The Olympus OM40 / OM-PC Casual Review: Tall, Dark and Ugly

It was 1985, 13 years since the OM line of cameras sprung from the fertile soil of Yoshihisa Maitani’s mind. The serious, single-digit OMs (the OM1, 2, 3, 4 and their variants) had been joined by lighter-duty double-digit models (the OM10, 20, and 30). The doubles were lighter, cheaper and less robust than the singles, but they were generally fine. And they looked fine: just slightly parred down, more approachable versions of the singles, which derived in orderly fashion from the attractive OM-1.

Then the OM40 happened (AKA the OM-PC in the States, and for whatever reason, the OM-40 all over the Internet). Presumably someone at Olympus looked at the Canon T70 or some other plastic-age wonder, threw up in their mouth a little, and then muttered to themselves, “Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now.” So they took the sleek metal beauty of an OM camera and wrapped it in a thick coat of rubber that wordlessly shrieks “THE NINETEEN EIGHTIES ARE HERE TO RUIN THINGS.”

 Behold the Neanderthal mien of the OM40: heavy shoulders, protuberant brow. I know it’s not fashionable to bash Neaderthals now that we know about the prehistoric hanky-panky we got up to, but on the other hand, I’m probably 2% Neanderthal so I think I have the right.

Behold the Neanderthal mien of the OM40: heavy shoulders, protuberant brow. I know it’s not fashionable to bash Neaderthals now that we know about the prehistoric hanky-panky we got up to, but on the other hand, I’m probably 2% Neanderthal so I think I have the right.

On the front right of the camera, the rubber rises up to form a fingergrip, admitted useful but lumpen and mostly smooth so as to best show off your skin oils. It probably looked better in a line drawing. On the left of the camera, the rubber is smooth as the wax cheek of a figure in one of those medieval torture museums, the better to attract all manner of smear and scratch. Around the back on the film door, there’s a gentle rise of thumb-rest on the right patterned with small squares and more of that same, corpse-like slick of black rubber.

It’s not just the rubber. The OM40 hunches its shoulders as if ashamed. Nearly all SLRs have a shape dictated by the path of the film and the presence of the prism used to bounce light into the photographer’s eye: a “prism hump” flanked by two roughly symmetrical planes bearing the most important controls. But the OM40 permanently cowers after its beating with the ugly stick, the prism hump sunk down between its uneven shoulders – the right-most control dial, which sets ISO and exposure compensation, sits nearly level with the top of the prism hump. On the left side of the mount, just below the hump, a small knob protrudes like a bolt from the neck of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s offset on the other side of the mount by a large red self-timer light.

The rubber does not generally age well, developing a white exudate as it slowly reverts to its component petroleum parts. You can kind of clean it off with some patience, and at least it doesn’t feel too sticky, but yuck.

 From above, the OM40 is less objectionable. The same is true of many things, which probably underlies the human urge to fly. Yes, these are my eBay pics. Don’t worry, I’m being honest in the description.

From above, the OM40 is less objectionable. The same is true of many things, which probably underlies the human urge to fly. Yes, these are my eBay pics. Don’t worry, I’m being honest in the description.

Beauty is strange. Science says that all things being equal, we perceive beautiful people as smarter, nicer, and generally superior to less-beautiful people. This feels in line with the way the world seems to work, but at odds with the way I experience other people. I tend to be suspicious of exceedingly beautiful people, dubious that their accomplishments are truly their own. I struggle to grant them full human agency (with the exception of my exceeding beautiful wife and children, who confront me with the violent fact of their agency every day).

Beauty in objects, particularly functional objects, is simpler and harder to fault. Why a beautiful camera? Well, why the hell not?

Anyway, my OM40 turned out to have a fault beyond its appearance: a slippery film transport that resulted in overlapping frames. So, no samples with this review except this one:

 Ru-roh, Raggy. After the first frame, things went bad quickly.

Ru-roh, Raggy. After the first frame, things went bad quickly.

But it seems that mine is a one-off, and apart from internet mutterings about the electronics failing, which honestly could come down to one guy on a forum with a chip on his shoulder ten years ago, people don’t complain much about the OM40, or indeed, talk about it much at all (these guys excepted). My one practical gripe about it is that its height makes it hard to palm. I like to carry a small SLR or rangefinder in one hand (with a wrist strap for backup), with the top snugged into my palm and fingers curling around underneath, the lens facing in towards my leg. Although it’s generally small, the OM40’s strange tallness makes this grip uncomfortable.

Apart from that, in use, it’s usually fine and occasionally better. The viewfinder is larger, with more coverage, than many cameras in its class. The tactility of its electronic controls is acceptable. Wind-on is a little janky, with a distinctly two-stage feel as the stroke advances the film and then cocks the shutter, but maybe that’s partly down to my syphilitic sample. I like the shutter speed ring around the lens mount, an OM hallmark that seems like it should have been widely copied but wasn’t. There’s a rudimentary form of evaluative metering that’s supposed to be quite good, but with negative film, who really cares? Maybe this is one to try your fresh Ektachrome with – you can buy an OM40 body for less than a roll of that sweet transparency stuff.

Hey Google! The Lightest Metal Mechanical SLR

Quite a while ago I was wondering which metal mechanical SLR was the lightest, the most compact, aka lightweight, also aka light-weight, and generally small and cute. This turned out to be harder than you'd think to figure out, but with my master Google-fu I discovered the truth. For the record, with a weight of 495 grams, the Pentax MX is the lightest metal mechanical  35mm SLR ever made. It also seems to be the most compact. Since I embarked on that particular quest, an answer of sorts has arisen in the hive mind: the top Google result I see for "lightest mechanical SLR" is a blog post from 2017 that correctly identifies the MX. But it reads like something generated by a camera-savvy bot: "Then, the MX is one of the terminus ad quem of its lineup." So I decided to write this anyway. 

