According to a recent PetaPixel article, there has been a shift away from taking curated photos with the latest phone camera technology. Gen Z now think the “imperfect and authentic” images taken on an old point-and-shoot digital camera are cool.
21-year-old Zoe, who uses a Canon S100: “I love the fact that when you take the picture you can’t immediately post it to social media. There’s something so refreshing about taking a picture and waiting.” She adds “I also love the ‘lower quality’ and grainy look that my camera gives compared to my iPhone.”
Delayed gratification is a person’s ability to resist an immediate reward so that they can get a more valuable future reward. A reward can be defined as anything that brings comfort or pleasure.
Delayed gratification necessitates imagining yourself in the future. Many people equate delayed gratification with self-control or willpower, but more importantly it involves a future expectation of a more valuable reward.
You often hear Gen Zer’s saying that a main reason for their interest in film photography is the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results. Somehow, that interval between the photo and its realization imparts a weigh to the photo that a quick instantaneous review on a screen lacks. It’s an unintended future reward film gives us in the digital age.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve just finished developing a huge backlog of film that had been accumulating since 2012. Part of my reward is getting to look back on my life when I was healthy and well. It wasn’t that long ago. The photo that leads off this post is me sitting on Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP winning 2009 Yamaha while attending a race weekend in Indianapolis in 2015. In addition to being evidence that I actually did do it, I can look back and see myself relatively young and healthy. Knowing that, 7 years later I’d be in the process of dying wouldn’t have entered my mind that day.
Life is funny that way. What I’m experiencing now has taught me to value each day because its of infinite worth. I hope that’s what you take from this, in addition to thinking I was a pretty good-looking guy back in the day (or at least that’s what my wife tells me).
Directly above is another newly discovered photo – me in a hotel room in Barcelona in 2004. Nothing special about the photo, but for some reason it resonates with me. Again, I was young and healthy and I was fortunate to be visiting someplace interesting. I’m taking the photo with a Leica M4, the best meterless M Leitz produced. For some reason I sold it. I should have kept it; one thing I’ve learned is to never sell a film Leica unless you have compelling reasons to do so. Whatever the reason I sold it, I’m certain it wasn’t compelling. Another life lesson learned.
Wouldn’t it be great if we learned our life lessons with enough time left to benefit from them?
I find this fascinating. I assumed the opposite when having to chose which was which. It goes to show that much of what we associate with a given optical signature can be replicated in post-processing.
Is there really any need to buy a $4000 Summicron when, with a few sliders in Lightroom, you can duplicate its look with a $200 Chinese made TTArtisan? Is the whole ‘optical quality’ issue, after a certain point, now a non-issue? If so, why buy the Summicron?
Having just sent off a 50’s era Leotax to a good man and dedicated Aussie Leicaphilia reader who seems to have a fetish for my cameras (I’ve probably sold him 10 along the way, including (I think) a cherry Hexar RF that I regret selling every day of my life (are you reading this, Rei?)), I’m now down to one film camera (not counting my 3 wooden pinhole cameras), a cherry Nikon F5 that you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence of hard usage. It’s a beauty. In a brief interlude of irrationality, thinking I was probably dying in a week or two (bad week) I actually put it up for sale here on the site for $255/shipped, but nobody wanted it ( I did receive on inquiry from some cretin mocking the price ( Q:”$255 for a Nikon F5?????” A: “Yes, Asshole, $255 for a Nikon F5. Can you not read?”). In hindsight, I’m glad none of you wanted it, first I’m still alive and paradoxically feeling better every day (I’m going out for a full day of motorcycle hooliganism tomorrow, a day that promises to be 70 degrees and cloudlessly sunny) because you’d have been getting a really nice camera worth more than you paid for it, and, more importantly, I get to keep it.
My love of the F5 is more theoretical than practical. No doubt its a beautiful beast of a thing that works flawlessly and represents the high-point of the Nikon F professional camera evolution and in that respect alone should be considered a classis. The F6, while possibly being a marginally better camera, wasn’t built for professional use but was a vanity project, to be bought and left in the box with an eye toward value appreciation. The F5 is the ultimate working camera; I suspect there’s more than one working journalist who’s had theirs run over by an Abrams tank or dropped out of a helicopter on some clandestine military mission only to find it working perfectly after they hosed it off and gave it a good spray of WD40.
Granted, my love of the F5 is a product of pure camera fetish wonkery, the kind I so mercilessly mock in others (consistency, as my wife reminds me, is not one of my strong points. So what). While living in Paris in 03 I’d spent time an inordinate amount of time in the camera shops on Beaumarche ogling the latest offerings, where one I frequented had a huge Nikon advert for the F5 strategically placed at eye level behind the counter. It promised me photographic nirvana, an end to my ceaseless cravings for the camera that would finally meet my practical, emotional and psychological needs. So, when I got home to the USA I bought one. It’s a beauty…but I never much used it, using it not being the point. But I digress.
A year ago I had more film cameras than I knew what to do with: in addition to said F5, an M5 (sold), a Nikon s200 with a bunch of pretty lenses (sold), a Nikon F100 (we’ll get to that later), [Editor’s Note: Oh yeah, I forgot about that wonderfully patinaed plain- prismed black Nikon F], a beautiful black paint Canon VT with two beautiful rare Canon era-specific lenses (sold), an M4 (sold), a Leicaflex SL (sold), a gorgeous Leica IIIg with Leicavit (sold) the Leotax (given away as repayment for a previous act of generosity by the givee), and Pentax K1000 (given away) (everybody needs at least on K1000). I also had a dedicated film freezer stocked with more film I could shoot had I been lucky enough to live till I was 90. That’s all gone too now, victim to friends who took me up on my offer to “take anything you want” back when I was sitting in my hospital approved bed leaking bodily fluids and, given my 5 day till death prognosis, having a mind-altering pre-funeral bash with 20 of my best friends.
After everyone got sick of waiting for me to finally die, and me stubbornly not complying, they all eventually went home, at which time I found my F100, my iconic Nikon F, most of my manual focus Nikkors, and almost all of my bulk film shamelessly looted. Someone even took my bulk film loader and all of my reusable Kodak snap-on cassettes. No that I cared, and they weren’t “looted” except to the extent that massive ingestion of oxycodone, liquid morphine, innumerable snifters of Calvados and bourbon with an occasional psychotropic gummy thrown in for good measure while Led Zep’s Black Dog played on a loop in the background and my dog Buddy snuggled somewhat confused next to me on the bed, may have compromised my ability to consent to such ownership transfers. Frankly, who cares, plus I owe the guy who took off with most of it more than I can ever repay – a wonderful friend who’d give me the shirt off his back and has on more than one occasion. An old F, an F100, an bunch of lenses and some film is a small down payment on the massive debt I owe the man for being in my life.
I’m now left with my F5. It sit’s next to me here in my study, beseeching me to do something with it before it’s too late. I believe the universe is trying to tell me something. So, suppose I’m going to have to comply. To that end, I’ve bought another bulk film loader, a carton of 10 Kodak film cassettes, and a 100 ft roll of Fomapan 400, a relatively inexpensive Czech film that gives a nice gritty look when shot at 800 and developed in Diafine. (I now develop everything in Diafine. It’s magic) I’m now officially a film photographer again. Here’s hoping I get enough time to use it.
I aspire to be like this guy below:
So, now what? As noted in previous posts, I’m now a Raleigh flaneur, prowling the immediate neighborhood for interesting stuff to photograph, which in reality means taking a lot of photographs of 1) religious iconography 2) my shadow (a great underutilized photographic resource and 3) religious iconography that includes my shadow. And I’m going to be doing it with film, wonderful, obsolete film along with an equally kick-ass Nikon F5. Hell, I’m even thinking about buying a brand new, straight from the factory Leica M6. Why not? I deserve it. When I’m dead my wife can sell it to one of you readers. That’s the least you can do for me, right?
Of course, I reserve the right to also take out my latest affectation, the Sigma SD15. Maybe I can do a few comparison posts – Sigma Foveon vs. Fomapan 400.
According to now commonly accepted history, Henri Cartier-Bresson (“HCB”), Magnum Co-founder and Leica doyen, is claimed to have used a 50mm Summicron exclusively (he didn’t; he sometimes used a 35mm and in later years increasingly used a 90mm). Certainly, it is true that HCB found the 50mm ‘normal’ perspective conducive to his way of seeing the world, where all things could be put in their proper place to create a harmonious whole. According to HCB, the 50mm perspective on 35mm film “corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments.”
Born in 1908 HCB, came from an affluent French family who made their fortune in French textiles. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in upscale Paris, Rue de Lisbonne. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother’s family were Norman cotton merchants descended from minor royalty.
Think of HCB as a spoiled rich kid of bourgeois Parisians. Since his parents were providing financial support, Henri pursued his creative interests without concern for finances. HCB spent his twenties in Paris, pursuing a career as a painter without much success. In the 1920s, schools of aesthetic realism in both painting and photography were ascendant in Europe, each with a different view on the direction visual imagery should take. Influenced by the nascent Parisian surrealist movement – founded in 1924, Surrealism was the catalyst for the aesthetic that would define HCB’s photography – it championed the ordered emphasis of otherwise incongruous details of everyday life. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists and met a number of the movement’s leading protagonists, and was drawn to the Surrealist movement’s emphasis on order to influence his work. Surrealist theoretical training later helped him identify and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography.
In 1932 HCB bought his first Leica with a fixed 50 mm lens. It became his exclusive tool for photography. He felt that its relative anonymity photographing in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the often unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed, enhancing his ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He painted all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint, giving birth to a Leica affectation that lives on today.
He photographed throughout Europe. In the beginning, not much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed extensively France. The surrealist photos taken during his travels in Mexico and Europe in the mid-30’s brought him recognition in New York as an European ‘art-photographer’. Upon his return to France in 1937, he turned increasingly to ‘straight’ photojournalism after apprenticing as a film director with Jean Renoir.
From HCB’s photographic youth until the dawning of the digital era, the 50mm perspective was considered the ‘normal’ focal length for 35mm. When you purchased a 35mm film camera, invariably it came along with the manufacturer’s 50mm, either a cost-effective f2 or 2.8 or a ‘fast’ f1.8 or 1.4. This was true even of the era of the M film Leica, where the standard first lens for Leicaphiles would be a 50mm, Summar, Summicron, Elmar or later the fast 1.4 Summilux. I attribute this to HCB, even for those who were buying Nikons and Canons. Optical manufacturers claimed the 50mm reproduced ‘normal’ vision, and, as such, constituted the perfect optic for amateurs who were content to use their cameras to document normal life – family, travel, the ubiquitous beach and sunset photos in the manner of the naturally oriented, uncluttered and easily scannable documentary aesthetic of Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Kertész etc.
As an aside, part of what made Robert Frank’s photography so unique was its skewed perspectives so unlike to mannered 50mm look, all while still using a 50mm Nikkor on his Leica III. He did so with tilted horizons and de-centered and defocused subjects and, of course, a unique vision. From there it was a easy movement for 60’s era street photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand to further Frank’s aesthetic via use of wider optics, Winogrand known for his use of a 28mm, Friedlander a 21mm. Now normalized, 60’s and 70’s era ‘documentary photographers like Josef Koudelka, less interested in aesthetics than including the necessary, took to 35 and 28mm optics as their standard lenses. Remember, at this stage in optical development, zooms were a non-issue due to bulk and grossly inferior optical quality.
