Walker Evans Shoots Junk at the Pompidou, with David Hockney Bonus

I went back the Pompidou Center, this time as a paying customer, to see the Walker Evans retrospective. The fact that Paris had been burning acetylene-hot for four days was a factor, because I remembered (correctly, happily) that the Pomp is air conditioned. And I wanted to see the pictures.

Once you've seen my phone snaps of these photographs, you don't really need to drag yourself to a museum to look at prints and breath air recently exhaled by other humans. (Please note that I am an entirely unironic person.) On a sincere note, I love wrecked cars, and the older, the better.

Once you've seen my phone snaps of these photographs, you don't really need to drag yourself to a museum to look at prints and breath air recently exhaled by other humans. (Please note that I am an entirely unironic person.) On a sincere note, I love wrecked cars, and the older, the better.

The graduate theses on Evans alone could probably fill the back of a Depression-era panel truck, not even touching the virtual reams on the web. I have no intention of going there. This is my uneducated, off-the-cuff reaction to the work of an acknowledged master. I came to this show as most people would come to it – with a vague idea of its importance, a readiness to appreciate tempered with the cynicism of someone who, more than once, has found work in the canon to be more pop-gun than howitzer, but without the stamina or intellectual rigor to really set out why.

I was of course aware of Evans’ shining position in the firmament of Great American Photographers. I learned that Evans was a rebel. Not quite in the same vein as Koudelka, but they are definitely spirit-brothers across the decades. There’s a video interview with Evans at the end of the show, I think made in the 70s, where he says that he basically just did what he felt like doing. One gets the sense that he didn’t much care what other people thought, which is one thing. But he also claims to have not really thought much about it himself when he did it. He didn’t start with a big project – he just did what felt right, then fit the results into some kind of project later, so the world could deal with it. This gave me some insight into just how crazy his documentary impulse might have seemed at the time. Now, we take photographs of any damned thing. But Evans was leading the pack when he indulged his interest in random store fronts. Advertising. Junk cars. Ruined architecture. Poor people, for the love of god, though I suppose he was in good company with the rest of the Farm Security Administration team, and you probably couldn’t shoot a frame in Depression-era America without having someone hard-up wander into it. But Evans wasn’t just about extremes. He not only shot the craggy, now-picturesque sharecroppers, but also the not-poor, not-rich, not-beautiful people. Just schmoes and schmoettes, schmoing along, like me and (if I dare) you.

Signs, advertising, grinding poverty, wry commentary on consumer capitalism. Nicely done, Mr. Evans.

Signs, advertising, grinding poverty, wry commentary on consumer capitalism. Nicely done, Mr. Evans.

He’s not a street photographer, though he did shoot some street photography of a kind that prefigured a million Instagram posts – random snaps of random people. Like, he’d literally set up a frame and wait for people to walk through it, snapping, I gather, pretty indiscriminately. Same with a series he shot in the New York subway, reportedly with a miniature hidden camera. These are just straight shots of whoever happened to sit down across from him. The expo text said he cropped these tightly to focus on just the individual(s). On a technical level, I wondered how he managed this with a discretely-sized lens and cropping a miniature format (though perhaps this means 35mm) in 1940s emulsion with natural underground light. The expo was not interested in answering this, nor does cursory internet probing. I preferred the subway series to his man-on-the-street snaps, perhaps because of the purity of their voyeurism.

Ordinary schmoe, rando-snapped.

Ordinary schmoe, rando-snapped.

The show text (in French and English, with the English in legible font, I’m happy to report) points out Eugene Atget’s influence on Evans, and I could see that. But from my admittedly casual exposure to Atget, Evans’ flavor of vulgar documentation is much tastier. Atget’s Paris street tableaux often have a sterile, depopulated vibe, or at least that was my impression when last I checked. As I write this, I wonder if getting older might have changed my appreciation of that work. Because part of what really turned me on with Evans was that it distills the time-machine, necromantic power of photography to a potent tincture of something you can’t get in a drugstore anymore. With his early, most-famous work, you’re definitely looking at dead people and vanished places. A lot of Atget’s empty Paris street corners from the edge of photography’s first century look much the same today, and that of course carries its own appeal. But Walker was fixated on the ephemeral flim-flam of a burgeoning consumer society. Great America. Store windows full of boots and pants and gloves, diner menu boards (comparing the prices on the two, either food was basically free or clothes were staggering expensive back then). Peeling posters for minstrel shows, which, good Christ, you hear that term used derogatively even today but they were real things, and they look to have been unspeakably awful. Even actual piles of trash and random sidewalk debris – I’m not talking picturesque or clever stuff, not Riboud’s plastic bag rabbit, just unvarnished garbage. I imagine this was a little mind-blowing at the time, and even today, it kind of makes you stop and think, dang, that’s some ugly trash, and it reminds me of a heap I passed on my way over here.

