Case in point to the power digital imaging for capturing moments in the dark. Bring on the night.
There’s a spot I love to camp in Utah, on the edge of a red rock canyon miles from the nearest town. On a clear moonless night the stars are so rich that I can never sleep. I spend most of the night gazing at the curls and eddies of the Milky Way, smiling at passing satellites and listening to wind hiss off the wing feathers of diving swallows working the cliff-edge currents.
“I’ll find a deal on a clock drive,” I’d think to myself, wondering how I could photograph this amazing visual. I’d get the star-tracking device astronomers use to keep a far-off celestial object in their lens for longer than a few seconds.
Using film, or a digital camera only three years ago, it would have been necessary to expose for hours to get the detail I wanted. And without complex engineering the stars would all move and become the clichéd star trails in a camping photo. The clock drive would be a compromise too, as in relation the ground would move. Capturing both that sky and the canyons below it would be a daunting task.
Now camera manufacturers have reached astronomical heights in low-noise ISO, and making that photo is remarkably simple: A bright lens, ISO 1600 or so and maybe 30 seconds. In that time the stars don’t move much and the camera’s sensor seems to see into even the shadows of light cast through the atmosphere by a city a hundred miles off, or from the stars themselves. I just have to get back to that favorite spot under a new moon.
But it’s not just about stars and gimmicks. As the photographers of the last century must have felt when film reached ISO 100, “You can photograph anything now.”
ISO has become such a versatile and useful element in the equation of photography that I wish camera makers would promote the controls for it to the same level as shutter speed and aperture. I want to change it as often as I change those two.
For Harry- or Mary-DSLR-owner this means great cushion in getting that family moment onto Facebook. For a professional photojournalist, though, it is versatile power. Some of the world’s most disturbing, telling or satisfying moments happen after the sun is down, in only the smallest hints of light. What every storyteller wants are better tools with which to tell the full story.
This power was immediately put to use in the toughest places. Images of conflict and injustice in the night started appearing as fast as this generation of cameras appeared. Look, for example, at the work of Tyler Hicks and Michael Kamber. Also, while searching unsuccessfully for one image (possibly by Hicks or Kamber) I found the work of Michael Yon.
And in their latest edition, National Parks magazine filled their cover and several inside spreads with starry landscapes. The story was written by my colleague and sometime student Anne Minard.
Another of the great gifts of digital photography is the perfect ability to correct color in white balance. This has been there since the first RAW files on my notoriously bad Nikon D1. (Give it a break. It was first out of the chute for truly usable digital cameras.) Film corrections took exposure-robbing filters that needed a huge investment in time and money to reach commercial perfection.
These wonderful tools are certainly helpful to amateurs too, and lately a few colleagues have admitted being nervous about them in the hands of just anyone. I suppose in days of old it was as much the technical craft of photography that separated us pros from the great un-hypo-cleared masses as anything. Only we had the know-how to correct fluorescent lights and expose at ISO 3200. But what has separated us from just anyone with a camera is the ability to tell the story well and accurately.
It’s not the tools that do the job. It’s the experience of the photographer that does.
This is a beautiful age in our art. Not only do we have almost all the power of the film world still at hand, but we have the ever expanding power of the digital world at our fingertips.
This is my ode to the digital age. Never has our toolbox been so full.
Thank you for being patient between posts as I teach, study and shoot. Summer is here!
Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera
Charles Moore is the legendary Montgomery photojournalist whose coverage of the Civil Rights era produced some of the most famous shots in the world (the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, the Selma Bridge, and Martin Luther King’s arrest in Montgomery, among many others.) His photographs are credited with helping to quicken the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The noted historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said that Moore’s photographs transformed the national mood and made the legislation not just necessary, but possible. This is his story.
Each semester, as I show some of the work of Bruce Davidson to my students, I find myself wondering why I can only name a few photographers who deeply covered the Civil Rights Movement: Davidson, the recently deceased Charles Moore, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks… There are a few others.
The events of the movement — big and small, violent and not — are the material of photojournalism dreams. As we develop as photographers we imagine honing in on where the world is changing, going there and documenting history in the making. As a culture we look back with awe at what was accomplished by brave activists, marchers and average citizens.
But why does it seem so few photographers of the time honed in on that movement as a historic change in American history? Like today, there were tens of thousands of photojournalists in the U.S.
Perhaps it was the background news noise of a generation. We feel the brief flash of an earthquake, but not the constant continental drift. I’m sure many more photographers than those above were dispatched to a march, a riot, an arrest, and covered them as one-off news events without ever sinking into that time of great change as a story itself.
So what is happening today, around us, as background news noise, that will be an astounding piece of history to the next generation? And when will we start working on it?
