera software to deliver an image with extended dynamic range. What’s of interest for film users is the way the extended dynamic range is achieved. Unlike normal cutting edge CMOS sensors that give excellent dynamic range, the Fuji gives a certain type of dynamic range, a type that more closely mimics the type of dynamic range given by film, the added latitude at the highlights. Like film, you’ve really got to work to clip the highlights on an S5 DNG file.

Fuji S5 RAW Run Through Silver Efex to add Grain. No Specific “Emulation” used i.e. Tonal Range is as S5 Sensor Captured It

A lot of this is subjective, no doubt. There may be something similar to a “placebo” effect, where believing is seeing. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m as clueless as this guy when discussing my preference for the Fuji S5.*** What I do know is this: I really like my S5 for B&W capture, especially when I print as the end product. It checks many of the film experience boxes – low ISO capability (500 ISO is about as high as you want to go), having to work within the constraints of limited resolution, ability to use film era lenses (in this case, old MF Nikkors for the 50’s-70’s), excellent highlight rendering. Much like a 35mm film camera, the S5 is a camera that’s as much about its limitations as its strengths, limitations the photographer must work around, or within, the resulting images in part a consequence of those limitations.

The irony is that most people chase the film look by looking to digital cameras with ever increasing resolution, dynamic range, ISO capabilities etc, when a more thoughtful, and effective approach, might be to embrace technically less capable digital tech like the Fuji S5.


[*** “Comparisons” like this guy’s tell you nothing, typically accompanied as they are by statements like “However, there is an impression of clear intent demonstrated by that lens” (huh?) . This is the sort of fuzzy thinking cloaked as rational analysis that drives me nuts. Which begs the question: Am I doing the same thing? I suspect that some folks will see this essay as basically the same thing – a word salad dressed up objective analysis. And then there’s the cat pictures….]

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Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.

Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search –  whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.

I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.

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Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town

Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.

I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.

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The Bois, back in the day

If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen.  An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.

Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails.  Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be? 

I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.

 

 

 

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The Leica KE-7A

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

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

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

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Time, Memory and Photography

“Where is my home? It is indistinct as an old cellar hole, now a faint indentation, merely, in a farmer’s field. And I sit by the old site by the stump of an old oak that once grew there. Such is the nature of where we have lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Above is a picture of what remains of 9 Grand St, Wayne, New Jersey. It’s now just a muddy patch of bog in a run-down working class neighborhood, mostly abandoned, prone to flooding by the Passaic River, which it backs up against.  Back in the 70’s, when I lived there, it used to flood occasionally, but nothing like it does now, and most of the houses on the street, where people I knew lived, have either been torn down or are unoccupied,  surrendered by owners who cashed out insurance claims, gave up and moved elsewhere.

I’d been in the area visiting my mother, age 80, who lives nearby, and decided to ride by and see the old neighborhood. The house is gone, though I recognize a few trees in the yard and can, with a bit of imagination, remember how it sat on the land. What’s interesting to me is how vivid my memories are of this place, in part because I lived here during a time in my life when I was young and healthy and had my whole adult life ahead of me. Having a number of amorous young women living within a stone’s throw of my bedroom window didn’t hurt either. I also had a camera, something I carried everywhere with me, so I documented much of the life I then lived.

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Fun Times at 9 Grand St circa 1977

I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and memory since I read Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Sally Mann is a favorite of mine. She’s made her name documenting life and family growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. Her photography is beautiful and moving and anyone with an interest in documentary or fine art photography should be familiar with it. She’s also a brilliant writer and a strikingly beautiful woman even now. I won’t lie – I’ve got a serious crush on her.  Unlike most books written by photographers or about photography, Hold Still is a great read, both as an auto-biographical narrative and as a means to understand Ms. Mann’s photography. It’s the product of a lifetime spent documenting her life in an intentional way, a lesson of the payoff for photographers with the foresight to habitually record the quotidian details of everyday life.

Hold Still got me thinking about the emotional aspect of memory, how memories change over the years, some taking on broader emotional meaning and some fading to irrelevancy. It’s inevitable to an extent, new experiences encoding over old memories and changing those older memory’s salience, this being the normal process of how humans form a narrative of their lives. In particular, what I’ve been thinking about is how my interest in photography affected that process, warping it in a way that tracks the intensity of my photographic interest over the years.

In 1977 I was 18, a complete and total fuck-up, having had decided a year before to boycott my senior year of high school at an evangelical church school to set out on my own, which brought me to 9 Grand St, where I – typical dropout – did drugs, drank beer, chased women ( girls actually),  avoided work, and documented much of it with my beat up Nikon F and later my new Leica M5.  Nobody I knew had a Leica or even knew what they were. Leica’s were those odd cameras you saw in the back of Modern Photography, completely unlike the SLR’s everyone was buying, rare and expensive and mysterious. I remember being fascinated that, unlike other rangefinder cameras, whose market by the 70’s had been reduced to inexpensive fixed-lens consumer grade snapshot shooters, you could change lenses on a Leica. Wow. For some reason, a rangefinder with a 21mm wide angle or 90mm tele with auxiliary finder intrigued me, being the sort of thing that would signal to happy-snappers that what I was doing photographically was serious. I eventually bought one, a story I won’t bore you with as I’ve mentioned it often elsewhere.

Above are two sequential frames taken in that house, as best I can tell from the first roll of film I ran through my new Leica, a 20 exposure roll of Ilford FP4. That’s me to the left, and on the right, my girlfriend at the time. I have a clear recollection of it: the shiny new M5 passed between us while I shot a test roll and tried to figure out my new camera. If I look smug and self-satisfied, it’s because I was. Young and handsome, a new Leica, attractive and willing girlfriend – perfect. Or, at least, that’s what I think when I look at those pictures. The reality at the time, meanwhile, less idyllic, just another confused kid trying to figure out where his life might take him.

That I even have these memories is because I memorialized them with a camera. Had I not, the specifics would be long forgotten, the young woman a blurred memory. She was a summer fling, nothing special, but it’s amazing to me the clarity of my memory of her, all of which comes back when I see the photograph – the way she talked, the way she moved, the small particulars that made her her. A few years later I got serious about my life – college, then graduate school, then law school, in the process developing my first real adult relationships with women – but those subsequent memories, the one’s I should remember with particularity, are often less precise, blurry to the point of irretrievability, because I had put my camera away to get on with life and hadn’t documented any of it.

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I recently read a study that claims photographing our experiences impairs our ability to remember them. That isn’t the case for me. What I’ve photographed over the years comes back viscerally to me when I review old negatives in a way those not photographed can’t. Looking through contact sheets from my Grand St years, I’d spy a person I hadn’t thought of in 40 years, and instantly their name and some buried memory involving them would come back to me.

The difference may be this: today, iPhone photography is so quick and easy, so constantly available, that it’s become a rote, unthinking activity. I watched 17 y/o’s at a birthday party last night, hundreds of photos snapped with iPhones – along with the required gathering around the screen to look at the results, most destined for the digital trash can. Watching these kids – the same age as I was when I took those Grand St photos, I couldn’t help think that they were missing much of the experience itself, staring at their screens, texting instead of chatting, obsessively photographing the particulars – the food, the drink, the conviviality forced for the camera – instead of experiencing it.