 It bears repeating, for search optimization: the Pentax MX is the lightest metal mechanical 35mm SLR.

It bears repeating, for search optimization: the Pentax MX is the lightest metal mechanical 35mm SLR.

The MX, introduced in 1976, appears to be a direct answer to Olympus's OM-1 of 1972, which set a high (or low) bar for compact SLRs. Until Olympus shook things up, Pentax's Spotmatics were considered small and light, but still tipped the scales at over 600 grams, with heavy lenses to boot. The MX undercuts the OM-1 by 15 grams, which gives it bragging rights but not much practical advantage. I went with it more because I like the lenses, which seem to be more robustly made than their Olympus OM equivalents, though they don't feel as nice as Pentax's ridiculously luxy screwmount optics.  

There are many 35mm SLRs that are smaller and lighter than the Pentax MX, but they came later, as electronics replaced mechanics and plastic displaced metal. Many of those cameras are probably better, objectively speaking: electronically controlled shutters are more accurate than their clockwork predecessors, and well-made plastic bodies can resist impact better than metal ones. For example, the MX's prism hump is an alloy eggshell that crumples at the slightest provocation: peruse listings on eBay if you don't believe me (happily, this doesn't usually seem to affect the camera's function). 

But if you've found this post, you probably understand that metal is better than plastic, even when it isn't. And mechanical cameras can be fixed forever, while dead integrated circuits are forever dead. (The MX does have an electronic light meter, but if it fails it just makes the camera more like an old Leica). So if you're a romantic with a bad back, if you're a lazy lover of physical intricacy, look no further than the Pentax MX.  

Not Reasons I Shoot Film

Shooting 35mm film in a digital age is an expensive pain in the ass with a rabid following that includes yours truly. I will mull publicly over why this might be in good time, but first I want to mention some factors that don’t play in my attraction to film.

1. The Film Look

 Is it real? Or is it VSCO? Can you tell at web resolution?

Is it real? Or is it VSCO? Can you tell at web resolution?

Well, yes, but no. I do like the film look, but that’s not reason enough to endure the trials of shooting film. Can you really tell the difference between a digitally captured image that’s been skillfully processed to look like a film scan and something that started on emulsion? I’m sure some folks out there can, just as I believe that some people can hear the difference between vinyl and CD audio. I’m generally fine with MP3s.

But the thing for me is I only like the film look if it’s arrived at through film. Otherwise I just feel silly. And here we get into authenticity: the uncut cocaine, the fresh-dug truffle, the 1980s American dollar in an imploding banana republic of our cultural moment.

So it seems what I’m really after is the authentic. Is the image seared into emulsion more authentic than the one that’s read off a sensor? What if you digitally scan that emulsion to see what’s on it? What if you slap some curves on the result to get the tonality you want? Just shut up and let me enjoy my film.

2. Film is Cool (or Hip, or Whatever)

 Even if I'd shot this on film, I'd never be cool enough to inhabit this bachelor pad or bestride that magnificent iron steed parked in the living room.

Even if I'd shot this on film, I'd never be cool enough to inhabit this bachelor pad or bestride that magnificent iron steed parked in the living room.

I’ve never been cool and have no intention of changing that. I’m married and out of the mate selection game. There are relatively few people I care to impress, and none of those could be impressed by my taking pictures on film. Film may well be cool, but I don’t care.

3. Film is Forever

 My negatives won't outlive the fury of the sun, the grandeur of the ocean, or man's hubris.

My negatives won't outlive the fury of the sun, the grandeur of the ocean, or man's hubris.

Some people worry about bit rot, orphaned media, electromagnetic pulses, abandoned file formats, lost-to-the-grave passwords and other technical problems that, they imagine, will prevent future generations from accessing their trove of would-be immortal images. A film negative is sometimes held up as the solution: a physical thing firmly attached to reality, supposedly safe from the ravages of time. I don’t know. Maybe. But you’d have to have some damn curious great-grand kids if you expect them to do anything with that binder of negs they find in the attic in 2100. It’s hard enough to read film now, when you can buy a film scanner new on the internet. Don’t even talk about enlargers and the associated papers and chemistry. Our great-grand children will, unfortunately, have a few more pressing issues to deal with than looking at our photographs. If you really care about sending photos into the future, shoot however you want and then print up a quality book on acid-free paper. Maybe include “DO NOT DISCARD” on the cover and spine. In a few different languages.

4. Film is Cheap

You may laugh, but I’ve seen the argument that film is cheap compared to digital. This involves building a straw man of fantastically expensive digital bodies and the assumption that you have to get a new camera every couple of years. With the right accounting gymnastics you can almost make this work, but for normal people using consumer-grade gear for a reasonable amount of time and taking a reasonable (by contemporary standards) number of pictures, shooting film is more expensive than shooting digital and that’s that. I include this not because it’s a widely held belief, but because it speaks for the attractions of film that people are willing to contort their thinking so creatively in an effort to justify something they want to do even when it doesn’t make sense.

5. This Film Kills Computers

  Neg Strip Taking a Shower   This is not the end of the process. The scanner waits in the other room like a malevolent blue toad.

Neg Strip Taking a Shower

This is not the end of the process. The scanner waits in the other room like a malevolent blue toad.

People claim that shooting film frees them from their computers. No post-processing! This has not been my experience. I scan my film, like, I suspect, the great majority of my contemporaries. Then I almost always have to tweak the scans. Not too much (authenticity!) but a bit. On the other hand, I can select, edit, and tag a week’s worth of digital photos on my tablet, from the comfort of my couch, in a fraction of the time. Without the blood-pressure-spiking hassle of getting neg strips lined up in the carrier *.

