Thoughts

London Eyes - Lessons from a weekend in London

One often forgets what it means to be living in England. Well, of course I wouldn't know since I don't live there actually. But that's not the point. What I mean is that when I approached the gate, I knew already that it is a different type of a flight - first, the person behind the Mövenpick counter was a Greek and he still managed to sound British enough in his politeness apologizing profusely for the lack of soya milk and stirring my sugar in my regular black coffee. Then was the fact that people at the gate chatted - I mean they chatted loudly, and they approached each other - they approach each other although they were perfect strangers - they found someone in common just by looking at each other - maybe it was the fashionable outfit with the green Vuitton holdall and the red driving Tod's, or maybe it was the Indian dark-skinned complexion and fast speed of everything they said, or maybe it was the pink-skinned cheeks reminding one that England is rightfully a place where sunscreen is needed once a year (in case you wonder, that's in spring - when the foreign tourists start flashing their camera flashes).

But what is most stunning (or "jolly" if I want to try to sound more British than I should be allowed to) is that every sentence contains a word of endearment - it either starts with it or it ends with it (if it s a question it usually ends with it; as a statement it might as well be both in the beginning and in the end). "Lovely choice, darling", "what did you think of that film we saw last night, dear?", "what will it be, mate?", and on and on (and if you prefer: "darling, what can  get you?" To which one replies cheerfully "I'd have a lovely coffee, please" even if one doesn't know that the coffee is going to be [or not] lovely). 

Once in place, of course we have Lufthansa so we have a very German greeting attempting to sound well-placed "Good evening, this is your captain, the weather in London is slightly worse than in Dusseldorf..." - of course the weather forecast takes precedence but not because one needs the information but because one has to be able to channel that frustration - you know, the one that is suppressed when one is saying "Sir, what drink can I help you to?" They don't need it to know what to wear or which umbrella to bring. And of course, the weather was nothing that a Brit would consider "worse" - not even compared to tropical sunshine - "nah, just a little bit of wet air, that's all - nothing to write home about". 

And of course they will be the ones to make you a compliment on the camera - nowhere else do they do that - not even in Germany although of course they all know the Leica - they are so proud that they happily would tell you that the last German Leica was made in the 1960s. But no - they just stare at it trying to be inconspicuous. But I've been outbound to England for a mere hour before two people chatted me up about it. And the trouble is - I don't know how to respond to such compliments - I've lost the touch of being tossed an opportunity for small talk and not knowing how to handle it - almost like being tossed a ball you were very good at catching in the distant past but your callous fingers are no longer able to register it. So we do the best we can - we smile casually and let the ball fall. Perhaps I need just a day or two - we shall test and them I will know if it is because of my orange bow tie or simply a logical continuation of the "cheers, mate".

The flight goes uneventful of course - because we are all polite German travellers who don't talk to each other. Apart from the loud English party at the back - I am not sure what they argued about but I hear "biscuits" and "Elton John" mentioned on several occasions - not that this would have narrowed down the topics - "biscuits" and "Elton John" are pretty much present in every conversation between the British. And for a very good reason. Biscuits go with tea so they are ingrained in the culture of the society ("naturally") like nothing else (no wonder they have a special association - English Biscuit Manufacturers - like the unions in France or the guilds in Terry Pratchett's novels). And then there is Elton - Sir Elton (he couldn't possible be called Sir John - that's way too informal and generic); he is part of the conversation as a quintessentially British icon of the rebellion they all want to wear on their sleeves: rebellion in music, rebellion in lifestyle, even rebellion in ageing.

But I don't think they were discussing Elton John's choice of biscuits and when we disembarked, I was too jittery to focus on their conversation - I was walking on British soil, breathing in the British air (saturated in humidity), and feeling as if I had landed on a different planet - confusing enough that I had to keep repeating to myself "right, left, right, left" - but also embracing enough that wherever I looked, I could see the melting pot - the immigration officers weren't pink enough in their face, the souvenir stands were served by what appeared to be Asians, and only one of the passengers in the underground on that first afternoon wore tweed. And I felt part of it - I felt included without giving up my pink-and-turquoise socks (now that I think about it, they probably even helped with their semi-sartorial look). 