When it came to documenting the ephemeral, Evans had a particular interest in recording advertising in situ. These images are endlessly fascinating as windows into the charmingly naïve mindset of consumerism in the early part of the 20th century, when so much advertising focused on convincing you that “X” was the best version of something you needed (i.e., the soap that gets you cleanest, the razor that shaves you closest), rather than today’s general practice of associating products with fictional identities and lifestyles. Something about Evans’ interest in these signs painted on barns and pasted on walls reveals that he is, presciently, already in on the joke.   

Evans seems to go out of his way to remove himself from much of the most famous documentary work – we’re talking straight on, full-light, what-you-see-is-what-he-got style, minimal style. But there are occasional flourishes, though you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’re really there, not just chance. In this photo of the Cherokee Parts Store, he catches two female profiles amidst the tires. One woman strikes a classical sculptural pose. The face of the other seems to float in darkness, isolated by a a black fur coat and the shadows of the garage beyond her. Another face looks straight into the camera. This photo is interesting as a document, but it works on the level of pure image and emotion as well. It is a good photograph without qualification.

 

So, if you’re in Paris, check it out. And then wander over to the David Hockney exhibition. I’d seen a Hockney show once some years back at LACMA, which left me with an overall impression of swimming pools and 1980’s Los Angeles art-world gayness. This show confirmed that recollection. I’m not honestly a big one for painting in most cases, so I don’t consider myself able to judge the work that Hockney is best known for. I did like some the portraits.

But along with his large canvases, the show also included some of Hockney’s collage-style photography, which I vaguely recalled from LACMA. Hockney shoots dozens of images of a scene and then sticks the photos (either 4 x 6-ish prints or Polaroids) onto a canvas. It’s not just analog photostitching though: he’ll include multiple views of an individual, for example, resulting in a cubist version of photography, collapsing multiple angles and moments into a single two-dimensional image. It’s cool, and I’m surprised it’s not something I’ve seen imitated much.

Photos weren't allowed in the Hockney section, which I find pretty damn petty. So here's something I stole off the Christie's site, of a piece I'm pretty sure I saw in the show. I was going to add a snarky little dig at the auction house, but when I went to their front page I ended up reading a whole article there about a guy who bought a Leica and randomly fell in with Picasso, Matisse, Braque and company immediately thereafter, making his very first exposures of these luminaries and in the process providing Christie's with some expensive stuff to hawk 60 years later but still, a neat article. Nothing is black and white except black and white photography and penguins and zebras to a certain extent, and if you allow yourself too much time to think it becomes difficult to insult anyone properly or even make a decent generalization.

Photos weren't allowed in the Hockney section, which I find pretty damn petty. So here's something I stole off the Christie's site, of a piece I'm pretty sure I saw in the show. I was going to add a snarky little dig at the auction house, but when I went to their front page I ended up reading a whole article there about a guy who bought a Leica and randomly fell in with Picasso, Matisse, Braque and company immediately thereafter, making his very first exposures of these luminaries and in the process providing Christie's with some expensive stuff to hawk 60 years later but still, a neat article. Nothing is black and white except black and white photography and penguins and zebras to a certain extent, and if you allow yourself too much time to think it becomes difficult to insult anyone properly or even make a decent generalization.

There was also a video version of this concept called “The Four Seasons” that’s beautiful but not really as intriguing as the photo work. It looks great but doesn’t really deliver more than conventional video would have done.

I didn’t regret taking it in.

* I wrote this back in June but I don’t like to post anything too topical or relevant so it’s only now seeing the light of the Internet. Depending on the future you’re reading this from, it might still be on or not.