Either that, or it’s become a means of distancing oneself from an activity, a way of keeping reality at arm’s length. You see this in art museums or tourist destinations, people with phone out, staring at screens, not experiencing what’s around them.

Film photography has, for me, always been about being in the experience, both the experience of the photographic act and the experience of what’s in front of me. It brings with it a level of mindfulness, an intentionality that comes from a certain focus required of a manual camera and film. It’s the sort of mindfulness that creates enduring memories – and tangible negatives to refer to years later. I can still remember passing that Leica between us, 40 years ago, sitting in my living room on 9 Grand Street with that girl. I remember her name, the contours of her body, the things we did. Had I grown up in the digital age, I’m not sure I’d have either those photos or those memories. Something to think about.

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A Modest Proposal Going Forward

Selfie, Havana 1998: That was me, I was there, that’s what I remember. Let me show you.

I rarely receive critical or hostile comments about my posts, which is surprising, as I’m excessively, sometimes rudely, opinionated about certain photographic issues. Given past experience trying to debate meaningful topics on internet forums – typically I was thrown off any given forum within a week or two, usually the personal target of a moderator who thought proper forum etiquette required unquestioning allegiance to whatever accepted opinion currently ruled – that opinion usually the desired result of crafty advertising by camera companies constantly pushing the “new and improved” as a means of insuring financial viability – I assumed these same types with the same blinkered views would find their way over here, certainly given the Leica name associated with the blog. It’s why I went the first few years without a comments feature because, frankly, I wasn’t interested in what other people had to say. The whole purpose of the blog was to free myself from the constrictions imposed on a critically thinking person elsewhere. Hence Leicaphilia. It was my extended love letter to the wayward lover that is Leica and a middle finger to those who claimed the right to “mentor” me with facile answers to serious questions, questions they seemed unwilling or incapable of understanding let alone answering.

God knows bourgeois opinion is alive and well in Leica land. It’s inevitable that people who currently find Leica interesting would be bourgeois. It takes money to buy a Leica, and usually a certain mindset to put large amounts of money toward a photographic trinket so as to partake of a certain status. If it were simply a matter of using a camera that fulfilled basic photographic requirements with a minimum of fuss – which is what a lot of us who use Leicas claim to be the draw – then most Leica shooters should be running around with an old manual Pentax and a few lenses, given they remain wonderful cameras that you can buy cheap as dirt, or digital partisans would be content with their well-used Nikon D200, cameras whose evidence of use was legitimately earned and not baked in from the factory.

But, of course, we’re not. We’re standing in line to buy the newest Leica M or Q or T or whatever it is at that moment that Leica and their enablers tell us we must have, the latest and most up to date, because only then, we are told, will we finally possess a photographic instrument sufficient for our Promethean creativity. Of course, the logic of consumerism requires the process of technological “progress” never end. The very nature of capitalism admits of no endpoint, no time when we should be able to say “enough, I’ve got enough to do what I need to do. Everything from here on out is superfluous to requirements.” Were we to get to that point, Nikon, Canon and Leica would all go out of business.

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 This reminds me of so many things

Surprisingly, what I’ve found is that there are a lot of really thoughtful, intelligent, experienced people who read the blog and agree with me about most things. I assume it’s because it’s not the same old thing that one finds in most camera/photography blogs, where the emphasis is usually all about gear and the gear discussion is typically weighted towards the next new thing without anyone stopping to think about where the whole thing is heading and why we need it to head that way. It does make sense: internet forums tend to attract the most neurotic and rabid partisans of any given subject; normal people, enthusiasts with a sense of perspective, typically aren’t found on internet forums debating the bokeh of the Aspherical Summicron. They’re more interested in meaningful photographs and the means to create them, which involves discussion and understanding of photographic history and various aesthetic choices. This isn’t to say that a certain level of gear talk isn’t interesting or normal. It is. Appreciation and discussion of the tools we use should be part of that discussion, but it needs to be seen in context.

It seems to me that modern photographers too often confuse means with ends. By this I mean that we’ve become fixated on the tools we use and not on the purposes we’re using the tools for. Of course, this neurotic focus on photographic tools didn’t start with the digital age; film users were, and are, just as fixated on the technical aspects of the craft as today’s digiphiles. What’s changed is the pace of technological change, now so fast it’s almost impossible to keep apace. No sooner has some technological advance been introduced then it’s been made obsolete by the next advance. This hyper-accelerated pace of technological advance, unique to the digital age, seems great in theory, but in practice its only benefit is that camera makers can continue to claim a reason to sell us a new camera every 18 months. Baked into this process is a cynical duplicity on the part of camera manufacturers and their Madison Avenue agents- claim your latest offering to be a necessary advance, something that makes the previous iteration -the one you told us 18 months ago to be the greatest thing ever- obsolete, worthless, of no value. Rinse and repeat every 18 months or so, ad infinitum, then let the dupes and fellow travelers, the “reviewers”, drive the process forward. No one seems to ask “to what end?” As such, there’s no equilibrium to be reached, no point at which we’re allowed to say yes, that’s it, this is all good enough, I don’t need anything else to effectuate my photographic intent, thank you.

*************A couple of years ago I bought a box of glass negatives in an antique store in Orleans. This is one of them, scanned. Tell me that’s not cool.

At least there’s no equilibrium reached without a conscious decision to get off the ever revolving hamster wheel of “technological improvement.” It’s my opinion that you need to get off the technological hamster wheel if you are to develop creatively. Fixation at this superficial level of your photography is a dead end, deflecting you from real creative issues. This is where Leica and Canon and Nikon want you – perpetually dissatisfied, yet holding out hope that the next incremental technological “advance” will finally get you there. At base, if I look back on all I’ve written the last few years, the one consistent theme of the blog is that it’s possible to be happy and creatively fulfilled working within the parameters of basic photographic needs – aperture, shutter and film or equivalent spec-ed sensor. The rest is all optional. It may be fun to collect cameras or own the latest technology or simply find a pleasant diversion in identifying with a particular brand or type of camera, but those things aren’t necessary to be a serious photographer. What’s necessary is a mindfulness of the craft and its history, an understanding of your agency within the process and a consideration of the means by which you can realize your intent.

If I look back on almost a half century of dedicated photography, I’m struck by the obviousness of the fact that the meaningful photos I’ve made during that time have nothing to do with types of cameras or with technological prowess. Relying on technical virtues for visual interest is a cheap parlour trick. One of my favorite photos ever, a print of which hangs in a good friend’s house – which I admire every time I’m there – was taken with a wooden pinhole camera, handheld for a few seconds. Just a wooden box and some light sensitive film – and a user with an aesthetic sense built up over years by reading and looking and studying and thinking. Or they’re products of an individual sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of time and the miraculous nature of photography. You don’t get there by obsessing about cameras; you get there with a broad, liberal understanding of the world and your temporary and precarious place in it.

The most interesting posts I’ve published – interesting for me, at least – are those that involve specific photographs and the photographer’s understanding of the photograph. The history of the photograph. The reason that photograph means something to someone, the role that photograph plays in that person’s consciousness, its emotional and psychological payoff.  I’d like to do more of that going forward, in addition to the usual silliness that helps me keep the gearhead impulses in perspective. I’d like to hear more from others, see the things that a love of photography has helped them articulate and how they’ve thought about it and done it. That, for me, get’s to the heart of the miracle of photography and why its remained a central interest in my life and why I keep at this modest attempt to articulate it.

