The Last Post

Well, I’m all done here.

Thanks to everyone that’s been following me on this project over the last 13 months and an extra special thanks goes out to the nice people who took the time to comment, ask questions, or otherwise let me know they appreciate my stuff. Mike Johnston at TOP deserves a hearty smack on the back for inspiring me and others to give this project a go—and changing us for the better. Last, but not nearly least, a SUPER HUGE—one of a kind—thanks goes to my wife Jodi who only frowned slightly when she learned the family photographer wanted to shoot nothing but black and white film of our children for a year.

All your support has meant a great deal to me and made this project immensely easier than it otherwise would’ve been. Projects are good. Projects with blogs and supportive communities (and families) are way better. 

I’ve come to see blogging as an important part of my photography and so I’ll carry on with it in much the same way as I have here, just with a bit more color. From now on, you can find me over here at The Camera Simplex.

Finally, there are a few other Leica Year Tumblr’s that I’d like to give a quick shout out too while I still have the benefit of a larger audience. 

  • Fellow Seattleite Sean started a couple months or so after I did and has kept it strong and disciplined ever since. He has a great eye for what works beautifully in black and white. My favorite picture of his is this one. Gorgeous, huh? He will finish his year. I have no doubt.
  • Butler is at Phoot Camp right now and cheating on his Leica Year like a dirty bastard, but he seems to be having a blast and I’m sure he’s learning tons right now so good on him.
  • Offcuts is doing the whole darkroom thing in addition to everything I did. I’m frankly in awe of this guy as I could never have tackled wet printing along with all the other stuff. Kudos and good luck to you, man! 
  • Arvind has been doing his “Leica Year” with a 4x5 camera, working his way through a box of 100 films. It’s hard to fully appreciate large format photography on the web, but I think his shines through nicely.

Go wish all these guys some luck. Give ‘em a like now and then. Write ‘em a message. They deserve your support. Well, maybe not Butler but.. whatever.

I’ll leave you with one last link: some of my favorite pictures from the last year

I’m off to see a man about a dog now. 

G’nite.

Seattle
Roll #130 [Last Project Roll], 05.13.11

Seattle

Roll #130 [Last Project Roll], 05.13.11

Seattle
Roll #130 [Last Project Roll], 05.13.11

Seattle

Roll #130 [Last Project Roll], 05.13.11

The Camera

First Impressions

I remember the day in May 2010 when my Leica M arrived in the mail. Until then, I’d never held one before and when I took it out of the box, it felt very strange. As my brain tried to make sense of it, to associate the feeling with something I’d experienced before, the memories that came to mind: the .22 caliber revolver my Dad let me fire when I was 12, the gold Kugerrand coin my parents used to keep in a little drawer on their dresser, and the first time I held a meteorite. Altogether, the sensation is one of slight surprise. How weighty and serious these objects felt. How unfamiliar and alien. 

To someone grown used to taking pictures with hunks of ergonomic plastic, it was some time before I got past the feeling like I was going to drop the camera every time I picked it up. Leica’s are ergonomic in a classical sense and very comfortable to hold and use, but they don’t fill your hand securely like a modern DSLR does.

I also felt very self conscious about it in the beginning. I bought it used, but it was still more money than I’d ever spent on a camera. Would it make me stick out? I don’t want to stick out—particularly when I’m photographing. After awhile, that feeling also passed as I realized that almost everyone, even other photographers, simply saw it as a cute old camera. Note the surprise on their face when they ask me how old my camera is and I casually answer, oh… about 10 years. No way, really? Film, huh? Bet you got it cheap. And I say… umm… well, I think so. Ahem.

Simple Cameras

My first camera was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic. It took child friendly 110 cartridge film and disposable cube flashes. Extremely easy to load for a kid my age. It had a viewfinder you looked through to frame the picture, not unlike a rangefinder. The red shutter button made a toy-like sounding plasticky click when you pressed it.

Now, when I look through the rangefinder on my M, I’m vaguely reminded of that simple camera from my childhood. The window on the world is curiously similar, and the Leica isn’t much more complicated. I’d all but forgotten my Instamatic, and it’s only now that I realize, decades later, how much it defined my early experience of photography and continues to influence what I value in the machines I use for taking pictures. Although a Leica is, for a small format film camera, functionally the polar opposite of that little Kodak, they’re still brother’s in spirit: small, simple, inconspicuous. Carry them with you everywhere.