As I sit and type this gently on the elegant and thin modern keyboard of my computer, I find myself wishing for the catharsis of a mechanical typewriter.
Behind me, on the other end of my office, is my grandfather’s 1923 Underwood upright. As a kid I pounded on it until all the keys bunched up in a wad. I rolled the platen. I rang the little end-of-line bell.
I love computers and digital technology. I am fascinated by the powerful communication tools offered by the 21st century. But nothing beats a cool mechanical device. The sensuality adds to the creative process.
Writing on that machine — a few high school papers when my father wouldn’t let me on his IBM Correcting Selectric — was a physical endeavor with all the rewards of exercise. You swing fingers into the long throw of the keys, controlling the strength of a word through how hard you pounded the letters. The emotion of a word or line exploded into the act of typing.
Each line musically ended with a sweet ding and a gratifying swipe at the carriage return lever. Through the process your mind needed to stay three steps ahead of your fingers, plotting each word and paragraph in advance to avoid a retype of at least a page. When that page was done, you could melodramatically grab the paper and yank it out of the platen with a satisfying and final buzz of the ratchet.
Just over a year ago I pulled out the small portable Smith-Corona my father used in college. I thought my seven-year-old guests would be happily occupied banging on the keys and tangling the font the way I did. “Is this an old computer?” Zoe asked with a gasp of fascination.
In photography I get the same pleasure from pulling a dark slide out from in front of a fat sheet of film, or from cranking a film roll into a Rolleiflex, or from cocking the shutter of an old Flash-Supermatic leaf shutter. I listen to the soft trip of a Leica M3 at 1/60 second and savor the polished roll of the advance lever mechanics. The sense of beginning in those actions is so much more palpable than in the slip of a memory card into a slot and the tinny ping of a DSLR.
In a darkroom I still relish the feel of a roll winding onto the stainless-steel reels, the sour smell of the hypo, the suds of the Photoflo. Watching an image appear as I tip the corner of an amber-lit tray takes me instantly back to age 15, a basement darkroom, and the excitement of discovery.
But I am not a Luddite. I am a master’s student in Digital Media Studies at the University of Denver as well as a working digital photojournalist and photojournalism teacher. I find sensuality in the visual and aural output of the digital age and the elegance of its engineering. But that’s another post.
My message is only this: Remember to embrace the process of your work and find joy in it the way you find it in your images. As le maitre Henri Cartier-Bresson excitedly giggled and growled:
“For me it’s a physical pleasure, photography. It doesn’t take many brains. It doesn’t take any brains. It takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs. But it is beautiful when you feel that your body is working or, like this, full of air… And in contact with nature… It’s beautiful!… Pow… Grrrettta… Arrruff! …You see?!”
I was out of the country teaching photojournalism in southeast Asia when this series aired on WNYC and in edited form on NPR nationally.
Smith has long been one of my heroes for his polishing of the photographic essay form, starting with his 1948 Country Doctor essay and on to Minamata, one of the most powerful pieces of environmental journalism ever done.
Between the two he beautifully photographed Dr. Albert Schweitzer, nurse-midwife Maude Callen, a village in fascist Spain, Haitian insane asylums and many others.
Between that famous work for Life magazine and the stunning Minamata book, he lost himself, barely able to leave a dingy loft on New York’s Sixth Ave.
He continued to photograph — a personal and introverted essay shot entirely through his fractured window, “As From My Window I Sometimes Watch,” and thousands of images of the jazz musicians, such as Thelonious Monk, who came and went through the tenement at all hours of the day and night.
He also printed and collected obsessively, and tried to edit and reexamine his massive, beautiful and improvisational body of work from Pittsburgh.
At the same time, new technologies appeared that appealed both to Smith’s documentary impulses and to his undying interest in music — the tape recorder.
Late last year, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and WNYC produced an extensive audio documentary and book on The Jazz Loft where Smith lived. The program’s dual focus on Smith and the jazz musicians who jammed there is only possible thanks to Smith’s recorder, thousands of tapes, and his obsessive nature.
An exhibition of images will open at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on February 17 and run through May 22, 2010. It will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center, Duke University and the University of Arizona where Smith’s archive resides.
If Smith captures your imagination, admiration and sometimes train-wreck fascination the way he does with me, see the exhibition. Also seek out the 1989 docudrama “Photography Made Difficult,” and the 2003 book on his three-year, 11,000-frame Pittsburgh project.
Haiti could be the story of the year, and scores of international photojournalists are there now, more than a week after the devastating earthquake. Their work has been powerful and has unquestionably influenced the amount of aid headed there in the aftermath.
