Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if this is the case, then my vague attempt to capture the street photography magic of Vivian Maier in a single photograph must be considered my private tribute to her work. After watching the great BBC documentary about her life and work (brought to my attention by Eric Kim’s street photography blog), I headed out on this non-descript day to see how easy it would be to imitate here style. Well, to save you some time if you do not want to read any longer, the short answer is that it is not easy at all. I think it all has to do with the times we live in and the simple fact that Ms. Maier looked down when taking her masterful photos. We’re talking pre-Internet and social media times here, when photography was not a globalized commodity to be feared and state-of-the-art Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras (like the one used by Ms. Maier) forced you to look down into the glass instead of across to the subject.
These elements must have played a role in her photographic life, but there is no denying that her incredible talent to capture the proverbial “moment” of a scene more than justify her posthumous photographic fame. Her eye for composition and light was nothing short of brilliant—a study of balance and symmetry that should be required study for any photographer. As depicted in the BBC video, many of her shots required her to be about three to four feet from her subjects, which in today’s über-paranoid world would not be an easy thing to do. I’m certain that sixty years ago Ms. Maier had an easier time answering the “what do you plan to do with those pictures” question, as the state of technology back then did not allow for instantaneous global distribution of your photos. But whatever the case, there is no denying that Ms. Maier got her shot when she was there with her camera, and in the end, that is all that matters. Too bad she never got to see the much-deserved outpouring of admiration from a thankful world.
Nothing like getting your hands on a new Leica M camera to get your photographic blood pumping a little. But not just any M, mind you, but rather the new (and still very hard to get) Leica M 240 from the folks at Solms, Germany. How good is this camera? Very, very good, in my humble opinion. I’m no gear analyst by any stretch of the imagination, but I would be remiss if I didn’t stop for a second and describe what it feels like to go out shooting with this remarkable work of art. At the risk of being labeled a bleeding Leica fanboy, I have to tell you that this camera is about as close as anyone will get to enjoying the feeling of photographic poetry. The best camera in the world? Of course not. No sports shooter here my friend. The only camera you would take to document the swamp people in the Amazon River? Nope. This camera is definitely not about the extremes, even if some incredible daring photographers out there would just go for it. But if you are thinking street, documentary, fine art, or studio work, then the Leica M would be a powerful photographic tool in your hand.
I have read many blogs where the Leica M has been described as a totally new camera when compared with its predecessor, the Leica M9. And you know what? The blogs were right (see Steve Huff’s wonderful review here). This is an amazing camera. Richer colors, nearly silent operation, great contrast, extensive customization, live view, focus peaking, fantastic battery, and retention of the famous “Leica look.” I could go on and on about the specs, but others a lot more qualified have already provided this information (see Ming Thein’s article and Sam Hurd’s take on this camera). But why the excitement about all these functions that have already made their appearance in other camera brands, and at a lot less money? The answer to this question lies precisely on the fact that we are talking about Leica here. Ever heard of tradition? Well, Leica takes this concept significantly beyond the point to which the patriarch Tevye did in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, and by a long shot. In fact, it is precisely this “remain in touch with the past” attitude that brings so many photographers into the Leica camp. Change, any change, is big news in the Leica community, with equal amounts of proponents and detractors taking their positions at opposite sides of the trenches. In the end, what I know is this: that recording the world around you with a Leica M is a very special thing–a feeling that is only intensified by the new Leica M 240. Simplicity at its very best. And at a price.
Let me start this post by saying that I love black & white photography. Not that I have mastered this medium by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that I have come to realize that there are some scenes out there that come to life when shot on black & white. In some strange way, the removal of color artifacts (or should I say, the substitution of these artifacts by different shades of grey) from the photograph kind of diminishes the judgmental interpretation of the photograph. No longer can someone point out that the red shirt was not that red in the real world, or that blues look over-saturated. When black & white photographs are involved, the observer tends to go through some sort of a mental shift as if being handed a different list of criteria by which to interpret the photograph. Without ever having heard of Ansel Adam’s Zone System, these observers begin to interpret the photographs in terms of those grey variations that lie somewhere in between absolute white and absolute black. What’s more, when black & white photography is involved, the whole notion of photographic composition seems to experience somewhat of a liberation to be analyzed without the distracting effect of color getting in the way.
But to what extent is the resulting photo the product of the photographer’s ability to “see” the scene in black & white prior to capturing it with his or her camera? Is there such a thing as “seeing” in black & white when it comes to photography, or is it all the product of post-capture manipulation with today’s advanced software applications? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do venture to say that for most folks out there (and this includes your humble blogger here), playing with the software during post is where the action is. We try this or that like a New York fashionista until voilà, we know it when we see it. Having said that, I have no doubt that some talented photographers out there do have this ability uncanny ability to see in black & white. At the very least, in they are able to see in grey variations, à la Ansel Adams. For some, this gift will come natural; for others, no doubt the result of many years of photographic observation and practice. Whatever the case, I am just glad that black & white photography is alive and well and that companies like Leica pay it tribute with the introduction of such wonderful products as the Leica M Monochrome. We can only hope that other companies follow in their footsteps.
I have touched the holy Leica grail! Thanks to the great folks at the Leica Store Washington DC, I was able to hold this top-of-the line, 37 megapixel behemoth and actually shoot with it. Well, I did manage to get a few photos in before I had to make way for the salivating group of folks that stood behind me ready to get rid of me if I took too long. Luckily, the folks from the Leica store and the visiting Leica representative had set up a great photo studio with a beauty dish and a soft box to make our lives a little easier. And of course, it did help to have a beautiful model with a professional stager and makeup artist taking care of all the the pre-shoot beauty details, but hey, I did get to push the shutter release and compose the photograph, so I’m quite happy with that. Actually, more than happy, to tell you the truth. This camera is simply a magnificent marvel of German engineering, and that is putting it mildly. Great ergonomics and weight for a medium-format camera, it handled like a fine-tuned Porsche sliding down an Autobahn. But at $27,995.00 for the body alone, something tells me that that this was the first and last time I will ever come into contact that with it. My only worry now is whether my personal cameras will ever feel the same again after this brief experience. I sure hope so, but it will not be easy forgetting this incredible camera.
Continuing with my theme of recording everyday life around our nation’s capital, I ventured today to the Georgetown neighborhood across the Potomac River to see what people were up to on this warm, summer day. The thing that struck me the most was how sedate Washington, DC is on a Sunday morning. To tell you the truth, not much was happening, and the only church in the area seemed to be suffering from a lack of customers. Admittedly, though, the people who were out and about seemed to be the friendliest I’ve seen in a long time, with one bicycle rider even offering to turn around and retrace his route so that I could compose my photograph better the second time around. Considering that yesterday a gentleman had offered to do things to me with my camera that could get him 30 years in prison, this bicyclist’s generosity definitely restored my faith in humanity. This sort of interaction is what keeps street photographers out there with their cameras, and while recording everyday life in the city is a big part of what we do, so is the great interaction with unique people who are out there living their lives and enjoying a warm, summer day with a smile in their faces. They are what makes going out there with a camera every day such a rewarding experience.