Candid Captures & the Leica Legacy
My gateway camera was a Canon AS-6 Aqua Snappy. I found it in my dad’s nightstand alongside photo albums of his college days, gallon ziplock bags filled with undeveloped disposables, our broken family camcorder, and an old Pentax SLR. He had purchased the Aqua Snappy in the early 90’s for a Caribbean snorkel, but had never used it, let alone taken it out of the box. It sat, unopened with all its pristinely packaged accessories, until that fated day my 15-year-old self decided to snoop around my parent’s room for spare change. At a glance, it took easy to find 35mm film and AAA batteries, had auto exposure, and fixed-focus point-and-shoot appeal. I couldn’t resist. The bonus of such a find was that it could be shot underwater to a depth of 10 meters. A feature which still garners it a cult following today.
I used that camera amphibiously (some might say compulsively) for nearly five years. It became a dear companion on many a teenage adventure-- details of which I will not divulge here. Overtime it earned the affectionate nickname, TANK, for its apparent indestructibility and hefty tonka looks.
After many rolls of film, it developed a light leak which made for beautiful vignettes, but questionable water proofness. My TANK looked like a toy, was so primitive a child-- or even my mother--could use it, and was ultimately defective; but the moments I captured with it had a certain romantic serendipity about them that was entirely unreplicable (believe me-- I've tried!). Even the photographs taken on dry land possessed the unreality of the underwater-- or at least I thought so at the time. Needless to say, my first shooter defined me as a photographer. The unpredictability of the image quality led me on a quest for the dreamy effects I have sought in my later digital endeavors and have never fully achieved.
Photograph taken with my TANK along the C&D Canal. circa 2009.
Over the years I have been greatly influenced by the work of Sally Mann, a photographer best known for her series entitled “Immediate Family”. These seemingly candid, but in-fact laboriously crafted, portraits of her young children were taken with large format land cameras against the backdrop of her family's Virginia farm. The anachronistic camera, in addition to the volatile process of collodion wet plate development (an undertaking involving the careful use of silver nitrate and ether under a blanket), made for images that conveyed mood rather than clearly defined their subject. They are streaked, and stained, and speckled with dust motes. They look as if they have been painted by light. For this reason, I find it intriguing that her first photographs were taken with a hand-me-down Leica III-- a range-finding camera known for it’s great image clarity and unparalleled sharpness. A camera that was created as a modern counter-point to her cumbersome antiques.
Sally Mann, Yard Eggs, 1991. Image Curtesy: artmuseum.mtholyoke.edu
Sally Mann's first camera was given to her by her father before she was sent to boarding school in Putney, Vermont. While she claims that her interest in photography developed out of a desire to be alone in the school’s darkroom with her boyfriend; it is evident, even from her earliest contact sheets, that she had always possessed the gift of sight and a loving gaze for her subjects. For her, Leica was but a foray into the medium of photography; for others, the company's shamelessly simple mechanical cameras would become singular passion.
Such is the case with the French humanist photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, an early pioneer of street photography. He preferred Leica cameras for their small, unobtrusive nature-- he could photograph strangers unawares and even went as far as painting the silver components of his camera black to be discreet on the street. His Leica represented freedom and, as a photojournalist, would become his visual notebook. With Leica in-hand and held-close to eye, he was freed from the bulkiness of the large format cameras used in the salon photography of the day, and from the expense of their costly 5X7 and 8X10 view negatives. He could now take yards of 35mm film, at a rate of 8 exposures per foot, for a fraction of the cost-- a feature which was initially seen as a draw back when the camera debuted in 1925. The public was doubtful of the camera that took "motion picture film", looked like a toy, and was so compact in size. Henri Cariter-Bresson would use a 35mm Leica and 50mm lens for the entirety of his photographic career.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mercado do Bolhão, Porto, Portugal. Image curtesy: alteredimages.com