NEWLK is a meeting of like-minded photographers that happens spring and fall and always conveniently close to Derry, NH for some undisclosed reason. The first walk occurred in Portsmouth NH (entry and photos here) and the second in Salem MA (entry and photos here).
For the third instalment of New England Walk (#NEWLK) the crowd was directed to show up in Ogunquit Maine for a stroll along the Marginal Way, a paved 1.5 mile stretch of domesticated but rugged seacoast.
Weather in this area is notoriously fickle, and of course since we’d all driven from out of town it was borderline miserable. Fog with rain, then rain with fog, the wind pulling at jackets and slowly numbing fingers, we set out and a geriatric pace.
I took a different approach to this walk, scrounging and mooching experiences with other people’s equipment instead of buying and selling. I’m the sort of person who likes to know how deep the water is before he makes a wild jump and, through the generosity of others in this fine group, was able to mark three cameras off my must-shoot list. A Japanese Unicorn, a wide-angle Fuji-Blad Masterpiece and a fine German cult item.
After we said our hellos, greeted newcomers and hazed returned friends it was time to set out. The worst of the rain had passed, and a couple 4×5 cameras got to work at their measured paces. My first date for the walk is a seldom seen but much respected Plaubel Makina 670. Raymond was kind enough to loan it out while he was busily keeping track of dark slides and spot meters.
The Makina is an interesting case, at once larger and smaller than I expected. When folded up, it snuggles in on a long cross-body strap and disappears. In fact, I ran a roll through the next camera without removing the Makina at all.
In use, the fairy tale falls apart a little bit. opening and operating the Makina is a little agricultural. The fit and finish is excellent, but it’s a lot like owning an 80’s Jaguar. Everywhere is evidence of missed opportunities to excel. The exception to this rule, and a cruel joke in my opinion, is that they then fitted what is likely the sharpest fast medium-format lens ever devised. The Nikkor in the Makina is comically sharp and contrasty, though not what I’d call flare-resistant. There’s a little fall off when opened up, nothing you don’t expect for the format.
I’m happy I got the chance to shoot with the Makina for a roll. I’d love to have a ruined Makina to rob that gorgeous lens from and put it to use on a less utilitarian camera. Hard to argue with the results, though.
Next up on the dance card is the Hasselblad that isn’t. The XPAN has been dancing just out of my reach for too many years now, first hanging round the neck of my photo-sensei in college. It was pure exotica then, only a couple years old and seriously expensive. The results Peter was getting out of the XPAN (and GX617) were exceptional. Most of that is down to his ninja skills but it was a unique way of seeing, composing and exhibiting. His effective use of this format has stuck with me to this day.
With sweep-panoramas built into phones for the past little while, I’ve played and struggled with the limited sensors, the distortion, the assembly artifacts. The iPhone6 has just about nailed it, and I’ve been generally happy with results brought home from all over North America. But the spectre still lingers sometimes and I leapt at the considerable generosity of friends to step out of my comfort zone and get some a time with strange equipment. Thanks for the XPAN, Michael Pretzsch.
The first thing I noticed about the XPAN was the exceptional view finder. Even on this greyest of north atlantic days, the XPAN finder was almost too sharp and contrasty to believe. Soon after, I came to notice how much the body felt like the Contax G2 I enjoyed for a year. The build quality, action and balance are very similar. The XPAN feels very compact and well finished and though it didn’t have the satisfying dentist drill motor noises I loved so much from the Contax, it was also much more understated.
But it wasn’t all rainbows. Disappointingly, as soon as I picked up a camera with a meter I was suddenly worried about the exposure, settings and modes. I determined that of course I’d need the XPANII since it displays the shutter speed in the finder. Looking back now, I’ve been perfectly content using a meterless Rolleiflex for the past two years, metering a couple times a day as conditions change. As soon as I had a readout, I immediately second guessed my experience and stopped thinking about composition. I’ve confirmed that options encourage distraction, at least for my preferred workflow.
On the upside, the aspect is very familiar and I immediately enjoyed composing in the 24×65 constraints. 21 wide exposures seemed like plenty and I am very satisfied with the results. Sharp, little falloff and no distortion.
It’s a bit of a tradition for me to photograph strangers at these events, and I threw the switch to move the film masks in to 24×36 for this portrait. This option makes the XPAN a real weapon, especially when paired with the underpriced and under appreciated 90mm F4.
To sum up, I genuinely loved the XPAN but would have a hard time justifying its boutique price of entry even though its party trick speaks loud and clear to me.
Last but certainly not least, I took possession of Mike Pouliot‘s clean Leica M2 fitted with a Voigtlander Nokton 50mm F1.5. I’ll admit upfront to being a long-time eye-roller regarding M cameras. They’ve always struck me as overpriced and overhyped, but there’s no substitute for experience and I wanted to know for myself what the chatter is all about.
The Leica is a little tank, a brass brick that seems to be filled completely with honey. The advance is perfect, the focus action is long, they finder is swell. The action is quick, the release is decisive. The results are sharp and contrasty (even without the mega-dollar-spheri-luxi-cron that seems to be requisite.
So why didn’t I fall head-over-heels for it?
Actually, I’m not sure why. People told me on that Saturday that Leica was polarizing, that people either loved or loathed the whole culture surrounding this brand. I was left with a crust of apathy. It’s clearly an item that was carefully made for reliable multi-generational use. I wanted to use the M2 over all others since it is regarded as the classic M, with the sensible finder and superlative build. It’s a universal favourite. And I’m glad that I took the opportunity.
As a quick reacting camera, it works just fine. Once I figured out the correct way to turn the focusing ring it was fairly easy to pre-focus and release before really thinking about it. I can see why this machine and its descendants are icons, but it’s really not for me. I can see the appeal of this finely made object very clearly, but the reduced size of the media is a buzzkill for me. I often think about how great it would be to have a superbly made medium format camera instead, but of course I have one. I’m sure this will have people sharpening their pitchforks, but in a world of Hasselblad and Rolleiflex, Leica is at the kids’ table. I expect a digital Leica may have as much to offer as its ancestors (or more?) by breaking out of the constraints of 35mm film. The M9 could well be on my future NEWLK mooch-list to sound out this theory.
So what’s the moral of the story? Maybe there isn’t a moral to this story. We’re all using what we like, and I took the opportunity to try on a couple hats to see how they fit. To sum up my experiences, I’d be willing to pay folding currency for an XPAN rangefinder in a fully mechanical 24×65 (or larger) camera with the teutonic build of the Leica and the surgical precision of that 2.8 Nikkor.
The beauty of photography is that we’re all converging on the same goal and it matters not how we arrive there. But for me each of these certainly excellent cameras was only ever the sum of their parts, never more.
I thank their generous owners kindly for the opportunity.
Which brings me to the final point of this rambling, and that’s the group that seems to have congealed around this event. Participants gradually peeled off after eating and socializing, but five remained for a couple hours to laugh, debate and enjoy each other’s company. Sitting around the table at Barnacle Billy’s with a lazy fire and a good beer was the highlight of my week. NEWLK has turned for me into a very natural group of friends that extends well beyond photography. Sometimes I wish I were closer, but the connected way we maintain these friendships makes distance less of a concern.
I can bring these relationships in my pocket wherever I go and I’m so very thankful for that.
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.