Thursday, April 16, 2015

Leica Fanboy

Bold and italic and even bold italic alert

OK - I think I have probably held back long enough on this one, but it doesn't seem to be getting any better, so here goes.

Like a raw open wound, the art and hobby of photography has long been both a rich man's sport and something filled to the brim with disappointment. Really. You don't believe me? Well off you pop and have a word with yourself in that cupboard and then come back to me.
Is that better? Good.
Really, it is dead sad.
You know, when you look around you, our hobby/passion is littered with the broken dreams of:
"If only I had a such-and-such" 
and
"Oh for a Super f0.2! It would make my life so much easier" 
and
"I really want one of them . . . blah blah uses one, and I know they cost a lot of money, but if I get one of those I will take great pictures".
Does this sound familiar?
Thought so. The obsession with getting 'the best' in order to make your vision better is all too common, and a lot of the time, it doesn't even have to do with that. 
Obsessed with bragging rights a lot of photographers literally have to be seen to be carrying 'the thing', the latest and greatest, and sadly, in the case of Leitz, oldest, greatest/greatest, greatest camera and lens combo they can buy.
After all it's Leica, isn't it legendary?
Well yeah, natch, goes without saying! And the thinking seems to be that surely if you use it, some of the legend will rub off on you and you too can become a legend. Seriously - you are using a legend - ergo you are automatically a legend yourself - ergo your images are simply brilliant
Thus are Fanboys made. Like some weird form of possession, they come to eat, sleep, breath and just plain live for the marque to the point of total obsession. After all when God calls, would you want to be found wanting?
And from this come the reviews (done that myself), details, back-patting, testing, blogging, testing again and again and again.
Man, I thought I could be obsessive, but there's some real fruit-loops out there. You can find them under any picture sharing stone.
You know, there's another expression I heard recently: "All the gear, no idea".
Hmm, dontcha think it pretty much sums things up?
Really, when it comes down to it, isn't photography ALL ABOUT self expression and making your mark in the annals?
Isn't the camera JUST a means to an end to stop a moment in time?
Well I thought so, but looking around it often doesn't seem like that. 
I know I've mentioned this before, but it is like that stupid thing on Top Gear - the Cool Wall - I won't explain it as you've no doubt seen it, but basically it was a bunch of wee lads peeing up against a wall, except it was about cars - who can get the highest (fastest); who can splatter the most (biggest engine): who can miss dribbling on his shoes (bodywork) . . . you know . . . the sort of thing you thought you left behind when you were seven.
What we are seeing in photography at the moment amounts to the same thing - nothing to do with photography at all, just endless testing and re-testing, endless droning about bokeh and sharpness and just plain boring boring boring images being posted left right and centre.
I don't know about you, but it sucks the life out of my eyes, because it seems like the more money you have to spend on gear, the (mostly) more boring images the zombie photographer inside you is forcing you to take.
Goodness knows, some dullness is acceptable - it is part and parcel of the nature of the beast - but man does it get rammed down your throat, when in reality it should just have been kept under wraps. 
I suppose the ease of creating images these days has part to do with that too . . . tis a piece of cake to scan a bit of film and then show those results to the world, or upload some images to wherever, but I ask you this:
If you had a darkroom, would you truly have bothered to print them? 
Hmmmm - thought not.
It's this casual blaséness of snapping away and then parading the umpteenth picture of a pile of leaves that gets me.
Who cares?
Who's interested?
Not me.