 

The Yashica Electro 35 GSN: Don’t Get Too Excited

The Yashica Electro 35 series of rangefinder cameras were produced in great numbers in the 1970s. The internet hive mind, filled with whatever ideas percolate through the collective consciousness of people interested in running film through old cameras, has judged them and largely found them good – “poor man’s Leica” is a term that you find, and this is meant positively. The GSN variant purportedly features corrosion-resistant gold-plated interconnects and commands a slight premium because gold is obviously better than not-gold.

Behold, the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. This is a camera review, not a beauty contest, so I’ll say no more here.

Behold, the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. This is a camera review, not a beauty contest, so I’ll say no more here.

Enter me. I'd been sniffing around the Leica mystique for a while, like a hungry coyote that doesn't quite trust a morsel of possibly poisoned meat. I wanted to muck around with a rangefinder (for the usual slew of wooly, misguided notions). I wasn't sure enough about the whole thing that I wanted to go all-in on a Leica, though. And so I picked up an Electro 35 GSN for less than the cost of a Leica lens cap.

Here's the short version of this review. Yes, the Yashica Electro 35 is a poor man's Leica, but not in any optimistic, egalitarian sense. More in the sense that the poor man doesn't have access to the expensive material things that the rich man does, so he makes do with something cheaper and gets on with his life. Like a Leica, the Electro is a 35mm rangefinder camera. If you want to take good pictures, you can certainly do it with the Electro, just as you could with a Leica or a thousand other cameras. And if you don't know what you're doing, the Electro will work better for you than a Leica of similar vintage because it automatically sets the shutter speed for you.

The Electro 35 can make a properly exposed, in-focus photograph. Sorry about the low-res scan.

The Electro 35 can make a properly exposed, in-focus photograph. Sorry about the low-res scan.

If you want a basic understanding of what using a rangefinder to focus a full-sized 35mm camera is like (I did), well, the Electro kind of delivers. You can indeed align a fuzzy yellow patch with the main image in the viewfinder to focus. The viewfinder on my mine was decidedly low-contrast, and I suspect this will be the case for most Electros: they aren't expensive enough to make servicing economically likely, and the viewfinder housing is hardly hermetically sealed so you're going to be looking through thirty-plus years of gently deposited gunge. Just think, there's particulate from leaded gasoline in there, maybe even some residue from atmospheric nuke testing. 

Even with a gummy viewfinder, accurate focus is possible.

Even with a gummy viewfinder, accurate focus is possible.

So yes, it takes pictures. But if you're after the gladdening solidity of a metal camera, the tactile experience of exquisitely precise mechanical controls, the whiff of a past that you suspect, in heart if not mind, is somehow better than our present, the Electro is likely to disappoint.

“Fie on you!” exclaims a happy Electro owner somewhere. “This wonderful camera is indeed made of metal!” To which I agree, yes, it is. Like a can of lighter fluid, which is what the camera feels like in your hand. It's heavy (a mostly full can), but it's even bigger than the weight suggests, giving it a hollow, chintzy feel in comparison to the better metal-age offerings. The back of mine moved when you pressed on it, which seemed to be by design. That's what light seals are for, right?

The aperture ring had a soggy, mushy feel. Maybe this was just my sample, but I'm dubious, since the camera seemed to be in good shape in general. It did give some tactile feedback at a stop, but not much: rather than click into position, it kind of slumped.

The focus ring is narrow and close to the body, with two stubby tab-like things for grip. Turn that ring and you'll encounter my biggest gripe about the Electro's ergonomics: your left hand, on the ring, will run into your right hand, gripping the camera body. Why, you may wonder, is that happening, especially if you have effete little 21st-century-man-fingers like I do? A puzzled look at the camera reveals that it’s because the Electro's lens is skewed towards the right side of the body. Maybe people of the era had a different way of holding a camera, since lost to the sands of time.

And then there's the shutter button. I should say, shutter pole: you could fly a flag off that thing. The Electro's shutter release has enough travel to earn frequent flier miles. Forget about shutter lag: you need to plan enough time to drive that button all the way into the camera body before the shutter even knows something is up.

This design decision is tied to the way the camera's meter works. Now, if you've chosen a reasonable aperture for your scene you can probably just mash the button and get a properly exposed shot. But if you take your time and ease it in there, you might notice some lights in the viewfinder. Somewhere near the beginning of the press, you might see a red light if the meter decides you need something faster than the 1/500th sec minimal exposure time -- you can stop down until the light goes off. Then there's a lull as the button continues on its merry way until you get down around the bottom third of its trip, where a yellow underspeed warning lights if you're into shake-induced blur territory (the camera can still make a properly exposed shot if you insist, but you'd better have steady hands).

