I went to see The Making of Exiles at the Pompidou Center the other day because I heard Koudelka used a Leica. I’m kidding. I went because it was free and the internet has conditioned me to not pay for things. I jest. I went because Koudelka is, if not a god, a kind of John the Baptist of photography, or at least a Caine of Kung-Fu of photography. And like I said, it was free.
Koudelka recently gave the museum a bunch of prints from which this show is drawn. They’re from his Exiles work, which I’d heard of but never seen seriously (I was more familiar with his photos of gypsies [or Roma, or Travelers, or what have you], which, I learned, he shot with an Exacta and a 25mm Flektogon, which must have seemed insanely wide at the time). I also learned that Koudelka is still alive. Not that I’d heard he wasn’t, but I just kind of assumed, you know. Not only is he alive, but he’s active.
He has always been active. I knew, vaguely, something about Koudelka’s personal story, but it seems my mind refused to retain the full incredibleness of it. Between the show notes and some heavy Koudelka creeping online, I am now reacquainted. You may know that he is a Magnum photographer, a friend of the great (late, this I knew) Henri Cartier-Bresson (in fact, I read that HCB got him those Leicas I mentioned). Quite firmly ensconced in the firmament. But so, Koudelka had (has?) this magnificent process. He spent his arguably most fruitful years, or at least the years he’s most famous for, wandering the earth (the western European part of it, anyway). Like Caine. But I mean, really a lot more like Caine than other photographers who get around. Koudelka wandered, with just his cameras and film and a sleeping bag and his ideas. He owned nothing unrelated to creation or survival, had no fixed address. He would photograph during the spring and summer, sleeping where he was when the day ended, outside or on the floor of an obliging friend or stranger, which this show gets into in some novel detail. In the winter he fell back to London or Paris (crashing in the Magnum offices at times) to develop and edit his work. He did this for years, decades. He never married, but has three children with three women in three countries. And claims to abhor spending more than three months in one place. That is a lot of threes. I have seen nothing to suggest that this breathless account is untrue, or even a stretching of truth.
And did I mention that his first and last piece of photojournalism was the single-handed documenting-for-western-eyes of the brutal Soviet-led invasion of Prague in 1968, which won him (anonymously, so the Reds wouldn’t thank him with free and permanent underground housing) the Capa Gold Metal for excellence in photojournalism? Not bad for a guy who up till that point was fixing airplanes and taking pictures of theatre productions and rootless Roma, who were no doubt rough around the edges but rarely shot at anyone, unlike the Warsaw Pact troops, who managed to kill over a hundred of Koudelka’s countrymen while liberating them from the grips of imperialist infiltrators. Well, consider it mentioned.
So, the show. Obviously, it’s good. Duh. If you don’t find something that engages you there, we have nothing else to say to each other. But this is supposed to be a review, so let’s review.
There is, to start, one of Kudelka’s most iconic photos, the dog, the black dog, that was on the cover of Exiles. They used it for the show’s poster, but there’s a real print inside.
What is it about this image? It’s a dog picture. A dog in a park. It does not start well. But then, it is amazing, and it’s quite a treat to see a real print of it. I think it works because of the way Koudelka pushes the abstracting power of black and white film. If it were printed to show the documentary truth, it would not be as interesting. But the unrelieved blackness of the dog makes its outline the primary element of the image, the freakish jowls, the knobby, demonic tail. There is a strangeness that would not have been apparent in the moment to someone without vision. I have been there, the Parc de Sceaux, dozens of times, in the snow even, and of course I never saw anything like this, because you have to be someone like Josef Koudelka to see it in the world. Then he shows us what he saw, and we understand that one cold day the dog comes for all of us. In the show print, for the first time I noticed a human figure in the distance. With the blank snow obliterating the separation of foreground and background and little else to guide our understanding of perspective in the image, the person makes the dog feel enormous.
Then there’s something like this:
The photographer always inserts himself in the photograph, especially when shooting other people's highly reflective photographs.
