Early July signals our departure for the north of Scotland, to join friends for what has become an annual week of salmon fishing on the Spey. This is (I think) our sixth visit and the fishing remains difficult and for reasons unknown, not very productive. No matter. I have a camera(s) with me and can […]
I was at a blessed place. My gear was stolen, so I could start afresh. Oh, the bliss of being in a position to toy with endless possibilities, owning each and all of them in my mind. It is so cosmically great that I recommend each of us get his/her gear stolen on a regular […]
We drove up from Maine to Canada for a week’s vacation, which overlapped the July 4th holiday here in the States. The drive up was very pleasant with a half-way stop in Saint John, New Brunswick. We were based in Charlottetown, PEI, for the week and visited the dramatic north coast for our first excursion. […]
Pareidolia: “a psychological phenomenon that causes people to see patterns in a random stimulus. This often leads to people assigning human characteristics to objects.” It’s freakish how often our brain assembles pieces of a scene into something different than it really is. Particularly in peripheral vision. We turn around, and the object isn’t […]
So, that’s it. I broke DS … and this is how it feels. This may just be a hobby website, it’s still been a big part of my life over the past few years and, up to recently, plain … sailing. Also, the update process is not what I’d prefer. If this was […]
Medium format cameras are irrelevant, aren’t they? Their numbers are dwarfed by those of full frame (35mm) cameras. And the progress of said full-frame cameras has made them even more irrelevant, until their inevitable extinction, right?
Well maybe, but maybe not. 4 recent entries into that very limited space indicate that “someone” believes this demise is not inevitable. Indeed, that it might be worth investing in what could become a growth space.
Eglise St Roch, Paris
To be fair, those 4 entries do not include the heavyweights that form Canikony, or even 4 all-new cameras. Those are the latest version of the Leica S, the S3, the reincarnated version of the Hasselblad X1D into XID II, of the Fuji GFX 50S into the GFX 50R, and the novel Fuji GFX 100.
4 cameras, and 4 different approaches. With the S3, Leica MF (small MF, as sensors sizes go) gets a new, upgraded sensor. With the R version, the GFX 50 gets a smaller body and a smaller price. With the “II” moniker, the Hasselblad X1D also gets a smaller price, and improves on most of its predecessor’s weaknesses. And the GFX 100 gets colossal resolution, with a first in the MF space: IBIS.
At this stage 2 other MF players deserve a mention: Pentax, and Phase One. That they did not conveniently come out with new gear in time for this post doesn’t exactly rule them out, does it?
What do these 4 cameras tell us? Basically 2 things, and they “might” matter.
That in the MF space, the race for “more” is alive and well. Everyone seems to understand that pulling away from FF camera specs is necessary, even Leica, with its 64 Mp resolution. Which is saying something, because Leica are usually the Mp-count caboose. For that matter, the race for more pixels has leveled off in the FF space when 7 years saw a mere 30% improvement since the already-old-ish-by-now Nikon D800
That the reduced prices initiated by Pentax and now replicated by Fuji and Hasselblad show that some MF players are now “going after” high-end 35mm. Fuji actually dub their GFX 50R “super full frame”. Whereas until now, it was the opposite: 35mm camera and lens makers vying for the MF mantle, like Zeiss in their marketing blurb for the new Otus 100mm f:1.4.
Why is that happening? Because in photography gear history, larger meant more unpleasant to use. Barnack’s genius, as he invented the 35mm format, was not in performance, it was in ease-of-use. Now, it seems the MF crowd “get the message”, and make new and highly desirable gear easier to own (lower price) and to use (basically like a bigger mirrorless).
It also creates a new class of “prosumer MF”, around 5-6k$, very much cheaper than pro-MF, at 20k$+ (think Hassy H6, Phase One). Leica being alone in offering prosumer gear at pro prices, but that is what they do in other segments as well.
Will this be successful? No-one knows yet. But, for sure, such developments are good for us gear buyers, because it means we get to have even more options than before, some at lesser-but-still-high cost.
PS: I won’t get drawn into the controversies whether a 100Mp camera is even desirable, or of performance vs quality. I know that their are strong opinions on both sides of the fence. To each his/her own.
It wasn’t that long ago that the painterly effect of Mandler-era Leica lenses would have made me swoon. This was to my photographic world what the Jaguar e-Type is to my automotive world. Poetic, beautiful, romantic, comforting. And as far as imaginable from the austere look of acclaimed contemporary artists such as Andreas Gursky, Alec Soth or Thomas Struth. Can appreciation for the two coexist in a sane mind?
No doubt co-author Philippe would argue my mind isn’t sane, but still, I’d like to explain how the polar reversal happened in it, all the same.
There’s justifcation for my original romantic weakness. I have a doctor’s note. My earliest exposure to photography (grintended) was via the books of British landscape photographs, Charlie Waite and his “The Making of Landscape Photographs”, in particular. The hours, the days, I spent pawing through those pages instead of doing my homework …
So, golden light, warm filter, polarizers, clean compositions and soft looking lenses on medium format film became my dream modus operandi and remained that way for many years after that original sin.
All the while, though, diffuse unease with the approach was lurking beneath the surface clearly signaling a dead end for me, had I been willing to listen to the silent grumble more open-mindedly.
Slowly, insiduously, it dawned on me that my version of this noble tradition could be summed up in two syllables : bo ring. In fact, not just mine, only a few actually seemed able to pull it off in interesting ways (Joe Cornish, Colin Prior, for example) but that’s a story for another day.
Three things nailed that coffin permanently for me. A passion for composition difficult to reconcile with that style, a dissatisfaction with the colour rendering of my gear, and the harsh rendering of modern lenses and early digital cameras.
