Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreaming of you...

So last November, I drove through the night to get to Louisville, Kentucky, for a single day. They were having the annual Leica Historical Society of America meeting there, and though I couldn't afford the entire outing (complete with hotel, event fees, meals and transportation -- the same reason I'm missing this year's gathering in Seattle), I wanted to get in as much as I could. Also, I have a continuing plan on a book project on the history of photojournalism through its equipment, and the Leica plays a towering part in that history.

I had arranged to cover it for News Photographer magazine, as part of that bigger, Leica work, and as a good writer, I tried to buttonhole (in the most amiable way possible, the way a fan does the manager of her favorite actor) the Leica officials there, particularly M Systems Manager Stefan Daniel.

Daniel is a jolly fellow, with a round, youthful face and German accent -- as you'd expect. After all, he had flown in to the US just for that weekend from Leica headquarters in Solms, Germany. He had the misfortune of finding himself in the lunch buffet line behind me, and thus became subject to the inquisition. It was amiable conversation (surprisingly so, you might think, as I stood between him and lunch after a long morning), culminating in the question everyone asked: "Where is my full-frame digital M?"

He smiled wanly and rolled his eyes, leaving me with the impression that he'd heard it a hundred times before ... and there was nothing to be done. As Leica explained when the released the 3/4-sized chip on the M8, the physics of light made it impossible. I left feeling it was a game we all played, like high school kids flirting at the dance. I wanted a date, and it was out of my league.

Then the rumors began towards summer's end. The fabled M9 was coming. Camera shops in Paris were taking pre-orders. A Brit on the Leica Forum actually disassembled his M8 and proved there was room to put in a full-sized chip. (I tried to locate the post -- complete with pictures -- but it may be too old.) Chatter on Facebook and emails with my Leica-loving friends. But no, we couldn't believe it. They had disappointed us with the M8, then just teased us with the S2. This would be some modification on the M8, not the final, full-frame M dream.

I was one of the people who actually watched the web feed on 9/09/09. (The date did give me hope, and by then there had been leaks of web pages and manual uploads and photos. I was telling my friends that this was it, but had that fear in my deepest heart that I'd be jilted at the Prom ballroom door.) There was a speech from the new CEO -- a history of Leica that would not have been tedious had, a: I not known it all already, and b: the technical aspects of the webcast been a bit better -- then my old friend Stefan Daniel stepped to the lecturn with an M body. And the moment came: the full-frame M9.

The rest was anti-climactic and thus unimportant to me. (Though, I must say, I find a rising interest in the model III-like X1.) The true Leica was here, and only $7,000 (more or less).

A short aside on that last number. That's a lot of money. I'm not buying one anytime soon, not for lack of interest, as this now overlong (and nowhere near finished) post amply demonstrates, but for simple economics. It's a place I found myself in for 20 years until I awoke one morning to find I had, by way of luck, true friendship and delicate longterm spending, acquired a IIIc, three M3s and an old, chrome M4, along with a range of lenses, from 28 to 90. (It never stops, either. My wife generously found me a Zeiss 21 -- about which I had done nothing but whine for most of the year -- for Christmas last year.) I guess there's hope, if that history is anything to judge by.

But that's not the aside. What I meant to say was that $7,000 is also about what the top-of-the-line, full-frame digital Canon and Nikons cost, and even if it didn't, I would think of Stefan Daniel at the LHSA meeting again. He was doing the dog-and-pony show, showing all the new products that had come out at Photokina shortly before, when he opened the floor to questions. I soon saw that resigned look I was treated to in close up at lunch, because the subject of cost came up again and again. Much of it was driven by the S2, which had no cost associated with it then, but it also went to the product line in general. Why, people asked again and again, in ever-varying form, are Leicas so expensive?