I don’t think of Koudelka as being (even before he got into panoramic landscapes) really a “street photographer” – that’s much too tight a box to squeeze him into. But he did manage some blistering street photography all the same. What’s going on in this shot? What’s the point? I sure as hell don’t know. Is that old man creepy or kind? What’s the deal with that kid? Koudelka isn’t going to tell us. He just drops the moment on us. The rest is in our hands. Here we have some desperation, some hope, some every-day-getting-along. Look at that lady’s stockings: they speak whole soliloquies of getting along. The subject is something, but compositionally we’re also in fresh territory, with the halving of the man, the division of the whole image.
How about this?
The black silhouettes again, the incredible light on the rocket plume, the timing, the way the smoke doesn’t just obscure the man but calls into question his very form, I mean, holy shit. This moment did not look like this, but it was this, could be shown to be this.
Not everything got me this excited. There are several images of rough cloth, studies of texture or comments on the fabric of lives, I don’t know.
Then there was this grouping:
The top photo, gulls presumably following a boat, doesn’t seem far off from plenty of stuff on Flickr. But considered as part of the tryptic it says more, a progression along the track of animals’ relationship with man, from relative freedom through pathetic captivity to exploited death. That crow is quite something, though I wonder if back then people tied up dead crows (a scarecrow of the most pointed variety, I assume) all the time, and the subject’s impact is a trick of anachronism. The clever corvid was not always as appreciated as today.
There are two series of photos that are explicitly marked as being never-before-seen: one, a collection of makeshift outdoor sleeping places presumably used by the man himself, and the other, timed selfies of Koudelka pretending to snooze. The leaflet describes these as not merely unpublished but “secret,” and I can almost believe it. But they don’t come completely out of left field: there is, for example, a picture in the original collection of Koudelka’s legs stretched out before him that prefigures a million Instagrams. And the apparently famous arm-with-watch in Prague (which I couldn’t recall ever seeing, to the utter astonishment of the friend I went to the show with). But their inclusion is certainly a departure in tone and subject, and arguably puts more emphasis on the artist’s nomadic, ascetic lifestyle in a new way, in a way he never did back in the day.
Let’s just stop and marvel at this, here in 2017. People now can’t resist talking up the whole nomadic monk thing because it’s just awesome, but the really amazing thing is Koudelka just did it, near as I can tell, not to make a point about materialism or show girls how woke he was, but because he wanted to make certain kinds of photos so he got rid of everything that wasn’t about making certain kinds of photos. He wasn’t selling a book about simplifying your life, and you don’t need to know anything about the guy’s process to see what’s good about his work. His lifestyle makes the work possible, but it isn’t part of the work. A young photographer showing the same disinterest today is nigh unimaginable.
But, those beds and selfies. This is a rare treat, a lifting of the curtain, and interestingly shows that Koudelka himself was, on some level, interested in his process/life-style. Did he just want to preserve those one-night-stands for his own recollection? Did he like the visual of those empty beds? Did he wonder what he looked like, sleeping there with no one to see him but the stars and night-creatures? Did he want proof that he wasn’t sneaking into a hostel every chance he got? Characteristically, he doesn’t drop any metatextual hints in the show apart from a quote about how he managed to sleep anywhere.
So, see the show. Ponder the man’s vision, and his meanderings, and his refreshing non-performativeness.
[A side note: last year I saw another free show at the Pomp, Louis Stettner. Great show. “Free” is not the word that comes to mind when I think of this museum, but there’s a space downstairs called the “Galerie des Photographies” and as far I can tell, it’s always free. They’ve been putting up shows there since at least 2014, but I only just heard of it recently, at least in part because the events there don’t show up on the list of expositions on the museum website. They are listed, separately, but are incredibly hard to find from within the site – Google does a better job. In fact, you could easily visit the Pompidou Center in person and miss these things. To make sure you don’t, go straight to the back wall from the entrance and do a 180 to take the wide stairs down into the bowels of this boweliest of buildings.]
And a closing note: I’ve come across a number of mentions of notebooks that Koudelka kept during his wanderings, but have never seen anything purportedly excerpted from them. I imagine he still has them, they’re probably in Czech, and probably no one knows what’s in them. But if English pearls have been extracted from these presumable oysters, I’d love to know about it.
