Rangefinder Style

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I’m not saying these are good. There are a few I’m somewhat partial to, but as a collective they are just what they are. A recording. But let me take you back. 1996. A few short years out of school and just a faint whisper of who I might become, or what I might become. A year of searching for anything, something, but coming up empty. Unwanted. Jobless. Idle days. No money to even explore. The Landcruiser gets about ten miles a gallon. A year and a half at a newspaper, shooting every single day both what was asked of me and also what I found on my own.
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A seed had been planted accidentally, years before, and I had never been able to shake it. Wandering Half Price Books in Austin, discovering the photography section and landing on a book that turned me inside out. “Telex Iran” by Gilles Peress. I didn’t know images like that existed, and this coming from a guy who was nearing the end of his photojournalism degree. How could this be? I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked at those pages, those telex conversations and I just melted. There was a vulnerability there, an honesty I was not prepared for. The PJ world was covered in a residue of machismo, and maybe this guy had it to, but it surely wasn’t present in the work, the location, the book or the dialogue. Mistake of all mistakes..I left it on those shelves. I did. Regret. But in my defense it was just too much. That book was a sucker punch. A one-two combination that put me on the canvas, down and I stayed down.
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When I gathered the nerve to return it was gone. Another took its place. “Mexico” by Abbas. Another feather from the same quiver. I noticed in the back of this book a small image of a camera, a strange camera. I noticed a consistency, a style, a TYPE of image, something I’d been trying to put my finger on but never quite had. At least not yet.
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I slowly put two and two together. The Leica. There was a style, a type of image and this little box was partly responsible. Again, didn’t quite know this yet, but the inkling was there. An itch so to speak. The tragic part was I HAD a Leica. An M4-P. One lens. 28mm. But I didn’t know how to use it.
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Yes, of course, I knew how to load it, aim it, focus it, but that means next to nothing unless you know HOW and WHEN to use it. For most assignments the Leica isn’t right. Won’t work. Doesn’t fit. Square peg, round hole. Jewelry. But then there are those things were it fits like DNA. The issue I had, up until this time, was commitment. Using this camera is a religious experience because it takes a leap of faith. Total immersion. Diving in.
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The reason I can find a used Leica in short order is that MANY people buy them, never commit and then sell. The vultures like me waiting. Salivating. “Come on old man, get on with it.” Snatch.
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In 1995 there was Central America for the first time. The lingering doubts about who I am, what I’m doing there and what is really possible on $300. Two systems, the Canon and the Leica, filed away, a backup. But for a few brief moments I’m separated from my main bag and I’m left with the Leica. There is the ride in the Jeep. The image through the window….it feels right. Feels like me. Feels like something I know is going to be with me for many years. There is the funeral, the house, back against the wall, ONE frame, no witnesses. Just me inside a completely and utterly foreign world.
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By 1996 I knew I was f%$%$#@. Cambodia. An assignment, duties, needs and objectives to accomplish, but the lingering pull of MY work is beginning to overshadow the reality of doing what it is I was trained to do. The main system left in the hotel. The AK47 in the lobby making sure it’s there when I return. The heat. The overwhelming, soul-sucking heat that taps even me. Dust, diesel and the isolation of being so outside my comfort zone. A machine gun pointed at my chest. Money taken but the camera remains. Who cares, just keep shooting. One powerful, momentous image at a time. This was SO FAR before seeing your image was the destructive reality we see and feel today. No motor, no autofocus, no NOTHING but metal and emulsion. Dust? Who cares? Heat? Who cares? Rain? Who cares? Not even the kid with the AK-47 and my money wanted my little, light-tight friend.
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A pattern developing and I can feel it as I go. I’ve begun to make a certain type of image. My type, but also the Leica type. Certain spacing, and people realize I didn’t know what the f%$# I was doing.(I have a bit more of an idea now…18 years later.) Not even close really. I could cover the bases, but didn’t know how to photograph like me. This tool was leading me to water.
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There is no way to say I was blending in, or invisible, but it, at times, felt that way. As much as can be with shoulder length hair, white skin and a tattered Domke. What a joke. Sore thumb. Relief really, that I had begun to understand this thing, this photography thing. The correspondents club, along the river, old, yellow, colonial and Tiger flowing into my empty stomach. The guy from the Killing Fields is sitting next to me. The actual guy. Leica.
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By the time I return I know what I need to do. Pouring rain in Laguna Beach. Boxes of transparencies sitting on the living room table but I can’t look quite yet. I need to process, not film, just information, experience and purpose. Am I really going to do this or just be another jerk with a camera and story to tell. Poser. No, I’m gonna I’m do it. The phone rings. Another photographer wanting, looking to trade. But what? “Hey, Milnor, you have a 70-200 Canon zoom?” “Ya……..” “Trade you an M6 and 35mm f/2.” “That is a TERRIBLE deal for you,” I say but there is no stopping him. Who am I to argue.
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Two hours later the backdoor deal is made while the rain splatters my doorstep. Gone. In my possession. This was really the moment. I knew. My career can now officially begin. It wasn’t like I turned my back on the others, but I cheated every chance I got. My little M mistress allowed for things the corporate camera world would not. Nothing wrong with anything else, and like I said before, for most things the Leica isn’t great.
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It was at this point I began to learn who I was. The next four years saw me compile at least four of my most important bodies of work. All done for myself, no one else. No assignment. Could have never done it otherwise. Too important for someone else to screw up. Take from me. Trivialize.
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As I sit here today, packing, I daydream of a new quarterly magazine. Not sure I can pull if off but am game to try. A tribute of sorts to this little machine, but not as the centerpiece, just as the hint, the suggestion or push to get me going. It’s never the centerpiece. That would be counterproductive. Like a spy wearing a name tag.
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After all these years I actually feel like I haven’t really started anything yet. Anything truly good, great or memorable. Maybe now is the time, or maybe I never will. This little thing is important, it is, but not as important as time, freedom, access and critical thought. Certain things have to be right, like the light, otherwise the entire machine breaks down. Gotta be in the right place too. This little machine won’t help you with any of these things, but when all these things line up, when they coincide, that is when the Leica becomes what it is.
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I try not to write about equipment here. I’ve explained why many, many times, but I just thought of this as I sit here trying NOT to think ahead. I wish these images were better, stronger, but I can only wish.(And I was still new to the game.) I could say the same about everything I’ve ever shot.
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For those of you interested, I’m going to start a quarterly magazine, small one, where I will feature a certain type of image. If you are interested in this let me know. I’m guessing a $10-$12 price range. There will probably be about 100 copies total.

