This morning, my husband, Timothy Vanderweert, died at 4:04 a.m. Tim’s most recent hospitalization was New Year’s Eve. It was then that he learned that the cancer he had worked so hard to keep at bay had become aggressive and had taken over. If you know Tim personally then you know he was a strong-willed and stubborn man who did not easily accept the word no. And yet – over the 2 years since he was diagnosed with cancer he has always and in every way met the challenges before him and ultimately his own death with dignity and grace. He told me so many times he was not afraid of death or of dying. It was the task of living while knowing he would die that was hard. Tim met this in the way that most defines who he is for me: through his photography and his relationships with all of you who love this art as much as he did. In developing the (100’s) of rolls of film he had lying around, reviewing the vast body of work he had created, and in creating a legacy from this wondrous, magical, painful, challenging reflection of our human existence that his work captured, he found meaning and reward in these final months.
Tim has always been the most talented and gifted artist that I have personally known. I know how much not only his art but his thoughts and meanderings on this has meant to all of you. You meant as much to him. When he started this blog it was for his own edification. It became something so much more. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for joining him in this endeavor. You pushed him to think harder and broader and to go to places that we all need someone to go to for us – so that for just a moment, we can share the vision they offer.
Tim’s final week was everything that he and I had talked about, hoped for, and planned for so long. He was here. With me. With our dogs and cats. With our family and friends and neighbors – all those who came from nowhere to hold us both up and help us as we lived through his final days. He fell asleep on Saturday after a visit with an old friend, having spoken to everyone he needed and wanted to speak to, after having completed everything he had set out to do just 6 short months ago. He told me many times he was ready and at peace. This was reflected in every gesture and word he made. It covered him like a blanket in his silence. He did not suffer but slept easily from Saturday on. His death was painless and he was in our home with loved ones around him.
This is not an easy loss for me and it will be a long time before I find solid ground beneath me once again. I know you share that loss for whatever he was to you. He made me promise that on the day he died I would create just one more post to let you know. This then is how I would have you think of his death:
On December 8, 2022, I sent the following email to Leica Germany:
Dear Sirs/ Madams:
I write a blog about Leica cameras: www.leicaphilia.com. It’s been active for over 8 years, has a very loyal following (over 20 million page views) and, if I might say so, is one of the more thoughtful and unbiased Leica sites on the web.
To this day, I’ve never asked Leica for anything. Not my style. But there’s always a first time. What I’d like to do is borrow a new M6 for a few weeks and put it through its paces so I can do a number of unbiased write-ups about it. I do currently own both a M9M and an M240 and am a dedicated B&W shooter. In particular I’d like to use the M6 to do comparison tests between the Monochrom and the M240 and the M6 in respect to various film stocks. Obviously, Tri-X might be a good place to start.
As an aside, I bought one of the first M6’s produced in 84 and loved it, but unfortunately sold it in 2004. I’d love to see how it’s evolved, how its feel and use compare to the old one and to the newer digital M’s. I can envision doing a number of linked posts about the M6 – its history, its current iteration, Leica’s admirable decision to re-introduce a film Leica now, how analog Leica processes compare to digital M usage.
If you agree, I can promise you that I’ll be even-handed in evaluating the camera and my experiences with it, but will not be emphasizing negatives given your generosity in trusting me with a loaned camera. I’m a 50 year lover of Leica, having bought my first Leica, an M5, in 1977 at age 19. I’m now 64, and terminally ill, with a cancer diagnosis that gives me maybe a year. I’d love to cap off my Leicaphilia blog with an extended series on the new M6. Thanks for considering.
This is going to be my last post on the blog. I’m going to try to avoid the embarrassment of announcing I’m dying and then continuing to live on. I’ve just got through with another surgery and the general consensus is I’ve got significant cancer throughout and it’s just a matter of time.
I’m really grateful that I’ve had these extra few months. It reinvigorated me and gave me something creative to do, and a lot of you have reached out to me, which really helped me a lot. Thank you for your concern, and it’s been wonderful knowing you’ve taken something away from what I’ve done here.
My wife is going to leave the blog up. What she does with it is up to her. I’m sure she’ll probably be putting some of my things up for sale. We’ll see.
Now it’s on to wherever, or nowhere as the case may be. Who knows…….
I’ll admit. I’m a Nikon rangefinder admirer. I can’t for the life of me understand why they are so affordable at a time when Leica M’s are priced in the stratosphere and every other functional film camera seems to be selling at a premium. I’ve owned almost all of them along the way – S2, S3 2000, SP – and now the S4. They are all wonderful examples of Nikon mechanical engineering at its best.
The Nikon S4 is a very similar to the Nikon S3 but when new sold at a slightly lower price. It used a cloth shutter curtain (rather than titanium foil curtains) and it lacked the self-timer and motor drive lug of the S3. The viewfinder frame-line for 35mm lenses was also omitted. In all other respects, the cameras were identical. Think of it as either an upgraded Nikon S2 or a Leica M3 competitor. The camera had a short production run of less than 6,000 units from 1958 to 1960, so it’s rare compared to the other Nikon rangefinders. Unfortunately for the S4, it arrived at the same time as the revolutionary Nikon F to which Nikon (rightly) dedicated its advertising and resources. The S4 was essentially orphaned in the process, leaving it the terminal body in the S rangefinder line. Given that, you don’t find many with hard usage – most I’ve come across are shelf queens. Even so, and given its relative rarity, it doesn’t seem (as yet) command high prices in the market, although I suspect that will change in the future, given the fickleness of the current market. If you’re willing to import from Japan from a reputable dealer, you can find really nice examples, with the 5cm 1.4 or the f2.
The Nikon S4 was not exported to the United States, and you don’t see them often even though you can pick up a nice copy with a 5 cm Nikkor for +/- $700. The Leica equivalent – a single stroke M3 with period correct 50mm Summicron is going to cost you $2500-$3000. In all probability, the S4 will be in better mechanical condition (Old Nikon rangefinders rarely need the CLA usually required of older Leica M’s) and the optics less prone to fog. (The older Leitz optics have a tendency to fog based, apparently, on the type of lubrication Leitz used when assembling them). Most folks in the know consider the H-Nikkor 5cm f2 to be the optical equivalent of second version Summicron 50 f2 made by Leitz between 1956 and 1968. As for the S4 body, mine is “buttery smooth” (I hate that description, but in this instance it fits), much nicer than the average 60+ year old Leica.
Apparently Nikon produced the S4 at the suggestion of David Douglas Duncan who wanted a no-frills rangefinder with a 1:1 viewfinder. I’ve lifted the following anecdotal story of Michael Beaucage from the excellent CameraQuest website about Duncan’s imput:
“In 1960 I had graduated from the U.S. Navy Photographic School in Pensacola Florida. My first duty for two years was at the Fleet Air Photo Lab, Utility Squadron Five, Naval Air Station, Atsugi, Japan. I was 19, away from the states for the first time, there for the next two years. Wide eyed and young. Thirty-five or so photographers and a wide variety of photographic opportunities. Black and white, no color.
I had an older Leica and wanted to upgrade: big decision, Canon or Nikon? At the Atsugi post exchange, I chose a Nikon SP, and really enjoyed the 1:1 view finder (bye, bye Leica), loved all the frame lines, disliked the Nikon camera back but got used to it. I really adapted to the Nikon RF and started looking for a second body once I had a complement of lenses. I considered the S3, but the S4 got my attention because it was inexpensive and I could use it when there was a lot of bad weather, dust, risk of damage or loss. A burner camera.
