Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

March 2018

digital and analogue natives

Today I visited in Amsterdam the exhibition about the Dutch photographer Maria Austria (1915 -1975), one of the most admired female photographers in the Netherlands. She was well-known for her portraits, theatre photography and everyday life in the Netherlands. Her work is also famous for the outstanding black and white quality of her prints. She worked mainly with a Rolleiflex, printed with a Leitx Focamat IIc, the famous one!,on Kodak paper and used a Weston Master V for exact exposure settings. All classic products and now part of history and sometimes nostalgia.
See picture below.

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Recent sociological studies assume that the current adult population can be divided in digital natives, analog natives, digital migrants and digital curious. It is evident that these groups are connected to age cohorts. The first group comprises people after 1980, the other groups are people born before 1960, people born between 1960 and 1980 and people aged between 54 and 62. This typology implies that there are countries where different people live and work. The analog and digital divide is well known and the two intermediate groups are persons who migrate from one country to another or who visit, as tourists so to speak, strange countries.
It is evident that most Leica users fall in the groups of analogue natives and the digital migrants and digital curious. As is often the case with migrants, they adopt the culture of the new country. It is also evident that the digital migrants are prone to defend their choices and look at the analogue natives as a dying group.

The current revival of silver-halide emulsions seems to invigorate the analogue natives. It is strange that there is much hype about new or re-introduced emulsions, like Ferrania P30 or Bergger 400. There are no better emulsions than the classical ones, Ilford Delta or FP4+ and Kodak T-Max 400 and T-Max 100. I am now sorting my Kodachrome slides and I must confess that the image quality of these slides is at least the equal of the computational images made with the M10 or Monochrome II.

I am tempted to return to te group of analogue natives after having spent much time as a digital migrant and more recently as a digital curious. For the moment I would prefer to be in both categories (analogue native and digital curious). There is so much to loose when crossing the bridge over the river that divides both countries.