Beginning in the 60’s, wide angle perspective increasingly came to dominate among ‘serious’ documentarians and those giving birth to the nascent category of photography we now refer to as ‘street photography.’ These ‘wide angle’ lenses – 28, 24, 21mm – gave a perspective with heightened foregrounding and decreased linear conversion. Set against this change backdrop, they also caused the 35mm Summicron to be increasingly seen the ‘standard’ lens to mate with the Leica M. At the same time, the 50mm became a secondary ‘short telephoto’ lens, something to be used when the subject needed to be pulled closer in, when more linear perspective was needed ( in layman’s terms a ‘flatter’ image where receding converge), or when shallower depth of field took on an aesthetic characteristic (the larger the mm perspective a lens possesses, the shallower the inherent depth of field).
And so, we are where we are today. The ‘standard 50’ is a thing of the past. Variable focal length lenses (Zooms) are now preferred options, fixed lens of any length mostly an historical curiosity limited to hard care Leica users. Most new cameras come with a ‘kit lens’ zoom that starts with a wide focal length (usually something around a 21mm but often even shorter) and runs up to 70mm and beyond. In the pre-computerized era, where lenses were designed without recourse to computer modelling, zooms were of bulky and of questionable optical character. Modern optical technology has made choosing a standard lens superfluous; modern zooms mostly equal the optical quality of fixed focal length lenses without the added bulk.
Of course, for a traditional optical rangefinder like a digital or film M, a zoom isn’t a choice (The live view M240 being an exception), but even so, quick perusal of the average ‘street photography’ internet forum is dominated by wider optics – the 28 and 21mm focal lengths in particular, probably a legacy of the aesthetic pioneered by Winogrand, Friedlander et al. Granted, there are purists who still bemoan what they consider the convoluted perspectives of wider lenses, where foregrounds dominate with everything behind them in focus, but they tend to be naive photographers using their cameras for recordation of fact and not primarily aesthetic purposes, except maybe to engage in comparative bokeh exercises. They are the heirs of HCB.
For myself, I still prefer a fixed focal length lens on my Leicas and Nikons and Sigma Foveons, but don’t find much need for a standard 50 and actually try to avoid it when using lenses on APS-C sensors like my Nikon D220 (I use a 24mm which, wit crop factor equals a 35mm on a film camera) or a 20mm on my 1.7 crop Sigma SD15 (which works out to approximately 40mm on a 35mm film camera). For my M240 and M9 Monochrom, I use a 35mm VC 2.5 exclusively (like most VC optics for the Leica, a remarkable optic for the money). Having come of age photographically in the 70’s, my standard optical length is a 35mm, which I consider to give a normal perspective. If I want wide I’ll use a 21mm. As for the 28mm focal length, I’ve never gotten on with it. It seems a perspective in need of a subject, an inferior substitute for a 21mm capable of slamming foregrounds in the viewers face. If you’re going for that look, why do it by halves? I do own a number of 50mm optics ( for my Leica I have a few cheap Jupiter-8’s and an impressive TTArtisans f1.1 50mm) but they stay on the shelf rarely if ever used except when I take an occasional portrait or need to isolate detail at the expense of the whole. Or when I want bokeh (which is never). In this sense, I’m a photographic heir of Friedlander, Koudelka, Trent Parke. As I’ve noted before, while I admire HCB, I find his work too flat and mannered for my tastes. That probably has a lot to do with the 50mm perspective he employed.
As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, my recent health issues have, in an odd way, been a creative boon for me. There’s nothing like staring into the void to concentrate your energies. I’ve been feverishly developing, scanning, processing, post-processing, evaluating, ordering, printing and creating drafts for books to publish. I wish I had done it earlier, but that’s hindsight. Maybe readers can learn something from my experience i.e. there’s no time like the present.
I’d love to get in my car with a few cameras and just go for a trip and photograph and see what I come up with. In my experience, the best subjects are the ones you just stumble upon. The results tend to organize themselves; the story develops as you look at what you’ve done. I think that’s how creativity works; it doesn’t have a goal, it just forms itself as you go along. At some point you have a “body of work” that coheres, or should cohere. Unfortunately, my health issues preclude an extended car trip, or an extended anything for that matter. I’m tethered to my home, where medical attention is available should I need it.
So, if engaging in a creative project is my goal, I’m left with my daily life to make what I will out of it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One thing I’ve noted in all my past photographic activity is that the best stuff always came from the places I least expected. Having travelled extensively, I’ve got thousands of negatives and digital files of exotic places and people. In hindsight, they’re interesting but not compelling as a retrospective understanding of my creative life. The best stuff seems to happen in the daily flux of living a life, or at least the stuff that genuinely get’s to what it’s about to have been me, living this life in this time and place.
Obviously, those that mean the most involve the people, beings, places and things that constitute my life. These are the photos I hope survive me and will have some meaning for those left behind who knew me and loved me. But there’s also a subset of less obviously ‘personal’ work that, in actuality, says things about me that even those most intimate daily photos don’t. Maybe they afford a glimpse into the person I was and am, the subjective part of the self that creatives seek to uncover…or I should more appropriately say ‘discover.’
If I want to continue to create something of meaning to me, I’m left with my daily life and its routines. Having two happily active dogs, this means I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood and larger community with them, which all of us enjoy immensely. In the past, though, I’d never thought of using those walks to photograph, basically because there didn’t seem to be anything worthy of photographing. My eye had long ago become inured to anything there that might be grist for my subjectivity. Typically, I’d tune out the familiar stimuli of the routine walk by listening to a book on tape or music. Michael Crawford, a ‘philosopher’ at the University of Virginia whose academic interest is what he refers to as the “attentional commons”, would say that, in doing so, I’m adopting the Enlightenment ideal of the radically atomized autonomous individual who creates meaning from inside his head as opposed from the things that exist outside his head i.e. the real world and it’s ‘thingness.’
Current technology is perfectly tuned to deliver this representational world to us. Internet, phone, music, photo, social interaction, all mediated by third parties and abstracted. This is the world that moderns inhabit, a world not of things but of representations – iTune MP3s that stream through our noise-cancelling headsets, phone interfaces where we read the news and learn of the world or ‘interact’ with disembodied others via text and social media, disembodied visual images that have no existence except as they are temporarily reconstituted for use as communication i.e. “this is what is currently in front of me” and not the production of a new thing via a creative act i.e. “look at this tangible thing I’ve created from the world that exists around me that now has its own physical reality as an example of something that had meaning for me and says something about me as a human.”
To that end I’ve taken to going out the door with a camera in my Billingham bag. Of course, I’d always had a a camera with me on all my previous walks, my phone, but never used it much, maybe because part of the purpose of my walk until now hadn’t been an exercise in seeing what I could see. Given my age, I’m just not acclimated to thinking of my phone that way. Always having a camera with you, everywhere, is a simple but brilliant strategy for exercising your creativity. With an open mind and discerning eye, you can find your subjects anywhere. The important thing is to be available to it when it presents itself.
And I’ve found, that if done judiciously, I can still live in that mediated, representational world and still pay attention to my creative impulses. The other day I left the camera and used my phone, which was at that time doing double duty as a hi-fi system playing the awesomely remixed Revolver album just released by Apple. (Make sure you buy the Deluxe edition which includes the remixed versions of Paperback Writer and Rain, which, if you remember, were not on Revolver proper but released as an A and B side single after release of the album. The new ground-up remixes of both are transcendent and must be heard). There must have been something in the water in 1965. It was the same year Dylan released Positively Fourth Street as a single and not on Highway 61 Revisited. Three of the most iconic rock and roll songs ever, none of them even making it onto an album. But I digress.
What really makes me happy is that I still live in a world where I can carry a camera with me, go for a few walks, aim it at various things, push a few further buttons on my computer, and end up with something viable. Has it become too easy? Back in the film era the whole process would be a big, long, involved affair. Now I can do it on a morning walk, while choosing to listen to iconic music and giving the pups their exercise, or just being in the moment and taking in the world about me without the mediated distraction. My choice. This is the upside of the digital age.
Same comparison as before, except this time using the TMAX 3200 emulation.
Again, I think the D200 with its 10MP CDD sensor and 80’s era Nikkor optic does the best job of replicating the classic film look from a high-speed film like TM3200. Nice gritty grain, somewhat flat accutance and muddled tonality. I’ve written about this before, both here and here.
The SD15 with its 4 MP Foveon sensor is more grainy because of the lower pixel density but definitely holds tones better and has a rounded 3D look as opposed to the flattened look of the D200. This combo would be perfect for a sequel to Car Sick. Grainy, gritty, yet tonally interesting photos that ‘pop.’
The M9 Monchrom just looks weird. Irrespective of what Leica says (remember, they gave you a copy of Silver Efex when you bought the M9 Mono new), Mono files don’t take to Silver Efex or dumbed-down film emulation. M9MM files are meant to be processed natively, at which point they rock:
Bottom line: 1) The Nikon D200 along with Silver Efex is a great B&W film camera, everything Leica meant the Monochrom to be but was not. The beauty of it is that you can pick a nice D200 body up for next to nothing, mate it with an old film-era manual or AF Nikkor lens, shoot it at 400 or 800 ISO and get what looks to be the equivalent of the 35mm B&W films you used to shoot with you M6 or F5; 2) The 4MP Sigma SD15 is a Killer B&W film camera; and 3) The CCD Monochrom isn’t meant for film emulation software. Shoot it natively and it’ll give you beautiful, clean files, but don’t mistake them for film era output. Dumbing it down with grain and film curves ruins its uniqueness.
Above are three digital files that have been run through the Tri-X emulation in Silver Efex. They are RAW files from 1) a 10 MP D200; 2) a 4/14 MP Sigma SD15 Foveon; and 3) an 18 MP M9 CCD Monochrom. (Click to enlarge.)
IMO, The D200 is the closest to a Tri-X film negative. ( Read more here).
The 4 MP Sigma SD15 renders the best to my eye and can pass for carefully developed Tri-X (pulled at 200 maybe) although it looks less like Tri-X than does the D200; compare it to the 10 MP D200 file and you can see the clear superiority of the 4 MP Foveon sensor in terms of tonality and sharpness. It’s a stunning B&W rendering from such a modest MP sensor. IMO, it’s also preferable to the Monochrom’s output.
The Monochrome is the least like film Tri-X; blown highlights that you’d never see on a Tri-X negative (even though the RAW file was shot at -.3 EV), tonality and an odd clarity more like Panatomic-X than Tri-X. The Monochrom just doesn’t work well with Silver Efex emulations..
Winner for “The Tri-X Look:” The Nikon D200. Winner for the best look: The Sigma SD15.
So, Apparently I’ve been banned at Phototrio – on my second post in 10 years – because I posted a link to one of my articles that they consider “spam.” Here’s the definition of SPAM: “Unsolicited email, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups; junk e-mail.”
I recently posted a rather lengthy, tongue-in-cheek “Tutorial” about working with film on Leicaphilia. You’ve probably read it. I sort of liked it, thought people might find it marginally humorous, and figured the poor souls who slog through interminable internecene wars about the benefits/drawbacks of diffusion enlargers and negative density range on APUG (now rechristened Phototrio to finally acknowledge digital processes too) might need a little levity, so I started a new Post in the Darkroom section of Phototrio to share it. Hey, that’s what photo-forums are for, right? Sharing ideas and inspirations. Maybe having a laugh at ourselves and our paltry disagreements.
Now, it’s interesting to note that the article doesn’t solicit anything, makes no claims for my blog, doesn’t try to sell anything, doesn’t in any way lead to any sort of monetization of my blog…because there is nothing to monetize. No ads run on it, no revenue brought in via any backdoor. (Well, not totally true: you do have the option of “Buying Me A Coffee” for 5 bucks, out of gratitude for 9 years and over 500 posts, all free to you; hell, some fine guy in Egypt just bought me 20 cups of coffee).