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Gift Cam

A Gift From a Friend: a Leica IIIf

By Ron Himebaugh

It’s unusual to use film nowadays. With the advantages of digital technology using film can seem pointless. That is unless process is the point. And if that is so, then why not go all in, with a rangefinder, even a bottom loading “Barnack” camera? Compared to contemporary digicam-o-matics there are a few hurdles, but once you are used to viewing through a peephole finder, focusing through another, trimming the leader, setting the film counter, mastering a cumbersome loading procedure and keeping your finger off a spinning shutter dial, it all falls into place.

These nuisance factors aside, film not only has its own image characteristics but the process itself of using film holds its own reward. That process requires an investment of attention and respect for the medium that seems missing in the iPhone age. Not that something has to be difficult to be worthwhile, but can some things be just too easy? (for a great argument for the iPhone, see this). It is hard to escape the feeling, which has been noted since photography was invented, that the easier it is to take pictures the easier it is to make them bad. Of course the idea is to take more good pictures, and in this regard the older technology can encourage thoughtful engagement. I think.

Old cameras are cool, with the look of precision, the heft of substance. They feel good to use because they respond in a satisfying tactile and audible way. Does anyone fondle a Canon SureShot? I think that if you like the way something feels when you use it, then you will use it and get better at using it, and the better you get, the more you will use it, etc.

Remember the Kodak Instamatic? It was designed for folks who couldn’t be bothered going through this sort of trial just to get a film loaded. In the thirties the Barnack loading scheme must have looked pretty good to the plate camera crowd. Even the M3 was a bottom loader albeit with a hinged back for easier access to the film. Not until the Leicaflex did Leitz think a conventional side hinge provided enough rigidity for the necessary film flatness.

I am thinking these things because someone gave me a camera.

My friend Chris, visiting from out of town and, knowing my interest in film photography, asked if I had a Leica and would I like one? He had meant to bring it and would send it when he returned home. A week later it came: a lllf, and– bonus! – it was the self timer model. It is the kind of camera I like to get, showing some dirt, a little history, accumulated effects of time passed, needing love, warmth, and a rubdown.

Ta da!

How nice this, my favorite screw mount camera, the penultimate Leitz bottom loader. It is to my mind the most attractive of all Leicas and surpassed in sheer industrial beauty only by the Zeiss Contax lla, of the same time period. The Contax was more advanced, with a combined view- and rangefinder, removable back, and spectacular, as opposed to merely excellent lenses.

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My own experience with Leica could be said to have started with my first good camera, a Made-in-Occupied Japan Canon, with a very Elmar-like Serenar lens. It was 4 weeks of paper route earnings, $20 in 1961. I was 13 and my next big buy was a 13th edition Leica Manual, filled with sophisticated photo topics: document copy work, forensic and lab microscopy, sports photography, photo-journalism, medical and scientific documentation, lens formulations, and terms like Newton’s rings and circles of confusion. The manual was intimidating but churned a need for a lllf and a Summitar lens—the M3 was impossibly out of reach. Wanting to know what was inside the camera I took the Canon apart—regrettably easy to do—and had a paper bag of parts and no idea how to put them back together. Some time later the hard sought lllf and Summitar landed.

Stack o’manuals, gift -cam and Nikon F. The F came along 3 years after the 3f in this picture was built. It represented a quantum leap in capability over the Leica.

I have digressed.

The camera Chris sent to me had belonged to his Dad, who, as I understand it, used it in his work, principally to take pictures for instruction guides that he wrote. It had been long in disuse, which is death to a Leica. Chris has no real interest in photography, and—thank you, Chris–generously gave it to someone who would use and value it. I am grateful.

A beautiful 3f in need of a little make-over

Q-tips, mineral spirit, toothpicks, an hour or so and the job is done. The chrome was pitting in a few areas. It had, I believe, interacted with moisture and leather over time to build a residue of vertigris, but it came off more easily than I thought it would.

A new skin from Cameraleathers.com replaced the failing vulcanite, and while a traditionalist (or would not be using Leica in the first place), I have a fondness for gray leather covering. Or, in this case, faux leather.

Here is what it looks like:

The winding has a slight hitch, not bad but it isn’t quite right. The one second works well when limbered up, but characteristic of old timers, is stiff after sitting awhile. It will go to Youxin Ye for a tune-up. He is a short drive away and I like watching him work and he seems to enjoy the company.

One useful item for these peephole rangefinders is a bright line finder and of course Leitz makes a nice one, the SBOOI.

My Gift Leica with the Leitz  SBOOI viewfinder

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The 1/15th shutter speed works great.

The photo above was taken with my new IIIf, the one below taken with a different lllf that I  happened to have in my pocket. It was some affair where I would not ordinarily take a camera. It shows the usefulness of a small and handy camera that was the impetus for Max Barnack’s invention in the first place.

I suppose we all have a small handy camera nearby, but this one uses film. I don’t say it’s better.

Yes I do.

Better and more fun.


Ron Himebaugh is a fellow bourbon drinker who has followed photography since he was twelve – “followed” meaning an equal interest in cameras, images, and the act of taking pictures. He has a “disturbingly large collection” of photo books  rivaled by an even less healthy impulse to accumulate classic film cameras. You can find some of his work on Flickr, at Hank Carter,  an ironic reference to Elliott Erwitt’s nickname for Cartier Bresson.

 

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Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.

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Is CCD the New Film?

Are these about to become “hip?”

“A lot of interviews I read on photography sites end with a sort of adage about the best camera being the one you have with you or how film inspires you to just think and shoot rather than pixel peep. I think photography is more than just capturing an image though; it’s also about imposing your vision on it. The best camera is the one that’s right for the vision, with the right noise profile, lens distortions, etc. “


DPReview has a very interesting article about Sofi Lee, a Seattle photographer who shoots with “vintage” (read 8 years or older) CCD lower resolution digital cameras, essentially her reaction against the clinical excellence of modern digital photography:

At the time, I observed to myself that the re-emergent fascination with film was probably ephemeral, specific to the current zeitgeist and highly rooted in nostalgia. So I asked myself, ‘What will be the thing people look back to next, after film?’ I started digging through Flickr archives of photos taken on older point and shoot digital cameras, or ‘digicams’ as some people called them, and felt there was something different about them.

They stood out in a way apart from modern digital files: The dynamic range is narrower and the shadows have a character that looks different from those of modern CMOS cameras [due to the lower pixel count and simplistic noise reduction.

Apparently Ms. Lee studied at a “commercial photography trade school” in 2014 and watched many of her peers either shooting film or trying to recreate the aesthetics of film in editing. “There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking ‘too digital’ as well as instructions on how to add more of an ‘organic, analog’ feel to your images.” Her response was to embrace the technical imperfections of older CDD digital tech.

