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Posted April 20, 2017 by Aaron Brethorst
This is a short paper I wrote for a History of Photography class I took last winter. Formal analyses describe art through the forms that we can see within them. Eugene Richards is a documentary photographer with a career that spans decades. His work is receiving its first museum retrospective this summer at Eastman House in Rochester, NY.
Eugene Richards, Exhausted, still wearing his mask, a firefighter sits alone in the rubble, November 11, 2001, from Stepping Through the Ashes
In this black and white photograph, a solitary man sits on a metal girder surrounded by clouds of gas or steam, rubble, twisted pieces of metal, and three excavators. The silhouetted man sits on a bent girder atop a pile of twisted metal beams and rubble. The man wears a gas mask that obscures his features, a firefighter’s jacket, and is holding a helmet. Based on the presented visual cues, we can assume that the man is a firefighter.
The photograph, viewed at Photographic Center Northwest, appears to be about 16x20" in size. It is printed on a smooth, glossy paper and appears to be a gelatin silver print. It is matted with white mat board and housed in an unadorned black frame. The photograph has a visible film grain structure that resembles popular reportage films, like Kodak Tri-X.
Very few assumptions can be made about the location of the image from information within it, but the accompanying label describes it as being the World Trade Center wreckage in New York City two months after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
This picture features a deep depth of field, with its foreground, middle ground, and background all in focus. Several elements within the frame conspire to move the viewer's eye towards the figure at the center, especially the silhouetted excavator in the foreground and the highlighted bent piece of metal on the center-right. The contrast between the middle ground and background further draws the viewer’s eye to the silhouetted figure. Clearly, we are meant to survey this scene, see what the firefighter sees, and feel a sense of loss.
The photograph is visually very dark and has a somber, funereal feel. The firefighter in the center is sitting on a bent girder from one of the World Trade Center towers, destroyed in the worst terrorist attacks on United States soil in history. The viewer may reasonably assume that the firefighter lost friends or even family members in the attacks, as 411 emergency workers in total died. The body language of the firefighter echoes how the photographer must have felt amidst the wreckage. The firefighter’s solitary respite underscores the sense of loss and death that permeates the image. The masked features of the firefighter serves both as a chilling reminder of the deadly nature of the site, and allows us to project ourselves into his position, imagining how he must have felt in the moment.
Our vantage point places us above the wreckage, allowing us to look down on the firefighter. This allows us to better survey the extent of the devastation and makes him appear physically small. His small stature speaks to his powerlessness and loss, and inability to control global events. The photographer did a masterful job of visually representing the pain he must have felt on that day in November.
Posted February 17, 2015 by Aaron Brethorst
One of my favorite pithy statements is that words mean things. Too often, I believe that we neglect to consider that what we say and how we say it can have an impact on others and their perception of us, or even the world around us. Similarly, our photographs can and do mean things, in many cases without our intent. But, most often, it is our intentional creations that carry the greatest meaning. In thinking about this, I’m struck by Susan Sontag’s words in On Photography1 where she describes the nature of casual photographs: “an unassuming functional snapshot may be as visually interesting, as eloquent, as beautiful as the most acclaimed fine-art photographs.”2 I believe that Sontag is correct, however I must disagree with her about the nature of the word ‘snapshot.’ To me, a snapshot is a photograph captured without any intention, thought, or purpose beyond a simple documentary capture of the moment, whereas she seems to characterize snapshots as being the province of the amateur.
Facebook today stores more photographs than have ever been created on film. According to Mary Meeker, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, over 1.8 billion photos were uploaded to the Internet every day in 20143. It's not possible for every one of these photos to be good, but that is not to say that every photograph we post to Instagram or Facebook is inherently devoid of meaning. In his 1952 essay, Exploratory Camera, Minor White defended the value of the “miniature camera” from its detractors, saying “The [miniature] camera as a research tool brings the accident, happy or otherwise, into control,” contrasting it with the view camera, which “is more polite…[snatching] the moment of vision, [and giving] evidence of ordered thinking.” Notably, though, he did not excuse these differences as being a reason to create bad photographs: “These machine gun tactics are kept from deteriorating into sloppy seeing by disciplining every frame of a roll to the best the eye can see,”4 which is a sentiment that I think applies to all of our digital creations. Too many DSLR owners pride themselves on being able to fill a 64GB memory card with their cameras’ 7 frame per second (FPS) burst modes, only to consign thousands of nearly identical snapshots to the digital dustbins of iPhoto or Picasa, while iPhone shooters have the ignominious distinction of being able to create badly lit and poorly composed photographs of their dinners at up to 240 FPS. And yet, Instagram-snapped photographs have graced the front page of the New York Times at least twice5.
Much like in Minor White’s day, we shouldn’t dismiss a photographic method or medium simply because it’s different than what came before it. In fact, what surprised me the most about reading Exploratory Camera was that you could effectively substitute in “Instagram” or “Snapchat” for every mention of the 35mm camera, and the essay would be completely relevant and up-to-date. Despite the fact that I love creating photographs on film, I sometimes worry that I value cranking my camera’s film advance lever and agitating my Acros 100 in HC-110 1:62 just right more than I do creating photographs of worth. This raises two very relevant questions: first, what creates value in a photograph, and second, just what is a photograph, anyway?
