Archive Days: Marbach

After Gütersloh, I had another trip planned pretty much immediately. It was off to Marbach am Neckar, near Stuttgart. While Stuttgart is industrial, bustling, and often gray, Marbach has a distinctly rural and homey feel to it. And it is the home of an institution to which I was now traveling.

The Deutsches Literaturachiv resides in Marbach. It is tasked to collect works by German authors (and quite a few others as well) and make them usable by the public. This is where I was headed after alighting a regional train at the quaint Marbach train station one sunny day in late summer. Dragging behind me a carry-on sized rolling suitcase, I decided to walk up the hill where the archive is situated. Passing by a small park, I saw a sign out for a photo studio that wasn’t open every day – small town antics – and that offered passport photos on special. Since I had an appointment back in Cologne to get a new passport issued, I followed the sign to a small door in a backyard building.

Two photographers, one female, one male, were at work there in a small studio that reminded me of the one that had existed at the screenplay agency and film production company I had worked at for a year in Munich a decade and a half ago. It was a bit dark, it was cozy, and it appeared to make use of repurposed furniture that once had lived in a more machine-shop-like setting. After getting my passport pictures taken (on a battle-scarred Canon 5D with a 70–200 1:4L zoom lens, if you must know), I meandered on and soon found the archive. It is perched atop the Schillerhöhe, a bluff that houses a park with Friedrich Schiller’s statue. It is surrounded by museums and Marbach’s Stadthalle, where there is an event space and a restaurant for hungry tourists coming off a long day in the museums, or for locals from the neighborhood who just want a drink and a meal.

I checked in at both the archive and the Kollegienhaus. The Kollegienhaus is a purpose-built modernist Bauhaus-y building with small apartments for researchers. That done, I put only the most necessary tools – laptop, phone, a notepad and some pens – in my backpack tote and began work at the archives. When I came back after a long day of staring at archival materials and note-taking, I dropped off my laptop, grabbed my camera, and went exploring. I repeated this on every day when the weather was agreeable to my doing so, and walked away with half a dozen or so exposed rolls of Fuji Superia 200, my preferred film for 2016 on account of the fact that I’d gotten a good deal on about six recently expired bricks of it at the end of 2015.

Though not my favorite, Superia 200 is definitely not a bad film. It has colors that to me say “1990s.” This is perhaps because Fuji Press 800, a preferred photojournalist’s film stock from the decade stems from the same Superia family, and therefore I remember those years that way. It is grainy, but not unpleasantly so, at least when exposed correctly. It doesn’t have the punch of Fuji Velvia, Provia or Kodak Ektar, but it is also not as subdued as the Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro ranges of portrait film. It is clearly a summer film or a film to be used with flash. In low light, you’ll often miss that one stop of extra wiggle room that a 400 film would offer. Then again, if the light is there, why not go for even less grain and ISO 100 slide or negative film? It’s an in-between film, and while that makes it lack in versatility, it certainly worked well for the task at hand.

The first two days found me wandering about Marbach, buying groceries, listening to podcasts on my phone, and documenting my surroundings with the Nikon 24–50 1:3.3–4.5 zoom that I had forced myself to bring as my only lens for the week. I had brought my then newly-bought used Nikon F80 (known as the N80 in North America because, well, I have no earthly idea why) with its extra battery holder attached. While light, this was a nicely grippable setup. The F80 certainly feels cheaper and less durable than the F100 or my standby Nikon AF SLR, the F801S, but it has all the features I could possibly need for a travel camera, including a custom function that will let you display LCD frame lines for composition in the viewfinder. No other serious film Nikon has this handy feature. My only gripe with the camera was that I kept losing the little rubber eyecup, and eventually couldn’t find it again after walking around a grocery store looking for food that came in small portions, as I was only going to be there for a week.

My week in Marbach was pleasantly lonely: it was summer, I had a task, I was in a picturesque place, and I could enjoy evenings off exploring with a camera in hand. It had to end eventually, but afterward, new travels awaited.

An Analogue Mode of Seeing

Digital
Digital…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the decade (or by now, decades, I guess) old debate of analogue vs. digital when it comes to photography.

There’s much to be said for each side. And I agree with both of them. One is faster, more economical. The other more permanent and deliberative. And whoever wants to discount one or the other as a whole is arguing from personal incredulity, from a limited horizon, an inability to see what uses a world population numbering in the billions could find for literally any technology ever developed.

Analogue
…or analogue. In the end, it’s all about actually getting the shot.

I love the analogue world, and I love the digital world. I grew up during what is now recognized as the digital revolution. But for a while the old and the new way of doing things existed side by side. Pictures of me as a child were, by necessity, all on film. The first digital picture of me was taken at a trade fair in my home town of Ulm, Germany sometime during the late 1980s. I have long forgotten which forward-thinking company had set up a booth with their then high tech instruments to take pictures of willing attendees. But I remember that my parents sat, one after the other, both me and my brother on the little chair the photographers had set up, and had our pictures taken.