 ***

Don't get me wrong, I love photography and I love photographing. I love seeing other people's GOOD photographs and for myself, I love seeing compositions in a viewfinder and wondering how it will look as a print or on screen, and I feel a real hunger to keep on doing that - to try and make something that is my own unique take on the world, and to maybe make people go "Gosh!"
I also love the gear - it can be seriously beautiful and is often a pinnacle of mechanical genius, and when I look around my small photographic world I see some people who are in love with photography too. They love all the things I love, and do all the things I do, but they are doing so in a relatively humble way. They're not testing or posting pictures of nothing, they are photographing their world.
I've a Sheephousian confession to make . . . I go to meetings. Wonderful, chatty, joyous affairs with maniacs like myself, all ex-Scottish Photographers. SP by the way (the original lot, not the Facebook group, or the new bunch with a website going under the same name), wasn't a camera club or anything of that ilk - it was and is a serious and utterly dedicated bunch of people who live to photograph. I can't put it in any better way.
These people exhibit, teach, create and generally pass on the baton.
Dedication is the thing.
It is really quite something.
Were I to draw a parallel, I would say it was almost like The Linked Ring, except we aren't really breaking any new ground, and we definitely aren't all moustachioed and done up to the nines in proper removable collars and brilliantine.
Nope, the one defining thing is hunger.
Even with a lifetime of photographing behind them, the need to make images and produce work is all there is. Take for instance Peter and Aase Goldsmith, a couple who have photographed their whole lives through and still in their older years are producing essays and books, prints and presentations. They live photography. Truly. Every time I meet them, there's new projects . . . whether it be a selection of prints made with their newly acquired Holga Panoramic cameras, through to wonderful handmade books, spiral bound, with pencil marks and hand annotation detailing something that was so important in their lives that they had to photograph it. One particular book was made with a knackered Leica III and a knackered Jupiter 35mm lens and it looked like nothing I had ever seen - it was exciting and beautiful and totally individualistic.
Isn't that surely the nature of photography?
To stop that 1/125th of second and permanentise it?
To say to others:
"Look at this. What do you make of that? Isn't that just an extraordinary and exciting and thrilling thing?"
To further stretch this already stretched point, last week I met Malcolm Thompson on the bus.
Malcolm is another person who has dedicated his whole life to photography, from photographing for a living through to running Studio M (a print and process studio) through to exhibiting regularly, through to teaching the craft of photography and printing at the DCA through to print sessions at same.
Dedication is the thing, because he still lives and breathes it, despite now living with Parkinson's Disease, and rather than focus on that (as most folks would) he sadly recounted that he had just sold his 5x4 as it was just taking too much out of him, and that he felt that was a real shame, but he still was in love with his Rollei SL66 and would continue using that, and that he was finding FP4 ridiculously expensive but had recently started experimenting with Fomapan. In other words, though Parkinson's is a terrible disease and is robbing Malcolm of his physicality, his photographic flame still burns as bright as anything I have ever seen.

***

I know that was a wee meander, but it is to draw a point.
Dedication, craft and a love of producing good images; a willingness to try the new, and retrench in the old if necessary, but above all the hunger to photograph the world, to inform, to present to others that which you find interesting surely has to be your whole raison d'être as a photographer.
Surely Shirley.
SHIRLEY?
Well, were I being naive I would say that is the case, however we move in strange times, and much as the same way my old hobby and love of guitar playing has been taken over by a billion marauding hordes with squidoons of cash to spend and not a clue what to do with the fucking instrument except post 'unboxing' videos on YouTube, the world of photography is sort of suffering the same fate.
Go on . . . I dare you.
YouTube.
Type 'Unboxing' and then your favourite camera.
Or the cracker . . the shutter/mirror movement/penny test.
Well?
Sad isn't it (I seem to be typing that a lot recently).
OK, I am ranting a bit now (what's new?) but I see people spending really considerable amounts of money on cameras and lenses and then going out and photographing the likes of this:





Or this:



Wait a minute, and as they used to say - Ayeee, carumba!
In the words of Aimee Mann:
"What a waste of gunpowder and sky"
Because those two 'photographs' were made with the same lens that made this:






Does that look familiar? 
Of course it does - its my old mate Ralph Gibson and the Leitz Dual Range 50mm Summicron - one of the greatest lenses ever made. A lens designed to make photographs and art and stunning images, now slapped on a digi-body and relegated to the new gladiatorial arena of 'testing'.
Look, just to over-egg the pudding, here's some stuff made with the lens that made Leitz famous - the 50mm f3.5 Elmar (obviously shoved on a digi-cam because they've cropped the proportions all wrong):





