“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glace. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier Bresson.
I once met HCB, a few months before his death. He was at a gallery show in Paris where I’d stopped in. He, of course, was the center of attention while there, rightfully so; a legend in our field. Although, I must say, I’m conflicted about him. His photography is obviously one of the 20th century’s benchmarks. His written thoughts about what he did and how he did it – well, let’s just say I find a lot of it not helpful, the standard word-salad that comes along with any attempt to articulate the meaning of visual art, where the meaning is ultimately not reducable to language. You either get it or you don’t, and when you do it’s not capable of being articulated verbally.
I suppose what HCB is saying here is that a successful photograph is one where life offers us the form, we choose the content, and the goal is to fit in the content in a way that results in pleasing form. We “work in unison’ with the forms we’re presented to bring balance to the whole, modifying perspectives by moving a certain way, by coincidence of line etc. When successful, we produce a photograph that has both pleasing form and content. It’s interesting to me that HCB never really went further and talked about the role of content in the equation. In this respect he was a ‘Formalist’, someone whose aim was to produce a form that was pleasing to the eye. The content might as well be irrelevant. A guy on a bike, a kid with a jug of milk, a guy looking through a fence; all of it benign, pretty, not saying much except as it’s pleasing to the eye. And I think that it’s ultimately his failing as a photographer. His work is the equivilant of Muzak; it’s pleasing, but at a very superficial level. It ‘says’ nothing, really.
I think that’s why I prefer later photographers, those like Josef Koudelka who came after HCB, internalized his ideas about form but also chose content that had a message. Koudelka’s Gypsy photographs are of a magnitude of insight HCB could never aspire to. They are both beautiful formally and emotionally powerful via their subject matter while teaching us something as opposed to merely flattering the eye.
60’s ‘street photographers’ like Winogrand and Friedlander went in the opposite direction – a complete rejection of form for content. At least insofar as Winogrand is concerned, the content became a sort of joke – who could produce the most arresting content irrespective of whether it said anything of value. I think of Winogrand’s work as simply an extended joke, and attempt to produce manufactured photographic realities that produce strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Ultimately a party trick. Friedlander at least was saying something of value – extended meditations on American car culture and self – expression respectively.
I’ve lead off the piece with a photograph I’d taken in Paris. It has both pleasing form but also has content that (hopefully) speaks to something about the subjects involved and the photographer who took it. While it might have a bit of the vibe of an HCB photograph (Paris, street, candid, movement), it’s not something he would have taken, probably because its form isn’t strong enough on its own. But it does possess a content that says something – something about beauty, about the appeal of the beautiful, about how some people simply can’t see the beauty that surrounds us and walk right by it locked into the minutia of their daily existence, how others long for that beauty. That’s what makes it a good photo, and it’s also an analysis that Bresson would have missed, and why he’d have passed it by without another look.
[Editor’s Note: In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson published Images à la Sauvette, (what is known in English as The Decisive Moment, although the French title translates as “Images on the run”). Images à la Sauvette included a portfolio of 126 of Cartier Bresson’s photos This is the book’s 4,500-word philosophical preface, written by Cartier Bresson himself]
by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952)
There is nothing in this world without a decisive moment. Cardinal Retz
I, like many another boy, burst into the world of photography with a Box Brownie, which I used for taking holiday snapshots. Even as a child, I had a passion for painting, which I “did” on Thursdays and Sundays, the days when French school children don’t have to go to school. Gradually, I set myself to try to discover the various ways in which I could play with a camera. From the moment that I began to use the camera and to think about it, however, there was an end to holiday snaps and silly pictures of my friends. I became serious. I was on the scent of something, and I was busy smelling it out.
Then there were the movies. From some of the great films, I learned to look, and to see. Mysteries of New York, with Pearl White; the great films of D.W. Griffith – Broken Blossoms; the first films of Stroheim; Greed; Eisenstein’s Potemkin; and Dreyer’s Jeanne d’ Arc – these were some of the things that impressed me deeply.
Later I met photographers who had some of Atget’s prints. These I considered remarkable and, accordingly, I bought myself a tripod, a black cloth, and a polished walnut camera three by four inches. The camera was fitted with – instead of a shutter – a lenscap, which one took off and then put on to make the exposure. This last detail, of course, confined my challenge to the static world. Other photographic subjects seemed to me to be too complicated, or else to be “amateur stuff.” And by this time I fancied that by disregarding them, I was dedicating myself to Art with a capital “A.”
Next I took to developing this Art of mine in my washbasin. I found the business of being a photographic Jack-of-All-Trades quite entertaining. I knew nothing about printing, and had no inkling that certain kinds of paper produced soft prints and certain others highly contrasted ones. I didn’t bother much about such things, though I invariably got mad when the images didn’t come out right on the paper. In 1931, when I was twenty-two, I went to Africa. On the Ivory Coast I bought a miniature camera of a kind I have never seen before or since, made by the French firm Krauss. It used film of a size that 35mm would be without the sprocket holes. For a year I took pictures with it. On my return to France I had my pictures developed – it was not possible before, for I lived in the bush, isolated, during most of that year – and I discovered that the damp had got into the camera and that all my photographs were embellished with the superimposed patterns of giant ferns.
I had had blackwater fever in Africa, and was now obliged to convalesce. I went to Marseille. A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment. I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
The idea of making a photographic reportage, that is to say, of telling a story in a sequence of pictures, never entered my head at that time. I began to understand more about it later, as a result of looking at the work of my colleagues and at the illustrated magazines. In fact, it was only in the process of working for them that I eventually learned, bit by bit, how to make a reportage with a camera, how to make a picture-story.
I have traveled a good deal, though I don’t really know how to travel. I like to take my time about it, leaving between one country and the next an interval in which to digest what I’ve seen. Once I had arrived in a new country, I feel almost like settling down there, so as to live on proper terms with the country. I could never be a globetrotter.
In 1947, five freelance photographers, of whom I was one, founded our cooperative enterprise called “Magnum Photos.” This cooperative enterprise distributes our picture- stories to magazines in various countries.
Twenty-five years have passed since I started to look through my view-finder. But I regard myself still as an amateur, though I am still no longer a dilettante.
The Picture Story
What actually is a photographic reportage, a picture story? Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens. The elements which, together, can strike sparks from a subject, are often scattered – either in terms of space or time – and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, contrived. But if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture-story. The page serves to reunite the complementary elements which are dispersed throughout several photographs.
The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses – for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving. Sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds; it might also require hours or days. But there is no standard plan, no pattern from which to work. You must be on the alert with the brain, the eye, the heart, and have a suppleness of body.
Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination. While working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do. Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene, is going to unfold. You must stay with the scene, just in case the elements of the situation shoot off from the core again. At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machinegunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.
Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.