I thought it would be a good idea to visit Nippon Kogaku KK, the factory where the cameras were made. Scored an appointment, got a hotel room and the morning of the tour I strapped the S4 around my neck and put the SP in a case. Hailed a cab and was met at an industrial complex, single story, nothing fancy, this was 1960 so reconstruction was still happening. I was way outside my head as a Nikon “fan boy”. No problem with having been in the military. Never had any issues being a “gaijin.” We wore civvies off base. With the hair cut and black shoes, people knew who was in military. The appointment response was quick, I sent a short letter, they replied, and I answered. Special treatment? Always, the Japanese are courteous to a fault. My tour of the factory was less than three hours. No food or drink! 🙂 No photos of the factory, I would have felt funny snapping, and they might have talked to me.
The tour was just me and an English-speaking guide. I remember the assembly area, women working the line, the cameras were moved from person to person manually across a shelf with access on both sides. Interesting that the optical lab where lenses were being cast had dirt floors. I missed the polishing area, likely they moved me along.
The guide asked about my S4 and took me to an office where I was introduced to a man who interviewed David Douglass Duncan sometime between 1953 and 1955. I don’t remember his name, but he was 20-30 years older than myself. Duncan was a hero of mine when I first got interested in photography—1954. For Life magazine he was a Korean photojournalist, did the photo doc of Pablo Picasso among many other assignments.
Duncan used Leica mount Nikkors on his Leica. DDD discussed with a design engineer what he considered to be an ideal photojournalist tool. He wanted a 1:1 view finder—both eyes open when shooting. The simplest of viewfinder frame lines, 35mm, 50mm and a short telephoto lens, he was used to a 90mm, 105 is close enough. No self timer, it just gets in the way. Functional simplicity was the idea. When the S4 was being planned, the interview with DDD was part of the S4 design consideration which was to have a specialty camera for photojournalists. Nikon did not market the S4 to photojournalists as a specialty camera because the Nikon F was introduced and took all the marketing attention.
I kept the S4 when I sold the SP and purchased my first Nikon F in 1962. After eight years service I became a science photographer specializing in publishing in Berkeley California. Sold the S4 during the mad rush (early to mid ‘80s) by Japanese collectors looking mostly for anything Leica. I made a nice living with the Nikons, Kodachrome, and Norman strobe lights.“
Q: Why do people buy Leica cameras even though they are very expensive?
Chat GPT: Leica cameras are known for their high quality and craftsmanship, and are often considered a prestige item among photographers. As a result, people may be willing to pay a premium for a Leica camera because they believe it will provide superior performance and durability compared to other camera brands.
In addition to their functional value, Leica cameras also have a strong brand identity and a reputation for exclusivity. The company has a long history of producing high-end cameras, and its products are often associated with professional photographers and serious enthusiasts. As a result, some people may be drawn to Leica cameras because they believe that owning one will signal their own expertise or dedication to photography.
Another reason that people may be willing to pay a premium for a Leica camera is because they appreciate the company’s craftsmanship and attention to detail. Leica cameras are often hand-assembled and undergo strict quality control checks, which can make them feel like a more luxurious and special product.
Overall, the high cost of Leica cameras is often justified by their superior performance, reputation, and craftsmanship. While they may not be the most budget-friendly option, for many photographers, the benefits of owning a Leica camera outweigh the cost.
Q: Do Leica cameras take better photos than other cameras?
ChatGPT: It is difficult to make a blanket statement about whether Leica cameras take better photos than other cameras. The quality of a photo is dependent on a variety of factors, including the skill of the photographer, the lens used, the lighting conditions, and the settings of the camera. Some people may prefer the look of photos taken with a Leica camera due to the brand’s reputation for producing high-quality, finely-crafted equipment. However, there are many other camera brands that also produce excellent cameras and lenses, and the best camera for a given situation will depend on the specific needs and preferences of the photographer. Ultimately, the quality of a photo is subjective and will depend on the individual viewer’s taste and interpretation.
Q: Why does Thorsten Overgaard use a Leica?
ChatGPT: Thorsten Overgaard is a Danish journalist, photographer, and author who is known for his work with Leica cameras. He has written several books on photography and has also produced a number of instructional videos and articles on the subject. Overgaard has been a Leica user for many years and has developed a reputation for his expertise in the field of photography.
There could be a variety of reasons why Thorsten Overgaard uses a Leica camera. Leica cameras are known for their high-quality craftsmanship and the company has a long history of producing some of the finest cameras and lenses in the world. Leica cameras are often preferred by photographers who value the look and feel of their equipment and who are willing to invest in the best possible tools for their craft. Overgaard may also appreciate the unique characteristics of Leica cameras, such as their compact size and the distinct look of the images they produce. Ultimately, the choice of camera is a personal one and different photographers will have different reasons for using the equipment they do.
Q: Is Thorsten Overgaard a con man?
ChatGPT: I am not aware of any information that would indicate that Thorsten Overgaard is a con man. Thorsten Overgaard is a Danish journalist, photographer, and author who is known for his work with Leica cameras and his expertise in the field of photography. He has written several books on photography and has also produced a number of instructional videos and articles on the subject. There is no evidence to suggest that Overgaard is a con man or that he has engaged in fraudulent or deceptive practices. It is important to carefully evaluate the credibility of any information or advice that you receive, but it is not appropriate to make unfounded accusations or spread false or malicious information about someone.
Q: If someone falsified their accomplishments and claimed to be a photographer who has worked for Life Magazine and has falsely claimed to have photographed the President and other important people and claims to have a vast archive of photos with major professional archives, and that man gives seminars based on his false experience, would you consider that man a “Con Man?”
ChatGPT: If someone has falsified their accomplishments and is claiming to have worked for a prestigious publication like Life Magazine, photographed important people and events, and has a large archive of professional-quality photos, and is using these false claims to promote themselves and their business, then it would be appropriate to consider that person a con artist or a fraud. Making false claims about one’s accomplishments and qualifications is dishonest and deceptive, and it is not acceptable to use these false claims to gain credibility, attention, or financial gain. If someone is found to be engaging in this kind of fraudulent behavior, it is important to confront them and hold them accountable for their actions. It is also important to inform others about the true nature of the person’s claims and to be cautious when dealing with them in the future.
Q: Is it wrong to claim you are royalty when you are from peasant Danish stock?
ChatGPT: It is generally considered inappropriate or tacky to claim that you are royalty when you are not actually a member of a royal family. Royalty refers to a specific social class of individuals who are members of a royal family and hold a title of nobility, such as a king, queen, prince, or princess. These titles are usually inherited and carry certain privileges, responsibilities, and expectations. It is not appropriate for someone who is not actually a member of a royal family to claim a royal title or to use it to try to gain privileges or advantages. Doing so may be seen as dishonest or pretentious and could potentially offend or disrespect actual members of royalty.
Q: Thorsten Overgaard is married to “Princess Joy Villa.” Is she actually a princess?