And this:





And then . . . there's this one:






Familiar?
Yep - it's me old mate HCB, and what a photograph!
It has everything in spades; tone, light, composition, timing - it is the utter antithesis of the two 'photos' above it. No lens testing here, just good ol' HCB, wandering around, waiting, waiting, then, making the likes of the above.
You see, that history is part of the problem (if you want to call it one) with the Leica -  sadly its caché and all the baggage it brings with it is so huge and almost archetypal that it is hard to get beyond it.
As a marque it has been responsible for some of the finest, most memorable, exquisite, exciting, beautiful, thoughtful and downright entertaining images EVER made, however every year I see less and less of them and more of the inane, banal, dull, bland, totally-lacking-in-vision 'testing testing 1, 2, 3' type.
When you think of what the system is capable, I think it is a fucking waste.
As an antithesis to the 'testing' pics above, look at this image made by Rax from Iceland:





I don't really need to say anything do I? It is right up there in the Leitz pantheon.
Ragnar (Rax) has a superb eye and is an all-round nice bloke to boot and if you like the above, it can be found in his superb book Faces Of The North, but the thing is, rather than standing around looking for the 'where's the leaves? testing-testing-testing' sort of image, he goes out and makes photographs. Ones you would want to hang on your wall or travel miles to see in an exhibition, and though he uses Leica I don't think he is too hung up on it - it is a tool to realise his vision, not an effet accessory.

***

Y'see (allied to the historic importance of the marque) is the Leica's perceived other-worldy qualities. There, I've said it, been there, done the worship thing, come out the other side, still in love but more aware.
There seems to be a perception that some of the magic will rub off on the user, and they'll be able to have some sort of prescient, all-seeing, magical vision bestowed upon them by the Gods of Light and Timing. That simply because Leitz lenses just 'are', anyone using one will automatically be inducted into the Leitz Hall of Fame.
In other words, simply by the act of owning a Summilux or a Summicron, YOU WILL BE GREAT.
Full stop.
No work required.
So the mania creeps in - testing central websites (you know who you are and you should be ashamed really for toting such shite where the object becomes more important than the end result); the need for the most expensive Leica objet d'art you can afford (or not). And then the hunting for subject matter (when there are photographs everywhere) and rather than training their eyes to see something that might make a decent photograph, they just go and snap at any olde shite . . . but remember . . .

It's got the glow! 
It's got the bokeh!! 
My 'Lux took this picture of some leaves by the light of one candle!!!

You know what I mean.
I do despair actually.
A photographer will do his or her best to make the most of what is available.
Granted it is wonderful to own some beautiful tools too . . . I am as bad as anyone from that point of view - my M2/Elmars/Canon set-up is a joy to me (and I've recently had the pleasure of geeing up confirmed SLR user Bruce at The Online Darkroom into enjoying using a rangefinder, and he's enjoying it because he is a photographer) but I spent my formative photographic years operating an Olympus OM10 with the standard Zuiko 50mm f1.8 (total cost in 1980, £99 . . .) and some ancient Pentax glass married with a college K1000 . . . so I was making the most of what I had available.
But more importantly, I was training myself to see.
I don't think I have got there yet, but I keep trying, and that is the thing.
Simply by acquiring something as lovely as say an M2 and a suitable lens do not a good photographer, or even a decent Leica practitioner make.
Maybe if someone had handed me a M6 and a Summilux back in day I would have gone off snapping away at uninspiring drivel too, but they didn't and that didn't happen; my hunger to produce better images than I had the week before was what kept me going, not the need to grab the best stuff I could (n't) afford.
I wanted to take photographs and I still do - that hunger still drives me, and I'll use any of my cameras to do it, but at the end of the day, I have to take photographs I am happy with, otherwise what's the point?


