It’s the tail end of a long summer and my shirts sticking to my body like a wet blanket. Oddly, I’m thinking about winter. My last serious photo outing was six months ago when I drove from my home in Virginia to Asbury Park, NJ for a chopper show and swap meet. I brought along a Polaroid SLR and my 35mm Nikon.
While driving to the boardwalk with Bruce blaring on my radio courtesy of Spotify I was overwhelmed by the sights of the city. Often when I’m driving I see buildings I want to photograph but don’t have the time to stop. I make mental notes to come back one day and explore. When I walk I see things I miss while driving and more often than not I end up with photos very different than my original inspiration. The best way to see the world is as a pedestrian.
Unfortunately I only took a few photos that trip but I definitely want to go back. New Jersey has a charm very familiar. It’s the same charm that Oakland has for me. It’s not glitz and glamour it’s grit and grime. Blue collar bars and rusty cars.
Critical thinking oft ends up sounding bitter and negative when expressed in its written form. A master critic can praise and constructively critique a work but many critics are not masterful. Take Susan Sontag On Photography as an example. Her criticism on photography is highly de-constructive in my opinion, but masterful in its ability to provoke thought. Still, how anyone can read it and then pick up a camera afterwards without feeling self conscious to point of paralysis is beyond me. I certainly couldn’t. Being a thinking artist is not easy. I don’t know that I ever fully regained my feet after reading Sontag.
Photography as an artistic expression isn’t always paired with photography as a craft. Many respected photographers wanted nothing to do with the developing and printing of their work. Today, as a film photographer, if you’re not exceptionally funded somehow it can be a real struggle to work that way. So most of us do as much as we can ourselves. Some of us control that process from shutter to print or publish. When life gets busy I tend to put film photography aside. I might continue to shoot but my film piles up in a box waiting to be processed. My iPhone becomes my primary camera and I go about my busy life until I feel the urge to practice that craft.
The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust.
In the last few years I’ve seen new photographers pop up with amazing talent and a knack for constructing amazing images. But very few photographers bring anything new to the medium. My point isn’t to be critical of their work but to be critical of my own. What am I adding to the conversation? It’s very well to take photos for myself for the sheer joy of photography but I feel driven to do more than find recipes in life that I know combined with the right film and camera will result in a popular photo. I want to be like Shore or Baltz and make images that transcend populism. But to follow in their footsteps because it’s easy to do superficially isn’t the same thing as turning established universally accepted ideas of artistic qualities on their head. They’ve already done that. You can be content to mimic their vision perhaps and maybe convince yourself you’re carrying on their legacy but once a barrier has been broken it’s broken for good until it’s been restored. No one said being an iconoclast would be easy.
Declaring War on Nostalgia
If everything’s been done already why not do it again? Nostalgia is a powerful tool. Square framed faded drugstore prints look great. Old signage. Old cars. Memories of better days artificially created by cropping out inconvenient truths. Nostalgia to the “documentary” photographer is the homeless man on the corner to the street photographer. It’s not for me to judge what’s good or bad, right or wrong, I’m just pointing out that it’s low hanging fruit many of us are picking. I’d like to reach higher. I’d like to see my peers reach higher.
At the early onset black and white appealed to me for a number of reasons. A very chronicled history of which to draw inspiration from is important when you haven’t formed your own photographic vision. The ability to be self contained and in control of the process from beginning to end (this was before digital work flow was a consumer product) was also a big factor both financially and artistically. Most importantly was the aesthetic. If you do anything long enough the process eventually loses its mystery and you’ve found that you’ve mastered the craft at least to the level of competent proficiency. The natural evolution is to introduce a new process, format or medium. Often times that process unlocks something and when you go back to the old process you find your approach has changed. You don’t see things quite the same way as you did before. If I chronicled these milestones I can honestly say the things that impacted my photography the most are usually the most simple. Toy cameras with limited controls and functions and Polaroid integral films rank very highly in my personal evolution. There are countless other influences as well. Photographic works of others naturally. I could list them all but it might be easier to just say Magnum and Szarkowski era MOMA photographers cover most of them.