For photographers:, there are two kinds of selection to be made, and either of them can lead to eventual regrets. There is the selection we make when we look through the view-finder at the subject; and there is the one we make after the tiles have been developed and printed. After developing and printing, you must go about separating the pictures which, though they are all right, aren’t the strongest. When it’s too late, then you know with a terrible clarity exactly where you failed; and at this point you often recall the telltale feeling you had while you were actually making the pictures. Was it a feeling of hesitation due to uncertainty? Was it because of some physical gulf between yourself and the unfolding event? Was it simply that you did not take into account a certain detail in relation to the whole setup? Or was it (and this is more frequent) that your glance became vague, your eye wandered off?
For each of us space begins and slants off from our own eye, and from there enlarges itself progressively toward infinity. Space, in the present, strikes us with greater or lesser intensity and then leaves us, visually, to be closed in our memory and to modify itself there. Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever. From that fact stem the anxieties and strength of our profession. We cannot do our story over again once we’ve got back to the hotel. Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor manipulate the results in a darkroom. These tricks are patently discernible to those who have eyes to see.
In shooting a picture-story we must count the points and the rounds, rather like a boxing referee. In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential,
therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe – even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye – these we should all have. It’s no good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.
The profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it. There are no systems, for each case is individual and demands that we be unobtrusive, though we must be at close range. Reactions of people differ much from country to country, and from one social group to another. Throughout the whole of the Orient, for example, an impatient photographer – or one who is simply pressed for time – is subject to ridicule. If you have made yourself obvious, even just by getting your light-meter out, the only thing to do is to forget about photography for the moment, and accommodatingly allow the children who come rushing at you to cling to your knees like burrs.
There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.
Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.
In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.
There are thousands of ways to distill the essence of something that captivates us; let’s not catalogue them. We will, instead, leave it in all its freshness…
There is a whole territory which is no longer exploited by painting. Some say it is because of the discovery of photography. However it came about, photography has taken over a part of this territory in the form of illustration.
One kind of subject matter greatly derided by present- day painters is the portrait. The frock coat, the soldier’s cap, the horse now repel even the most academic of painters. They feel suffocated by all the gaiter buttons of the Victorian portrait makers. For photographers – perhaps because we are reaching for something much less lasting in value than the painters – this is not so much irritating as amusing, because we accept life in all its reality.
People have an urge to perpetuate themselves by means of a portrait, and they put their best profiles forward for posterity. Mingled with this urge, though, is a certain fear of black magic; a feeling that by sitting for a camera portrait they are exposing themselves to the workings of witchcraft of a sort.
One of the fascinating things about portraits is the way they enable us to trace the sameness of man. Man’s continuity somehow comes through all the external things that constitute him – even if it is only to the extent of someone’s mistaking Uncle for Little Nephew in the family album. If the photographer is to have a chance of achieving a true reflection of a person’s world – which is as much outside him as inside him – it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat – for man, no less than animals, has his habitat. Above all, the sitter must be made to forget about the camera and the photographer who is handling it. Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the birdie from coming out.
What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face? The first impression given by a particular face is often the right one; but the photographer should try always to substantiate the first impression by “living” with the person concerned. The decisive moment and psychology, no less than camera position are the principal factors in the making of a good portrait. It seems to me it would be pretty difficult to be a portrait photographer for customers who order and pay since, apart from a Maecenas or two, they want to be flattered, and
the result is no longer real. The sitter is suspicious of the objectivity of the camera, while the photographer is after an acute psychological study of the sitter.
It is true, too, that a certain identity is manifest in all the portraits taken by one photographer. The photographer is searching for identity of his sitter, and also trying to fulfill an expression of himself. The true portrait emphasizes neither the suave nor the grotesque, but reflects the personality.
I infinitely prefer, to contrived portraits, those little identity-card photos which are pasted side by side, row after row, in the windows of passport photographers. At least there is on these faces something that raises a question, a simple factual testimony – this in place of the poetic identification we look for.
If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.
In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.
The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a
detail – and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.
Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.
Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move. In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a postmortem examination of the picture. I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.
If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.
Color In talking about composition we have been so far thinking only in terms of that symbolic color called black. Black-and-white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction. In it, all the values are transposed; and this leaves the possibility of choice.
Color photography brings with it a number of problems that are hard to resolve today, and some of which are difficult even to foresee, owing to its complexity and its relative immaturity. At present , color film emulsions are still very slow. Consequently, photographers using color have a tendency to confine themselves to static subjects; or else to use ferociously strong artificial lights. The slow speed of color film reduces the depth of focus in the field of vision in relatively close shots; and this cramping often makes for dull composition. On top of that, blurred backgrounds in color photographs are distinctly displeasing.
Color photographs in the form of transparencies seem quite pleasing sometimes. But then the engraver takes over; and a complete understanding with the engraver would appear to be as desirable in this business as it is in lithography. Finally, there are the inks and the paper, both of which are capable of acting capriciously. A color photograph reproduced in a magazine or semiluxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.
It is true that color reproductions of pictures and documents have already achieved a certain fidelity to the original; but when the color proceeds to take on real life, it’s another matter. We are only in the infancy of color photography. But all this is not to say we should take no further interest in the question, or sit by waiting for the perfect color film – packaged with the talent necessary to use it – to drop into our laps. We must continue to try to feel our way.
Though it is difficult to foresee exactly how color photography is going to grow m photoreporting, it seems certain that it requires a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black-and-white. Personally, I am half afraid that this complex new element may tend to prejudice the achievement of the life and movement which is often caught by black-and-white. To really be able to create in the field of color photography, we should transform and modulate colors, and thus achieve liberty of expression within the framework of the laws which were codified by the Impressionists and from which even a photographer cannot shy away. (The law, for instance, of simultaneous contrast: the law that every color tends to tinge the space next to it with its complementary color; that it two tones contain a color which is common to them both, that common color is attenuated by placing the two tones side by side; that two complementary colors placed side by side emphasize both, but mixed together they annihilate each other; and so on.)
The operation of bringing the color of nature in space to a printed surface poses a series of extremely complex problems. To the eye, certain colors advance, others recede. So we would have to be able to adjust the relations of the color one to the other, for colors, which in nature place themselves in the depth of space, claim a different placing on a plane surface – whether it is the flat surface of a painting or a photograph.
The difficulties involved in snapshooting are precisely that we cannot control the movement of the subject; and in color-photography reporting, the real difficulty is that we are unable to control the interrelation of colors within the subject. It wouldn’t be hard to add to the list of difficulties involved, but it is quite certain that the development of photography is tied up with the development of its technique.
Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening our field of action considerably. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique.
Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film. But only the results count, and the conclusive evidence is the finished photographic print; otherwise there would be no end to the number of tales photographers would tell about pictures which they ever-so-nearly got – but which are merely a memory in the eye of the nostalgia.