ChatGPT: I don’t have any information about Thorsten Overgaard or his relationship with Joy Villa. I am unfamiliar with Joy Villa. It’s possible that Joy Villa is using the title “princess” as a nickname or stage name, or that it is being used in a humorous or ironic way. If she is claiming to be royalty when she is not, then that would be dishonest and pretentious and also fraudulent.
Q: Has Lenny Kravitz ever been a war correspondent?
ChatGPT: I’m not aware of Lenny Kravitz ever serving as a war correspondent. Lenny Kravitz is a musician and actor, and he is known for his work in the entertainment industry. It’s possible that you may have misunderstood something he said or that this is a joke or rumor that has circulated online. I recommend verifying the accuracy of any information you have heard before drawing any conclusions.
Q: If Lenny Kravitz has never been a war correspondent, why does Leica sell a camera called the “Lenny Kravitz War Correspondent” Leica camera?
ChatGPT: It is possible that Leica has released a special edition camera or lens that is inspired by or designed in collaboration with Lenny Kravitz, and that it is being marketed under the name “Lenny Kravitz War Correspondent.” It’s also possible that this is a joke.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin overturned the by now anachronistic conception of Charles Baudelaire, who divided art into two opposing camps : on the one hand the imaginative ( true artists who want to “illuminate things” with their subjectivity) and on the other hand realists (who want to “represent things as they are” but have no real means to do so). Benjamin’s essays – Little History of Photography in 1931 and, more importantly, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936 – argued that photography had finally emancipated art from the imaginative dimension that he claimed had heretofore characterized all traditional artistic work, and as such was a watershed historical moment in the history of imagery production.
Even in the era of prevailing subjective pictorialism forward looking photographers took up Benjamin’s call for realism, seeing in photography a unique medium to approach and recreate the truth for other’s purview. Among these, in America, were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine who used photography as a tool for social investigation and denunciation. In France Eugene Atget documented a disappearing Paris.
In America, Jacob Riis fathered modern social investigative photography. Emigrated from Denmark, he initially worked as a police reporter, but then devoted himself to photographing the most disadvantaged areas of New York. In 1890 he published his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies on New York Tenements ,where he documented the life of immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then the most densely populated area of the world, with over half a million people in one square kilometer. Riis’s work spurred New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to take government action to alleviate the retched social conditions Reis met there, and as such is remembered as one of the most influential photojournalists who documented the social injustices of America between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s.
Lewis Hine, a teacher at the Ethical School in New York, used photography as a sociologist, photographing the life of immigrants on Ellis Island. In 1908 Hine became an official photographer of the National Child Labor Committee , an organization created to combat child labor in heavy industry. There he used photography as an instrument of social protest, accurately representing child laborers and their working conditions.
From 1889 to 1924 Eugene Atget documented old Paris, which was transforming itself into a modern metropolis, “manifesting from the outset the ambition to create a collection of all that is artistic in and around Paris”. He considered himself a commercial photographer, so much so that in 1890 he exhibited a small plaque outside his laboratory with the inscription “Documents for artists”. With his 18×24 bellows camera, a heavy wooden tripod he systematically photographed Paris, its architecture, shops and shop windows, along the way garnering the interest of the Surrealists like Man Ray and Brassaï, who saw in Atget a surrealist approach (i.e. highlighting and magnifying the real).
Atget died relatively unknown in 1927, although some of his prints were present in various archives in Paris. Atget’s artistic recognition was posthumous, thanks to the interest of Berenice Abbott ,who after Atget’s death bought the collection of Atget’s negatives and prints. These are now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1930, Abbott published the first book of Atget photographs, Atget, Photographe de Paris. From this moment his fame grew, so much so that he is consecrated as one of the most influential photographers of the early modern age: appreciated and recognized both by ‘realist’ American photographers such as Walker Evans, Ansel Margaret Bourke-White and by Europeans André Kertesz , Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka.
Why the new use of photography as practiced by these men and their successors Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka? As Benjamin noted, as a means of mechanical reproduction of nature, the photographic process removed the necessary subjectivity inherent in previous ‘artistic’ approaches to creating imagery, which by its very nature relied on the artist’s subjectivity to render. With a camera, that subjectivity was nullified; the camera recorded what it recorded (of course this doesn’t account for the fact that someone has to point the camera at something). What we’re given is an objective view, using Sontag’s words, “stenciled from the real.” While photographers may editorialize to the extent they choose certain subjects and present them in certain ways, photography’s objectivity assures us that what we’re seeing is real, it happened, and as a result we can draw various conclusions about the state of affairs it represents.
Is this type of photography still available to us in the digital age? I’d argue it isn’t, and this is one of the enduring conundrums photography must face as it goes forward. Photography is no longer mechanical reproduction, which Benjamin saw as the means by which it achieved its claim to objectivity. Ironically, Benjamin anticipated this devolution back to subjective imagery. In his view, history was not a linear story of progress where we learn from the past, but rather something chaotic and contradictory in which past mistakes are repeated by future generations. Digital technology has made photography endlessly maleable and as such has brought it back to the subjective status Benjamin identified as the defining characteristic of pre-photographic imagery. The objective link has been severed. If you use Benjamin’s criterion of truth, photography as an objective chronicle of the truth is dead.
Film photographers never much cared about bokeh. The first time I think I even heard the word was when we were well into the digital era, probably on some internet forum, where the hive mind argue vehemently, and endlessly, about some non-sensical brain-splitting, optical hair-splitting issue, the functional analogue of mediaeval theological debates about just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When it comes to bokeh, what everyone agrees is this: whatever lens you buy, it’s got to have beautiful bokeh. Not angry bokeh, or harsh bokeh, or clinical bokeh. Beautiful bokeh.
Bokeh is a digital phenomenon, a photographic meme that’s taken wing with the digital herd’s overriding obsession with optics. Or maybe, upon reflection, it isn’t so silly, but rather points up what I see as an inherent flaw in the nature of digital capture – the sort of transparent, ultra-lucidity of digital files, their noiseless purity that just looks….false. I can best describe it as a certain lack of presence, a sterility in continuous digital tones, obvious in how digital capture renders clear blue skies, skies that film renders, even when blank, with a certain heft and fullness. Digital renders skies thin and transparent, lifeless in their plastic perfection.
And I think this might be why we are now obsessed with bokeh: it’s this sterility in the very nature of digital capture that has brought to the fore our obsession with ways of masking it.
Narrow depth of field and subsequent emphasis on bokeh is a function of photography as a process. It’s not an organic offshoot of the human experience of seeing, but rather a photographic artifact, a result of the process of capture itself. It’s certainly not replicating a natural way of seeing. It’s what philosophers refer to as a “construct,” produced by the characteristics of photographic optics.
But so is grain. We don’t see grain. Grain is a traditional artifact of the film process. Grain gives that patina of distance, the step back from the real that helps us see the obvious – photographs aren’t transparent windows onto what is “out there”, they’re opaque at best, more a mirror turned back on the photographer than the view out if a window looking out.
I’m not advocating the position that an emphasis on bokeh (or grain) is somehow a violation of photography as a transcription of really. The underlying premise of that claim would be that there is one true way to recreate something photographically that corresponds to what is actually there, and the photographic effect we call bokeh is a perversion of that transcription. Of course, that notion is nonsense, based on the premise that photographs do, or even can, accurately transcribe reality.
