Craig Semetko is a “Leica Pro Photographer”, whatever that means. I assume he’s paid by Leica to shill their product. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course; I’d love it if Leica paid me to shill their products. And I’m sure Mr. Semetko is a fine guy, probably worth sitting down and talking shop with, although, after watching his video I’m taking any advice he wants to give me with a grain of salt.
In the above video, he argues that the Leica M is the perfect camera for ‘achieving your vision’ (oh boy) doing street photography i.e. taking pictures of strangers in public places. IMHO, everything he says to justify that claim is simply wrong, or at best verbal filler, nonsense that makes for banal, self-conscious photos much like the picture above that serves to introduce the video. According to Semetko, there are three camera functions the M simplifies – framing, focusing, and exposure – making it the ideal camera for street work.
The truth is that control over those variables is essentially irrelevant in the street photography context. Let me explain.
Scale focus, Point and Shoot. See What you Get. Pretty Simple, Actually.
I’m not arguing that the M isn’t a good camera for street photography. It is, but just not for the reasons Mr. Semetko says it is. The video is marketing word salad, designed to bypass the viewer’s critical faculties through an argument from authority i.e. ‘famous’ NYC photographer tutors me, camera-bug insurance salesman from Toronto, how I too can become a “street photographer”. Just buy the new M11 and frame, focus and expose. Yup, stand there, point the camera at some guy with funny sunglasses pushing a hot dog cart in Soho, put your $9000 M11 to your face and frame (always looking at what’s outside the frame because, unlike other cameras, you can do that with a Leica), now focus carefully with the focus patch (see details in manual), fiddle with the f-stop and aperture settings in a way that achieves your photographic vision, and press the shutter. Voila! A perfect “street photo.”
Prior to watching this video, I’d not heard of Craig Semetko. I googled some of his photos and they’re not bad. One thing I’m fairly certain of is he wasn’t framing, focusing and exposing as part of his process. Frame, focus and expose is a recipe for the worst type of “street photography”, banal photos of self-conscious subjects mugging for the camera. You might as well ask your subjects to say “Cheese!”
A Girl With Funny Sunglasses. In This Case, I Achieved My Photographic Vision With a Ratty Old Ricoh That’s Too Cheap to Include a Rangefinder/Viewfinder
Digital rangefinders like Leica are good for street photography, just not the for reasons Mr. Semetko would have you believe. Because they’re manual focus they allow you to scale focus i.e. set a focus point and forget about it. They are full frame and allow a 21 or 28mm optic for tons of DOF. Their sensors are good enough to allow you to set your ISO to 3200, your aperture to f8, and forget about it. They’re small and discreet, not freaking people out when you approach with what looks like a bazooka; you can simply hold it in your hands at waist level and shoot. To hell with framing. Find the good ones on your contact sheet later, because, whatever Craig Semetko, Leica Pro Photographer would have you believe, most of it’s 1) serendipity coupled with 2) an eye trained by years of looking at photos to recognize a good one when you see it.
Of course, you can make the same argument about any number of other cameras, but you’re not going to feel like a famous Leica Pro Photographer walking the mean streets of Akron with your Ricoh GXR ( which, with an M-Mount module and a VC 21mm f4 is the perfect “street photography” camera). But Mr. Semetko isn’t paid by Leica to say that.
“When it comes to organizing the world into a picture, the photographer has little to go on…[his] only constraining form is his frame. Inside those four edges there are no structural traditions, only space.” — Ben Lifson
Robert Capa famously said that if your pictures weren’t good enough you weren’t close enough. I always thought that was wrong. Sometimes you can miss a picture by being too close.
Aesthetics is a question of where you place the frame. As psychologist Rudolf Arheim notes, the visual world surrounds us as an unbroken space, subdivided conceptually but without limits. Photography is the practice of isolating a portion of that whole, always with the understanding that the world continues beyond the frame’s borders. Part of what gives a photo meaning is the larger context within which it resides; sometimes that context is implied, sometimes it’s expressly pictured. Sometimes the subject is found within the frame while its context lies out of frame. Other times the photo is the dynamic of context and form within the frame; for this you need distance. Robert Capa would be an example of the former; Henri Cartier-Bresson would be an example of the latter. There’s room for both in photo aesthetics.
I say all of this because I’ve been admiring the photography of Erik van Straten, a Dutch amateur photographer [‘amateur’ in the sense that he doesn’t photograph for profit] whose work you’ll find in various corners of the net. If anything, his photography is a rejoinder to the cliche of getting close. His work possesses a dynamic power precisely because he’s chosen to stand back when necessary. For van Straten, the key is not getting near, or sufficiently far, but “being the right distance.”
Erik van Straten was born in 1954 in Leiden, the Netherlands, and grew up in Amsterdam. In 1971 he was admitted to the photography department of the applied arts school in Amsterdam. While there he realized that professional photography didn’t interest him. Photographically, he went his own way while nurturing his own style.
He remains a dedicated film shooter and darkroom printer. He has never ‘transitioned’ to digital photography because a well-made gelatin silver print is simply more beautiful than any photo on a screen or from a digital printer. A traditionalist, he uses various film Leicas or a Nikon S2 with standard focal lengths of 50mm and 35mm. His preferred film is Tmax400, developed in Perceptol. He makes his prints with a Leitz Focomat IIc. The photos reproduced herein are scans of gelatin-silver prints he’s created in his darkroom. You can still see in them the beautiful gray tonalities and granular textures of the gelatin-silver process even when they’ve necessarily been scanned to be presented here.
Refreshing in this age of disembodied digital processes, van Straten’s photographs remain material documents in addition to being visual observations. They possess the tactile elements of paper and emulsion. They are physical things one centers in frames and hangs on walls. A traditionalist, van Straten considers this materiality a necessary feature of a photograph.
I find van Straten’s photos to be beautiful in a literal sense, and that isn’t a criticism but a compliment. There’s a fullness about them, an intuitive sense of space that creates a coherent whole. They’re mannered without devolving into mannerism; they are representational and yet self-referential, realistic while being stylistic. His photos are simultaneously portraits of the individual and the archetype, a blend of the specific and the universal. If they are stamped with van Straten’s psychological imprint, they also have a universal aspect, a mythic quality – what Arther Lubow calls a “trinocular vision,” a confluence of personal, objective, and mythic. They are allegories playing out in the moment, liminal zones in which the everyday touches something eternal.