Leicaphilia is just a low-tech, semi-clueless blog discussing film and digital photography. It has a dedicated readership with a shared aversion to photo-influencer bullshit, but not much else. I’m not particularly smart or accomplished or have anything meaningful to say that hasn’t been said a million times before. I just like to discuss photography. This particular link wasn’t sent to anyone else i.e. I wasn’t trying to get it published everywhere. Just Phototrio. In doing so, I wasn’t trying to sell Phototrio readers Leicaphilia logoed calf-skinned bags, personally signed tomes of my best-selling Harnessing the Light™, $3000 weekend photo seminars in Newark, or drive them to any other site that’s going to give me a cut of the action. I wasn’t attempting to “improve my site metrics” for some nefarious reason; frankly, I don’t give a shit about my metrics. I’m not even sure what a metric is. I just wanted to talk film photography with other like-minded people.
Shame on me. What I find interesting is that third parties have linked articles from Leicaphilia to Phototrio without any problem. I post something – Result: banned. Hell, I can’t even look at the site anymore, for fear I suppose that I’ll engage in some sorts of subversive activities in retaliation, not that it’s any problem for me as I’ve probably been on the forum twice in ten years. But I just find the whole thing damningly typical of internet photo forums and the petty tyrants (See Rangefinder Forum “Mentors” for further edification) who propose to run these things with no sense of a larger perspective or any common sense.
No problem, email@example.com. You need not worry about my subversive presence befouling your site. You can now go back to what you do best: argue bitterly and endlessly about the benefits of developer dilution, agitation and temp specifically for hydroquinone based silver developers, maximum pH levels of developers before they become fatigued (7 for those wondering), inherent spectral sensitivity of silver bromide restrainers and their role in slowing rates of development, the minimum number of atoms of silver required to be formed during exposure for a silver halide grain to be developable (four), and my personal favorite, the Gurney-Mott Hypothesis for latent image formation. This is serious shit. No levity allowed! I understand now.
Is my ban permanent?
I’m also banned from Rangefinder Forum, and have been for years. That I wear as a badge of great pride. It all started with a small kerfuffle I engaged in with the then forum doyen, the insufferable (late) Roger Hicks, who knew everything and refused to allow that anyone else might have something to say that needn’t be thoroughly vetted by him prior to being accepted onto the forum as a valid, alternative viewpoint. Apparently, Roger’s claim to fame was that he had written for Shutterbug for some years, although I didn’t know that at the time. Obviously, he was a knowlegable man with much to offer the photographic community, although his abrasive and heavy-handed personality made him difficult to appreciate.
It was fun to debate Roger. He couldn’t help himself. He made it so easy ruffle him. Just marginally question his competence or the extent of his knowledge, or, worse yet, contradict him, and you would send him into paroxysms of rage wallpapered over by ostentatious language meant to virtue-signal his superiority. Underneath lay a vast reservoir of barely suppressed self-loathing that periodically made him announce his final, irrevocable departure from the site…only to appear again in a few months after the forum peons sufficiently genuflected and asked for his forgiveness. At one point, I was seriously thinking of writing up a sociological case study on his and the forum’s dysfunctional relationship.
For some reason he loathed me and would chase me around whenever I posted, contradicting my smallest details. I enjoyed the whole thing tremendously and took great joy in winding him up. Unfortunately, one of the “Mentors” emailed me to tell me they “were watching me” and my privilege as a member would be revoked unless I played nicer with Mr. Hicks. At that point, I responded somewhat indelicately and was quickly booted from the site. It was then that I started Leicaphilia.
The irony is that folks who knew Mr. Hicks personally invariably said he was a kind generous man. I have no doubt that this was the case. It just goes to show how the impersonal interactions afforded by internet forums can warp otherwise civil discussion between decent people. I have no doubt Mr. Hicks was a decent person. He was also an arrogant bully to people who didn’t deserve it.
I do give him credit for starting me on my blog. I simply decided that if I wanted to say what I wanted to say I’d have to cut out the middleman and do it myself. And so Leicaphilia was born. How it grew and got the readership it did, I’m not quite sure, but I’m glad it did. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, being able to articulate my thoughts and ideas about photography without first having them vetted by the firstname.lastname@example.org or Roger Hicks or any other self-appointed gatekeeper. Unlike the days Roger Hicks made his name via print media and the limited opportunities it provided for most people, the internet allows anyone with an interesting take and a desire to get it out to the world without the constraints of self-appointed experts and say their peace.
For all you lost, disheartened ‘photographers’ who’ve cut their teeth in the digital era and feel inauthentic because of the gaping void at the heart of your photographic knowledge and competence, to wit knowing nothing about the classic technical history of the film medium, I’m here to convince you that the process of film photography is fun. And doable. And you can do it. And I’m going to tell you how to do it, from beginning to end.
As you’ve long suspected but have been resistant to admit, unlike your digital photography, film photography is ‘authentic’, it’s real, it’s tangible. It keeps alive the physical connection between the light and the recording medium. Nothing is dematerialized and transcribed into digits that must be re-materialized by some arcane process you know nothing about. The trace of your subject physically remains – forever, right there on your negative. Translated to a gelatin silver print, the trace remains. This is mystical. It is often life-changing. Ask Roland Barthes. Roland Barthes may have been run over and killed by a laundry truck while walking to his lecture at the Sorbonne, but Roland Barthes’ mother lives ( see Camera Lucida). This is profound.
It’s time you become a ‘real’ photographer. This is simply a statement of fact, not an accusation or a boast by your betters. It’s time you acquire both the technical knowledge of film capture and the skills for its proper subsequent development. I’ll show you, in easy baby steps, how you too can become competent shooting, developing and printing light-sensitive photographic film, preferably for our purposes 35mm B&W film. I’ll explain to you how to print those negatives on silver gelatin paper and produce a stunning, tactile object you can matt, frame and hang in your summer home on the Cape.
Forget color. I’m not going to talk about color film photography. That’s not real photography. B&W film photography is real photography. Hard stop. Once you’ve mastered the B&W analogue process, you are now a photographer and not simply a button mashing monkey taking bokeh saturated photos of sad, inauthentic people. You now have joined the list of veritable photographic giants like Atget, Brassai, Walker Evans, HCB, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank, Antoine D’Agatha, Trent Parke, Dragan Novakovic and Tim Vanderweert.
This is Where the Good Stuff Happens
To start your authentic photographic journey, you are going to need the following: 1) A black paint Leica M2, M3, M4 or functional equivalent, a Nikon SP or S3 (these are the last legitimate fully mechanical, unmetered 35mm cameras); 2) a roll of 35mm B&W film, preferably Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 of 24 or 36 exposures, although you may also use a roll you’ve bulk rolled yourself (extra points); 3) a dark room as in a room you can make mostly dark; 4) a development tank to develop your film; 5) photo chemicals to develop your film; 6) a photographic enlarger; 7) photo paper to print your developed negatives; 8) photo chemicals to develop your latent prints; 8) photo trays large enough to contain the size paper you’ll be printing on; 9) a supply of water to wash negatives and prints; and 10) a means of drying both negatives and prints once developed.
You do not need a computer or an internet hookup. You need no books or instructional videos or charts of Silver Efex pre-sets. You don’t need to take a ‘Sold Out’ seminar in Innsbruck where you wear Leica logoed hats, fondle assorted digital Leicas and interface with false gurus who banally advise you “it’s all about the light” and assure you competence beyond your wildest imaginings if you simply buy all their books at steep discounts and, most importantly, “always wear a camera”. As a general rule, avoid anyone who advertises such digital seminars with photos of film wrapped around their head. These are men who are not to be trusted.
You Too Can Make a Silver Gelatin Print Like This With a Simple Film Camera
Let’s get to it. Grab your fully mechanical M2 and an unexposed roll of B&W film. Take the film from its box and load it into your battery-less Leica. First, you’re going to need to figure out how to load your film onto your Leica’s removable take up spindle, reinsert the spindle into the M and forward to frame number 1. This is more difficult than you might think. Leitz, the German manufacturer who hand-made your mechanical M, has specifically made this difficult to remind you that good things require effort.
Start by extracting a few inches of film from the mouth of your film cassette, and insert the tapered film end into the spool so that the teeth hook the perforation. Now wind the shutter lever that cocks the shutter and rotates the spool’s teeth so the film starts to wrap around the spool itself. (Since the film has been rolled up in its cannister for some time – years maybe – it tends to remain curved and therefore to remain slightly raised by the teeth, which are often unable to hook it). Fiddle with it.
With practice you’ll eventually learn to press it with a finger against the teeth and get it rolling that way. Other folks opt for pre-tensioning, placing slight pressure on the rewind crank, taking care not to exert excessive force which would tear the perforation or release the film from the receiving spool. It either rolls on at this point or you start over…or you quit. (Giving up is always an acceptable option when it comes to the practice of film use. Always remember this. There is no shame in saying fuck it and giving up at any point in the process. You can always come back another day and try again. I cannot emphasize this enough).
Assuming you haven’t quit yet and the film has rolled onto the take-up spool in sufficient quantity to hold it there, refasten the back to the camera and take a few idle clicks to check the shutter reset and to advance the film into position for your super-exciting first film photo. The rewind handle should testify to success with its anti-clockwise rotation, your frame counter should read “0” or “1” or “2” or some random digit thereabouts. You have successfully loaded your M2 with real, light sensitive silver impregnated emulsive film. Feelings of great satisfaction and wholeness should now follow, as if a heretofore misplaced key had been inserted into the tumbler of your mundane life and unlocked something mystical. Sit with it for a minute, quietly. Passively note the perfectly balanced weight of your M2 now loaded with light affirming film. Admire your film camera’s iconic contours and simple yet timeless design. It’s meaning will not fail to speak to you if only you allow it, although what you feel now will remain ineffable. Your life has changed, irrevocably. You Sir, are no longer a button-mashing herd animal tethered to a pathetically designed plastic machine producing random digits on a silicone substrate, subsequently reconfigured via obscure Photoshop algorithms; you now hold in your hand a purpose built, tactilely perfect mechanical jewel whose raison d’etre is the miraculous stenciling of the real. You are now an authentic film photographer.
Aperture and Shutter Speed
You now hold a genuine mechanical Leica properly loaded with a roll of iconic Kodak Tri-X ( or if you live in the UK Ilford HP5). You now must engage that combination to, in Susan Sontag’s famous phrase, “stencil off the real.” To do so you’re going to have to set your camera aperture and shutter speeds to give you a proper exposure given the extant lighting condition. Your iconic mechanical Leica doesn’t have a “P” mode or any other exposure mode for that matter. It is totally indifferent to you. It doesn’t give a shit about any desire you might possess to apply hard and fast rules. You are now in the realm of art, where rules have no intrinsic value. Your mechanical jewel-like Leica requires serendipity, not desiccated formulas applied via charts and graphs.
The possible settings on your Leica are threefold: aperture, shutter speed and ASA film sensitivity (now known as ISO). Because your M2 doesn’t have a meter, forget about ASA. Doesn’t matter. You don’t need a meter; it’s ‘rule-based’ affectation at best. Just use your head when setting your aperture and shutter speed. If you must, use the ‘Sunny 16 Rule’ or a variation on that theme. Classic film sensitivity is the equivalent of today’s 25 or 50 ISO, or 100-125 ISO (the most common), or 400 ISO, with the possibility of “pushing” or “pulling”, i.e. extending or contracting the development time to give higher speed or reduced grain and better tonality depending on your intent. Save that for later, after you’ve figured the basics. If you must use a light meter, set it and assume it’s in the ballpark. A good rule of thumb: f16 and a shutter speed equal to your film ISO when outside in sunny weather; f8 when some clouds; f2 and 1/30th whenever inside. For more precision, use your experience of previous mistakes, for they will be abundant. Some hardcore filmies expose using hand-held light meters. This is unnecessary. Perfect exposure is a false god, a neurotic avoidance of the struggle to engage your unique vision.