Though some journalism about the disaster (as usual) has been an embarrassment, overall the coverage has made me proud of my profession. Those photographers will eventually leave gratified, exhausted and permanently affected by their work.
But for the rest of us who are not there I suggest we support causes and charities that matter to us as photojournalists.
Here are a few photojournalist-related favorites:
Another one of very great importance is Internews, an organization that trains and supports local journalists around the world. Basic support of democracy, information and the Fourth Estate does not come from international journalists who parachute into the disaster. It must come from the locals who work the streets of countries like Haiti every day. And though those parachute journalists certainly help draw attention and support from the wider world, it is local information, delivered on the spot in local languages that can save lives immediately. Help Internews help Haitian and other local journalists get back up and running on their life-or-death jobs.
Read or listen to Bob Garfield’s interview last week with Mark Frohardt, the group’s vice president for Health and Humanitarian Media, on NPR’s On the Media…
…and then send a bit of help to any of the above.
To my readers I apologize for the sparsity of posts of late. Jobs of shooting and teaching now matched with study of my own has my schedule thoroughly filled. I hope you’ll stay tuned for monthly posts.
Through the generosity of the Rocky Mountain regional Leica rep, I had the chance to take Leica’s new full-frame, 18 megapixel rangefinder with me to Southeast Asia this month. It was a great chance to really use a camera thoroughly for evaluation. They loaned it to me mostly because I have one on order, and it wouldn’t be delivered before the trip.
I don’t write a camera review blog, but several students have asked for this. And rangefinder cameras (film, digital, old, new) have a deep place in photojournalism.
Reviews like this can also be very contentious as many photographers carry an irrational loyalty to certain brands or camera forms. I’m a fan of them all and find advantages in everything from a view camera to TLR, rangefinder, or high-speed DSLR. I’m camera agnostic. Please do comment, but do so knowing that these are simply my impressions from three weeks of use. This is far from the final word.
Form Factor, Handling, Construction
The reasons for using a rangefinder of any brand are often discussed. I’ll mention mine. There are quite a few rangefinders available, from Leica, Zeiss-Contax, some almost new from the recently defunct Rollei, also from Epson and Cosina/Voigtländer. There are classics still quite usable from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Kodak Retina. Many… These are much different than a live-view compact camera though. By rangefinder I mean there is an optical coupled rangefinder focus device that projects overlapping double images within the viewfinder.
You see differently through them. The whole view is sharp and in-focus, and many photographers like me find that composition becomes more complex and layered when you see at very deep depth of field. With an SLR you only see with the shallowest depth of field, which can yield a different kind of image.
Rangefinders are extremely quiet and subtle cameras, intimidating subjects far less with smaller size, less shutter noise, and by covering much less of your face when you shoot.
They are quick to lift, quick to focus (yes, even manually) and that makes them very stealthy on the street.
With all but the widest lenses, the photographer can see outside the frame while looking through the viewfinder. Once upon a time sports photographers preferred rangefinders because they could see the action coming and anticipate the moment very well. This has proven itself to me over and over. For example when using a long lens — a 90mm or a 135mm — I can see so much of the world outside the frame that catching a fleeting moment becomes simple. You know it is coming before it enters the frame lines. To get the same with an SLR you need that loud, fast, subject-startling motor. Why was le maitre Henri so good at catching those decisive moments? Perhaps because he could see outside the frame of his shot. My timing is much better with a rangefinder than it is with an SLR.
Fast motor speeds are irrelevant with these cameras. First because timing is actually easier, and second because if you’re going to spray shots at eight frames per second you might as well use a big obtrusive camera with gigantic zoom lenses.
I use SLRs too, and they have their advantages. Rangefinders just do different things for me.
The M9 is certainly a Leica rangefinder. In the hand it only feels different from 50 years of M ancestors because there’s no thumb advance and the body is slightly thicker. The view through the finder is more than familiar. It feels almost exactly like my M8 and much like my M6s.
The construction of this one was fairly solid as I would expect — again, much like my M8. But I have three complaints. Starting with the M6TTL, Leica changed the way the rangefinder is calibrated. Now repairmen need a special tool. I think Leica did this so people would stop wrecking their cameras by trying to fix it themselves (a bit patronizing). But the aftereffect is that the calibration screw cannot be tightened as well even by a good repairman. The cameras are easier to knock out of alignment.
This one was no exception. It is a demo model that had been handled before I picked it up, and sure enough the focus calibration was slightly off. I couldn’t safely use long lenses wide open and be sure of a sharp image. For that I used my better-adjusted M8. On this slightly off M9 the wide angles were razor sharp wide open, but they are more forgiving than a 90mm f/2.0 for example
My other complaint with this one is that the twist latch on the camera’s bottom plate — where you put battery and SD card, and where you once loaded film — was a bit loose. The cover fit perfectly, but the latch handle sagged a bit.