An apocryphal story about Pablo Picasso relates of an occasion when a woman approached him for a drawing. He dashed out a scribble and told her it would cost $5,000. “But sir,” she sputtered, “it only took you a second to draw it.” “No madam,” he replied, “it took me a lifetime.” So perhaps one could draw the conclusion that value in art is determined by the amount of experience and skill possessed by its creator. But, that doesn’t seem right, especially given that many notable artists, like Van Gogh or Vivian Maier, were only recognized posthumously. A decomposing shark in a tank takes essentially no effort or skill to create, outside of the logistical skills necessary to acquire a dead shark and the chutzpah necessary to convince well-heeled art collectors that it is an ‘object of significance.’6 But yet, such an object can sell for millions of dollars! So, I cannot—in good faith—claim that the value of a piece of art, such as a photograph, is determined by its monetary worth or the artistic skill of its creator. Perhaps, instead, the value of art is determined by its ability to make us feel something.
When I stare at an Ansel Adams print, I am overcome by the beauty, majesty, and grandeur of the natural world; Edward Weston’s photographs speaks to the sensuous nature of the world around us; Alec Soth’s photographs speak to a sense of loneliness and adventure. Each of these artists make me feel something, which, I think, is what defines value in a photograph—or art in general—for me.
Having established a reasonable definition for “value,” let us turn our attention to the word “photograph.” In an untitled 1952 essay, Henri Cartier-Bresson defined photography as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”7 It seems reasonable to also claim that photography is the act of creating a photograph, which—I believe—makes it safe to say that a (good or great) photograph is the end product of Cartier-Bresson’s definition of photography. Notably, nothing in that definition speaks to the method of creation of the photograph or the medium on which the latent image is stored, and nor should it. Much like White’s valiant defense of the 35mm format in the same year, I believe becoming mired in arguments about what constitutes a valid form of visual expression is unnecessary, tedious, and counterproductive to what should be every photographers’ true goal for new practitioners of their craft: helping novices discover the passion that they have already discovered, regardless of the exact form that the nascent expression may take.
We, as photographers, would be far better served helping the hundreds of millions of people with cameraphones learn how to better express themselves visually than we are bickering about Canon vs. Nikon8, film vs. digital, or miniature vs. large format. One of the best ways to help the typical photographer9 become better at our craft is by helping them become better at understanding the photographs they make and see. This process of understanding the content, context, and message of a photograph is referred to as ‘visual literacy.’ The definition of visual literacy that I find most understandable and directly applicable to my work comes from Hesford and Brueggemann, who describe it as being part of a “rhetorical triangle,”10 which asks its appliers to analyze an image in terms of the equally weighted concepts of “Subject/Content,” “Audience/Content,” and “Perspective.”
Hesford and Brueggemann describe Subject/Content as everything that appears within the image: the subjects; the contents of the frame; the use of color, light, and shadow; and the story told through the photograph. Audience/Content requests that you consider both the historical and cultural context in which the photograph was created, and the context in which the photograph is being viewed. Finally, Perspective refers to the creator’s framing of their photograph: what angle or perspective did they choose for their subject? What did they choose to include in the frame, and what speculations or inferences can you make about what they left out?
Reading photographs through a lens like the one described above gives us the ability to extract those oft-mentioned ‘thousand words’ from a photograph whether or not its creator gave any thought to how the photograph would be interpreted. Intentionality on the part of the creator assists us in properly placing a photograph within broader semiotic, cultural, and historical contexts, but we can read even a casual cameraphone snapshot. To take an example from the top of my Instagram feed, consider a photograph of an empty chair with a coat slung over the back of it, with a drink on the table in front of it. The subject matter the photographer has chosen to represent depicts an enjoyable experience. (I’m out and having fun with a friend!) The non-surreptitious angle that the photograph was shot at, and the color of the coat give us insight into cultural mores that apply to the photographer. (Consumption of alcohol is acceptable, as is being with a woman in public and taking photographs—unlike in some cultures, like Afghanistan under Taliban rule.11) Both of these suppositions are further underscored by the casual nature of the snapshot and its lack of intentionality. The photograph represents a pleasant event in the day-to-day life of the photographer, without him trying to make a broader political, cultural, or social statement. Although it’s far easier to infer the meaning and context of a photograph when the photographer metaphorically assaults us with it, even a snapshot can speak volumes if only we choose to listen.
Speaking of Sontag, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to complain about her statement that “the person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.” This is, in a word, bullshit, as demonstrated by the story behind Nick Ut’s famous 1972 photograph, retroactively dubbed Napalm Girl, where he took the photo, and then rushed the young girl to a hospital in Saigon, simultaneously saving her life and changing American discourse around the war. Sontag was clearly aware of the photograph, given that she mentions it on page 18 of On Photography. ↩
Sontag, Susan. “On Photography.” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 103. ↩
White, Minor. “Exploratory Camera: A Rationale for the Miniature Camera.” Aperture, 1, no. 1, 1952. ↩
I feel better about Damien Hirst if I pretend that he is a performance artist whose work centers around bullshitting rich people. ↩
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. Ed. Traub, Heller, and Bell. “Education of a Photographer.” Allworth Press: New York, 2006. p. 21 ↩
Not to mention that the obvious answer is, in fact, Fuji. ↩
In other words, someone equipped with a cameraphone. Ironically, as I wrote this part on my iPad while sitting at a bar, the person two stools down from me kept taking photographs of their sushi on an iPhone with the built-in flash. I’m sure their photographs look terrible, and will never be paid any heed after the initial flurry of Facebook or Instagram likes dies off. ↩
Hesford, Wendy and Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. “Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture,” Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2006 ↩
See Lynsey Addario’s “It's What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War” for more on this. ↩
Posted February 02, 2015 by Aaron Brethorst
I want to tell you about how I ended up purchasing a Hasselblad medium format camera, why I decided to buy one, why you might want to consider doing the same, and how to go about selecting one for yourself. The first time you see a 6x6cm negative will be a revelation: you'll be hard-pressed to ever shoot anything smaller, digital or film. And heaven help us if you decide to shoot slide film; I sold my Canon 5D Mark II after looking at my first sleeve of medium format slides.