Fun With Development
Once you’ve shot your 36 exposures and hopefully have rewound the film and extracted it from your M2 ( another iffy proposition in and of itself), you must develop your film. Like most film era peasants, you can send it out to the drug store if you’re able to find one that still develops film, but then you’re just another thoughtless happy-snapper and not a serious film photographer. You must develop it yourself. This is where the fun begins, and the specifics of development assume existential dimensions, fueled by various half-assed theories religiously held by various film era partisans citing dog-eared pages of Stroebel and Compton’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes (Focal Press: Boston, 1990)
Actual film development procedure is a combination of applied chemistry and witchcraft. Development takes place in light-tight tanks that contain a spiral reel you’re going roll your film onto. Loading this reel takes place in complete darkness, so you need either a darkroom or a changing bag. Completely in the dark you remove the exposed film from the roll ( usually with a can opener and then a scissors to cut the film leader back), you insert the leader into the upper and lower guides of the spiral reel and, by means of an alternating rotation and counter-rotation of the reel’s sides you roll the film onto the reel until the entire roll is taken up on the reel itself. Of course, you’re probably going to repeatedly fail to get the reel loaded because the film, freed from the constriction of its tight cannister, tends to unroll abruptly, slipping from your nervous fingers, and sad attempts to grab it in the dark risks causing small bends in the film sprocket area that will cause the affected section of film to hang up in the reel without allowing it to roll forward onto the reel. Fiddle with it.
Your reel loading troubles are just beginning. The film will offer tenacious resistance to spiraling onto the reel even in the best of circumstances. It also frequently happens that after an initial success and an advance of a few inches, the reel mechanism gets stuck; the two sides of the spiral no longer go forward or backward. No reason given. They just refuse. In reality, this usually happens when the reel you’re using hadn’t been perfectly dried after the last wash and residual humidity glues up the film emulsion to the groove of the spiral. The best you can do is wait while the reel dries completely.
Forcing things at this point usually causes further deformation of the film. Attempts to extract the film have little chance of success at this point, and even if you succeed, there’s going to be no place to temporarily store the film off reel, the roll being damaged during the operation of withdrawal. In any event, you can continue to fiddle about with things till you’re granted some sort of mystical reprieve – or you can toss the now-deformed roll of Tri-X that once held so much promise, turn on the lights, go home, sell your bulk loader and all the bulk film you’ve stored in your dedicated mini-fridge, trade your M2 for a Lenny Kravitz Correspondence digital M with genuine snakeskin covering and swear you will never shoot another roll of film again.
The Film Development Process: A Matter of Chemistry…And a Good Bit of Luck
Maybe, just maybe, you get things right. Now what? Once you put the reel in the tank and close the tank lid you can turn the lights on. Now is the time to pick a developer and dilution, figure out how long a development time you’re going to need based on the type of film, the ISO at which it’s been shot and the current developer temp (if you must, see Stroebel and Compton, Chapter 8 ‘Black and White Photo Development’) or you can just use Diafine and forget all this – more on this later. You’re going to decide what amount of agitation to give the film (inverting the tank at variable intervals) in order to control contrast and grain. Some consult technical treatises like that cited above, others trust their instincts, still others consult notebooks of past successes and failures. Some products you’re going to use are powdered, which means you’re going to have to prepare them in advance and then allow them to cool. You’ll be mixing and diluting chemicals, measuring temperature with special thermometers, one eye on the timer that marks proposed development times.
Anyone not working during film era will be completely flummoxed by the exhausting debates you’re going to encounter about combinations of developers and films and the seemingly infinite possibilities of varying development times, temperatures and methods of agitation to get the look you want (assuming you know what look you do want). Just ignore all that. Do yourself a favor and donate your heavily-annotated Stroebel and Compton to the Salvation Army Book Drive. Take it from me: develop everything in Diafine at anything approaching room temp: 3 Minutes in solution A, 3 minutes in solution B, rinse once, fix for 5 minutes, rinse twice, hang to dry. Forget about consistent temp, hypo-clearing and water turn over cycles. This is the best advice you will ever receive. Trust me.
If you are stubborn enough to ignore my Diafine advice and decide to develop your film in a 1:3 dilution of D-76 or some other developer, your development phase will last five to twenty minutes depending on personal choice, then a short water rinse followed by a fixer solution for 5 minutes to stop development and permanently ‘fix’ the negative image. Drain the fixer and rinse in a water bath. To do this, you’ll need to connect the tank to a water tap using a rubber tube equipped with special adapter that works fitfully at best. Or not. I simply leave the film in the tank, remove the tank lid and fill and dump water into and out of the tank five times. Others more anal wash their negatives in running water for twenty minutes or so and then open the tank, extract the wet film and examine the result : check for density, contrast, possible stains, and the inevitable presence of gunk despite the fact that your darkroom faucet is equipped with an expensive water filter.
To dry your film, first soak it in a dilute mixture of Photoflo for a few seconds (which will allow even drying) and then hang it with laundry pins. Unfortunately, hanging your film exposes it to dust which will adhere to your negatives on the moist emulsion. You are also vulnerable to streaks caused by limestone in your filtered water. Invariably, your negatives are going to have some spots that you’re going to have to deal with at the printing phase. Think of this as part of the authenticity of the process itself, the serendipitous manifestation of entropy inherent in any physical process.
To print your negatives you need an enlarger, an easel to position your printing paper, printing paper, and trays to hold developer, water bath and fixer and a room darkened by a red safety light i.e. you don’t need to print in total darkness. The developer you’ll use to develop prints is going to be different than that used to develop negatives. Why, I don’t know. You can often darken the bathroom and use the toilet as your easel stand, but a real darkroom is the necessary privilege of doing it right, because it will be a relatively large, air-conditioned room, totally light-tight and equipped with temperature-controlled running water. Lighting during printing will be provided by special yellow-green or red lamps , depending on the type of paper used.
Before starting printing proper, you will make contact proofs with a “proofing press”, a glass with six guides in which the film cut into strips of six frames is inserted, hinged on a plane which was in turn is covered with a thin layer of synthetic sponge. In the darkroom, a sheet of letter-sized sensitive paper is placed face up on the surface with the sponge. The glass is then closed over the paper and kept pressed against the paper sheet and the sponge, the sheet then exposed to the light of the enlarger for a few seconds. The exposed sheet is then removed from the proofer and developed normally in the three developing-stop-fixing basins, washed, dried and then stapled to the archival quality celluloid sleeve that contains the corresponding negatives. You now have a first draft of your entire roll of film from which you can use to choose negatives to print.
Once you’ve achieved a history of successful film development, you will possess shelves of priceless sleeved negatives attached to booked contact sheets that will impressively and conspicuously line the shelves of you darkroom library. On these negatives and contact sheets reside those physical traces you’ve stenciled from the real over the course of your life. Think of the contents of your contact sheets to be alive in some metaphysical sense, as Barthes argued convincingly in his seminal work. Consider this a major part of your photographic legacy, and be sure to leave instructions on their preservation and use once you are gone. No detail should be spared for fear of having a clueless heir throw these mystical traces of life in the trash unaware of their priceless value.
Making the Contact Sheet-Figuring Out What to Print
Your contact sheets serve a practical purpose. You create contact sheets so you can figure out the appropriate negatives to print fully. You do this by examining the sheet with a “loupe”, a magnifying glass cup you place against the contact sheet to view the small positives. The proofs should also give you an initial indication of the contrast grade of paper you should be using. Exposure cards exist in five or six shades which help determine the appropriate contrast grade paper to use for a given negative. You have to interpolate data relating to the finish (matt, semi-matt, glossy) to the brand (with all the types of weight, black rendering and appearance that each manufacturer had in the catalog) and to the gradation. Again, if you must, consult Stroebel et al.
Once you’ve gotten over the disappointment of your numerous exposure and framing errors, you pick a decent negative and insert it into the enlarger tray that fits into the enlarger head. You then raise/lower the head so that it projects the image onto your paper easel in the size and margins desired. Put in a strip of paper into the easel for a test exposure strip, focus the enlarger onto the easel and make a test strip.
Once your test exposure has been established, actual printing begins . Focus your enlarger lens onto the easel for a properly sharp print (minus the printing paper obviously) set your enlarger lens aperture to a middling aperture where the len’s native optical quality will be at its best and depth of field will be sufficient to compensate for any curl or lack of flatness as the paper sits in the easel (I usually opt for f5.6 or f8 if there’s a slight curl to the paper as it sits in the easel) and determine how long you’re going to expose the print based on the results of the test exposures. Turn off the enlarger and place your photo paper in the easel. If your photo sheet is large (16×20 inches and more), taking it from the box is a solemn, existentially weighted affair, given its size and intrinsic value as sensitive material you’re going to use to keep alive the trace born of the light that physically impregnated your film. With adequate humility you will place this on the paper easel, a metal plane with four kinds of rulers which, overlapping the sheet of sensitive paper, protect it from light by creating the margins, establishing the cut and theoretically keeping the paper flat.
Of course, it’s never that easy. Left to itself, your sheet will take on a concave or convex shape according to whim and this will nullify your painstaking attempts to focus properly; likewise, rarely will the exposure be uniform across the sheet. It will often be necessary to dodge and burn some parts of the light for proper exposure. Hands are used to cover the parts dodged/burned. Some use sticks and cardboard cut outs in various shapes.
Once pulled from the easel the exposed sheet is gently placed face down under the surface of the developer, gently shaken with tong and turned several times. There, in the reddish semi-darkness you will witness the developing image . This moment is charged with emotion. Wait until it looks as if the print is properly exposed and remove it from the developer tray. But before turning on the light and being able to contemplate the work, the sheet has to be immersed in two other baths: stopping and fixing. This is but a matter of a few minutes. Once the print has been taken from the fixer and started washing you can turn on your lights. Wash the print in a slowly flowing water tray for 30 minutes or so and you’re done.
The Fateful Moment
Turning on the light usually brings disappointment. The print never looks like it did when it was illuminated by the darkroom safety lights. Never. Here is the first real judgment of all your hard work. The results are rarely satisfactory. A decent print, in fact, is usually obtained only after innumerable attempts, during which you will curse life. Persevere and you will eventually get it. My Master Printing Mentor – a pretty famous guy – said it took him about 10 years to figure it all out.
Meanwhile dust lurks everywhere, doing its best ruin your efforts. No matter how you cleaned the negative before placing it into the enlarger carrier, white specks of dust will invariably appear on you museum grade print, as will scratches contained on the film created during its development. The only remedy for this consists in a spotting operation on the print itself after the print is dry . Spotting is a pain in the ass. The real difficulty is diluting the black spotting liquid to match the gradation of gray on which to intervene, not to mention the different types of paper with different shades of black. The bottom line is this: avoid spotting whenever possible. Do so by being 1) fastidious about developing your negatives as gently as possible without excessive handling; 2) dry your negatives with Photoflo and don’t allow them to hang once dried; 3) use a static brush on any negative you enlarge; and 4) always use clean hands when touching negatives to place in the enlarger carrier. In the end, it doesn’t matter, really. Unlike what digital partisans will argue, entropy is real.
Someone, Somewhere, is Happy to Give This to You Free of Charge
All of this has a payoff. It used to be that front to back film photography cost a lot of money: the Leica with “bokeh king” Summicron (and possible Leica Meter) with matching leather case, bulk film loaders and cassettes, various 100 ft rolls of bulk film stored in a dedicated freezer, expensive enlargers with purpose built optics, darkromm exposure meters, analog timers for perfect development, trays, squeegies, film development cannisters and reels, bags of unmixed developer and fixer, ascetic acid stop bath, Photoflo, opaque glass jugs to store mixed chemicals, adjustable easels, rotary print dryers, water filtration systems, Univac electronic anti-static machines with exotic camel hair brush, etc. Literally thousands of dollars in 1970’s era currency.
