Thursday, 20 June 2013

Towards The Mittens - Monument Valley Sept 2012

Leica M4   Voigtlander 21mm f4 Ilford FP4+

My lovely wife and I visited Monument Valley in 2012. It was out our 5th visit to Arizona, but our first to this part of that fantastic State.

Naturally, I had spent hours researching the area prior to the holiday seeking best viewpoints for photographs. Just as naturally, when we arrived it was all forgotten as we enjoyed The View Hotel, the Navajo food and the atmosphere of just being there.

One of the photographs that I remembered was a view of the Mittens by Ansell Adams. Now, I am under no illusion about my status as a landscape photographer and make no attempt to compare any of my efforts with The Great Man. I've broken a fingernail or two trying to reach for the bottom rung of the ladder, but have yet to get my feet there. However, the image in mind was of two rocks in the foreground tilted towards each other, each scored with parallel erosion lines drawing the viewer’s eye to the Mittens in the distance.  I thought if I could locate the rocks and just stand where he stood – maybe even find the imagined marks where he placed his tripod – it would be a source of inspiration.

Such ambitions rarely realise themselves. In the vastness of the rock-strewn landscape around me, as we arrived I discounted any chance of being able to find the rocks, although the Mittens were pretty easy to see.

Imagine my surprise when I strolled along the entrance road to the Hotel the following day and found the “tilted rocks” just a few yards away from the road edge and the car park.

I walked around them a few times, not sure that these were the same ones. But there they were, tilted, erosion lines there for all to see, pointing to the Mittens in the distance, but with a few visitors’ initials added for no good reason. Still not believing things could be that easy, I walked back and fore a few more times while I convinced myself that I was standing where The Great Man had stood many years before. I was in no doubt.

Whilst it wasn’t the best time for photography, I was there and so were the tilted rocks and the Mittens. I took the M4 from the bag, checked the light meter, popped the 21mm Voigtlander on and set about the task of recording my version of the scene.

The light in Monument Valley was, to say the least, everywhere. I took shadow readings, I took highlight readings. It seemed that any surface I was looking at reflected light in vast quantities. The sky was clear of any cloud – at least where I would have wanted them – and was a featureless blue.  Great for the vacation, not so for photography. Too much light (not a problem I was used to, coming from Scotland); where could I put it all?

I took several shots. I framed both tilted rocks and one Mitten. Both Mittens and one tilted rock. One Mitten and one tilted rock. Then the other tilted rock and the other Mitten. I went close to the tilted rocks. I walked back from the tilted rocks. I did it all in landscape format, then repeated it in vertical format.  Then I noticed there was a queue forming…

Others had seen me photographing the scene and were standing alongside me and behind me – I thought waiting patiently. As I hesitated and looked around, some thought this was a sign that I’d finished and leapt onto the tilted rocks to pose for the “I’m smiling in Monument Valley” photograph. I wondered whether to educate the other visitors in the significance of the rocks and the role of The Great Man in the American heritage in general. I think, to be honest, I would have been wasting my time.  The mood broken, I left and as I walked away I took a snap of the people around the scene.

When we departed the following day, I noticed there were no people around the rocks. I wondered if I went there again and started to take a few shots, would I draw another queue of people?  However, I didn’t try it and we drove off, my wife soaking up the passing scenery in silence, leaving me with my thoughts of Mr Adams and a couple of tilted rocks in a desert...

A Tale of Three Leicas

Apologies to Mr Dickens for the blog title.

After accumulating a variety of camera equipment over a period of over 35 years in photography – including 5x4, 6x9, 6x6, 35mm, digital, with manufacturers through Ebony, Olympus, Mamiya, Nikon, Hasselblad, Canon, Fuji amongst others – I have reduced it all to three Leica cameras and a few lenses.

This blog will be about how I’ve arrived at this point and what I have done / am doing / going to do with them.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well, never mind, I’ll start anyway.