In “Santa Barbara, Calif., 1977,” Wessel took a picture of a man standing on a lawn staring at a flock of birds in flight. Wessel had been standing at a bus stop at the time. “As I approached this scene, the birds were feeding in the grass,” he said. “Startled for some reason, they took flight. I instinctually shot, exposing three frames before they were gone. When I look at it now, I marvel at how much of the world is hidden in the flux of time.”
Henry Wessel Jr. (1942-2018) grew up in Ridgefield, New Jersey. He studied psychology at Penn State University, graduating in 1966. After he came upon Mr. Szarkowski’s book “The Photographer’s Eye” and through it discovered the work of Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Wright Morris and Garry Winogrand, he abandoned psychology and pursued photography. Wessel’s photographs are deceptively simple, yet there’s ‘something’ contained within them that, while inarticulable, is noticeably present. Like all good visual art, there’s a tension contained within it, something that requires the viewer’s imagination to complete.
Wessel moved to southern California in 1969. He was fascinated by the western light from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles. “I walked out of the airport into one of those clear, sharp-edged January days,” he said. “The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it.” That physicality of light is a feature of so many of his photographs.“The high Western light that fills his pictures seems almost hallucinatory,” Tod Papageorge, former director of the graduate program in photography at Yale, wrote in an email to The Times in 2006. The Curator Emerita of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sandra Phillips, described his work as “witty, evocative, and inventive… distinctive and at the same time a component part of the great development of photography which flourished in the 1970s.”
Wessel headed the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute, joining its faculty in 1973. He advised his students that after they took their pictures, developed the film, and printed the contact sheets, they should put them away for a year. “If you let some time go by before considering work that you have done, you move toward a more objective position in judging it,” he said. “The pleasure of the subjective, physical experience in the world is a more distant memory and less influential.”
According to Wessel, the most important photographic choices were “where to stand and when to shoot,” followed by keeping technological choices to a minimum. Learn to use one camera and one lens. By limiting your tools to a single camera – a Leica M with 28mm – your sense of how light translates to film, and then to paper, would become instinctive. Mr. Wessel was never without his Leica and always alert to what was going on around him.“Most musicians I know don’t just play music on Saturday night,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “They play music every day. They are always fiddling around, letting the notes lead them from one place to another. Taking still photographs is like that. It is a generative process. It pulls you along.”
A few days ago I asked whether anyone would be interested in buying a book of pictures taken out of my car window. I figured I could guilt-trip a few of you into buying one. Surprisingly, between reader’s comments and private emails I’ve had over 70 readers request a copy and numerous folks asking for more than one. That’s really nice of you, and I truly appreciate it.
I’m not in this to make money. I’m good, thank you. What I am interested in is getting my work out there to people who might enjoy it, or learn something from it, or teach me something about it. My sole criterion in putting together the book is quality; quality of the photography and quality of the physical book itself – not some shitty POD book but a professionally done work that highlights the best of almost 50 years of snapping photos from the car. No throw-away images to pad out the work – I started with over 200 photos and edited down to +/- 80 final images. The criteria for inclusion of a given photo were three-fold: 1) does it work standing on its own; and, if so, 2) does it work as part of a larger narrative; and, if so, 3) is there a logical place within the sequencing where it maintains these two strengths? If I could answer Yes to all three questions, it’s in the book; if not, even if it’s a great single image, I tossed it. I tossed a lot, under the theory that usually less is more.
Much of it is film photography, much of it taken with a Leica of some sort, but that’s not the point. The point is to present traditional B&W photography that depends not on technical gimmickry but rather on the strength of the images themselves and what they both denote and connote, both as stand-alone works and as they’re sequenced into a loose narrative. I say ‘loose’ because photo books that focus too tightly tend not to interest me past a cursory viewing. The photobooks I keep coming back to – masterpieces like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity – respect the viewer enough to allow him/her to create the narrative. For the same reason, there won’t be much text. You get enough of that here. In this sense, it aspires to be “Leica photography” in the best sense – quick shots caught on the run that say something, less dependent on technique than the photographer’s vision. If you’re looking for a photobook pimping for Leica or purporting to highlight the strengths of the Leica camera or optics, go elsewhere; this ain’t it. It’s not about the camera; it’s about the images.
Trim size will be 10×8 inches (width 10 inches, height 8 inches), paper heavyweight photo stock quality, sewn bindings, linen hardcover, +/- 120 pages with +/- 80 Black and White photos reproduced via CMYK printing. I’m making a limited edition run of 80 copies.
Price of the book will be $35/shipped within the US, $45/shipped worldwide.
I’ve started a “GoFundMe” site here, where you can contribute. Your contribution there will serve as your payment for the book itself. Of course, if you want to contribute less than $35, you’re welcome as well, but that would be sort of stupid because you wouldn’t be getting the book. Of course, you’re welcome to contribute as much as you want, but I don’t expect it and, if you’re feeling remarkably generous and contribute, say, $350, I’m sending you ten books.
I’ve seen proofs of a mock-up, and, it’s pretty good, not to blow my own horn or anything. It works. The last thing I’m going to do is send out bad work. Who knew photos out car windows could be so cool?
Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM
The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.
Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.
Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.
Determining anything more from within the four corners
of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we
On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.
Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.
The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?
At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells
you as much.
There are two aspects of ethics
implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can
the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently
voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a
justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of
doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?
The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it. This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable. The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.
Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’
Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.
Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”
As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.
In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.
I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.
Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.
The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.
Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.
the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like
at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or
heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right
vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context
within which the photo exists.
The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.
The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.
Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.
Lenny Kravitz, Correspondent, Stalking Urban Prey with His Drifter Leica and Poofy Cap
Leica is now offering a “Lenny Kravitz designed” Leica M Monochrom camera, a Leica Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH, and a Leica APO-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH. Buy now and Leica will throw in, at no extra cost to you, matching accessories, including a vegan python carrying strap, matching brown vegan leather carry cases for each lens, versatile pouches, and a brown “Drifter Traveler” weekender bag. No word on how Leica was able to identify and cull “vegan” pythons from regular ones.
Mr. Kravitz’s input seems to have been the idea to paint the camera brown and cover it in snakeskin, which everyone over in Wetzlar considers a brilliant idea, as it apparently conjures up people who are free spirits. “The striking special edition set celebrates Kravitz’s dedication to visual storytelling and pays homage to his inspired, nomadic lifestyle,” Leica says. “A self-proclaimed drifter himself, the attractive set was designed with Kravitz’s vision of being a free spirit, always on the road and open to adventure – ingredients that ignite visual storytelling.”