The more I use my M, the more I seem to like and appreciate what an exceptional thing it really is. There’s something about an extraordinarily well built machine that makes me want to use it to death. Wear it out. That is, after all, why they are built the way they are. Not to fondle or put on a shelf to admire, but to use. Given the demands of life as an amateur, with so many other things competing for my attention, having a camera that compels me to use it every day is a welcome thing. I always leave mine out where I can see it for just that reason.

Simply put, rangefinder photography, and specifically the Leica M, works for me in ways that no other camera ever has. I will keep mine and use it for the rest of my life.

The Wand Chooses The Wizard

Of course, knowing all this about me won’t do you any good. Just because I like Leica rangefinders doesn’t mean you will. In fact, given the relative scarcity of rangefinder users, chances are pretty damn good that you won’t like them. Cameras are individual things. I hope I’ve made it clear that my reasons for digging this camera are very personal. They go back to my childhood. What could be more individual than that?

But there is a more generally useful message in all this, that you might find helpful if you haven’t already experienced it first hand:

The camera does make a difference. Everyone knows you can take good pictures with anything, but the process of making those pictures can be radically different. Finding a camera that really speaks to you in terms of the process is hugely liberating. It means you can stop worrying about the gear and get on with enjoying photography.

So try machines that require a different approach to picture taking than what you’re used to. I’m not talking Canon versus Nikon or Leica versus Voigtlander. I’m talking SLRs versus rangefinders versus TLRs versus view cameras versus toy cameras. One size doesn’t fit all. Although we can all adapt to using a DSLR effectively, it’s not necessarily the optimal solution for every photographer or every subject. We’re all different and in a perfect world, our tool choices would reflect that fact.

Sadly, relative to film, digital doesn’t offer a great number of real choices yet. With most camera companies playing it ultra-conservative and chasing each other to compete on features and price, there’s little to distinguish one from the other when it comes to process. Fortunately, that situation is changing as the technology matures. It’ll get better. Meanwhile, film cameras are there for us, daring us to wear them out, and the price of admission is still so cheap. 

Even for a Leica.

Picture of the Kodak Pocket Instamatic courtesy of eBay seller papasaidso.

The Lens

Visualizing With Primes

A trap with zoom lenses is that you can become an easy slave to their versatility. Instead of clearly visualizing a picture before looking through the camera, you make the lens show you a bunch of possible pictures that you pick from. Multiple choice photography. Chances are good that without a concrete idea of what you’re after, you’ll end up picking the safe and familiar answer. That’s just the way our brains work. They’re wired for recognition. 

With a fixed focal length lens, you end up shooting things in a lot of non-standard ways out of necessity. You make do. “Damn,” you think. “I wish I had a zoom or a longer focal length. Oh well, I’ll take it anyway.” believing it to be a failure. When you finally see the picture you made though, you may discover something in it you like; even that it succeeds in ways you never would have guessed at. Surprise. A connection is made and voila: you’ve just learned to see a little better. 

After about six months of using only a 35mm lens, I was seeing that cropped frame in my minds eye and could visualize pictures with greater clarity. Less and less I found myself walking forward or back with my camera at my eye (and yes, I did bump into stuff more than once). Now I can get to about where I need to be (safely), raise the camera to my eye, take the picture, and I’m done. I’m no longer “surprised” or taken off guard by what I see through the viewfinder.

That’s the 0.58 viewfinder with the 35mm frameline on my M (as seen by my iPhone).  I’ve looked through this little window enough now to have it pretty much tattooed on my brain. So as I look around my environment with an intent to photograph, camera at my side, this is basically what I see, rather like a cybernetic HUD. Rangefinders with their static viewfinders and variable framelines are well suited to teaching your brain to see in fixed focal lengths.

One Lens

Although there’s an awful lot you can do with the 35mm focal length, there’s also a lot you can’t do. And I’m not just talking about obvious telephoto subjects like birds, wild pigs, or Sean Penn. I’m talking stuff like landscapes, architecture, and people. 

I found myself often frustrated at having to tilt the camera up or down to get the picture I wanted, particularly for subjects like houses. Just back up? Well, first thing is… you often can’t—especially in urban enviornments (e.g., car is in the way, busy street, something else gets in your frame that you don’t want there). Second thing is that changing your position changes the spatial relationships. Often this doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a great deal. Tilting is a problem because it distorts. Without a wider lens, or a camera with movements, there’s not much you can do about it. And finally, a fuzzier—but related—point was that I found it harder to capture the presence of a scene. There just wasn’t the sense of space like there is with wider lenses. I probably missed that most of all.