The third complaint is that though my M8 will (albeit begrudgingly) use a high-capacity SD card, the M9 will not yet. I assume that will be corrected in firmware. But with these big files a 2GB card fills fast.
Here’s the important part. The shape of the camera, after all, is more than 50 years old.
Leica’s first digital rangefinder was the 10-megapixel M8. The M9 has now 18 megapixels. They did this simply with a 30-percent physical increase in size from the M8’s sensor. The pixels themselves are the same size and the same distance apart from each other on the chip.
Though in the digital age the first 8 megapixels were life or death, I have to say these last 8 megapixels make for a much smaller difference. You can see a bit more detail in the images from an M9 than those from the M8. But shooting the M8 raw makes images that can be very nicely interpolated to 25 megapixels and have an image only marginally inferior to one from a 25-megapixel camera.
Print both as large-format magazine doubletrucks and you will not see a difference. You won’t in 16X20 prints either. How much resolution do you need and what is it worth in terms of investment in camera and data storage?
The great resolution is achieved in Leica’s cameras by using a much weaker anti-aliasing filter, which does a variety of geeky things including eliminating the moire that happens when photographing visual patterns like window screens.
Though you get a moire slightly more often (it’s not often a big deal) you do get much sharper images. And that sharp Kodak sensor paired with so-sharp-you-can-cut-yourself-on-the-pictures Leica lenses, you can enlarge much more. Pixels be damned.
Resolution is not only about pixel count, and the M8 started in a good place there. But then they made the M9 with 18 megapixels.
On both cameras the color quality and depth are excellent. It is slightly better on the M9 than the M8. There’s a very rich natural contrast range and good saturation. But the depth is there too, giving a raw shooter the ability to soften contrast, dodge, burn, correct shadows and highlights with as little damage as one finds in new high-end Japanese SLRs.
The M8 was good, though, and still is. I have no complaints about its color depth, though my three-years-newer SLR is a bit deeper. The M9 has caught that fine Japanese machine for color.
The M8 suffered at the beginning from too much infrared sensitivity. This was due to a thinner IR filter on the sensor — a necessary compromise to make the thing fit in such a small body. Leica caught hell for this, probably because with Leica most people expect the camera to start out perfect. And why not at these prices? Leica fixed that with lens-mounted filters, and they gave each M8 buyer two. Problem (almost) solved.
To get the full benefit of that fix also required having the lens mount changed to sport a set of black and white stripes that tell the camera which lens you are using. The cost was $75 per lens (cheap for anything Leica) but took some time. It was particularly necessary with the wide lenses that would suffer a cyan-colored vignette from the filter. Problem exchanged.
With long lenses (50mm and up) that vignette is not noticeable if there at all, so the lens mount change was not as necessary. I skipped it on lenses from 35mm and longer. But then the camera creates image thumbnails that look a bit green and a bit weak on some image browsers like Photo Mechanic that just use them straight from the camera’s file. The images themselves are lovely, but the thumbs can be uninspiring.
By fixing this IR problem in the M9 you gain a couple things. You don’t need the filters anymore and you don’t need the lens mount coding if you can’t afford it.
That 6-bit lens mount code does still have function. It helps the camera correct aberrations and vignettes, and records the focal length in metadata. But who cares? You can fix the very rare lens problem in many raw converters, and only absolute camera geeks care about that level of metadata detail.
The M9 does suffer from one color issue. With extreme wide angle lenses you may see a magenta shift on the sides fading over 1/4 of the frame. It’s annoying. It’s a tricky thing to fix in editing either raw or in Photoshop.
This is caused by the extreme angle at which the light rays hit the sensor when coming from a super-wide. I see it when I use my inexpensive little Voigtländer 15mm lens. This may be something corrected by the firmware in the M9 when using a Leica branded and coded lens, like their 16mm.
If you like extreme wides, you might think twice, or cash out for the Leica lenses. I use that lens rarely in full-frame shooting. I got it so the cropped-sensor M8 would have a 21mm perspective. It worked very well for that. I doubt I’d use it on an M9 except in emergency.
Low noise is not the realm of the Leica M8 nor M9. If you want the best quality at insanely high ISOs, have a look at the Japanese models.
But the M9 is a one-stop improvement over the M8, now making shooting at up to 1600 fairly pleasant. Pair that with a series of lenses that are one to four stops faster than a Japanese zoom and you’re fine.
