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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Disliking Leica

Friday, June 13, 2008

Anyone who has a hobby or interest involving technology has to have a pinnacle product, the example that is simply the best that it can possibly be so that once you own one, you can only ever look down upon the rest of your field. If you are a motoring enthusiast, for example, then it is pretty hard to beat a Rolls Royce Phantom or a Bugatti Veyron. Or if you are into home audio it is probably the Kharma range of hand crafted speakers. For photographers, there is only really one flag at the top, and it bears the name Hasselblad.

But even if you are a professional, the whole point about these products is that you cannot simply buy one. It is not just the cost, but the exclusivity: when there are only 300 Veyrons in the world, you cannot just pop down to your local showroom and slap a cheque on the table. Further, these things matter not so much for what they are, but for what they represent about your psychological investment in your hobby, and there is a sense in which owning one without being able fully to appreciate it devalues both your field and the product itself. So there is no point in using a Kharma speaker if you do not have ears attuned and trained to the nuances of the sound in produces. And even if I had the £15, 000 or so to buy the latest Hasselblad H3DII, it would be hard to enjoy using it. I would always be conscious that with my limited photography skills and repertoire of techniques, it would be equivalent to me owning a Veyron but only ever driving it at 30 miles per hour. Great engineering deserves great and appreciative users.

So for most of us ordinary folk who are neither lottery winners, nor experts in our field, we have to lower our ideals to a more realistic level. It may not be possible to own a Kharma speaker, but if you put a Bang and Olufsen in your living room, you will notice the quality immediately, and people will still draw a breath when they see that you have one. You may not get on the waiting list for a Bugatti Veyron, but buy a Ferrari Maranello and you will still turn heads in the street.

And, for we photographers, if the Hasselblad is a niche product there is one legendary brand of cameras that most of us do lust after. This is the camera beloved of the Magnum photographer and its founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the camera used to document the human world over the last half century, most notably today used by the great Sebastiao Salgado. This is, of course, the Leica.
There is an air of mystique surrounding the Leica. With its quirky, 1950s looks, it seems to refuse the advance of technology, implying instead that someone back then discovered the alchemical secret of the ideal camera, and hence the Leica has no need to be incessantly developed and upgraded like a Nikon or Canon. As a rangefinder, the Leica has no mirror, and its shutter instead produces a legendary whisper, barely interrupting what Bresson termed the "decisive moment" when the photo is captured. And, unlike a professional SLR, the Leica is small, unobtrusive and subtle, which is why Bresson found it ideal for his candid photography.

Whilst for under £100 you can today pick up a used Nikon F4 body, among the best 35mm SLRs ever produced, a Leica M4 body, often viewed as the best of Leica's legendary M series cameras, will set you back £1000. It is a price tag just exceptional enough to retain its air of exclusivity, but tantalisingly within reach to make it a realistic dream.

So it is with great sadness that I read that the Leica brand has not withstood the transition to digital. Michael Kamber is a top photojournalist, who used a Leica M8 - the first digital incarnation of the M series - in his recent assignment in Iraq. This was the sort of assignment to make any photojournalist reach almost automatically for a Leica. War reporting demands a camera able to take reliable shots almost instantaneously, to be unobtrusive in socially sensitive situations, and to be rugged enough to withstand harsh environmental conditions. In spite of the admirable record of the 35mm Leicas over the past half century, however, the latest digital Leica appears to have failed in all three respects, according to Kamber's report: the camera at times failed to start; its memory card slot is difficult to access, making it hard to swap cards when a soldier is threatening to search the photographer; non-recessed or flimsy buttons kept switching as the bumped against his flak jacket; it had severe issues with exposure and white balance; it performed poorly in low light.

Although damning, the review appeared quite objective, as the sample photographs (and their comparisons with a Canon 1D) showed evident deficits. I am not sure quite how to describe my response to the article. If I say it was as if a religious believer had stopped believing in God, that probably overstresses my sensibility, but there was certainly a sense that the reliable star towards which I was unconsciously aiming my photographic learning curve had suddenly become unstable, veering uncertainly. Although usually one buys a better camera to facilitate one's photography, the inverse was true for the Leica: I knew that when my photography became good enough, I could justify owning one. Of course, the Leica M4 has not suddenly become a bad camera just because its latest variant appears deficient. That, I guess, remains the gold standard (to the Hasellblad's platinum). But it is a gold now tarnished; or, perhaps a better metaphor, it is as if the bloodline of the great cameras, and their great users, has become bastardised.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:07 am

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