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|Written by Mike Verdone|
|Sunday, 30 November 2008 19:00|
The 2008 Calgary Digital Photography Expo was held in a giant concrete box called the Telus Convention Centre with acoustics perfectly arranged to reverberate the mic'ed presenters at the four stages such that the sound engineers kept upping the volume in a kind of sonic arms race. Feedback boomed like a ghastly foghorn whenever a trade-show star walked too close to his PA. Various dog-and-pony shows of complex technology were in progress.
Directly ahead of the entrance doors the Nikon booth was crawling with gray-bearded pros pawing at brand new top-of-the-line D3 cameras, young well-dressed art students flipping switches on D90s, and confused consumers asking about "how many times zoom" was on the point 'n’ shoots. There were lenses of incredible price all over the counter with zoom ranges of unimaginable depth and inexplicable technological features. Objects of lust were spread as far as the eye could see. The Canon counter was similarly packed, so I said, ‘Screw it,’ and decided to exercise my photographic tech pretentiousness to its fullest by going straight to the Leica booth.
In a world where gadgets and gizmos are lauded as futuristic and a sign of progress, Leica chooses to disagree. The Leica display was tastefully demure: single, suited salesman at a single glass counter with four or five cameras in it. Behind him was a simple red logo. I went straight for the big guns.
"Let me see the M8," I said coolly. The salesman slid open the case and handed a camera to me. "Right," I muttered. "How do I turn it on?"
The Leica M8 is the camera you get if you have balls the size of coconuts, photographically speaking. It has a shutter speed dial on the body, an aperture ring on the lens, and only one automatic mode that most people don't use. Leica people use manual exposure.
Its focus is also entirely manual. As a rangefinder camera, the focus you see through the viewfinder does not have anything to do with the focus of the image you take. The way it works is that you point the camera at the thing you want to focus on, and you'll see a double image in the centre of the viewfinder. You turn the focus ring until the double images merge together, at which point the image is focused. Leica people tell you this is the best way to focus and that autofocus is for wimps.
The Leica M8 emits a satisfying click when you take a photo, and there's a winding noise that isn't usually heard on non-film cameras. This noise is the M8's old-fashioned internal leaf shutter being primed for the next release. As with most digitals, the photo shows up on an LCD on the back, but the Leica's LCD screen is off-colour and near useless for picture review. Leica users don't review their photos. They're too busy dodging bullets in warzones or taking photos of rare Amazonian tree frogs before they hop off a leaf into the water. They'll review their photos when the film gets developed. Or downloaded, in the case of the M8.
The Leica M8's feature set is decidedly anti-tech. It has virtually the same set of features that can be found on my 1972 Olympus OM-1 film camera. The digital sensor was almost reluctantly mounted inside the fat Leica M body, a grudgingly added requirement to keep the M series relevant to the current photographic world.
Leica M series cameras are THE camera for serious photojournalists. Many of the lasting images of the past century were produced with Leica cameras. Robert Capa's 1936 photograph of a shot Spanish loyalist soldier was captured on a Leica. The heart-stopping photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running from her fire-bombed village was taken by AP photographer Huynh Cong 'Nick' Ut, and his M2 camera that took the photo is on permanent display at the London Science Museum in England. Wikipedia lists other influential Leica users from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Spike Jonze.
Of course, Leica cameras are quite dear to purchase. I asked the salesman how much.
"For the body today it's at a bit of a discount, about $5,200."
"Body only," I said. "No lens. How about the lens that's on it now?"
"Oh, also at a show sale price!" said the salesman, grinning. "Only $1,800."
"You're telling me you've got seven grand worth of camera sitting on the table there. That's a lot for a camera."
"It's an investment!" The salesman was gushing "It'll last you forever."
"You can hammer in nails with it. And it makes a handy step stool." With that, the salesman put the $7,000 camera on the ground and stood on it. Then he stepped off and put it back on the counter.
Walking back to the stage where a demo on product photography was about to start, I heard the camera geek pickup line, "Are you a Canon or a Nikon?" There's really no stepping outside this dichotomy if you are a Serious Photographer. If you don't shoot with either of those two revered brands of SLR camera you don't count. If you shoot a Sony, a Pentax, a Fuji, you're just consumer trash. If you shoot Leica you're a weirdo, an artist, a retired journalist, or some combination of the three. In any case, no one has any accessories to sell you.
Of course Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Panasonic, and Olympus are all at the show hawking their cameras, but the Nikonians and Canonites slide by the booths with sardonic half-smiles for the naive shoppers asking about if the cameras have a lot of "zoom." Owning a Nikon or a Canon DSLR camera grants the owner a particular kind of inflated ego.
You can only be one or the other. When a Nikonian and a Canonite meet, it's like watching two starving alley cats face off.
"My camera has way more detail in low light," challenges the Canonite.
"My colour definition is far better," responds the Nikonian.
"My lenses are cheaper!" shouts the Canonite.
"My lenses are BETTER!" screeches the Nikonian.
Despite being mostly the same, Nikon and Canon cameras are mortal enemies in the marketplace. In order to be different, slight details are reversed, such that a Nikonian will believe that the Canon lens screws in backwards and the dials turn "the wrong way," while the Canonite will feel the same horror when faced with a Nikon.