The Laconic “Guy Wearing Heels Doing Funky Gymnastics Inside Unidentified Commercial Establishment” by Lenny Kravitz, currently on exhibition at Leica, Wetzlar
The Leica Gallery in Wetzlar, Germany is hanging an exhibition of Kravitz’s photography in conjunction with the Drifter release.“ The photo series, inspired by Kravitz’s nomadic lifestyle, will feature intimate portraits, laconic snapshots, carefully observed scenes from the street and well-composed moments in hotel rooms, all captured during his time on the road,” Leica says.
Editor’s Note: Joel Meyerowitz is an American street photographer in the mold of Winogrand, Friedlander etc. He photographed in color during a time when there was significant resistance to color photography as an art form. In the 1970s, he taught photography at Cooper Union in New York City. He’s probably more well known in France than he is in the States. I’m not much of a fan, finding his work uninspired and lacking much of a coherent overall vision, his idea of an interesting subject usually just a little too gimmicky for me. You may differ. (Directly below are two examples of what I consider photographs that don’t say much of anything but rely on a visual gimmick for whatever interest they possess.)
This is an interview Meyerowitz gave to Geraldine Chouard of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie on the occasion of “Joel Meyerowitz. A Retrospective” at the Maison in 2013.
Géraldine Chouard: Thank you, Joel Meyerowitz, for granting us this interview on the occasion of the exhibition of your work in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. The first picture of the exhibit, of a woman diving into the water, literally makes the visitor take the plunge into flux (cloud of bubbles) and color (swimming-pool blue); it’s almost as if we get splashed watching it. Why did you choose to exhibit this picture upside down?
Joel Meyerowitz: I was making an installation video in Florida and was working in an under water viewing room watching the divers. I saw the divers enter the water, pull the oxygen down with them and then, while they rose, the bubbles stayed behind and coalesced into an almost atomic cloud-like form which slowly rose and dissipated. Suddenly I had a flash of insight; the bubbles were oxygen, the Element Air, and they couldn’t stay in the Element Water. Of course this is a simple truth, but in that instant, for whatever reasons, I had a glimpse of an entirely new body of work in which I would try to photograph the “Phenomena of each of the Elements.” Then when I saw the contact sheet with these images it simply seemed natural to me to want to invert them—in a sense the divers underwater are without the orientation of the horizon line, and gravity is less under water than on land, so I allowed myself the liberty of letting the photograph tell me which way it needed to be seen.
GC: When I was visiting the exhibit at the MEP, a French man said: “C’est vraiment super américain.” Do you feel “super American”?
JM: I don’t really know what he means when he says that. I am a New Yorker, and often New Yorkers feel somewhat closer to Europe than to the heartland of America. If that means anything then perhaps that makes me slightly less American.
GC: How do you feel about having become the (or one of the) iconic contemporary American photographer(s), at least in France?
JM: I have long been well received in Europe and especially in France. Probably because early in the 70s when color came on the scene, my work, along with Stephen Shore’s, was shown here so my sense is that I was seen to be one of the ‘New Color’ photographers.
GC: Since you are in Paris, I have to ask you this question. You are probably aware that “Le Baiser,” by Doisneau, staged on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in 1950, resulted in dozens of couples claiming that they were the couple appearing on the picture. Has this been the case with your 1965 “Kiss Me Stupid” shot, in NYC?
JM: No, never. After all this is an innocent moment, perhaps on New Year’s Eve and no one considers it anything extraordinary.
GC: In the 1960s and 70s, you really contributed to making color photography accepted in the art world. Was the choice to include in this exhibit, side by side, both black and white pictures and color pictures of this period, taken just a few seconds apart, a way of pointing out this pivotal point in your career?
JM: Jean-Luc Monterosso saw this series from the mid-60’s and felt that this was the “missing link” in American photography and he said to me that he always wondered how color seemed to be something new but yet he couldn’t see how it developed intellectually and at that precise moment in time. This series was my contribution to the argument for color. Since I began with color in 1962 I always believed in its power, but there was so much resistance to it then that I had to always push for its place in the medium, and make the argument, and then I decided to use two cameras side by side when possible to judge for myself how color worked.
GC: Is your interest in the “ordinary” related to a sort of democratic ideal? As Andy Warhol famously said, everyone would have “15 minutes of fame.” Are you giving people their one frame of fame?
JM: No, that has nothing to do with the way I work with, or feel about people. These brief recognitions I have of a moment when the world seems to have a peculiar order for me, are the only reason I have for making the photograph. It has nothing to do with the people in it and everything to do with my being conscious for a brief moment.
JM: I must have been born an optimist because ever since childhood I have wandered the world saying oh and ah and gasping with surprise and delight at whatever it is that startles me into consciousness. I also feel that every time I press the shutter release I am in effect saying YES to life! So with that basic understanding as my guide to the world everything that pulses with life, whether it is the complexity of street life or space and scale along the water’s edge, or witnessing a revelatory moment at 100 kilometers an hour, all of these ‘glimpses’ fill me with a rush of pleasure, pleasure at being alive! Pleasure at being capable of ‘seeing’ what is revealing itself. Pleasure knowing that photography has given me a voice and language to say something about what it is that moves me.
GC: Was your recent work on “Ground Zero” intended to create an archive of the city, your city? I find it reminiscent of the FSA photographers’ mission to document the whole country during the Depression.
JM: When I began that work it was simply that I wanted to be helpful, useful in some way to my wounded city. Those impulses were not supported by the Mayor or other city officials, so I had to act on my own sense of what was necessary and right for that period. I took it on my own to try and make the historical archive which would one day be indispensable since all photography was banned from the site by the Mayor. But you are right to sense the FSA as a background method although I was a single presence rather than a team—and it should be noted that I wrote a proposal to the Mayor outlining an FSA-like team approach for this history. However, I found myself alone in there for 9 months and have always felt that a great deal was lost to history because I could not be everywhere at once.
GC: Your attention to the elemental has always informed your photography (as reflected in the titles of some of your albums, such as Cape Light, At the Water’s Edge, Bay/ Sky) but it seems to have taken a more “elementary” turn, with pictures of just water, air, earth, and fire. What provoked this new interest and what are you seeking to show through this new approach?