Finally, let’s watch a video. This by all rights should be cultural ephemera, but it has been amber trapped by the INA, an utterly French sounding-institution dedicated to “the preservation and promotion of our audio-visual heritage,” which I’d never heard of but is clearly wonderful. This was French public television just before the wall came down. Look at that lady’s outfit. I was not only alive in 1988, but sentient. I lived this (albeit elsewhere) yet it looks like a period piece, or a punchline. You can skip to 00:15 for a deliciously awkward long pause as they cue up the next segment, and then marvel at the glimpse of Koudelka’s gloriously trashed, rough-sleeping Leica hanging around his neck, set to an ominous drone that calls Werner Hertzog to mind. Then you can stop it and go on with your life as if every moment didn’t contain miracles.
The Yashica Electro 35 series of rangefinder cameras were produced in great numbers in the 1970s. The internet hive mind, filled with whatever ideas percolate through the collective consciousness of people interested in running film through old cameras, has judged them and largely found them good – “poor man’s Leica” is a term that you find, and this is meant positively. The GSN variant purportedly features corrosion-resistant gold-plated interconnects and commands a slight premium because gold is obviously better than not-gold.
Behold, the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. This is a camera review, not a beauty contest, so I’ll say no more here.
Enter me. I'd been sniffing around the Leica mystique for a while, like a hungry coyote that doesn't quite trust a morsel of possibly poisoned meat. I wanted to muck around with a rangefinder (for the usual slew of wooly, misguided notions). I wasn't sure enough about the whole thing that I wanted to go all-in on a Leica, though. And so I picked up an Electro 35 GSN for less than the cost of a Leica lens cap.
Here's the short version of this review. Yes, the Yashica Electro 35 is a poor man's Leica, but not in any optimistic, egalitarian sense. More in the sense that the poor man doesn't have access to the expensive material things that the rich man does, so he makes do with something cheaper and gets on with his life. Like a Leica, the Electro is a 35mm rangefinder camera. If you want to take good pictures, you can certainly do it with the Electro, just as you could with a Leica or a thousand other cameras. And if you don't know what you're doing, the Electro will work better for you than a Leica of similar vintage because it automatically sets the shutter speed for you.
The Electro 35 can make a properly exposed, in-focus photograph. Sorry about the low-res scan.
If you want a basic understanding of what using a rangefinder to focus a full-sized 35mm camera is like (I did), well, the Electro kind of delivers. You can indeed align a fuzzy yellow patch with the main image in the viewfinder to focus. The viewfinder on my mine was decidedly low-contrast, and I suspect this will be the case for most Electros: they aren't expensive enough to make servicing economically likely, and the viewfinder housing is hardly hermetically sealed so you're going to be looking through thirty-plus years of gently deposited gunge. Just think, there's particulate from leaded gasoline in there, maybe even some residue from atmospheric nuke testing.
Even with a gummy viewfinder, accurate focus is possible.
So yes, it takes pictures. But if you're after the gladdening solidity of a metal camera, the tactile experience of exquisitely precise mechanical controls, the whiff of a past that you suspect, in heart if not mind, is somehow better than our present, the Electro is likely to disappoint.
“Fie on you!” exclaims a happy Electro owner somewhere. “This wonderful camera is indeed made of metal!” To which I agree, yes, it is. Like a can of lighter fluid, which is what the camera feels like in your hand. It's heavy (a mostly full can), but it's even bigger than the weight suggests, giving it a hollow, chintzy feel in comparison to the better metal-age offerings. The back of mine moved when you pressed on it, which seemed to be by design. That's what light seals are for, right?
The aperture ring had a soggy, mushy feel. Maybe this was just my sample, but I'm dubious, since the camera seemed to be in good shape in general. It did give some tactile feedback at a stop, but not much: rather than click into position, it kind of slumped.
The focus ring is narrow and close to the body, with two stubby tab-like things for grip. Turn that ring and you'll encounter my biggest gripe about the Electro's ergonomics: your left hand, on the ring, will run into your right hand, gripping the camera body. Why, you may wonder, is that happening, especially if you have effete little 21st-century-man-fingers like I do? A puzzled look at the camera reveals that it’s because the Electro's lens is skewed towards the right side of the body. Maybe people of the era had a different way of holding a camera, since lost to the sands of time.