Our trade of photo-reporting has been in existence only about thirty years. It came to maturity due to the development of easily handled cameras, faster lenses, and fast fine-grain films produced for the movie industry. The camera is for us a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.
It is enough if a photographer feels at ease with his camera, and if it is appropriate to the job he wants it to do. The actual handling of the camera, its stops, its exposure-speeds and all the rest of it are things which should be as automatic as the changing of” gears in an automobile. It is no part of my business to go into the details or refinements of any of these operations, even the most complicated ones, for they are all set forth with military precision in the manuals which the manufacturers provide along with the camera and the nice orange calf-skin case. If the camera is a beautiful gadget, we should progress beyond that stage at least in conversation. The same applies to the hows and whys of making pretty prints in the darkroom.
During the process of enlarging, it is essential to re-create the values and mood of the time the picture was taken; or even to modify the print so as to bring it into line with the intentions of the photographer at the moment he shot it. It is necessary also to re-establish the balance which the eye is continually establishing between light and shadow. And it is for these reasons that the final act of creating in photography takes place in the darkroom.
I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique – a notion which reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this trompe l’ oeil technique, to get to closer grips with reality? In either case, they are just as far away from the real problem as those of that other generation which used to endow all its photographic anecdotes with an intentional unsharpness such as was deemed to be “artistic”.
The camera enables us to keep a sort of visual chronicle. For me, it is my diary. We photoreporters are people who supply information to a world in a hurry, a world weighted down with preoccupations, prone to cacophony, and full of beings with a hunger for information and needing the companionship of images. We photographers, in the course of taking pictures, inevitably make a judgment on what we see, and that implies a great responsibility. We are, however, dependent on printing, since it is to the illustrated magazines that we, as artisans, deliver raw material.
It was indeed an emotional experience for me when I sold my first photograph (to the French magazine Vu).That was the start of a long alliance with magazines. The magazines produce for us a public, and introduce us to that public; and they know how to get picture-stories across in the way the photographer intended. But sometimes, unhappily, they distort them. The magazine can publish exactly what the photographer wanted to show; but the photographer runs the risk of letting himself be molded by the taste or the requirements of the magazine.
In a picture-story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of camera to reach. Unfortunately, in the sub-editor’s room, mistakes sometimes slip in that are not just simple misspellings or malapropisms. For these mistakes the reader often holds the photographer responsible. Such things do happen.
The pictures pass through the hands of the editor and the layout man. The editor has to make his choice from the thirty or so pictures of which the average picture-story consists. (It is rather as though he had to cut a text article to pieces in order to end up with a series of quotations!) For a picture-story, as for a novel, there are certain set forms. The pictures of the editor’s choice have to be laid out within the space of two, three, or four pages, according to the amount of interest he thinks they are likely to arouse, or according to the current state of paper shortage.
The great art of the layout man lies in his knowing how to pick from this pile of pictures the particular one which deserves a full-page or a double-page spread; in his knowing where to insert the small picture which must serve as an indispensable link in the story. (The photographer, when he is actually taking the pictures for his story, should never give a thought to the ways in which it will be possible to lay out those pictures to the most advantage.) The layout man will often have to crop one picture so as to leave only the most important section of it – since, for him, it is the unity of the whole page or of the whole spread that counts above all else. A photographer can scarcely be too appreciative of the layout man who gives his work a beautiful presentation of a kind which keeps the full import of the story; a display in which the pictures have spatially correct margins and stand out as they should; and in which each page possesses its own architecture and rhythm.
There is a third anguish for a photographer – when he looks for his story in a magazine. There are ways of communicating our photographs other than through publication in magazines.
Exhibitions, for instance; and the book form, which is almost a form of permanent exhibition.
I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds. Certainly the fading snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalog, and the great range of things in between are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself;
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.
I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.
But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines, and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.
A sublimely beautiful Black Paint Leica IIIg. You can actually take pictures with it
Call me a poseur, or a hipster, but old screw mount Leicas are really fun. Not just setting them on a shelf and admiring them, or walking around the house while fondling their knurled knobs and beautifully machined parts (as I’m known to do), but actually taking them out and shooting film with them, just like they were meant to do. They’re so ‘retro’ that they’re not, and for those with a philosophical bent, this sort of meta-activity (activity meant to comment on the activity itself) can be immensely satisfying, not to mention the pathetic looks you’ll get from the iphone crowd or, better yet, the conspiratorial nods you’ll sometimes receive from a fellow traveller of advanced age. For me, however, the best part is passing paths with somebody sporting a digital Leica with “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating,” often wearing a beret and taking pictures of people in coffee shops in the touristy parts of town, Billingham or Ono bag conspicuous by its immaculate appearance. These folks, when they notice you – and trust me, they’ll notice you, because for all gearheads the act of being out and about with a camera is all about seeing and being seen – often wear a look of morbid fascination, fixation admixed with potential danger, as if I was carrying a live grenade with the pin removed. I suspect they really want to inquire about it, but don’t quite know what it is or what to make of it, or, if it goes that far, how to use it.
I’m often asked, usually by the iphone crowd, “Does that thing work?” Hell yes it works, because it was built to work seemingly forever, because it’s a sublime fusion of simplicity and function, overbuilt to last for as long as you continue to service it. Keep it in use, and the most you’ll have to do is send it off to a reputable service tech like Youxin Ye every 30 years or so. I have no doubt that my grandkid’s grandkids, if they were of a mind (and could figure out how to load the thing) could be using it in another 100 years. Try that with your M240, or is it an M260 now?
Of course, some of the earlier screw mount Leicas – the IA, for example – are so outdated that even a hopeless romantic like me finds them impractical to use. In 2000, leica offered the an 0-Series replica, fully functional and sold through Leica dealers, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the 35mm Leica camera. The camera is virtually identical to the 1923 Ur-Leica prototype #104 resident in the Leica Museum. No thanks. I like my nostalgia authentic. In my mind, using one of these is like going to Las Vegas and claiming you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If I’m going to use a screw mount Leica, I’m going to use the best, most technologically advanced screw mount Leica ever built – the Leica IIIg, not some cheesy historical replica dedicated to the Sultan Of Brunei [on a side note: how is it that Leica culture could be so schizophrenic as to give us both the sublime IIIg, M2/M3 and M4 and also the “Hello Kitty” M6?].Released in 1957, the IIIg is Leica’s last screw mount camera. Had it been released in 1950 or 1953, it would be have been far more influential in subsequent Leica lore, because it’s a superb camera that’s really fun to use. Leitz had introduced the Leica M3 four years earlier in 1953 as a clean sheet design with a new lens mount and the now iconic M styling. The M3 set a new standard for 35mm rangefinders that lasts to this day.