JM: In 2008 I was scheduled to show some large prints of work I had never shown before from the series “Between the Dog and the Wolf” (“Entre chien et loup”). These photographs of pools by the sea at dusk had been on my mind, and periodically added to for over thirty years, and with the upcoming exhibition, I felt the urge to make an installation video about divers to accompany the pool photographs. For that, I went to Florida where there was an Olympic practice pool where I planned to make the video. The filming progressed easily enough as there were a number of divers practicing and I could watch their process over and over again. And then it happened, as it so often does in photography; what you think you came for is not what you are actually seeing. What I saw, from inside the underwater room I was in, was that after each diver entered the water they brought in their wake an enormous surge of air that enfolded them and through which they passed leaving the cloud of bubbles behind. At first, it was just bubbles rising and disappearing and then, after about the tenth dive, I realized that I was really interested in the phenomena of those bubbles. They were air and they were inside another element, water, in which, although oxygen makes up part of water, they cannot remain. I had one of those heart-skips-a-beat moments of recognition of a new body of work.
The Elements—Water, Air, Fire, Earth—each have part of the other in them but yet are separate entities. It was revelatory. And so simple! I’ll admit, I was stunned and wide-eyed by the thought: The Elements and the phenomena of the elements! I saw in a flash of instinct that I had been working with these forces forever, or so it seemed, but always within the conventions of Renaissance perspective space, that illusion of deep space that a photograph always conveys. But here, underwater in that stifling room, everything out there was seen as a flat field of overall color. My mind raced to the thought that it might be possible to make photographs of each of the phenomena, very large photographs, in which there was only the phenomena itself—no horizon line to demarcate between air and water, sky and earth, nothing but the thing itself. Isn’t that what I was always trying to do? Get to the essence of things so that I could feel the authenticity of the thing itself? In that brief moment, I was determined to explore how to do this and to consider what I would have to give up to see this idea freshly, and even wondered why this revelation was presenting itself to me at that moment. Perhaps it’s my age? Haven’t we seen in the history of Art older artists suddenly contemplating the four seasons, or the classic skull on the table painting, so perhaps it is what comes to an artist if you live long enough and keep working out your observations and ideas and then, suddenly, a big one appears where you are asked to pare down the work to the essential questions, in this case, that of how to photograph the basic forces of our planet without beautifying them or resorting to imagery that has been overworked already. That is where I am now.
GC: Your retrospective monograph, Taking my Time, will be coming out in June 2013. Could you please comment on this rich title? Does it mean that with your 50 years of innovative practice, you took a part in the history of photography? How is this “time-taking” compatible with the urgency of the act of photographing itself?
JM: As I reflected on the fifty years of work and the various questions and forms that arose during that time, I saw that I was never in a rush to get anywhere quickly, but that in fact I often let the work build slowly and in a sense to teach me what it was that I was really interested in. These clues are often buried in one’s daily actions out on the street where of course, ironically, one has to be extremely fast. Then, later, the joy of reading contact sheets or rolls of slides was for me a revelation describing myself to me through the appearance of images which showed how and what instinct was actually driving the agenda for me, and my responsibility was to engage with these glimpses of my inner life and turn towards them. So that process was the germ, once I recognized it, of the title “Taking My Time.”
GC: You’ve said in the past: “I photograph to see what I’m interested in.” Have you found out?
JM: What I have discovered, and truly photography is a process of self-discovery, is that I am a happy boy, even at my age of 75 now. The world keeps offering its bounties to me, but only if I pay attention to what is all around me, so the act of paying attention daily completes the circle of pleasure. And time is too short now not to make every day as pleasurable as I can. And within this cycle of seeing/pleasure/knowing, comes the same old surprise: can it BE that THIS familiar thing, or THAT remembered moment, has presented itself to me, yet again, in a new form, and so my INTEREST is aroused once more, and the camera rises to my eye and we blink together for that instant, and then it’s gone.
I first met Garry Winogrand at the beginning of 1966. Although I was a dozen years younger than he was, we quickly became close friends and, soon enough, were photographing together on the streets of New York. In the beginning, I found this a little strange; for me, making photographs was something to be done in private, if only because it required such tremendous concentration to have any hope of doing it well. But I soon realized that meeting with Garry and walking the streets with him didn’t mean that I would have to give up the idea of working autonomously: we simply spread out, typically separated by about half a city block, and worked independently. Manhattan was rich enough in photographic possibility that neither one of us felt constrained by the other: there was more than enough to see and be excited by. And then, every once in a while, we could stop and have coffee together and indulge in the pleasure of talking about what we’d seen, usually in the Museum of Modern Art café.
And so, one Sunday, on an early spring day about a year after we’d met, Garry and I found ourselves walking through the Central Park Zoo. I was 20 or 30 yards ahead of him when I noticed a handsome couple walking toward me—they looked like fashion models, in their 20s, both well-dressed—improbably walking with a pair of chimpanzees who were as immaculately attired as they were (the animals even wore shoes and socks). A New York City piece of strangeness, it seemed to me, strange enough to take a picture. So I did.
Then, bang!, I felt myself being pushed in the back away from this odd little group. A real shove, unfriendly, hard. And, of course, it was Garry, camera already up, making pictures, who’d done it.
Garry Winogrand, Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967
Obviously, he was seeing something that I hadn’t seen, and what he was seeing was important enough to him that he was willing—for the first and only time in all the years that I knew him—to aggressively lay hands on me. I was shocked, of course, but once I saw that Garry, and not one of the Sunday strollers rushing by me, was responsible, I forgot about being angry or even irritated: he was my friend, I rationalized immediately, and must have had his reasons for momentarily acting as if he’d never seen me before.
By now, both chimpanzees were off the ground (as my picture shows, one had been toddling between the couple when I first saw the group), and I finally noticed that the man in the little quartet was black, and the woman white and blonde. I’d already recorded that fact with my eyes, I’m sure, but what it may have meant, or could mean, in a photograph, was something I hadn’t had the time or the consciousness to process.
Garry Winogrand, however, had obviously processed the fact: where I saw only the possibility for a joke that, at best, touched on the crazy-quilt nature of city life, you could say that Garry, by not so much seeing the group itself but instantaneously imagining a possible photograph of it, placed meaning, particularly as it might gather around the question of race, at the very center of what he was doing.
In other words, quite apart from whatever Sunday pleasure or notion of self-advertising had actually brought that couple together with those two animals, Garry’s quick mind construed from their innocent adjacency a picture (or the projection of one) that could suggest the improbable price that the two races, black and white, might have to pay by mixing together. He was speculating, of course, playing an artistic hunch, but a large and important enough one that he felt it was worth pushing his friend aside for. So he did what he had to do, and then, a moment later, I answered by making a picture of him standing by the same family group as they continued their stroll through the zoo.
