I walk east down Boylston Street as the early morning sun continues its slow ascent ahead of me. Knife-edged shadows cut into the gleaming, white marble of the buildings that loom on each side, creating a powerful interplay between light and dark. The stark contrast reminds me of the photography of Fan Ho, though as I cross the street and glance at the two annoyed drivers I’ve forced to stop (one in a convertible Bentley, the other a Mercedes Geländewagen) the tenuous similarities between Ho’s Hong Kong and my present environs vanish completely.
Nestled between the upscale Back Bay and the energetic Theatre District, Boston’s Park Plaza sits at the tail of the “high spine”, an orderly row of the city’s tallest buildings. Here we find the playthings of the wealthy; world-class hotels, exclusive restaurants, and boutiques selling watches that cost more than the average in-ground pool. It’s an amazing part of the city if you love spending money, or looking at rich people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an area I rarely visit.
But today I’m here. Ignoring a nagging bronchial infection and the lingering chill of night, I pass through alternately frigid shadows and uncomfortably warm sunbeams. I’m making my way to the brand-new Leica store for their opening weekend, the World Wide Instameet 14 Boston, and what promises to be a fun-filled morning of photo-geekery, cameras, and networking.
Boston’s been growing steadily in all the right metrics over the past twenty years, and it’s no surprise that Leica’s opened shop here. This is a world-class brand showing what they’re made of in an affluent part of a soon-to-be world-class city. On arrival, the facade of Leica’s new Boston shop and gallery does not disappoint. The aesthetic is what you’d expect; lots of glass, lots of metal, lots of structural acrylic – it’s part Apple, part Rolex. It looks nice, though if I’m being honest, I expected a bigger red dot.
I’m a bit early, so I spend a few moments milling about the intersection of Arlington and Columbus, the exact point of entrance to Leica’s new store. I easily spot a few like-minded individuals loitering impatiently, cameras in hand. A quick inventory sees a couple of digital Ms, a Sony here and there, and one lonely Pentax (a K1000, no less). Promising stuff.
To one side of the entrance I spy a couple of veritable rockstars in the social photography community. Photographer Pete Halvorsen‘s chatting with Instagram community manager Jeffrey Gerson, waiting with the rest of us for this thing to get started. Unlike these two (and Javi, founder of IGersBoston) I’m less than instrumental to the plan, so I slink away for a few moments to grab a coffee. By the time I’ve returned with my small cup of liquid joy, the doors have swung open and everyone’s inside.
Photo geeks buzz everywhere, shaking hands, laughing and smiling, or staring gape-mouthed at the gleaming assemblages of brass and glass resting on spotlit pedestals. Leicas of every variety are lining the walls, sitting under glass, and passing from one reverent hand to the next as people show their toys, try out an unknown machine, or rent a loaner camera for the upcoming photo walk. It’s an impressive showing, and Leica’s done a great job of engaging the attendees.
I see a case in the middle of the floor getting less love than the rest, so I stroll over. To my surprise it houses the just-announced Sofort Instax instant film camera. It looks lovely in person, and though there are certainly people who will lambast it for being naught but a pricey Fuji or an Instax for rich people, it truly is an exciting camera (at least, to look at – we’ll see what it can do when I get one in my hands). I want to grab it and shoot it, but my desire to do so is outweighed by desire not to be arrested, so I resist and take some product photos instead.
Just then I notice a seriously stylish dude sporting a Leica M over one shoulder, and a Polaroid 440 Land Camera over the other. This unprecedented pairing speaks of a real photo geek, so I have to chat. I introduce myself, and we spend the next few minutes talking Fuji discontinuations, film cameras, and street photography. He’s a real classy guy, and I’ve gotten my first exposure to what I’ll soon realize is the incredibly friendly culture that surrounds Instameets.
There are bagels, coffee, swag bags, and Leica bracelets handed out. We hear from the illustrious Halvorsen, sign some model release forms, and then it’s out the door for a photo walk.