I’ve made many attempts at color photography but I was never satisfied with my results. It’s so much harder to convince myself as a viewer that my work was any good. Now more than ever we are exposed to thousands of color photographic images daily. Making works that stand out without leaning on cliches and tropes too heavily seemed all but impossible. When you make a photo most of the time you get an image that does not look as your eyes saw in the viewfinder. Colors shift or are translated into grey scale and only a tiny square or rectangle of the real world remains. Like most artistic processes you can’t just set out to do something. The process has to be organic. Some people are naturally gifted with a vision or a visual poetry in color. The rest of us can only stand on their shoulders and fake it until we make it. Relying on effects of the camera to make the everyday interesting (the filter effect) is a common tool in our toolbox because it offers an altered reality. To most people that’s what art is. Am altered state of reality. We’re taught to recognize it as such.
My goal is to make straight photographs in color that are compelling without leaning to heavily on nostalgia, intrinsic beauty or cliches. On the surface that sounds simple but in reality it’s a monumental task that very few artists have achieved.
I’ll be the first to admit that I never owned a Polaroid OneStep or 600 camera before film went out of production. I never thought of it as a photographic tool. It was the camera phone equivalent of the day and film wasn’t cheap. When the impossible project started up I wasn’t all that excited about it. I thought it was hopeful but I was busy lamenting the loss of so many 35mm and 120 film stocks. I found a SX70 in an antique store, bought a $24 pack of film and was severely discouraged to find that it was broken.
When Polaroid Originals announced the new camera I preordered one at once. Inspired by my use of Fuji Instax I had grown to love instant film for candid photos. Only problem was the instax mini was too small and the instax wide was too hard to find film for and my camera was broken. While waiting for the new OneStep 2 I had come across some vintage 600 cameras and snatched them up. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality level of Polaroid Originals film stock. They’ve come a long way since the early impossible project days.
So I’m now practically a hoarder of Polaroid Cameras and buying film in bulk. Lately it’s the only photography outlet I’m practicing regularly. The limitations and character of the film are charming, and I’m loving the results. Sometimes I’m too busy to process and scan film and my photography gets put to the side. Now I’m shooting instant and really enjoying it. Will the fever last? Considering the cost of film packs it’s hard to say.
Comparing the Leica IIIF to the Argus C3 is a bit like comparing a 1930’s Ford to a 1930’s Mercedes. They are both rangefinder cameras but they were marketed and sold to completely different photographers. The Argus is a mass produced assembly line built consumer product that was marketed to the what we would probably now call Prosumer market. It wasn’t a vacation point and shoot camera by any means, but it isn’t a precision instrument in the way a Leica IIIF is. The Argus is classic American industrial design in the best and worst sense of the word. Both cameras are steeped in history however, and just because it’s not a rare camera you shouldn’t dismiss it as crap and lump it in with many of the other lesser cameras of the era. It’s a very capable picture taker, just in more steps than most people are accustomed to.
I won’t delve into the prices when produced or any other history that is well documented I’ll just get started in comparing the shooting experience of the two cameras and discuss the similarities and differences.
Maximum shutter speed on the IIIF is 1000th of a second, the Argus is around 300th. If you’re using sunny 16 rule (neither camera has a built in meter) that means you’re slightly over exposing with 400 speed film at f16 on a bright sunny day. Could be a problem if you’re shooting slide film. Do they still make slide film at ISO 400? My advice is use 100 speed film on sunny days and 400 on dark ones. Or split the difference and shoot at 200. Clearly the advantage goes to the Leica, or does it? The Leica has TWO knobs!!! One for slow speeds (under 1/30th) and once for 1/30th and above. It sounds more complicated than it is, and honestly how often are you shooting below 1/30th of a second. The slow speed dial is on the front keep it set to the red 30 and use the top dial like most cameras until you need a slower shutter.
Both cameras lack a thumb cocking lever that most of us have come to know and love. If you think your Canon AE-1 slows you down and makes you more contemplative you should try a camera with a knurled film advance knob, no light meter, and no click stops for lens aperture. Contemplate away. The only way to get more zen with a camera is to get a large format ground glass camera and a dark cloth. The argus throws in a few more steps. You must hit a nub that resets the film winder to advance frames. This keeps you from accidentally double exposing, or tricks you into double exposing or not exposing at all, sometimes in consecutive steps. You also must manually cock the shut with the lever located on the front of the camera. When the shutter releases (a nice firm crisp shutter release BTW) you’re greeted with a nice twangy spring sound letting you know the shutter has released. The Argus has a simple leaf shutter which in my opinion is the best type of shutter made for a rangefinder unless you need more than 1/500th of a second. It keeps you from burning holes in your fine silk shutter curtains (which is about the price of a used IIIF to get replaced). That lovely Leica snick sound comes at a price.
