Old roads.

I began to carry a camera with me on rides last summer but even my smallest, lightest shooter gets in the way of riding. So I wound up stuffing it into a seat bag or – if I happened to be riding a bike with a rear rack at the time – a rear pannier. In any event, it was always too much of a hassle to drag the camera out of the bag at rest stops, let alone the sundry serendipitous image opportunities that present themselves along the route of nearly every ride. As a hiker, the camera is a natural complement to my walking experience. Much to my chagrin, I found that it was much less so on the bicycle.

This realization chafed at me, too. I’m an artist and photographer and I habitually carry both camera and sketchbook with me most places. Part of the common appeal of sketching, shooting, and riding to me is the decided simpleness of each: for many years I carried a vintage Leica around on my tours; I even wrote an article for the December 2002 issue of Camera Arts Magazine about the virtues of seeing the world slowly, and on foot, through the viewfinder of this antiquated technology.

This simple tool has helped me to isolate small slices of life, to savor at a later time and it well serves my personal aesthetic of the “grab shot.” It really seemed unreasonable that I couldn’t find an easy and natural amalgamation of camera and bike.

For about a year now, I’ve used my cell phone camera to snag image ideas that I might want to use later on for a painting. The quality of the cell phone camera image – at least by the mult-megapixel standards of my studio cameras – is not very good at all. Mine is a comparatively very low resolution and it’s pure point-and-shoot. Perhaps, I reasoned, it might suffice for reference shots but it couldn’t possibly be used for actual photographic art… could it?

And that’s when I recalled the lesson learned from my Leica. At one time the professional’s choice, in an age where film had been abandoned in favor of automated digital exposure, the little Leica IIIg – made of metal, not plastic; completely manual – was seen as an anachronism, at best.

Yet it produces images of astonishing beauty and the lens quality is clearly unmatched by any of my contemporary photographic glass. My best images tend to favor a dream-like quality, with a narrowly focused point-of-view; sometimes I even still use a pinhole camera to grasp at that aesthetic. Could one not view this smart phone not as a high tech wonder, but rather, as a quasi-low tech or entry-level camera? It’s lightweight enough to carry in one of the back panel pockets of my riding jersey and easy enough to operate on the fly, with minimal hassle.

I decided to explore this option further over the past couple of months. I began to grab shots on my rides. Images that began simply enough, could be processed further in my digital “darkroom”. For instance, I could open the small .jpg image in Adobe Camera Raw and correct for exposure and lighting defects; I could further enhance the image quality and selectively blur image areas that I wished to remain outside the areas of focal emphasis. Rather than large gallery-sized prints, I instead chose to accentuate the relatively small image size by making more intimately scaled prints on handmade watercolor paper. With a large bordered mat between the image and frame, these images become more personal and – I hope – more cherished.

Although my ouvre really hasn’t emphasized the bicycle as subject matter, that has, in point of fact, become the recent focal point in my recent work and I’m building a body of photographs that continue to acknowledge my interest in “found” and ephemeral imagery. And – fortunately – old roads lead me to new places to ponder.

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10 thoughts on “Old roads.

  1. Mark,

    This is a great post as I am currently wrestling with the film vs. digital debate… I love everything about film… but as digital becomes the primary medium of displaying and sharing my images… film has become a time-sink that I cannot afford… but I have yet to meet a digital camera I like… much preferring my old Nikon F’s and Leica… a quandary… I prefer the simplicity of the film camera and digital medium… but it the two will never meet…

    The Grouch

  2. Sitting on a shelf in my tv room – forlorn, lonely, and seemingly abandoned – are a Nikon F, a Leica IIIf with a 5cm Leitz f1.5 lens, a brand spanking new Nikon F4, several Canon and Nikon rangefinders, and an odd Petriflex 7. Stowed away with cases of unopened Polaroid 4×5 Type 55 film are a Hasselblad 500c, a 4×5 Woodman, and my trusty Rollei TLR. I miss them more than I can say sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that I shut down the darkroom, sold off the 8×10 enlarger and all of the associated gear many years ago. I remember saying to a client, “Yeah, we had to go digital two years ago” and that simple statement seems like an eternity ago now.