Note Garry’s smile, like that of the cat who’d swallowed the canary, and also the stub of a cigarette sticking out between his fingers, which, with that grin, suggests a man deep into the moment, full of the pleasure of it, more than a truth-telling artist who had just produced an image that can arguably bear comparison with the best graphic work of Goya. For example, here, making such an argument, is Hilton Als, an African-American writer, describing this picture at the conclusion of an essay called “The Animals and their Keepers”:“In the photograph,” he says, “we see a white woman and a black man, apparently a couple, holding the product of their most unholy of unions: monkeys. In projecting what we will into this image—about miscegenation, our horror of difference, the forbidden nature of black men with white women—we see the beast that lies in us all.”
Of course, when he made this picture, Garry had no proof that it would mean anything at all. His film would have to be developed and, even then, he wouldn’t have photographs to see until he’d produced the small 1 X 1 ½ inch frames of each picture on a contact sheet that he could read one by one with a magnifying glass. In other words, as the digital age is now tempting us to forget, there was, and is, built into the usual photographic process a significant distance, both of time and physical immediacy, between an event and a photograph of it. This is a distance that, for Garry Winogrand, had virtually ontological implications, as suggested in the carefully chosen language of his well-known statement, that “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” or, to elaborate it clumsily, “I photograph [at a given moment] to find out what something will look like photographed [when I eventually have the opportunity to study it in an undetermined future].” When Garry finally developed that film, then, it was not in the spirit of hoping to claim a masterpiece of photography, or simply a good picture (which never really interested him), but, in this particular case, to determine if the possible narrative he’d sensed in the three-dimensional, shifting space of the zoo had, in fact, been confirmed within the reduced two dimensions of his picture—in other words, to judge whether a photograph that more or less depended on a pair of well-dressed chimpanzees to become actors in a provocative, ambiguous tale had, somehow, in the shift from world to image, managed the feat. To put it another way: he was less interested in the ultimate “success” of the picture than in what he called the problem of making it, a problem he had consciously set for himself in the antic moment of pushing me out of his way. As he put it to a group of students a few years later, no doubt remembering this picture as well as others, “well, let’s say that for me when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey—if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?”
As it turned out, Garry never reached a conclusion about whether or not he’d solved the problem, or question, that the picture we’re considering here had posed for him. Although it has become canonical, and is, perhaps, the single photograph now most associated with his body of work, the fact is that, in his judgment, it remained an aesthetic question mark until he died. For example, “The Animals,” his first book, comprised of photographs made in zoos, was initially published in 1969, two years after he made the picture, yet it’s not included in the book, a piece of evidence, that, while not conclusive (since John Szarkowski was the publication’s principal editor), at least suggests that he wasn’t sure enough of it to insist that it be added. But he didn’t really worry about such things: there were too many other pictures to think about, too many kinds of lessons in his pictures to unravel and learn from, too many problems put into play as he made them. As he understood it, photography was much larger than he was, and his pleasure as an artist was to unremittingly study it.
As I’ve already stated, Garry was remarkably unmoved by conventional notions of success, even artistic success as typically measured by exhibitions and awards. “You learn from work,” he’d say, and, further, “I really try to divorce myself from any thought of the possible use of my photographs. Certainly, while I’m working, I want them to be as useless as possible.” Which, turned around, also suggests that, as he understood the issue, any one of them could be judged a success by virtue of the possible lesson it might teach him. Failure, as much as success, was an irrelevant concept to him.
Garry could be scathing and utterly dismissive in his criticism of other photographers, however, if their work failed to measure up to what he felt intelligent photography should be. For example, he scornfully rejected a body of work by one of his contemporaries that concentrated on a minority community in Manhattan, by saying that “You expect the people in his pictures to tap dance and eat watermelon,” proof of how aware he was of the power of photographs to reduce black subjects to smothering cliché. But he conducted his own personal investigation into the nature of the medium in what was effectively a judgment-free zone where his interrogation of photography and the making of his pictures were effectively one and the same activity: as I understood it then, and still do, he was the pure artist, or as pure as one could be who was committed to conducting his researches in the open-air theater of the corporal world. Also, he began to teach during this period (at virtually the moment I met him in 1966) and, as part of his teaching, to formulate the series of cryptic, but powerful, aphorisms about photography that, even now, any young photographer would be foolish not to commit to memory before considering the question of whether or not to reject them. So, yes, as the curator of this exhibition, Leo Rubinfien, quotes him as remarking near the end of his life in Los Angeles, Garry was a student of America. Yet, during his most prolific and creatively fulfilling years as a photographer in New York, I would suggest that he was more nearly a student of photography whose observation at the time that “a photographer’s relationship to his medium is responsible for his relationship to the world is responsible for his relationship to his medium” traces an eloquent circle of causation that begins and ends with the photographer’s deep identification with his medium. Certainly, during that period, when I was seeing him nearly every day, he was very much the genius/apprentice implied in that remarkable comment, instructing himself, exposure-by-exposure, about the many different ways photographs could look;how their frames might drop around his subjects, or even tilt as if the photographer was falling or out of control. And, more, how free he could be, and let his subjects be, to move and claim their place in his pictures as if they were expressing their own active agency, rather than appearing to be responding to the whip of the controlling, manipulating artist. In other words, working out a method of picture-making capable of appropriately serving his fierce understanding of whatever his subject might be, whether that was America. Or a beggar in the street. Or a pair of chimpanzees and their putative parents. As he said to a student who asked him what the purpose of one of his photographs was, “My education. That’s the answer. That’s really the answer.” And then, “My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer.”
For Garry Winogrand, it was foolish to pretend that a thing and a photograph of it were, in any useful sense, one and the same, and that the photographer could no more than minimally control the way his or her pictures of that thing would look. As he understood it, the lens and its unforgiving memory; the world, full of color and dimension; and the photographer’s own limited ability to absorb all of the information arrayed in his or her viewfinder from edge to edge determined an effect, the photograph, that would inevitably be different from the cause that created it, which is to say, the nominal subject of the picture, wild out in the world. “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed,” he said. As a result of this understanding, he came to see that, far from trying to control, or even limit, that difference, it might be embraced as a way of enlarging the meaning of his pictures, by charging them with an irreducible trace of unresolved, still-sparking energy that, from picture to picture, could be seen to embody the very élan vital that prods and pushes us forward in our own daily lives. So that, in the end, the picture, in some real, physical sense, re-joins us to life, but life transformed, still palpable in its vitality (always decomposing, always rising) and, by being so, true to the chaos—or “monkey business,” as he often called it—that Garry Winogrand knew it to be.