Now, believe it or not, all of it can be done, from start to finish, for little to no outlay of funds. Everything you need above – with the exception of the Leica – is at this moment being given away for free by hundreds of beaten down former film photographers, clueless executors of estates of dead photographers (“Here Jimmy, take this box of photography junk, maybe you can figure out how to use it”), defunct photographic trade schools forcibly closed by the government for student loan fraud, unfunded film departments of MFA Photographic Arts programs at State U., and chastised 20 somethings who, in a quest for authenticity, have naively bought all of it brand new from Adorama, used it once and now store it in their basement. Just consult your local bankruptcy listings, Craigslist or Facebook Analog Photography groups for specifics. The 60 year old Leica that hasn’t been serviced since 1973, that’s going to cost you. Big Time.
“Existence is infinitely charged with possibilities for meaning, that it’s always happening around us at every moment, needing only the isolation and disembodiment that something like photography provides to open it up to our attentiveness.” – James Yood
I suspect that all of us Leica guys who learned our craft in the film era have a somewhat irrational fixation on “High Speed” Kodak Tri-X B&W film. It’s the film we grew up rolling into cartridges, shooting (oftentimes pushing to 1600 ISO), developing and printing. A complete end to end process.
Kodak first introduced Tri-X 1940 in sheets rated at ASA 200 and tungsten 160. It was one of Kodak’s first “high-speed” black and white films back when ASA 25 was the norm. Kodak released Tri-X in 35 and 120 formats in 1954, available in two speeds, ASA 320 (320TXP) and 400/27° (400TX) although I could never figure out why. Tri-X 400 was the more common of the two, available in 24- and 36-exposure rolls of 35 mm and rolls of 120 as well as 50 and 100 foot 35mm bulk rolls. Tri-X 320 was available in 4×5″, 5×7″, and 8×10″ single sheets.
Tri-X has undergone a number of minor engineering changes during its long history. An early change in ASA (ISO) speed from 200 to 400 around 1960 due to changes in the ASA standard rather than the film. In 2007 Kodak re-engineered the film for finer grain, receiving the new designation 400TX in place of TX or TX400. The amount of silver in the film stock was reduced. Lot’s of fans weren’t happy, suspecting the stock of morphing into a more tame version of the modern TMAX Kodak offerings.
Tri-X 400 and D76 go together like eggs and ham. Tri-X rated at ISO 400 when processed in D76 remains among the faster yet resolute black and white films today. In the film era, Tri-X photographers could change their results by using different developers (high acutance developers give more sharpness but more grain too) and by push-processing the film to higher ISO sensitivities. Pushing Tri-X to ASA 800 in a standard developer generally gets good results and pushing to 1600 is doable as long as you know what you’re doing i.e. using highly diluted developers with little or no agitation and extended development times. This is “stand” or “semi-stand” development, and can allow speeds up to EI 3200 or 6400. Of course, pushing past 800 and you’re going to have a lot of grain and contrast irrespective of the caution you take, especially if you agitate vigorously which some do to accentuate the grain.
My preferred method of shooting it is to rate it at ISO 800 and develop it in Diafine, a two bath speed enhancing developer that gives a true ISO for the film of 640. But then again, I develop everything in Diafine. It’s the closest thing to a miracle developer we have.
Tri-X was the film used by working photojournalists throughout the 50’s to the 70’s. It was manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the U.S., Kodak Canada, and Kodak Ltd in the UK. Kodak data-sheets once recommended different processing times depending on where the film was manufactured. Its sales declined in the 1970s and 1980s due to the falling price and increasing popularity of color film. Since the advent of digital photography, Tri-X is pretty much dead except as a vanity film for those of us trying to recapture the magic of our lost photographic youth. Given the ease of digital, and the various ways we’re now able to ’emulate’ the Tri-X look digitally, shooting 36 exposure rolls of Tri-X with all the attendant issues seems to me quixotic at best. There is hope, however.
An Actual Tri-X Photo, 800 ISO Developed in Diafine.
‘Conflict Photographer’ Don McCullin has used Tri-X to excellent effect his entire career. McCullin, as of 2014 having accepted that Tri-X will one day no longer be available, is dreading the time. “I think in many ways it’s the news we’re all expecting at some point,” he says, “and having heard the rumours about Kodak I’ll be going out in the morning to buy 100 rolls to make sure I’ve got some stashed away!
“I would simply say that Tri-X is probably the greatest film ever to come into existence. I used it throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, and I’m still using it in its medium-format form today for my landscape work. It’s still my favorite material. In terms of what film to use, there was no decision to make,” he says. “Tri-X was by far and away the best material around for the job I needed to do. There were other films that were also very good, such as Plus-X, but they were much slower and were best used when you weren’t likely to have the need to shoot in difficult conditions.
“I loved Tri-X because it was so versatile. You could always push it a stop to 800 ASA and give it longer in the developer to get you out of trouble if you had to. It meant that if the weather was bad or you were shooting indoors, you could carry on working.”
At the heart of Kodak Tri-X is grain. Over the years other ISO 400 B&W films have used new chemical technologies and are much smoother (Kodak TMAX 400, Ilford Delta 400, and Fuji Acros 400). But the rough and gritty feel of Kodak Tri-X continues to be popular, especially with those after a more traditional look. Grain is different than digital noise, regular in structure, tighter and less blotchy. Tri-X is also fairly high contrast, and has a tonal response that renders blues as lighter than reds or greens in black & white.
Digital Tri-X. Nikon D200, 90’s Era 24mm Nikkor AF, ISO 800 RAW, Run Through Tri-X Silver Efex Exposure Curve and Grain Emulation
It’s instructive to note that the clasic Tri-X film look wasn’t based solely on the film’s inherent qualities and/or the manner in which it was processed and printed. The “Tri-X Look” was a function of any number of film era variables – less resolute film ( approx 6mp equivalent), less resolute film era optics that softened the inherent grain. Duplicating this with a digital camera is an art unto itself. I’ve found that 24+ mpg sensors give files that are too dense for the grain emulation of Silver Efex, even when increasing size of the grain to match the increased density. Modern corrected lenses just don’t seem to work either; results are too sharp and ‘clinical.’ Likewise, my Leica M9 Monochrom’s files are just too clean and don’t look right once you subject them to film emulations. And Forget about the Foveons, even though they remain my favorite for digital B&W; too sharp and tonally subtle…why dumb down such beautiful output? They’re more like digital Panatomic-X.
In my experience, the perfect digital camera set up to duplicate Tri-X via Silver Efex or simply with grain emulation in Lightroom is the 10 mpix CCD Nikon D200 coupled with an early AF Nikkor or a manual focus E-Series Nikkor shot at ISO 800. The Ricoh GXR 10 MP M-mount with a classic Summicron (or a Jupiter 8 for that matter) is also a good option. The limited dynamic range of the D200 CCD sensor shot at 800 seems similar to the native dynamic range of Tri-X (it also gives just a hint of noise that the emulated grain covers seamlessly), and the softer, less clinical rendering of the 70’s – 90’s pre-computerized era Nikkors seem a good match for the types of film era lenses people like Don McCullin was using to such beautiful effect. So, after much experimentation, my Digital Tri-X setup is a Nikon D200 with a 24mm 2.8 AF Nikkor, shot at ISO 800 in RAW, developed in Lightroom and then sent to Silver Efex for judicious (light touch) use of the Tri-X emulation curves. I typically choose the default grain amount and only make marginal edits to brightness and contrast where needed. Which is all to say that you don’t need the latest and greatest to get the results you want. It’s all about putting the variables together properly.
Voila! Digital Tri-X!
Post-Script: Having said all this, If I had to choose between shooting Tri-X and shooting Ilford HP5, I’d being shooting the HP5. HP5 has a tonality that Tri-X can’t match…and it also has wonderful grain. And you can push it to ISO 1600 too. Like Tri-X, I shoot it at 800 ISO and develop in Diafine.
As many of you remember, last August I had emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage at which time they found my cancer had returned basically everywhere throughout my abdomen. After taking DNA testing and talking to my oncologist I was told to go home “and let nature take its course.” When asked how long that would be I was told probably six months or so.
Upon arriving home I started having extreme complications – I won’t go into the details except to say that it was extremely painful, messy, smelly, generally disgusting. Apparently something inside my abdomen was leaking nasty stuff into my body cavity. So we got the doc back out and he told me I had a non-treatable infection in my abdomen which would shortly advance to a state of sepsis and would kill me – quickly and painlessly, mind you – in 3 to 5 days. Ok.
So I did what anyone who has five days to live does – I called up every person I loved and told then to come visit now. Jorge Alvarez, the guy above, flew on immediate notice from the Far East, stopped off at his place in Paris just long enough to pick up some things and then was off to Raleigh to see me. He brought a bottle of my favorite Calvados.
Jorge was just one of many friends who dropped everything to come and say goodbye. Me holding court from a hospice bed brought in the the occasion, friends plying me with the best bourbon they could find, a mix of Dexter Gordon, Led Zep, Dylan, Juana Molina, Steely Dan etc playing someplace in the background. Lot’s of smoking. Lot’s of gummy eating. Lots of tall tales. Lots of love given and received. It was wonderful.
Waiting for Someone to Bring me Another Calvados and a Smoke. Time Is Short!
And then I didn’t die. The hospice people were, to put it mildly, confused. Apparently I’m stronger than they thought as I fought off the infection. Of course, friends and family had to leave at some point, but I’ll always cherish my deathbed experiences of those 5 days. I don’t think one can have a better experience being in the company of those you love and being able to really speak about the things that really matter, to be able to laugh and cry without artifice or embarrassment.
The photos above were taken with my F5, the film thrown in a bag of about 100 other undeveloped rolls, presumably never to be seen again. A funny thing happened when I got my reprieve: I decided I really didn’t want to die just yet…and the 6 months thing was not carved in stone. I felt a real need to continue on Leicaphilia, doing so in a way that would evolve in any way that seemed appropriate. It’s been great therapy. I’ve also embarked on a quixotic quest to develop all undeveloped film (literally hundreds of rolls going back to 2015) which I’ve just finished yesterday. The photos above are part of that output.
I’m now 3 months into my death march, on hospice with not further treatment. And I’m feeling better than ever. Today, Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks to all the wonderful friends who’ve reached out to me – academic mentors, old loves, ex wives, forever friends, family. Their love and concern have meant everything to me.
How long do I have left? Who knows. I think it’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is what do I do with my time now that I know that it might be limited. Much of what I’ve been doing is putting a lifetime of photography in order – making sure I have hard prints of those things that mean something to me. Donna can figure out what to do with it when I’m gone, although I’m not expected that to be for a bit – fingers crossed.
I have received many emails from readers saying hello and thanking me for whatever enjoyment they’ve gotten from the blog. Each of them is special in some way. Thank you. I’m convinced they are part of why I’m doing so well. There are a lot of good people who read Leicaphilia. That makes me really happy.
You are welcome to keep them coming. I prefer you tell me how wonderful I am and how much you’ve enjoyed all the years of Leicaphilia, but if you must you can tell me where I was wrong, the things I’m full of shit about, the inconsistencies etc and I won’t be offended. You can email me at email@example.com.