The IIIg was introduced as the logical last evolutionary step of the old Barnack design series, a last tip of the hat to more conservative Leicaphiles who still preferred the familiarity of the Barnack camera. Its new features were incremental – the same basic ergonomics of the IIIf with a redesigned top cover and a larger and improved viewfinder similar to the M3, including an extra frosted window for the projection of different frame lines into the viewfinder.
Leitz produced and offered the IIIg for only 3 years, 1957-60, years when the M3 was meeting with professional raves and impressive sales. Japanese manufacturers were also offering their updated alternatives to the M3; the IIIg not only had to compete against the better spec’d M3, Canon P and Nikon S3, but after 1958, the Leica M2, itself a runaway success much like the M3. Next to these now iconic cameras, the Leica IIIg was a technological dinosaur, lacking the combined VF/RF assemblies of the M3 and the Canon and Nikon that allowed for a single, much larger eyepiece for simultaneous focusing and composing.
The author’s incredibly cool Leica IIIg
The Leica IIIg was much like the screw mount Leicas that had been produced by Leitz since the 20’s, featuring only incremental changes from the previous Barnack Leica, the IIIf ‘Red Dial:” A larger .7 mag viewfinder with two sets of illuminated, parallax corrected framelines for the 50/90 focal lengths; Shutter speeds calibrated with a modern shutter speed progression – the 2/4/8/15/30/60…. ; Separate flash synch dial replaced with two flash settings at 1/50 and 1/25th on the shutter speed dial; A film reminder dial placed on the back of the body that exceeded ASA 100.
The IIIg is not as common as earlier Barnacks. Consequently, they sell for substantially more than a well cared for IIIc or IIIf, and most of them sit on collector’s shelves or circulate among us Leicaphiles in quixotic buy/sell attempts to finally satiate an obsessive compulsion to find The Perfect Leica.
Above is a photo I took in a Paris street with my IIIg and a first generation collapsible Summicron. The photo isn’t going to win any photojournalism awards, I’m sure, but I really like it just the same. It reminds me of what I love about the city – an eclectic mix of the profane and the sacred, where the beautiful peeks out at you in the most unexpected places. It also seems appropriate that it was taken with an old Leica, the sort used by HCB for many if his iconic Parisian photos. What’s printed above is a simple scan of the negative with some minor fiddling in Photoshop. But I also have an 10×15 silver print of the same photo, printed by HCB’s own master printer George Fevre, one of my most treasured photographic possessions. How cool is that? My own Parisian “decisive moment,” captured with an iconic Leica film camera and printed by one of the World’s most masterful printers, the same guy who printed HCB’s stuff. That’s what you call “living the dream.”
“Digital capture quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality, that physical relationship between the object photographed and the image that differentiated lens-made imagery and defined our understanding of photography for 160 years. The digital sensor replaced to optical record of light with a computational process that substitutes a calculated reconstruction using only one third of the available photons. That’s right, two thirds of the digital image is interpolated by the processor in the conversion from RAW to JPG or TIF. It’s reality but not as we know it… Veteran digital commentator Kevin Connor says, “The definition of computational photography is still evolving, but I like to think of it as a shift from using a camera as a picture-making device to using it as a data-collecting device.”
I ran across the above quote in an article in Time Magazine entitled “The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming,” which, to put it charitably, is normally not the first place I look when I want cutting edge philosophical discussions, given its pedestrian readership usually located on the far end of any cultural curve. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting article, discussing things some of us, myself included, have been articulating since the inception of the digital age. Just a few years ago, saying essentially the same thing on a popular photo forum, I was roundly derided as a kook by the usual suspects. It’s not as if ignorance and lack of expansive thinking don’t have a consistent pedigree; if history teaches anything, it’s that the revolutionary implications of technological changes are never seen by the average guy until they’re impossible to ignore. Now, if Time is any indication, maybe it’s a message finally resonating with the generally educated public: the passage from analogue to digital “photography”, from a philosophical and practical perspective, is less an evolution than a revolution of the medium. What we’ve wrought, with our CMOS and CCD sensors that transform light into an insubstantial pattern of 1’s and 0’s, is not merely a difference of degree from traditional photography but rather a fundamental difference of kind. You can even make a claim that digital photography really isn’t ‘photography’ in the etymological sense of the word at all. As Mr. Connor suggests, its more accurately described as “data collecting.”
Until recently, photography worked like this: light reflected off people and things and would filter through a camera and physically transform a tangible thing, an emulsion of some sort. This emulsion was contained on, or in, some physical substrate, like tin, or glass, or celluloid or plastic. The photograph was a tangible thing, created by light and engraved with a material trace of something that existed in real time and space. That’s how “photography” got its name: “writing with light”.
Roland Barthes, the French linguist, literary theorist and philosopher, wrote a book about this indexical quality of photography called Camera Lucida. Its one of the seminal texts in the philosophy of photography, which means it’s often referred to while seldom being read, and even less so, understood. To summarize Barthes, what makes a photograph special is its uncanny indexical relationship with what we perceive “out there,” with what’s real. And its indexical nature is closely tied to its analogue processes. Analogue photography transcribes – “writes”- light as a physical texture on a physical substrate in an indexical relationship of thing to image (i.e. a sign that is linked to its object by an actual connection or real relation irrespective of interpretation). What’s important for Barthes’ purposes is that the analogue photograph was literally an emanation of a referent; from a real body, over there, proceeded radiations which ultimately touched the film in my camera, over here, and a new, physical thing, a tintype, or daguerreotype, or a film negative, was created, physically inscribed by the light that touched it.
Now photography is digital, and the evolution from film to digital is not merely about of the obsolescence of film as the standard photographic medium; rather, it’s the story of a deep ontological and phenomenological shift that is transforming the way we capture and store images that purport to copy the world. Where we used to have cameras that used light to etch a negative, we now have, in the words of Kevin Connor, digital data-collecting devices that don’t “write with light,” but rather which translate light into discrete number patterns which aren’t indexical and can be instantiated intangibly i.e. what is produced isn’t a ‘thing’ but only a pattern which contains the potential of something else, something else that requires the intercession of of third thing, computation.
The First Photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827, Le Gras, France
In August, 2003, I was sitting in the garden outside of Joseph Niépce’s Burgundy estate, where, from the window of which, Niépce had taken history’s first photograph. I was enjoying a pleasant late Summer afternoon in the company of George Fèvre, one of the unsung masters of 20th Century photography. A personal friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson, George was the master printer at PICTO in Paris and was the guy who printed HCB’s negatives from the 1950’s until HCB’s death in 2004. If you’ve seen an HCB or Joseph Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, in all likelihood George printed it.
George was an incredibly nice man, humble to a fault, full of fascinating stories about the foibles of the photographic masters and very thoughtful about the craft of photography.