My interest in photography began mid 1970’s. My wife (bless her cotton socks) bought me a Zenit B slr. A clunky Russian thing (the camera, not my wife) it opened a door for me.  I saved my pennies for an Olympus OM2 and gradually added “must-have” lenses from 24mm to 300mm and  an OM1 body as back up. A Mamiya C220 was added, then a Mamiya 645. Olympus was replaced by Nikon when I discovered the F4s. A few lenses later and the Mamiyas gave way to the Hasselblad. A Fuji GSW69iii joined at some point and there was an appearance of a Nikon D200 as the first digital. I should emphasise that the additions came but nothing left – I hadn’t sold any of the cameras on the way.  Finally, in a search for grainless photographs, an Ebony 5x4 with 90mm and 180mm lenses became part of the contents of the wardrobe in a spare bedroom at home (or the “cupboard full of old camera stuff” as others in the family referred to it – a little unkindly, in my opinion).

Then in August 2010, my wife suggested a couple of days away. Always quick to obey, several suggestions were discussed and the north of Scotland – Inverness area – was agreed.  This being a weekday, I had a couple of days holiday arranged with the office.  On our drive there I had a text from a lady in my company’s Finance Dept telling me I had won the office lottery that week.  There had been no winner for several weeks and the prize had built to over £400! Naturally, this brightened the day – although, oddly, it didn’t change the light meter readings I was getting.

The following day I suggested a visit to Beauly – a small village / town near Inverness. More importantly, a small village / town near Inverness with a well-known camera dealer in it. Ffordes have been based in Beauly for many years. Although, like any hobby photographer, I’d seen their ad’s in magazines over the years and bought stuff via mail order, I’d never actually visited their premises.

My wife, ever patient, agreed to the visit – provided she didn’t have to go in (no, photography isn’t one of her prime interests…).

Now, a camera shop can be a dangerous place and many enthusiasts can relate harrowing tales of wallet-emptying impulse buys.  However, self-discipline has always been my watchword and, safe in the knowledge that the wide range of photographic equipment already in my possession meant that no further purchases would be needed in my remaining lifetime, I entered the ffordes emporium, confident that there was nothing I needed to buy.

I left shortly after with a Leica M4 camera body – made in 1969 – and a Leica Summaron f3.5 35mm lens – made in 1958, both in great condition.

I’d offered a seldom-used Hasselblad 250mm CF lens as a potential for part-exchange. This, together with a swipe of a credit card for the remainder outstanding – which would be replaced with the yet-to-be-received lottery winnings – had seemed to be an opportunity to extend the equipment available to my photographic whims. 

Ffordes didn’t sell film at that time (I thought this a little strange for a company that seemed to deal in an awful lot of film cameras) and I had the Hasselblad outfit with me, so I only had 120 film. It looked like I was going to have to wait for a while to get a picture or two with my new toy.

However, in Fort William on our way home I bought (in the High Street = expensive) some film for the camera (Ilford FP4+) and took a few trial pictures there, then on to Oban, where the photograph below was taken – on the first roll through the M4.

Oban Aug 2010 : Can I go home now, please?

Leica M4  Summaron 35mm f3,5  Ilford FP4+

Right from the start I was captured by this camera – even though I was standing behind it (Ha! See what I did there?). It was small, lightweight, everything was under my fingertips in the right place. I found it easy to focus. Winding the film on was so smoooooth. The shutter was whisper quiet.  It felt like I’d owned and used it for years.

I processed the film from the M4 – I hadn’t taken the Hasselblad out of the bag on the trip, at least not after I’d bought the Leica.  I was surprised – pleasantly – at the output from a 41 year old camera plus 52 year old lens combination. The frame spacing was spot on, contrast was good.  I checked the negative for focus with a loupe on the light box - it looked accurate for near and far subjects. A print was needed for closer checks.  I mixed the alchemists’ brews ready for the dark arts and muttered the pre-printing chants known only to darkroom enthusiasts. A 16”x12” was produced (no sense in messing about with piddly-sized prints – this was serious stuff!). The print looked better than the negative!