Note the Electro’s proud shutter release and the red and yellow over and under-speed warning lights, also visible in the viewfinder.

Note the Electro’s proud shutter release and the red and yellow over and under-speed warning lights, also visible in the viewfinder.

So, with the lights, no news is good news. But the setup can be annoying -- you'll hopefully have an idea if one or the other condition applies, but knowing for sure means exploring along the button's travel to find the right zone. Is this a common approach to metering in cameras of this epoch? I don’t know, honestly, but in the modern era it feels pretty kludgy.

When you finally work that button all the way down, you hear a dry snap. That's the leaf shutter doing its thing. It doesn't sound nice to me, but I suppose that's even more subjective than the rest of the stuff here, so don't worry about it. On the up side, it's definitely quiet, even by contemporary mirrorless standards.

You've taken a picture! Time to wind on and rearm the shutter. The lever that does this lacks the smooth, ludicrously refined feel of a rich man's Leica. But I guess it's good enough for poor people, or in any case, all they're going to get from Yashica.

Conclusion

The Electro is fine, OK? It has its charms. With every other camera maker undermining the retro-osity of rangefinders with new models that look old, the Electro still manages to look retro. Maybe not classy, Leica M3 retro, but the tinsel-and-glitter retro of the decade that birthed it. I guess it was cool enough for Spiderman 4, in which, I learned from some Spanish guy's eBay ad, the Electro apparently features. I’d be more impressed if it was in the first one.

Despite its glam looks, the Electro's shutter makes it relatively discreet to shoot.

And the Electro makes fine pictures. You can't take that away from it. That hulking (by rangefinder standards) 45mm lens works as well as any other normal double-gauss design, which is to say very well indeed, and the auto exposure beats sunny 16 most of the time.

But the Yashica, despite being metal, is not Metal. It does not rock. It's not particularly fun to shoot, or comfortable, or beautiful. If the Yashica Electro asked me to write it a recommendation, I'd wince inside, then feel like a bit of jerk when I sat down and really pondered my problems with it, but still would have trouble putting a good spin on it. There are just things that are so much better out there.

If you're still curious about the Electro 35 after reading this, the cost of entry is low (usually under $50), and you can always sell it on for about what you paid. I suspect that this kind of recycling, as much as their abundant production run, helps explain why there are so many on eBay. That’s where mine went: catch and release.

The Future of Photography Has No Cameras or Photographers (Part 2)

Part 1 of this essay addresses cameras. Now we get to photographers.

Like the smugly flatulent unicorn on the ark, photographers are an endangered species. I'm going to call © Peter M. Ferenczi on this as a derivative work. If some undead medieval glass painter has a problem with that, step up, fool.

Like the smugly flatulent unicorn on the ark, photographers are an endangered species.

I'm going to call © Peter M. Ferenczi on this as a derivative work. If some undead medieval glass painter has a problem with that, step up, fool.

So, that's cameras. But circling back to my click-baity headline, what happens to the photographers? In my future so far, they’re still there, taking pictures, even if the camera never leaves their face.

That won’t last. At first, there will be a constant capture feature that lets people retrospectively “take” a photograph. Some cameras can already do this, but having full-time recording would change the game fundamentally. When something happens that you wish you’d shot, you just rewind and mark the image (or video clip -- I think the distinction will become ever-blurrier) for storage. From there it’s a small step to recording everything and keeping it, just in case you decide much later that it was worthwhile (and of course for more nefarious advertising reasons). This is the idea behind the apparently still-born but actually just premature “life-logger” product category, a viable idea in advance of the technological and social structures needed to make it widely appealing.

In this PR shot from Narrative, we see an attractive, diverse group of friends wearing the company's life-logger, the Narrative Clip 2. Narrative recently declared on its blog that it was "filing for voluntary dissolution," which is presumably the corporate equivalent of conscious uncoupling. Then, 20 days or so later, the blog blurted out that a group of employees had acquired the assets of the company and it would soldier on in some form. Astoundingly, this announcement was made without reference to "the story continuing" or similar.   © Narrative

In this PR shot from Narrative, we see an attractive, diverse group of friends wearing the company's life-logger, the Narrative Clip 2. Narrative recently declared on its blog that it was "filing for voluntary dissolution," which is presumably the corporate equivalent of conscious uncoupling. Then, 20 days or so later, the blog blurted out that a group of employees had acquired the assets of the company and it would soldier on in some form. Astoundingly, this announcement was made without reference to "the story continuing" or similar.  