B&W, preferably strong in contrast and semi abstract subjects quickly became my way of rebelling against my initial paper mentors. And photographers such as Daido Moriyama, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sally Mann were now the ones that kept me awake at night. They still do.
But another aesthetic driving hammers nuts in auction rooms was also growing on me.
As Andreas Gursky’s creations regularly topped the list of most expensive photographs ever and Thomas Ruff used photographs of stars or internet porn he didn’t even take himself, to rack in show after show after auction success, a frustration at not really getting it grew in me along with a desire to understand what made these “style-less” photographers so desirable.
And the more you study those artists, the more fascinating they become. And the deeper their work sinks in.
(c) Thomas Struth
Take Thomas Struth’s early Dusseldorf series for instance. Taken individually, you could wonder what makes those views so special and many consider them as bland and uninteresting. Nothing spectacular, right ? Particularly when compared with the otherwordly creations that innundate travel influencer instagram accounts.
View the whole series, however, and the consistency is impressive. The central symmetry, the same diffuse morning light, the identical subject matter, the consistent post-processing …
It’s as if the author was maintaining a safe distance from the subject, which is completely at odds with the almost supernatural connexion of Sally Mann with her children in her magical photographs, for example.
(c) Sally Mann
But that isn’t so.
Struth studied under the Becher’s. The couple has left a legacy that captures the minds of young photographers and billionaire collectors alike. Besides their own considerable body of work, that legacy is the prodigious line of photographic geniuses trained at their Dusseldorf School of Photography. Artists such as Gursky, of course, but also Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff (…), who tend to share that distanciated look and that work in series, at least in some parts of their production.
The typographies of the Bechers presented sets of small(ish) photographs in large arrays of 9 or 16 or more. Objects such as gas tanks, water towers, factories, photographed in very similar conditions (bright overcast days, a long distance to flatten all perspective, identical framing). The point being that the near identical presentation of these seemingly identical objects served to actually highlight their very differences. They were removing all other variables to let us focus on the personality of each individual in their sets of industrial portraits.
Thomas Struth used the exact same approach in his Dusseldorf series. Although not presented in a mosaic, his photographs of streets used near identical composition, lighting and PP to highlight the differences in very similar locations.
Although Andreas Gursky doesn’t work in similar series, there is a similar approach in his aesthetics and composition. Gursky’s work doesn’t ever let anything get in the way of the subject. No gorgeous light, no fancy composition, no subject drawing more attention to itself.
Gursky’s photographs are about boredom, globelisation, dehumanisation … and nothing else is allowed into the frame. Extreme visual purity.
More important than their subject, and spectacular size, which encourages a dual viewing mode (close up for infinite details, far away for the global view and nothing in between), what I find so satisfying with those photographs is that they only reveal themselves to patient observers.
The total absence of anything spectacular not only makes the photograph about an idea, it also makes it slow to digest. A bit like adding fiber to your sugar. The eye has nowhere specific to start from. Nor do any compositional relationships guide it through a planned sequence of areas, so there is no possible story being told, only an invitation to contemplation and interiorisation.
It isn’t hard to notice that the millions of spectacular photographs poured into Instagram and Facebook command an attention span that even a goldfish would find flittering. Wow! Next! Wow! Next! Deadpan aesthetics (head-on portraits, low saturation, low contrast, simple composition …) are about creating the exact opposite reaction.
During my recent trip to a foggy hill, my focus was mainly on creating photographs with a mood, an atmosphere, as above. And I hope some of those are interesting enough for you to want to look at them for more than 4 seconds. But would you hang them on a wall for 5 years, or more, which is what tends to happen with 6 figure photographs that don’t end up imprisoned in investment vaults? I’m not so sure.
On that little morning adventure, I also tried to create photographs such as the one below. Flat contrast, stark and head-on composition, no stand out feature but a subject that could belong to a theme (stone walls in Provence, for instance), post processing that is totally subservient to the subject. I blatantly copied Struth for this (artists steal, right?).
My recent change in gear was mainly motivated by the desire to explore that style more in depth and it’s safe to say the aesthetic switch was fraught with worry. You can’t change something without breaking the old mould, however beautiful it was, right? But it was worth it and I’m looking forward to exploring this new (for me) world.
Now, that doesn’t mean all photographs need to look drab to make a statement or convey a message. Nor does it imply that photographs made with high-personality lenses and expressive post-processing are gimmicky shortcuts with a shorter attention-grabbing span than an internet ad.
Only that there can be real hidden, long lasting, beauty in imagery that doesn’t reveal obvious charms at first glimpse. And that photographers who focus on the subject, deliberately omitting any decorative element, aren’t devoid of emotion. On the contrary, their work is deeply human in that it lets the viewers bring their own psychology into the meeting rather than impose their own point of view and biases.
The above photograph, which is just a swoosh of light, transmitted and reflected, would not have worked as well with heavy vignetting, shallow depth of field and dominated by the soft rendering of a portrait lens. The idea and the aesthetics would have conflicted.
Every photograph displays a set of priorities, deadpan is about giving priority to an idea rather than to a look. I find it difficult to combine the two without diluting both.
So I’ve been trying to apply that way of thinking to various types of subjects, various lights, various situations, and really like the results of this freeing neutrality. Although not all succeed in being free of my idiosyncrasies, and few would really qualify as deadpan works, I feel that most have that quiet feel to them that invites a small pause.
In a photographic world dominated by quick-buck effects and spectacular presets splashed over photographs largely devoid of any significant content, this slow photography is perhaps the aspect of that style that appeals to me the most.
By removing personal style, it also removes ego from the mix. The photo is no longer about the photographer but about something larger that can speak deeper to others.