Unlike 35mm cameras, there's no clear definition of what constitutes a medium format camera. For our purposes, it's easiest to think of it as being any camera that shoots 120 format roll film. Beyond medium format, you can also choose to purchase a large format camera, which will use individual sheets of film in sizes like 4x5", 5x7", or even 8x10". I think medium format cameras are awesome because they occupy a sweet spot in terms of portability and image quality. Unlike a large format camera, you can easily haul a Hasselblad around for casual shooting, just like a 35mm film camera, but the medium format camera will produce significantly better images than what you can get from a 35mm negative.
In Spring 2014, I'd been shooting with film cameras again for about five months. I'd purchased a Leica M6 and, although I loved it, I was interested in literally stepping up my film photography in a big way with a medium format camera. Hasselblad's V series camera system (which, for the purposes of this discussion, are all of the 500-503 series cameras) seemed like the perfect camera for me: they're relatively lightweight; they carry an amazing, historic pedigree; and their optics, supplied exclusively by Carl Zeiss are absolutely top-notch. The album art for Abbey Road? Hasselblad. Platon's amazing, luminous celebrity portraits? Hasselblad. You know those photos you've seen of Buzz Aldrin on the moon? Hasselblad.
I spent weeks researching my options, finally selecting the relatively new Hasselblad 501CM with a Zeiss Planar 80mm lens. I was able to purchase the entire system for about $1000, which seems like an amazing deal given that a similar setup would have cost several thousand dollars only ten years ago.
One common misconception I see is medium format film, or 120 film, described as 120mm. The film doesn't actually have a 120mm diagonal, but a 6x6cm negative is still about 4 times the size of a 35mm negative. Enlarging a medium format negative is significantly easier than enlarging an equivalent 35mm negative: dust problems are attenuated, grain is minimized, and the quality of the negative itself is just unreal. 3200 DPI scans of your 6x6cm negatives are the same size as the RAW files from a 50 megapixel digital camera.
One interesting note about medium format film is that you use the exact same film with a 6x4.5cm camera (normally referred to as 645), 6x6cm, 6x7cm (similar to the 645, this is referred to as 67), or even 6x9cm and 6x12cm. The only thing that changes between these cameras is the number of exposures you can create per roll. 645 gives you a generous 16(!) images per roll of film; the Hasselblad's square 6x6 format gives you a not-unreasonable 12 frames, and Mamiya's utterly monstrous RZ67 will let you create 10 remarkable photographs per roll. 6x9 and 6x12 cameras produce even fewer frames per roll. If you're coming from digital photography, the idea of being limited to 12 shots per roll may sound absurd, but it quickly becomes second nature. The 24 to 36 photographs afforded to you on a roll of 35mm film quickly seems luxurious, and you begin wondering why you wasted ten extra dollars buying a 64GB memory card for your digital camera when 4GB would've been more than sufficient.
Hasselblads are large and fairly heavy. Unless your standard photography kit contains a Canon 5D Mark III and a 24-70L, lugging around a Hasselblad will mean that you're carrying around several pounds more than you're used to. Additionally, Hasselblad V series cameras don't have built-in light meters, which means you'll also need to purchase and carry a handheld light meter. Finally, swapping film rolls 'in the field' can be a laborious process, requiring either a place to set down gear or an extra pair of hands.
All that said, if you do choose to purchase a Hasselblad (and I think you should), you'll be opening yourself up to creating breaktakingly large, detailed, and beautiful photographs, and making yourself a part of one of the greatest legacies in photography.
Check back soon as I describe the constituent parts of the Hasselblad V Series camera system, and tell you how to assemble your own Hasselblad camera system. I'll walk you through everything you'll need to produce beautiful images, tell you what I bought (and why), and give you some ideas about what equipment might be appropriate for you.
Please feel free to comment with any questions or feedback you may have!
Posted October 29, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
Inner World by Aaron Brethorst. Leica M6, Zeiss Planar 50mm. Tri-X 400 in D-76.
I woke up one day last September with an unshakeable need to own a Leica M. I hadn't shot a roll of film in over fifteen years, but something had grabbed me, and wouldn't let go until I had one. I knew that I could buy a Canon or Nikon SLR for a tenth of the price of a used Leica, but that didn't really matter. After a month of scouring eBay, I found an M6 in great shape for $950. Afterwards, I became interested in understanding what it was about the Leica M and Leica itself that had led me to spend so much on money on a 30 year old film camera, what made Leica unique, how they managed to create such a dedicated cult following, and why they charged such ludicrous premiums over their competitors.
What I discovered was a luxury goods maker—more akin to Louis Vuitton or Hermès—than the design-obsessed, premium consumer electronics company I had expected. I also learned the tragic history of a company that had, for decades, managed to succeed in spite of itself. One that had twice fallen prey to the Innovator's Dilemma, where a once-dominant company ignores a disruptive innovation in their market, and ends up ceding leadership as the new technology becomes mainstream.