© Narrative

But it will appeal, especially when it’s a feature of something indispensable for a million other reasons rather than a ridiculous nerd necklace. And super-especially when combined with the kind of artificial intelligence that lets people have pictures without needing to take them. Even today, ordinary people generate more digital images than they know what to do with. The volume is overwhelming, and the accepted wisdom is that few people bother with the time-consuming task of separating out the best results from the mountain of not-quite-as-goods into a form that allows convenient perusal. Google again gives us a glimpse of the future: if you dump all of your photos into its cloud now, it generates little slide-shows, supposed highlight reels. The results today are hit and miss, but that will change. Soon an AI will do a credible job of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Then it will make a little extra wheat by editing and combining images to create synthetic scenes that feel right even if they didn’t quite happen, that moment when everyone laughed at the same time (this future is also already here in stunted form, with apps that do this with some laborious handholding). The distance between what happened in a given moment and the content of an image will increase as computational photography grows more ambitious. The idea of a single "exposure" will be displaced by a summarizing of data over time that includes everything, highlight and shadow detail and smiles and everyone who was there, whether they were all in-frame together or not. The result will be a fiction in the service of truth: not only do people not want to take pictures, but they’re more interested in the feel of the moment, the truth of the experience rather than what, on the literal level of atoms and time, actually happened.

I find the images in the Narrative press kit strangely compelling. Here, a family, delirious with joy, is abducted by aliens. They whoop as they are beamed up at sunset into the hovering saucer. The father is rising fastest: it seems that the aliens respect our patriarchy. Of course, Narrative's product could not have captured this image, unless another family member, a less favored cousin perhaps, is looking on with his own Clip 2. © Narrative

I find the images in the Narrative press kit strangely compelling. Here, a family, delirious with joy, is abducted by aliens. They whoop as they are beamed up at sunset into the hovering saucer. The father is rising fastest: it seems that the aliens respect our patriarchy. Of course, Narrative's product could not have captured this image, unless another family member, a less favored cousin perhaps, is looking on with his own Clip 2.

© Narrative

This is the moment when ordinary people stop being photographers and become sensor platforms. That sounds dystopian, but it’s totally appropriate within a restricted context. Most people never wanted to be photographers in the first place. They just wanted those pictures, to help remember what the Grand Canyon looked like or rub their Caribbean vacation in their coworkers’ faces. Which leads to a digression that perfectly illustrates why this is good for the common (wo)man. If you’ve ever been to a Major Site (Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower, etc.) you will see people approach to the designated distance, lift a camera or phone in front of their face, and then turn away to find the next Site on their itinerary. There are probably millions of people who have been to the Louvre, stood in front of the Mona Lisa, but have never actually pointed their retinas at the painting. They saw the preview on a screen. Then maybe they posted the picture on Facebook. This is how they take pictures, and this is what they do with them. I’m getting judgy here, but it’s absurd and I feel that it’s bad for people. They are tyrannized by their desire for pictures. Their picture-capture practices have blinded them to what life is for (that is, living). To be a simple platform, to look from alongside rather than through the camera, would be a liberation for them. The limitations of that platform, the human head, will lead to the most distant prediction I’m willing to make.

Not only do people want pictures without necessarily taking them, but they want to be in those pictures. To the extent, it was recently revealed, that they’re willing to balance a phone on a stick held out in front of them to get them. In public. In fact a lot of the folks in the above example have their backs to the Mona Lisa when they preview the image, so the Giaconde can smile over their shoulder in the selfie. The cameras we love have been woeful at addressing this need. Nobody uses self-timers. I guess there are those Casio TR selfie cameras, an apparently isolated bright spot in the market at large that put Casio's camera division in the black for the first time in nine years. We can argue about whether social media is the cause or the effect of this, but I don’t see it changing as long as humans remain descended from small-group-living primates.