Up to that day I lived in the old familiar world of traditional photographic practices: aperture and shutter, exposure, film type, developer characteristics, contrast filters and paper grades, a world whose highest achievements George had helped promulgate. What better person to talk to about photography, and what better place to do it, where it all started.
Of course, I wanted to hear his stories, first person accounts of iconic photographers and their iconic prints, and George, always the gentleman, obliged without any sense of the significance of what he was remembering. To him, the specifics of how HCB or Koudelka worked, the quality of their negatives, and how George used them to create the stunning prints that made them famous were nothing special, all in a day’s work for him. What George was interested in talking about was Photoshop, something he had just discovered and of which he was fascinated. And he said something curious to me, something I always remembered and something I stored in memory for a better time to reflect on it.
What George said was this: Photoshop was amazing. Anyone could now do with a few keystrokes what he had laboriously done at such cost in the darkroom. It was going to open up the craft in ways heretofore unimagined. But it was no longer photography. There was something disquieting about the transformation. Photography’s tight bond with reality had been broken, its “indexical” nature, as Barthe would put it, had been severed, and it was this bond that gave photography its power. We were arriving at a post-photographic era, where image capture would become another form of graphic arts, its products cut free from ultimate claims to truth. There could be no claims to truthful reproduction because there was nothing written and no bedrock thing produced, just a numerical patter of 1’s and 0’s instantiated nowhere and capable of endless manipulation. The future would be the era of “visual imaging.”
Since that day, the cataract of digital innovation has not abated but intensified— we all know the litany because we are caught up in it on every side: 36 mp DSLRs with facial recognition and a bevy of simulations, camera phones, Lyto, Tumblr, Facebook — do I need to go on?
George Fèvre, Le Gras, France, August, 2003
The changes have brought their benefits: giving people the chance at uncensored expression, allowing us to easily capture and disseminate what we claim to be our experiences. Of course, there are also new problems of craft and aesthetic. Previous technologies have usually expanded technical mastery, but digital technology is contracting it. The eloquence of a single jewel like 5×7 contact print has turned into the un-nuanced vulgarity of 30 x 40 tack sharp Giclee prints taken with fully automated digitized devices and reworked in Photoshop so as destroy any indexical relationship with the real.
We are currently living through a profound cultural transformation at the hands of techno-visionaries with no real investment in photography as a practice. All the more ironic in that this has happened at a time when popular culture now bludgeons us with imagery: while photography is dead, images are everywhere. You see imaging on your way to work, while you’re at work, at lunch time, on your way home from work, when you go out in the evening. Your computerized news feed and email inbox is full of it. Even what you read has become an adjunct to the primacy of the image. The problem is that the images digital processes give us possess no intrinsic proof of their truth, its non-instantiated computated product endlessly malleable and thus cut free from ultimate claims to truth. And it’s this claim to truth that gives photography its uncanny ability to communicate with us, to make us reflect, or to aid us in remembrance, or to help us see anew.
John Naughton bough this first Leica as a graduate student at Cambridge: ‘It was a second-hand M2 with a 35mm Summilux lens and foolishly extravagant for a skint young scholar.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer
I’m a photographer. No, let me rephrase that: I would like to be a photographer. In reality I’m merely an obsessive who takes lots of photographs in the hope that some day, just once, he will produce an image that is really, truly memorable. Like the images that Henri Cartier Bresson captured, apparently effortlessly, in their thousands. Think, for example, of his famous picture of the guy leaping over the puddle; or the one of the two stout couples enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Marne; or his magical picture of a cheeky young boy carrying two bottles of red wine on the rue Mouffetard in 1954. I like this last one particularly, because the lad in the photograph is about the same age as I was then and I often wonder if he’s still around, and what he looks like now.
You can think about this obsessiveness, this quest for the one perfect picture, as a kind of illness. If so, then I’ve had it for more than half a century. And I’m not the only sufferer. Only the other day I was reading a profile of Derrick Parfit, the celebrated Oxford philosopher, who believes that most of the world looks better in reproduction than it does in life. Unlike me, though, Parfit has specialised. There were only 10 things in the world he wanted to photograph, writes Macfarquhar, “and they’re all buildings: the best buildings in Venice – Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal – and the best buildings in St Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building”.
Sunday on the banks of the river Marne. 1938. Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Accordingly, between 1975 and 1998, Parfit spent about five weeks each year in Venice and St Petersburg. (That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re a fellow of All Souls.) Like me, he dislikes the harshness of the midday sun, so he’d wait for morning or evening light. He would wait for hours, reading a book, for the right sort of light and the right sort of weather.
When he came home, Parfit developed his photographs and sorted them. “Of a thousand pictures,” Macfarquhar writes, “he might keep three. When he decided that a picture was worth saving, he took it to a professional processor in London and had the processor hand-paint out all aspects of the image that he found distasteful, which meant all evidence of the 20th century – cars, telegraph wires, signposts – and usually all people. Then he had the colours repeatedly adjusted, although this was enormously expensive, until they were exactly what he wanted – which was a matter of fidelity not to the scene as it was but to an idea in his head.”
Now that’s a serious case. My condition is nothing like as bad as that. But I recognise the longing for perfection. Parfit contracted the illness because a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera (make unspecified). I caught it via a chance encounter when I was 13.
I was brought up in rural Ireland, which in the 1950s was a pretty sober society, priest-ridden and poor – not unlike Poland before the Berlin Wall came down. On Sunday afternoons, my parents insisted that the family go for a “drive” – an idea I found tedious in the manner of teenagers the world over. On one such Sunday we wound up in Killarney, Ireland’s answer to the Lake District, and we were walking through the beautiful grounds of Muckross House when we came on a young woman sitting on a bench. She was in her 30s, neatly dressed and with a self-possessed air.
A photograph taken by John Naughton on 20 April 2013 in a caravan park in Kerry. John says: ‘The “austerity” regime imposed as a condition of the EU bailout was visible everywhere in Ireland at the time. The little boy was dejected because nobody would play football with him. It was one of those metaphorical moments.’
We sat on a nearby bench and my father engaged her in conversation, much to my embarrassment. It turned out that she was English and on her first visit to Ireland. Da asked if she was enjoying it. “Very much,” she replied. What did she like about the country? “Oh,” she said, “that’s easy: the cloudscapes.” She explained that she was a photographer and Ireland had very interesting light because of the way the sunlight was filtered through the clouds.
At this point I sat up and began paying attention. I had never heard this kind of talk before. “What sort of camera do you have?” I asked. She explained that she had two – “one for colour and one for black-and-white”. I was astonished: in our world families had (at most) only one camera; and any photographs they took were in black and white. Seeing my amazement she asked if I would like to see one of her cameras. I nodded eagerly. She reached into her bag, took something out, leaned towards me and placed it in my outstretched hand.