"What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
Gruber goes on to make the obvious comparison:
That’s what the iPhone and iPad are like. There are hundreds of millions of people who have bought these products, and they now own the best phones and tablets in the world. A few years ago at SXSW in Austin, I saw Michael Dell waiting outside a restaurant. The thought that popped into my head: He’s a billionaire, but I know for a fact that I have a better phone than he does. Not everyone can afford an iPhone, not by a long shot, but everyone who can knows they’re getting the best phone in the world.
If you're in a position where you can afford a smartphone (likely everyone reading this), you're in a position to own an iPhone. Maybe not the latest and greatest model, but the iPhones that are offered for $0 under contract are certainly no slouches. And, for what it's worth, I agree wholeheartedly with John Gruber: the iPhone is the best phone you can buy. However, I have to disagree with a comparison that Steve Jobs once made: the iPhone is nothing like a Leica.
When the iPhone 4 shipped, you could buy one under contract for $199 or $299. You know what you can buy from Leica for the same price as that high-end iPhone 4? A handgrip. If you want to be picky and instead look at the iPhone's no-contract pricing, you might be able to find a used Leica M4 for the same amount. Leica is not a brand that caters to any notion of affordable luxury. But, here's the fascinating thing: this has not always been the case. Some time in the past, Leica morphed from a maker of beautiful, expertly crafted tools priced competitively for professionals into something indistinguishable from a high-end handbag maker.
I love my Leica M6: it's a beautiful camera, it helps me make great photographs, it's incredibly quiet, and it successfully brought me back into film photography. There's no arguing that there's something special about the industrial design and quality of Leica's M cameras and lenses. And yet, I mounted a used 50mm Zeiss Planar on my Leica, as I couldn't imagine I'd get four times the image quality from a Summicron. Still, I feel a twinge of poseurness from using an 'inauthentic' lens with my M6.
A common refrain I hear from Leica true believers is that Leica lenses have never been 'cheap.' They've always been the best equipment that money could buy, and have always been priced accordingly. However, this is patently false.
Photographers used Leica rangefinders because they were small, and light and offered a full system of lenses and accessories. Leitz optics were no better than its competitor Zeiss, and often not as good as the upstart Nikkor optics discovered by photojournalists during the Korean War...What made the ‘Leica mystique’, the reason why people like Jacques Lartigue, Robert Capa, HCB, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz used a Leica, was because it was the smallest, lightest, best built and most functional 35mm camera system then available. It wasn’t about the lenses.
— "Leica Photography" Is Dead. Leica Killed It, Leicaphilia
Rewind 60 years, and you'll find that Leica cameras and lenses, although never cheap, were not always priced as luxury goods. Bob Cole on Rangefinderforum posted a price list dating back to October 1954, and what it contains is quite revealing:
Leica M3 without lens - $288.00 [$2,548.44 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with 50mm Elmar ƒ/3.5 lens - $348.00 [$3,079.36 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with 50mm Summicron ƒ/2.0 lens - $447.00 [$3,955.39 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with 50mm Summarit ƒ/1.5 lens - $468.00 [$4,141.21 in 2014 dollars]
Ten years later (May 1964), despite better lenses, prices had actually declined!
Leica M3 without lens - $297.00 [$2,280.49 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with 50mm Elmar ƒ/2.8 lens - $363.00 [$2,787.27 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with rigid 50mm Summicron ƒ/2.0 lens - $447.00 [$3,432.25 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M3 with 50mm Summilux ƒ/1.4 lens - $513.00 [$3,939.03 in 2014 dollars]
In 1972, the Leica M5 with its questionable aesthetics was the latest M camera available. Its price was beginning to trend upwards:
Leica M5 with ƒ/2 lens [focal length not specified] — $849.00 [$4,834.65 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M5 with ƒ/1.4 lens [focal length not specified] — $948.00 [$5,398.41 in 2014 dollars]
By the end of 1987, Leica prices had skyrocketed:
Leica M6 without lens — $3,375.00 [$7,071.78 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M6 with 50mm ƒ/2.0 lens — $4,305.00 [$9,020.45 in 2014 dollars]
Leica M6 with 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens — $5,535.00 [$11,597.73 in 2014 dollars]
For comparison, the Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-105L lens costs about $4,000 today. A Fuji X100T, a small rangefinder-styled digital camera with a sharp 35mm-equivalent Fujinon lens, costs $1,300. But, a new Leica M-P with a 50mm lens will set you back almost $8,000, even if you choose the budget Leica lens.
Leica M-P without lens — $7,950.00
Leica M-P with 50mm Summarit-M ƒ/2.5 lens — $9,589.00
Leica M-P with 50mm Summicron ƒ/2.0 lens — $10,300.00
Leica M-P with 50mm Summilux ƒ/1.4 lens — $11,945.00
(Prices from B&H; current as of November 16, 2014.)
Recently I created an interactive timeline that depicts every Leica M camera ever released. It ended up being far more popular than I expected, and became one of the most popular articles that day on Hacker News, a news and discussion website for the software and startup community that I participate in. One comment on Hacker News in particular caught my eye, as it jives with much that I've discovered about Leica:
I don't really think [Fuji and Sony] usurped Leica's market. Leica's market changed a while back.
Sometime, a decade or more past, Leica became the equivalent of Louis Vuitton or Rolex. It's a luxury item. Like a LV bag, is still a really well-made tool, but functionality is only secondary. The actual capabilities are less important than the ideas of craftsmanship and exclusivity.
— mattgrice, October 26, 2014
Relatedly, as I had been composing the timeline, this particular nugget on Leica's website about their new Leica M-P camera caught my eye:
"For connoisseurs who appreciate the details."
