For me, photography is often a solitary pursuit. At times this is a blessing. The calm of twiddling dials and manipulating a tripod can be a meditative experience, and the solitude of being alone in nature, or anonymous on a busy street is a familiar and comfortable place. Occasionally though, I pine for some company. This is especially true when life becomes excessively chaotic.
Which brings us to last Sunday. It’s 5 AM. I’m sitting at my desk. On the computer screen in front of me, a flashing text cursor continually reminds me to finish a half-outlined article. Disorganized piles of notes are scattered across the desktop like leaves in fall. With my head in my hand, I shuffle through the notes; large, white postcards reminding of articles to write for CP, or cameras that need to be shipped from my camera shop. The hand-written notes talk back, saying things like “Inventory Nikon FE, Shoot the Rollei, AF35M lens, Pickup Prints/Yashica Review, Nikon 50mm Lens Shootout,“ and a diagonally jotted and somewhat cryptic scrawl stating, “M3 – 1960 Wheat Bokeh.”
Apparently that last one’s supposed to mean something to me, but what that is I can’t recall.
Just as I begin to feel the familiar, crushing weight of too-much-to-do, too-little-time, the excited electric hum of a vibration motor signals an incoming text message. Snatching up the phone (and the welcome distraction) I see a message from a friend; Shoot some photos? It takes me about two seconds to respond; YES. We finalize plans to meet in an hour for some street photography.
I’ve got to get ready. I grab my camera bag and address the shelf that contains my gear. I plop the empty bag on my desk chair and begin to cobble together everything I’ll need. This is good, my racing mind proclaims, I can get test shots for the lens shootout. And I should bring the Yashica just in case the other prints don’t pan out. Oh, and maybe I should bring the Canon, since more test shots can’t hurt. Okay. I’ll need the Nikon… four lenses… these two point-and-shoots… can’t forget film…
I don’t immediately see the ridiculousness of what I’ve done. In mere moments I’ve packed away a Nikon D610 and four Nikkor 50mms. On top of this, I’ve stuffed a Canon AF35M and a Yashica T3 point-and-shoot into a side pocket, some rolls of film into another pouch, and I’m even considering bringing the Rollei B35 to give it one more chance to impress me. As I’m staring down at the packed bag, this fourth camera in my hand, I catch myself.
This is all too much.
I stand fixed in place, staring stupidly at the bulging bag of hefty cameras, at the desk covered in notes, and at the flashing text cursor from the night before still prompting me to get back to work. I’m tired, uninspired, and uninterested. At this early hour I’m wishing I could crawl back into my warm bed, and I wonder how badly I’d feel if I canceled on my friend.
I turn slowly and lean against the desk, take off my glasses and rub my burning eyes against the mental exhaustion. When I again open them, my eyes fall to a shelf on the opposite wall and I take inventory. It’s the shelf where freshly-delivered cameras wait to be cleaned, repaired, and reviewed for the site or sold through the shop. One camera in particular catches my eye. It’s a Leica M3, a truly legendary camera, and it happens to be the first M3 I’ve owned.
I’ve never had the opportunity to use one, and the 50mm Summicron attached to its face glimmers at me in the dim, morning light. I’d loaded the camera with a fresh roll of Kodak 400TX the day before so it’d be ready to shoot. This new machine should present an exciting opportunity, but I’m just so damn tired, and a cynical voice in my mind tells me that any shots I take with the thing won’t be worth keeping anyway. So what’s the point?
I stroll over and pick up the Leica; so small and concise, the weight of the camera is surprising. I pull out the retractable lens, lock it into place, and cock the shutter. I’m surprised at how smooth and precise the mechanism feels, and I start to understand why so many people before me have fallen in love with this camera. I look through the viewfinder and focus on Cooper, my Golden Retriever, still sleeping in the warm sunbeams of the early morning light as it slices through the window blinds. The focus action glides with precision. I blearily frame the dog and take my first-ever-shot with a Leica M3. Surprisingly, something pretty wonderful happens; it feels really satisfying.
Like a cold fluorescent lightbulb, a glimmer of the old excitement flickers to life somewhere in my brain. I wonder if I had the focus just right. I wonder if I used an aperture that’ll render the peaceful scene in a way that conveys the stillness of the moment. I pause and realize that at the core of this rare excitement is my anticipation of future delight that only manual shooting with film can bring. It seems obvious now, but the excitement comes with the fact that I can’t wait to see the image the camera and I just made. And it’s a thrill that’s been lost on me the past few months.
Gazing down at the M3 in my hands, I squint a bit and start to nod. I look again at the notes on the desk, the open document on the computer screen, and the stuffed bag, then back to the M3. A thought breaks in. Isn’t this all I need today? A moment’s pause. Yeah. This is it. As I slip on my jacket and make for the door, the thoroughly prepared camera bag sits on the chair where I’ve left it. Those cameras can keep that winking bastard of a cursor company for a while. Today I’m shooting for fun.