I nearly dropped it! I was expecting something of the weight of a Box Brownie. Instead I found myself holding a silver-grey metallic object that looked more like a scientific instrument than any camera I’d ever seen. “It’s a Leica,” she said. “It’s made in Germany.”
The rest of that afternoon is lost in a haze. I do remember her talking about how one should use a yellow filter when photographing landscapes in black and white (it deepens the blue of the sky and makes clouds stand out), about framing and composition, and some stuff about focal lengths. But what I came away with were two ideas: one was that photography was something that was challenging, interesting and rewarding; the other was that if you wanted to do it properly you needed serious kit.
Oskar Barnack, inventor of the Leica camera, 100 years ago.
That kit was invented 100 years ago this year in Wetzlar, a small town in Germany, where a 35-year-old technician invented a camera that would shape the way we perceived the world for the rest of the 20th century.
His name was Oskar Barnack, and he worked for a company called Leitz which made microscopes for scientific research. He had been hired by Ernst Leitz, the proprietor of the company, in 1911 and by 1913 had risen to be its director of research and development. His abiding passion, however, was not microscopy but photography, an art form that at that time required not just technical skill but a physique strong enough to lug around a large plate camera and its load of 16.5cm x 21.6cm glass plates.
Barnack suffered from acute asthma and the weight of the kit caused him difficulty in breathing, so he set out to reduce the load. He first tried fitting four images on to a single glass plate, but abandoned that approach because the quality of the images was poor. (At that time photographic prints were mostly produced by contact printing from the negative and so quality was directly proportional to the size of the negative: the bigger the glass plate, the better the result.) Barnack concluded that lightweight photography would have to be done with something less dense than glass plates, and with smaller, lighter, cameras.
At this point, he had a stroke of luck. One of his colleagues, Emil Mechau, was working on a project to improve the performance of movie projectors, particularly the infuriating fluttering of the images when projected on to a screen. He was working with 35mm celluloid roll film – a format invented by Thomas Edison in the 1890s which eventually had become standard for the emerging motion-picture industry. Barnack had found the lightweight recording medium he sought. All that was needed was a camera that could handle it.
Barnack set about designing and building one. The prototype he came up with was made of metal (hitherto cameras were hand-built, often exquisitely, with hardwood). The camera took one picture at a time, the film being wound on manually by means of a sprocket wheel that engaged with the holes on the sides of the film strip. Because the film moved horizontally – rather than vertically as in a movie camera – he decided that the dimensions of each image should be 36 x 24mm, and that a roll of 36 images would fit in the camera body.
Thus were set the basic parameters of 35mm photography. There remained, however, one problem. Since the 36 x 24 images were tiny by the standards of the day, the only way to produce large images of acceptable quality would be to print them via an enlarger. The tiny images would have to be phenomenally sharp, which meant that they needed lenses of extraordinary optical quality. Here again Barnack was lucky: one of his colleagues at Leitz was a genius with optics named Max Berek, who designed a 50mm lens (the first Elmar) that delivered the kind of optical performance Barnack’s camera needed.
The Leica 1, 1925, the world’s first 35mm camera. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Librar/Getty Images
The first three prototypes of the camera were produced in late 1913 and early 1914. It was called the Ur-Leica (Lei from “Leitz” and Ca from “camera”). It was astonishingly small, fitting comfortably into one’s hand, had a two-speed shutter, an automatic frame-counter and Berek’s f3.5 Elmar lens (which collapsed into itself when not in use, making the camera even more compact). It was a breathtaking, revolutionary device that would change photography for ever.
It would be some time before the world found out about it, however. One of the first photographs Barnack took with the camera shows a spike-helmeted German soldier who has just affixed to a public building a copy of the Emperor’s Order for total mobilisation. Germany, along with the rest of Europe, was descending into the first world war.
Leitz survived the war and the ensuing depression. The first commercial Leica – the Leica I – was launched at the Leipzig Fair in 1925. It was already much more sophisticated than the prototypes. It had a built-in optical viewfinder, shutter speeds ranging from 1/20th to 1/500th of a second, an accessory shoe – and Berek’s Elmar lens. Just under 59,000 of the Leica I were made and those that survive are now among the photographic world’s most coveted collectibles. Five years later, the first Leica with interchangeable lenses was introduced. The revolution was under way.
Leica cameras transformed the embryonic genre of photojournalism. Journalists had been using cameras almost from the dawn of photography: think of Roger Fenton documenting the Crimean war, Matthew Brady doing the same for the American civil war or Jacob Riis’s photographs of the lives of the poor in the tenements of 1890’s New York. These pioneers were constrained by the bulk of their equipment and their reportage was correspondingly static and formal. In most assignments, aspiring photojournalists stuck out like sore thumbs, or at any rate like the tripods they were obliged to use.
The Leica changed all that. Suddenly it was possible to be unobtrusive. The camera fitted in a coat pocket. It didn’t need a tripod and was quick and quiet to operate. So photography became fluid, informal, intimate: the technology no longer got in the way of telling the story. So new kinds of storytelling evolved, published in the new illustrated magazines such as Picture Post and Life.
Alberto Korda with his 1960 portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara which became a global revolutionary icon. Photograph: Jose Luis Magana/AP
These publications developed new ways of laying out and presenting stories, creating the narrative not with slabs of text but with photographs, captions and short pieces of text. Freed by Barnack’s 36-exposure rolls from the straitjacket imposed by glass plates and cut film, photographers were suddenly able to take as many shots as they needed, enabling editors back at base to choose from their contact sheets the images that best suited the narrative they were creating. The heyday of this kind of photojournalism was from 1925 until the 1960s, when the illustrated-magazine format began to wilt under the pressure of television news and features.
At the heart of photojournalism was the Leica. Almost all the great photojournalists of the period had at least one of them in his or her bag. (The only exception I can think of is our own Jane Bown: she always worked with Japanese SLRs.) Many of the images that became, in one way or another, iconic of the time were shot on Leicas: Nixon jabbing his finger at Khruschev; Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara; Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings [Editor’s Note: Capa shot a Contax, including the D-Day pictures; somehow the story has been transformed as another famous event shot with the ubiquitous Leica. it wasn’t in this instance.]; Cartier-Bresson’s photograph ofGandhi’s funeral pyre; Bert Hardy’s image of the Queen attending the Paris Opera in 1957; Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of a Gestapo informer being publicly exposed by a woman she had betrayed. And so on. Leica seeped into popular culture, such that when Dorothy Parker was asked to review Christopher Isherwood’s I Am a Camera she replied, “Me no Leica” and everybody got the joke.