It must have been at that point that Leica Fever gripped me. From then on, any photo-hunting outing saw me reach for the Leica first, then hesitate as I agonised over which would be more suited for the subjects set for the day, then I would take the Leica anyway.

Lenses were needed. A call to Red Dot Cameras in London got an Elmar-C f4 90mm winging its way to its new home and owner i.e. me.  Despite internet warnings of “won’t focus”, “not a real Leica M lens” “it’s too slow at f4”, a roll of film and a few sample images showed that it would focus, was sharp as a tack and was plenty fast enough for the outdoor photography that I normally do.  So that’s a keeper then.

I thought a built-in light meter would be a good thing and set about hunting for an M6.  In a bid to maintain household harmony, I decided I could sponsor the purchase of a body by selling one of the many cameras now languishing in the spare wardrobe.  The Ebony 5”x4” was first to go – for no other reason than someone asked me if I’d sell it. As coincidence would have it, the income from the sale of the Ebony occurred at the same time and in the same locality as a Leica M6TTL became available on e-bay. Ebony handed over, cash received, Buy-It-Now button hit, contact made, arrangements for collection agreed, M6 viewed, cash handed over. All done in a day.

I, or we (in an attempt to spread the good feeling), were now a two-Leica family – although no-one else was allowed to touch either of them. An arrangement / restriction that didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Voigtlander 21mm f4 and 35mm f4 were added.  It all fitted nicely into a Billingham Hadley (Small) and for once, I didn’t hear one comment about the amount of camera gear I was taking on holiday…

Then 2013 arrived – not that the year was significant in itself, but I realised that I hadn’t used the other camera stuff for months. The Leicas had taken over. They were first choice for family snaps, landscape outings, street shots, holidays.

While on the Leica User Forum one evening I spotted an M9 for sale – not unusual in itself, but this one was described as about 3 months old and about 500 shutter actuations.  Whilst digital photography hadn’t played any significant part in my hobby up to that point, I was, for some reason, drawn to this one.  A couple of days later, after a phone call or two and a few e-mails, I found myself to be the new owner of a mint Leica M9 – boxed, papers, passport, warranty, strap, instructions et al. Later that evening, in the hotel room, I took this shot (well, Leica tradition demands a self-portrait-in-a-mirror-shot).

May 2013 : An M9, a dark room and me…

Leica M9    Elmar-C 90mm f4  

Back home, I laid all the “other” equipment out on a bed in a spare room – or a bed and a half, to be more accurate.

It lay there for several weeks while I pondered : sell it / keep it / sell it / keep it. Voices in my head pushing me one way then drawing me back (made a change from the other voices I usually get…).

Finally, in a decisive moment (there's the Leica influence again) I packed it all into the respective camera bags – I had one for each outfit, naturally – and drove to ffordes (well, they had started this whole thing…)

From the proceeds in trade-in I was able to add a  Summicron 50mm f2 and 90mm f2 (pre ASPH) and some digital gear – a Plustek 8100 scanner, Epson R3000 printer, ColorMunki calibration thingy and a Billingham 206 bag.

That pretty much describes how I’ve arrived at the Three Leicas and a means of posting some piccies on the net.  They’re not collectors’ pieces to me – they are picture-taking pieces of excellence. I use them for the purpose they were intended and I take them wherever and whenever I can. 

My intention is to post some of the results here to share with anyone who can’t think of something better to do with a few minutes of spare time. There will only be pictures from Leica cameras – although lenses may be from other manufacturers as well as Leica.  We’ll do it with a bit of humour – it is a hobby after all, and none of my photographs have changed the world so far – we’re allowed to find fun in what we do even if we don’t treat it as a joke.  So, if you’ve stuck with this so far, well done and thanks. Call back for an update – if I can do this once a week I’ll be pleased – and please leave a comment if you’re enjoying it – join in with the funnies, ask questions (the more ludicrous the better) – but please don’t leave insults (I can get those at home…).