***

Deary me Sheephouse, you've really gone off on one haven't you?
Well yes, and far be it from me to tell you how to enjoy your hobby - after all, you have to want to aspire to something don't you - I just felt that standing back and having a look at how things are and then saying it how I see it, might put a different spin on things for people.
For my own aspirations, a DR Summicron, a nice Hasselblad and a decent Rollei are hardly cheap and cheerful acquisitions, but life is short and I feel they'll further my vision. This being said they aren't the be-all and end-all - they're fine tools for executing what I can imagine myself taking - but I can just as easily imagine myself getting good results from Ye Olde Knackered Minolta Autocord and one of my Nikon Fs.
I do know one thing though - THE IMAGE IS ALL - it is the only thing that counts.

***

Anyway, enough of me olde manne guffe - you'll see below a couple of examples of me learning my way around a lovely old gentleman.
Steady at the back . . . stop that tittering.
He's a 1934 uncoated 50mm f3.5 Elmar that I bought from Peter Loy for a very reasonable price. The history of the lens is what got me - imagine what it has seen! However it is not a lens for the faint-hearted, as I learned quickly.
You need to up the oomph.
What helped initially was the acquisition of a lovely, mint, boxed, FISON lens hood from the lovely people at Red Dot Cameras, and then the oomph was further  . . er . . oomphed by a new development regime.
Flat, low-contrast negatives are the order of the (normal) day on an uncoated Elmar . . however rate a 400 film at around EI 200 and give about 10 to 15% extra development time and you'll get some gutsy negatives that will transform it.
It still has the glow, but it also has some other character which I can't quite pin down. I love it actually. As with all Elmars I really do think they were optimised as 'People Lenses' - that is my own expression, because they tend to work best in the 4 to 12 feet range, in other words the sort of distances you'd be using to photograph people.
So there y'go, have a butchers at the photos below - they do illustrate one thing. And it's an important thing - even learning to use a new lens doesn't mean you have to take pictures of piles of leaves or monitors or dashboards or the first thing you turn your camera on - you can try and make interesting images.
Just use your head, your heart, your eyes and go out and take some fucking photographs!

Well that's crude-boy me talking . . I think it is probably more eloquently expressed by a true master - Wynn Bullock:

"The medium of photography can record not only what the eyes see, but that which the mind's eye sees as well. The camera is not only an extension of the eye, but of the brain. It can see sharper, farther, nearer, slower, faster than the eye. It can see by invisible light. It can see in the past, present, and future. Instead of using the camera only to reproduce objects, I wanted to use it to make what is invisible to the eye, visible."


Testing, Testing, 1-2-3.



Testing, Testing, 1-2-3-4

TTFN - over and out and remember that the yellow pills make your tummy feel awfully wobbly.

18 comments:

  1. Well said Mr Sheephouse!

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  2. Well, you do bang on, but there's a lot of truth sprinkled about in this. If you pruned it a bit, we might even call it wisdom.


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  3. Well ranted, Phil! You're right of course but I reserve the right to have too many cameras and lenses. :)

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  4. Derek - thank you - very much appreciated.

    David - none of your Twitter feed stuff here, oh no . . this is proper old skool readin'. The modern world has made attention spans soft - I reserve the right to over-egg the pudding.

    Bruce - have as many as you like - you are a photographer and not a tester - there is a vast difference!

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  5. I like eggs. I like puddings. We have no judicial knowledge of Twitter.
    Keep up the good work at any length you like; I shall like it too. It was intended as a compliment.
    I read it whilst re-arranging my own lenses after a bit of tidying up and I'm amazed at how many there are ...and now there's an Intrepid camera on the way. Any day (or week) now! Will they do a special edition 10x8? Nail-biting times.

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  6. Hi David - thanks, I realised that, and I appreciate it.
    I know I do go on - can't help it!