6. Film Smells Good

I’ve seen this offered as a good reason to shoot film and… actually, yeah, it does. The smell of a freshly opened canister is a fine reason to shoot film, though this might only work for people old enough to have that chemical odor tied into the lizard-brain memories of their happy Kodak-tinted childhoods. Every time I pop the top, I awaken my 8-year-old self, tearing open the foil on a 110 cartridge.

 

* I mostly wrote this before I got a scanner that eats a whole roll of 35mm in one go, so now I find #5 to be mostly true. The reason I've hesitated to post the piece for a while is because I'm not totally sure about #1. How important is the look for me? Can I tell film film from from digital film? How long do I have to look in the mirror to satisfy your demands for self-knowledge? Leave me be. 

 

An Appreciation of Ashley Pomeroy's Women and Dreams

Ashley Pomeroy has haunted me for years. He is a writer. A photographer. A musician. A poet, a video game player, a critic, a historian. He is a man with a lady's name, and he is the wholly singular author of a blog called Women and Dreams, one of the most remarkable online texts I’ve encountered.

 When Pomeroy writes a post that doesn't lend itself to illustrations, he often scatters his own photos around to break up the text. I'll do the same here with shots from by back catalog.

When Pomeroy writes a post that doesn't lend itself to illustrations, he often scatters his own photos around to break up the text. I'll do the same here with shots from by back catalog.

In 2018 it’s hard to recall that once, most blogs were about nothing, the neuronal noise of brains suddenly connected to a global network. That rambling impulse is now expended on Facebook and the like, precious seed spilled on poisoned ground. Today a blog must be about one thing. The penalty for straying out of niche is flogging with thorned branches. According to what law, you demand? The law, of course.

But Pomeroy flaunts the law. Though it seems that at first, he toed the line. He’s written a lot about old cameras and expired film. The first post on Women and Dreams, dating from 2009, is about the Nikon D1x, a digital camera that was dead and buried when Pomeroy published nearly 6,000 words about it. The piece goes deep into the camera as a historical object, its context and position in the flow of technology. It’s well written. There are hints of what’s to come, but what most sets it apart is the depth of attention focused on a camera that most people wouldn’t care about. If Pomeroy continued in this vein, I’d be impressed but not rapturous.

But as the blog goes on, something besides meticulous research creeps into Pomeroy’s camera reviews. In his review of the Olympus OM-1, he writes, “During the 1950s and 1960s Olympus had been a lone wolf hunting away from the pack, its mouth stained with the flesh of its prey as it dove through banks of snow, driven by a satanic lust for warm blood; it had long since filled its belly, now it hunted in a futile quest to discharge the mounting howl of rage that swelled within its hot black heart.” A sentence later, Pomeroy is back into a more trenchant but less fun analysis of what Olympus was up to. But the digression sets a tone: you’re not sure what’s coming next, and its perverse humor flavors writing that might otherwise read straighter.  

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Still later, Pomeroy moves beyond brief digressions. His review of the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S lens opens with the line, “Wesley Willis had names for his demons.” He goes on to discuss what Pac-Man’s psychology and the psychology of the few men who have achieved perfect scores playing Pac-Man have in common, then systems analysis, the modeling of human society, Katy Perry’s wardrobe choices, and Hitler and Stalin’s efforts to forcibly mold social systems. He writes over 1,600 words before mentioning the lens, and when he finally introduces it, we see his trademark style of violent non sequitur:

“Hitler cared only for the good of his tribe. But the great machine of humanity has its own course, and cares not for individual tribes; its ultimate destination is unknowable and perhaps not to our satisfaction. We may not recognise it when we arrive. Perhaps the program has already run its course, and we are simply swarf left to blow away in the wind, patients left forgotten in the waiting room of a dental practice that shut half an hour ago. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S.”

Pomeroy stays with old cameras, old lenses, until 2011, when he takes on a video game called Manic Miner. This piece is actually a capsule history of the British video games industry in the 1980s. It’s great.  More camera stuff follows, but then you get a post about Fermat’s theorem and a Paul Simon song.

Pomeroy compels me. I learned about him from a friend, word of mouth. In a small restaurant in Paris run by an old man who fled persecution in Vietnam to start a new life among his former colonizers. The air in this restaurant is often thick with those tiny flies that are attracted to fruit and wine, fermenting things, just as a typical Pomeroy post is thick with ideas, digressions, surreal asides. Restaurants without flies are not completely beyond my means, but I like this one because I’m cheap and it has lots of atmosphere. 

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I’ve spent some time trying to find the perfect entry point, the post that will give you the flavor I want you to taste, but this is surprisingly difficult. Women and Dreams works as a cumulative experience. The edifice that Pomeroy has built must be lived in to be fully appreciated - it’s not enough to quickly tour a few rooms. 

So start anywhere. Read a few thousand words about ambient music or The Beatles, a classic film, a long-dead lineage of cameras, an old laptop, or a video game. I haven’t really played a video game since the mid 90s, and even then I was a dilettante, but I like Pomeroy’s game reviews. Like New Yorker reviews of books I’ve never read and will never read, but would like to know about. 

The only times Pomeroy’s really lost me are some particularly deep dives into music. What music do I like? The grumble of history breaking up in the past like a glacier calving into an endless sea of forgetting. And Lorde, obviously.

But if you’re not just going to dive in, if you expect me, the reviewer, to do my job, fine. Here’s Pomeroy on the city he often documents:

“Me and London. London matters. Because every genius needs something to feed his mind, and London has a lot of things to look at and think about. And eat, too. It has shops as well. An integrated transport network. Staggeringly expensive houses, filled with people who are not there.”

Pomeroy is angry about London’s transformation into a storage vessel for global capital (a recurring theme for him) in a way that’s not fashionable today. We are supposed to be measured, or we are frothing fundamentalists. Pomeroy is neither, which is refreshing.