The Public Garden and Boston Common make up a rather large patch of greenery near the very heart of the city. It’s the place where those famous ducklings needed some space, and where crazy people ice skate to distract themselves from the god-awful winters. Our first stop on the photo tour, we spend time shooting the swan boats, scenery, and interesting people, but mostly we just chat. My pal, Michael Kalish (producer of photog-centric web series Following Boston), introduces me to a handful of avid film fans and we talk favorite emulsions.
From there we cut over to the State House and listen to what I can only assume is a time-traveling orator. He’s dressed in colonial garb, shouting from the top of a flight of granite steps about how much we hate the British. I don’t mind the British, so I move along, and soon after the group does too, winding to the backside of Beacon Hill.
Beacon Hill is the seat of local government. It’s also a National Historic District full of mansions, and is the most expensive neighborhood in the city. Known for its narrow, brick-paved walkways and original gas-light lamp posts, it’s the kind of picturesque area that people envision when they think of old Boston. And if you don’t break an ankle on the undulating sidewalks or have to shovel them in the winter, it’s a beautiful part of town.
We stroll up and down the back alleys and side streets of the hill, chatting, shooting photos of amazing doors, and enjoying impromptu portrait sessions. Everyone’s having a great time, and access to some of the more noteworthy among the group is afforded to everyone. This isn’t the kind of elite, standoffish Instameet crowd you may have heard about. This is the kind of group in which everyone’s happy and excited to be there, the kind of group in which obscure nobodies (myself, for instance) get the chance to talk to well-known and talented photo people for far too long.
I pester Pete Halvorsen about far too many things, including traveling with pregnant women, how I’m terrible at photography, and which North End pastry shop makes the best cannoli. He’s happy to chat (or at least pretends to be, which is all any of us can really ask for), and he comes across as a genuinely nice guy. Later, I ask the attending Instagram community manager Jeffrey about the Hasselblad he’s shooting. We chat about film, San Fransisco weather patterns, and the way I think that Instagram’s ethos isn’t far removed from Kodak’s raison d’être of seventy years earlier (that is, to get photography into everyone’s hands). He’s as friendly as Pete. Good stuff.
Further on I chat with Craig Semetko, a real life master whose book of photography sits on a shelf, for sale, back at the Leica store. He’s amazingly accessible, eager to talk (and listen), and encourages me to shoot for the love of photography rather than for any quantifiable metric. It’s a refreshing point of view from someone who’s operating on a totally different level. Rare access, indeed.
Mixed in with all these big shots is a veritable cornucopia of interesting men and women, who are more than happy to help each other learn, and just as eager to make new friends. We’re laughing, finding commonality, and enjoying a beautiful day. I’ve met people from Mexico, Germany, New York City, Philadelphia, and a number of others from towns and cities I’ve never heard of. We shoot, and talk, and laugh – it’s essentially the best photography experience I’ve ever had.
As the meet wraps up and the crowd disperses, I head back to the Leica store. Some others are heading back to the store as well, to buy a book or have one signed by Semetko, but the day’s effectively winding down. I want to make sure I pop in and thank Javi and the others for putting together such an incredible event, and for taking the time to chat with me. This accomplished, I head home.
My first Instameet was an experience unlike any other, and I encourage anyone who’s on the fence about whether or not to attend an event like this to give it a try. I met some fantastic people, engaged in conversations that would’ve otherwise been impossible, and had the chance to ogle some truly covetous camera gear. The guys and girls I spent the morning with were engaging, thoughtful, friendly, and warm. These were real photo geeks, and real people, out to experience photography and each other in a way that’s hard to find in our daily lives.
Practically speaking, the weekend’s events have left me excited about a number of things. For one, I can’t wait to get my hands on the upcoming Sofort. That should be a fun review. Also, I’m glad I’ve got some new friends to follow on Instagram, and I’m looking forward to the next ‘meet. I’m feeling generally reinvigorated about this whole photography thing, and there’s a new urge to shoot that I haven’t felt in a long time.
When I sit back and think on it, the only downside of the whole weekend (at least for my kid’s college fund) might be this nagging notion that I could use a new Leica. Isn’t that strange?