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  7. A bit of rambling and warbling is natural and proper in a blog – and very welcome too. It helps the fuddled mind of the sluggish reader to catch up with your rapid train of thought.
    However, when the personally signed and limited edition of The Sheephouse Chronicles hits the press – luxuriously bound and profusely illustrated, with numerous cuts and figures – a mild touch of the editorial rudder might seem appealing. The slightest, gentlest, most restrained touch, you will understand.
    Let me put my name down for a copy.

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  8. I know -I should learn to cut the crap really.

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  9. No, keep it all in.
    Please.

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  10. You do realise that in that one simple comment you've opened a can of llamas . . .

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  11. Perhaps, almost all...
    Yours faithfully,
    The League Against Cruelty to Llamas

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  12. On reading this I thought it must have been one of my rants regarding the red dot brigade.

    I have to say I agree entirely with your post, it amazes me that you see these folk dropping huge wads of cash to acquire the must have M240, M9 et al only to then show a set of images which in all honesty could have been taken with a fed, kiev, or average compact camera.

    The best part though is the fanboy messaging raving about the images that follows in the comments jar. I sit there looking again to see if it's me that has missed the point, but nope they're shite on the second viewing.

    I have no issue with folk buying whatever they wish to. But as you rightly point out, in spite of the resolving power of their kit, the quality of their lenses (legendary) they will then merely load them onto the usual hideous photo sharing sites at some appalling resolution which kinda defeats the point about all that quality.

    I also get sick and tired of seeing the copymeisters you know the ones who've seen mckenna cornish et al and go out and replicate what they have already done. It's like they have become official members of that club by the pilgrimage to the (wherever) tripod ,check, camera,check, snap, check onto the next one check..I'm sure you get the picture, unlike the aforementioned.

    I also think photomags also fall into this category to a degree, I have long held the belief that you could purchase for a year then no more as every year at certain points the same topic will be covered.

    The last moan centres around blogs websites etc, where you get the usual "great shot" type comment or any variation of the same.Most of this is driven by the visit my site mentality. Don't get me wrong it's nice to have folk pop by and see your work.I also appreciate thoughtful constructive comments whenever i post an image. But the reality is I post for me first and foremost.

    I have enjoyed your post so I will pop back again, don't feel that last line means only if you visit my blog by the way :-)

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  13. Hello Shooter - many thanks for the comment - nice to have someone agree as well - the levels of cash being spent to produce mundanity is really incredible isn't it!

    I have long railed against the copying - OK you have to improve your vision somehow, but that dreaded disease of nearly all UK LF colour photographers . . Cornishitis . . is all too prevalent everywhere and it drives me NUTS.

    Back in the mid-80's I photographed water with the college's C330 . . the water was 'smokey' . . it looked good and exciting . . but nowadays - oh goodness . . how many times can the tired cliche be repeated . . seemingly endlessly. And there's no need.
    Same with THAT photo of Buchaille Etiv Mhor .. grrrrrrrrr!

    You see, you've set me off again . . if you delve deep into the site there's plenty more ranty stuff and I'm not even a ranter.

    Be good
    P

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  14. I think I must, very reluctantly, spring to the defence of the users of Large Format and Fuji Dayglo film. I have no quarrel with large format.
    There is a necessary and important difference between making photographs for pleasure (and frustration) and making them for living. Consider the poor bus driver – always the same route, always the same timetable; or perhaps the baker – loaves today, loaves yesterday, loaves tomorrow.
    And frankly, pretty well everything taken with a Leica could have been taken with a Fed or Zorki. Or nowadays, with an iPhone. It's only people like me who worry about the resolution and grain-structure in the corners.
    If people want to carry their red-spotted idols around their necks, at their own expense, they get my (very qualified) blessing. I suggest they might be be happier if they spent the money on some really excellent dinners, but everyone else may have other ideas. Is there any better idea than a really excellent dinner?