"Leica has never been a very cheap product," Daniel finally explained. Statistically , he said (by measuring against monthly income) Leicas today are actually cheaper than in their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember thinking that a pretty impressive answer, but the questions kept on coming ... and that as when the M8.2 came in at around $5,500. So how is it that $7,000 is better?

Well, for one, see above: Nikon and Canon ran ahead to the mark with their full-frame cameras. But for another, look at the product. This is the digital camera Cartier-Bresson would have bought. That was honestly my thought as I learned more about it. And finally, I was afraid they'd run it up to $10,000 because ... well, because they were Leica and could. (Also, I have constantly argued that the S2 should be priced to undersell the Hasselblads as an economic measure for big studios: All the good parts of DSLRs and digital medium format, but cheaper than the big cameras; trade all your old crap in for one, great, easy-to-use system -- but they seem to come in for more than Hasselblad. Why?)

Secondly, I think this shows the new regime in Solms has finally got it straightened out. I hate to hack on the American, brought in by new owner Dr. Andreas Kaufmann to turn the place around only to clash with the artisnal German Kultur of Solms, but after years of stumbles, someone seems to be playing the products right. I have real hope: the right camera at the right price with what seems the right attitude.

Now I just have to figure out how to get one. Maybe I can do T-shirts, like this guy...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Welcome to My World...

So, as I've engaged in my often early morning, 45-minute commute, I've taken to using my iPod on shuffle for entertainment ... mainly because there's so little worth listening on the radio at 5 am. Also, it is an interesting exercise both in self-revelation (sometimes I'm surprised what songs pop up -- I don't know I even had them) and self-congratulation (aren't I clever in having such a range of music in there). Oddly, no matter how disparate, or perhaps diverse, the music, it often blends so well. It's occurred to me (in one of those moments of self-congratulation) that it would make for an easily done, amusing radio show. Just walk in, plug in the iPod on shuffle, open on the mike with a story -- something amusing, maybe vaguely Garrison Kielor-like -- about some absurdity that had happened to me, end with the phrase, "Welcome to my world," and hit "play."

So here's an amusing story from my world these days.

I have become the Festival King. As the Fall brings festivals -- Olde (Yes, the "e" is required) Salem, Pulaskifest (all one word, trust me), the Coal Miners Memorial Family Fun Day, Highlander Festival (open-minded enough to be pan-Celtic, including the Irish), the Medieval Faire (another required "e"), etc., etc. These are on Saturday and Sunday, and as I am now on permanent weekend shift, filming them is my pleasure...

Last Sunday the grind (which also includes such as a rose show and art displays) involved a bike race ... a bike race up a mountain ... 7 1/2 miles of one-lane, switchback gravel road up a local mountain (as I learned). We learned of this by way of a news release, as we learn of most all of these things, that was two pages long ... and at no point saw fit to mention where this race was to occur.

Roanoke County can be a big place in that sort of situation. They did say where the awards ceremony was going to be, at 2 pm ... coincidentally the hour at which my shift was set to end. The race was set to begin at 9 am, 10 am, or 11 am, depending on whether you read the news release, the web site or the schedule I found (more on that in a moment). So I drove to the awards location, a place called Camp Roanoke, a short way out of town down winding country roads. It's no treat to find either, especially if you've never been there before, but I started down that one-lane gravel road to the camp after a careful map study, only to be confronted by a police car coming the other way.

The lights came on, the car slowed. I opened my window and the cop looks up and says, truly, "Oh, I didn't know you were News 7." Okay, so another reason why I like driving around with the station logo printed a foot tall on the side of the car. "I just want to let you know the bicyclists are coming." I thanked him and drove on, thinking: "What?!" Sure enough, about 20 yards on, about fifty bicyclists blow by with the whoosh of wheels and chatter of chains.