And that's the thing about the British - they include you. You go to a museum, and they don't care if you are a student of art theory, or if you read tabloids and the gossip column - you get to get in - you are admitted without the punishment of an entrance fee. You are living the idea of free and widely distributed education in that most fundamentally aristocratic nation. And perhaps this is where the difference between the French aristocracy and the British one is born: exclusivity vs. inclusivity (that, and self-efficacingness vs. self-aggrondization). 

So, my lessons of a weekend in London state that no matter what nation your host comes from, you take the biscuits with a polite "oh, that's lovely, isn't it", you dip them in your tea (first milk, and then the tea, of course), you smile looking through the window (with the casual remark, as if to yourself, "oh, isn't that a lovely day, darling"), and, in the words of Sir Elton, you "surrender to the rush of day" and enjoy the "enchanted moment" with your precious company and go take pictures!

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VSCO cam and VSCO film (and VSCO Grid)

I find myself in a funny predicament - I had shot very little film as a young boy (I loved taking pictures when my parents and I went to Thailand which was absolutely great) and I love film now - I've been shooting more and more since April when I got my M7 and what strikes me with film is how wonderful the feeling is to know that the image is crafted - not just made but crafter: I load the film myself, I carefully choose what to shoot, I rewind the film myself, I develop the film myself, and only then do I enter the more digital world of scanning. The development of the film is a pleasure like no other - loading it in the spool blindfolded, mixing the chemicals in the magical movement of stirring every minute (as if one brews a potion), and then pulling out the negative and looking at the pictures for the first time - it is like magic indeed. And every time, the film comes out to life with a passion - with a soul.

This is what a lot of digital photography isn't about - it tends to be about quick shooting of many pictures, and the plastic-ifying of colours and textures. And this is where some digital software comes into play to create effects that mimic the dynamics, the imperfections, and the colours of film. VSCO (Visual Supply) is a company that has been creating digital tools for the photographers who want to instill soul into their work. One of their more unusual products (VSCO Keys, which I am yet to try) is quite different from other digital tools in that it enables one to get closer to the grafting of the filme with their hands - with movements and typing - it is reminiscent of writing in which the real tool are the fingers and not the keyboard on which it is written. 

But it is not about VSCO Keys that I want to talk about but about their presets. In fact, not even about that, nor about VSCO Cam (Reloaded - which is an extraordinary deprture from other camera apps). I want to talk about their ambitious goal - to create beautiful things and to share them with the world - their VSCO Grid.

Their presupposition - when we were kids crafting - is what fills me with emotions - because photography for me is indeed about celebrating both the "beautiful" and the "broken" in life. Because we can be cynical but when we were kids, we were ballerinas - pure, elegant, spontaneous, playful ... - and that's what I aim for with my photography - to campture not the cynicism but the idealism, to encapsulate movement and dance without chains and restrictions, to translate darkness into light, to bend the borders of reality through a blend of realism and imagination, and to liberate the child hidden behind the mask of adulthood. To be pure. Thank you, VSCO!

You can visit my VSCO Grid at Traveller Between Spaces.

 

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Shooting film along digital in Venice

A couple of months ago, I was in Paris. I walked smiling hand in hand with my darling. And we were loving the air - it was chilly but the sun was out and we happened upon a Leica boutique. The romantic idea of shooting film has been in my mind for months. I wouldn't have wanted to trade camera systems or to use a different approach when photographing - I just wanted to try the medium - to take away the temptation to check out the picture immediately after taking it, and to remove the thought of sharpness and picture quality that has been plaguing me. In other words *i* wanted to create my images - not leaving the job to my camera.