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  15. Hi David - I appreciate the comments, but I can't defend Fuji Hi-viz 5x4's . . sorry. Undoubtedly it is a useful film and looks great, however it is every single bloody colour picture you see when someone has used a LF camera and they are nearly all interchangeable. Graduated NDs, or the same fecking shots of the same places - when colour photography can be so beautiful (thinking Ernst Haas, or Elliot Porter or Stephen Shore) I have no idea why people automatically have to copy the likes of Joe Cornish. Maybe because it is a 'safe' option to give them a certain look that they want and justifies the expense if exposed and processed properly, but all I'm asking for is some originality in vision. It isn't hard, it really isn't - just requires a little thought and some application. And yes, to realise your vision you can use what you want really, but some of the stuff that gets made with some of the finest optics ever created, is at the end of the day like me buying a 1950's Martin guitar and only using one string. What a waste.

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  16. And a very good morning to you.
    I entirely agree. That Fuji film casts its lurid blanket over everything. It's even available on the menus of otherwise excellent Fuji digital cameras.
    I seem to remember an old Fuji brochure describing its film offerings. This film was designed for product photography, so that the cornflakes or fizzy drink can would be rendered in nice bright colours. Other films were designed for portraits, and so on.
    There is a problem of perception in making prints. As you will know, the first time one sees a Fuji image, one might well say "Wow!" They are certainly.very impactful.(?) "Wow" is a desirable and flattering comment for many people. As with other solutions to happiness adjustment, the initial euphoria wears off and the Wow-ness becomes normal. Consequently, that curious dayglo quality is accepted as a de facto standard. I find that it's not the individual bright print that I most dislike, but the uniformity of so many of them.
    There is a similar problem in black-and-white, where printers use higher and higher contrast to get a "punchy" print. The London Salon even mentions Impact! (with the cap I and exclamation mark) as being a very desirable quality.
    I've found that it's difficult to get B+W printers to come down from the Mountain of Punchiness, after their eyes have become accustomed to high contrast. Their eyes find decent, subtle prints insipid and they demand hole-in-the-paper blacks and shrieking highlights.
    As for what my friend Jeff calls Big Rock in the Foreground pictures – they seem to be the result of otherwise sensible advice to have some foreground interest, Excellent when shooting mountains, to avoid having a dreary desert in the lower half, a little pointy thing in the middle and a dreary sky above. Tedious when so many are assembled in one place. And as for those filters! My keyboard is sealed.
    I was trying to be charitable about a chap's need to make a living.
    I do agree that photographers who have no hungry mouths depending on their work should be producing more original or thoughtful work. Or at least trying.
    As for the Temple of Oskar and the One True HCB. The magic of the One True HCB doesn't lie in the lenses; it lies in his eye and hence my point about Zorkis. Early Leicas were horrible squinty things anyway.
    If you look at real HCB prints, you'll see that they are rarely super-sharp. Many classic images are not a testament to the wonders of optical design but we ignore that because we are diverted by the image itself.
    On the other hand, I'm not despising Leica lenses –excellent all round in my limited experience. I do like to see a bit of sharpness in a print and I endorse the idea of using better tools, preferably the best available.
    As for your guitar metaphor, I suggest that Hendrix or Segovia (take your pick) could do better on a postman's rubber band than either of us on anything at all. (I may do you an injustice here.) It's the bloke, not the kit.
    So, in summary, I'm in total agreement with what you say, even if you don't quite agree with me.

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  17. Hi David - in the words of one of my favourite authors, Ursula LeGuin
    "Infinite are the arguments of mages"
    Ill not say any more photographically!
    But rubber bands, Hendrix and Segovia? . . it'll still sound like a rubber band, however I do agree, it is the bloke and not the kit, but sometimes the kit can help things along nicely.

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  18. There's me banging on a bit too much now. Perhaps a teeny hairsbreadth of poetic licence on the elastic front...
    I'm a sensitive to elastic at the moment. My pinhole camera, brought out for WWPPD, suffered from light streaks caused by the elastic that holds the back in place having relaxed a bit too much.

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