Leicas have never been cheap (the latest model in the M-series costs about $6,000 just for the camera body) but when you handle one you can see why. They are beautifully engineered precision instruments, and that kind of precision costs money. They have a reassuring heft and solidity, and shutter actions that are exquisitely balanced and quiet. (Even today some US courts define acceptable noise levels for courtroom photography in relation to the noise level of a Leica shutter.) And they go on for ever (my venerable M4-P dates from 1980 and still seems as good as new) – and Leitz will fix and service them if they falter.
Normandy. Omaha Beach. The first wave of American troops lands at dawn. June 6th, 1944. Photograph: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos
Until the early 1970s the cameras contained no electronics – not even an exposure meter – which meant they were astonishingly robust. The playwright Arthur Miller once recounted an occasion when he and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, were invited to dinner by Fidel Castro. “On arriving in the Palace of the Revolution,” Miller recalled, “my wife was immediately required to give up her Leica before meeting Castro. The man taking the camera promptly dropped it from a high bin to the stone floor.” Later on in the evening, however, an aide handed Castro a book of Morath’s photographs. On seeing them Castro “promptly ordered an underling to return her camera to her. And he had no objection to her photographing him the rest of the evening.” The Leica still worked flawlessly.
The other reason why Leicas are eye-wateringly expensive is the glassware. Leitz lenses are astonishingly good in terms of sharpness, resolution and colour rendition. The top-end Noctilux f0.95 50mm lens, for example, is capable of admitting more light than any other lens in the world. But at nearly £8,000 it can also deplete your current account faster than any other lens in existence. I know only one person who has this lens, and he long ago made so much money from technology companies that he doesn’t notice the cost. But even a standard 50mm Summicron f/2 lens costs around £1,600.
These prices attract the derision of some amateur photographers, who see them as proof that Leica has sold out – abandoned the business of serious photography for the universe of luxury goods dominated by Louis Vuitton, Breitling et al; the world of the Financial Times‘s nauseating “How to Spend It” supplement. It is true that the red dot that was the badge for the Leica brand had become something of a fashion icon – to the point that serious photographers took to obscuring the dot with black tape. (In recent models, Leica has abandoned the dot.) But people who buy Leicas as fashion accessories often come unstuck, because you have to know what you’re doing in order to use the M-series cameras. There’s a lovely sequence of photographs online of Eric Clapton using his M8, for example. He takes the photograph, then looks in puzzlement at the LCD monitor and the camera until he eventually realises that the lens cap is still on. The Queen, meanwhile, has been an assured Leica user for decades. And she always takes the lens cap off.
Like other great engineering companies, Leica nearly missed the digital revolution. Initially, the new technology didn’t seem to pose a challenge to high-end photography: the pixellated images produced by sensors the size of a baby’s fingernail were too crude. But the bell began to toll for analogue photography in 2003 when Canon released the EOS 300, the first competent digital single lens reflex, and Nikon followed soon after with its D70. It was only a matter of time before larger sensors would start to produce images as good as those obtainable from film.
As the Japanese giants raced to introduce sensors that would match the size of Oskar Barnack’s original 35mm frame, Leica looked like a rabbit transfixed in the headlights of an oncoming car. Instead of updating its M-range to take digital sensors, it fiddled about in an alliance with Panasonic to produce expensive but essentially derivative consumer cameras which were really just rebadged versions of Japanese originals. For a time it looked as though Leica would go the way of Kodak,, another company that had dominated analogue photography but failed to master digital.
In the end, Leica was rescued from its near-death experience by a wealthy Austrian entrepreneur, Andreas Kaufmann, who gradually acquired a controlling stake in the company between 2002 and 2006 and turned it round. The first digital M-camera, the M8, was launched in 2006. It was a flawed product, but at least it showed that it was possible to combine Leica’s traditional mechanical excellence with bigger sensors. And when the M9, with its full-frame 36 x 24 sensor, appeared in 2009 it was clear that the firm might weather the storm. Which it seems to have done: last year Leica reported annual revenues of around €300m and its 600 employees have moved back to a futuristic headquarters in Wetzlar, aided no doubt by the sacrifices of fanatics like me who took out second mortgages to buy M9s.
I bought my first Leica when I was a graduate student at Cambridge. It was a second-hand M2 with a 35mm Summilux lens and foolishly extravagant for a skint young scholar. In retrospect, though, it was one of the wisest purchases I ever made – not because it was an investment (though it could have been that) but because it taught me everything I know about photography. It forced me to think about what John Berger called “ways of seeing”rather than merely taking shots. It also pulled a comforting rug from under my feet: no longer could I blame my inferior work on the cheap lenses and crappy cameras that were all I could afford. With the same kit as Henri Cartier-Bresson, if I failed in the quest for the perfect picture then I only had myself to blame. Forty years on, that’s still the position. Still, tomorrow’s another day…
In It Might Get Loud, a 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary about rock guitar and the creative process, White Stripes front man Jack White builds himself an electric guitar in his barn. A piece of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, an electric pickup, a hammer and a few nails, and pretty soon White is belting out an eerily hypnotic riff that might be right at home on one of his albums. It’s there right at the beginning of the film, to make the obvious point: it’s not about the guitar, it’s all about the guy playing it. Cut to the next scene – White driving a late 50’s era Mercury down a Tennessee dirt road, declaiming on the debilitating drain of technology on the creative process, in White’s words “the disease you have to fight in any creative field.”
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Leica ever since the onset of the digital era. I love Leica film cameras. To my mind, the best, most functional, least ostentatious cameras ever made are the M2, M3, M4 and M5. Nothing superfluous, no bells, no whistles, everything you need and nothing more. Perfection via simplicity and design. No wonder people still pay premium prices for Leica film cameras long into the digital age. You will pry my black chrome M4 from my fingers when I die. Not a second before.
My Black Chrome Leica M4
It wasn’t always that way. When the Leica I debuted in 1925, most photographers dismissed it as a “toy designed for a lady’s handbag,” too small and imprecise, beneath the requirements of a ‘serious photographer.’ And shortly thereafter, Leitz offered the first in a continuing line of questionable collector’s editions, starting in 1929 with the gold plated, lizard skinned Luxus Leica I, over the top limited editions that have caused some to question the commitment of Leitz to the needs of serious photographers.
But, after the initial skepticism, and the discovery of the liberating effects of being able to slip a camera in one’s pocket, the Leica was greeted with fierce devotion by a generation of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest documentarian of his time, called shooting with the Leica like “a big warm kiss, a shot from a revolver, like the psychoanalyst’s couch:”
I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.
In 1932 the Leica II arrived, along with a coupled rangefinder for precise focusing, and shortly thereafter the Leica III with subtle improvements and slower shutter speeds up to 1 second. Production of the “Barnack” Leicas continued until 1960.