This camera uses a CCD sensor designed for optimum sharpness. They also apply far less firmware noise correction than the high-end DSLRs do. So though they are noisier, the images are sharper. And if I need to fix noise, I’d rather have full computer control myself than leaving it irrecoverably to the camera.
Many have praised the noise of the M8 (and now the M9) as looking more like film grain than other cameras. I love film grain for what it is. But it’s crazy to think of paying $7,000 for film grain. I’d rather have noiseless images at every ISO and add it later if I’m feeling nostalgic.
Leica’s “film grain” noise is not an advantage to praise. But correcting that noise is very easy to do thanks to the sharpness of the images. The M8 or M9 shot raw and processed delicately through Noise Ninja or another software solution yields images as noiseless as a high-end DSLR even at extreme ISO.
I have not posted high-ISO images here because doing so at such a small size is fairly meaningless. But here is a link to a raw file at ISO 1250, the highest rating I tried. Play at your leisure. The camera will go to 2500, but I hadn’t planned a detailed review and rarely shoot there on my own. Other reviewers have nice examples.
Should you get one?
Here’s the deal. The camera body is $7,000 ($5,200 for students). That’s a chunk of change. It’s a couple trips overseas to shoot a story or two. It’s some big Japanese glass. It could pay for lots of things. New lenses start at about $1,300 and shoot to $10,000 each. Used they are half that, but half that is still a lot. I have taken more than 20 years to put together my kit from mostly used gear.
There are great cheaper lenses available from Voigtländer, Zeiss, and Rollei if you can find them. The cameras use almost every Leica lens made since 1955.
But the price is something to think seriously about.
If you have no Leica and want a digital one, I’d say the M9 is your machine. You’ll get happy use from it for years. Get new lenses and you’ll benefit from all that the Leica firmware can provide.
It might be $1,500 better than the M8.2, assuming you could still find an M8.2 new.
It is not $3,000 better than the original M8 if you can find one of those new.
It certainly is not $5,000 better than a used M8 camera.
The older M8 is still a great machine and the differences in practice are very small between it and the M9.
If you’re poor and you REALLY REALLY want full frame, get an M6 or earlier body. The price difference between a used M6 ($1,000) and an M9 would buy an awful lot of Kodak’s amazing new Ektar 100 film, with processing, or many other great films. Buy a Voigtländer camera with their good lenses and save even more.
And if you’d just like to try a rangefinder camera for fun, haunt ebay, flea markets and pawn shops for a 1960s-vintage Canonette, Olympus Pen F or XA, or a Russian or Chinese Leica knockoff.
When you’re sure you are a rangefinder shooter, then the M9 is worth every penny.
What can a photographic portrait actually tell us? At the most we see a singular fleeting expression that was either concocted by the subject or directed by the photographer. We see a hairstyle, some clothing perhaps, and sometimes the context of environment.
But can a human being ever be so simplified? To sum up a person, or even a particular moment in the life of a person, would be an incredibly complex task. In many modes of photography that would be irrelevant. But in journalism we would still argue that our portraits are out to truthfully represent at least an aspect of a person.
That is a virtually impossible quality to judge though. As the subject we are always trying to present our own imagined version of physical or stylistic selves.
As the photographer we are always interpreting — for right or wrong — that person. We are photographing our own reading of the subject.
Viewers see only what they want to see in a portrait. Judgment is immediate and preconceptions are made.
Yesterday as I drove home listening to NPR’s All Things Considered, a story on a previously unknown photographer caught in my ear.
Robert Bergman, who had worked for 60 years with little recognition, was now featured in Washington, D.C., and New York art institutions. The shows come for his portraits, described — and shown on the Web — as simple, posed images of people found on the street. They come with no contextual information.
“I would say that anytime we meet a person it is impossible for us to not somehow figure out what they are about. We start doing that instinctively,” Bergman said in a comment only available on the audio. “We figure them out by projecting our own fantasies on them. That’s called stereotyping or typologizing. We sentimentalize them even if we think we’re glorifying them.”
Yes, I thought on a second listen, he understands it. We not only do that upon meeting someone, but we do it with even greater eagerness when we look at a portrait. We cannot help but carry our own assumptions and our own histories into a portrait, particularly when we have no context for that person. Had we met them on the street we would have a thousand more clues about them, from their gestures to accent, expression and vocabulary.
I think that’s why we love portraits so much. Few other kinds of images are so much about us as viewers.
Take the ubiquitous image of a third-world child staring at a camera. I once had an editor who inelegantly said as he looked at some portfolios, “I never want to see another picture of a brown kid staring at the camera again.”
His point was to ask what those images — so often found in the work of young photographers returning from their first trip abroad — could ever really say.