I stop. Now, I'm figuratively, if not literally, at a crossroads. (The road remained an entrapping narrow trail to ... well, at this point I don't know.) Other vehicles follow the bicyclists, Do I try to U-turn as best I can and follow, in hopes of getting ... well, anything? Do I continue away, finding someone at the camp who might actually know what's going on and where to go? Do I try to pass the pack, get ahead, and grab a shot before it gets away? Aw, ****. I continue on. At least someone might know what's going on, and if I miss it ... well, then, I've already missed it, haven't I?

So I come roaring into the camp (I literally fishtailed around the corner into the gate, throwing gravel and dust like a scene from "Dukes of Hazard") and pull into the parking lot, which is full of cars but empty of people. Actually, the whole place is empty. Where the drive turns into the parking lot, on the ground, I see a ball cap and a clipboard. It's like the Marie Celeste, as if everyone had simply disappeared in mid-activity, dematerializing but for the cap and the clipboard, which simply dropped into the grass.

Now I have no shame. I leap out of the car, walk over to the clipboard and read the schedule, which says the race begins at 11 (it's 10:40 at this point) at "Poor Mountain Road." Where the hell is that? Who cares, if I go the direction of the bicyclists, I'll undoubtedly pass them -- or at least get there in time -- and catch the start. I'll fake it from there. I drop the clipboard, utterly without ceremony -- plop -- in the grass, and jump in the car.

Back down the approach road, and at the end I'm left with a quandary. The bicyclists are now long out of sight. Uh, which way do I turn for this road? The mountains are closer on the left; a glance at the map shows a long run over a river to the right. But I came from the left, and saw nothing that implied a race start. I turn left, but after fifty years or so have second thoughts and pull over to study the map. Yep, the index shows I should have turned right.

Another U-turn, over the river and literally through the woods and around a broad, arcing curve, and there they are, all drawn up in a pack at a railroad crossing. I slide to a halt, leap out and grab the camera in time to film the start -- a nice shot, zooming out and panning with them as they go by -- and then I'm alone in an empty road with a couple of race organizers.

"So," I say, walking up, "how do I, uh, leapfrog ahead of these guys and get some more shots?" "You can't." I smile reflexively while staring blankly at these guys. "It's a pretty narrow road, and they're going to be all over it." At this moment, I'm remembering all sorts of warnings on that schedule on the clipboard about how how this road and that "will be open to traffic," and how the bikers should be cautious. "Uh," I say. "Well, I'd like to get more than one shot of this." I hope he gets my implication that his nifty race will not be on TV unless this can happen. I don't think he did. "I wish you could too," he says. But he doesn't know how. I take off after the bikers anyhow.

First I encounter the pickup trucks trailing, their flashers on. To my pleasure and surprise, first one then the second lets me pass. Then the motorcyclist ahead of them lets me by. Now we're on this narrow, dirt, switchback road with what seems a 40 degree incline. I'm behind the last bicyclist. He crawls agonizingly upwards, his bike obviously in the lowest gear, his legs painfully pumping away. My thighs begin to experience that lactic acid ache in sympathy.

The "road" is about as wide as my car. I creep along, trying to leave a good distance between me and the rider so as not to pressure him. A wide spot comes, and he waves my past. And so with the next and the next. Then, at a wider spot, there's a water station. I pull over, and leaving the car running pull out the camera and film those last four or so riders I passed riding by. Then I jump in before the motorcycle arrives and skid out again ... back behind the last guy in the race.

The scene repeats itself again -- me rolling slowly behind, then passing the bottom three or so, then pulling off to film them passing. Then in the back again, slowly passing one then another, until finally the top and the finish line, where I was able to film three or four coming in and interview the winners. It took over an hour to get there.

Then on to another festival (the Diabetes Walk for a Cure), drop the footage at the station and go home. The best thing about these days is that I just dump and run; by the time my pictures were downloaded into the station computer, my shift had ended an hour earlier. It's someone else's problem to edit it into something useful.

Today I come in and see what they made of it. They used that opening shot of the start ... and the interviews at the end. Turns out I didn't need more than one shot. Welcome to my world...