For well-over a month now, I've been using quite extensively the new Voithländer 35 mm f1.2 II lens. It is a superb lens - it is sharp, it is great to handle, it offers light sensitivity unbeatable in the 35 mm range, and fantastic contrast and color rendition. It is a fantastic black-and-white lens especially when paired up with the Leica M8's infrared sensitivity. And it made me think about what the lenses tell about the picture.
We've often read about lenses that render vintage, or modern, or clinical, or that are great for color, or that offer surreal rendition, etc. The lenses that we use (figuratively and literally) create their own reality and have their own feel. That's what we refer to "vintage" when we talk about softer lenses. We use them because they capture our own expectation of the world back in those days - ghostly and desaturated. They have melancholic value because we want to live in that world - some of us, anyway. Their low contrast is for us a summary of a historic moment - calmed down, poised, and sometimes flatly boring. We become like the characters in "Midnight in Paris" who cannot live in their own time and look for a future or a past.
The lens is more than just a brush in the hands of the photographer. The lens is the intermediary inner eye, the intuition and the impulse. It is the brush but also the canvas on which we draw with light. It is the paint and the palette. With a manual focus lens, the photographer is in absolute control of how impressionistic, Cezannian, Bensonian, Cartier-Bressonian, etc. the composition and appearance would be. Super-f lenses, opened to the fullest, gather light that can easily overwhelm the sensor – like a bucket of pain splashed on the canvas. These lensed are made for drawing at night – when each photon matters, when the human eye is not capable of seeing colors, and when people open up to you - by the fireplace, with a candle, under the fireworks.
Then we have a whole new world before our eyes. Colors and colorful people. Smiles and tears. Music and noise (no silence ever). Breath and stank. Toxicity and invigoration. Poets and lyrics. Begging for money and satisfaction without greed. Being of past, and present, and future. A Prokofiev and a Rachmaninov piano concerto – Bach doesn't fit at night but the Russian romantics and surrealists do.
We are drawn to that world, as photographers. It is revealing, it is unseen. It is a secret. Perhaps, its allure is in its invisibility. Or maybe, photography is just the artist's attempt at escaping death, which often comes at night, in the dark, without us seeing. We all want our picture taken, our presence documented, our loved by our side. The fear of perpetual neglect is what has driven the artist for centuries. So what's so new with photography? Infinite reproducibility? And isn't it through photography that we try to live in another age? To move to the times which we like - recreating the ages, recreating the clothes, the make-up, recreate the greatest and most beautiful era. But isn't any one of them like that? Aren't we all trying to escape the present?
But life is a little unsatisfying. And that's why we need to document each and every part of it - the happy parts and the sad parts, the ones we want to forget and the ones we want to remember forever. But above all, we must document the ones we want to live in.