Ms. Lee is obviously of the digital generation i.e. her interest in photography dates to the digital age, which might explain her reflexive (and wrong) dismissal of film photography as “ephemeral” and rooted in “nostalgia.” She might want to read a book or two about the history of photography before she makes facile statements about the “ephemeral” nature of current film use. I suspect she’s never run a roll of film through a camera in her life and wouldn’t know what to do if she tried, which would explain her ignorance of, and antipathy to, film. One could obviously make the same criticisms about her fixation with dated CCD technology, the impulse being the same, the means simply being different. What’s interesting to me about the piece is that she articulates the same criticisms of digital capture as film partisans and does so in an articulate way.  I suspect as well that at some point in the near future someone will lend her a film camera and she’ll have her own Eric Kim moment. 

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Forget the M10: The iPhone is the New Digital Leica – Part 3

What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach. – John B. Crane, Nikon F6 Project

I did some travelling this last summer, and, while doing so, wrote a number of posts about using my iPhone 6 as my camera for the trip. The gist of those posts was that I’d discovered the benefits, photographically, of travelling light. I’d been away for almost a month, a couple of weeks travelling through Italy by train and bus from friends’ residence in Mantua and then to Paris for a further week with friends there. I’d packed the usual gear – a couple of camera bodies, both film and digital, a bag of film, the usual compliment of lenses, intending as I usually do when travelling to document the experience. Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively.

I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the photos I’d taken while away, not without first having to surmount a number of problems created by a combination of my ignorance and the potential pitfalls that always lurk on the margins of digital capture. After getting home, I tried to download the photos from my phone to my computer for permanent storage and further editing, only to discover that the photos weren’t on my phone but in the Cloud, which is fine, except I have no idea how to access said cloud, which necessitated a trip to my local Apple Store where some pleasant young woman, speaking to me deliberately as if I were some addled senior with incipient dementia, helped me jailbreak my Cloud account. Having done so, secure in the knowledge that my photos existed somewhere, I then proceeded to erase them from my iPhone, whereupon I learned that I’d also just deleted them from my Cloud. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

A push of the button and a majority of what I had shot on my trip vanished without recovery. Luckily, at some point, while the photos still resided “on my phone” I had somehow managed to save a number of them to Lightroom, how I’m not sure. There seems no explanation as to why I was able to save some and not others. Suffice it to say my photos of Italian manhole covers survived intact, which is some consolation for the deletion of the majority of others.

I’ll always be able to relive memories of the Italian sewer system.

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Which leads to the larger question: So what? So, I’ve lost a bunch of tourist snaps. I’ve still got the experience, and the memories; having lost the photos doesn’t erase that. But it’s incredibly frustrating none the less, even though I’ve no one but myself to blame. Had I been more sophisticated about how this all works, I’d have taken the appropriate steps to secure my digital files before deleting them. But I didn’t, and most of them are now gone. Forever.

I still do have about 500 of what had been over 3000 photos I’d taken. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I travelled with a film camera I could be gone for 6 weeks and come home with 20 rolls (700 negatives) and feel as if I’d sufficiently photographed what I’d wanted to, so the idea that I’d returned home from Italy and France with 500 photos shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, its different. When film was the norm, I gave thought to what I’d photograph, knowing my means to do so were limited by how much film I had. As a film photographer, I was discerning in what photographed. I gave thought to each shot I took. Ostansibly, there was a reason for any given exposure on a roll of film.

Thousands of pictures like this – gone

The ease of digital capture has changed that. We’re now able, without increased cost and with minimal added work, to photograph everything. And we do, as the files that I serendipitously salvaged from from my trip evidence – manhole covers and Pizza School handbills.Powerful, arresting, non-cliched photography seems rarer than ever, as if the ease and ubiquity of digital capture has overrun our critical faculties. The iPhone seems to have turned the craft of photography for an entire generation into something radically banal, a means to document make-up strategies and dinner choices.  We’re drowning in “meaningless, throwaway imagery shot millions of times a day,” having lost any critical discernment about the miracle of photography and its awesome power to arrest and transform discrete moments of life.

Throw into this the sad fact that digitization is compromising photography as a means of historical documentation, something I’ve written about at length, most recently here. Just this morning, a reader left a comment to that piece that speaks eloquently to the issue:

When my grandmother passed away recently, we found boxes and boxes of her old handwritten letters to/from her sister who was living overseas. But years from now, there will be no shoebox of love letters from todays’ grandma or grandpa. There will only be the cloud, made impenetrable by a lack of password. Long forgotten Facebook accounts will stand like a vast field of tombstones, many hidden from view or minimized in presence. The millions of photos taken by the average person will disappear with the loss of phones, the demise of harddrives, the replacement of computers.

I have much of my old schoolwork from decades ago, as well as school notices about upcoming excursions and music recitals. Today’s students now receive emails and automated attendance forms via the school system, which will disappear with the years, too.

Like the proverbial cockroach, good paper and negatives will survive. I’ve re-begun the practice of shooting a few well chosen film images each time I go out somewhere interesting. This gives me a permanent record of the highlights of my life, which is really how it was done in the old days. Negs are saved and scans and prints are made, and my photo albums grow one roll at a time. [Emphasis added]

1976. Someone important to me, now lost to time. The negative tucked away in a binder. Photos like this have enriched my life. I’m lucky to have them

His solution has become mine as well. I’ve spent 15 years now dabbling in digital photography, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s a Faustian Bargain. What it gives in ease of use and technical perfection it takes away in its lack of moderation, which, as the Ancients knew already, is the key to all things. So, I’m now recommitted to film photography, to the ideal of a few well chosen images that will construct a permanent record of the highlights of my life. A modest project, no doubt, in an era, in theory, of almost unlimited photographic possibilities, but good enough for me as it reminds of the simple yet profound miracle of photography.

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Makes Really Deep Gudeshon. Comes With Free Shipping.

Above, a nice looking early production IIIa, model G -(not to be confused with the IIIg) with a 50mm Summar being offered on Ebay by a Japanese seller. Looks nice enough, asking price  $962.94 US, which, in addition to being a weird number, seems a little high.

What’s interesting about the camera is the seller’s description, which looks like it’s been run through Google Translate one too many times:

1935 – The Barnack Leica Leica ‡Va made in 48 years. Shed is a window is good parentheses.??I am speaking of Leica, I believe that Barnack rather than the M-type.??Rugged feel I feel the machine love.???With respect to the operation, there is no problem at all strong.???Double image also meet at infinity.??Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 lens is bright non-coated. Since the non-coated that will be fluffy in the backlighting, but such order light and cloudy or rainy day, you make a really deep Gudeshon.??? You have passed from manufacturing more than 70 years, it has maintained a generally good condition. Operation is also light.???* Also has exhibition of a classic camera that has been across the hand any person Over the decades. Purchase of direction and viscous qualitatively more nervous those seeking the status of the new par, please do not.???* Also because it exhibits elsewhere, please let me know before you buy.??Manufacturer: Ernst Rights Wetzlar??Model: ‡Va??Year of Manufacture: 1935-48 years??Lens: Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 (. Although there is a clouding of about 1mm in the front lens edges, will no problem because before peripheral ball but there is mixing of fine dust, wipe scratches less very clear)??Shutter: T, Z (B), 1-1 / 1000??Film: 135??Distance Meter: range finder??Exposure meter: None (or single exposure meter, shalt use a smartphone exposure meter app)???Appearance: big crack, Atari not, the impression that has been carefully used???Accessories: domestic metal hood, domestic UV filters, Russia made of a non-genuine cap, a little tired genuine snapshot performance case (when used with the Zumaru is, remove the front)

I’m not trying to mock the seller. God only knows what I’d come up with if I were trying to describe a camera in Japanese. That being said the description made me chuckle. And it does look to be a nice camera, so I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by the failure of the description. I will note that I recently bought a set of lightweight bicycle wheels from a Chinese Ebay seller at a ridiculous price. They were described as possessing “exceptional Kentucky..very strong Kentucky. You will enjoy.” Got em last week. Nice wheels. I’m enjoying them.