But those images are immensely popular among our readers. Many times I have heard people say they “feel a connection” to that subject, as if through silver or ink they are communicating with each other. This happens so readily that the great Sebastião Salgado published a book entirely of third-world children staring at his camera. I have long imagined it as his top seller. People sense pride and dignity, openness, intimacy and many other sentiments in those images. Bergman’s are getting similar reactions.
But are any of those things really there?
Arrive in a remote village or even in suburbia and the kids will stare at you. The crazy tall person with the camera is a fascination and a curiosity. The kid staring picture may also be an easy image for a non-professional to make, as most travelers are shy, slow or uncomfortable to snap pictures on the sly. The eye contact is tacit approval to press the trigger.
Viewers can also be touched by a pained expression, a look of misery or a “haunted gaze.” Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of an Afghan girl with such a gaze has captured the imagination of several generations. It is a phenomenon.
But what was the source of that gaze? The horror of war? Poverty? Oppression? It could well be. Or maybe it’s just a look of surprise to find some foreign-looking stranger aiming a camera at her in a culture where such actions are very rare. I have no idea and no way to judge, really. Our interest is not as much in who she is and what her circumstances may be, as it is in what we imagine or stereotype them to be.
Does anything change with adult portraits? Complex portraits? Environmental portraits? I don’t think so. They are still simply a subject trying to present a P.R. image combined with a photographer trying to directly interpret that subject combined with a viewer attaching too much of themselves to the image’s significance.
That can be interesting art, but potentially skewed documentation. And perhaps it applies to every kind of photograph, with or without a documentary purpose.
The comments of Sarah Greenough, the curator of Bergman’s Washington exhibition confirmed it all and even contradicted Bergman himself. “The end result is that the people sort of seem to reveal their own humanity in front of the camera.”
I disagree. The subjects of Bergman’s work have simply revealed a tiny little story — be it true or false — that they created for his camera. In a game of telephone Bergman selected a moment where he thought he understood that story. And the viewers are the last conveyors of the game’s call with all their subjective misinterpretation in tow.
This isn’t Bergman’s problem. “Well it’s about art,” he said. “I’m an artist, not a social scientist. I’m not a do-gooder. I’m not a documentarian. I’m not a journalist.”
How then, as journalists, can we make a portrait be viable? We do this by understanding well how portraits are seen. We struggle to listen and observe carefully so we don’t misinterpret our subjects or saddle them with our own life experience. We are careful to represent people in ways that are hopefully not mis- or over-interpreted by the viewers.
Can it work?
You tell me.
This week featured photojournalism-related news that seemed to come from two different realities. In many ways the issues and sentiments are the same — protection of privacy. But privacy is not an issue in either case. Both are about protection from criticism.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week a new law making it easier to sue media outlets that allegedly invade a celebrity’s privacy.
It seems our problem of making some citizens more equal than others persists. Why should Arnold and his friends be more protected from images than the rest of us? And what are they protecting? The treatment of the issue implies that celebrities (by what definition?) are being violently assaulted. Yet all the pictures usually show is a poorly dressed, anorexic or obese celeb shopping for accessory-dog food. They are not protecting their physical selves, just their well-crafted marketing image.
At the same time, new rules on journalists embedded with the military in Afghanistan prevent photographs of U.S. Soldiers killed in action. An image (linked above from News Photographer magazine) by Julie Jacobson seems to have reignited the old issue.
“Media have multiple ways to cover the war in Afghanistan and embedding is only one of the choices available. The press retains the option to report independently or as a media embed with military forces,” a Master Sgt. Clementson told the NPPA’s News Photographer magazine.
Access, where have you gone? I can’t imagine how one could be in the presence of battle without being embedded. Without those images, war coverage drifts toward “propaganda by omission.” And the price of war is hidden from the citizens who pay for it with money and lives.
Does this rule protect a soldier? The dignity of death? The family? Perhaps tangentially. But it unquestionably protects the military’s well-crafted marketing image.
I have little sympathy for celebrities, but I do have sympathy for soldiers and the risky, difficult job they perform. But, as it was once said of battlefield casualty photography (if you know the source of the quote, send it my way), images of a soldier’s death honor that death as the ultimate sacrifice.
Many argue that a block on such pictures is meant to protect the families of the victims. That is a worthy sympathy too. But that place is a funny one to draw such a line. If that holds true, should we not avoid photos of any casualty? Any disaster? Any death? Valuable coverage of the world would greatly suffer. We need to see to believe, and to understand the impact of our or others’ actions.
Two worlds under the control of marketing. In both the surface hides the reality beneath.
“May I talk to the Federal Police?” I asked in my best Brazilian Portuguese as the security inspector fondled my film. She nodded to a badge-wearing cop sitting a couple meters away.