    I’ve been shooting and teaching photography from a digital workflow for quite some time now and have experimented with so many, many different cameras. Just like in the Age of Film, the consumer market – with ease-of-use point-and-shoot cameras – dictates the majority of what is out there. This reality is what truly subsidizes the professional level camera, just as Kodak’s “You push the button and we do the rest” philosophy made it possible for Steiglitz and his ilk to have the requisite tools needed to make their art. And I get it.

    But even though these cameras can do amazing things, and the quality – quite honestly! – is far and away superior to anything ever produced for the consumer film market, still they seem to lack the soul of the mechanical camera. I’ve often said I could very likely hammer nails with my old Leica and then turn right around and still shoot superb images. The fact that I had to finagle around with the crappy rangefinder, the tiny knobs, the spectacularly inefficient film take up system – well, it meant that the camera and I became one.

    I miss that.

    On the digital front, I currently use two personal cameras: a Nikon D80 with an aging AF Nikkor 50mm f1.2 mounted at nearly all times, and a Sigma DP2s with a permanently mounted 24mm f2.8 (effectively a 28mm equivalent.) Neither one makes my heart leap quite the way it did when I used the Leica or the Nikon F, but they come close in some ways. The Sigma isn’t really a rangefinder, but it kind of looks like one, and I can make it (sort of) function a little like my Leica: i.e., using a rangefinder viewer rather than the LCD back, and that means shooting at a slower, more thoughtful pace.

  3. Mark,

    I agree… my D70 and Canon G2 have taken an immense amount of abuse… and still work fine… so modern cameras can be very rugged and reliable… just not as simple and elegant…

    I really like your idea of making small prints… a friend of mine contact printed 6×9 negatives… completely astounding effect… and his most popular series of work…

    Printing is where digital keeps letting me down… I love silver prints… especially B&W… and I still have not been able achieve digital prints that I really like…

    Up until about a year ago… I was a committed film photographer… developing my own negatives… and making wet prints… but due to life commitments I simple have run out of time… maybe that will change in the future… you can see some of my photography at -http://plynnmiller.com – …

    The Sigma DP’s have intrigued me… been looking at several options… Fuji X100… Epsom RD-1… or maybe even a Leica M8…

    Digital is amazing and I want to become more skilled at implementing it…

    The Grouch

  4. I’ve been printing the small images onto 300# Arches watercolor paper using an Epson 2880 printer… really quite lovely results with a very understated appearance that is just a bit like a Platinum print in some respects. My black and white exhibition prints have come off the same printer on heavy weight Baryta paper and the results are, I don’t mind saying, really quite remarkable. They are stunningly similar to silver prints.

  5. Garry Evans says:

    I have passed this post and accompanying comments on to a semi retired photographer to help soften the depression he is suffering. The digital age has turned him and his craft into an anachronism and presently he is in the process of ridding himself of all his redundant processing equipment.

    • My Advanced Photography students are currently building tiny, matchbox-sized pinhole cameras and setting up a temporary darkroom just adjacent to our “digital darkroom” studio area. Ironically, these students are fascinated with the “anachronistic” processes. Maybe there’s hope for this next generation after all!

      • Garry Evans says:

        Thanks for your very encouraging news. I will pass this information on to my friend. Currently he is working on restoring old photographs that have been mouldering away in long forgotten boxes. To see these images come to life again has been a source of immeasurable pleasure for us.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed your writing about your approach to your work and the tools of your trade. I made the transition to digital years ago and also miss the aesthetics of my old film cameras, but like you’ve observed have been enjoying all the moments I’ve been able to capture that I would have missed with my older cameras. Oh, and I share your fondness for beautiful vintage bikes! Your Freschi is quite the work of art.

    • Thanks, Tim. From time to time I will still shoot a little film – that seems to satisfy the same part of me that enjoys painting en plein air. But the convenience and quality of my iPhone can’t be ignored. These days it, along with my fountain pen and sketchbook, have evolved into the primary tools I use for visual commentary.

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