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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $300. Two systems, the Canon and the Leica, filed away, a backup. But for a few brief moments I’m separated from my main bag and I’m left with the Leica. There is the ride in the Jeep. The image through the window….it feels right. Feels like me. Feels like something I know is going to be with me for many years. There is the funeral, the house, back against the wall, ONE frame, no witnesses. Just me inside a completely and utterly foreign world.
By 1996 I knew I was f%$%$#@. Cambodia. An assignment, duties, needs and objectives to accomplish, but the lingering pull of MY work is beginning to overshadow the reality of doing what it is I was trained to do. The main system left in the hotel. The AK47 in the lobby making sure it’s there when I return. The heat. The overwhelming, soul-sucking heat that taps even me. Dust, diesel and the isolation of being so outside my comfort zone. A machine gun pointed at my chest. Money taken but the camera remains. Who cares, just keep shooting. One powerful, momentous image at a time. This was SO FAR before seeing your image was the destructive reality we see and feel today. No motor, no autofocus, no NOTHING but metal and emulsion. Dust? Who cares? Heat? Who cares? Rain? Who cares? Not even the kid with the AK-47 and my money wanted my little, light-tight friend.
A pattern developing and I can feel it as I go. I’ve begun to make a certain type of image. My type, but also the Leica type. Certain spacing, and people realize I didn’t know what the f%$# 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.