Not photographers, artists, photo-journalists, makers, or creators, but "connoisseurs." As if the Leica M was less a means to capture the decisive moment, and more of a status symbol. An adornment that wouldn't look out of place alongside a pair of bespoke Earnest Sewn jeans, or an oenophile's $200 bottle of wine. Not a tool, but a logo with which to adorn and differentiate yourself from the hoi polloi, and their Canons and Nikons.
In an era when full-size cameras are supposedly becoming obsolete, stars advertise their cognoscenti credentials by being seen with [a Leica M camera,] a war horse of 20th-century photography that many design fans now embrace as an art object, one that you seemingly need a movie star’s budget to afford.
— Alex Williams, "Click if You Can Afford It", The New York Times, September 19, 2012
The M3 was Leica's best-selling camera of all time, with over 225,000 of the rangefinders sold from 1954-1966. In comparison, Canon's AE-1 SLR saw over 1 million sales. One could argue that Leica and the Apple of the mid-1990s have many similarities: a dedicated but dwindling fan base, serious hardware issues, and products that are wildly overpriced in comparison to the competition. Apple was able to pull itself out of this tailspin through the monomaniacal focus of a visionary founder who was willing to sacrifice certain beliefs the faithful had long held dear, and who made a return to making fantastic products at a premium but not unattainable pricepoint his centerpiece goal.
Source: Leica Camera annual financial reports. n.b. the conversion rate between Deutsche Marks and Euros is approximately 1.96:1, hence the seemingly precipitous drop in revenue between FY98/99 and FY99/00. Even though the Euro didn't replace the DM until 2002, the annual financial reports I was able to dig up for Leica converted some, but not all, of their older financial reports into Euros.
Now, to be fair, we don't have access to Leica's finances since the company exited the public markets in 2012, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe that they've made great strides in overall marketshare in the past few years, given their "for connoisseurs" positioning, and that they were "looking to increase [their] market share to 1% of the global camera market" as recently as late 2011. You might point to the major jump in revenue and profits in 2010/2011 as evidence that their cameras are selling better relative to the competition, but, as it turns out, their 2010/2011 annual financial report specifically credits the end of the global economic downturn of 2008 and brand-licensing as two major drivers:
Marketing the licence rights and rights of use for the »Leica« brand and the related product names also represents a significant source of revenue.
Can you imagine Apple licensing its brand assets to other companies in order to bolster revenue?
During the first forty years of its existence, Leica stood out as the symbol of technological excellence in photography...But Leica ended up paying a heavy price for its long-lived dominance. Its problem was diagnosed years later by one of Leica's marketing executives as follows: "The company is too proud of its history and forgets all about the present and the future."
— Dr. Steven Schnaars, "Managing Imitation Strategies", p. 49
Apple's iPhone 6 marketing copy talks extensively about the beauty and design of the product, but it is also very clear that form follows function. The iPhone is designed to be used: to connect us, to entertain us, and to inform us. Despite some people's comparisons of iPhones and Leicas, I think the analogy is inapt. Leica instead positions themselves along the lines of a luxury watchmaker.
Leica's products were originally designed to be used. Take a look at photos of Cartier-Bresson's Leicas, or his favored collapsible 50mm Summicron. They were never babied or treated as collector's items. They show the brassing that you'd expect from a tool used extensively by a master craftsman. This was true not just for Cartier-Bresson, but also for all of his contemporaries. They chose Leica cameras because they were the best tool for the job at hand. But, at some point along the way, Leica stopped focusing on the next generation of photo-journalists and -enthusiasts and, instead, doubled down on catering to those who fetishized the Leica mystique.
By the end of the 1950s, Japanese camera companies, like Asahi (later Pentax), Canon, Nikon, and Yashica, were releasing advanced SLR cameras at a furious pace, culminating in the near-complete abandonment of their rangefinder designs by the mid-1960s. Leica missed the initial transition, and finally responded with the inferior and expensive Leicaflex.
The Leicaflex series never sold well, and its failure led to Leica collaborating with Minolta in the early 1970s on the Leica R series SLR. The first product shipped as part of this collaboration was the Leica R3, which sold well enough to save Leica in the face of the disastrous sales of the M5 and Leicaflex cameras. The R series collaboration was soon marred, though, by reliability issues with the R4 camera. Meanwhile, sales of Leica's increasingly expensive cameras were continuing to trend downwards at an alarming rate, with Leica selling fewer than 25,000 per year at the end of the 1980s in comparison to Minolta's 2.5 million units sold. Leica continued raising their prices to offset their decreasing number of sales, a vicious cycle that continues today.
In 1996, Leica introduced an incredibly expensive, commercially limited, but wildly innovative digital camera called the S1. Fewer than 200 of the cameras were produced in total, which isn't too surprising, given that they cost upwards of $30,000, required a continuous lighting source, and took upwards of 3 minutes to capture a photograph due to the scanning back. But, the camera was still years ahead of its time, and was not replaced with another Leica-made digital camera for a decade.
Wouldn't you by [sic] the D-Lux 5 rather than the DMC-LX5 if they were the same price?
In lieu of improving the S1 and making it more suitable for a mass market audience, Leica instead rebadged a consumer-level Fujifilm camera as the Leica Digilux. The partnership didn't pan out, and Leica later opted to use Panasonic as their digital camera OEM instead of Fujifilm. The problem with all of these cameras is that—despite their Leica brand cachet—they performed identically to the much lower-priced consumer-level digital cameras to which they owed their heritage, thereby simultaneously eroding the value of the Leica brand and denying Leica's engineers much-needed expertise in creating digital cameras. It took Leica until late 2006 to introduce even a flawed M mount digital camera, by which point over 4 million DSLRs were being sold per year.
