Thursday, May 12, 2016

(D)Evolution Of The Leica Snapshot

Howdy folks - today we're going to approach something that was so much of a scene, so hep it never became popular!
It was out there but it never came back.
So strim yer goatee, dig out your snappy duds, put on some sides . . .
And let's get going!

Any of you out there with Theo Kisselbach's "Leica Handbook" will no doubt have had a chortle at the photograph of The Cat (actually not just any old cat, but a German one, looking cool, and it's hard to be cool when there's no bread and the Communists and the Capitalists are talking about dividing your country) taking what became known as a Leica Snapshot.
Wot's a Leica Snapshot then Sheepy?
Well, technically it isn't a Leica Snapshot as Kisselbach describes it as a "walking snapshot", but you'll know what it is . . . camera held at a low, hip level (dig? man that's groovy) vertically or horizontally in your hand, your focus and shutter speed pre-set and your big old (but totally groovin') thumb on the shutter release. 
Then all you do is slide man . . . 
And . . .
There y'go, outta sight, you've a groovy masterpiece forever y'dig.
Like you get a note in there between C and C# and that's its own sound y'know. I mean, you can't call it C because it isn't . . . that's like dig.
Dig means Dig.
If it doesn't hang you up, it doesn't make it as a thing.

You must excuse the hip speak baby (and its nothing to do with Fecking Austin Feckin' Powers either) no man, we're in Germany in the early 60's with a Leica M2, neat threads, and some crazy side someone got in the American Zone.
I am of course alluding to one of the greatest albums of all time by two loose wigs - namely Del Close and John Brent.

Try and find a copy, sit back and laugh.
Dig yourself baby, you've got a way to go.
Once you get used to it, insanity can be the most normal thing in the world . . .

And somewhere near approaching insanity is what the walking snapshot has done to me.
Sorry, but I couldn't be bothered to separate the two 'covert' techniques photos, so both are detailed below, but it's the Cat (left hand figure in left hand photo in case your sexing radar is a bit off today) and the bit near the bottom (last paragraph of the text) that we're interested in.
Man . . . modern life.
So here he is, a young Cat, in the park, sliding, digging the scene, impressing his admiring Fräulein Chick with his stone-cold skills, and she too is juiced, impressing him with her similarly boss covert stance - all she needs is some rain-threads and she could be that Walker Evans cat on the New York Subway in the 1930's:

"Look - stop moaning baby, I've set it to 1/500th and f16 dig?"

The book states the following:

So, the "walking snapshot" - it's a hip scene isn't it?
Isn't it?
Well, er . . NO!
Baby, it's as difficult a technique to master as becoming a Shaolin monk.
It's so hard, man, it fried people's minds, it chewed the carpet, it split the juice, it . . .
OK . . .I'll stop now.
Indeed, it is so bloody hard that it has largely fallen out of favour, because it is just simpler to go up to people and shove your camera in their face.
So just what is so difficult about it then?
Well, what Herr Kisselbach doesn't mention is that it entirely depends on three things that have to be absolutely right, namely:


 . . . but you've been there man. You're a hep cat, you know the scene, you've sacrificed a roll or two to practice, but you blew your wig, you chewed the rug when you realised that for every shot that worked, you had ten that don't.
I've tried this technique a number of times now and whilst it certainly beats lifting the camera to your eye, that little frame of film is entirely at the apex of a vastly complex physical equation involving:

 . . oh and . . .
Random chance

It's like the whole of chaos theory wrapped up into that one tiny moment of time as you pick your moment, and Click! your finger digs the scene!

Of course you can do things to mitigate the whole thing, like being super-careful, not jabbing at the shutter release, suspending your body motion and poising for a brief moment and being totally aware of everything as it is happening, but it still doesn't seem to work.
In fact, with a bit of scouring around it seems close to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (just don't quote me on it)

But how does this relate to evolution?
Well, simply put, despite being a very small and sereptitious camera, the Leica in all its variations still looks like a camera, and it is big for such operations.
My thinking led me to the thoughts that if I don't mind a fixed focus lens I could use one of the smaller pre-noughties compacts and try it that way. The only problem with that, was that if using say an Olympus MjU, you've got that total bane of shutter lag, so I stripped that back and tried it with my lovely old Olympus Trip.

It was almost  a good camera for it - being that bit smaller. But it is still very much obviously a camera . . and not only that it has that stupid red flag that comes up every bloody time you have an interesting picture coming up, so you might be well-prepped and itching to go but at the last moment the camera decides "Nope - you're not wasting film on that!" and the shutter refuses to fire.
So I gave that up as a bad-show, and then happenstance and a kind gift from Bruce Robbins of Online Darkroom fame moved things along.
The gift?
A lovely Olympus XA2 in really lovely condition
In much the same way that the original Olympus XA was an evolutionary move on from the Trip, so, the humble XA2 was a move on from the XA, in that, there's simply nothing to complicate things.
It's simple.
Zone focus - you get a choice of three, close heads, heads and torsos, and mountains.
Automatic - set the EI/ASA and the camera does the rest for you, both aperture and shutter speed.
And it doesn't have anything that stops you from taking a photograph apart from a light in the viewfinder which tells you if things are getting iffy.
And then there's the main thing:  down low at hip height, held in your hand, it could look like a phone and no one pays a blind bit of notice of them do they?
Sounds ideal doesn't it!
Here's the tech specs:

    Lens D.Zuiko 35mm 1:3.5-22 (4 elements in 3 groups)
    Focal range 1.3m to infinity in 3 zones
    Shutter speeds 2s-1/750th aperture-priority automatic

Ally this with a super quite, super sensitive shutter (with NO shutter lag) and a wonderful wheel advance that is easily and discreetly moved by a few flicks of your thumb and you have a camera which is the ultimate in stealth!
I loaded it up and set off to work, winding and snapping like a good 'un. I couldn't even hear the shutter as I was moving, it being a focal plane/between lens elements job. Marvey!
It was a revelation to use - no one noticed, and I thought I had some stonking frames on my film.
And in came the wonder of film too, because unlike everything (or seemingly everything in life at the moment) this wasn't instantaneous gratification, nope, I had to wait . . to finish that long 36 exposure film and then the processing, and even then there was still no guarantee I had got anything at all worth using . .
But you know me - I can be obverse . . I love that aspect of photography where you see something good, take a photograph but just don't know whether it will be any good or not!
I suppose it is a form of oo! yah!, lay off with the split cane will you . . . masochism.
So where did all that waiting get us?
Shitesville, that's where!



Bad Timing


There's Something Perversely Pleasing About This One

Ditto - That's A Dog At The Left BTW

Pretty Boring  - But It Shows What Can Be Done With Care

Pick Up Thy Camera (To Eye-Level) And Snap

A Pretty Damn Good Little Lens Though - Shame About The Photographer

Y'see, the XA2's lens is fine, really fine, but you can't really tweak anything at all, the camera decides everything for you once you've set the focus and wound on, I mean you might well be able to get 1/750th at f3.5, but what use is that when you are trying to get a fair amount within the zone of focus? Sadly, for anything other than bright sunshine (this is Scotland - c'mon!) the XA2 and the "walking snapshot" don't really cog.
It's sad actually, because if you could just set it in stone and shoot, you'd have a very capable little machine, however if you live in sunnier climes, you might well find the XA2 to be a very capable little machine indeed.

So, I chewed some carpet, spat my spaghetti at the wall, dug what that crazy Gibson cat said and retired to my secret pad, to see if I could get the thing.
After much ruminating, goatee scratching, and bashing my brains against the lampstand, the lampstand came on, and I dug. I really did. 
It was crazy daddio, but first I needed to tweak the knobs.

If you've read FB for long enough (and if you haven't why not, it's a whole scene playing out in front of your eyes - a lot of people get it, some people even dig it) you'll realise there's nothing I like more than a bit of a tweak.
Pretty much the ultimate tweak for this sort of thing is a box-speed 400 ASA film, and a camera set at 1/125th of a second and f16. 
You've got to zone-focus baby, because, the zone is where it's at. 
Develop your masterpiece in some really aggressive developer (just in case) and let the film's latitude deal with any bad decisions and poor exposure. 
Oh and pray
Pray to Bird, or Monk, or Trane or Miles. 
Those cats are watching you. 
You'd better do them justice.

So I put the XA2 away, packed the crazy 1960 M2, but this time with the late '50's Canon 28mm f3.5 attached.
Sigh . . . here we go again . . .

Wides are cool. They dig the scene better than anything else, but you have to move those cats in close, closer than talc or else everything is too far out.
I dug what Ralph had said. 
I even dug where Sheephouse had excavated his technique and shoved it on a plate of loose beans in front of the modern world. 
Education man. 
Yeah, crazy.
Helping others - that's a crazy scene.
So before setting out, I decided on mixing a bit of Ralph Gibson Experiment (Tri-X - 400 ASA, 1/125th of a second, f16 in sunny conditions, developed in Rodinal) with a bit of Zone focus magic. 
And what did I have
I had a thing.
A crazy, complex, small, simple and quiet Leica Snapshot Machine
The rain came out to play and so did I.

That's the edge of my threads . . . and Ali's nose

Ok - This Was A 'Proper' Photograph - But Dig That Krazy Kanon Glow!

This Chick Looked Fierce, But She Had A Collection Of Cakes In A Bag, So She Must Have Been Alright.

A Scene Going Down - We Vamoosed

She Was Concentrating On Pushing So Much, She Nearly Ran Me Down

They Were Concentrating On Their Destination Of Starbucks, They Nearly Ran Me Down.

But it never came off.
Sady The Uncertainty Principle caught me up in its complexity - you see what I mean, Shitesville City and all it's satellite towns too!
For all my care and even with a fixed fixed shutter speed and a bit more poise, I still found it utterly impossible to take what I would call a decent photograph.

This being said, I kind of like some of these in a crazy way.

There's a perverse sense that someday . . . maybe someday . . . something will turn out right and I'll get there.
But till then . . .
If you fancy having a go, by all means do . . . 

Just don't come blowing my horn when you're 2 rolls down and cracking your nut.