Boston, Massachusetts is a looooong way from Melbourne, Australia. Thirty-two hours long, if you take layovers into account (and you should!). So when I lucked on the job of accompanying my son Alex there earlier this year to help him with his transition to college, my wife Sue very kindly suggested I might like to take a bit of time on the return leg, perhaps visit New York and Los Angeles, maybe catch some exhibitions and take some photographs.
After giving the proposition much serious consideration (for two seconds) I was on the booking websites, and eventually four days were allocated to each city. To state it clearly – that’s four days in New York, then four days in Los Angeles, with nothing to do but take photos. I still pinch myself. Gigs don’t come much better than that.
So, next thing to decide was, what camera or cameras to take, with what lenses and what film. I was attracted to the minimalist idea for a while (one of each), but then reasoned that I had the capacity to take more, and foresaw that I’d want to cover a fair bit of territory photographically, and therefore could make use of various combinations. So in the end I settled on my two M6TTLs, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses, Tri-X and Portra 160, plus I had a few rolls of Adox Silvermax that I threw in as well. So much for minimalist.
Why this gear in particular? Well, my M6TTLs have different viewfinder magnifications – my silver one has a 0.58 viewfinder, the black one a 0.85. So one camera to handle 28mm and 35mm, the other perfectly suited to 50mm and 90mm. Check. The lens choice is easy because it’s basically what I generally use. I figured I’d use the 35mm most of the time, with the others in lesser proportion spread around fairly equally. I really wanted the 90mm because I envisaged some nice cityscapes in evening light, and the others are what I use mainly for people and street shooting. The film was basically dictated by what I had, and as it turned out I also had to buy some more in New York. I didn’t really anticipate that I’d use any colour in New York, but wanted some for the few pictures I thought I’d get the opportunity to take in Boston, and I figured that perhaps in LA I’d take some. So again, check.
Why Leica? Very simply because I figured I’d be spending whole days in these incredible places with nothing to do but think about and pursue photography, so I wanted to take the cameras I have most fun with. No contest there – the Leicas win hands down. And with those beautiful lenses, which I often feel I don’t use enough, there really was no argument – even overcoming my initial concerns of “what if I lose some gear, or get robbed” or whatever. Plus I found I could pack that amount of gear fairly compactly into my ThinkTank Streetwalker backpack as cabin baggage, which would also enable me to get the film hand-inspected, rather than it going through x-ray machines.
So, that’s the way it went down.
The upshot of the trip is that, most importantly, Alex settled incredibly well into student life in Boston and loves it there (well, OK, not so much the winter weather, but still).
And what of my eight glorious days in New York and Los Angeles? They went by in a blur of walking, subways, freeways (LA), visiting exhibitions (Danny Lyon and Diane Arbus and MOMA in New York, various architectural sites in LA) and of course, taking photographs. As an example, one morning I got to walk through Central Park to the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer, and that very afternoon found me, Leica in hand, at Coney Island where she and countless others of the greats had taken such wonderful, iconic pictures. I can’t tell you how much it meant to finally, after seeing it in great pictures my whole life, walk along that boardwalk.
Overall, the pace was frenetic, and the experience was magical. At the end of each jam-packed day I was exhausted, but energized as well, and keen to be up at 5am the next day to start all over again. I was as happy as… well as a bloke who can’t think of an idiomatic expression clever enough to express it; and I think – no, I know – that I came away a better photographer because of my total immersion into it.
Oh, and on my return I even sold a bunch of my other (non-Leica) gear and bought a third M6TTL, this time with a 0.72 finder, because afterwards I realized I could have gotten away with just the one camera body, and the 0.72 finder fits the bill perfectly.
Now, back here in Melbourne, the thought occurs to me that Alex’s music course will take him four years to complete. Which leaves plenty of scope for Sue and I to go over and visit him. Hmmm…
“The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize.”
I was obsessed with photography when I was young. I lived in Memphis and I wanted to follow along in the tradition of William Eggleston, whom I idolized. I studied for four years and made a very serious stab at capturing the tumbledown look of the South. I even worked at a newspaper for a time. But something went wrong. The work simply wasn’t good, and in spite of stupidly struggling with the problem day and night, I just couldn’t find my way to the ideal image. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing.
Years passed. The shitstorm of trying (or failing as it were) to be a responsible adult destroyed my illusions about producing a great work of art, and for a full decade I lived very poorly, having completely lost the thread of my original vision. My camera collected dust and was eventually forgotten amongst other weird relics from my former life as a “creative person.” It was a cliche I laughed about, wondering how I could ever have been so naive. I made asinine remarks whenever I encountered people who liked to bullshit me about “following your dreams” and so forth. I worked in the service industry, mopping up after rude tourists who had apparently made better life-decisions than I had. My conclusion was that even if you completely threw yourself into what you truly cared about, no one would ever thank you for it. You would have to cram it into your off hours with little or no emotional energy left for the task. You would have to pay for it out of your own empty pocket. Things would only get more and more difficult as time went by. You were doomed.
I may have been wrong; I don’t know. That’s just what I happened to be feeling during those years of insecurity.
Things went on uneventfully in this way, until about a year ago, when something interesting happened. I was unemployed, and having some time on my hands, I found my way into the obscure world of Tarkovsky movies. Something in his imagery got through to me, and a long-lost memory flickered to life. I started dreaming about photography again, and those dreams quickly escalated to a feverish obsession, just like it had been in the 90’s, when I was a teenager.
My fiancé, sensing the crisis, offered to front me the money to buy some new photography tools and start over. It was a Purple Rain kind of moment, white guitar and all. Her generosity was enough to change everything for me. In spite of the desire to be optimistic, we’ve got to be real and acknowledge that it’s impossible to think about creating a body of work when your life is in shambles, and your idea of luxury is a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes you just need some help, and god willing, sooner or later you might happen to get some.
I wanted to use a Leica. I didn’t know why; I just did. Maybe it was because all my favorite images had come from this mythical camera. It was impractical, weird, anachronistic, expensive. I had a very hard time talking myself into believing that it made sense to get one -because it didn’t. I could have used any cheap camera, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it right this time. No compromises. It’s odd how you can know something at an emotional level, but you have to drag your rational mind, kicking and screaming, along with it.