Today, the only thing saving Leica from becoming a historical footnote is their continued reliance on their coterie of die-hard collector enthusiasts.
'Collectors,' the sort of people who would buy a titanium MP, aren’t buying one so they can use it to take pictures. You’re not going to see a stubbled photojournalist pulling one from a beat up rucksack in some third world hot spot... But...Being old enough to remember when beat up Leicas were routinely pulled out of rucksacks in third world hot spots, I’m still emotionally married to the idea of the Leica as a functioning photographic tool...[Even] more depressing, go over to Rangefinder Forum or your favorite photo forum and join the discussion about which bag goes best with your M240 and attached Noctilux; while there, you can post pictures of your cat taken at full aperture.
– Leicaphilia - For Just $40,000 You Can Photograph Your Cat With a Titanium MP
Today, Leica is seemingly profitable, but—instead of being the world's #1 maker of cameras, a title that, notably, would go to Apple or Samsung—they managed to miss tectonic shifts in their industry twice, first with the SLR transition of the 1950s and 1960s, and second with the digital transition in the early 2000s. Most companies are destroyed by a single disruptive innovation in their industry, and it's incredibly rare to see a company survive two. Despite my feelings about those who buy into the "Leica Mystique," the truth is that these are the people who have enabled Leica to keep trying to find its way, 60 years after reaching their zenith.
I'd love to see Leica become a more mainstream camera company, but I find it hard to believe that—as long as they depend on catering to an elite audience that is more interested in looking cool than capturing the decisive moment—that they will be able to find their way.
Posted October 26, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
Leica's flagship M series was the iconic 35mm film camera of the 20th century. They were used by some of the best photographers who have ever lived, feature beautiful industrial design, and are unobtrusive enough to go just about anywhere. I've made an interactive timeline that depicts how the Leica M has evolved over the last 60 years.
Posted October 20, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I ordered a copy of Ansel Adams' wonderful book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs from Amazon last week for the princely sum of $8.07. As the name implies, the book consists of forty photographs of Adams', along with a narrative describing the how's, what's, why's, and where's of each photo. The book is fantastic, and—if you haven't read it—I highly recommend picking up a copy.
One thing that surprised about reading the book was the amount of invective and disdain present for William Mortensen and the Pictorialist movement:
[T]he incredibly bad taste of [William Mortensen's] photographs smothered, for us, the validity of his contributions to the craft. In 1932, the two extremes of West Coast photography were [Edward] Weston and Mortensen.
— Ansel Adams, Examples, and later reprinted in Popular Photography, August 1983
Pictorialism was the dominant movement in photography from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was characterized by its soft focus and manipulation of its contents. Pictorialists would modify the tones and surfaces of their prints with brushes, inks and pigments.
Photography's acceptance as a 'legitimate' form of art was driven in part by the work of Alfred Stieglitz, a notable early Pictorialist, fixture of the New York photography scene in the early 20th century, and later the husband of Georgia O'Keeffe. Ironically, when they first met, O'Keeffe had no interest in Stieglitz, and was, instead, intensely attracted to Paul Strand, the photographer who was instrumental in Adams' conversion to "straight photography." Eventually, Strand lost interest in O'Keeffe, and she ended up marrying Stieglitz.
To be fair to Stieglitz, his interest in Pictorialism waned in the 1910s, and he stepped away from his Pictorialism-promoting movement, Photo-Secession, as his relationships to a more modern photographic aesthetic and Georgia O'Keeffe both waxed. Interestingly, Adams had a huge amount of respect for Stieglitz, "whose work and philosophy Adams most admired and whose life of commitment to the medium he consciously emulated."
By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen were shedding Pictorial photography's painterly facade in order to promote an unvarnished display of the medium's natural strength—namely, its capacity for producing a truthful rendering of abstract form and tonal variation in the real world. — Pictorialism in America
A few years after Stieglitz stepped away from Pictorialism, a young William Mortensen embraced the aesthetic as he learned photography from Arthur Kales, a lawyer who shot Pictorialist portraits of many early Hollywood stars.
William Mortensen and Ansel Adams' careers took off at approximately the same time in the late 1920s and 1930s. By then, Adams had been "converted" from his earlier dabbling with pictorialism, which can be attributed to his interactions with Paul Strand, as described in these videos:
As Adams became an increasingly vehement supporter of photographic 'realism', and cofounded Group f/64, Mortensen became progressively better-known for his "grotesque," and "erotic" photography (link is NSFW'ish). Mortensen was incredibly popular, with a series of bestselling photography books, a regular column in the LA Times, and work published in Vanity Fair.
But, between the natural ebbing of artists' support for Pictorialism, and the hard-line promotion of the 'real' by the Group f/64 upstarts, Mortensen's craft was delegitimized in critical circles, and Mortensen himself was almost entirely written out of photographic history:
The critics Beaumont Newhall and his wife Nancy held the same view: Beaumont consciously excluded Mortensen from his grandiosely titled 1949 book The History of Photography, From 1839 to the Present Day. Their distaste would not even allow them to acknowledge Mortensen’s mastery of his craft, although Adams would later concede he was "embarrassed" to find out Mortensen had "anticipated some of my pet ideas of technique: controlled exposure and development of the negative". The critic AJ Coleman even contends that Adams’s "zone system" for exposure was taken largely from articles written by John L Davenport, who himself relied greatly on Mortensen. Even after Mortensen’s death in 1965 from leukaemia, Group f/64 and their flunkies the Newhalls could not stop talking of their loathing for him. Beaumont described his work as "perverse"; Willard Van Dyke, a founder of Group f/64, said "his work was disgusting"; and Adams summed him up with the words, "For us, he was the antichrist."