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His movie reviews are majestic. He writes not just about the film, but about the making of the film, the perceptions of contemporary audiences (when reviewing older movies, which he does often), the film’s place in the sweep of cinema history. And he writes things like this:

“In my mind Star Wars and Empire belong to the world of myth and legend whereas Return of the Jedi belongs to a world where it rains on Sunday and cats die and life consists of stupid people hitting each other.”

I’ve mentioned his digressions. Many of the best are stand-alone bits of flash fiction (or non-fiction). I’m confident that no other review of the Sony PlayStation 3 game console addresses this issue:

“A few years ago Pathé News uploaded its archive to YouTube, but most of the clips only have a few hundred views, probably from bots. Occasionally the robonews that passes for internet journalism digs out one of the clips and there's a brief flurry of interest but otherwise Pathé's archives are trapped in a kind of eternal living death. We dream about people and things that are lost to us because the mystery is intriguing, but while the dead sleep the taste of the living moves on and the past becomes small.”

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I’m just going to keep going. Pomeroy’s not a big Leica guy, but he does write a little about the R system. Consider this, from his review of the R8. Many camera reviewers include a snippet of the maker’s history. Pomeroy is no exception, but he’s exceptional:

“Leica was founded in 1849 and has survived a period of human history that killed millions and obliterated empires, that saw the conquest of space and of the atom - and, as a consequence, the possible end of human civilisaton and all multi-cellular life on Earth. In Leica's time we realised that death is the end, that the stars are beyond us, that there are limits to our reach, and that without restraint we would kill ourselves and everything we wanted to keep.”

He hasn’t reviewed a Leica M camera, but he addresses the system in his R8 review with characteristic flair.

“Leica is most often associated with its famous, long-running line of rangefinder cameras, which are popular with fat rich Swiss people, rich Chinese people, rich Russians. In the grim future of Frank Herbert's Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen will own a Leica. With his fat fingers sliding over the controls he will use it to photograph the bodies of all the boys he strangled, so that he can look at the pictures and imagine what it must be like to be dead.”

No one could have said it better, no one else could have said it. I still pretend I’m Henri Cartier-Bresson when I fondle my M2, but in my darker moments the Baron now intrudes on the fantasy.

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Let’s stop with the specifics and return to generalities. You might find just about anything in a Pomeroy post, but a few blog-standards are missing: typos, sloppy language, unpolished thought, lazy fact handling. Outside of the better professional outlets, it’s difficult to imagine any substantial body of text online in 2018 that doesn’t lean into these elements, but here it is, a unicorn that can only be made mortal by the touch of Mia Sara’s hand. 

But it’s not just good writing. It’s strange. It rambles in the most engaging way. It is manifestly not for everyone, and the fact that I like it makes me feel special. I want everyone to know about it, but I don’t want everyone to get it. Not that there’s any danger of Pomeroy becoming mainstream, not in this world, nor any of the worlds adjacent to us. As near as I can tell, very few people benefit from the astounding effort he puts into his writing. The Twittersphere doesn’t erupt when he drops a new post. Apart from the friend who originally introduced me to him I’ve never come across anyone online or off who knows of him, any reference to the blog.

That is why I’m writing this, I suppose. If Pomeroy had a million Instagram followers, I wouldn’t bother. His stuff is great, but what also seduces me is the idea of a man pouring this effort into the void of an indifferent universe. I must read his work in that context, and it moves me. It is proof of purity. No art exists in a vacuum: everything has a social context. The Mona Lisa has actually been obliterated by its context, even though it's hanging right there in the Louvre -- it is a thing seen so much it has become impossible to see. When Khloé Kardashian posts a selfie on Instagram, she knows she is doing it for 76 million people, and the million-odd people who “like” it know they are among those millions. I’m trying to say that sometimes the world makes me want to scream, and other times it actually does make me scream, into a pillow, so as not to disturb the neighbors, but there are still many good things in it, and many things more terrible than vapid celebrity.  

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I’ve toyed with the idea that Pomeroy doesn’t care if people read him or not, but I’ve had to discard the notion – there are hints, here and there, that he’s open to expanding his audience. A Twitter account, a few forum posts linking back to his pieces, links to the site in old bios. Comments are disabled on Women and Dreams – is it because he can’t be bothered to moderate the incoherent railings of mouth-breathers, or because he likes the mystique of appearing not to care about generating "social engagement" around his writing, or because he doesn’t like to see a 5,000-word-post with 0 comments any more than the next guy?

The site itself, hosted on Blogger, seems designed to blend into the background noise of the internet. But Pomeroy isn’t technologically naïve. This is a guy who installs Linux on old PCs for shits and giggles. I think he chose Blogger rather than something hipper because he expects it to be around for a long time. Google (which owns Blogger) is the Great Archiver. The company keeps Usenet posts from the 80s preserved in amber. Perhaps Pomeroy just wants to make sure his words remain accessible. Sometimes he wrestles with this theme explicitly. In a post that opens with a meditation on a photograph of Audrey Hepburn, he writes:

“Ostensibly this blog is about photography, although in practice I find it hard to stay focused on one thing and there is only so much to say about photography. The equipment doesn't move me any more; it's the art I care about, specifically the topic that drives all art. The desire to live beyond death.”

It's an unusually earnest tone for Pomeroy, who most often uses hyperbole and semi-fiction to communicate his deeper truths. 

I’ve also considered the possibility that there actually is a modestly large readership for the site -- not Kardashian-large, but, say, tier-two-literary-fiction large -- but that like me, those people don’t mention much of anything on Twitter. They might be telling their friends about it in restaurants and bars, in back alleys and shallow cave networks, rather than on Facebook. This is my preferred version of reality, and where it doesn’t exist, I seek to make it. The end.

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P.S.