I won’t bother reciting all the reasons why Leica cameras are special; we’ve heard it all before, and a good bit of it is true. I settled on the M3 with a 50mm Summicron lens, and I am not disappointed. I love this camera. I have spent many afternoons staring at the thing over a cup of coffee and wondering why I care so much about it. As strange as this may sound, the reason is not entirely obvious. Yes, it is a “nice” camera, beautifully designed and a pleasure to operate… but that isn’t enough. It’s a camera after all, not a designer accessory (at least it used to be). The images it has produced for me are excellent, but if it were really about image quality and sharpness we would not being using 35mm film in the first place. There’s something else going on with this camera. I think the things people say about it are just excuses for fetishizing something when they can’t rationally explain why. People are complex creatures full of unknown depths, and the Leica speaks to those depths.
I thought about this carefully and I came to the conclusion that the magic of the thing is in the sheer impracticality of it. The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize. Hell, the idea of it seems almost subversive to me after all these years, and that is a very powerful feeling.
Leica signifies all these things to me, and probably to a lot of other people as well. It’s what the kids at the art college would call the Leica’s “discourse.” Some part of you senses this when you have one in your hands, even if you haven’t got the slightest idea what it is. It seems so serious, so pure. The thing’s got gravity; it’s literally heavy. The symbolism is clear.
Today I am back in the fight with the kind of impatience and desperation that could only come from having wasted so many years without taking a photograph. I went out with just this one camera and one lens, and worked up a photo essay about depopulation in the high plains of Colorado. Good or bad I don’t know, but it is without any doubt the single best piece of work I have ever done. It has been like rediscovering all the lost ambitions of youth, and learning that they weren’t dead after all. Moreover, they have come to fruition, finally. I think the inspiration of the camera may have had something to do with that.
Joseph Oxandale was born in Louisiana in 1980 and earned his BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 2004. After doing a stint with The El Dorado News-Times in Arkansas, he moved west to Colorado. He currently lives in Denver.
To see more of his excellent High Plains photographs, visit
Bag aficionados are a sorry bunch, even in the netherworld of gear heads. They demark the low-water mark of gear mania, about as far low as you can go in the world of photo dilettantism. Even I, incorrigible gearhead that I am, a guy who writes a blog dedicated to a brand of camera, which is itself a fairly acute form of gear mania, finds the luxury camera bag fetish unseemly. Admittedly, there’s no harm in it, just as there’s no accounting for the passions of otherwise reasonable men. As a passion, It certainly is less dangerous that racing motorcycles or jumping out of planes or cave diving or any of the other irrational enthusiasms grown men possess.
That being said – listen up, you guys rocking your M240 with the Noctilux and a pocket full of ND filters so you can shoot everything at full aperture for the amazing, creamy bokeh – Filson has the bag for you. Created, no less, by Magnum Pj’s, you know, the guys who patented the “Decisive Moment” (how cool is that ?!?). From the Filson website:
“Award-winning photojournalists David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry know that photography is about taking risks, getting close and being ready for anything. That’s why we worked with them to design photography bags for those who refuse to stay indoors. We combined the craftsmanship used to develop our rugged luggage with the decades-deep expertise of Harvey and McCurry to create durable camera bags built for use in the field.”
As for me, if I’m going to be “taking risks, getting close, refusing to stay indoors,” give me the oldest, most beat up, shittiest looking bag I can find. If it looks like I’ve got a 40 ounce in there, or if I’m using it to carry motor oil for my motorcycle, all the better. Or, better yet one of those beauties from China for $8, free shipping. The last thing I need is a designer bag with a designer label while i’m rocking $18,000 worth of Leica swag, getting close and taking risks.
Bruce Davidson began taking photographs at the age of ten . After attending Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, he was drafted into the army and stationed near Paris. There he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. When he left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine and in 1958 became a full member of Magnum. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962 and documented the civil rights movement in America. In 1967, he received the first grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts, and used it to document the social conditions on one block in East Harlem.
Q: Why do you like the Leica so much and why is it a great tool for what you do?
A: For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it’s small, it’s relatively light, quiet and unobtrusive. Modern reflexes look like sneakers; they don’t look like cameras. They look like something else from another world. That’s why I’ve always had Leicas in my life. For example, right now I’m thinking about doing something where I want to walk around. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet and that means Leica…
…most of my bodies of work from the circus photographs in 1958, the Brooklyn gangs and even the civil rights movement, the Leica worked because it’s quiet, mobile and has excellent optics. I remember during the civil rights movement, when I wasn’t sponsored, but on a fellowship, something happened to my Leica and I called Marty Forscher, the Leica repairman for all the professional photographers. He talked me through it and I fixed the camera myself on the road — which was pretty amazing.
I’d like to back up to the question “when did Leica come into your life?” It came into my life when I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). At that time, in the early 1950s, there were 140 students in the photography department, including two women. Of course, I was smitten by one of them and I was trying to court her. I met her at the women’s dorm in the living room sitting on a couch. She said, “I want to show you something.” She ran up to her room and came down with this huge book of photographs called The Decisive Moment, a collection of images by Cartier-Bresson, and we sat together looking through all of the amazing photographs. I had never seen anything like it. She said to me, “I really love this photographer.” So, I said to myself, “If I could take pictures like this guy maybe she will love me too.” So, I went out and spent all my monthly allowance on a used Leica. I actually tried to imitate the imagery of Cartier-Bresson. Of course, it didn’t work. The young female student ran off with a history professor, and I was left with Cartier-Bresson. That’s what started me off. I began to take street photographs.
Q: So how was it meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson when you were in Paris?
A: It all started when I went from RIT to working for Eastman Kodak. I had my own studio at Kodak, but I was bored so I decided to apply to Yale. I got in and took Yosef Albers’ color course. I then was drafted into the military and was sent to the Arizona desert. It was the most remote, isolated camp you could find — 7,000 feet up in the desert. I would hitchhike on weekends to Mexico to photograph bullfighters, and I made friends with Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter. While thumbing my way from the fort to the Mexican border, I came upon an old guy in a Model T Ford and I stopped him. The town was called Patagonia — really just a post office, a grocery store, a bar and a railroad site. And this old guy took me in and I lived with him on weekends. I forgot about the bullfighting and I just photographed this old couple with my Leica. That was my first full-bodied work and if you look at it closely today, it really predicts the way I would spend my life photographing.
Q: Can you share the story about how you discovered the Brooklyn gang?