I do have one regret. I once made a snide remark- a cheap shot – about a picture of a guy with a Leica who turned out to be Kenneth Wajda … a photographer with a web presence who, unbeknownst to me was also a dedicated reader of my blog. Instead of getting all huffy and calling me out for the asshole I am, Kenneth responded like the gentleman he is, which did three things 1) It made me really admire him and realize he is 10 times the man I’ll ever be, 2) it got me watching his whimsical videos about photography (think Mr. Rogers takes up photography); and 3) has made me feel like a guilty fool ever since for taking a cheap shot at such a good man. Sorry Kenneth.
300lb, 38hp beast
It was exactly two years ago today that I got my initial cancer diagnosis – Thanksgiving 2020. I’m still here. To celebrate, I’m going for a completely illegal motorcycle ride through the backroads of beautiful North Carolina on my 08 Kawasaki ZX2r, a totally worked on Moto3 bike that weighs 306 lbs with a full tank of gas, puts out 38 hp at the rear wheel and redlines at 15K. Forged Magnesium wheels with ceramic bearings front and back, lightweight Galfer Wave Rotor front, drilled lightweight rotor rear, steal braided lines, suspension completely redone by Traxxion Dynamics including a beautiful adjustible Penske shock out back, billet aluminum triple clamp, billet rearsets with gp shift, full wrapped titanium header with gp end cap, Forks revalved with cartridge emulators, open airbox with hi-flow air filter, head ported and polished, lightened and polished crank, 13:1 hi comp pistons, 32mm Keihin flat-slide carbs, stage 3 jetting, low-drag non-o-ring chain, ceramic engine coating, ignition advancer to punch redline to 15k.
Runs like a banshee all the way to 15,000 and wants more. It only goes 110mph top speed, but it goes 110 literally everywhere. It’s fun to dump liter bikes in the canyons on this thing. It will outrun hapless Sheriff’s deputies on semi-twistie backroads with an ease which is something I take great pride in. Nothing like running from some 21 y/o kid with a badge and a 500hp Police Charger on your 38 hp Ninja 250. Given the rural areas I ride, the lack of police helicopter support, my extensive knowledge of every backroad and county line with a 300 mile radius of Raleigh and stupid riding skills honed banging plastic fairings at 160mph in CCS and WERA Cup races back in the 90’s, riding like a hooligan while being chased by the cops is one of the few transcendent things in life with relatively no downside ….as long as you stay committed. So, today, as part of my thanks to myself, I’m going riding. Wish me luck.
I’m not sure why this gives me such satisfaction. The head honcho at Leica mansplains the Leica to Princess Joy Villa, she the now ex of Thorsten [von] Overgaard, way back in 2012 before sane people started picking up on the Overgaard’s weird vibe. The whole thing is cringey in the best sense. What I really like is catching glimpses of TvO to the side while Andreas Kaufman shoots the shit with the Princess, the furtive glances over to the ongoing conversation indicating a thoroughly uncomfortable Overgaard [….”shit, what’s she saying now????…is she talking about me??]
Apparently, shortly after this encounter with these grifters, Leica conveniently dis-invited them to their centtenial celebrations in 2014 and basically ignores them.
I’m in the process of selling most of my photography equipment – cameras, scanners, darkroom material, bulk film, lenses, photo books, you name it. An M9 Monochrom, an M240, a Sigma SD Quattro with 17-50 Sigma DC EX HSM, a complete Ricoh GXR system ( 3 bodies with M-Mount/28mm module/50mm module/16mpix APC-S 17.5-55 Zoom module/ VHF viewfinder/ 28mm optical viewfinder/35mm optical viewfinder (killer deal)), an S2000 Nikon with full suite of VC S-Mount lenses, a vintage Leotax, two vintage Fockas, assorted VC lenses, a Pakon F-135 Plus Bulk Scanner with dedicated computer interface (greatest thing ever), bulk film, Valuable photography books coming out of my ears, etc. etc. If I don’t do it now, it’ll be left to my wife to deal with all of it, which, in addition to being patently unfair to her, would probably result in her giving away thousands of dollars worth of equipment to friends/family who’d have no idea of its worth and who’d dispose of it themselves. I’d prefer she at least have the money and none of the fuss.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped me from just now buying a new camera, an SD15 Sigma for a ridiculous price from Japan. I figure it this way: We spend more on a few days groceries than I did on this thing. If there’s ever a time I’m entitled to some innocent fun it’s obviously now. If I die next month, Donna can throw the thing out for all I care; I’ve spent more on a steak dinner.
The “Mint” SD15 from Japan is new, obviously never been used, having been sitting in a box on a shelf somewhere in a Toyko camera emporium. Once I figure out the Japanese langue menu I’m good to go. Foveon sensor (have I told you how much I love Foveon sensors?), the same iteration that came with the compact DP2. 4.5/14.9 megs depending how you count the stacked Foveon sensor. While you’ll get 6×9 300dpi resolution prints, my experience is you can easily print Foveon files at lower rez output, say 220dpi and the output is still stunning. Let’s agree you can easily print to 8×12 inches with no up res. Of course, if you use newer AI generated up-rezing programs like Topaz Gigibyte, you can hang wall size posters with this little $200 toy. And you get the Foveon look too. Just keep the ISO at 100.
Herein are a few of the photos I’ve taken with it on my initial shakedown walk, all within walking distance of my house, shot in an hour our two, downloaded to Sigma Pro Photo 6.8 for Raw conversion to Tiff, then outputted to Silver Efex Pro for B&W conversion. Pretty simple once you learn the workflow.
We’re now firmly in the ‘Golden Era’ of digital photography with the cost/quality ratio having essentially flattened out but yet some many photographers still replacing perfectly fine equipment every two years or so. See the progression from the M240 to the M11; essentially a redoing of some bells and whistles. Yet you can pick up a cherry M240 with assorted goodies for $2500 while the M11 is going to run you $7999. To me that’s no choice at all.
Same with the Foveon series. In my mind, the 12 y/o SD15 4meg Sigma produces as tonally rich and satisfying files as does my $3700 M9 CCD Monochrom, proving you need not spend super amounts to get good digital results, especially when so many ‘obsolete’ models like the SD15 work just like they did new. And oftentimes they’re still impressive.
I get it. There’s a lot happening in NYC. But this over-the-top self-satisfaction so arrogantly misses a few major points: 1) Photographers are doing exceptional work everywhere; 2) Great printers are plying their craft everywhere, some sitting in front of their computer at home or in their dedicated darkroom; 3) Just because you can make a print big doesn’t mean it gains anything in the process; in fact, more often smaller prints have a more pronounced effect. Georges Fevre, HCB’s printer, used to say “if you can’t make them good, make them big!” George rarely printed larger than 8×12. That seemed to work out alright.
Videos like this do no one any favors. Somewhere, in some small town in France or Scotland or Argentina or some god-forsaken place in rural America, there are photographers and printers doing exceptional work, work that doesn’t rely on a hyper-active urban environment for subjects and personal, professional and corporate backslapping. They’re there, doing their work instead of bragging about it. Ilford needs to go find some of these people instead of perpetuating the lazy narrative that claims everything happens in NYC. It doesn’t.
Woman with Broom, Front Porch, Greenwood, Mississippi
Get a terminal diagnosis and you tend to reflect on things, ultimate things of meaning in your life – people, places, things done and experienced. It’s actually a marvelous byproduct of having a limited amount of time left. Everything, even those most simple things, shine with new meaning. I’m now three months into a “go home and let nature take its course” diagnosis – when asked I was told “maybe six months…we just don’t know.” Last week again it was nearer – this week, feeling a bit well again.
One thing I am doing is a lot of negative scanning and photo printing. My family has encouraged me to do at least that and, frankly, I’m amazed at the amount of good work I’ve produced in 52 years of actively photographing. Certainly looking back over it now I can see my progression both aesthetically and philosophically. If I could characterize that progression it would be as a progressive movement toward simplicity of both thought, design and presentation. Photography as an expressive medium need not be complicated to be effective. Simple works just fine.
Simple photos, profound in their simplicity. The emotional and aesthetic payoff is the power conferred by an ostensibly “simple” visual creation. Simplicity allows space for the viewer’s creative input. Complexity turns an aesthetic event into an intellectual event. Art isn’t intellectual. Art is an intuitive, right brain response. Intellectualization corrupts it with left brain logic.
But simplicity itself isn’t a guarantee of aesthetic worth. Sometimes a simple photo can be badly framed, awkwardly composed, dull. What makes simplicity aesthetic?
This Guy Played on 50% of the Iconic music of the 60’s, Usually Without Credit. Why? Because He Made it Simple. To the Point and Done.
I’ve been doing a lot of music listening as I’ve sat at my computer, and it’s become obvious to me that my tastes incline to the early to mid-60’s in both Jazz and Rock and Rock. In Jazz, Dexter Gordan, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins were still melodically and harmonically linked to the blues structurally, unlike the unfortunate era of “freer jazz” that followed it with Fusion and Free Jazz. Likewise, Rock and Roll. The Kinks, the Beatles, The Who, The Stones, CCR, the Byrds all made remarkably simple yet incredible powerful stuff through the 60’s. Throw on the Kink’s 1964 single “You Really Got Me” and if that doesn’t make you want to get up and move, there’s clearly something wrong with you. Its powerfully simplicity almost requires you do.
To me, the greatest single rock and roll song is the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” (1965) , with the Beatle’s “Rain” and the Byrd’s “Turn, Turn Turn” close behind. What makes “I Can’t Explain” such a perfect encapsulation of what rock and roll should be is 1) its brevity; and 2) Jimmy Page’s seeringly simple guitar lick at 1:33″-1:47″ that caps his progressive counterpoint surf of the melody up to that point and builds the song to the perfect two minute climax. (And, yes, that’s Page playing, not Pete Townsend, although Townsend has insinuated it was actually him; it wasn’t, Jimmy Page says it’s Jimmy Page; that’s enough for me). Apparently done in one take and then off to the next song. Remarkable. 2 minutes, get to the point. Done. It still brings the hairs up on the back of my neck after 55 years,
And then came the 70’s and the era of the extended instrumental rock and roll song, partly, no doubt, fueled indirectly by Page himself with Led Zep. However, one must make the distinction between the more extended blues work of latter Led Zep and their inferior 70’s era hair band camp followers. Even the latter day Led Zep is inherently simple, based as it is on blues harmonic and rhythmic structures. The skill-less imitators took the worst excesses and tried to make them virtues. They hid lack of simple vision behind faux-intellectualization They were bad bands unable to state the point and move on, false complexity as a mark of nothing to say.
What does this all mean for your photography? It’s simple. Find one thing to say. You don’t need to travel far or engage in constant novelty. Everywhere around you there are subjects for your study. You need not be covering a war in Bosnia or walking the streets of Paris or New York. Wherever you are is fine. Bring a simple eye to what’s around you. One thing at a time. Don’t overthink it and don’t overdo it. And when it looks right to you, stop and move on.
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult” – Hippocrates (460-400 BC)
I love the photo above. I found it awhile back on a contact sheet where I had completely passed it over previously. I love the uncertain mood – unknown and maybe desolate. In the isolation of the frame, I look at it and ask myself what these people are doing seemingly in the middle of nowhere, marching off to an unknowable destination.
In reality, there’s a hotel directly behind me, and these folks are obviously just out for a short walk and back, but you can’t read that from the photo itself. Maybe that’s why I passed it up first few time around, because the reality hadn’t yet faded for me and I knew that in some sense the photo was a lie. With time, however, it’s not. It’s just three people walking someplace unknown, to both them and us. Something then must have told me to snap the photo and it would come together later. A lot of the photos I’ve liked have been that way, which tells me the best you can do is often serandipitous.
I’ve got to hand it to some of the self-promoters who’ve hitched their wagon to Leica. They are, in the proper sense of the word, ‘parasites’ i.e.
An organism that lives and feeds on or in an organism of a different species; and/or
One who lives off and flatters the rich; a sycophant.