The idea that photos accurately transcribe reality is a “common sense” opinion the average person holds about the basic integrity of the photograph as a reflection of what is “out there.” But it’s wrong. Some cultural philistine once sought out Picasso while he was resident in Paris. The guy wanted to tell Picasso he wasn’t a good painter because his portraits didn’t “look like” the people he was painting. Picasso asked him what he meant by “what people look like,” to which the philistine pulled a small B&W photo of his wife from his pocket, to which Picasso replied “so, your wife is very small, completely flat, and has no color?”
So, bokeh is an artifice, added by the process itself, not inherent in how a scene represents itself to human vision. But so is grain. Bokeh is a relatively new phenomenon, created by fast optics that easily express – some would say overemphasize – it. Grain is produced by the silver halide process itself. Different processes, different effects.
There was a time, in the pre-digital age, when photographers tried to minimize grain, seeing it as a flaw in the process, or, at least, accepted it as the cost of shooting ‘high speed’ films in available. light. If you look at Robert Frank’s American photos they’re grainy, not, I suspect, because he meant them to be that way but rather because it was a necessary effect of getting the shot at all. Of course, if you shot extremely slow films like Panatomic-X or Pan-F, you could largely avoid it up to a certain point, but the slow ISO of those films made the trade-off difficult. Hence, the ‘grain-less’ C41 films like Ilford’s XP2 Super. Ilford actually manufactured two “chromogenic” C-41 compatible black-and-white films, their own XP2 Super and Fuji’s Neopan 400CN. Kodak produced a similar film, BW400CN.
These films worked like color C-41 film; development caused dyes to form in the emulsion. Their structure, however, is different. Although they may have multiple layers, all are sensitive to all colors of light, and are designed to produce a black dye. The result is a black-and white image with no silver halide grain particles.
As a film photographer, I prefer some grain in my images. Certainly, now more so in the digital era when digital capture makes the ‘grainless’ look normal. I love the grainy look of Robert Frank in London/Wales, Valencia and The Americans. But I don’t think he was thinking of graininess when he photographed. He was just trying to get a workable negative. It’s ironic, then, that that heavy graininess has become so associated as an integral part of the work once digital capture came along. This emphasis on grain – which I’m prone to – is something I developed in the digital era. Grain gives me a way of giving a certain heft to the image; it’s why I typically shoot film above its box speed and develop in speed-enhancing developer like Diafine. I didn’t do that back in the day. I do it now because I think it’s what differentiates the film look from the digital look. It’s also why I run all my digital files through Silver Efex to, at a minimum, add grain structure to an otherwise ‘flat’ digital file. In this sense, grain has become as much a function of digital capture as has the emphasis on bokeh.
In the film era, the photo was valued as a record. The photograph resulted in a fixed image. The best of these fixed images contained the aura effect of the image, what Roland Barthes calls ‘the punctum’, the thing that takes us outside the image to the reality it stencils. Analog was representation of the real.
Who today, except for a few film photographers pushed to the margins of irrelevancy, still respects the Barthian punctum when taking a photo? According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, the ‘punctum’ is the thing that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph creating an ‘element which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image. Punctum is the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.’ What’s important for Barthe’s argument is that the photo itself be a faithful rendering of something “out there”, that it have some connection to the thing photographed, much as Sontag talks of a photograph as a “stenciling from the real;” the instant, the conjunction of events, the link with time. In Camera Lucida, Barthe’s discusses this in the context of a photo of his mother; in some sense, the puctum of that photo for Barthes is that it was directly stenciled from his mother’s body and in some sense still partakes of her (now vanished) corporality.
Digital is the age of the reworked image. It’s no longer essential to catch the eye when the importance of the shot is only relative. You can ad lib the punctum later with Photoshop. But in doing so you’ve disconnected it from its truth value. The photo is now not a material thing directly connecting us to the real but an algorithmic formula. As such, are photographs still capable of being repositories of truth? No. Photographic digitization requires each of us to reconstruct the world, in Paul Ardenne’s words, “using image-games rather than trapping it in image-pictures.”
The transition to digitalization in image making sweeps away Barthe’s punctum: the right to trust the photo as a witness, proof “that was.” There is no truth in a digital image, the stenciled connection has been severed. The digital image can be, at best, “that could have been.” The consequences of this destruction of the photo’s essential link to truth are two-fold. First, we now must always entertain, to our enduring discomfort, that what we are being offered may, probably is, false to reality. Is this photo deceiving us? We have no way of knowing. On the other hand, subjectivist imagery has become the norm. Modifying images is no longer taboo; a few clicks of the mouse and you can reconfigure the image to go well beyond the source image in its fidelity to what’s “out there.”
Along with the removal of the “sacred aura” that traditionally attends a photo, there is now an infinite potential for playing with the photo. No regrets, no remorse. Photography is no longer a repository of images plucked from the real but a combinatory and endlessly fluid medium of self-serving half-truths i.e. lies.
Above is my well-used Billingham something or other. It’s one of the original 1973 bags, made at the Halesowen Billingham site where the first bags were sewn between 1973 and 1978. It’s a collector’s item apparently, not that I care, but it is nice to have an authentic vintage bag. Irrespective of how it looks in the photo, it’s still in great shape – all the leather is intact and functional, zippers all work, no rips or tears in the fabric. The guy who had it before me covered it in obscure sewn patches, literally everywhere, which I eventually removed. I’m left with a well-used Billingham…that I haven’t used much…until now. Now it goes out with me on my morning walks, slung over my shoulder, carrying a camera or two just in case in run into something interesting. All I need is some Doc Martens, skinny jeans and a man bun and I’m set.
Not seeing anything to shoot this morning, I hopped in my car, with Sigma SD15 in said bag, and headed to the skeevy part of town. There’s always good subjects in economically depressed areas, there to be exploited by ‘socially conscious’ liberal minded chroniclers of general human misfortune. Plus, you don’t even need to get out of your car, which limits potential interaction with the often unsympathetic locals. Below are a few gems from my morning ride, all of them shot with my Sigma SD15 and given the grungy B&W treatment in Silver Efex. Given my renewed interest in film, I would have chosen the F5 and some Fomapan, but my bulk loader hasn’t shown up yet so I’m limited to digital. Given a desire for a gritty, grainy, film look, I choose the SD15 over the Monochrom. Surprisingly, it just does the B&W film look better than the dedicated B&W Monchrom, which I’ve tried to explain elsewhere. [As an aside, the Foveons are technically monochrome cameras, having 3 discreet monchrome sensor stacks for each pixel – RGB – which means you can isolate any of them and have a native B&W Tiff file. As a practical matter if you just use the blue filter, which sits on top the the 3 stacked sensor, you get almost noise free B&W at ISOs up to 3200. This is one of the great little secrets about the Foveon that Sigma should be, but aren’t exploiting to the hilt; just build in a RAW Monchrome option that uses the top blue sensor layer, and voila!, you have a dedicated authentic monochrome capture option in a camera that also allows you to shoot color via its regular RAW file.]
Here are the results of my ride:
Camera bags: we all use them, most of the time out of necessity given the amount of stuff a photography assignment requires. They are not, however, one of my favorite photographic accoutrements. Mostly, they’re a pain in the ass, bulky and unwieldy in use, limiting your mobility, constantly needing to be repositioned against your body as you move about. If I’m able to access their awkwardly zippered interiors, I’m constantly digging in various sub-pockets, usually unsuccessfully, to find that last roll of HP5, or that LensPen, or that 21mm viewfinder I’m needing right now. Typically if I do succeed in finding something nestled away, it’s an exposed roll of film, an auxilliarry 28mm viewfinder I’d thought I’d lost forever a few years back, a ticket stub to the Vatican Museum or something similar.
