21 May ’14

Eyes in All Heads Part 1. Choosing A Leica.

“To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.”

— Henri Cartier-Bresson

I am starting to see very, very clearly – and sight is the biggest part of it isn’t it; taking a photograph. I see more and more of my photographer friends going BIG with long L glass or Nikon full frame megapixel blahblahblah this and that GoPro Heros and this set up and that set up and the thing is… I don’t see a great deal of difference in their image making, except some sort of appropriation into the Borg. Something has to give and the art has to go back to something that it once was. SLOW the FUCK down. What are you hiding? Why are you hiding behind this STUFF???

GUESS campaign model Heather Depriest (Wilhemina) by Bil Brown with the Leica S
GUESS campaign model Heather Depriest (Wilhemina) by Bil Brown with the Leica S

A typical “pro” photographer’s gear choices are kind of ridiculous if you think about it, especially if the only thing they shoot is a model or two or portraits. I mean, a Canon 5D MKIII is around $3,000, a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 $2,500, an 85mm portrait lens between $900 and $2,200 and in three years – besides the lenses – you have to start all over again. What if they STOP supporting the EOS mount and make the lenses unusable??? And Nikon isn’t much better. They OWN your image-making. Oh, and the appropriation of mobile technologies… Anyone who watched Godzilla this weekend might have noticed that “Walter White’s” character had to retrieve data from 1999 (just 15 years ago) from a ZIP drive, do we still use Zip disks? Who is to say we will still have a fucking iPhone in FIVE years much less 10? Oh and this isn’t even getting into the 30-60K range of a Phase ONE medium-format digital that has become popular over the Hasselblad of late, and more. It’s an insane market of choices and options. Some BOLD photographers have moved to the newer Fuji X system and some have decided to move to film only, and all of these choices are worthwhile.

Street photograph using the Leica MonochromeI’m all about digital technology, I really REALLY am. I have been working with computers since I knew what they were in the early 80s. I have been working in Photoshop since it’s inception as a tool in 1990 (aging myself, but it doesn’t matter). I can talk about sensor chips, the difference between and anti-aliasing filter attached and having one, I can talk megapixels or light sensitivity in low light. Which is the better menu system, the Fuji X series or the Olympus M? The iPhone 5S is better at low-light than the iPhone 5, the Galaxy Tab is better at rendering this and that – WHATTHEFUCKEVER.

Leica M 240 fast shot at 70MPH. Manual focus.What is the most important part of the tools that you use to take a photo? What is the final results that you want? You want someone to see the photo that you take and feel something, experience something that you experienced, or force them – even by force majeur, centrifical force of nature, the natural – to experience the exact decision that you made to bring that photo to life. What were your THOUGHTS behind that image, how did you come to it? And your tools — are they pedestrian enough to where your aunt Lucy has the same DSLR as you do? Does she think it’s the camera that makes the photo or is it something else outside of you being brought into the frame, the delivery of that light and shadow – the very POINT of the image is YOUR point of making it. What TOOL do you need for that?

People who have known me over the years know that I am rather minimal when it comes to image making. I often bark that “it doesn’t matter” what camera you use. It doesn’t. We all work within our limitations, learn them and get the best photograph possible from those limitations. In that, I will say, it doesn’t matter really what camera you use for this purpose. HOWEVER there is a point when you yourself have surpassed the limitations of the equipment you use and you want to get back to a basic reclaiming of the POWER of your own image-making. IN THAT, you need the proper tool for the job, whatever that job may be.

The Leica M type 240 at sunrise on the way from San Fran to Los Angeles.To be a photographer you enter into a history, a lineage, a tradition. One that can be traced back to the very reason that we put 35mm movie film stock into a small metal box with a pin-hole for testing that film; because you KNOW that is the reason we have photography, because someone decided that motion pictures could be captured with aspherical lenses that appropriated a scene out-of moving life and even fantasy where one iconic image could tell the story of many. One moment. Sometimes we prepare, with the stout creation of a thousand hairstylists and make-up artists and clothing designers for that ONE image or several to form a story. Sometimes we prepare a lifetime to have one tool to get it going, to get on with it. To take it from your head to your eye and tell your heart’s most revealing desires.

Heather Depriest with the Leica S shot by Bil Brown for Black & Grey magazine
Heather Depriest with the Leica S shot by Bil Brown for Black & Grey magazine

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a relationship with Leica Camera in preparation for an article in Black & Grey magazine about the poet Allen Ginsberg and his photographic tool of choice. Leica is a small company that has had it’s problems over that last decade, it was slow to enter the digital age and held onto tradition and it’s quality. One of my most trusted photographic teachers, at least on the end of equipment purchases, recently said, “Well, their digital cameras aren’t that great by modern standards, but they ARE the standard for everything else.” I get that, a Leica M is incredibly low-tech in this world of Wi-Fi enabled tether and more, there are high-tech options from the company, in the form of the Leica T system, and the larger censored Leica S for professional work. I’ve now used practically every single camera, except the newest Apple-like T series.

Many, including myself, are drawn to the classic form and function of the M. Leica’s flagship is STILL an M series camera, from 1954 to now, basically the same form and function. In fact, you can use the SAME lenses from 1954 on the newest M-mount camera today. Try that on an EOS system without a third-party adaptor. It just FEELS right, no other way to put it.

Okay, it’s obvious I’ve become a Leica fanboy. Why? Because although the process of taking a photo is archaic by today’s standards: Read NO AUTO-FOCUS, everything MANUAL; and the system itself is extremely cost-prohibative in general (e.g. the camera bodies are often as expensive as many “pro” photographer’s ENTIRE gear-list. ONE lens might cost as much as a used car, and having he same collection of lens focal lengths as the aforementioned Canon gear would be ridiculous to have if you thought you weren’t going to use it). It seems to me, that the biggest step of any photographer’s career, or even advanced hobbyist, is to own and USE a Leica M. There is no way around it.

Mention Leica in a conversation, you will get a different reaction. The red-dot means something to a lot of different people. It can mean opulence and excess, sure. It can mean that someone is a rich collector, or some other collector of photographic history. The company is German and has a history that extends all of the virtues and vices of having being invented in Germany during the 20th century. The optics are legendary, and for a good reason. It has an old country feel, and to this day each camera is manufactured or rather assembled by hand. A Leica COMMANDS attention, and in a certain way says – once and for all, “I am taking a photograph, and I mean business.” At the same time, it is stealthy and the cloth shutter of the M without a mirror (because you focus with a viewfinder instead of through the lens like a SLR) barely is noticeable on the street. The newer cameras have a electronic viewfinder, you can see what you get immediately. That’s not that different than the Canon and Nikon, or Fuji, Olympus, even Sony alternatives. But it is, because you will see something different with the Leica, it’s not quite the same. Not quite.

And that just might be the point.


Coming up: Eyes In All Heads, Part 2: Making the World Safe for Poetry (and photography)

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