And then there's the shutter button. I should say, shutter pole: you could fly a flag off that thing. The Electro's shutter release has enough travel to earn frequent flier miles. Forget about shutter lag: you need to plan enough time to drive that button all the way into the camera body before the shutter even knows something is up.
This design decision is tied to the way the camera's meter works. Now, if you've chosen a reasonable aperture for your scene you can probably just mash the button and get a properly exposed shot. But if you take your time and ease it in there, you might notice some lights in the viewfinder. Somewhere near the beginning of the press, you might see a red light if the meter decides you need something faster than the 1/500th sec minimal exposure time -- you can stop down until the light goes off. Then there's a lull as the button continues on its merry way until you get down around the bottom third of its trip, where a yellow underspeed warning lights if you're into shake-induced blur territory (the camera can still make a properly exposed shot if you insist, but you'd better have steady hands).
Note the Electro’s proud shutter release and the red and yellow over and under-speed warning lights, also visible in the viewfinder.
So, with the lights, no news is good news. But the setup can be annoying -- you'll hopefully have an idea if one or the other condition applies, but knowing for sure means exploring along the button's travel to find the right zone. Is this a common approach to metering in cameras of this epoch? I don’t know, honestly, but in the modern era it feels pretty kludgy.
When you finally work that button all the way down, you hear a dry snap. That's the leaf shutter doing its thing. It doesn't sound nice to me, but I suppose that's even more subjective than the rest of the stuff here, so don't worry about it. On the up side, it's definitely quiet, even by contemporary mirrorless standards.
You've taken a picture! Time to wind on and rearm the shutter. The lever that does this lacks the smooth, ludicrously refined feel of a rich man's Leica. But I guess it's good enough for poor people, or in any case, all they're going to get from Yashica.Conclusion
The Electro is fine, OK? It has its charms. With every other camera maker undermining the retro-osity of rangefinders with new models that look old, the Electro still manages to look retro. Maybe not classy, Leica M3 retro, but the tinsel-and-glitter retro of the decade that birthed it. I guess it was cool enough for Spiderman 4, in which, I learned from some Spanish guy's eBay ad, the Electro apparently features. I’d be more impressed if it was in the first one.
Despite its glam looks, the Electro's shutter makes it relatively discreet to shoot.
And the Electro makes fine pictures. You can't take that away from it. That hulking (by rangefinder standards) 45mm lens works as well as any other normal double-gauss design, which is to say very well indeed, and the auto exposure beats sunny 16 most of the time.
But the Yashica, despite being metal, is not Metal. It does not rock. It's not particularly fun to shoot, or comfortable, or beautiful. If the Yashica Electro asked me to write it a recommendation, I'd wince inside, then feel like a bit of jerk when I sat down and really pondered my problems with it, but still would have trouble putting a good spin on it. There are just things that are so much better out there.
If you're still curious about the Electro 35 after reading this, the cost of entry is low (usually under $50), and you can always sell it on for about what you paid. I suspect that this kind of recycling, as much as their abundant production run, helps explain why there are so many on eBay. That’s where mine went: catch and release.
The short version: if you follow this blog with some kind of feed reader, point it at this, not the old feed.
The long version:
This blog amassed a few feed subscribers before I realized that it had a feed. But only a madman or a turnip would not use Feedburner to manage feeds if he cared about feeds. And since I'm now deciding to care about this feed, I'm Burning it. My suspicion is that most of my current subscribers are Chinese and Ukrainian bots, but if you can read this, if anyone out there can hear me, if there are other survivors, go west. Keep moving west, and watch for my beacon.
Somewhere on this planet, fragments of my skin sloughed DNA shelter in the weather-sealed darkness of a Pentax K10D. For years, one of these was my most prized possession. I carried it all over the world. When I sent it off to KEH, I told myself it would find someone else to love. I used the proceeds to fund a new camera, a better camera, and the cycle began again.
Many of us, maybe most of us, are attached to things, care about things. We pick up our carry-ons when exiting burning airliners, which isn't really the same but makes a nice metaphor. The folly of materialism has been well explored and you should probably spend some quality time considering it. But for now, let's consider cameras.