Since starting this blog in 2013 I’ve gradually become (a very minor) part of the secondary Leica media machine, which has made me aware of others involved in the same thing. I suppose that makes me a parasite too, except that I don’t monetize the blog. I’ve probably spent over $10,000 in the last 9 years to keep this up and running without ads. I did add a “Buy Me a Coffee” thing to the site, for which I won’t apologize, because you are totally free not to buy me a coffee, and 99.9% of you freeloaders don’t (thank you to the .01% who do). You, dear reader, get it for nothing. Think of me as a benevolent parasite.
Recovered From the Way Back Machine: Back in 2014 He Was a Photo Journalist, Apparently. Most of it is Bullshit.
Let’s do a deep-dive on Mr. Thorsten [von] Overgaard, the gentleman above with the film wrapped around his face, the “Specialist in Reportage.” [von] Overgaard is, in my opinion, the premiere Leica parasite in the strict sense of that term. The picture itself is instructive. It implies that [von] Overgaard has a long history as a photographer who cut his teeth professionally in the film era (i.e. before 2000). Certainly that’s what I take from it and I think that’s what it means to do. The truth is he doesn’t have any photographic history stretching back to the film era. If my understanding is correct, he didn’t even begin to photograph until about that time. Prior to that he worked in the advertising industry and had no connection to photography of any sort. Apparently, at that time he became a Scientologist and had an epiphany that he could be a photographer, or at least that’s what I remember of a blog post from his early days that has since disappeared from the web (or, as I discuss subsequently, has been buried so deep it’s pretty much impossible to now find).
The film photo is what people in the ad business refer to as ‘puffery’, exaggerated claims used in the service of publicity. No overt claim need be made; it’s there to subtly plant the seed in your mind – Overgaard/film – this guy has competence that goes back to the film era, and era intimately intertwined with Leica history BTW.
It’s one small misrepresentation in a much larger history of misrepresenting much about himself, his history using Leica cameras, and his connection to Leica. He’s massively inflated – and sometimes outright made up – his background and career accomplishments. It’s a shame, because he does publish good information about Leica’s. And there’s a lot of it. It’s just that it’s in the service of all sorts of workshops, books, videos, correspondence courses, print sales that all rely on him being perceived as an expert, seasoned professional photographer. He’s not. He’s what the dictionary defines as a “huckster” i.e. one who uses aggressive, showy, and sometimes devious methods to promote or sell a product, most of it puffery and/or downright duplicity with an eye to selling $800 books and $5000 workshops to Leica owners.
What’s the proof, you ask? As someone trained as an attorney who spent 32 years deconstructing evidence given me by the opposing side, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding confabulations i.e. falsities, lies. Deviousness and confabulations are easy to uncover if you know the tells. Overgaard’s website is chock full of tells. Man, there’s a lot to unpack here, to put it mildly. So let’s go:
According to his self-written bio “Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish born multiple award-winning AP photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras.”
Claim 1. AP, Getty Image, Wire Image Photographer. Apparently Overgaard is or has been an AP Photographer. He does not, and never has “worked for Getty Images and Wire Image.” AP members are newspapers, broadcast stations and individuals that do their own original news reporting. Once you are a member, the AP has the right to take the local news you report and rewrite it for use elsewhere. While he apparently is a member of the AP, he’s not very prolific, to put it mildly. Run his name under the AP individual photographer search and you come up with 6 photos of Seal sitting on a bench and 6 photos of Kelly Preston…and I found 1 photo of Hans Blix on his website that he’s given the AP designation (why he would need an AP designation for his own work on his own site is a mystery). That’s the extent of his 20 year AP career. I can find no evidence that any of these 12 photos has been subsequently circulated by AP. There is no evidence he’s been commissioned to do any AP work. Ever. There’s no evidence that he’s been paid for work through the Associated Press. There are no photo credits on any site, or in any magazine that I can find, citing him as the AP photographer. None. As best I can tell, he’s never been to a war zone to report with his camera, never done a human interest story sold through AP, never covered a news event of any sort that was subsequently distributed nationally or internationally by AP. And there’s certainly no evidence that he’s a “multiple-award winning AP Photographer”; that claim is patently false, period. As for “Working for Getty Images and Wire Image”, complete fabrication. Getty Images is simply a stock photo agency. One does not “work for Getty Images.”Likewise, WireImage. Using his criteria, you too can work for WireImage – just submit a photo of your cat. Verdict: False.
Getty and Wire Image Search 11/22. Oops! I love the fact that 5 of the 7 Images he’s submitted to WireImage are of him. The 2 Denmark Royals are at a Public Event. Clearly, Getty and WireImage Aren’t Paying [von] Overgaard’s Rent
Tsunami Reportage? More Flim Flam
Claim 2. Awards? Nothing. No mention anywhere, on 3rd party sites or his own, of any specific award he’s received for his photography work. Certainly nothing for his work as “an AP photographer” (which is the implication). None. There is a screen shot from the APA “American Photographic Artists” claiming one of his photos won an award there in 2017. Entirely plausible…but frankly, not very impressive. The APA is a vanity organization. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can join and be a member. Just pay the fee ($350 if you want to be labeled a “Professional”) and you get a membership card and a “Pro Media ID card”., which, according to their website “is specifically designed to help expedite quick check-in service at airports, as well as to facilitate the pro media discount on excess baggage, available through many airlines.” Seriously. And, of course, they offer “photo contests”, (i.e. money making devices for the sponsor) where they charge people to enter a photo in a contest and some lucky guy or gal gets to claim they won and put it on their CV. Verdict: False.
Claim 3. Known for his writings .Yes, he is known for his writing about photography and Leica cameras… but that’s been built on the claim of his long, distinguished history as a famous photographer, a claim which is a complete fabrication. In his defense, he is a decent writer and he knows a lot about Leica’s and how to use them. Much of what he writes, stripped of the self-promotion, is valuable information that less-experienced Leica users can learn from. Verdict: True with a caveat.
Claim 4. Claims to have “thousands” of images for sale through Getty Images Etc. [First, see above] When you click the website link where he makes such claims you get nothing but a recursive loop runaround to a site called “PSI Photography Services Inc” (supposedly located with main office in Hollywood (No Address or phone number given) and a “studio office” in Clearwater, Florida (No address or phone number given)) which bills itself as “a full-service agency for photographers” but yet claims to represent only one client – you guessed it, Thorsten [von] Overgaard (see above). The site has no photos nor a link to any photos. There is no ability to view [von] Overgaard’s photographs or order his photographs. It is a complete dead end. It gives no physical address or even a phone number. The “Inc.” of course, indicates that it’s an incorporated business entity in CA (or maybe Florida). A quick check of incorporated business entities through the Secretary of State’s office in both CA and FL finds no such corporation. It’s a complete fabrication. It doesn’t exist.
Where ARE All these Images? Apparently, You’ll need a Forensic Computer Specialist to Find Them
Further digging unearthed this above. He claims to previously have shot for Life, AP, Getty Etc but “pulled his archive” from them in 2013 and moved them to PSI. Let’s parse this out. First,The idea that he shot for Life is simply ridiculous. Life folded in 2000; by his own admission elsewhere, he hadn’t even started photographing yet and was working at a Danish ad agency, and even if he had been around, Life wouldn’t have looked twice at an inexperienced hack like him. Second, claiming you pulled them all from these various archives is a convenient way of hiding the fact that you’ve never had any there to begin with, because it can’t be confirmed. Third, There’s nothing at PSI where these vast archives are supposed to have been moved. Nothing. PSI itself is a fabrication. PSI doesn’t exist except as a webpage buried behind a bunch of hyperlinks. There is no physical PSI location anywhere, though he claims it to be “located in Hollywood”. None of these “thousands of images” can be accessed anywhere I’ve been able to locate, which, if you’re a professional photographer partly subsisting on the sale of your images, isn’t a very good thing. I guess you have to contact PSI and talk to their “Director of Sales”. Good luck finding them. Verdict: False, coupled with serious deviousness to hide the fact from the public.
“By 2006 he was concentrating more on photography, specialising [sic] in more portrait work for international magazines and eventually for actresses and celebrities such as Seal, Kelly Preston, Anne Archer and for Bill Clinton and members of the Danish Royal Family.”
Claim 5. Photographed Bill Clinton: [von] Overgaard claims to have photographed Bill Clinton. Well, he has, in the sense that he stood outside somewhere with a bunch of other people and grabbed a snapshot of him as he got out of his car. If you do a deep dive on him with Google (“Thorsten Overgaard Bill Clinton”), you’ll find a few photos of Clinton getting out of a car amongst a throng of people (Thorsten just another member of the general public standing in a big crowd taking a photo) and one B&W photo, an informal shot of Clinton in the Oval Office – a photo he misleadingly uses on his website –that was taken by Robert McNeely. That’s it. Claiming you’ve photographed Clinton as part of your bio is like me claiming I’m friends with King Charles because I shook his hand once. Verdict: False.
Claim 6. He photographed Seal: Yes. Six informal photos of him sitting outdoors. That’s it. No studio sessions. Verdict: Puffery.
Claim 7 And Kelly Preston: B Grade celebrity and Scientologist. Six really banal photos of her, apparently in a studio. [von] Overgaard is a Scientologist. Verdict: Minor puffery.
Claim 8. And Ann Archer: B Grade celebrity and Scientologist. He photographed her while she was was presenting 50,000£ to charities on behalf of the L. Ron Hubbard Foundation, amongst them the East Grinstead Museum where [von] Overgaard shot a few quick “portraits” of her. He’s posted these to his website with a big article about how he photographed her. I’ll let you be the judge of his work. Verdict: Large puffery.
Claim 9. Portrait Work for International Magazines: His bio claims he has shot for Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue and the Times (https://www.overgaard.com/about) in addition to the Life claims I’ve noted above. I can find no evidence for any of these claims. There’s nothing on his site to back up said claims. Run a search for “Overgaard Vogue” and you come up with lots of hits – all for Anders Overgaard, who is a legit fashion photographer. For Thorsten, Nothing. “Overgaard GQ”? More Anders Overgaard. Thorsten: Nothing. Vanity Fair? Well, you get where I’m going…. Any other legitimate “international magazines”? None that I can find. Verdict: False.
Claim 10. Royalty. [von] Overgaard claims royal lineage by virtue of the “von Overgaard” name change. This is a complete affectation. A few a years ago he gratuitously added the “von” to his name, apparently to claim some sort of noble lineage when in fact he comes from humble lower middle class roots in Denmark. This mirrors his wife, Joy Villa, another Scientologist who bills herself as “Princess Joy Villa” when in fact she’s a HS graduate from Orange California, although in her latest bio she’s dropped the Princess claim and now claims to be a famous recording star. She and [von] Overgaard are no longer married, apparently. Verdict: Royalty? False.
Claim 11. Has Photographed Members of the Danish Royal Family. Yes, he has. Verdict: True.
Claim 12. Has Photographed for Life Magazine. Oh boy. [major eye roll] Hilarity ensues. Verdict: No. Full Stop.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I find the Google search result above very suspicious. Do a search on [von] Overgaard and, after two or three pages of links to his website and a bunch of self-written bios, you get this. And you get literally pages and pages of it, again and again and again and again, ad nauseum. Click on it and you get a link to a nonsense PDF that you can’t access without membership. Now, a few years back, had you done the same Google search, after 3 or 4 pages of self-promotion you’d have found a number of interesting articles about [von] Overgaard – one a long-ago bio post he had written himself when he not yet a photographer and was working for an ad agency. A lot of what he said then flatly contradicts the history he’s since spun about himself. You’d also have found a post by a former friend – apparently a photographer who helped him gain membership to AP – calling him out for all his false claims about his backstory and labelling him a liar. These things don’t come up anymore, because they’re buried behind endless pages of this site above.