61 Responses to “Rangefinder Style”

  1. I would love to see you do a publication.

  2. lionelB says:

    Being able to do everything is not freedom. It debilitates. The fact of their limited usefulness [be it Leica, OM2n, Rolleiflex or whatever] is a liberation, providing the discipline without which we just flounder around and never get started. We are otherwise like rabbits [Oops - again ??] caught in the headlights of choice.

    As to the magazine, take mine as a Yes.

  3. Deep, insightful and heartfelt to read how one deals with trying to say something with a camera may it be Leica or any other camera box. Would be interested in your magazine and even contribute if you are thinking of that. Thanks for sharing !

    • Smogranch says:

      Asegeir,
      I thought about that. Going to go solo now ONLY because of all the other things I have going on. I wouldn’t want to take other work and not do it right. At some point however….

  4. Mike says:

    Yeah, we want a magazine: and you CAN do it.

    Mike.

  5. David says:

    Interesting post… I’m in.

  6. Michael says:

    Yes, please.

  7. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    I would be interested.

  8. Sean says:

    I’m interested in the magazine too.

    I’ve had a Leica going on three years now. Still feel like I’ve only just begun.

  9. Sounds great, sign me up for the magazine.

    Adios amigo!

  10. mike a says:

    Yeah that would be cool, I’m in.

  11. Cody Priebe says:

    I would appreciate this magazine, love your work and your approach.

  12. Mike says:

    “Telex Iran” by Gilles Peress, Mexico by Abbas; what were they teaching you Daniel? I love this article: Leica should employ you – or me. I totally agree with what you write here about the M: square peg, round hole, the commitment to use just this camera etc.. It’s pushing out into the deep; you just need faith.
    As an aside film and digital Leicas don’t work well together – you forget to wind on the film! I cheerfully change lenses on my film M but dread the dust with the digital. I know that the film M is here to stay.

    Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Mike,
      Dust is a real issue with ANYTHING digital. I know what you are saying. Typically I don’t change lenses much, so I’m okay. I miss those days of cruising the book store. What I don’t miss is NOT buying Telex Iran.