The solution: image capture must be physically detached from the subject, the ex-photographer. The solution is a drone, or drones (though they probably won’t be called drones by then, given the distasteful connotations of violent death the word is accruing). Drones already serve as remote controlled cameras, enabling aerial photography in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago. That use case might appeal to a few of “us,” but it will never catch on with normal people. The breakthrough will come when you can pull a drone out of your pocket, toss it into the air, and have it capture imagery of you and your surroundings autonomously. This will be particularly easy if you’re at a Major Site, since there will be millions of suggestions in the cloud, helpfully annotated with more or fewer likes, for the best angles and flight paths. Eventually, even the decision to deploy the drone will be unnecessary, and they will either always be around or will emerge from somewhere when needed. In urban areas a kind of distributed imaging network might complement or even replace these personal swarms, imagers embedded in the environment (which would also have AR applications) that would mesh seamlessly with our forward-facing sensors.

The problem with writing about the future is that if you don't type with your mouse hovering over the "Publish" button, you find yourself writing about the past. This is a picture of the AirSelfie from a press kit that includes five product shots featuring four disembodied hands but zero confirmably attractive people (I could make guesses based on the hands, but guesses are all they would be). However, the hands are identifiable diverse. The product name is terrible but tells the story effectively. As of my present (your past) the AirSelfie's Kickstarter campaign has pulled in over eight times the funding goal. © AirSelfie Holdings Group

The problem with writing about the future is that if you don't type with your mouse hovering over the "Publish" button, you find yourself writing about the past. This is a picture of the AirSelfie from a press kit that includes five product shots featuring four disembodied hands but zero confirmably attractive people (I could make guesses based on the hands, but guesses are all they would be). However, the hands are identifiable diverse. The product name is terrible but tells the story effectively. As of my present (your past) the AirSelfie's Kickstarter campaign has pulled in over eight times the funding goal.

© AirSelfie Holdings Group

Since I'm now talking about ubiquitous imaging, I'll stipulate that these scenarios require some social changes as well as technological progress. Google Glass was rejected not just by its users, but by everyone else. It freaked people out precisely because it conflated looking and photographing. Hence the media-ballyhooed banning of Glass from a number of restaurants, bars and other private-public places. Many of these businesses had security cameras, but never mind. Despite the fact that we are recorded hundreds of times a day, that we trade the most intimate details of our lives for “free” services, people get nervous about “being photographed.” I’m making this sound crazy partly because it is, and partly to show how easily it could change. In 1950, it was unimaginable that the post office would read every letter it delivered -- that's what Communists did! -- and here we are. Privacy norms are going in one direction, and I don't think we'll have to wait long for mores to embrace truly ubiquitous imaging. There's grisly dystopian potential in that direction, but I'm going to call "beyond the scope" or we'll be here all day.

I readily admit that I may be wrong in the particulars or exact timeline of these predictions, but I'll be surprised if my central thesis is disproved. So where does that leave us? Let's eat dessert first and indulge in some anticipatory nostalgia for the now, before it's gone. Let's be in our moment, appreciate that we're at the apex of a two-hundred-year arc that will fall off abruptly in the near future. And maybe, let's use this time to think about what photography means to us, personally and as a culture, and what we'd like the shape of the thing that replaces it to be.

Paris Photo 2016 Show Report

“Would you rather stew over the fraying of western democracy or soak in a deep pool of fine art photography?” And so I found myself at Paris Photo last week.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

The Eye of Mammon shines over Paris Photo. It's much nicer since they moved the show from that subterranean warren under the Louvre to the Grand Palais.

Paris Photo is both a trade show and an art expo. It’s advertised in the metro, on the street, where the unwashed masses can catch wind of it and subsequently attend in an effort to better themselves. But the show’s true raison d’etre is getting galleries together in one place to facilitate the Monopoly-money economics of the fine art world. There are presumably collectors prowling around, collecting, though they are not immediately identifiable. I assume the galleries do some horse trading among themselves as well. Prints are sold for 5,000 or 15,000 or 50,000 euros. You see a lot of bottles of champagne opened: commerce at this scale is thirsty work. This kind of transaction usually happens in rooms where the hoi palloi never tread, so there’s a voyeuristic thrill to be had in rubbing up against it while wearing pants from Old Navy.