Both cameras have separate rangefinder and composing viewfinders. The beauty of this design is very accurate focusing, even with a 135mm lens (try that on a M2 or M4). But you have to move your eye slightly after focusing meaning you risk losing that decisive moment you might be after when walking around Paris in a overcoat like you’re HCB. This is why zone focusing in street photography was a common practice in the Rangefinder era. Neither camera is a speedy focuser, lets be honest. But neither of us is HCB or Winogrand either. Cats don’t move that fast. Get over it.
Really what it boils down to is if you want a classic rangefinder experience you can certainly get it for under $50 without resorting to Former Soviet Union cameras (which I also love so that’s not a put down). If you want a Leica experience for under $500 you could probably get it with a IIIF assuming you get a good working one for a fair price. Both cameras offer a unique experience and are capable of taking fantastic photos, as are most cameras. Maybe the real question is why do we have to own so many cameras? How many decisive moments have passed us by in the time it took me to write this article or for you to read it?
My family lives in Louisiana, in a town near Baton Rogue. When I drive down to go visit my family I see signs for the towns I’ve only experienced through the black and white (mostly) photographs I’ve seen in books. Towns which I probably would never heard of otherwise had it not been for their history of poverty (Walker Evans) or the Civil Rights Movement. Towns like Selma and Eutaw. Even people I know from Alabama have never heard of Eutaw. I’ve always planed to stop, but you get on the interstate and tend to only see the waffle houses, gas stations and hotels that are right off the interstate. There’s never enough time in the trip for such detours. You have to make time.
I’m not sure what drew me to Sprott, Alabama. There are dozens of other iconic (in my eyes) places I could go visit not so far off the beaten path. Maybe it was hearing lectures by William Christianberry on youtube, talking in that southern draw, plainly but eloquently, about the red earth, how much love he had for his native land. Perhaps it was being able to walk on the same path as someone like Walker Evans, who inspired generations of photographers.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Sprott, Alabama. According to Wikipedia, Sprott is an unincorporated community in Perry County, Alabama, United States. It is located at the intersection of Alabama Highways 14, and 183, northeast of Marion. It’s well known to some, made famous by the work of Walker Evans photos from the 1930’s. The post office (at the time) was prominently featured in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about the Alabama share cropper’s of that area. The post office was built in 1842 and served the community until the 1990’s. In the 2000’s it was an antiques shop. It’s the most photographed building in the county. Sprott is also the location of a church made iconic by the works of the artist William Christianberry. William Christianberry grew up near Sprott. The church had two very distinctive steeples. I was looking for the church but didn’t see it and figured it was no longer there. It turned out that the church was in fact right where Christianberry saw it last, however those distinctive steeples are no longer there. It now looks like many similar sized churches common in the south.
I’m certainly not the first photographer to revisit these places and to be honest I felt more like a tourist than a photographer on this trip, which is okay. Originally I had planned on bringing a 4×5 camera (the biggest film camera I own) to make sure I could get the best possible quality photos on this trip. I settled on a medium format camera for space concerns in my already packed trunk. However when I got to Sprott I ended up using a 35mm SLR. In my mind I had imagined myself picking up where Mr. Christianberry had left off (he has now passed). Mr. Christianberry would revisit the same locations and document them from more or less the same vantage point every year.
My biggest takeaway from this side trip was that there is a big world to discover and maybe even take pictures of. While it’s neat to be able to say I’ve seen and photographed the Sprott, Alabama post office (maybe it’s the El Capitan or Half Dome for documentary photographers) I live in a pretty amazing place with lots of history and visually interesting buildings that I could (and in many cases, have) photographed. It’s renewed my interest in exploring the back-roads of South East Virginia and North Carolina. Visiting the main streets of the small towns off the old state routes.