I'm pleased to report that I've successfully initiated a de facto publishing company, called "Bearpaw Booksellers," and that Bearpaw Booksellers has successfully published its first book, A Hoosier Tale. This little book is really just a trial balloon, so to speak, so I could learn how this is done. A Hoosier Tale is now past its sixth revision and at a fairly high state of finish, with front and back covers, an ISBN number and barcode, an actual title page that (I hope) is actually on a right-hand page, and fairly polished text. (It's a story I wrote many years ago that many of my friends have enjoyed, and yes, that's me behind the able-handed pseudonym.) So why should you care? Because the very next project is the very vaporous The Empirical Photographer which has given me so much trouble, and for which so many people have been waiting so very, very patiently. It could be up and available as soon as soon as Wednesday the 11th of May, although it will be considerably longer before I'll be able to fill all the pre-orders. I'll be working on it, at least. Well, it's progress!
There are two more photo books in the queue after that one, too. Fun stuff.
Now on to this month's column. Although it may not interest you at first blush, read down a bit to the subhead called "Getting Past It." I think there may be some thoughts in there you can use, especially in these digital days when nobody is really past it.
The New Voigtländer 40mm ƒ/1.4 Nokton lens
Photo courtesy of CameraQuest.
A few years later, looking for a "Leica with AE," I became aware of the Minolta CLE. It, too, had a 40mm normal lens — the Minolta 40mm ƒ/2 M-Rokkor. This turned out to be one of the best lenses I've ever used, fantastically sharp and smooth. My friend John Kennerdell, a photographer who lived in Bangkok at the time, told me that one Japanese connoisseur had dubbed it "the Water Lens." Curiously, it was one of the only lenses I've ever used that consistently drew positive comments about sharpness and clarity from non-photographers looking at my prints.
The latest addition to the short list is of course the Cosina/Voigtländer 40mm ƒ/1.4 Nokton, the first lens
of its specification ever. It can be extremely sharp and contrasty when shown off at its best, and for a fast
lens it has pretty good bokeh — a term that just refers to the appearance of the out-of-d.o.f.
blur, whatever you may have read elsewhere!
Ben and Amy at the Counter, shot by Richard Sintchak with the 40mm Nokton S.C. (single-coated version)
Taken by Richard Sintchak with a Voigtländer Bessa R3A
and 40mm Nokton S.C. on Tri-X.
Why would you want a lens to be "normal," anyway? So what's so special about not being special? Glad you asked.
Getting Past ItThese days, we're witnessing an intense interest in digital cameras in online forums. The nexus of this interest, however, is almost always technological, not visual. People want to know about pixel count, bit depth, noise at high ISOs, turn-on time, how many microns each photosite measures, what the buffer speed is, and so forth. This is actually quite typical. Photography has always had a technological side that is endlessly fascinating, and this is as true of digital as it is of traditional photography. What it means is that we photographers often approach photography as if its main interest were technical and technological. We don't look so much at the visual content and effects of pictures, as we do their technical properties.
But many of the greatest photographers have "gotten past" the technical aspect of the craft. What I mean
by that is that they choose a particular mode of operation, a way of working, and then they concentrate on
the visual aspect of the pictures. Think of it. The late Henri Cartier-Bresson was indelibly associated with
Leicas and the 50mm lens. Edward Weston made 8x10 contact prints. Eugene Atget and August Sander
used more or less the same techniques for most of their important work. Nicholas Nixon and Shelby Lee
Adams use large-format cameras with wide-angle lenses to photograph people. We associate Ernst Haas
with 35mm Kodachrome, Eliot Porter with the dye transfer process. The point is, these photographers
and many other like them don't _want_ you to look at their pictures from a technical perspective. They've
chosen the technical properties they like, granted, but they understand that those technical properties are
not what make any particular picture good or not-so-good. You don't look at a Cartier-Bresson picture
and say, "Gee, look at how sharp that Leica 50mm lens is." You don't look at a Weston and say, "Wow,
8x10 gives you such smooth tonality." The reason you don't is that all Cartier-Bressons were taken with
sharp 50s, and all Westons have smooth tonality. It's not that these photographs don't have technical
properties, it's that the artists want you to get past that, and look at the subject, the visual content, and the
meaning of their photographs.
A photograph by Alan Soon taken with the 40mm Nokton S.C.
on a Leica M3 with Ilford XP2 film.
Moderate focal lengths, to my eye at least, serve in part to remove this sort of "specialness" from pictures. They make the angle-of-view and the type of distortion nondescript. And what this allows, in turn, is a concentration on the visual content of pictures. That's what's so special about not being special.
So is a 40mm "better" than a 35mm or a 50mm, or any other focal length you like? Of course not. Good artists can "normalize" any way (or many ways) of seeing. Ernst Haas used the very slow (ASA 10) speed of early Kodachrome to explore motion blur. Ralph Gibson uses high contrast to make pictures less atmospheric and more graphic. But if you care to remove obvious focal-length effects from your pictures, and "get past" those properties, so that you and the viewers of your pictures concentrate on what you're looking at, how you see as opposed to how the lens sees, then the 40mm true normal may be just right.
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.
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