The Leica store had a number of second-hand cameras and among them was a relatively beat-up M7. I was assured it was fully functional and ready to go. And so the next couple of days in Paris were documented with it. It was a risky decision - I had never shot film (as a kid I did but we all this then - I hadn't shot film since I took up photography with the enthusiasm of a hobbyist), and I was clueless about its behavior and interaction with light. But I knew the camera system and the 35 mm Summicron was something I felt right at home with. The first 36 or so frames felt awkward - I didn't know what to do with the rewind knob, I had not acquired the muscle memory of rewinding after each shot, and I often felt surprised at how quiet the shutter was. The first film I used was Ilford FP4 and it took me some time to switch to the black-and-white mental mode but this wasn't such a foreign part considering I've shot with cameras with the black-and-white preview function on. And I enjoyed the process - when I got those pictures from the lab, I was excited like a kid - I rushed to my darling to show her our pictures.

Several weeks down, and a few more rolls, I am now also equipped to develop my own black-and-white film at home. And I was ready when we were planning a trip to Venice again. Arriving in Venice, I couldn't wait to leave the suitcase at the hotel. My girlfriend had the digital and I had the film. Parallel to that, I also had of course my iPhone. And there were a few pictures that I took both with the film and with the phone. The black-and-white pictures below were scans made with a dedicated film scanner (quite poor) with some additional noise applied to get rid of the artifacts from the poor scan; the color pictures are the iPhone pictures with a VSCO film preset.

Looking at those color pictures, I am transported into the context by the realism of the digital pictures - the sharpness creates flatness, the realistic color plunge us in the context, the composition does not drive the eye in any particular direction, the sunshine is tangible, and my memory is triggered. I have a sentimental connection to those color pictures - I am thrilled that they are realistic, that they can tell me where I took the picture, they can tell me the settings under which it was taken, they are a correct recording of my visual experience. But ...

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And here's the "but" - when I took the film picture, I took it because I had an emotional attachment to the moment - I was screaming with happiness, I was internally experiencing tickle all over my sensory pleasure centers, I was seeing the world not through my eyes but through my mind - I lifted the camera and took a picture during a blink not because I wanted to take a picture but because I wanted to capture the feeling *i* was having - you can't capture a feeling on a two-dimensional silver-decorated plastic but that film picture is so removed from the reality that it becomes an abstraction - and it is an abstraction of my feeling in that moment:

The sharpness of the grains is like acceleration through space and time, the lack of color grinds the context to graphite abstraction, the composition draws the eye through stacks of lines, the sunshine is pure white distinguishing the hairs and the cracks through shades, and my memory... - I am experiencing the warmth of the sunshine, the smell of the sea weed, and the calls of the gondoliers. And I am there - hand in hand with my smiling darling.

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Hipstamatic - The New Disposable

The very first idea of this post came to me many months ago - I was reviewing my app-use trying to see if I could clean up a little bit my iPhone from apps that I don't use and camera apps take the largest share of apps for me. This leads to a struggle every time I want to take a picture - which app to use? Luckily most apps offer the option to import a picture from the camera roll so I can simply use the regular camera app that Apple includes. But Hipstamatic is an exception and as one of the very few exceptions (there was also Lomora 2 some time ago but a big update last year made it possible to import photos) of apps that simply take a picture not allowing you to import or to export original file. And that appears to be something they are adamant not to change. And I think this idea is a revelation in today's photographic sphere where multiple edits and painting over pictures diminishes the spontaneous nature of preserving a memory. When one spends too much time thinking of how a picture should look like, it is no longer a collection of an emotion but a polished work of art - and that's quite alright, too. But I take the picture not because I want to make art for someone else but to preserve a memory for myself. 

There is something scary about standing in front of a finished piece of art - it is there, it carries its own value and it is immutable. It is not encouraging the question "what will happen if ..." but it asks the question "what made it happen". These are two distinct world-views - the exploratory and the questioning, the courageous and the accommodating, the acting and the observing, the emotional and the objective.

The finished work of art (the one that is thought through and designed by nature) is not welcoming; it is only existing out there, occupying space and time - demonstrating the great power of the human mind to design. The unpolished work on the other hand (the one with imperfections) is a charmer; it starts its existance challenging its own existance - it takes up no space and no time - and yet it is there demonstrating the great power of the human ego to feel.