Apart from its sheer size and total lack of curatorial unity, this is what sets Paris Photo apart from a museum show: you can stand right next to the great pounding pistons of the machine, tucking in any loose clothing to avoid mangling accident. The hood is off, you feel the thrum of it, see the teeth of gears meshing implacably, shining and smiling hard in the bright daylight-balanced illumination. You hear the ecstatic greetings of near strangers, witness the carefully presented facades of clothes and faces, the leaning close, the parted lips, the excitement of acquisition and being acquired. You sense the invisible flows of currency coursing through the veins and arteries of the show, the fuel that drives this engine for transmuting art into investment.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

Attractive people spend their time talking on phones amidst enormous prints. I have been attending Paris Photo for over a decade, and the women who work there never seem to get older. What is their secret? Mammon knows.

I go, not to increase the size of my collection of fine art (which contains not a single object or print, excepting my own), but to bask, to marinate, to steep myself in photography, potentially of excellent quality, and certainly of excellent print quality, especially if you like big prints. There is always art, real art, that resonates in the cockles and subcockles of my heart, shown at Paris Photo. A lot of it is canon, some of it is still damp from the womb, blinking in the bright light, untested.

The photographs hang naked on the freshly erected pre-fab walls, as honest and true as the artists that made them. That is, presumably, of greatly variable honesty and truth. There’s always a fair amount of stuff that does absolutely nothing for me, that I suspect, thought don’t quite have the courage to call out specifically in print, is dross of the most empty and cynical order. I strain to credit my own laziness, my closeted philistinism, for this interpretation, because it is depressing, enraging, to consider that in fact the gatekeepers and taste makers don’t know the difference, or more likely, know but don’t care, that their consideration of the bottom line outweighs all other considerations. If this is the case (and how, in this world, could it not be, at least often?) then I assume the buyers are complicit, more concerned with appreciating investments than appreciating art.

My frustration with the ratio of truth to trash at Paris Photo is offset by my secret delight in the worst work, which allows me to revel in a sense of superiority as I compare it to my own, ignoring for the moment that I am on the outside looking in, that I face the walls rather than face out at thousands of considering, judging eyes. These pieces allow me to indulge in that eternal fantasy of the unappreciated artist: that my work, as easily as some of this stuff, could be anointed, if only I were willing to play the game, dance with the vulpine elegance of gallerists, pander to fashion, etc.

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

A tilt-shift lens, a snappy suit, and a gold-plated handgun are all useful when attending Paris Photo. Flowers are appropriate for any occasion. I had never seen the rather amazing photo by Sean Hemmerle back there on the left (or had I seen it and forgotten it? In which case there is no hope for me).

Not all of the attendees with artistic aspirations are likely to be so bitter. A disproportionate number are photography students, dutifully toting heavy film cameras and notepads in which they scribble discerningly. I drift through them, vampirically savoring their youthful enthusiasm, stopping up my impulse to condescend, noticing how well their jeans fit. I never speak to them, would not spill the black ink of my cynicism on their clean white pages (they are almost always white). I imagine that they imagine themselves on those walls, that they are taking aim, carefully ignoring statistics, the preponderance of work by photographers who died before they themselves were born, the recurrence of certain names further slimming the room for new entrants. But as with the army of tiny fresh-hatched sea turtles blitzing the beach beneath the wheeling hungry gulls, some tiny percentage will make it. Under such withering fire, luck will play its role alongside ability. Such is the design of things.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

The glass ceiling of the Grand Palais reflects the stalls below. If I'd had a tilt-shift lens maybe I could have corrected the perspective distortion evident here. But I didn't, because I don't own one. Ditto a gold-plated handgun.

Despite the nose-bleed elitism that drives Paris Photo, the event also embodies a wholesome democracy. A print that sells for more than a house reflects the same light into my eyes as it would into those of a collector with an exotic credit card. The galleries have staked their claim, merged money and mouth: this is what we have selected, what we think is best. And anyone can praise or piss on their selection (anyone with a disposable 30 euros and a free afternoon, anyway). For a few short days a year, the cards are all on the table. Then they’re folded back into dark, deep pockets.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Galleries are contractually obligated to use only information technology sourced from Apple. This is not true, but the show seems to exist in a pocket universe where the PC and Android never happened.