Hours later and I’m sitting with my friend in a cafe, a place he’d heard about on Chronicle. Chronicle, I wonder. We’re thirty-years-old. Who watches Chronicle? My friend’s been described as an old man in a young man’s body, which is fine. He’s the only friend I’ve got who shares my love of film photography, and he normally uses a camera from the 1970s, but not long ago I gave him a slightly more modern machine, a camera from the ‘80s. The new-fangled LEDs and aperture priority auto-exposure are foreign to him, and we chat about how it all works over espresso and lemon poppyseed muffins. He’s interested in the mechanics and engineering behind these old machines, and we’re both more than happy to chat cameras (and life) for as long as the coffee lasts. It’s a rare great time.
After a while we’re ready to brave the cold and shoot, and for the first time in a long time getting out to shoot requires no packing of bags, no Moleskines filled with notes for the website, and no stuffing of extra lenses into vacant pockets. All that’s required is to stand up, grab hold of the M3, and walk out the door. It’s an amazingly liberating experience.
Out on the street it’s about 20º F, and the frigid wind howls through the urban canyons of Boston’s Theatre District. Pedestrians shuffle along the frozen streets, mummified in their layers. The January day is overcast, and the whole world seems rendered in grayscale, meaning I’ll be less interested in finding beautiful scenery and more interested in people. Everyone is wearing black overcoats, black boots, black hats, and they alternately blend in or stand out amidst the dark grays and bright whites of the surrounding stone edifices. It makes me glad I’m shooting black and white film.
We take some time to shoot under the Paramount, an old theatre and local landmark. The Leica is new to me, and I’m not completely sure I’ll be getting any of the shots the way I envision them in my mind, but I shoot anyway. Using a slow shutter speed, I try to capture the motion of the bustling passersby. The 50mm focal length isn’t the most dramatic, but I’m not putting too much pressure on myself to make an amazing image. I remind myself that I’m just having fun.
We decide to head toward Chinatown, a favorite location of mine for street shooting. It’s one of the most interesting places for street shooting, one of the last pockets of the city that hasn’t been completely or partially gentrified, and an entirely different world from the one I’m used to. It’s also private, inaccessible, inhospitable, and extremely unpretentious, all merits in my opinion. Plus, you can get a great deal on value-packs of Pocky.
Strolling through the streets we come across the typical vignettes of life in this ethnic enclave of Boston; groups of men in closed-off circles smoking cigarettes in the cold and playing unusual board- or card-games together, restaurants puffing exotic aromas into the air, assemblages of slow-moving Tai-chi practitioners seemingly impervious to the numbing cold. As we descend deeper into side-streets and alleys, the conversation between my friend and me slows, eventually ceasing altogether. Our eyes are open, we’re taking it all in, looking for something interesting to shoot. I hear his mirror happily flapping up and down, and his shutter clanking away, sounds any photo geek would love. The Leica functions in virtual silence.
Passing in front of a noodle shop I pause to shoot a neon sign, the only vibrancy in the bleak, January scene. Focusing with the Leica is a bit tricky for me. I’m not used to it, and I’ve not shot a rangefinder since reviewing the Petri F1.9 back in the warm days of summer. The Summicron has a pretty long throw and a minimum focus distance that’s fairly distant at 3.5 ft, another aspect of the camera that I’m just not used to. Still, it’s a pleasurable way to shoot, and one I’m sure I’ll fall deeper in love with the longer I use it.
My friend asks me what it’s like to shoot with the Leica. As we’re chatting about the camera I abruptly notice a man staring at me. He’s squatting on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette, and puffing exhaust into the air with a scowl. I distractedly continue talking but my eyes are locked on the grimacing man, who for his part stares back unflinchingly. He’s an interesting looking guy, with a fluffy white beard framing a surprisingly youthful face. With our eyes locked, he pulls a drag from the cancer-stick and carelessly blows it up at the pedestrians passing in front of him.
I don’t typically enjoy photographing homeless people, especially with a camera and lens that have a combined value in excess of what many people earn for a month of hard work, but I’m not sure if he’s actually homeless or just not allowed to smoke in the house. In either case, he’s staring at me bitterly, and I feel that if an interesting looking person’s staring at me with obtuse hatred, they at least owe me a photograph. I tell my friend, mostly joking, that he should probably get ready to scamper. I squat down to the level of the staring man and try to focus, but I’m not fast with the Leica and he turns his head away just as I press the shutter release. Oh well.
We move on, and passing an open doorway I pause, suddenly noticing what’s beyond the gaping door. Stacked floor to ceiling across the entire back wall of a closet-sized storefront are cages packed with chickens. They cluck and scratch lethargically at the bars. One cage is on the floor with its top splayed open, and a score of chickens’ heads are poked through the opening like the bobbing periscopes of a fleet of comically spherical submarines. The birds’ heads swivel mechanically, examining the room, their comrades in the cages, and the open door leading to the vastness of the street outside. I’m sure they can feel the wind blowing in from the street, and surely they know the freedom that they’d find a mere two feet away if only they’d flap their wings and bounce out the door. But they’re in no immediate peril, so they remain unmoved and insecurely caged.