I've owned some half-dozen digital cameras since the new millennium dawned. Each one (except the first, which fell into my lap like a careless match flicked into a barrel of oily rags) was hotly anticipated, greeted with great excitement. Each was fawned over, imbued with an importance that felt durable, fundamental to its qualities. And despite that, each was eventually set aside (save the last) in favor of something "better" for what I imagined my photographic project to be. Anyone with a digital camera history can guess at what got me excited: the ability to work with a paucity of light, to focus faster and more accurately, to record more detail. It all sounds kind of silly now, but that's not the point.
This progression, from torrid passion to dismissal in favor of the new thing, is something that I suspect is hardwired into our primate selves. Consumer capitalism has made a fine art of exploiting it, fanning the flames of desire for the next shiny thing with surgical precision, to layer cliches.
One of its favorite techniques is something I’ve seen referred to as the "demotion effect," though I googled this and couldn’t figure out if the term is in wide use. Regardless of terminology, you’ve almost certainly experienced it. You get a new thing, and you're happy. It’s the best thing! All the reviews say so! Then they make a new new thing that's nominally better, and your now-old thing, which hasn't changed since yesterday, suddenly seems less capable. You were happy with it before, but now you're not. And we all want to be happy. The solution is obvious. The very temporary solution.
It's easy to imagine how much "better" your photographs would be with a "better" camera. The bitter but also beautiful truth is that the only substantive upgrade is "no camera" to "camera." (Be sure to picture my air quotes as you read.)
The crazy thing is that, as with a lot of these primate deep-brain twitches, knowing the trick doesn't automatically immunize you to the effect. You would have to go through a process of introspection and careful evaluation to defuse the marketers' hold on you, and who the hell has time for that? I propose an easier way. This only works for cameras, but cameras are the only thing that really matters.
The solution is this: fall in love with the last of the line. Embrace extinction. I'm talking about film cameras. They stopped making new ones* (except for toy cameras and sculptures) a long time ago. All the good ones, the very best ones, are already here, and have been for decades. You can cut the line and start with the end. Take your love, open the back of your camera, and load it in there. Then do it again and again, because love is inexhaustible, and film will almost certainly outlive you despite the dire prognostications of a few pessimistic prognosticators.
With your love safely banked, you're free to see your digital camera for what it is: a very capable and useful tool that you will one day probably need to replace. "They" can keep rolling out shiny new things, and you can smile indulgently as folks froth at the mouth about a quarter-stop of additional dynamic range on sensors that can already record fireworks and fireflies in the same shot at billboard resolutions, because you never know when you'll want to make a billboard. Good for them, you can think, as you load a fresh roll of slide film.
To recap: digital cameras are just tools. Embrace extinction.
Your digital camera will probably die before you, but then you can get another one without the emotional whiplash of love or broken dreams being invloved, much as you'd get a new hammer if yours snapped and sent the steel head whanging just past your eye. That the new camera will be "better" in some benchmarkable ways will be a nice bonus (and don't cheap out on a hammer again, you bonehead -- you only get two eyes, no replacing those). But that betterness (the camera's) won’t lead you to delude yourself that owning the new thing will open transformative avenues of expression and/or revolutionize the practice of your photography, because you’ve put your delusions, along with your love (and is there really a difference?) into your film camera. In fact, by the time whatever digital camera you have now shuffles off, your phone will probably be fine taking up the slack. Or you’ll be wearing a digital camera all the time anyway.
Good film cameras, of course, never die: they merely pause their function to request service. The vessel for your love will live on and if the order of things is preserved will make its final exit when you're not around to suffer it, which is also what children are for, so don't forget to make time for those. And be sure to tell them that the camera gear you're hoarding in the closet might be worth something when you're gone, if only to a few foolish souls soldiering along right behind you.
Take it away, Kermit.
"One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong.
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?"
Simple nomenclature gives the naive answer: we are looking at two cameras and a phone. Two things specifically for taking pictures, and one for doing that and everything else. Two things bumpy with knobs and knurled rings, one as glossy smooth as a eunuch’s freshly shaved pate. Two special-purpose, dedicated devices, and the ultimate info-communicative Swiss Army knife of our age. Two machines rooted in yesterday, and one shaping tomorrow.