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One More Reason to Use Film

I’m currently reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci written by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Da Vinci was an amazing man (I’m certain he’d be a street photographer were he alive today, but that’s a discussion for another day).

We know so much about Da Vinci because of the voluminous note and sketchbooks he kept, many of which have survived since his death. According to Isaacson, more than a quarter of his notebooks, more than 7000 pages, remain available to us some 500 years after Da Vinci’s death. Meanwhile, in researching his biography of Steve Jobs, with Job’s assistance, almost all of Job’s emails from the 1990’s were found to be unrecoverable.

Think about that for a bit.

 

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Using as Opposed to Collecting

A Like New Black Nikon F: One More Beautiful Thing I Don’t “Need”

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that i’ve been periodically selling off equipment in a professed attempt to de-clutter my photographic life. [More to come shortly.] I woke up one day and realized my collection of ‘must have’ cameras and lenses had grown ridiculously large. I’m not necessarily against owning a collection of cameras, it’s just that, when it comes to photography, I’m not a ‘collector’ but rather fancy myself a user. You’d think that having a lot of cameras and lenses would be beneficial for someone who intended to use them for specific purposes, but in reality it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that the multitude of choices you’ve given yourself make choosing more difficult. Faced with the decision of what to pick up and use, I find myself defaulting, usually grabbing the same camera and the same lens as always, saving myself the trouble of having to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes along with justifying whatever choice I would have otherwise made. And then there’s the emotional component, you know, the fact that I got such and such camera at such and such time and such and such place and did such and such thing with it back in the day, all part of the myriad of irrational factors we consider when we make value judgments about the things we own. Such are the anxieties that come with affluence.

You’ll also know that I tend to lapse into abstract discussions about things as I’m doing here, a habit I’ve possessed since young (my favorite book as a teenager was Nausea by JP Sartre (!)), and have an annoying habit of citing obscure thinkers to make a point. From a psychological perspective, it’s probably overcompensation, something I learned early on as a non-conformist teen with a middle finger up to any authority; when faced with the specious claims of those who claim authority to speak, you can often shut them up by one-upping them with competing claims based upon arcane sources, given that those in positions of authority dread admitting you might know arguments and authorities they don’t. Using this method, many years ago already I had come to the realization that most of those who claim authority over a subject are usually full of shit, their claim to it easily deflated with some critical argument.

One thing I have concluded, with certainty, is that cameras, however beautiful or iconic they might be, are still just things produced and meant to be used. You can put them on a shelf and admire them, but the satisfaction that brings is fleeting because, at bottom, they’re tools to be used, and where they find their meaning is in their use.

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A Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, disassembled, cleaned and calibrated by Mr. Sweeney himself. Is it a rare, super-cool lens to use with your Leica? Yes. Do I “need” it? No.

But I digress. The reason for this post is to sell some stuff. In this case, really good stuff, the stuff I’ve been holding off selling in the hope I’d find a reason to keep it, because, frankly, I’m getting down to the equipment I have a real emotional attachment to insofar as one can be emotionally attached to things. It doesn’t help that the IRS is sending me letters suggesting I owe them money and hinting at extraordinary measures to collect it if it’s not immediately forthcoming. So much for emotional attachments. The IRS notwithstanding, I’d recently reached the conclusion that my photographic life would benefit from some further downsizing. Specifically, I’ve concluded I “need” the following: 1 film rangefinder camera with 21/35/50 lenses. And 1 digital camera with a lens. That’s it. The rest, nice as it might be to have, is redundant and certainly not required.

What I actually have at this point is this (even though I’ve been gradually selling off things now for the last year or two):

  • -A mint black Chrome Leica M4 ;
  • 2 Leica M5’s, one black, one chrome, the chrome version needing a new beam-splitter but otherwise quite nice;
  • a Leica IIIg, in need of a general overhaul;
  • a Leica IIIf, also in need of maintenance;
  • A chrome Leicaflex SL body;
  • A standard prism user black paint Nikon F with a stuck shutter;
  • A standard prism black paint Nikon F with perfect 50mm f2 Nikkor-H, the nicest Nikon F I’ve ever seen and definitely a collector;
  • a Nikon S2 in need of a CLA;
  • A Bessa R2S with Voigtlander 25mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses and a few Nikkor RF lenses as well;
  • A Nikon F5 with a slew of manual and AF Nikkor lenses;
  • A Contax G2 with 45mm Planar and data back who ISO button is stuck that I’ve been using to take one picture of myself in the mirror everyday for about 6 years now;
  • A very nice, seldom used Leica M8;
  • A Ricoh GXR with M module;
  • A Ricoh GXR with Ricoh 28mm, 50mm and zoom modules

Frankly, as my wife periodically notes to me, that’s ridiculous.

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Pretty Much “Perfect” Black Chrome Leica M4 # 1381902 (1974). Selling this will hurt.

In deciding what to sell and what to keep (for now), I’ve taken into account what I’d recoup from selling a given item, as an example, the Nikon F5. It may be the most sophisticated, bulletproof film camera ever made: incredibly robust, full of all the features we now expect of DSLRs, it sells for a fraction of its true photographic worth. A quick trip to Ebay sees them selling for $200 and up. That’s nuts. Keep batteries in it and that camera will be working long after I’m dead, plus you get to use the full range of Nikkor lenses, manual focus lenses dating back to the 50’s all the way up to full frame AF Nikkors being produced today. All of that is worth more to me than $250 in my pocket, irrespective of how few times I use the camera. The F5 I keep. Likewise, the cameras that need service. Sell em now for next to nothing or have them serviced and sell them for what they’re worth. So, the Chrome M5, IIIg, IIIf, user Nikon F, the Nikon S2 and the Contax G2 all stay. Next step is to get them serviced, sometime down the road. Which leaves me with a working F5 and tons of optics for it, a Bessa R2S with 25/35/50/85/135, a black M5, a mint black M4, a mint black Nikon F with mint period correct 50mm Nikkor-H that’s apparently been on the camera since new (since it seems as unused as the body and plain prism), a little used M8 and two Ricoh GXRs.

The M5 I keep, as I’ve had it 40 years and is the one camera I’ve always said I’d never sell although it would make sense to sell the M5 and keep the Bessa with its Voigtlander Nikkor mount lenses. Given this, I’ll keep both. As for the digital bodies, I’ll keep one GXR with the 28, 50 and zoom modules.  If I can’t meet my photographic needs with

  • a Nikon F5 and about 20 Nikkors of various size, shape and focal lengths
  • An M5 with a 21/35/50
  • A Bessa R2S with a 25/35/50/85/125
  • A Ricoh GXR with 28 and 50 modules

then clearly my “needs” are driven by something other than what’s necessary.

