As photographers, the tools we use can influence the way we both see and capture the world around us. For this reason, it can be illuminating to reflect on the gear that’s been used by the most accomplished photographers of the past and present. In this article, Part Two of a short series on famous photographers’ gear, we take a look at some interesting cameras and lenses, and the interesting people who used them.
David Douglas Duncan – Leica III w/ Nikkor 50mm f/1.5
Apart from being a legend of 35mm photojournalism and war photography, David Douglas Duncan is known as the photographer who popularized the Nikon name in the United States. Legend has it that after getting his portrait taken with a Nikon lens, Duncan was so impressed that he made the switch Nikon glass and never looked back. Word quickly spread about Duncan’s choice and gave a much needed boost to Nikon, who rode that initial wave of popularity to eventual dominance during the last half of the 20th century.
Duncan’s weapon of choice was the Leica III and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.5, a direct copy of the Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 championed by users of the Contax rangefinder system. In doing so, he effectively married the sleek and compact design of the Leica III with the incredible optical quality and durability of the hard-coated Nikkor lens. The resulting kit was a capable, versatile setup fit for the battlefields of the Korean War, and it was this combination of camera and glass that was used to create This is War!, Duncan’s seminal photojournalistic work.
Duncan’s inclusion in this list is, admittedly, a personal one. My own rangefinder setup is patterned around Duncan’s – a Leica M2 body with a Nikkor 50mm f/2 lens. It’s not an exact copy of his setup, but the benefits remain clear; this is a foolproof setup, and might even be bulletproof under the right circumstances.
Josef Koudelka – Exakta Varex w/ 25mm f/4 Flektogon
When it comes to using super-wides to distort subjects and scenes, the first images that come to my mind are from Josef Koudelka’s depiction of the Roma people in his masterpiece photo-essay Gypsies. These images pack the kind of raw emotion and immediacy that we expect from a photographer like Koudelka, as well as his early career visual signature, delivered with the aid of an Exakta Varex equipped with a Carl Zeiss Jena 25mm F/4 Flektogon lens.
Koudelka’s use of an SLR is significant in that he took full advantage of the format to make the kind of images he was pursuing. Unlike rangefinders, which use superimposed framelines on a separate viewfinder to give an idea of how the image will look, SLRs precisely render the final image by letting the shooter look through the lens itself. This benefit of SLRs over rangefinders is less significant with the “normal” focal lengths of 35mm or 50mm, but it is extremely helpful when shooting wide angle lenses (wider than 28mm) or telephoto (longer than 50mm), which by their nature distort the field of view. Koudelka’s precise framing and signature up-close-and-personal shooting style in the Gypsies photo essay demonstrates perfectly what is possible with an SLR equipped with a super-wide angle lens.
It should be noted that Koudelka never limited himself to this setup. After shooting Gypsies as well as documenting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he promptly changed his tools to develop a new style. From a NY Times interview –
“When I understood that I don’t need any more wide-angle lens photos – that on the contrary there’s a repetition coming – I bought two Leicas and started to use a 35-millimeter lens and a 50-millimeter lens. I knew that the techniques will change the vision – if you change the technique.
I think it is also the training from Czechoslovakia that I appreciate the freedom. You want to keep this feeling of freedom, and you want to go farther, so you break the rule, you destroy the house, and you start again.”
Daido Moriyama – Ricoh GR Series
If we’re going to be talking super-wide distortion, we may as well go with one of the masters of the art form, Daido Moriyama. Moriyama’s oeuvre is an unsparing look at the clash between traditional and contemporary values in postwar Japan, with a particular emphasis on the intimate details of his subjects. His run-and-gun street photography style combined with his proclivity for up close shooting at crazy angles requires a camera that’s both quick on the draw and unobtrusive. It’s no wonder that Moriyama’s weapons of choice are the acclaimed Ricoh GR-series of compact cameras.
The Ricoh GR series cameras are famous for their versatility and malleability in the hands of experienced photographers owing to their excellent multimode auto-exposure system, their multi-subject autofocus, and their stellar wide-angle lenses, the 21mm f/3.5 lens found on the GR21 in particular. Moriyama no doubt took advantage of the GR’s small size and enormous capability to create a quick-fire, candid shooting signature which eventually became synonymous with the GR series itself.
Fortunately for us, Ricoh is still going strong in the digital age with the GR series of digital compacts. Their latest offering, the Ricoh GR III is a favorite here at the site.
Irving Penn – Rolleiflex 3.5F with Hasselblad “chimney” finder.
Photographically speaking, about the furthest one can get from the streets and battlefields of the world is in the confines of a photography studio. A different skill set is required to be able to create an entire shooting environment and style from the ground up. One of the masters of this particular environment is Irving Penn, the man who ruled the roost at Vogue magazine for sixty-six years.
Although Irving Penn’s catalog covers a wide variety of subjects and scenes, he is most famous for his stripped down and detail-oriented fashion and portraiture work for Vogue magazine, where he worked from 1943 to 2009. His painterly, compositionally perfect images required great precision and care from the photographer and, naturally, his camera. Penn used a variety of tools, but most notably favored a Rolleiflex 3.5F custom-fitted with a Hasselblad “chimney” finder.
The inclusion of the “chimney” finder is significant; it magnifies the image by 2.5x, which likely helped give Penn a closer look at detail while also giving him a clear, exact view of the entire composition. Considering how perfectly situated everything is in every Irving Penn photo, the Rolleiflex with a chimney finder is a natural fit for such a job.
Penn himself had a particular reverence for his tools, famously saying, “I myself have always stood in awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument that it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” High praise, especially coming from perhaps the greatest portrait photographer of our time.
André Kertész – Polaroid SX-70
If a camera like the Rolleiflex can be compared to a Stradivarius, then a camera like the Polaroid SX-70 can be compared to a Fender Stratocaster. It was a snapshot camera. Like the Strat, the SX-70 catered to the common person, but was also a fine example of industrial design that, in the right hands, could be used to make an incredible work of art. One photographer who took advantage of the SX-70’s unique charm was Hungarian photographer André Kertész, who famously used one in his twilight years.
Kertész’s style is archetypical of mid-century black-and-white photojournalism. Fitting, because Kertész himself can be credited with helping invent the style. The 35mm Leica was his choice of camera for most of his career, which makes a camera like the SX-70 seem like a mere novelty. And at first, Kertész dismissed it as such. But after the loss of his wife in 1977, the SX-70 became essential to not only his art, but to his life.
Kertész’s wife’s death sent him into a reclusive, melancholic state near the end of his life, but the SX-70 helped him and his art keep going. He became fascinated with the unassuming, “notebook” qualities of the Polaroid, and used the medium to create snapshots of the things that surrounded him. He took particular interest in a glass bust that to him symbolized his wife, and created numerous polaroids of that glass bust in different kinds of light, different kinds of positions, and different backgrounds.
Befitting of the unassuming, simple nature of Polaroids, he made these images simply because they were beautiful to him and because he liked taking him. Near the end of his life, these simple Polaroids became the images most personally important to him. They served as a way to honor and remember his wife. Thankfully for us, these Polaroids have since been collected into a book called André Kertész: The Polaroids, an essential tome for anybody interested in Kertész or Polaroids.