Anyway, this year I saw some cool photography, familiar and not. I might mention it in another post. Also, a lot of people were carrying neat old cameras, which was fun to see. You’d think film never went out of style. BMW is still a sponsor, and JP Morgan attached its name and apparently lent out some photographs from its collection. Money and cars: the link to photography is oblique, but I believe it is there. Leica had a little pavilion where I saw the new TL, mated absurdly to the already absurd new-old 28mm Summaron. In its glass case under LED spotlighting, perhaps bathed in an inert argon atmosphere, the TL looked impossibly clean, too pristine for this world. I did not particularly yearn to profane it with my touch: it seemed distant, an idol once worshiped by a long-disappeared alien race.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.

This might actually be the T rather than the TL, not that it matters. The camera will join the digital junk stream in the near future, but the lens will live on, hopefully taking wide angle views in bright light but probably sitting mintily in a cabinet.

Leica: The Unreasonable Choice

I wrote the following over a year ago, before I plunged into the madness.


Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Why do I want a Leica M film camera? Honestly, I'm asking you, because I can't figure it out. I'm basically a digital native photographer: although I grew up in the last years of film's supremacy, I didn't get seriously into picture making until I bought a Canon digital point-and-shoot in 2004. From there, I followed the familiar camera-DSLR-mirrorless trajectory. At each step, the image quality got better, the cameras got more responsive. Now, with an Olympus OMD E-M10 as my daily driver, I'm far more likely to not see a shot than blow it because the camera couldn't.

And yet. A mechanical Leica. Apparently, now I want a camera that costs money every time I release the shutter, that requires me to focus manually with the camera mashed against my face, not to mention set aperture AND shutter speed on my own (and since I'm looking at fully mechanical bodies, doesn’t even suggest what those settings should be), that needs to be disassembled after taking 36 frames (and forces me, right then, to decide what the ISO will be for the next 36). Also, it's heavier than my current kit. And it costs more. What the hell am I thinking?

Whatever it is, I think it's been percolating for a while. From time to time over the last several years, I've started looking at metal-bodied SLRs on eBay before deciding I was just being silly. I had a lot of fun researching obscure lenses that might work on my NEX 5N (I once blew a whole night learning about Exacta-mount lenses) and I enjoyed using the old Olympus 38mm Pen half-frame lens that I bought from someone in Japan. Sure, it was a great performer above f2, but I really liked the mechanical solidity of it, a dense metal knuckle with a focus ring that felt good against the fingers compared to the plasticy stuff I was used to. I’ve long been interested in what I refer to in my head (though not, generally, out loud) as “knob feel” – the tactility of control surfaces. One of the main reasons I bought the E-M10 over the contemporaneous Panasonic GX7 was knob feel: the Panasonic’s control wheels had an unsatisfying clicky movement that I couldn’t abide. But a fine mechanical camera has knob feel all its own. The knobs and wheels and rings actually do something – they aren’t the disconnected surface of a virtual machine but physically linked to their purpose. This changes the way they feel, both in the fingers and in the mind.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens

So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

And speaking of mind, I took a pleasure in that old half-frame lens that was entirely apart from its functional qualities, something more poetic than practical. What light had already passed through its glass? Whose fingers had focused it? Imagining the answers to these questions somehow enriched my experience of using the lens. And what stirs imaginings more than a Leica?

Then there’s the harder-to-admit part. The credence in legend. The illusory connection to a tradition that encompasses some of the greatest practitioners of photography we have known. The ridiculous but irresistible sense of aligning one’s self with genius through the tools used by geniuses. Is there a pathos in this, an admission that I have not produced immortal greatness with the best tools of my day, and so I retreat to tools proven in another age? Well, let’s look out rather than in.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

Then there’s the soft Neo-Luddism that permeates our moment, with our reactionary gaze towards the vintage and authentic. Do I entertain ideas about how digital abundance erodes the thought I put into each frame? Do I harbor fantasies that shooting film will force me to contemplate, slow down, consider, and perhaps see more clearly? Do I imagine that each image will be more precious, will be imbued with some quality that is otherwise sacrificed to digital disposability? I confess, this does seem to be the case.

Now, you might reasonably suggest that there are less torturous ways of dabbling in film and old cameras than joining a cult whose demands are as onerous as Leicaism. And I would retort that, first off, I've tried other mechanical cameras and they didn't do it for me, knob-feel-wise. And second, la la la, I can’t hear you. I don’t want a reasonable camera. I want one that satisfies my unreasonable hungers, that sings silently over the sadnesses of the everyday.