My 1957 Leica IIIg
I still use a IIIg Barnack, simplicity defined, with knurled knobs to wind and rewind the film, no meter, a shutter speed dial to set the mechanical cloth shutter, and a simple aperture ring on the lens itself. Even today, it feels right in use, comfortable in hand, the photographic equivalent of a well-worn pair of leather shoes built to last, certainly an infinitely more pleasing ergonomic experience than that offered by today’s crop of professional digital cameras, which in reality are more computer than camera, with voluminous instruction manuals and nested menus to match. With the IIIg no instruction manual is needed – well, in fairness, some might need one to figure out how to load the film – and one needs only some fundamental knowledge about how apertures and shutter speeds control light and how light interacts with film. Load your film and go out and shoot. No chimping. This is why I love my Leicas – IIIg, m2, m4, m5, and (to a lesser extent) my M7.
And yet, I’ve often claimed to hate their digital cameras, in spite of the fact that I’ve owned two (an M8 and an X1) and loved them both. When I think about it objectively, the current Monochrom seems to me the closest thing to a traditional Leica film camera in the digital age, embodying the same ethos, but transformed somehow to meet the digital reality. And the fact that I’ve loved the M8 and X1, both much maligned by digiphiles, while philosophically “hating” Leica digital offerings, should tell you something about my ultimate sympathies. In reality, I’ve realized, I don’t hate Leica digital cameras; what I hate is digital photography. Of course, as an ‘amateur’ (not because I work in a different field, but because I do what I do for love), though one who has studied documentary photography in some fairly august institutions and with some incredibly fascinating people, I have the option of choosing a medium without reference to cost, efficiency or technological expectations. Some of us just prefer our photographic tools to be simple, much like Jack White prefers his Montgomery Ward electric guitar to a Fender Limited Rosewood Telecaster.
The strengths of Leica’s digital cameras are the very thing they’re criticized for by the digital generation, and its because Leica’s philosophy has been to give their customer base a digital camera that mimics, as far as is feasible, the feel and function of a traditional mechanical film camera. They are, to the extent that a digital camera can be, simple, stripped to the essentials much like their film equivalents. The technology is kept in the background as far as that is possible, the experience meant to be a viable digital simulacron of the analogue experience.
My Leica X1
If there’s one thing I do wish, its that Leica would move past the stale arguments about “IQ.” That battle was fought a long time ago, and unless you want to print 50 inches on the long side (which is itself absurd for a traditional photographer), the debate in the digital era now should be about functionality, ergonomics, the feel in the hand, the tactile experience, the “haptics” of the photographic act. The 12 mp Leica X1 is uncluttered and simple, as close to a traditional mechanical film camera in the digital age as you’ll find. The criticisms of the camera are perceived “faults” only if you buy into the misguided priorities of advanced digital cameras. They become irrelevant when you look at the X1 as Leica’s attempt to duplicate, as much as possible, the tactile and ergonomic experience of a traditional analogue camera. Slow AF? Scale focus. Actually, I’d prefer manual focus. Slow lens? You don’t need fast lenses in the digital age. Just crank up the ISO. A 2.8 fixed lens allows Leica to build a small pocketable camera. Low res LCD? Big deal. I’m of the opinion LCD screens have been the worst thing to ever happen to photography: instant feedback is expected, at the expense of being in the moment. Of course, the X1 needs the screen because that’s how you compose; but if you put an optical viewfinder on the hotshoe, just like I do with my IIIg, you’re good.
Auvers sur Oise, 2013, taken with a Leica X1
My grandfather lived to be 96. He loved to drive his car, and he drove virtually every day until the day he died in 1998. Not bad for a guy with a stiff neck who had to back out of his driveway onto a busy urban avenue in New Jersey without looking.
My Grandfather, “Gramps,” 1994, Lansdale, Pennsylvania
“Gramps” was a man who loved his cars, and he loved the Nash Rambler above all else. To him, the Nash Rambler was the pinnacle of automotive engineering. He had pictures of Ramblers hanging throughout his musty old house, and he never missed an opportunity to extol the Nash’s virtues to his bemused grandchildren. By the late 60’s/early 70’s when I was coming of age, Gramps had been relegated to buying AMC cars (the successor to Nash). AMC are the folks who brought you the Pacer, which has (rightly) gone down in American automotive history as one of the most hideous cars ever built. But my grandfather swore by his AMCs, because, of course, they were the same folks who built the Nash, and nobody, especially not his snotty-nosed know-it-all grandson, was going to convince him they weren’t the world’s best vehicle. I started driving in 1974, my first car a 1962 Volkswagon Bug with holes in the floor and rust up to the windows, and every time it broke down my grandfather would come get me and invariably remind me that if I had bought an AMC he wouldn’t be needing to pick me up on the side of the road so much.
I’m reminded of my grandfather and his Nashes when I pull out my Leica film cameras at family gatherings. The next generation – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews – look at me the same way I remember looking at him when he’d launch into his Nash soliliques: bemused and half pitying for an old man clinging to a disappearing world, unable to emotionally adapt to newer, better technologies. “Why do you use that old camera?” They’ll ask, half mocking, as they take selfies and pictures of their food with their iPhone. “Don’t you have to put the film in some chemicals before you can see the pictures?” And then I patiently explain to them about grain, and latitude, and the beauty of HP5 in D76, about contact sheets and being discriminating in what one pictures and shares, and they look at me with a look that attempts to conceal the fact that they think I’m a pitiable old man. Put aside for the a moment the following: I still have a full head of hair with a luxurious ponytail, I race 175 horse power motorcycles around closed circuits at 175 mph, and I listen to The White Stripes in my spare time.
My niece and her boyfriend, “Buddha,” with that bemused expression reserved for interacting with the pathetically un-hip.
What I like about my old Leica film cameras, and what I find lacking in most current digital cameras, is the way the simplicity of the technology, stripped to its essential functions, allows you, paradoxically, an easier creative flow. The technology isn’t in the way. I’m not bewitched by it, lured into believing that it offers something creatively not offered by a simpler device. It’s Jack White’s point: creative acts aren’t the product of a technology, whether it be a guitar or a camera; they are the product of a unique creative human act. The guitar, or the camera, is simply the conduit, and that conduit can either refine, or coarsen, the connection to our creative vision. In the words of Anthony Lane,
The truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.
So, I give Leica credit. In this age of 100,000 RGB Metering Sensors, “Scene Intelligent Auto Mode with Handheld Night Scene and HDR Backlight Control Modes,” image stabilization, face recognition technology and 14 fps burst modes, I can still open up my B&H catalog and order a brand new Leica MP or M7 film camera, or, if I prefer digital, a Monchrom with manual focus and completely manual exposure capabilities, just like my M4. That’s remarkable in this day and age, and Leica deserves profound credit. Enough, I suspect, to allow one to look the other way at the occasional Hello Kitty Limited Edition.