— William Mortensen: photographic master at the monster’s ball, Chris Campion, The Guardian
Of course, history has a funny way of repeating itself. I've never run across any writings by Ansel Adams on Andy Warhol, but I'm sure he would've grumbled something about Warhol's perversion of photography. And today, our art is overrun by Photoshopping; websites like Phlearn will teach you everything you need to know about mastering retouching and compositing techniques that would have caused Mortensen to cry bromoil tears of jealousy.
As far as I'm concerned, I think that the claims of purity and authenticity championed by the f/64 camp are overblown. Adams loved using deep-red filters that turned his skies black. You can see marked differences in prints of "Moonrise Hernandez" made from the 1940s to the 1970s that belie any notion of the photographic negative as a source of canonical truth. Furthermore, I think that many of Mortensen's works are objectively stunning. Perhaps not as 'straight' photographs (whatever that means), but simply as works of art.
A photograph, despite what many will claim, is not and cannot be an objective source of truth. Brooks Jensen, editor of LensWork, put it quite aptly in his book Letting Go of the Camera: "The idea that photography is truthful is certainly false. You need only search for Ansel Adams' Yosemite. Trust me, I've been there, and it exists only in his pictures."
Posted October 18, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I saw a great article over on Japan Camera Hunter the other day about the best film cameras you can buy for under $79. I love the level of detail and care that Bellamy put into his guide, but I thought it would be fun to take it one step further: a complete camera kit with a body, lens, a roll of black and white and color film, and film developing for $200 or less.
Maybe you've been shooting digital for a while, and want to make a jump into film, or perhaps you're looking for an awesome Christmas present for the avid photographer in your life. I know that I would've been delighted a couple years back to receive a film camera with everything I needed to start shooting immediately.
In order to get started with film photography, you'll need a handful of pieces of gear: a camera body, a lens, possibly a battery, and a roll of film. I'll talk about each in turn, and give you some thoughts on what you may want to consider buying.
Film is a very personal choice, and there's really no right answer about which type of film to use. If you already have an opinion on film, feel free to ignore everything I write about it. The suggestions in the guide below are meant for people who're interested in dipping a toe into the film world, but don't know where to start.
Kodak Tri-X 400 was the film of choice for photojournalists for decades. It's a relatively fast, very forgiving black and white film with beautiful grain. It has a wide exposure latitude, meaning that you can easily underexpose it by two stops or overexpose by a stop, and still get fantastic photos from it. Normally, I like to overexpose it by a stop (i.e. shoot it at ISO 200), as I did in the photo below. You can see plenty of other examples of what Tri-X 400 can look like at the page for it here on this site.
Kodak Ektar 100 is a very fine grained, medium speed color film. Because it uses the C-41 process for developing, you can take it to just about any photo lab—or even the drugstore—for development. That said, I strongly recommend against ever using a drugstore photo lab, or anything similar. The risk of damage to your negatives is too high.
Although it's not a slide film, Ektar produces really spectacular image detail, and gloriously saturated colors.
I almost always walk around with a 50mm prime lens attached to my camera. On a 35mm camera, 50mm lenses are referred to as "normal" lenses, which means that they show you a scene that is roughly the same as what a human eye will see on its own. The black and white photo of mine above was made with a 50mm lens.
Prime lenses are lenses that can't zoom in and out. This may sound like a disadvantage, but it's actually a fantastic thing for five reasons:
Photograph by Benjamin Nagel. CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
There are lots of fantastic, high quality, older film camera bodies out there that can be had for $100 or less. I'll admit that I'm something of a snob, and my two primary film cameras cost a wee bit more than $100, but if you're just getting started in film photography, I'd strongly recommend against spending the money on a Leica or a Hasselblad until you know you're ready to really commit to the medium. Instead, I'd recommend that you purchase what is arguably the first 'modern' SLR camera.
The Canon A-1 was manufactured from 1978 to 1985, and is notable for being the first SLR camera to feature what's known as an electronically-controlled program mode, where the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed for you based upon the circumstances. Even better, the A-1 was (and is) compatible with the huge number of lenses Canon produced with the FD mount. Canon discontinued the FD lens mount in 1992, but you can still find a ton of lenses compatible with this camera for—relatively speaking—almost nothing.
If you decide to go with the A-1, here's what I'd recommend buying:
Which comes to a grand total of $162.83 before tax and shipping. If you want to cut back to save a little money, I'd recommend ditching the color film, which will save you $16.69 including developing fees.
I hope you found this useful! If you're interested in hearing about other camera types, like rangefinders or medium format systems, or want to hear about cameras at higher pricepoints...like some rangefinders and medium format systems, please let me know!
Posted October 12, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
Earlier this week, TechCrunch reported that eBay was to launch a live auction site for fine art and collectibles. As it turns out, eBay has some really amazing works going up for auction next Friday, October 17. Among other works, they'll be auctioning prints from Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Brett Weston ("the bad-boy of Zone photography," as someone I know recently referred to him. Ahem.), Edward Weston, and Minor White. Wow!