Everything about them seems designed to limit whatever enjoyment you might otherwise be experiencing being out and about with your minty new Leica M6. And then there’s the issue of aesthetics and its interplay with practical concerns. A mint Sage Chocolate Leather Billingham Hadley One hanging around one’s neck at the Paris Clichy Metro stop is going to make you a lot of friends on your subway ride. It just screams “expensive things inside” and, based on prior unfortunate experiences with Paris Metro thieves, there’s a good possibility you’ll be exiting your Metro car without your bag, probably not even knowing it (Parisian Metro thieves have nicked me more than once, even when I’m fully aware they are in fact thieves. Among other things, they’ve gotten a Tag Heuer watch off my arm and numerous Euros out of my front pocket. My last unfortunate experience involved actually announcing to the guy lurking next to me that I knew he was a thief and he shouldn’t bother followed shortly thereafter by finding my wallet gone after I’d gotten off and tried to buy a bottle of wine for the dinner I was heading to. They’re good. Really good.)
My response to all this has been to use non-camera specific canvas bags, the rattier the better, something that looks like it’s carrying a few quarts of motor oil you’ve just purchased. Plus, they’re easy to get into, which of course cuts two ways – they’re also easy for other people to get into too, but, given the aesthetics, they usually don’t bother.
Not needing the Billingham, I sold it on Ebay for $175. It fetched that amount because of its vintage status. Seems excessive to me, but things are worth what people are willing to pay. I’m now back to my old ratty bag below.
Speaking of bags, a reader sent me a picture of his bag. He’s obviously been around a bit:
I’ve owned Epson dedicated photo printers since the late 90’s when I was running Jon Cone’s Piezo System on an Epson 1270. The results, when you could get them, were stunning, mostly down to the Piezo Ink system with Quad Tone RIP that replaced the OEM Epson inks and workflow. Even today, the best prints I’ve made have been Piezo prints on Exhibition Matte. Nothing else comes close. The problem was the innumerable clogs you’d have to deal with, the improperly banded prints, the wasted paper and ink trying to clean print heads. Essentially, if you didn’t print everyday, and I don’t, with the Epson archival pigment ink systems you could expect constant, expensive problems. Constant head clogs; constant marathon head cleaning cycles that wasted massive amounts of expensive ink; occasional removal of the print head to soak in some magic solution promising to clean and unclog the head; reams of expensive exhibition grade paper fucked up by banded printing or ink smears or some other one-off mishap. I don’t think that printer ever stopped working, I just got so sick of it I trashed it.
From the 1270 I moved on to a wide carriage Epson 4000 pigment ink printer which printed up to 24′ width and had huge (and expensive) ink tanks. It did nice B&W – certainly not as nice as the Piezo system – but better than most wet prints I could do in the darkroom. Good tonal gradations, black blacks – when it printed. While it was nice to have the ability to print large, I never much printed bigger than 10×15 anyway, and, of course, the printer was a nightmare for clogged heads and banded prints and wasted paper unless you used it on a daily basis. And whatever software Epson bundled with it sucked. I eventually got so sick of it I took it to the dump and made a solemn promise never to buy another Epson printer, a promise I broke about 6 months later when I got a killer deal on a refurbished Epson R3000. Well, you can guess how that worked out and where that printer currently resides. Clogs, wasted paper, wasted ink trying to clean the heads etc. You’d think Id have learned by now. Off it went to the dump with another solemn vow – I will light myself on fire before I buy another Epson inkjet printer, period.
I’d read that Canon printers didn’t have all of the issues associated with the clogging and banding of the Epsons, and so bought a Canon Pixma PRO-100, a non-pigment ink 13×19 printer that promised exceptional archival (99 years) B&W prints via three dedicated black/grey inks. It didn’t clog or band so bad, and you could let it sit for good periods of time with no adverse effects, but the B&W output was terrible, with either blue or warm color castes that you couldn’t get rid of. I found the only way I could get any acceptable B&W out of it was to tell it I was using plain paper, which had the practical effect of just using the one black ink. And then it started to clog heads after I made the mistake of trying to use third party inks in it (the OEM ink tanks were tiny and super expensive to boot). So that went to the dump a few months ago. Now what do I do?
So, this November, with maybe 6 months to live, I’m printer-less and my wife is after me to print up a final accounting of a 50 year photographic career. Being the scufflaw I am, I had an idea. A lot of these big-box stores sell Epson/Canon Printers and give you a ‘no questions asked’ return policy if you don’t like it for any reason. I’m pretty sure I’m going to find a reason not to like it, but if I’ve essentially got the ability to print up a shitload of prints and then bring the printer back and get my money back, what’s the downside? So after doing my research, and finding a large, corporate merchant stupid enough to sell me one with a free return policy until January 30th, I bought…..another Epson. I decided, given the ‘free’ nature of the transaction, that I can in good conscience renounce my solemn promise to light myself on fire if I was ever to buy another Epson….I’m not buying this one, just using it free for 3 months. Consider it balancing the scales for all the money Epson stole out of my pocket for defective inkjet printers over the last 25 years. Epson richly deserves the balancing of the scales.
An Epson ET-8550 Eco-Tank archival (non-pigmented ink) 13×19 printer to be precise. On the advice of a reviewer of two, I also downloaded the Epson Print Layout software, (which for some reason doesn’t come with the printer, a huge oversite on Epson’s part because it’s so good – super intuitive while giving you all sorts of goodies to use ICC profiles to tweak your prints). The 8550 uses what it calls an “Eco-Tank” ink system: instead of using replaceable ink cartridges it has 8 empty ink tanks that you fill and refill with large bottles of Epson ink which are remarkably affordable. No need to cut corners with third party inks, no need to be buying overpriced teeny ink cartridges every week.
Plus, using the the printer with the Epson Photo Layout Software is a breeze; everything works perfectly. Never any clogging, no wasted inks, never a wasted piece of expensive Ultra Luster paper. I’ve gone through 4 50 print boxes of letter sized Canon Premium Ultra Luster, 3 13×19 50 print boxes of the same (great paper, super black blacks, beautiful tonal gradations), and 2 boxes of 50 print Pacific Inkjet Premium Luster (almost identical to the Canon Luster), all without wasting one sheet of paper. Given past experience, that is remarkable. No clogs; no banding; no need to ‘clean the head’ periodically. The printer just works.
Plus, its B&W output is exceptional. No annoying colorcasts, just a nice steely grey output that could be mistaken for a wet print. Plus, the EPL software has easily accessible and understandable ability to add subtle toning if that’s your thing.
All in all, the ET-8550 is an exceptional printer. Epson has finally figured it out. If you are a B&W printer who prints occasionally and tends to let the printer sit for a bit, this is the printer for you. OEM Ink is relatively inexpensive too.