On the other end, I also longed for the 50mm I’d used on my Nikon SLR last summer. It focused close. It was fast and could do nice tight portraits. It taught me things about composition that the 35 didn’t. In general, I much preferred the 50 for people.

If I had to pick just one lens (and it couldn’t be a zoom) to use for everything, I’m pretty sure it would be a 35. It’s flexible and capable and probably the best “does most things” focal length in my opinion. 

Yeah, I could live with it. But I’m glad I don’t have to.

I Thought I’d Be Done By Now

I planned to be done with this blog by the end of May. Now, here it is June and I’ve still got a few more posts left to do. Life has been unusually demanding for me lately… in particular my day job… and I expect this state to continue for awhile, so the remaining posts are just going to continue to dribble out as I can get to them. 

However, my photography trundles merrily on. In particular, I spent last weekend building a 4x5 pinhole camera with my daughter for a class project she’s working on. We shot 12 pictures on Monday with it and we’ll be developing and printing them this weekend together. Fun stuff and more to come.

Old Stuff #9: Star Wars

Earlier this month, the family and I went to go see a special exhibit at the Seattle Science Center called “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.” It featured lots of nice educational displays demonstrating the real science behind some of the Star Wars tech.

That was all pretty interesting, but I have to admit I paid little attention to any of it. I was too busy completely geeking out over the rest of the exhibit which featured original props, models, and constumes from the movies.

Luke’s Landspeeder. The same one he rushed home in to find his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru dead and their moisture farm a smoking ruin. Note the wheels, cunningly removed from the film—old school style.

The Falcon. This ship was as much a character as its pilot Han Solo was. Or Yoda. Or that belligerent guy that lost his arm to a light saber in that bar on Tatooine. If I could fly any pretend spaceship from any movie ever made. This would be the one.

Luke’s prosthetic hand. Yeah, thanks Darth Vader. Thanks a lot. Luke didn’t want his real right hand anyway.

Chewbacca’s feet.

You know who this guy is. I think the tall Jedi to his left was Master Windu (his costume actually). I read there that Samuel Jackson only consented to doing the part if he could have a purple light saber. Before Windu, light sabers only came in red, green, and blue. Holy shit. RGB!?! Lucas is such a nerd.

Luke’s X-Wing, complete with tiny R2-D2 and the man himself. This is the ship that blew up the (first) Death Star and was levitated out of a swamp on Dagobah by a Jedi Master. And now… it’s sitting in a glass box in Seattle.

— 

I was 6 when I saw Star Wars for the first time and now it seems like a long long time ago.

The Film: Wrapping Up

The final take-away from my experience of shooting 35mm film over the last year is that it’s largely about the process for me, less about the look. I like working with it. I like the tangibility of it. I like that you can make a picture without turning on a computer. I like waiting for it and how it forgives. I like the cameras that go along with it.

Yeah, I like digital photography too—especially the control, but I’m not crazy about the cameras or (for the most part) the processes associated with it. I’d even say they have become a kind of barrier to my enjoyment of photography up to now. Odd that it took shooting 130 rolls of Tri-X  for me to fully realize that (but it did).

Some day, probably when I don’t write code for a living anymore, I could feel very differently about all this. My relationship with technology will have changed and maybe then, digital process will be something I can enjoy more and dread less. I’m also optimistic that, as the field matures and we’ve finally had our fill of megapixels, low noise, and features galore, we’ll see some radically new types of digital cameras appear—machines that are as simple, elegant, and enjoyable to use as our grandparent’s cameras could be. My iPhone is proof that it can be done.

Until that day, I’ll continue to shoot film.

This is the last in a series of posts I’ve been writing on using film during the Leica Year project.

The Film: Vantage Point

John Szarkowski wrote in his book, The Photographer’s Eye, about “Vantage Point” and the role it plays in photographs. By approaching a subject from above or below, by standing too close or too far away, we can gain insight. His words:

"If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. To see the subject clearly—often to see it at all—he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shoot his picture from above, or below, or from too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of things’ importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden.

From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed.

He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”

I feel exactly this way about photographing in black and white. For me, monochrome photography is another vantage point—while color is the “normal” one. And like climbing a tall building or laying on your belly to get a fresh perspective, its power to reveal can be… well… pretty astonishing.

This is another in a series of posts I’ve been writing on using film during the Leica Year project. One more left to wrap up and then I’ll move on to The Lens and The Camera. And that’ll be that. Thanks, as always, for hanging with me. 

Seattle
Roll #129, 05.08.11

Seattle

Roll #129, 05.08.11