Today these pictures exist only as a faded black and white needle prints of low resolution, hanging on the wall of a staircase at our parents’ house. In what presages a huge problem of today’s digital world, long time archiving of images and documents, the only reason the images still exist is because they were printed out. No one in the 1980s would have thought to offer digital media of raw image data as the end product of a photo session.

Digital
Digital…

My first cameras were 35mm point and shoots. Most of the slides and negatives I took with them during the ’90s still exist in boxes somewhere. Ready to be rediscovered. Analogue has an edge on digital here. In a hundred years, barring flood or fire, they will still be there. But while archiving is always on my mind (I’m a historian, it comes with the territory), the main thing I’ve been thinking about lately, is the problem of scarcity in photography. It’s way of approaching the taking of pictures, and it’s a different but related issue to the archival one.

Analogue
…or analogue. More a matter of taste than anything else.

With film, the number of pictures one can take at a time is limited. 1 for sheet film. Typically between 9 and 36 with various types of roll film. I’d wager the most you can get out of a regular 35mm film cartridge and still achieve acceptable picture quality is around 75 half frame shots. But half frame is not a typical format. For most people the magic number is between 12 and 36 frames before you need to pause and reload. That’s between 12 and 36 pictures before you need to decide to spend time, money, and effort reloading your camera and taking additional pictures. Compare that to a 32GB SD card, an average size these days, which depending on resolution and quality will easily hold up to a couple of thousand pictures. It’s no contest.

Yet, I don’t come away with more keepers when I go out with my digital camera, compared to an analogue one. Digital is like commercial fishing with a net. Analogue is standing in a creek with a fishing rod. Analogue teaches you to get it right, and to move on with your life if you didn’t. Much like pen on paper, what’s written cannot easily be erased. Like most things in the world, that can be a good thing, but also a limitation.

Garry Winogrand, who used to take hundreds of shots in one outing, constantly reloading his Leica with yet another roll of 36 exposure film, has been called the “first digital photographer.” That’s not wrong, when you look at his approach, which used to be atypical, and now has become commonplace because of digital technology, the great enabler. His standing allowed him a way of working inaccessible to those who did not have the name, or the money.

I recently read an article about a photographer who revealed the process behind a stunning portrait he had taken. He had set his camera to take the maximum of consecutive shots per second, picked it up, pointed it at his subject, and let fly. He ended up with more than a hundred similar pictures, and one that was worth keeping. He took it, and cropped and post-processed it to his liking. I was dumbfounded. That was not what I had come to regard as photography. That was shooting some video and then choosing and cropping out a freeze frame.

But I caught myself. I should not discount the image because of the way it was created. Instead, I should acknowledge that someone had found a way of working that let them produce stunning imagery. Why should I care how they did it? As with every technology or technique, as the field matures you need to do something different to distinguish yourself. That might include getting better at whatever that field defines as craftsmanship. Or it might mean redefining what is needed in order to be where you want to be.

We can bemoan that working photographers today do not even know the basics anymore. But it certainly doesn’t help that many of these complaints have an air of ageism – towards young people, in this case – and sexism: an old guard of very technically well versed male photographers needing to reassure themselves that young people, and young women especially, can’t be good photographers just because they produce good images, as long as they don’t understand the arcana of the techno-priesthood. Because reasons. But who gets do define what the basics are 175 years after photography first came into the world? Who after all, are we to judge today’s farmers for not being able to plough a field with a team of oxen anymore?

Myself, I’ve made peace with the inadequacies of each approach, digital or film. I don’t raise my eyebrows anymore when pros and amateurs alike clock in at 500+ photos per day. I’m no purist when it comes to using filters before an image goes into Photoshop, getting exposures right in camera, or getting shots spirit level straight. Turns out, you can fix things in post. Whether you choose to or not is nobody’s business but your own. But when it comes to my way of seeing, I’m still much more of an analogue photographer. I remember the first time I finished a film, the 12 exposure roll that came with a red Konica Pop Super I was given for my ninth birthday, and was shocked to realize that I’d blown the opportunity to take any more photos. I remember how carefully I then planned how many shots I had for any given period of time, be it a trip, vacation, or other event. I also recall that, when I first entered the digital age, I would shoot with no abandon, capturing dozens of frames of the same thing, and somehow never being quite inspired while doing it. Whereas, when I picked up a film camera again two years or so ago, it became part of who I was, and of how I saw things. When shooting digital pictures, I now usually leave the huge memory cards at home. Instead, I’ll go out with two or three 1GB cards. At the highest picture quality setting, that’s 27 exposures in my Fuji X100s.

After that, it’s time for a roll change.