  13. Martin Wolf says:

    I would love to see a magazine from you.

  14. Mike says:

    I had a copy of Darkroom from Lustrum Press (Ralph Gibson). I read it until it was falling to pieces. I had been shooting Kodachrome for a long time and decided that I wouldn’t ever read the book again and I threw it away. Big mistake, I’ve missed that book for years. If they make a reprint I’m on it.
    Inspired by this post and others here I’ve contacted my local university to see if they have darkroom facilities available for hire and they have replied that they are exploring the idea. Looks like I may be a guinea pig. I’ve been called worse.

    Mike.

  15. Paul J says:

    A great post Daniel, thanks.

    I’ve said it before but as a proud owner of the original “Manifesto” magazine I personally would love to see another magazine on a regular basis. Take your time but I shall look forward to hearing more as/when the time is right…

  16. Stephanie says:

    A yes from me for a magazine

  17. Count me in for the magazine.

  18. Mick Buston says:

    Happy to be one of the hundred. Now go shoot and get this thing done already :-)

  19. Patrick Dodds says:

    I’d be in for the magazine. If it helps / isn’t insulting, I’d be in as much for the writing as the pictures.

  20. Jon says:

    great post, Dan…+1 on magazine, +1 on image & word!

  21. Mark Ivkovic says:

    Love this piece, totally nodding along to your discovered feelings. I’d also say that the “little box” also has a way of creating bodies of cohesive work without it’s user having to concentrate too much on that style so much. It’s the process it somehow teaches you to understand.
    I believe I could be convinced to relieve you of a publication if this comes to fruition.

  22. Josh says:

    Daniel. Room for one more? Put me on the list?

  23. Thanks for the great article about rangefinders. I think the best thing that happened to my photography was when I got an M3 with a 50mm lens to shoot film for my photo class. I am thankful the class introduced me to the wonders of film. I swear the camera forced me to change the way I shoot, if only for the sole reason that it forced me to have an understanding of the light in the scene, because there is no built in meter. I think also that the Leica forces me to slow down and think about what I am shooting, although I know many people can focus them just as fast as an AF camera (and there is always zone focusing). It is not perfect for everything, but it is very good at what it is good at.

    Also, I like the magazine idea.

    • Smogranch says:

      David,
      I agree that film makes you look, see and work differently. Some love it, others think that the modern tools are better, but the cool thing is we have options. I just shot a panning shot with the Leica, of a person running diagonally right at me. Lucky…maybe.

  24. Rick Rosen says:

    Dan, I love the idea of a magazine. Count me in.

  25. Print it and they will come

  26. i <3 mags, add me to your list

  27. i <3 mags, add me to your list!

  28. Bishop says:

    Great post…and, yes, I’d be interested in your magazine as well. Thanks!

  29. Simone says:

    Thank you Dan. Looking forward to hold your magazine !
    How do you describe the operating (and mindset) difference in the field b/w film fully manual SLR and film fully manual RF ?

  30. Rikard says:

    Thanks for a great post Dan. I would definitively be interested in a magazine as well :)

    I just wanted to mention a difference of how I use, or rather how I feel when I use a SLR compared to a rangefinder. And it doesn’t seem to matter much if the rangefinder is my Holga or my Leica m6.
    When I look through the viewfinder of my SLR I automatically adopt a more aggressive and hunched body position. It’s like I’m hunting for the perfect composition. Moving the camera and lens around until everything lines up. I hold my breath and squeeze the trigger. Kablaang! Target down, mission accomplished. I can breathe again.
    Now, when I put the rangefinder up to my eye the feeling I get is very different. I’m much more relaxed and the composition is obvious. I don’t have to hunt for it at all.
    How you feel (relaxed or tense) is most likely picked up by people around you. If you’re tense, out hunting, people will be much more guarded and suspicious.
    You just seem to be a much nicer guy with a rangefinder than with a SLR :)

    • Smogranch says:

      Rikard,
      For me it’s the kind of photo the rangefinder allows me to take, added with the small size and fact that nobody pays any attention to it. Just spent ten days in Nicaragua and it worked like a charm.

  31. Ulysses says:

    Your posts are very thought provoking. I would certainly purchase a your quarterly magazine.

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