Although Women and Dreams seems to be the focus of Pomeroy's current efforts, he's left other noteworthy evidence of his passage. Most interesting is his contribution of articles to Everything2, a kind of Wikipedia-meets-Urban-Dictionary-meets-LiveJournal that apparently flourished around the turn of the millennium. I had never heard of it and only encountered it in the context of stalking Pomeroy across the internet. Reading his pieces there, I realized that the weirdness that grows in Women and Dreams was actually there from the start -- he was just reining it in. He’s also apparently a prolific Wikipedia editor, though there his effort is subsumed into the hive mind. He also co-wrote two printed books. I’ve read one, a tiny collection of illustrated absurdist wit, but the other appears be wholly unavailable. And he's written entertaining reviews on Amazon, though they seem to be tapering off of late.

Film, Digital, and Paradoxical Simplicity

One of the allures of film is that in its relative simplicity, there is supposed to be some tighter connection between the scene before the camera and the recorded image. The lens impartially draws on the film, and that’s it (not really, but let’s pretend). This stands in stark contrast to the computational photography creeping steadily into digital capture, particularly in the case of phones. All sorts of digital magic goes on behind the scenes: compositing images, automatic "best" selection, massive distortion correction, post-process background blur. It’s all very complicated, and if you’re of a certain mindset, it reduces the authenticity of the final image. The traditional camera, by contrast, is supposed to be more like a human eye, with its organic lens focusing light onto a retinal film and none of this digital trickery. What could be more perfect, more true, than the very organs with which we see? Would that it were so simple.

  Things were simpler, better, before.

Things were simpler, better, before.

The dichotomy that sets the purity of film photography against the artifice of digital capture overlooks the fact that vision itself is a tremendously elaborate and notoriously unreliable example of computational imaging. What we “see” is disturbingly detached from the photons that hit our retinas (retinae?). It's dependent on the way our brains put together flickering nerve impulses as the eyeball saccades around the scene and melds multiple moments with preconceived schemas to form an illusion of continuous, coherent vision.

Consider the classic Harvard study in which subjects watched a video of people passing balls around. As they carefully tracked a ball, half the participants failed to notice the man in a gorilla suit who sauntered across the screen. So much for the reliable fidelity of our built-in cameras.

So the human eye is more an eye-Phone than a classic L-eye-ca (oh yes, I did that). But maybe it's film's divergence from the eye rather than any parallels that justifies our attachment to the impractical and antiquated. Human vision is complex and unreliable. Much like a smartphone, much like the world. And digital photography, which is as much about computers as optics, suffers from the fundamental opacity common to so much modern technology: nobody understands it.

No single body, I mean. As a product of humans, of course “we” understand it. But consider the thousands of minds, the millions of lines of proprietary code, that go into a smartphone. Could any one human really know, end to end, how the thing works? Of course, most people (myself included) don’t fully understand all the optical principles of a multi-element lens or the chemistry of light-sensitive emulsion, but we intuit that with some reading, a substantial but totally human amount of effort, we could. And this lets us feel more in tune with the technology, more aligned with it as we use it. It’s a tool, like a sharp stick, not magic. Magic, despite its appeal, has a dark side. They burned witches, you know. And they burned David Copperfield. Or if they haven’t yet, David, you better watch your back.

  Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Perhaps it's digital technology's transformation into a subjective, active partner in image making that's freshened analog photography's appeal. Digital, having largely achieved the goal of total fidelity that photography has aspired to since its inception, is now trying to out-think us. We want what we remember, or wish we remembered, whether it was there or not. This is how human vision and memory already work, after all -- the perpetual golden hour light of childhood afternoons half-cribbed from old movies, the moment when everyone laughed that never actually happened.

And to some extent, this is what all photography does. The moment of family bliss caught in the frame is what carries forward across the years: the sulking and hair-pulling that bracketed it are allowed to fade. But film, when you understand it, feels more dutiful, more reliable, perhaps more beautiful, with its opto-mechano-chemical process that affords no judgement in the moment. Once the shutter is tripped, a chain of events rooted in the physical world leads to an image hiding in the film emulsion, waiting for developer. It's magic, but it's a small, predictable magic. Nothing you're likely to burn for.    

On Film: Forestalling Disappointment

For a while I’ve been tormented by the feeling that not enough people are writing about the joys of shooting film. It’s as if nobody got tired of digital and discovered a whole new world of arcana to master, nobody knows how much sexier an already sexy person is when they’re wearing a metal mechanical camera casually on one shoulder as they cavort with their lithesome friends – or, as if people have discovered these things but are selfishly hoarding the pleasures for themselves. Not me. I’m breaking the silence. Internet, prepare yourself.

In this first of a series of posts about the awesomeness of film photography that I’m calling “On Film,” I will explore how shooting film protects (albeit transiently) the photographer from the burden of failing, again and again, to capture the vision he or she reached for in releasing the shutter.

  I think there was something here a split second before I took the photo, but maybe not even then. I continued on my merry way, hopeful in the sunshine. The failure was locked away in a latent image.

I think there was something here a split second before I took the photo, but maybe not even then. I continued on my merry way, hopeful in the sunshine. The failure was locked away in a latent image.

Now, there’s a related but different element of shooting film that’s already been thoroughly mapped out by those few folks who delve into such things on the web: delaying gratification. The idea is that film photography thwarts the instant gratification underlying the appeal of so many things digital. Digital chimping vs the languorous wait to develop film. Although it’s worth noting that the most commercially successful form of film photography of the millennium has the morpheme “insta” right in it and only makes you wait for a few minutes to see your image, let’s ignore that for the moment. The consensus among film shooters is that delayed gratification is part of the fun, and I agree.

  I might have been a little drunk for this one. I probably saw something in the looming mass of the back, and hoped the low angle would lead somewhere fruitful. I didn't notice the other head on the right, and even without that, I wouldn't have caught the thing I was after.