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Selling this one too. Got the boxes and all the ancillary stuff. Just don’t need it.

How does someone who’s always considered himself above the petit-bourgeois consumerist mindset end up with so much pretty stuff? Good question. It sneaks up on you; while you’re busy chuckling at the lost souls on the photo forums commiserating with other lost souls about which new Fuji body they need to replace last year’s Fuji kit, which 6 months ago replaced the 2015 Fuji, you yourself are engaged in the functional equivalent, buying another camera just because, telling yourself your motives are somehow better, less suspect than the neurotic consumerists who populate the usual sites. You’re not. You’re just another American who’s bought into the idea that happiness comes from stuff, especially really nice stuff like used Leicas.

[ So…., a bunch of things – the M4, the M8, the F, the CZJ Sonnar etc – will be going up for sale on the “For Sale” page of the site. They should be up in a day or two.]

 

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Carl Zeiss Jena LTM 50mm 1.5 Sonnar For Sale….For $5500!?!

Ran across this Ebay listing by Breguet Camera for a Zeiss Jena 50 1.5 Sonnar:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Ex-Carl-Zeiss-jena-sonnar-50mm-f-1-5-LTM-for-Leica-screw-mount-L39-Prototype-/311619439379

Asking price $5490.

I’ve written about this lens elsewhere. Wonderful vintage rendering, perfect mate for your film Leica if you’re looking for something other than arid, clinical digital excellence or you just want something unique.

I’m confused why they’re asking so much. Typically these are going for +/- $750 these days. They’re claiming it’s a “prototype,” which can mean anything (my understanding is that most of these were “prototypes” in the sense that they were assembled to various specs and standards depending on what was in the parts bin and what could be scrounged up at any given time i.e. there was never a ‘standard version’ of which an original could be considered the “prototype.”) I’d be interested in hearing from folks in the know (are you out there Brian Sweeney?) why Breguet thinks it’s worth what they’re asking.

UPDATE: This from “Sonnar Guru” Brian Sweeney (that’s what I call him; Mr. Sweeney, who knows more about LTM Sonnars than any other man on the planet, is too modest to claim the guru title for himself):

It looks like a custom conversion, not a factory prototype. I’ve used one of the original Factory Prototype 5cm F1.5 Sonnars in Leica mount- looks nothing like this. I think Zeiss made ~50 prototype lenses in 1932. They are the older style design with no filter ring. The earliest 5cm F1.5 that I converted using a J-3 mount is from 1934, with the newer style machining that is compatible with the Russian lens mounts. As far as pricing- it only matters if someone pays the asking price, the asking price of this lens is ridiculous.I have a 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” from the same batch. I converted it to Leica mount. I asked $450 for the last converted Sonnar that I sold, a beautiful Bloom on a 1936 5cm F1.5. Maybe in 50 years someone will call it a prototype…

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Notes From Home

Me, somewhere in Italy,  a la Vivian Maier

As some of you may have noticed, Leicaphilia went dark for a bit, partly out of negligence and partly from ambivalence. This summer saw a number of personal and professional issues come to the fore – let’s call it an existential interlude – (“crisis” probably being too strong a word) – the end result being that keeping up with the site got pushed way down on my list of priorities. An interesting thing happened along the way, however: I got lots of emails (and even a call to a relative) inquiring about my well-being, which is nice. I do appreciate them all. And yes, I’m fine, thank you very much. Other than being 15 lbs heavier from eating too much pizza and drinking too much wine while in Italy, I’m good.

The larger question, the source of the ambivalence, remains the issue of whether this blog – the emphasis on film photography generally and Leica film cameras in particular- has anything  left to say. I’ve been publishing it for 5 (?) years, or thereabouts, and it often seemed to me that recently I’ve been simply refashioning the same argument over and over e.g. I love old mechanical film Leicas, I love both the craft and the aesthetics of film photography, and I think we do photography an injustice when we consider the practice of film photography an anachronism. So, I was seriously considering just shutting it down without further ado and going back to whatever else I’d go back to were I not thinking about such topics.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), based on the response I’ve got after going dark, some of you seem to miss it and think it fills a niche. I was especially taken with a guy who contacted me through the Leica Forum to inquire what was up. He liked the blog because it was the only place on the web where someone might discuss both photography and Wittgenstein. I like that, and he’s right: I’m of the opinion that Wittgenstein and others, ostensibly “philosophers” without any real connection to photography as a practice, might have interesting ideas which apply to how one thinks about photography and what we do as “photographers.”

Paris, August 2017. Shot with an iphone

My recent trip to Italy and France – which I documented in my last few posts – also contributed to the ambivalence. While I took an M4, a few lenses and bag bag of film, I ended up barely using them, opting instead to use my iphone 6, as much an impromptu decision as a calculated plan. I just got sick of dragging a camera bag everywhere I went, and I saw no real need to reflexively engage everything with a camera to my eye. For travelling light, you simply can’t beat a camera phone, and it helps when it doubles as your phone, laptop, map, compass, flashlight, ipod and notepad. But I also saw two exhibitions of film photography – one of various photographers at Museo di Roma in Trastevere, the other a Walker Evans exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris that I was fortunate to be walked through before hours (knowing people has its perks) – both of which renewed my belief that nothing digital is capable of matching the simple beauty of black and white film photography.

7 am, Paris. Cycling through Paris early morning is a great way to see the sites

Now home, I’m procrastinating dealing with the seemingly inevitable problems that come along with iPhone photography, the first and most obvious of which is that most of the photos I took are no longer on my phone but in ‘the Cloud,’ and, of course, I can’t get into ‘my’ Cloud. Meanwhile, the 8 rolls of film I took are waiting to be developed, no ‘Cloud’ or password or whatever the hell else needed. Just some Diafine and an 8 roll tank. More to come soon, I promise.

 

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Is Resistance Futile?

I sat down yesterday to write an article about Diafine. Diafine is a b&w film developer that I’m particularly fond of for a number of reasons – it’s super easy to use, lasts forever, allows you to push box speed with excellent results, and generally makes your negatives look great. I was going to draft the post, tee it up for publication in a week or so, then pack my bags and a bunch of film cameras and get out of town for three weeks. I’ll be In Italy and France doing cool things and definitely want to document it all. I was thinking a brick or two of Arista.edu 400 (great film, cheap, looks great in Diafine, have no idea who makes it or whether it’s rebranded something or other) an M4 with a vintage Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm Sonnar, and either a Nikon F5 with a 35mm Nikkor or, if I wanted to travel a bit lighter, a Bessa R2S with a 35mm Nikkor and 25mm Voigtlander Skopar.

Homage to Ken Rockwell (I’ve been reduced to snaps of my wife to illustrate my posts).  Arista.edu 400 @800 iso developed in Diafine. It took a lot of work to take, develop and print these pictures.

As I was sitting at my computer, an email came in from a European photographer friend. It had a number of photos attached to it, what you see above and directly below. He’s been doing this to me for years, sending me these throw-away shots he takes with his phone, and it pisses me off, because every time he sends me another I realize both what a middling photographic hack I am and how easy it all is for him.