I have printed so many prints on this thing that I’m surprised it hasn’t started smoking when I fire it up. It has been flawless; exceptional B&W prints with absolutely no fuss. But I’ve still got the box and all the supporting documentation, and the printer itself still looks new. But for some reason, I’m not sure I can look some kid in the eye at a return desk on January 30 and tell him I had a bad experience and I’m here to get my money back. Granted, after all Epson has put me (us) through – being their no cost Beta testers over the course of 20 years for shitty, unreliable printers – they richly deserve it.
I caged the following from a reader post on the Leica Camera Forum. Find it interesting that Leica can’t assure these things going out operating correctly, if not flawlessly. It’s not like Leica hasn’t had 25 years experience with producing the camera. You’d think they’d have any problems resolved by time they rolled out the new one at $5800 before taxes.
Had it for a week. Three rolls scratched. All in the same place. Different types of film, developed at different places. All with the same scratches.It’s at Leica NJ now. With the final roll of film, I didn’t even bother to develop. Just sacrificed a roll so Leica could see the scratches along the entire length, and sent that in with the camera.It was very nice that Leica did pack that nice little quality assurance card with this camera, saying it had been checked over multiple times during its manufacture. Not exactly sure what they check apart from – is it a camera? Yes/No..
Some people may say, well how could they possibly check to make sure it doesn’t scratch film? Well, just like I did… Put a roll through it, no need to develop, look at the film. If no scratches, we are good. If scratches – then fix that $5600 camera before you ship it. Is this really that complicated? My $50 Kodak Ektar H35 camera that I recently bought does not scratch film. But maybe I am expecting too much from a camera that cost 112 times as much?
The thing is, I am disappointed but not upset as I am fortunate enough to have other Ms to use. But if I was someone who sold off everything to get one, the dream camera, and this happened? I would be furious. Anyway, I’ll see how this plays out.
…. There is an irony here that this is the first new M camera that I have bought, and the only one that I have that has issues…
I applaud Leica for bringing back the M6. I would have preferred a new M4 (no electronics to screw up) but the idea that Leica would put a previous film camera back in production is encouraging and speaks to Leica as still a serious camera producer and not just producer of nostalgic vanity pieces.
I’ve been toying with the idea of buying one. I deserve something new and shiney before I kick it, and my wife can certainly sell it…or keep it with an eye to appreciation…but I’ve concluded that the better camera, and investment, is a still in box Black Paint Nikon SP reissue. You get a classic, collectible camera with an equally collectible W’Nikkor 35mm f1.8, all for about $1000 less that the new M6 sans optics. That’s a great deal
Once my M9M sells (it’s currently on Ebay) I’m buying that SP. Being a Nikon, I’m pretty sure It’ll be perfect out of the box.
Can you imagine the pain, the dull imprisoned suffering, hewn into the matter of that dummy which does not know why it must be what it is, why it must remain in a forcibly imposed form which is no more than a parody? —Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
We are obsessed with sensor megapixel counts. The Leica M series has steadily progressed from a 10 mg M8 to the current 60 mg M11. I’m here to convince you that, while it sounds like a quantum leap in one’s ability to shoot and print larger files, it really isn’t that big of a deal in the real world, more of an artificial tech race to sell newer and newer cameras. Of course, sensor technology has also come a long way, certainly with higher sensitivity, but the megapixel race is essentially irrelevant after about 10 mgs. A modest 10 mg M8 is capable of making stunning enlargements of almost unlimited size (with a few caveats discussed herein). Oh, and by the way, the M8, with its increased IR sensitivity, makes a killer B&W camera.
A 60 meg image from an M11 can be printed bigger than one from an M8. We all know that. What most of us don’t realize on how many variables that truism depends, and the surprisingly small sensor strength you actually need to produce acceptably viewed prints. Maximum print size is subjective, depending upon your viewing distance and acuity standards.
Rule #1: research has shown that viewers usually view normal sized photos about 15 inches away from the photo.This means that if your photo looks sharp when viewed at 15 inches or more, you’re good.
Rule #2: 240 ppi prints look sharp when viewed at a distance equal to the print’s longer dimension. This means that the scanned 6 mg prints I’m currently printing for exhibition will look just fine at a viewing distance of 1 foot (12 inches) because a 6 mg sensor can print an 8×12 print at 240 ppi and 12 inches is closer than people usually look at prints. That’s not bad. Now if I blow that same scan up to 16×20, given the 15 inch viewing standard, the print isn’t going to be acceptable.
But, as prints get bigger people naturally stand further away to view them. This means my 16×20 6 mg print can look just fine if the viewer steps back just a bit from 15 inches, which is probable given the larger print she has to take in. As for big prints, extrapolate this all out (see below) and in reality, this means that a 20×30 print from the 10 mg sensor of the M8 looks acceptably sharp when viewed from 32 inches or 2.67 feet. (Who views a print that large from 15 inches? No one.). 24 mg sensors like that in the Leica M240 can make 30 inch prints viewable from as little as 18 inches away. Put on your thinking cap and let’s parse that out for how we get there and its real world implications. There’s also a third rule we need to take into account.
Rule #3: you can produce an unlimited maximum print size when that print is viewed from abouttwice the print’s longer dimension or further. This is because it all depends where you stand, and, of course, viewers stand further away the larger the size of the print. Above is an extremely modest 3 meg sensor Canon EOS-1D circa 2001, (with a smaller sensor than Leica’s first digital camera, the 4 mg Digilux). Print an image at the EOS-1D’s native resolution which gives a print 8 inches wide (at 250 pixels per inch, or PPI) and hold it 16 inches away; you’ll have and acceptable looking print from that distance that’s indistinguishable from the same size print from a 60mg M11. Next print the same 3 mg image at 16×20. That 16×20 print will need to be viewed from at least 40 inches or more (3.35 feet) from the viewer in order to look as sharp as the same size from the M11. If both 3 mg Canon prints have the same viewing angle relative to your eye, they will look equally sharp at those respective viewing distances (1.3 ft and 3.3 ft), despite the huge difference in print size (20 versus 8 inches). Of course that ration theoretically applies as the print gets bigger, but people don’t view really large prints from close up, so as a practical matter a 40×60 print from that Canon, given how far back people are going to stand to take it in, is going to be acceptable at most people’s natural viewing distance based on the size of the print.
Most prints are viewed at a distance of at least 15 inches. A 240 PPI print from a 6 mg sensor can look sharp when viewed at 12 inches or greater, so printing basically any current sensor’s native pixels at 240 Pixels Per Inch (PPI) appears sufficiently sharp for most people.
A Formula for maximum print size when viewed as close as 15 inches: Maximum print size = longest dimensionin native pixels divided by optimal 240 PPI. A 24 meg M240 captures 6000 x 4000 pixels. Take the longer dimension of 6000 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 25 inch print, which will look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches. Maximum print size and minimum viewing distance have a linear relationship: for example, doubling the observers’ minimum viewing distance to 30 inches lets you print the longer dimension up to 50 inches for a 24 MP M240.
Likewise a 10 mg Leica M8 captures 3872 x 2592 pixel. Take the longer dimension of 3872 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 16 inch print, which should look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches or further from your eyes. Enlarging this image by doubling its long side to 32 inches will look sharp when viewed at least twice as far away (30 inches or 2.5 feet from your eye which seems reasonable given the size of the print). Tripling the long side to a 48 inch print should be viewed at least 3 times as far away (45 inches or 3.67 feet), which again seems reasonable given the size of the print).