More egregiously, his name is linked there to Humans of New York as if that was his blog or that he has something to do with it. It isn’t.He doesn’t. He’s got nothing to do with it. Started in November 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York developed a large following through social media. Stanton’s book based on the blog subsequently spent almost a year on the New York Times Bestseller list. The closest [von] Overgaard ever got to that blog is that he probably read it once or twice. Another laughably cheap, duplicitous attempt at appropriating other people’s work, purposely done to deceive (it takes time and effort to create a link that shows up so many times in a Google search. Somebody who knew what they were doing created that link).
I’m convinced someone has created and placed that PDF site and tagged it in such a way that it comes up again and again in order to bury sites critical of [von] Overgaard or that contradict his current backstory while also insinuating that he has some connection to the Humans of New York project. To put it mildly, it’s just low, patently dishonest and a grave disservice to Mr. Stanton and all the great work he’s done on his blog. [von] Overgaard should be ashamed. He owes Mr. Stanton an apology if nothing else.
Which brings a larger question: Why isn’t the mainstream photo press calling him out for all this? You’d think that at least one of them would do some basic fact checking. 30 minutes and a few clicks of the mouse and you’d be aware of some serious issues.
Thorsten [von] Overgaard Obsessing Over Aesthetics
“Obsessed with the aesthetics of the world, Overgaard has been blessed with an innate ability to paint with the light he sees.” More word salad. I do understand the need ‘to sell oneself.’ I get that’s what he’s doing, mixed in as it is with a lot of downright fabrications. And, it’s not like there isn’t a veritable cottage industry of famous people who’ve invented backstories. The ‘Art World’ is full of them. [von] Overgaard is selling a dream to people dreaming the same dream – it’s the dream of exclusivity, access and specialized knowledge. So what if it’s all an illusion. There’s always going to be people happy to partake of the illusion. Thorsten [von] Overgaard is just giving them what they want, right? Unfortunately, the dream he’s selling is fabricated, parasitical of the hard work of legitimate photographers who’ve used a Leica and all the associations that come along with it.
Surely, a Prolific Famous Award Winning Photo Journalist Like [von] Overgaard has a Book or Two of his Collected Work on Amazon, Right?
And, as I said previously, I do think that he is doing some good things. His site has a ton of information about Leica’s; he’s obviously put a lot of work into it. People who take his workshops say he’s a nice guy and that they’ve enjoyed the experience. Fair enough. I give him credit for all this. I just wish he’d stop with all the puffery. Is he, or has he ever been, a photographer seriously embedded in day to day photography practice either as a freelance photographer, a staff photographer, or a gallery represented ‘Art Photographer’ or the author of industry published and recognized photo books? No. Does he have any significant ‘body of work’ that singles him out as an accomplished photographer either from an artistic or popular perspective? No. Does he have a gallery that represents his interests, exhibits his body of work and offers it for sale? No. As best I can tell, he is not, and never has been, represented by a gallery anywhere, let alone one in the usual centers of artistic practice – NYC, Paris, Berlin, LA. Again, as best I can tell, the only gallery shows he’s ever had have been self-generated vanity projects where the artist rents the space and throws a party to himself. As best I can tell, there are no extant reviews of his work by any recognized, independent photography or art critic associated with any independent publication or website, ever. He doesn’t even appear to have, or have ever had, a studio where he practices his “portrait work.” His own website doesn’t seem to have a gallery of his best “portrait work.” The only thing his For Sale Gallery page offers is 7 photographs, one of a horse, one of a girl sitting by a window, one of a guy in a snowstorm. You get the idea.
Has he offered a site – ignoring the self-generated puffery – with a lot of good, practical information about Leica’s? Yes. That should be good enough. Hell, without all the puffery and self-aggrandizement I’d be a fan. Starting from basically nothing in 2000, he’s taught himself a lot about Leica, and he’s used his website, among other things, to impart that knowledge to the public. That’s impressive. I admire him for it. It’s all the other things I’ve noted here where he loses me; they’re the product of a calculated deviousness that most people with a conscience can’t pull off with a straight face. [von] Overgaard, meanwhile, seems to have doubled down on it all.
Do a Standard Industry Search for “Photo by Thorsten Overgaard.” That should uncover all those industry credits for his remarkable work, right? This is what you get – Nothing but links to his website. I especially like the photo of him dressed up as Shakespeare…or is that Francis Bacon?
Here’s what [von] Overgaard should do: He should scrub his website of all the false, misleading information. He should scrub all the false links. He doesn’t even have to acknowledge any of it; no mea culpa’s necessary. He’s now been given a means of saving face. Just bill himself as an educator, someone who knows everything about Leica, their history, their cameras; he DOES know a lot. Invite real photographers – folks with recognized experience and expertise to talk at his seminars. Given how much he’s invested in the whole thing, it should be easy enough.
The business model he’s currently operating under is fraudulent. People are spending good money for his books, seminars, etc based on fraudulent claims. Someday, somewhere, an enterprising attorney is going to file a class action lawsuit against him for fraud. Plaintiffs will be those people who spent money on his courses, books, video presentations based on the expectation that they were going to receive instruction from someone who actually had the experience and past success he claims to have. In other words, they were induced to spend money based on patently false claims and the claimant knew they were false and made them for the purpose of inducing the public to buy what he’s offering. As part of the class action suit, serve him with interrogatories requesting proof of each of his claims. Sit him down and depose him under oath. Someone could have a field day with this. Just a thought.
Elements for Fraudulent Inducement in Florida: Defendant made a false statement regarding a material fact; Defendant knew or should have known the representation was false; Defendant intended that the representation induce plaintiff to act on it; and Plaintiff suffered damages in justifiable reliance on the representation.
My bio, [von] Overgaard style:
“Award-winning photographer, photojournalist and gallery represented Abstract Expressionist painter whose photos and paintings hang in private collections both in the States and in Europe. His photos have been published in B&W Magazine and Vis A Vis Paris and exhibited at SPEOS Gallery in Paris and Sizl gallery in Carrboro, North Carolina. He has been gallery represented both for his photography and his painting by Sizl until their untimely closure in 2008. In 2006 his paintings and photographs were exhibited in a 2 man show along with award-winning Macedonian painter Robert Cvetkovski at Sizl. His photography permanently graced the walls of the iconic Crooks Corner Restaurant, an eatery whose recent closing literally made the front page of the New York Times. He is friends with King Charles and has dined with numerous celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and James Spader. He has sat at table with Susan Sontag in Paris and discussed her iconic book On Photography. He has shared a room with Henri Cartier-Bresson. He has travelled to numerous countries on 4 continents photographing in his unique, muscular B&W style. He has bumped into many famous people while engaged in ‘street photography’ in Paris and on the Lower East Side and Soho in NYC, but is sophisticated enough to leave them be. His photographic education includes study at The New School in NYC, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and SPEOS Paris, where he studied under Cartier-Bresson’s Master Printer George Fevre. Being a man of great integrity, he has consistently rejected commercializing his work, as such standing in the tradition of uncompromising artists like Robert Frank. He has also earned graduate degrees in religion/law/history from Duke University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a matriculated graduate student at Harvard (consistently ranked as the world’s finest University) until he was stricken with cancer. He is noted for his trenchant writing on his influential award-winning Leicaphilia blog. Photographing seriously since he was 12, he has been blessed with an innate ability to photograph with light he sees. In 2005, he brought that innate sense to his remarkable large canvas paintings. He always wears a camera.”
Andreas Kaufman (Leica Bigwig) and Lenny Kravitz Share an Inside Joke
“The Leica M-P “Correspondent” is an homage to Lenny’s lifelong passion for photography that started with the Leicaflex he received from his father on his 21st birthday.” – Kravitz Design. One question: How does one start a “lifelong passion” at 21?
Here’s the “unboxing” video of the Lenny Kravitz MP. The camera and lenses of the Kravitz set are identical to the production MP’s technical specifications i.e. the only difference is the faux wear and the Lenny Kravitz stamp of approval. Give Leica credit: only Leica could introduce an artificially worn camera named after a B-grade rock star, label it the “Correspondence Edition”, require that it be handled with white gloves, charge 3 times the price of the normal petty bourgeois version ($24,500 US), and sell them all.
Make Sure You Wear Those White Gloves While Handling That Old, Beat Up Camera!
Apparently, Leicaphiles eat these absurdities up. In doing a Google search on the camera’s introduction, I can find nothing but breathless fawning by people who should know better – PetaPixel, Leica Rumors, Steve Huff Photo, et al. Critical thinking has always been in short supply among the secondary Leica press. Lesson to be learned: just know when you read these sites that you’re not getting objective information; you’re getting recycled press releases and boot-licking sycophancy whose main objective, as best I can tell, is to stay on the good side of Leica in hopes of catching some scraps from the table.
You may have noticed that I’m seemingly on an extended Lenny Kravitz rant. To clarify: Lenny Kravitz is a very talented guy, much more so than I could ever be. He’s not some self-promoting hack hawking the illusion of his own competence; he’s just a guy who’s outside of his lane when it comes to photography, hawking a vanity project with the complicity of Leica who makes money from it. Apparently, his dad was a professional photographer who used a Leica. His dad gave him a Leicaflex when he was 21 and he’s had an interest in photography since that time. All perfectly legit. He’s also a famous musician…which he’s parlayed into his gig with Leica, and Leica has pimped him as a photographer, giving him exhibits and publishing his vanity project – “Flash” – whose print run, except for a bunch given away for promotional purposes, has probably long ago been remaindered and pulped.
The secondary press has actively promoted the whole schtick, often with great enthusiasm, which says a lot about what they must think of you, their reader. You’d think at least one critic, someone with a media platform like the ones above, would question the whole thing – or at least not smugly play along – but apparently no one did. The reality is this: those sites are just further marketing arms for camera manufacturers, Leica foremost among them. They’re not there to look out for your interests. They’re parasitical to the whole Leica marketing enterprise, there to manipulate your interests and make money doing it.
The Re-Introduced Leica M6
And Yet. If you can get past all the nonsense – what I like to refer to as the ‘Overgaardization’ of the brand – Leica continues to do some pretty remarkable things. The reintroduction of M6 production, almost 40 years after its initial offering, is a case in point. What other camera company is producing and marketing mechanical film cameras in 2022? Nobody. Now, with the new M6, Leica offers three (yes, 3) mechanical film cameras, the MA, the MP and the M6. And they sell every one they produce. As I understand it, Leica is now more fiscally healthy than it’s ever been, whereas twenty years ago they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Cleary as a money-making operation they are wildly successful. And they deserve to be, given their continued commitment to what got them here i.e. mechanical film cameras.
Who’s buying these currently offered film Leica’s is anyone’s guess. Professionals? I doubt it. Old, crusty guys looking to relive their photographic youth? Maybe. Are a lot of them being used to create really shitty “street photography” i.e. seemingly any picture taken outdoors with a Leica? No doubt. Are some people using them to produce meaningful work? Of course. In this respect, the Leica buyer’s demographic has changed little in the last 40 years.
It will be interesting to see who buys the new M6. I suspect it will be one of two types: 1) Younger people who’ve never shot much film and want to engage with, and learn, film photography and 2) everyone else who’ll buy it and never take it out of the box. As for the former, good for them. If your goal is to get back to the basics and cultivate film photography as a viable medium – and you’ve got some disposable income – a new M6 is a worthy way to go about it. I also suspect that, after the initial, all too predictable post-release feeding fenzy, in a year or two you’ll see a lot of ‘Mint’ new M6’s for sale on the secondary market, digital-age photographers having discovered that the reality of film photography and its theoretical allure are often two different things.