But I think what pisses me off the most, apart from the proof of the inequity of our respective talents, is how easily digital technology has made photographic self-expression. Apparently, he takes these shots with his iPhone and a Hipstamatic app. Hell, your 8 year old kid can do this. I’m just not sure if that’s good or bad, but I suspect that it’s forever vitiated notions of photographic excellence as a function of technical skill.

So, yesterday I downloaded Hipstamatic onto my iPhone 6 and went out on my bike for a good long training ride. Along the way I snapped a few pics, edited them on my phone right there on the side of the road and then emailed them to my home computer, where they were when I returned home. I pushed a few buttons and printed them out with my Epson R3000. Here are a few below. Took me about 2 minutes from beginning to end.

So, tell me again, why are we lugging our Leicas and bricks of film through airport security; why are we obsessing about lenses and films and developers and grain and bokeh? What possible reason should I have for continuing my dogged attachment to analogue photography? And why shouldn’t I just pack my iPhone and leave the M4 and F5 at home?

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Leica Reflex Cameras: Leitz’s Red-Headed Step-Children

The Leica R9. The end of the line of Leica Film SLRs

I’ve written elsewhere of my admiration of Leica’s Reflex film cameras – the Leicaflex SL in particular. It’s ridiculously overbuilt, solid as a brick, pretty much bomb proof. Plus, you get to use arguably the best 35mm SLR optics ever made; the easily obtainable Summicron-R 50mm f2 is about as good as it gets for a standard focal length SLR lens, if that’s your thing.

I currently own 2 SL’s, one black chrome and one chrome. The chrome version is essentially new. I bought it from a nice woman whose dad owned a camera store in Boston. He apparently had put it away new in the box with a Summicron-R 50mm f2. She found it on his shelves after his death, still unused [yup, the box serial number matches the body]. I bought it, and the body sits in the box, while I’ve attached the ridiculously pristine Summicron to a user black chrome SL body. Nice rig; really nice rig.

A few months ago I initiated a fresh round of gear purge, including the sale of my black chrome SL. I had intended to sell the body only, but somewhere along the way a reader (let’s call him Mr. X) asked about it and I ended up selling him the body with the pristine Summicron. I sent it off reluctantly, with a slight regret. Now I’d have one SL body (the new chrome SL) but no lens to use with it, and chances are I’d never find a new Summicron-R the likes of what I’d just sold. Oh well.  As fortune would have it, Mr. X didn’t find my SL the amazing Leica he’d been expecting (when I asked him what he didn’t like about the camera he said the viewfinder was no brighter than his Olympus OM2 and he had expected something more. Sigh.) so of course I told him to send it back. Given the SL he had in his hands had, without a doubt, the nicest vintage Summicron-R he’d ever find, and given as well my lingering regret after having sold it, I figured this was kizmet at work, the universe giving me a mulligan.

So, having been given a second chance with my Leicaflex, I did what most Leicaphiles do when they get a new Leica  – I took a lot of pictures of my cats while admiring the cool camera I was using. Not any cat pictures, mind you, but gritty black and white “Decisive Moments”, animal reportage at its finest, photos possessing that most elusive of Barthian ontological realities – the “punctum” – no doubt a function of having been produced with a legendary hand-assembled Leitz camera with a second generation “Cron-R.”

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The Leicaflex SL. If you like the M3, You’ll Love This Camera

When I was 12, newly initiated into a subsequent lifetime of camera gear enthusiasm, presently lusting after a Nikon F (I couldn’t even conceive of owning a Leicaflex; it and the Alpa SLR were unobtainable objects for simple folks like me, to be dreamed of only), I ended up confronting the sad reality that my gear ownership, at least while under my parent’s roof, would be compromised. While I had my eyes set on “professional” cameras like the F, I’d never be able to afford one on my own, and I also wouldn’t be able to convince my parents – good, solid lower-middle class burghers –   to buy one for me, their reasoning being that nothing could justify buying the Nikon for $350 when I could buy a perfectly good camera for $125, something like a Minolta.  Certainly, my parents pointed out, the Minolta was more than adequate for the needs of a 12 y/o. And so, thrift and practicality having triumphed, I ended up with a brand new chrome Minolta SRT-101 with 50mm Rokker, a perfectly functional camera that I despised from the day I got it because it had no soul. How do you, as a 12 y/o, articulate to your folks that, for someone besotted with the idea of photography, your camera, in addition to meeting minimal practical concerns, needed to speak to you emotionally?

Thus began my aversion to Minolta cameras, and by extension, to Leica reflex cameras, or more particularly, the Minolta Leica R’s, tainted as they were by association with a garden variety Japanese camera producer. The original Leitz SLR’s – the Leicaflex, SL and SL2 – were designed and built by Leitz in Wetzlar, built to the same standards as the mechanical M’s. They were, and are, beautiful mechanical devices; solid, overbuilt no-nonsense teutonic instruments. But they made a marginal impact in the market because they arrived too late, the first Leicaflex appearing in 1964 5 years after the introduction of the iconic Nikon F. And, in spite of the fact that Leitz sold the bodies at a loss, intending to make up the difference through the sale of the R optics, they were expensive, maybe double the price of an F body, while the price of the system lenses made the whole notion of a Leicaflex cost-prohibitive for most professional photographers. Faced with these market realities, beginning in 1976 Leitz partnered with Minolta to produce the R3, their first auto-exposure camera, accessing Minolta’s technology and expertise and assembling the resulting SLR’s in Portugal to reduce costs. The R4 and R5 were subsequent variations on the same auto-exposure theme.

The Electronic Leica R7. Some People Love Em

In 1988, Leitz returned the R series to its roots with the introduction of the all-mechanical TTL metered R6, now manufactured again in Germany at their new factory in Solms. It was, essentially, a companion piece to the M6, a reach back to Leitz’s all-mechanical history. Given the state of 80’s era technology, it was also the first signs of Leica’s hedging of any pretense that the R system might function as a reasonable professional alternative to the Nikon and Canon professional SLR systems, although the 90’s era R7 did offer an auto-exposure alternative through 1997. Leica replaced the R7 with the R8, shortly to be followed by the R9, a completely new technical and aesthetic all-auto design, soon to referred to as “the Hunchback of Solms.” You either love it or hate it. Personally, I think they’re incredibly cool, having aged wonderfully from an aesthetic standpoint, soon to be a classic, but they’re still expensive even today and the latest R optics remain absurdly expensive. And, if your über-electronic R8 craps out, well, you’ve now got a very expensive door stop.

The Hunchback of Solms

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Which leads us back to the original Leicaflex and the SL’s. If you’re looking for an SLR with the minimalist sexiness of the M5, you can’t do better than a Leicaflex, although I’d steer clear of the original Leicaflex – no TTL metering, with an ugly rectangular metering window on the front of the pentaprism – in favor of the TTL metered SL or SL2. Leicaphiles who know better than me claim the SL2 to be a marked improvement on the SL, but I’ve owned both and can’t tell much difference between the two. As best I can tell, the “improvements” of the SL2 consist of a more sensitive meter and a mirror redesigned to accommodate the newly introduced 16 and 19mm R lenses.

As for my black chrome SL with ‘minty’ 50mm Summicron, it’s back for sale, me having exhausted its creative potential in a few months of marathon cat reportage, and also because my wife won’t let me buy a Colnago C60 unless I unload a few of my photographic toys.