I squat to the level of the birds, framing the shot so that the back wall and stacks of imprisoned animals are also visible. In the furthest recess of the room moves a man with a cleaver in his hand and a chicken grasped by the neck. Its wings are spread, its legs and toes sprawled like the branches of a leafless tree. Its fate is pretty obvious, and with its neck clenched tightly in the sinewy hands of the Chinese man with the knife, there’s no escape. He wasted his opportunity.
I’m trying to hurry; to set the focus and aperture and to lower the shutter speed on account of the darkness of the room, but it takes me too long. The man with the cleaver sees me and he’s not very excited to have his picture taken. He starts yelling in a language of which I’ve no understanding, though as he strides toward me gesticulating with the cleaver I’m pretty sure I know what he’s saying. To hell with the settings, this is the decisive moment. I take the shot and, moments later, the man’s advice by getting the hell out of there.
I spend the next few moments thinking how, at times, people are like those chickens. We can be a in a horrendous situation with danger and pain just ahead of us. There may be an escape just a few steps away. We may even see the oncoming disaster, see the way in which we can avoid that disaster, comprehend it all, and still do nothing to save ourselves. Why wait until it’s too late to act? Why is it that it’s not until the hand is tight around our throat that we look to change our fate? We must be about as intelligent as a bunch of chickens.
Pseudo-intellectual bullshit introspection complete, I stop thinking and get back to shooting.
A few exposures later I’ve exhausted the roll of film and it’s time to reload. I’ve never shot an M3 and I’m not entirely sure of the rewind procedure, but I’m familiar with hundreds of other cameras and most share a typically common functionality. We duck into an alley and lean against the bricks. I flick the rewind lever on the front of the machine and start turning the rewind knob, but hesitate when I don’t feel the expected resistance. I keep rewinding anyway. Surely the film’s spooling back into the cartridge. Surely.
After a long period of rewinding, I say to my friend “It doesn’t feel right, and I can’t hear it rewinding.” He offers a shrug in response and after a dozen more seconds of turning the knob I assume the film must surely be rewound. I think to myself, I should probably just Google this right now, but I don’t.
I turn the lever on the bottom plate of the camera to open the film compartment and lift it as gently as I can. With horror, I see the film still wrapped around the take-up spool and slam the camera shut. Shit. What an idiot. Then, as if I’d known it all along, my fingers mechanically move to the rewind knob and pull it up. It clicks into place and allows for rewind. There it is. What an idiot. I rewind the film, properly this time, and stash the canister in my pocket. I’m pretty disappointed in myself and worried that the photos are ruined. I can’t stop thinking about how badly I’ve messed up. I’m kicking myself the entire way home, eventually resigning myself to the idea that my shots are likely ruined.
As my friend and I part ways he asks me if I’ve fallen in love with the Leica.
“I don’t know.” I reply truthfully.
“Are you going to sell it?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Also the truth.
A week later I’m excited to get the prints back from the developer, and when I do I’m both surprised and disappointed. Some of the shots come out well, some are peripherally affected by the light, and others are nowhere to be found. At least the too-slow shot of the angry, smoking man is only half-ruined, I muse. Most disappointing of all, the shot of the chicken and its executioner is gone, lost to my idiocy.
As I review the images taken that day, it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have made any of them if I’d taken that bulging camera bag with me. I’d have taken test shots for bokeh, sharpness, chromatic aberration, and distortion. I’d have a notepad full of the pros and cons of the Series E Nikon lens as it relates to the Nikkor line. I’d have some digital shots that would technically outperform the shots I made with the Leica. I’d have 40-something exposures hastily taken with a Yashica and a Canon. I’d have thought little, enjoyed little, but accomplished enough for the week.
In short, I’d have had no fun, and for another week photography would’ve been just a task to be accomplished. Instead, shooting that day was a joy, a pleasure, and an experience. Even though many of my shots were ruined by a bumbling mistake, I still took those shots and I still have those memories.
Sitting at my desk later on, I look again at the notes still strewn about and the outline still half-written. I minimize the window, shuffle the notes together, and place the stack to the side. I’ll get to that soon enough.
I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter very much if I get everything done, it doesn’t matter if my photos are any good, and it doesn’t even matter if other people like them or don’t. It doesn’t matter what camera I use, what other people think of my lens, or that I’m using the most expensive gear. What matters is that I take the time to shoot. Whether it’s with a Leica rangefinder, or a Minolta SLR, or an iPhone, what matters is that I remember to make the time to shoot for no other reason than to have fun.
When things get chaotic and work is oppressive it’s easy to forget what makes us truly happy. Making images is the only thing I love to do. While I don’t need an M3 to remember this lesson, if keeping the Leica is what keeps me remembering, I may just have it for life.