“We told this guy the machines won’t hurt film up to ISO 500, but he won’t even let us put the film below that on the belt,” she huffed after he approached.
For most professional photographers who have ever worked overseas, this sounds like a tale from the last century. But it’s not. It was 9/9/09.
I had walked up with fair confidence that the security inspectors at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport would easily hand check my heap of film. I had been through this line a dozen times over the years, without trouble.
I asked the young belt attendant to please hand check the film. She looked at one roll — ISO 100 — and chucked the whole bag on the belt, mumbling something unintelligible to me.
“Por favor, não!” I begged, lunging to grab the film. I’m surprised I wasn’t arrested right then and there.
“I said it won’t hurt anything under 500,” she said, referencing a threshold I had never heard before. Usually they claim 1000. Now I was even more suspicious of her having inaccurate info.
I told her they were a mix, and that the effect is cumulative. She grimaced to a supervisor, who stepped up to look at the film and repeat the 500-ISO line. When she set out to pick all the ISO 100 out of the carefully sorted ziplock bags and send it through the X-ray, I asked for the federal cops.
That can be a risky move. They sit there with the purpose of arresting trouble makers like me. But in the past I had luck on this matter with the Brazilian feds.
As the beefy, head-shaved cop dug through the film, he pulled a few random rolls out of each ziplock. He opened each canister and shoved the spool end into his right nostril and inhaled soundly, apparently sniffing for explosive residue. I hope his nose was clean.
After a half dozen rolls, he handed the bag around the machine. I thanked him directly and sincerely and sighed a bit of relief.
What was I thinking?
By now you’re asking, “What knucklehead would drag film overseas in the age of X-ray-proof digital imaging?” Well that would be me — either an eccentric genius, or a glutton for punishment.
There are many good reasons to haul the digital gear on any assignment that involves flying, and I debated the choice much with myself before leaving.
For example, you can sling a bag of digital gear on an X-ray belt without worry. You can shoot as many frames as can be held by the storage you bring along. You can rest assured you got the frame by seeing it immediately. Newer cameras feature nearly noiseless high ISO, easy white balance correction and better dynamic range than film. You can edit your work as you go and keep track of what you’ve covered. If a war breaks out, or something explodes in front of you, you can file the images immediately.
You’re probably ready to click away from this post feeling confident in your “digitalness.” But here are the concerns I always have:
• It’s easy to carry plenty of storage, and it’s now cheap. But it is relatively fragile. A misstep in computer use, a hard drive crash or an accidental drop can wipe out an entire shoot. Film is somewhat sensitive to X-rays and heat, but as long as you don’t let it get zapped multiple times or leave it sitting on a sunny car seat, you’re fine.
• A laptop is an attractive target of theft. A bag of used film is not.
• A professional digital camera is a conspicuous target of theft. Beat-up-looking film cameras are less so.
• Those digital batteries are expensive, hard to replace and require a charger on fairly stable voltage. Regular and reasonably stable voltage can be a rarity in remote places.
• Those new batteries seem to last forever — a couple thousand frames — but I want security in being able to shoot. I like hauling gear that works on ubiquitous AA batteries and cameras that almost fully function without any batteries at all. Remember Sunny 16, my students? The cameras I hauled on this trip only need batteries to power a light meter. and they last about six months no matter how many frames you shoot.
• Laptops have the same juice needs as above. They weigh about the same as fifty rolls of film, and take about the same amount of space.
How did I work and why?
I took a couple film bodies notorious for their reliability and the quality of their lenses. They are tiny and unobtrusive, quiet and lightning quick. They look just like something from the 1950s to the average person.
I also packed an e-mail-capable cell phone, a decade-old palmtop that runs on a pair of AAs on which to write this.
Admittedly, I have also traveled extensively with digital, and none of the above problems have ever surfaced. Which I choose largely depends on my mood the day I pack, or on how quickly I’ll need to deliver the images.
I took about 50 rolls of film for the week-long shoot. Quick turnaround is not an issue with this story. I’ll have plenty of time to process the film on my return. To get the best quality I’ll have to be deadly accurate with exposure, but that’s fine. I always try to do that anyway.
Yes, film requires money out of pocket at least temporarily, but even in these days of digital if you have a compelling reason for using film, an editor will cover your costs. I had the film already, sitting in my freezer awaiting just such a story as this.
The cost can also be a short-term gain. On the day I’m writing this a new digital body was announced that does almost all of what these old film cameras do. But it would cost $7,000 out of pocket up front. By my calculations it would take 500 or more rolls of film and processing before the prices broke even — or ten of these kinds of shoots. Storage of the film is also cheap (a mangy old file cabinet, and a safe deposit box for the best selects). They’ll be readable by whatever technology is around in 100 years.