Spiritual Home Camera

Gear Acquisition Syndrome – “GAS” or “gas” – is one of the most insidious things about photography. Admit it, you *know* you don’t need more than one camera. But if you’re like me (and if you came here by googling “GAS,” while I can’t speak for any other similarities, at least when it comes to buying cameras, we seem to be in the ballpark), you still can’t resist acquiring several. And then several more. Because they were cheap. Because they looked cute, or cool, or interesting. Because they have emotional or historical cachet. It’s why I still am longing for a full set of A. Schacht lenses: they were made in Ulm, Germany, the city I was born in, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years. It’s why I’m only barely controling my trigger finger when it hovers over a “Buy It Now” for a Leica M6 in good condition.

SR-T 100x during a lunch break on
SR-T 100x. Spiritual home camera contender. And food.

There’s inspiration to be had by the greats, no doubt. Who, if they’re into photography, hasn’t wanted to duplicate the wanderings of Henri Cartier Bresson or Garry Winogrand with their iconic rangefinder cameras, or wished for a Crown Speed Graphic because Weegee used one? Who could resist the temptation of a large format field camera or a medium format Hasselblad? After all, those were the preferred tools of quasi-god of landscape imagery, Ansel Adams?

I confess, when I read that William Eugene Smith’s famous Miramata documentary series was shot on black Minolta SR-T 101’s, I went straight to eBay to look if I could score one. Despite the fact that I already own a silver colored SR-T 100x, a close cousin. And after seeing, hidden in the back of Luigi Ghirri’s book “Kodachrome,” that he had used a Canon AT1, I googled that model immediately.

Is there something wrong with me? I am very much aware of the fact that more gear frequently only means more things that can break, or get lost. It doesn’t usually mean better pictures. Sure, if you’re a professional, you might really need an 800mm telephoto lens, or a fisheye, or a zoom that’s image stabilized and goes to f2.8 throughout the range. You might live or die by fast autofocus and high ISOs. But then again, “professional” is one hell of a sliding scale of a term, as evidenced by so many opinions out there in the wilds of the web of what constitutes a pro, and what the things are that professionals need or don’t need. Who are we counting? People shooting iPhone pictures to accompany blog posts for which they’re getting paid, if only a pittance? In the strictest sense of the word, we should. Do we count visual artists? Even those who purposely use “vintage” equipment? Small town newspaper shooters, just starting out, provided that species still exists? Wedding photographers who have shot exactly one wedding, or three hundred, or anything in between?

When it comes to the definition of what a professional photographer is, people usually have an idea in their mind that they then present to others, and they make claims based on that idea. They spent years being a sports photographer, and thus proclaim that no professional would ever buy anything but an SLR because of course, we need crazy reliable autofocus and still image frame rates that would but a Super 8 motion picture to shame. And of course, if that image that’ll show up as a maximum 6×4 cm rectangle on a newspaper page or at 150dpi online via the AP isn’t sharp corner to corner, you’re never going to work in this town again. Or they insist that shooting film for weddings is passé, and impossible in this day and age, because you need to be able to give your clients turnaround times that rival that of Smart car. Because, else.

The simple truth is, whether you’re professional, amateur, or somewhere in between, your needs will not be the same as anyone else’s. Sure fashion photographers all work exclusively on medium format. Except those who don’t. Sure, you need at least two reflectors and three speedlight flashes with you at any given time. Unless that’s not your style, and you’ve never even owned a flash.

After getting serious about photography again a year or so ago, it took me about a week to buy my first analog camera, and about six months to decide that what I needed for my style of shooting was a digital Fuji X100s, because all over the internet people loved it for its compactness, image quality, and style. But if I’m honest, this camera – the one I spent by far the most money on – only left me wanting for the thing that it pretends to be but isn’t, a 35mm film Leica.

Maybe if I get that Leica, I’ll finally be content, and will only spend money on film and more of their exorbitantly expensive lenses. But it’s also possible that I’ll soon set it aside and reach for one of my much cheaper SLRs again. Because the camera that’s “you,” much like your personal style, your way of speaking, walking and what you like to eat and watch on TV, is something that happens to you, something that’s not a result but a process. My girlfriend has none of my problems. I gave her a Minolta X300s last year, bought used with a 50mm f1.7 lens from a small camera store in town. When we go out on a photo walk, I stand before my shelf of candidates like a deer in the headlights and eventually decide on something that will likely make me wish I’d brought something else instead later in the day. She grabs her Minolta. She grabs her camera. Because that’s what it is. There’s no contender.

Fed 2 camera
Another camera I didn’t need. Bought because it was… green.

Unlike her, I haven’t found my spiritual home camera yet. (I also credit her with coining that term, by the way). The closest I can come is probably my aforementioned SR-T 100x. The first SLR I ever bought in my life, in the summer of 2013 at a thrift store/antique shop near Munich’s Rotkreuplatz. The money I paid for it was less than what it cost to have it CLA’d, and less also than the leather strap I bought to carry it. The list of things it doesn’t do is longer than the list of things it does. But there’s something right about it. Maybe I keep recalling the words of the seasoned camera repairman that I brought it to for adjustment not long after acquiring it: “Good camera. Very reliable. Good lens. Very sharp.” And really, is there anything else you ever need to know about your camera?

Then again, if there’s ever a black 101 in reach…