This massive divide is predicated on a simple delusion: modern camera owners ignore the fact that camera technology has not changed significantly since the first photographs by Louis Daguerre. All cameras contain ground glass lenses that focus light from outside onto a photographic medium inside a dark box. That's it. While going from film to digital and the invention of Photoshop did indeed change the world of image post-processing, it was mostly through simplification of existing photo-lab techniques and elevating the art of collage to the realm of hyper-reality. Lens design, on the other hand, hasn't changed much since basic optical principles were developed by Isaac Newton.
Subsequent camera technology innovations have been mere refinements to the principle of focused light so that things today are so close to optimal that comparing Canon to Nikon is splitting hairs.
I caught a very good talk given by a pro photographer at the Expo. The topic was bringing emotion to nature "documentary" photographs. First he dazzled us with some really great images he took, and then explained how to capture them, though his explanation was not very technical.
"You're not just taking a picture of something." he said. "You can't ask yourself, 'What do I see?' or especially not, 'Will this picture sell?' Ask yourself, 'What do I feel?' and then try and get your camera to capture that. Make your image be not what's in your eye, but what's in your soul."
While he did go through techniques involving lenses and camera settings, every photographic trick he explained could be easily performed with an all-manual camera produced circa 1970. Not a word was said about modern features like matrix metering or autofocus.
* * *
While it's tempting to argue that today's successful photographers are merely too old-school to embrace the exotic features of modern cameras and we'll have a revolution in the art of photography when the kids are united, there is another interpretation that avoids casting skilled photographers as incompetent Luddites. Perhaps these futuristic camera features are not as useful as one imagines. Perhaps they are actually restrictive. They are gadgets and gizmos not tools.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard had a lot to say about gadgets, gizmos, and tools. His 1968 book The System of Objects gives a thorough analysis of the nature of all the objects in our lives, from tables and chairs to ultrasonic dishwashers and digital watches, the whole analysis couched in extremely long words (Baudrillard repeatedly uses the phrase "syntagmatic calculation" to describe rearranging the furniture in your living room).
A gizmo, according to Baudrillard, is what you get when a culture fetishizes a tool. It is an object or feature of an object that solves some need though the user of the object cannot articulate precisely what that need is. Doesn't that perfectly describe the modern camera with its 40-point matrix metering mode (with face detection), low-dispersion nano-coated lens elements, and auto-bracketing multiple exposure features? While each of these attributes does solve some specific need, very few camera users can explain them. Even if they can, it takes paragraphs of text to get the point across.
On a similar bent, Baudrillard talks about "gadgets" being objects whose additional features are so specific that they get in the way of the proper functioning of the object. Quoth Baudrillard in describing gadgets, "No true innovation is to be seen, but by juggling stereotyped techniques objects are created that are at once incredibly specific in their function and absolutely useless." This reminds me of a camera whose basic function - to take a picture -overwhelms the user, forcing him or her to select from ten automatic picture-taking modes in order to get a decent image, and afterwards leading him or her to inquire, "Did the flash go?" Who knows! Was it supposed to? What mode is it in?
But why are such complicated baubles developed? Baudrillard channels Freud and insists on a phallic interpretation such that all of these features imbue a tool with a kind of energy and vigour that is a reflection of sexual prowess. I can't fully outline Baudrillard's argument, but I will note that men vastly outnumbered women at the photo expo. I imagine that while we men were all crammed together pawing at photo-toys a number of content women were outside in the summer sun actually taking wonderful photos.
I will also note that on a few occasions I've compared zoom lenses with those of friends to see whose lens is longest at full extension. Ahem.
* * *
Where does this put Leica? In its eschewing of nearly all forms of gadgetry the Leica brand exudes maturity and toughness. It is a brand for those who know exactly what they want from a camera. Leica is not, however, completely perfect in this regard for pure functionality: their high price mark-up creates unusual lust for their cameras.
Inhabiting another extreme is the Holga. This is a camera designed and built as cheaply as possible in the former USSR. Thus, it does not work very well. Its focus ring does not show distance in metres but shows a face, a few people standing around, and some trees to signify near, medium, and far focus respectively. The aperture is fixed, and the shutter speed is selectable between "fast" and "slow."
The Holga is not a digital camera. It doesn't even have the decency to support 35mm film which can still be bought and developed at your local Wal-Mart. No, the Holga takes 120mm film which produces a much larger negative. This film is harder to find, costs significantly more, and nobody will develop it for you. You're expected to soup it in your bathroom with the lights out praying your significant other doesn't open the door, ruining your twelve-image, seven-dollar roll.
In short, the Holga is a camera for masochists. It is a reactionary object that sniffs haughtily at modern gadget-laden cameras. No surprise that it is favoured by the white-belt-wearing, tight-jean-clad, thick-rimmed-glasses Hipster set. Using a Holga is like painting without a brush. It's hard to do, but, if you succeed, those in the know will give you extra props.
Can the camera ever be considered merely a tool instead of a lusted-for object? The issue is not the camera but our feelings toward it, and it's natural for those who spend so much money and so much time working with a particular object to become emotionally involved with it. Still, if we work hard, perhaps we can forget our idolatry and use the camera for its intended purpose: taking worthwhile pictures.