I might have been a little drunk for this one. I probably saw something in the looming mass of the back, and hoped the low angle would lead somewhere fruitful. I didn't notice the other head on the right, and even without that, I wouldn't have caught the thing I was after.

But this understanding of delay elides (in a way that’s very symptomatic of our moment) the fact that film also delays something else: disappointment. I don’t think I’m breaking confessional barriers when I reveal that my own photographs often disappoint me. They not infrequently fail to convey the emotion or thought I intended when I tripped the shutter. With digital, this brutal truth is immediately accessible, and even though I leave instant review turned off I can’t always resist a peek. There, scant seconds after taking the picture, everything still in working memory, I must confront failure. Failure deserves its own time. It should be considered in private, like (and possibly with) a glass of nice whisky. It shouldn’t interfere with the moment of seeing, of experiencing. Film enforces this separation.

  There was potential in the situation but it needed something else to bring it together, and in any case it's much too far away. 

There was potential in the situation but it needed something else to bring it together, and in any case it's much too far away. 

Of course, there are happy surprises after development. All of life is not pain, no matter what those emo kids say. Gratification, however fleeting, is possible. But in the real world, there is also failure of vision, technical error, and always the slap of fickle chance. To review a roll of film is to discover all of this with our attention whole, not chopped up and ground into the flow of experience like so much sausage. And that is something good about film.

Scanning Film Doesn’t Have to Hurt: The Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250 Pro3 / Reflecta RPS 7200 / Magical Wondermachine Casual Review

Shooting film is fun. Developing film is kind of fun. But scanning film with consumer equipment is not fun. At all. It’s fiddly, it’s boring, and it’s a massive time suck. I used to laugh when I’d hear people say they shot film to “get away from the computer.” With a digital camera, the only time you have to spend in front of a computer is when you’re looking at your pictures. With the vast majority of dedicated film scanners (like the OpticFilm 7200 I started with), you’re fiddling tediously with the film holder every few minutes, for hours. In front of a computer.

 Shot on film, scanned with close to no effort. Come closer, and I will whisper my secrets to you. Fujufilm Superia 400.

Shot on film, scanned with close to no effort. Come closer, and I will whisper my secrets to you. Fujufilm Superia 400.

Now, some people swear by flatbed scanners, especially the Epsons, but that still involves film carriers and several passes to do a whole roll. Plus, I don’t have a permanent place to set up a scanner – I pack it away between uses, so size is a factor.

My dream, and here I admit to a notable lack of ambition if not vision, was something that would just suck a whole uncut roll of 35mm through at a go. Something like a Pakon 135, but a lot cheaper and more recently in production. I’d come across the Pacific Image / Reflecta models in my research, but remained unconvinced. People complain bitterly about them in the few user reviews that are available. They aren’t hideously expensive, buy they’re too expensive to take a flyer on.

Then, one fine day, Amazon suggested I buy a Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 (or Pro 3, or Pro3 – nice job, marketing -- alias Reflecta RPS 7200 in the old world), not for the $400 or so I remember it selling for, but for a mere $170 (as I write this a few months later, it remains on Amazon US at that price; if you're reading this in the distant future, perhaps as part of a university course about the most influential digital publications of the early millennium, or even just a few months from now, it'll probably be gone) . By then, I’d been suffering with the OpticFilm breadbox for long enough. I took a chance. And I do not regret it. If that’s all you want to know, you can stop reading now. Peace be with you.

 Behold, two machines. They work together, despite having almost nothing in common. America, can’t you do the same?

Behold, two machines. They work together, despite having almost nothing in common. America, can’t you do the same?

 

What is Pacific Image? The company is Taiwanese, with an American beachhead in Torrance, California. Unlike Epson, Canon, and (in the time before) Nikon, it is not an imaging powerhouse or a household name. There’s something charmingly amateurish about its English-language website, which lives at “scanace.com.” The website, as well as the product packaging and documentation, suggest there’s not a big budget for marketing or visual design. The English translations are passable.

But Pacific Image is the only company making a consumer product that can scan a whole roll of 35mm film at a go. Which is amazing, when you think about it. Or not. Perhaps the problem with film scanner production is akin to the problem with film production itself. It’s not that there’s not enough demand to sell film profitably. Consider Ilford, happily cranking along all these years, with only black and white emulsions. Consider Astrum (Svema). The resuscitation of Film Ferrania. The problem isn’t that film can’t be made profitably – it’s that it can’t be made profitably at the scale that Kodak, Fujifilm and the various former big players used to do it. When Fuji kills an emulsion, it’s not because nobody wanted it – it’s because not enough people wanted it to make running an enormous production line economically feasible. That “not enough” might still be a lot of people, and someone who’s set up to for lower-capacity production can meet that demand profitably.

 Straight analog to digital conversion. There aren’t many options to mess with in the included software. No film profiles, for example. Kodak UltraMax 400.

Straight analog to digital conversion. There aren’t many options to mess with in the included software. No film profiles, for example. Kodak UltraMax 400.

 Thirty seconds of curves work improves the color. Is this cheating? When people begin to get brain implants and don’t disclose that in job interviews, will that be cheating? It’s a trick question, of course: by then there will be no jobs.

Thirty seconds of curves work improves the color. Is this cheating? When people begin to get brain implants and don’t disclose that in job interviews, will that be cheating? It’s a trick question, of course: by then there will be no jobs.

Similarly, maybe Epson can’t afford to pour the R & D into a dedicated 35mm film scanner that would sell quite a few units in the absolute, yet nothing at all relative to the volumes at which multinational conglomerates operate. But making a good scanner is frickin’ hard, which keeps Joe-Blow Kickstarter from just whipping one up for a couple thousand backers. So that leaves us with Pacific Imaging, which, like Ilford, somehow ended up in the goldilocks spot to meet current demand.  