But suppose we ask an alien the question. E.T. sees two electronic devices packed with silicon, millions of transistors, powered by lithium-ion batteries, and one spring-driven machine. Two with liquid crystal displays, one with none. All three feature multi-element glass lenses designed to focus light onto a plane, but two put the light on a silicon sensor, while one focuses it on removable photosensitive film. Two self-focus the lenses with motors and feedback algorithms, while the other implements a kind of mechano-optical analog computer (a coupled rangefinder) allowing a user to manually calculate a focus distance. Two record the image on identical electronic chips in compatible file formats, while one relies on photochemical processes to recover a latent image. Two are the products of a space-faring race, one is a relic of planet-bound times.
Of course, classed by purpose, the phone is the odd one out. But in nearly every other way, the mechanical camera is a completely different beast from the kissing cousins of the phone and the digicam. Apart from the design requirement of holding a lens perpendicular to a sensor, the digital camera is a cosmetic homage to its mechanical predecessor, a decorative exterior wrapped around a functional core that is little different from that of the phone.
The superficial similarity between the two cameras helps conceal the truth of the more recent device. The new camera is a substantial consumer investment, but unlike the old camera (and like the phone) it depreciates ferociously. Its resale value will decrease in a stair pattern over several years as newer models are released, until it stops competing with the state-of-the-art and its value gradually sinks to some trivial baseline. If it experiences a fault in this later part of its life, its economic value drops abruptly and permanently to zero because a repair will cost more than the functional camera is worth.
Superficial similarity is what makes half of street photography go 'round. These apparent parallels are rare enough to feel like "finds" and they seem vaguely clever if you don't think about them at all. Note how I turn the "people photographed from behind" trope (evident in something more than half of street photography, I'll wager) and use it to my advantage to erase the subjects' otherwise-distracting individuality. That was totally on purpose.
Historically, obsolete objects have often passed through a trough of zero or negative value before resurfacing as antiques or fetishes of nostalgia. But it’s difficult to see this happening for digital cameras or much of the vast flow of digital detritus we’ve been generating for the last three decades. Apart from a few early, low-production-volume examples of technologies that might accrue collector value, this stuff becomes garbage and will stay garbage. Toxic garbage, cocktails of contaminants waiting to be spilled (examine your digital camera and you’re probably find a “10” circled by arrows, assuring you that all that nastiness will stay locked up for at least 10 years – a whole decade! – before you have to worry about it leaking into the world). These objects, the pinnacle of our production capacity, the most refined technologies we have made, are fundamentally disposable. Their potential functional lives are short, and their actual service lives, before they are replaced by “better” versions, even shorter. Minimizing the delta between those spans maximizes profits for producers and guarantees an ample supply of irreparable junk for the near future.Locations of Digital Electronics You Own Today in 20 Years
Contrast this with the mechanical camera. Over fifty years old, its value is higher than that of the two-year-old digital camera. Its mythologized brand is partly responsible for this, but only partly: many, many mechanical cameras made from the 1950s to 1970s are worth much more now than digital cameras made ten years ago. And because they are valued and can be practically repaired, there is an ecosystem of skilled craftspeople in place that keeps them working, a virtuous cycle.
“Who gives a fig about the relative values of cameras?” you might say if you’re in a Shakespearean mood. “I just want take pictures!” To which I say, godspeed you happy snapper. None of this has anything to do with photography per se. But as a story of objects, of tools, I find it fascinating. We humans are tool-users and have always been in some way defined by the things we carry. Understanding the nature of those things and when they are not what they appear to be sheds light on ourselves.
The going flavor of consumer capitalism exploits our connection with objects mercilessly: our readiness to identify with and be identified by things, and our susceptibility to the notion that the new thing is better than the old thing, make us easy marks for salesmen. Photography stands out among creative practices for the conspicuous importance of the technologies of its production, so it’s easy to convince people that “better” cameras are better for the practice. Few would argue that “photography” on the whole is “better” now than ten or twenty or fifty years ago, but never mind, it's Black Friday!
Stubborn old cameras and their resilient value suggests that many of us do actually appreciate their relative strengths and the knock-on effects of their birth in a time before short-term obsolescence was a fundament of business plans. Perhaps cultural fatigue with disposable consumerism is building. Perhaps I’m just glorifying another way to purchase identity. I don’t have all the answers. But I like my old camera, in part because I appreciate how little it has in common with my new camera.