If I am truly worried about X-ray damage, I can have the film processed on location to make it zap proof. And if I run low, I can still buy more film nearly anywhere.
In return for the X-ray hassle, I’ll get a distinct look, 25 or more megapixels of resolution, and full frame lens coverage.
I also get the joy of using what is for me the most perfect camera ever made, and that is the most important-to-me reason I made this choice this time. They are comfortable, support the way I see and are a pleasure to use. Though I love the quality of the images from my latest digital camera, I adore working with these simple and direct machines.
Sometimes I get nervous when I can’t chimp (peek at the LCD screen) to know I have that fleeting moment or difficult exposure. For example, on a trip a couple years ago I was assigned to photograph a moonlit dance party in Brazil’s northeast. I wanted some exposures of the full moon above some relatively still bench warmers at the dance. The light was so low that the meter of these cameras would not read it. I licked my index finger stuck it to the wind and guessed f/1.4 at 1 second. I had to wait more than a week to find out I was right on. At the time I wished like crazy I could peek at the images right then and make any needed adjustments.
After the first day, though, I don’t miss chimping. As a matter of fact I chimp less and less on my digital camera all the time. I am confident of my skills, and find that needing faith on the shoot actually makes the shoot less stressful. I also find I work each scene harder to make sure I get it. I don’t shoot, chimp and leave too soon.
So what about those X-rays?
If you’re about to head off on a trip and think I might have excited an itchy advance lever thumb, what should you do?
In the U.S. the X-ray machines are not an issue. Still on the FAA books is a regulation requiring the TSA to hand check your film if you ask. And they do. Not since the week after 9/11 has a U.S. security person argued with me about it.
Overseas your experience will be unpredictable. And as fewer and fewer travelers hop planes with film, the security screeners become less patient with hand checking it.
You’ll find more resistance in countries concerned about terrorism. In Argentina once I was told to put my film on the belt or not get on the plane. On that same trip, though, four other Argentine airports hand checked the film without complaint.
In Paris I once had an assault rifle aimed at me as I was told to put the film on the belt. I’ve never been through Charles de Gaulle without having my film zapped. Some places are just impossible.
But generally I slip through unscathed by simply being gushingly polite and insistent. Facility in the local language helps as I can counter arguments delicately and understand the questions. This leaves me in good stead in Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries. Elsewhere I’ve not had problems though.
It also helps to have the film out of the boxes so it can be seen and opened easily. Carry it in gallon-size ziplocks so they have no trouble seeing it, and run everything else through the X-ray. Arrive with plenty of time for them to open each canister and fondle and swab each and every roll should they choose.
And if your film does get zapped?
I once had a roll of Fujichrome 100 X-rayed five times on three continents by accident. I left it in the camera. This could be from many factors, but that roll had signs of a lightness in the shadows when the scene had very high-contrast light. It was also slightly more grainy. All of these were easily corrected in a scan or analog print. But I figure the cumulative effect of those machines was there.
As you know, exposure is cumulative. It comes from both the X-rays and the visible light you feed it, as well as the heat you expose it to. All sources add up together. If you send film through the X-ray once or twice you may not see any effect. But it’s hard to predict what the result might be. I’ve seen fog, spots, stripes, waves and color shifts in others’ film over the years, but since so many things can cause that, it is hard to pin it definitively on the X-rays.
Once through, even with a moderate ISO film, should have a minimal effect. But the machines can be unpredictable. Though modern U.S. machines have lights that show the X-ray stopping when the belt does, I fear that older overseas machines let the rays keep pounding while the inspector peers into the bags. So pack the film loosely and in its own bag for the quickest look.
Those old lead bags they used to sell? Maybe they still do. But I also figure that when the operator cannot see into something they will crank up the power until they do, or pull it out and run the contents through on their own. Security is security…
This trip was a rare one in that I had two stretches of negotiation to do. En route here I had no trouble in Denver, Dallas or arrival in Rio. On the way back, I had to cajole in both Rio and São Paulo. It is worthwhile as I’ve so far kept my film free of exposure that I cannot control. Had I let it go through all the machines as the attendants said would not harm it, it would see X-ray light from five machines.
Here in São Paulo, where I write this, I met polite but concerned security screeners who called their superiors to deal with me. The superiors walked me to the main screening area where they asked the federal police officer present who said, “Just have a look to see if something is fishy. If not, no worries.” The supervisors fondled and sniffed a few rolls and let me on through.
The last thing I mean to say with this post is that it’s better to travel with film. I only mean to say it’s still a viable choice and worth consideration.
Time to board the next flight…