The bottom line: unless you’re printing really big prints to be viewed at very close distances, sensor resolution doesn’t much matter.
I woke up this morning thinking I’d take my F5 and my monochrome and take some comparison photos to see what the difference was in the look of real film, in this instance Fomaplan B&W, and a camera that claims to be able to effectively simulate analog capture. I took my Sigma Foveon sd Quattro along too just for the hell of it.
As usual, things didn’t go as planned. When I got home and loaded my Mono photos in LR I found them all grossly overexposed, unusable. Inquiry into the matter determined I had set exposure compensation to +3 and not -0.3 as I had thought. All shots wasted. It didn’t go any better with the F5. Turns out my ‘new’ (as in bought used on Ebay) bulk roller has a light leak, and that leak ruined the roll of Fomapan I shot and has ruined the entire 100 ft of film I’ve already loaded into cartridges, (a second roll shot quick confirmed my findings). So I’ve tossed the loader and 15 rolls of defective film. On the bright side, the Sigma sd quattro shots came out great. So, in order not to completely have wasted my day, I went back and reshot with the Mono at -0.3 exposure comp and figured I’d compare the Mono shots to the sd Quattro shots.
I shot the 18mg Mono at 400 ISO with 35mm VC 2.5 with yellow filter attached. I shot the 19.6mg Sigma at 100 ISO with a 24mm (36mm crop equivalent) Sigma 1.8 EX DG and added a yellow filter in post. Post processing was the same for both cameras – DNGs marginally adjusted in LR and then further work in Silver Efex where the Tri-X emulation was applied to both sets of files and some more marginal tweaking applied.
A Film v Mono comparison is going to have to await my purchase of a new bulk loader.
The Mono photos are borderless. The Sigma sd Quattro photos all have the thin black border. You can click on them to enlarge.
Note that I chose to use the Quattro as opposed to the SD15 for the comparison. The SD15, while only 5mgs, is a ‘real’ Foveon while the sd Quattro has a slightly different sensor architecture wherein there are more blue sensors than the Red and Green layers beneath it. The SD15 has 3 stacked Red Green and Blue sensors with equal pixel count. B&W Tri-x files from the SD15 are outstanding and actually look like Tri-X. In retrospect, I wish I had used the SD15 instead of the sd Quattro. My initial conclusion is 1) the Monochrom produces kick-ass B&W files…but not looking much like classic Tri-X even when the Tri-X emulation is applied and 2) the sd Quattro also produces its own nice look (not much like Tri-X either) but not quite as good as Mono (or the SD15 files) run through the Tri-X emulations. Between the Mono and the sd Quattro, I prefer the Mono files; they appear slightly sharper and have a crispness to them I don’t see in the Sigma photos. That doesnt mean they look more like film output. I’m not sure either do. That’s probably a comparison between the SD15 and the F5 with Fomapan…and a Nikon d200 thrown in for good measure.
And, of course, none of this accounts for different shutter speeds and f-stops used by the two cameras nor the different time of day the photos were taken – the Quattro photos at about 10:30 AM, the Mono photos about 3 hours later, which essentially makes any valid comparisons worthless. The lesson to be learned? Who knows.
“When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. Yes, photographers do position themselves to take advantage of good fortune, sensing for instance when to stop the car and walk, but this is only the beginning. As William Stafford wrote, calculation gets you just so far – “Smart is okay, but lucky is better.” Days of searching can go by without the need to reload film holders, and then abruptly, sometimes back in their own yards, photographers use up every sheet…. Why is photography a kind of intoxication…so that occasionally photographers discover tears in their eyes for the joy of seeing? I think it is because they’ve known a miracle. They’ve been given what they did not earn, and as is the way with unexpected gifts, the surprise carries an emotional blessing” – Robert Adams
“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glace. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier Bresson.
I once met HCB, a few months before his death. He was at a gallery show in Paris where I’d stopped in. He, of course, was the center of attention while there, rightfully so; a legend in our field. Although, I must say, I’m conflicted about him. His photography is obviously one of the 20th century’s benchmarks. His written thoughts about what he did and how he did it – well, let’s just say I find a lot of it not helpful, the standard word-salad that comes along with any attempt to articulate the meaning of visual art, where the meaning is ultimately not reducable to language. You either get it or you don’t, and when you do it’s not capable of being articulated verbally.
I suppose what HCB is saying here is that a successful photograph is one where life offers us the form, we choose the content, and the goal is to fit in the content in a way that results in pleasing form. We “work in unison’ with the forms we’re presented to bring balance to the whole, modifying perspectives by moving a certain way, by coincidence of line etc. When successful, we produce a photograph that has both pleasing form and content. It’s interesting to me that HCB never really went further and talked about the role of content in the equation. In this respect he was a ‘Formalist’, someone whose aim was to produce a form that was pleasing to the eye. The content might as well be irrelevant. A guy on a bike, a kid with a jug of milk, a guy looking through a fence; all of it benign, pretty, not saying much except as it’s pleasing to the eye. And I think that it’s ultimately his failing as a photographer. His work is the equivilant of Muzak; it’s pleasing, but at a very superficial level. It ‘says’ nothing, really.
I think that’s why I prefer later photographers, those like Josef Koudelka who came after HCB, internalized his ideas about form but also chose content that had a message. Koudelka’s Gypsy photographs are of a magnitude of insight HCB could never aspire to. They are both beautiful formally and emotionally powerful via their subject matter while teaching us something as opposed to merely flattering the eye.
60’s ‘street photographers’ like Winogrand and Friedlander went in the opposite direction – a complete rejection of form for content. At least insofar as Winogrand is concerned, the content became a sort of joke – who could produce the most arresting content irrespective of whether it said anything of value. I think of Winogrand’s work as simply an extended joke, and attempt to produce manufactured photographic realities that produce strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Ultimately a party trick. Friedlander at least was saying something of value – extended meditations on American car culture and self – expression respectively.
I’ve lead off the piece with a photograph I’d taken in Paris. It has both pleasing form but also has content that (hopefully) speaks to something about the subjects involved and the photographer who took it. While it might have a bit of the vibe of an HCB photograph (Paris, street, candid, movement), it’s not something he would have taken, probably because its form isn’t strong enough on its own. But it does possess a content that says something – something about beauty, about the appeal of the beautiful, about how some people simply can’t see the beauty that surrounds us and walk right by it locked into the minutia of their daily existence, how others long for that beauty. That’s what makes it a good photo, and it’s also an analysis that Bresson would have missed, and why he’d have passed it by without another look.
I love this passage from German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) on how to find your identity: “Let the soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?'” Answer these questions, Nietzsche says, and they will reveal your fundamental self.
Obviously, I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot recently. It’s 12/12/22, and I’m just back from another visit to the hospital and then ‘recovery’ at a hospice home; hospice homes are where people go to die. Mine is coming soon. I’ve had another bout of intestinal blockage which has left me on a liquid diet till I die. I’ve told them the next blockage is probably the end. I don’t intend to seek further treatment but rather want to simply be sedated and allow the inevitable. I suspect, given the amount of cancer eating away at me, that that should be in the next month or so. If I suddenly stop posting, that’s probably the reason – I’m dead. I’ve made arrangements for a post notifying readers of the fact; whether that get’s done I can’t say.