Of course, the prints won't be cheap. A 1970s era print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is expected to go for $15,000 - $25,000. I'd argue that Adams' 1970s prints of Moonrise were the best, but still, that's quite the price-tag. There are a ton of other prints up for sale, and I highly recommend browsing them all, or you can check out a list of my favorites.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico - Bidding starts at $11,000
Posted October 10, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I love reviewing contact sheets. Last year I splurged and picked up a copy of Magnum Contact Sheets, a huge, beautiful book full of some of Magnum's best-known photographs...and the dozens of photos that didn't quite capture the decisive moment. To that end, I'm always excited when I see a new book with more 'behind the scenes' looks at how an iconic photo was selected from the also-rans.
Hollywood Frame by Frame offers a unique look at contact sheets from publicity photo shoots for some of the biggest films of the 1950s through the 1990s, and seems to be well-worth picking up if that's your cup of tea.
Meanwhile, I was introduced to an oldie-but-a-goodie yesterday: Ansel Adams' Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs details the creation and technical challenges in making forty of his most memorable photos. And, at $3.12 for a used copy, seems like an instant purchase.
Posted October 09, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I've spent a lot of time over the past couple weeks testing Acros 100 in my Hasselblad in order to determine my Exposure Index and normal development time. If you ever plan on doing the same, you might benefit from this film testing log sheet I made (PDF download).
Posted October 06, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I read on TechCrunch earlier today that Ebay is launching a new live auction site for fine art and collectibles, and—holy cow—do they have some amazing stuff coming up later this month.
Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California - Bidding starts at $6,000
Monolith, The Face of Half-Dome - Bidding starts at $13,000
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico - Bidding starts at $11,000
Running White Deer, Wicklow, Ireland. - Bidding starts at $2,200
Île de la Cité, Paris, France. - Bidding starts at $5,200 for a lot of eight pictures including this
Migrant Mother - Bidding starts at $4,400 for a lot of eight pictures including this
Bird Dune, Oceano - Bidding starts at $5,200
Cypress, Point Lobos - Bidding starts at $7,500
Cabbage Leaf - Bidding starts at $2,200
Road, Naples, New York. - Bidding starts at $1,500
Posted October 05, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
I'll admit it: I love Kickstarter. I've backed a total of 26 projects over the past four years, of which 24 have met their funding goals. Mostly I 'pre-buy' video games on Kickstarter. But, I have backed a handful of notable photography projects, like a an iPhone-compatible light meter, and a bevy of awesome remote camera triggers (shipping soon, I hope!).
And two of the "Seattle" projects deserve special note, too: The Scarecrow Project will turn Seattle's best independent video store into a non-profit entity, and my favorite theater in all of Seattle was able to upgrade to a digital projector (no, the irony is not lost on me).
Today, though, I wanted to highlight four projects I've run across recently—none of which I've backed yet—that I thought were worth passing along for you. Two of the projects are photo books, and the other two are new films.
First up, Al Satterwhite, an award-winning photographer, is creating an incredible, unique photobook about Muhammad Ali and his return to professional boxing after being banned for four years for his stance on the Vietnam War.
The project is about halfway to its goal, and really looks amazing. Although, I don't think I'll back it unless I can simply receive a print. There are two in particular that are featured on the Kickstarter page that I love. I emailed the creator, and hopefully he'll see eye to eye with me on this.
Next, War is Only Half the Story, Vol 7 is a photo book about Chechnya in the aftermath of their recent conflict with Russia. I would argue that war photography is the hardest, and hardest-hitting type of photojournalism. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone willing to follow in the footsteps of Chris Hondros, Robert Capa, Nick Ut, James Foley, and every other photojournalist who puts themselves in harm's way to cover these stories. But, it's incredibly rare to see a project dedicated to covering a post-war war zone. This makes sense: no news is being made, so why would an editor authorize one of their photographers to go in at a cost of thousands—or tens of thousands—of dollars? Yet, there's an important story to be told, here, and it's worth kicking in a few bucks to support modern photojournalism.
CineStill is sort of funky. They don't make new film per se, but they do recut, respool, and repackage Kodak's latest and greatest cine films for use by us still photographers. For a while, now, they've been selling an ISO 800 speed C-41 process-compatible version of Kodak's Vision3 500T cine film in 35mm canisters. Kodak Vision3, incidentally, is a modern, beautiful film that's been used in features like Django Unchained, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has 14 stops of range, uses a T-grain emulsion, and—c'mon—it's an ISO 800 speed color film. Help them out, and you'll be able to get it in medium format! Check out their project, which is live for another 30 days.
Last, but not least, FILM Ferrania is back. They're looking for $250,000 to rescue and restore three key pieces of equipment from the old Ferrania. If they're able to pull this off, it sounds like they'll be able to restart mass production of their 1990s-vintage chrome film. I'm incredibly excited by the idea of a new'ish film stock without, ahem, hipster overtones to it. So, help them out, and maybe you'll get a couple rolls of new film to play around with next year...And, more importantly, hopefully you'll be able to buy film for decades to come.
Posted September 26, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
Hi - I'm Aaron, and I created I shoot film. I want to highlight a couple new features on the website.
Recently, I've added a number of cool, new features to the site. First, you can now browse through photographs shot on each type of film to get a sense for what different emulsions can look like, like Alexander Farley's Nuit Blanche 2011, featured above. It's easy to use, and easy for you to add your own photos! Just find the film type you like to shoot, and click the Add Photo from Flickr button.
Did you know you can add your own film developing times (and photos demonstrating how the recipe turned out) to the site? Click the New Recipe button near the top of the Recipes page to add your own. Once you've added your recipes to the site, you can access them again at any time by clicking My Recipes (listed under your name) in the top navigation bar on the site.
Posted August 31, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst
...is this thing on? Just testing out the new blog.
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