And it is this questionning power and self-effacing evaluation in today's ego-, head-, and objectivity-centered society that make us add those imperfections and the unplanned to our pictures - consciously or not. And I am guilty as charged to extole and abuse them to my own catharctic advantage.

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The Unlikely Duel - M8 vs. M9. Or Not.

Sometimes, it helps to be undecided. I won't claim that I haven't been too fortunate (or too extravagant) to actually own both an M9 and an M8 (not because of necessaty or frugality). I started with the M8 two years ago. I won't go into how it all happened (the mythical image precedes the know-how). A year after the release of the M9, I thought I could see the prices on the used market starting to go down and I thought this might be might chance. I put the M8 for auction quickly, I cleaned up the lens collection (that gear acquistion syndrom in reverse - I can't believe that back then my latest version Summicron 50 was just 700 euros - it goes for double this right now), and I had the cash for the M9. About a year later, in September, I was preparing for my first big wedding shoot and I knew I should have a spare camera - not because I didn't rely on the M9 alone but because I wanted to have greater flexibility with lenses and not need to change my mindset with every picture. So I went for a spare M8.2. With all of its shortcomings, I had forgotten it was my first fling with rangefinders. It didn't replace the M9, but it was there, calling for me. The files it produced in black-and-white were different from the files coming from the M9 - probably the algorythm is different but it was helpted by the infrared sensitivity of the camera. The files had a certain crispness which I didn't seem to get from the M9 (I am even thinking I might need to send in the M9 for clean and check). It had a different look and style as well with its less-reflective black-chrome top (ok, not a real M8.2 but an upgraded M8) combination. But the point of this post is not to compare the M8 and the M9 - for one thing, there have been enough comparisons made already (and most anyone would claim that, should money be of no concern [which, let's face it, with a price point like this, it would be only for very few people], you should get the M9). For another thing, I don't really care about this comparison. And I do get the question "what camera did you use?" often - often enough that I am reminded of that joke about the photographer who bit his lips receiving the compliment "monsieur, I love your photographs; you must have a wonderful camera" from the hostess at a social party; at the end of the party, he goes to the hostess and tells her "madame, I loved your food - you must have a wonderful oven". [please, remind me who this was]

The real problem we face as photographers is becoming attached to the equipment more than to the subject of our photographs - and that's what's scarying me and what's making me use different equipment every now and again - getting rid of the M8 again and again (I think I've bought and sold 3 or 4 M8-s since my acquisition of the M9 - at least the M9 is still the very same one which I got from another great street photographer, Guido Steenkamp).

Why do I categorize my photographs in order of equipment rather than in order of subject? Is the reason for a landscape to exist different from a street photograph to exist? Why does a photograph of Yosemity park taken by Ansel Adams attracts different cache than the same photograph taken by an unknown hiker? Why would a photograph taken with an M8 have a different value than one taken with an M9 (or any other cell-phone)?

Perhaps this is related to our own individual conception of what constitutes art:

☐ anything

☐ something

☐ nothing.

[tick where appropriate]

And perhaps the institutional definition of art has its merits, as does the Kantian and Hegelian and all western-centered philosophers' (and one can even fit the functional definition of art in there somewhere when one looks at documentary photography). 

If we talk about esthetics, yes - of course the technical specifications of the tool will lead to different esthetics - but a tool is a tool - the tool for a job - the job begins in the mind rather than in the hand. Or does it - because how often would I pull out the iPhone when I have the Leica? In fact, having both is confusing - it is the beginning of an inner dialogue that is about choice - and the risks of taking the wrong one (and shooting with the wrong tool). Perhaps here the saying that the best choice is the one you've already made is the most sparing mantra. Esthetics aside, we are in the search of capturing a moment - and all that is contained in that moment (a hundredth of a second). And the tool is the emotions carrier - the canister that can contain our love, our pain, our strength, and our sorrow. 

Why do I have so many tools then?!

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