I bring up the Nietzsche quote because it applies to the role photography has played in my life. For some reason, even as a kid, photography resonated with me in a way nothing else did, which is wonderful, because I somehow chose an avocation that’s allowed me to reveal something of my true self, affording me an intense means of expression for intimate concerns I may not have been able to articulate in my thoughts, in conversation, or in writing. That’s a remarkable gift.
What do I want my legacy to be? I’m not sure. What I am doing now that time is short is putting my entire photographic corpus in order. I’ve digitized everything I can, negatives have been discarded, old prints thrown out. I’m printing 50 of the photos I like the best – a lifetime distilled into 50 photos; try to do that – all 8×12 mounted on 16×20 matts. My intent is have have my estate exhibit them at a memorial for me at one of the art spaces in Raleigh – maybe the CAM Museum here downtown. I can’t think of a better way to say something about who I was.
In doing so, I’ve had to make some hard decisions about what gets in and what doesn’t. It’s one thing when it’s simply an exhibition, one among others, that you’re mounting. It’s another when its purpose is a summary of your life. And old habits die hard – its incredibly difficult to be tossing books of negatives and prints accumulated over 50 years, but the reality is if I don’t do it, someone else will once I’m gone. At least this way I have some control over what survives me.
So, back I go to pruning and printing…..
Which leads me to a question for you readers: What do you want to see happen to Leicaphilia when I’m gone? Should I pass it off to someone else? Should I just let it sit as a memorial until someone neglects to pay the hosting fees and it vanishes into the ether? What should I do with all the (admittedly) good things that I’ve done with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In 2012, Leica introduced the M9 Monochrom, a dedicated monochrome (B&W) camera, the first digital black and white camera in 35mm format. According to Leica, the Monochrom “builds on the rich tradition of analog black and white photography and brings authentic monochrome photography into the digital era.” With a full native resolution of 18 megapixels, the Monochrom easily bested similar megapixel color sensors; unlike Bayer sensors, the Monchrom sensor records the true luminance value of each pixel, delivering a “true” black and white image straight from the sensor. In addition, users could apply characteristic analog toning effects like sepia, cold or selenium toning directly from the camera; just save the image as a JPEG and select the desired toning effect, “no need for post-processing.”
Of course, few Monochrom owners are going to shoot jpegs. Most are going to shoot RAW files and post-process, and to that end, Leica gave original owners a free copy of Silver Efex when they purchased the camera: ” Purchase includes a plug-in version of Nik Silver Efex Pro™ software, considered to be the most powerful tool for the creation of high-quality digital black and white images. For pictures that perfectly replicate the look of analog exposures, Siver Efex Pro™ offers selective control of tonal values and contrast and an extensive collection of profiles for the simulation of black and white film types, grain structures, and much more.”
Which leads me to note the contradiction. Invariably, Leica users champion the uncompromising standards of the optics, while often simultaneously dumbing down their files post-production to give the look of a vintage Summarit and Tri-X pushed to 1600 ISO. As noted above, Leica themselves seem to have fallen for the confusion as well. They’ve marketed the MM (Monochrom) as an unsurpassed tool to produce the subtle tonal gradations of the best B&W, but then bundle it with Silver Efex Pro software to encourage users to recreate the grainy, contrasty look of 35mm Tri-X.
Clearly, Leica claimed and marketed the Monochrom, not merely as a black and white digital camera but as a digital camera that could accurately recreate the black and white film aesthetic. The distinction may be fine, but it’s a distinction just the same, and I think it gets to the heart of what I see as a misconception about the Monochrom’s actual output. Don’t get me wrong: the Monochrom delivers stunning black and white files, super clean past 800 ISO, beautifully subtle tones, file sharpness rivaling Bayer sensors with twice the resolution. It’s just that its files don’t look like film capture, and as I’ve noted in previous posts about my Digital Tri-X solution, it doesn’t particularly take to Silver Efex emulations, where a cheap D200 or a 4 mp Sigma SD15 Foveon best it for emulating the film look.
Here’s a Monochrom file processed in Lightroom without further film emulation:
Here’s the same file run thru the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:
Here’s a Nikon D200 10 MP RAW file run through the Silver Efex Tri-X Emulation:
Finally, here’s a 14MP (actually 4.6mp when calculated in the Bayer manner) Sigma Foveon file from an SD15 run through the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:
Now, acknowledging that aesthetic preferences are precisely that, preferences, my analysis is as follows: 1) The straight Monochrom file is nice for what it is – a digital B&W photo. It avoids that plastic look too often seen with digital B&W files and it has a nice graduated tonality. 2) The Tri-X Monochrom file is nice, but it doesn’t look like Tri-X. Too sharp, not enough grain structure evident. 3) The D200 and the Sigma Sd15 files are digital Tri-X, although the D200 benefits just a bit from less sharp optics; the Sigma file, even though <5mp, shows a sharpness and depth I doubt you’d get on a classic Tri-X shot with a 35mm Summicron. Sharper optics, sharp sensor.
So, the question becomes, is the Monochrom worth it i.e. do we need a dedicated digital B&W sensor if our goal is, as per Leica ad copy ” to have a tool that combines state-of-the-art […] digital technologies to deliver black-and-white images of incomparable quality”? It certainly doesn’t hurt, but probably not. Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of the Monchrom and its output can be stunning when done correctly. And it feels and performs like a Leica M, which is no mean feat. It’s definitely a fascinating camera and I applaud Leica for sticking their collective necks out and producing them.
But if you’re buying it to give you a leg up on recreating the B&W film look of your photographic youth, you may want to look at much more cost effective solutions I’ve noted elsewhere. It’s not something that you can’t also do with a regular Bayer sensored digital camera if you take your time. The key seems to be using a Bayer CCD sensor in the 10-12 MP range like that found in the Nikon D200 or the Fuji S3 Pro. Other alternatives are the DP1/2/3, SD14 or SD15 Foveons whose functional MP counts are somewhere around 10MP as well. It seems that 10MP is the sweet spot for both taking advantage of Silver Efexs’ simulated Tri-X grain structure and giving a resolution look similar to that you used to get with you M4, Summicron and Tri-X shot at box speed. A CCD sensor seems to help too.
You can put together a D200 with a AF 24mm Nikkor or older Nikkor Zoom of your choice for $200. An SD15 is going to run you $550 with a really fine Sigma optic like the 24mm EX DG. A twelve year old CCD Monchrom is going to run you $3500-$4000. Is it worth the price differential? That’s not a question to ask Leicaphiles, as, with Veblen Goods, you don’t buy on price but rather other intangibles. But, for all its cache, you don’t need a Monchrom if you aspire to, in Leica’s words, “to transform analog black and white into digital.” A ratty old D200 or Fuji S3 PRO will do just fine.
Irrespective of what you think of the the photos themselves, (they are part of a series intended to be shown along with a retrospective of my abstract paintings) the 8×12 exhibition prints matted on 16×20 off-white matt boards are stunning. All photos were taken with a ‘4MP’ Sigma SD15. I did the same series with the M9 Monochrome; not even close. The little 4/14MP Foveon sensor in the SD14/SD15/DP1/DP2 is remarkable for B&W. I continue to be amazed at 1) its output and 2) its complete absence among dedicated digital B&W shooters.
All were shot RAW at ISO 100, post-processed in Sigma Photo Pro’s monochrome palette.