Witness The simplest and most common use of photography is, as Roland Barthes famously put it, a unary purpose — that is, a direct representation of a thing. The photo is (within a limited scope) interchangeable with that thing. We take the tiny snapshot from our wallet and say proudly: “There’s my son.”

That photography is not really as directly literal as it looks is something that is constantly at play in the world of art photography, and a hot potato among journalists and their editors; but we usually assume simple unary purpose and function for less rarified pursuits, such as the simple representation of domestic events. How untrue this can be was brought home in a personal way very recently.

3 min read

Out with the Old, in with the… Old

So I’ve almost finished selling my Canon SLR gear, to pay for my… Canon SLR gear. That is, the old-school manual-focus SLR gear to pay for… well, old-school manual-focus SLR gear, in the guise of old-style AE/MM Zeiss Contax lenses mounted on a digital Canon EOS. Monday I was lucky enough to snag a new 28 ƒ/2.8 for less than the price of a nice used one, by following up on someone else’s Ebay transaction gone wrong. Hurrah.

I’ve noticed in practice that I much prefer using manual focus with my EOS 300D, despite so many earnest users telling me that it’s a bad idea, that the screen is hard to focus on, the AF is terrific, etc etc. The only thing lacking, really, has been manual-focus lenses that are built to be focused manually, with a longer throw on the barrel for exacting manual control, combined with a hardy, solid feel (Canon’s 50mm ƒ/1.8 Mk II is a lens that, while inexpensive, is built to keep margins low — in other words, it’s lightly built, and the front elements wander). The Zeiss, built for cameras like the Aria and pro-level RTS, has that solid feel in spades.

Even better luck, I hope, on the 50mm ƒ/1.4, a lens that’s sharper than either Canon version and yet cheaper due to the small demand from Contax shooters. Used ones usually run $150 to $200. On a hunch, a few days ago I started looking to see if I could get a better deal by simply buying an old Aria or 167MT, with a 50mm attached — lucky me, I found a 50 for a low-end price, complete with an attached RTS! If it’s at all in good shape (particularly the shutter, which is impossible to service these days) I should be able to turn the body alone around for nearly the cost of the lens. Or consider it a free camera :)

On the subject of how few Contax users there are — ‘twas ever thus, even in the beginning days of the Japanese Contaxes. A tragedy, really. It’s not easy to find much about them on the web, either — which is why I tried to pile as many links as possible into this entry. My friend Knut, while tossing back Tuborgs a couple of months back, opined that he was the only Contax user he knew of in Denmark.

The Cantax

The Cantax Today’s (linkless) photo is for Eddie, who tragically turned down a 300D because he didn’t like the color and it didn’t look “Reuters” enough.

C’mon man, your Contax G2 is silver too (and the Leica as well? Tsk!) You know darned well that the camera body is just a little dark box at the back of the lens, with an extra little hole for peeping through.

It’s also for Michael Johnson, who has rollover pains with regards to cameras that aren’t made of metal. (You should subscribe to his newsletter anyway — here’s hoping he can manage to keep printing it!)

Now to doctor-up a logo…

The Cantax

(Sorry for the obvious pixel noise in this quick snap — shot with my old Canon G1…. which has been recently borrowed often by my daughter. A mere 8MB card? Not a problem when you’re enthusiastic as she is….)

The Proof

London, 2003. Click image to see 100% crop Since I was asked, here is a sample of one of the proof sheets I’ve been making using XnView. The original is 3075×2175 pixels, for printing at 300dpi. This is enough to see detail on the page. For a 100% detail showing the level of detail that’s visible, just click-through on the image at right.

This week marks the last one of the SFMOMA show, Diane Arbus Revelations. We’ve been there twice now. I’m tempted to return.

Some of the surprising things in the exhibit (which may be in the expensive companion book) are a few of Arbus’s proof sheets. Some are about what you might expect: a suite of similar shots from which just one was selected. But for most of the others, what’s astonishing is their variety — proofs where each photo is markedly different, of a completely different person, sometimes in another location. The photos that were printed weren’t one from a set — they were just the one photo.

I know that Arbus was constantly dismissive of her ability to know what was in the photo until she saw it. But the proof sheets tell a different story. In, nail it, and go on to the next thing. Pretty impressive. Scary, even.