A Colnago C60. I Want One.

That’s it, below. Great camera. No surprises, everything works. Meter works perfectly. the Summicron looks new and comes with the Leitz 12564 hood, also in like new condition. For $550, shipped to your door, it’s yours. If you don’t like it, send it back. Don’t make me put it on Ebay.  SOLD

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Renouncing the Digital Feedback Loop (Reclaiming Your Autonomy from Technology)

A sloppy, irresolute photo taken with a film camera

Photographs are everywhere, and it’s easy to lose sight, or not even see, their reality as things in themselves. Most people have a simple way of understanding photographs, as reflections of existing  states of things. The belief is this: photos represent the world itself, even if they are windows from a particular point of view; the photographic world and the world out there are essentially the same. I call this the ‘naïve’ view of photography.

This naïve view begs the question, of course, of what to do about black and white photography. Most things “out there in the world” are not exclusively black and white or tones thereof. So, black and white photography, even within a naïve view, is an abstraction.

What of color? Well, we can agree that the color of the scene presented doesn’t miraculously transfer itself onto a roll of film or a sensor. The process of “reproducing” color photographically is a transcription, the same as any other image making process, an attempt to ‘re- create’ a state of things via an abstraction. Like any abstraction, what is transcribed and the transcription itself will always vary to some extent even when the intent is to be as “accurate” as possible. How its ‘re-created’ is a function of two things – the choices and skill of the photographer and the potential offered by the tools one uses.

So, if photos are abstractions, we have to, in the jargon of semiotics, ‘decode’ them (make the intention behind them understandable), because ultimately photographs are about communicating something. How do we do that? As a photographer and not a philosopher, I’d suggest that a successful photograph is one where the photographer’s intention has been realized, where a human’s intention overrides any intentions inherent in the camera itself.

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Flusser-Foto1

Vilém Flusser was a Czech born philosopher of language and communication who wrote verbose philosophical tomes no one reads anymore, assuming they ever did (that’s him, above). In 1983, prior to the digital age, Flusser wrote Fur Eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) in which he argues that cameras themselves have intentions (I presume, were you to cut through the ponderous academic jargon, he’s really talking about camera manufacturers driven by profit motives). He lists them as follows:

  •  to place the camera’s inherent capabilities into a photograph;
  • to make use of a photographer;
  • to create a feedback relationship between photographers and the camera and its products which creates progressive technological improvement so as to produce “better” photographs;
  • to produce “better” photographs.

All of which is to say, in common parlance, that the photographic tools you use and the capabilities they offer you will tend to structure the types of photographs you produce with them, by naturally pushing you in the direction of utilizing what they (the photographic tool), not you, might do best.  Examples of this phenomenon would be the “bokeh” craze currently all the rage with a certain type of gearhead, or the current fetish for sharpness, where the benchmark of the “quality” of a photograph is determined by how resolute your corners are.

Maybe it’s just me, but photographic aesthetics seem to have changed markedly since the inception of digital photography, to my mind for the worse. Optical characteristics have increasingly replaced emotional resonance as the criterion of a “good” photograph, the result of a repressive stranglehold of sharpness and resolution on the photographic imagination which is itself driven by the particular characteristics of digital capture. Flusser would say that the camera has made use of the photographer, its intentions having triumphed over the potential intentions of the human, the result of the inevitable feedback loop between tool and user. I would add that, as far as creative possibilities are concerned, this is a step back rather than a step forward.

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Of course, you could argue that the same logic applies to traditional film photography, and you’d be correct up to a certain point. The types of photographs you’re able to take with film also structure the results you get. With film photography that structuring typically takes the form of limits on what you can do, circumscribing your ability to take photos in certain situations or producing results within a limited aesthetic spectrum, setting the parameters within which the photographer must work as opposed to actively pushing him in a certain direction. There’s a big difference.

Above is a photograph by Antonin Kratochvil, a Czech born photographer and a personal favorite of mine. He’s long been known in journalism circles for his idiosyncratic approach, both technologically and aesthetically. Fellow photographer Michael Perrson describes seeing Kratochvil in a Croatian refugee camp using two old Nikons with beat-up, generic 28mm lenses, cameras “that looked like they could no more be traded for a pack of chewing gum than be a tool to make professional photos,” other photographers snickering at the Eastern European hack. Pictures he shot there would find their way into Broken Dreams, his award-winning monograph of the ecological devastation of Soviet era Eastern Europe.

As Perrson notes, what makes Kratochvil a great photographer is not his equipment but rather his unique sensibility. “He believes in the craft of photography, the skill and the ability of the photographer not to let his tools control his actions.” This simplicity releases in him the freedom to see things in unique ways. Kratochvil himself laments the ever-increasing incursions of technology into the photographic process – “technology has made it so that anyone can take ‘competent’ photos. It follows that if anyone can do this, where is the respect?” For Kratochvil, the camera is simply a tool; seeing is what’s important, and a given state of technology should never compel you to see the world in any given way.

Kratochvil strikes me as a very wise man in addition to being a superb photographer. But I’m certain that most smug digital technocrats, those whom digital precision and technical perfection have led by the nose, will find his work naive and technically amateurish, as if that was the sole criterion on which photography might be judged. Such dismissiveness is the tribute the inadequate pay to the articulate.

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Buy This Book

analog

“In an increasingly digital world where physical objects and experiences are being replaced by virtual ones, Mr. Sax concludes, “analog gives us the joy of creating and possessing real, tangible things”: the hectic scratch of a fountain pen on the smooth, lined pages of a notebook; the slow magic of a Polaroid photo developing in front of our eyes; the satisfying snap of a newspaper page being turned and folded back; the moment of silence as the arm of an old turntable descends toward a shiny new vinyl disk and the music begins to play.

In reporting this book, Mr. Sax says he found that it was less a case of older generations reaching back to familiar formats from their youth than teenagers and 20-somethings discovering turntables and LPs, paperback novels and film cameras. “The younger someone was, the more digitally exposed their generation was,” he writes near the end of this book, “the less I found them enamored by digital technology, and the more they were wary of its effects.” These kids were falling in love with analog.” Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times

Fascinating read, repeating a lot of what I’ve been saying here, albeit much more coherently.

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A Tale of Two Photographs

valeaa017-edit 20150930-dsc_1341-edit

I’ve spent this evening, upon request of my wife, printing pictures to send with Christmas gifts to a young lady in Italy who recently lived with us here in the States for a year. In the time she spent with us, of course, I took lots of photos of her, knowing someday we’d all be glad I did.

Above are two of them, both taken in my home during the day in the same available light. One is a film photo taken with a Leica IIIf – Tri-X pushed to 800 and developed in Diafine – and the other a digital photo taken with a Nikon D3s that I post-processed in Silver Efex using the Tri-X emulation.

To me it’s obvious which is which. And, to me, the film photo is so much more evocative in how it captures the light. I can’t think of a better example of why I love film.

Can you tell which is which?

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Addendum: As a number of readers have quickly noted, the first photo is film, the second digital. It’s very obvious to a trained eye. Below is another film photo taken from the about the same place, with the same available light as the second photo:

valeaa019a-edit

Is it my imagination, or is there a depth to it, a sort of 3D heft that film gives that digital B&W lacks?

 

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