Changing views

During the work on my current book about the Leica world, I concentrated on two important questions: why photograph and why photograph with a Leica. Inevitable these answers cover a number of themes, from the difference between the visual perception of reality and the autonomous recording of this reality to the difference between analogue and digital. The Dutch media theorist, Arjen Mulder has written an important book about the transition from analogue (silver-halide) photography to digital photography. He begins his book with a description of the analogue and the digital world and then he states that crossing the great divide between analogue and digital is an irreversible act: once experiencing the advantages of the digital workflow in the daily photographic environment: there is no way back. Photography has changed beyond recognition and everything that has been written about photography has lost its value. Thinking about photography has to start all over. Many photographers and commentators about photography (nowadays almost bloggers and website reviewers) refuse to acknowledge this simple fact and continue to use and approach the digital technology as if they still take pictures with film emulsions. The digital - analogue dichotomy is indeed too simplistic and does not capture the true essence of photography. There is a technical (and trivial) discussion about these opposites that boils down to the claim that analogue is continuous and digital is discrete. There is a more comprehensive analysis that equates analogue with analogy (the original derivation). The concept of ‘analogy’ is part of a world view where analogous awareness is related to the engineering approach. The engineer uses models to describe important parts of the physical reality in order to experiment with the several paramaters and to investigate the causes of the working of these phenomena. The use of (mathematical and material) models was an important tool in the engineer’s toolbox. A sketch was a precursor of a model, because the sketch is a very simple description of the problem and a possible solution to the problem. The connection between the engineering approach and the artisan world is quite obvious. In the digital world the engineer has been replaced by the scientist who produces computations, set in a series of algorithms, to solve a problem. The connection with the real world is lost. A photograph may be approached as a model or analogy of the reality that has been captured by the camera. There is a direct relationship between the negative or print and the material reality. This link has been lost in the digital workflow where the picture is constructed (computed) from a table of numerical values. There are many advantages (ease of use, high precision) in using this digital workflow, but there is an inevitable loss.
The question ‘why photograph at all’ is a very relevant question for the analysis of a photography in the 21C. I use with purpose the indefinite article (‘a’). The history and description of photography is a very personal matter. The history of photography is quite different when one looks at a series of iconic artistic images or when one looks at the amateur snapshot from 1850 to 2018.
The essence of photography, at least in my view, can be better grasped when studying the amateur snapshot and not the (highly personal) selection of artistic images.
There is a wide disparity between the human perception of reality and the mechanical recording of the surfaces of the material objects that the camera captures indiscriminately and during an instant. The amateur photograph has been referred to as the instantaneous photograph, that accepts the basic technology behind the photographic process: the mechanical and autonomous recording of brightness differences of the surfaces of macroscopically sized material objects. Artistic photography tries to break out of this straitjacket and injects the photograph with personal meaning and intention. A photographic artist uses the techniques of photography as a painter uses his brushes and canvas.
The answer to the question ‘why use a Leica camera’ is equally personal and at least as complex. There was a period in the history of photography that the Leica offered substantial advantages to the user. This was the period from 1930 to 1980 (incidentally the same period that the everyday as a cultural and scientific concept was analysed), the period when the Leica was used as a witness of our times and in particular as a witness of our personal world. That was at least the idea of Barnack, who designed his Lilliput camera as a tool for easy and simple recording of events and objects (landscapes and persons) with which he had an emotional relationship or that evoked an emotional experience.
The advantages of the Leica as a technological artefact (designed by engineers as a recording tool) were the simplicity of the use and the high quality of the mechanism. The Leica was the first precision engineered compact camera. The rangefinder had important advantages too when compared to the contemporary reflex cameras: the bright viewfinder made the object clearly visible, even in dim light and the rangefinder patch allowed fast and accurate distance setting. The compact high-speed lenses offered excellent image quality at the start of the imaging chain.
Modern digital Leica cameras are manufactured and assembled with even greater precision and the autofocus mechanism outdoes the mechanical-optical rangefinder in accuracy and speed. The price you have to pay is an increase in the size and weight of the lenses. The Leica SL and CL are evidently contemporary versions of the Leica M model. This model has been pushed into a niche and survives with an emphasis on very high speed lenses (from 0.95 to 1.5) in the most used focal lengths from 21mm to 90mm. This focus on high speed lenses is, again in my view, a relic from the past. It makes sense when film emulsions were limited to ISO 400 and (pushed) ISO 1600, but it loses all relevance when sensors offer speeds from ISO 1600 to ISO 6400 (technically exploiting under development and software gain). The obvious answer is promotong the wide aperture as an artistic tool for shallow depth of field and visually elegant background unsharpness. The standard example of a portrait of the face of a beautiful girl or a figure shot of an attractive model is hardly convincing. I still have to see one good example of the effective use of the high speed lens (the exceptions are the classical documentary photographs in dimly lit environments).
Modern lenses exhibit a very high level of optical performance. Some reviewers will always find a visual element that might be improved, but for most users the quality is more than sufficient. To be very honest, the venerable Elmar 3.5/50 mm was considered by Berek to be just fine for most (average) photography.
What Leica design has lost is the knack for exciting and useful designs, like the first compact version of the 1.4/35 mm.
The classical Leica models (M3 to M6) are complex mechanical devices that were engineered as an organic whole (try to dismantle one!). The modern digital Leica cameras (from M to CL) are very simple designs, with a modular design that makes production and assembly quite simple and cheaper. That is why the Leica Company makes such a high profit.(The elevated price tag of the products is the other reason). Rangefinder adjustment is now a matter of computer manipulation and no longer a matter of expert manual adjustments. The computer does a better job to be sure!
The engineering complexity of the mechanical camera models is mirrored in the technical complexity of the emulsion technology. While taking pictures was and is quite easy when using film, the requirements to extract the best performance from the imaging chain is beyond the capabilities of most Leica owners. Producing a high quality digital image is very easy, because the expertise is now buried in the in-camera algorithms and post-processing software. Ask any photographer who still uses the analogue emulsion technology what is happening and why some manipulations are required, the answer will reflect experience and knowledge. Ask anyone who uses the process of computational images, what is going on inside the camera and you get a superficial and often standard answer.
It is indeed remarkable how easy the modern Leica photographer can be convinced that any modern development is worth having. A good example is the adoption of the autofocus mechanism. It is a common position to state that the older Leica user, who has trouble with manual focusing due a weak eye sight, needs autofocus. many Leica users take pictures of stationary subjects, like landscapes, street scenes and buildings. None of these subjects require wide apertures and fast focusing. In fact, the classical method of zone focusing and selecting an aperture with sufficient depth of field, was the preferred option for the famous street photographers who practiced the method of the snapshot aesthetic. One of the sensible reasons to use AF is for capturing the jumping cat or a running and playing dog or any fast moving object, like a car or a baby. In the pre-AF period, photographers used all kinds of tricks (and lots of expertise) to capture a moving object and produce a sharp print. Motorcycle races are one example.
Analogue thinkers experiment and want to take positions in a real world. Digital thinkers want to leave all options open and to see everything as a possibility. Analogue photographers select a lens, a film and use the limitations of the medium as a method. Digital photographers produce an image as a possibility: one can change always the speed, colour space and even the objects themselves. Why should one be excited about a pleasant shape when one can always adjust the shape and colour to suit one’s ideas.
Analogue photographers accept that chance plays an important role in capturing an event or scene. Digital photographers do not think that chance may influence the final image: a rapid series of images, taken with different conditions (exposure, focus) ensure that there is some image where the impact of chance is minimized.
There are still good arguments for buying and using a Leica camera, especially any of the coupled rangefinder models, in the 21C. But these arguments have no longer the force and validity that they had in the 20C.