A: As I remember, there was a gang war going on that was all over the Daily News. I took the subway to Brooklyn, found the group and took color photographs of their wounds and bandages for their lawyers. That started my relationship with them and the rest is history. It was slow going in the winter months, but when they went to Coney Island in the summer, that’s where I took the most pictures….I think got in with them because I had a Leica. It was small, it was quiet and discrete, and it was simple. I would take pictures of them and then I would bring the pictures back to show them. I didn’t judge them. I wasn’t a social worker. I just photographed the mood of these teenagers — a street gang.
So, here’s a picture of Garry Winogrand with his famous M4, you know, the one he ran about 100,000 rolls through and generally beat the hell out of, the camera itself now somewhat of an icon. Except that, as alert Leicaphile Andrew Fishkin points out to me, the shutter advance lever is most definitely not an M4 lever, but rather the old style M2/3 full metal lever. So, given the presence of a dedicated exposure numbering window next to the shutter release, this would appear to be an M3 as opposed to an M2. Whatever Winogrand was doing with an M3, well, we’ll never know.
As for the lens, the more I look at it, it looks like a 21mm Super-Angulon and not the 28mm Elmarit he “always” shot with. So much for “what everybody knows” about Winogrand.
Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, in the early 1950’s. Of course, one thing led to another, Eggleston bought a Leica, became a massive Leicaphile and has never looked back. “I have about 300 right now,” he claims.
In addition to classic chrome Leicas, he owns rare, custom-painted Leicas in shades of blue, green and dark gray. His camera case—a leather briefcase bought at a Memphis shop and retrofitted in collaboration with a woodworker friend—is similarly customized.
He still photographs every day. He takes only one photo of any subject, never taking a second shot of the same thing. Eggleston is currently archiving his negatives, approximately 1.5 million of them. “That’s a guess,” he says. “I haven’t really counted.”
“With the introduction of a perpetual upgrade program, every LEICA M8 will forever be a state-of-the-art digital camera. Today’s and tomorrow’s users will always be able to incorporate the latest refinements and developments in handling ease and technology. It is our aim to secure your investment in the LEICA M8 for the future. While other digital cameras quickly become outdated and are replaced by newer models, our new concept extends the value retention and resistance to obsolescence embodied in the Leica ethos. Over time, we will gradually offer new product features and developments as upgrade options, declares Steven K. Lee, CEO of Leica Camera AG. Our customers can therefore still invest in the photographic tools they need without worrying that they will miss out on improvements and technological developments along the way.”
The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.
As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.
The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers, at a pace in the rear of the digital pack. This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.
Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.
The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.
So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.
Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.
The camera used to take an iconic image that came to symbolize the Russian victory over Nazi Germany is to go on sale at auction this November in Hong Kong. Photographer Yevgeni Khaldei, who worked for the Soviet news agency TASS, shot the image of Russian soldiers waving the Hammer and Sickle flag from the top of the Reichstag using a Leica III, sometime after the building had been captured.
The camera, bearing the serial number 257492 is accompanied by an Elmar f/3.5 50mm lens with the serial number 471366 and is set to be auctioned on 30th November. Auctioneers Bonhams has set a guide price of $HK 3,000,000-4.500,000 (equivalent to £230,000-340,000 or $390,000-580,000).
Jorge Fidel Alvarez, Wuhan, China, 2014. Leica M6 and Tri-X.
Everybody does “street photography” these days. Go to Tumblr or Flicker and you’ll find reams of it posted day after day. Most of it is not very good, nothing but throwaway looks with no internal dynamic to make you look again. Just.people.on.the.street. Really good street photography somehow rises above the pedestrian view, revealing a greater narrative within a sliver of everyday life. There is always something surprising about it, something unexpected that draws your eye and makes you want to look again. It poses a question, draws you in for a second look, gives you a glimpse of something incongruous, something you don’t expect to see in the way you’re seeing it, inviting a unique interpretation for each idiosyncratic viewer.
Take the above photograph by Jorge Fidel Alvarez: A man, presumably, with a bizarre mask stands facing the camera, something decorative hanging over where he stands; his demeanor unreadable, maybe slightly menacing. The scene radiates something indefinably sinister. An elderly Chinese woman stands in the background, smoking, staring at either the masked man or the western photographer. I wonder: who in her mind is normal, and who is exotic? The photo fascinates me, but I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at, so I look at it again and fashion a narrative to fit what I think I see. The photo suggests various interpretations; its up to me, the viewer, to work it out for myself. (The masked man is actually a welder using a homemade steel mask, which, after the stories we’ve told ourselves, almost seems irrelevant).
Good street photographers shoot a lot. The father of modern street photography, Garry Winogrand, using a Leica M4 film camera, shot over 12,000 rolls of film between 1971 and his death in 1984. When he died at the age of 56 he left over 6500 undeveloped rolls of film. Winogrand’s heirs, today’s street photographers, work in a digital age where photographs are cheap and ubiquitous, easier than ever to take, store and share. With the advent of camera phones, public resistance to strangers with cameras in public places has lessened. Yet exceptional street photographs remain as rare in the digital age as in Winogrand’s day. And almost no one shoots the street with film anymore. The ease of digital capture makes street shooting with film a proposition for only the most dedicated and hardcore film fanatics. So I’m fascinated when I see great street work done on film. Jorge Fidel Alvarez is a great street photographer, and he works with film.
Alvarez is a French photographer living in Paris. He is a 2004 graduate of SPEOS, Paris, where he studied under Georges Fèvre (master printer for Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka, among others). The Institut Culturel Français en Chine (The French Cultural Institute in China) recently invited Alvarez to Wuhan, China to shoot that city’s streets and exhibit the resulting work at the New World International Trade Center in Wuhan. The plan was simple: fly Alvarez to Wuhan for nine days of shooting whatever caught his eye, back to Paris for two weeks to process, select and print his work, and then back to Wuhan to exhibit 20 prints,, opening reception May 29, show to run through June 12. (details)
Jorge Fidel Alvarez, May 29, 2014, New World International Trade Center, Wuhan, China
Alvarez, who has been shooting the street since the 80’s when he bought his first Leica, took up professional photography comparatively late, after a first career in IT. He has carefully studied the work of other photographers – his Paris flat’s bookshelves are lined with the work of European masters Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Koudelka, Lartigue, Doisneau, Frank. In 2003, enrolled in the photography curriculum at SPEOS Paris, he discovered the American Garry Winogrand. Alvarez’s mature work can hint at the European formalism of Cartier-Bresson and Boubat, and one see’s as well the more spontaneous elements of Frank, Daido Moriyama and Winogrand- but his vision is unmistakably his own, a fascinating amalgamation fusing the poise and balance of a studied, mannered aesthetic with the arbitrary and instantaneous.