So, I bought a scanner from Goldilocks. She has a pentagram inked on the back of her left hand these days, you know. Her sinister hand. All grown up. How time flies. The PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 is not perfect, but it’s not as bad as the user reviews would have you believe. I think I know why.

Firstly, many people’s woes are tied to the included CyberViewX software. The name and the UI design harken back to the days when PCs were commonplace but a camera was assumed to require film. The program is not that old, but looking at the dates of the reviews and the number of revisions the software has undergone, it seems that Pacific Image has straightened it out quite a bit since the scanner was introduced. And apart from being plug ugly, there’s not much to complain about. If you’re familiar with the basic concepts of film scanning, you can almost use it without reading the instructions. And if you have any experience with scanning software, you know that’s not a trivial achievement.

 I ended up cropping this to fit Instagram. You, dear reader, get to the experience the original. Feel special. All that dead space on the top and bottom is intentional. Not because I didn't want to get too close. Superia 400.

I ended up cropping this to fit Instagram. You, dear reader, get to the experience the original. Feel special. All that dead space on the top and bottom is intentional. Not because I didn't want to get too close. Superia 400.

And that leads to the second reason people bitch and moan, which is that you can’t unpack a film scanner and expect it to work like a toaster. A typical user review goes something like this: “I bought this to scan a suitcase of negatives I found in my uncle’s basement, and it didn’t work right.” Under the best of circumstances, these things are complicated. Pacific Imaging is selling specialized, niche products to ordinary people who are used to Apple products. They get pissed off if they can’t just turn it on and have it do what it says on the tin. But our world is not their world. And this is not, as I mentioned above, an Epson or Apple or Nikon product. This is from a small Taiwanese company you’d never heard of until you spotted this weird scanner on Amazon.

If you are one of us, and not one of them, and if you’re already suffering with a scanner that requires attention for every frame, you’ll find the 7250Pro3 a soothing balm on your fevered brow. You feed in the uncut film strip, line up the first frame, and away it goes. I set it at 3,600 dpi, half of what it’s rated for, which seems to be about the scanner’s true resolution limit (irrationally exuberant resolution specs are not unique to Pacific Imaging, I should note). It’ll do a roll of 36 exposures in two or three hours, I think. I’m usually asleep while it’s beavering away, and I haven’t really timed it. This is a casual review, remember.  

 I routinely lift my face to heaven and thank the stars for having been born in the era of great television. Also, in this brief sliver of time between the advent of antibiotics and their exhaustion, the end of nuclear brinkmanship and its resumption, the discovery of carbon fuel's apparent blank check and the revelation of its horrific true cost. I exercise prospective nostalgia as a form of prayer. Agfa Vista Plus 200.

I routinely lift my face to heaven and thank the stars for having been born in the era of great television. Also, in this brief sliver of time between the advent of antibiotics and their exhaustion, the end of nuclear brinkmanship and its resumption, the discovery of carbon fuel's apparent blank check and the revelation of its horrific true cost. I exercise prospective nostalgia as a form of prayer. Agfa Vista Plus 200.

Are the scans perfect out of the gate? No. But the same can be said of my OpticFilm's output, and honestly, with my casual approach to home processing, my negs are not perfect to begin with. Luckily, I have years of experience in the digital darkroom, so correcting the images is a snap. If you don’t know how to process a digital image, scanning from film is likely to be problematic.

The ICE dust removable works a treat: I don’t even bother to dust my color negs before running them through. ICE doesn’t work with black and white, which actually discourages me from shooting it. Once you’ve experienced the infrared joy of automatic dust removal, the spot healing tool feels like washing dishes by hand, or raising your own children instead of dumping them off on the help. The little villains.

Ease of use aside, the scanner isn’t perfect. But who is? I’ve woken in the morning to find it frozen halfway through a roll, or that it misaligned the frames. I don’t care. It’s takes a couple of minutes to initiate a new run, and then I can get on with my life, away from my computer.

And what about quality? The short answer is: plenty good for me. If you really care, read this guy’s review. He seems to know what he’s talking about, and you’ll note that his tone is quite positive once he gets the vitriol about CyberView out of his system.

 I like the Dutch. They have wrought their share of pain, but they did it early, and got out while the getting was good, and now we have largely forgotten. They mostly spent their money on the right things and now we can enjoy their beautiful houses these centuries later. Superia 400.

I like the Dutch. They have wrought their share of pain, but they did it early, and got out while the getting was good, and now we have largely forgotten. They mostly spent their money on the right things and now we can enjoy their beautiful houses these centuries later. Superia 400.

The one thing about a 35mm film scanner is that it only scans 35mm film (this one also does mounted slides, btw, but only one-by-one). You 120 shooters, you microfilm super-spies, you closeted 110 lovers, you sheet film dinosaurs, you daguerreotype mercury huffers, you’re out of luck. Go flatbed, or go home.

One tip: the manual says to scan emulsion side up. This results in the images being reversed, so I assumed it was an error. But no: I once scanned the same strip from both sides, and scanning with the emulsion up resulted in slightly sharper images. But then I discovered that doing it the right way often causes the scanner to choke a few frames into the roll. So doing it the wrong way is actually the right way, especially for Superia 400.

Harrow Technical: The Robin Gowing Interview

I’m going to detail at some point how I got embroiled with the Pentax MX, and almost escaped, and then, just when I thought I was out, got pulled back in. For now, I’ll just admit that recently I bought a particular MX knowing full well it had a problem, and planning to send it to Harrow Technical for the cure. In this manner, I reasoned, I would get the camera cheap and then end up with a perfect MX that I could trust. The devil made his usual appearance in the details, but I still ended up with a not-quite-cheap perfect MX thanks to the excellent service provide by one Robin Gowing, the man behind, or inside, Harrow Technical. (If he'd done a bad job I could have titled this post "A Harrowing Experience," but you can't have it both ways.)

 Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Who is this Jesus to my metal Lazarus? Who chooses to labor, not in the rich, loamy fields of Leica Land, but in the stony talus of Pentax? I called him to find out.

I reached him at his office in Harrow, a suburb of London. He sounds much younger than he must be, and comes across as the kind of person who might stop to help a stranded motorist, even if that motorist wasn't particularly attractive or deserving looking. And if that motorist was your daughter or mother and you tracked down Robin and tried to explain to him how grateful you were that it was him that stopped that night, he would just smile affably and suggest that it was nothing, which is what anyone would say, but he would actually believe it, which is the thing. This may be a lot to infer from a twenty minute phone call about old cameras. I'm just trying to say, he sounds like a nice guy. 

Robin began working at Pentax only a couple of years after I was born, and I am no longer particularly young. He eventually became the technical service manager for Pentax in the UK, the title he held until the company cut its internal staff loose and farmed service out to a third party. In a twist, he stayed on, occupying the building of his former employer, which today is still proudly designated “Pentax House” in large white letters. Are the halls gray lino? Do they echo with the ghosts of film's glory days? I didn't ask, and Robin didn't volunteer. In any case, he’s been repairing Pentax cameras on his own for the last 22 years, a solitary light in a vast darkness.

  Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

So Robin, how's tricks?

“I’m very busy at the moment,” he said. “I find that a lot of people who’ve bought a Pentax digital camera have sold a film camera to fund the purchase, and now they’ve gone back and bought, second hand, the film model they sold.”

What about the “film renaissance” we’re always hearing about?

“I’m certainly a lot busier than I was a couple of years ago,” he said.

And who are these people that send him their treasures for resuscitation?

“A character just came in today with an MX that he’d bought new and looked like he’d used a lot. Or somebody will just drag something out of a cupboard. And a lot of stuff is inherited from deceased parents.”

  An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

But central to Robin’s business is, of course, the entity that is the cause of and solution to so many of the problems faced by people with an unhealthy interest in old cameras.

“I find a lot of people buy stuff on eBay, and it’s not always faulty, but it always need service.”

Still, he thinks it’s a good deal.

“You can buy an MX on eBay for 50 or 60 pounds, then you factor in [my] service cost, about 80 quid, so for 140 pounds you have a camera that’s going to last you indefinitely.”

What’s coming in?

“I get a lot of MXs, LXs, any sort of Spotmatic, the KX, K2, K1000 [which he called a K-thousand – have I been saying it wrong with the one all this time?]. That’s the bulk of what I get.”

I wanted him to dish some dirt on the Pentax family, who’s made of the sternest stuff, but like a loving father, he refused to play favorites, even though he obviously prefers the star footballer.

“They’re all reliable. I still get SVs, S1As, S3s, going back to the late 50s and early 60s. I get quite a few of those from overseas, and touch wood, I’ve not had one back yet.”

I was surprised to learn that Robin doesn’t shoot film himself (“I have a Panasonic bridge camera that I use, and that’s all I use.”) but in retrospect I suppose I shouldn’t have been. He’s a tradesman, not a hobbyist or a camera fetishist. This is his job. Outside of it, he’s probably a normal person.

Robin was bullish on film in general: “It’d definitely not a flash in the pan. It’s kept me busy for 20 years, and as I said I’m busier now.” But I wondered about the future of his profession. Is there anyone to pass the baton to?

“This is a question I’m asked quite often,” he said. “There are a lot of people my age in the trade, and eventually they’re all going to retire or die off. Who’s going to replace them? They’ve got a lot of knowledge, and there’s nobody else coming into the trade, so it’s a bit of a worry really. Eventually there may be no one left to repair this old stuff.”

This strikes me as particularly true for Pentax. The high value of Leica gear justifies high service fees, which seems to feed a fairly vibrant service ecosystem. Plus, Leica itself still exists as a maker and servicer (albeit at exorbitant cost) of Leica film gear. Nikon seems to have its own world of film-era specialists, and there’s a lot of Nikon gear floating around to support. But when it comes to people who just do Pentax, I’ve only come across Harrow and one other option. Robin has heard of him, too.

“There’s a guy in the States, Eric… Hendrickson, I think? He’s very good. Apart from him, I don’t know anyone else who specializes in Pentax anywhere.”

(And yet Eric offers us hope, in an interview conducted by one K David last year: “I’m training this gal on the K1000, and she’s really good, really talented.” Can I be forgiven for imagining emergent-Jedi Rey deftly removing the top plate, guided by an old master and her innate sense of the Force?)

  A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

I asked Robin for some maintenance do’s and don’ts.

“I wish people wouldn’t squirt WD-40 into their cameras,” he said. “You’ve be surprised how often that happens and it’s a real pain to deal with. Oh, and the foam where the mirror goes up, that’ll start to disintegrate and they’ll pick and pick at it, and it’ll get all over the focusing screen. It’s a bugger to clean off, or it’s impossible. And screens aren’t available… I have to harvest them from my stock of faulty cameras, which is time-consuming.” Consider yourself warned.

I also asked him about something that I’m kind of embarrassed to have worried about: Can he tell if a camera’s been sitting on a shelf for ages with the shutter cocked?

“Yes, you can tell. It doesn’t matter so much with the ME Super [which has a metal, vertical-travel shutter] and stuff, but on the cloth shutters, you’ll see that the material will have little ridges in it because it’s been wound over the drum for twenty years.” But wait. “That in itself isn’t detrimental, it just looks unsightly, but strangely enough it doesn’t affect the shutter speeds.” So there you have it. Relax, or don’t, depending on whether or not your obsessiveness extends to the appearance of your shutter curtains.

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.