[Editor's note: I haven't been able to procure usable JPEGs of sample pictures from Photography Unplugged to use with this article. To give you an idea what the pictures in the book look like, there is a small selection of nine examples on the main page at www.harald-mante.de.]
By Jim Hughes
A while back, Mike asked people to talk about their favorite lenses. I was busy on a project at the time, so stayed silent. But I did think about it. And in the middle of the night I came up with an answer that surprised even me: over the course of many decades of photographing—generally carrying a camera wherever I go, not because I need to make a living or burnish a reputation but because I still love what it feels like to take pictures—my favorite lens turns out not to be a lens at all. The "optic" I feel most comfortable seeing my world through is actually a film. Kodachrome, to be precise.
Okay, if pressed, I could name a glass lens or three. At the top of my list would be the 50mm ƒ/2 Schneider Xenon fixed to my eminently pocketable Retina IIa folder. This 60-year old lens is really sharp yet still manages to render Kodachrome’s abundant tonalities with a soft brush. Then there’s my reliable "modern" antique, the minuscule 35mm ƒ/2 Canon that I regularly mount on my indestructible Canon 7s rangefinder (both circa 1968). Shooting color—all I do now—the Canon produces rich and deep transparencies that somehow possess the enduring look of old-time black and white. In fact, most of my compact Canon RF lenses perform similarly. Must have been a design philosophy back then. Many of today's lenses seem oddly cold and calculating by comparison.
Brings to mind Ralph Gibson's comments the other day regarding books (which I agree with, no surprise). I've known Ralph since he arrived in my office at Camera 35 with a box full of prints under his arm and a plan to self-publish them in a book. He wanted a portfolio in the magazine to help make it happen, and I was more than happy to oblige (as I was later, with Larry Clark's Tulsa, at Ralph's suggestion). Ralph is, by the way, one of the smartest, most articulate photographers I've had the pleasure to work with. Even then, he thought of the photo book as a distinct art form; books offered the ability to pair images on facing pages, he said, expanding and deepening their meaning, which can't be done as effectively in exhibits (or today, on the web). "A less ephemeral experience," I think his words were regarding photographs in books.
I also agree with Ralph's comparison of digital versus film. When I did the Ernst Haas in Black and White book, the publisher, Bulfinch, wanted the reproductions be be made from digital tri-tone scans, the newest and "best" process in 1992 (these days, we would be talking Quad-tones, or maybe Octo-tones!). I wanted the reproductions to be made in old fashioned offset-lithography duo-tone, with the plates made from film produced optically in one of those giant room-sized repro cameras on tracks. I thought the look of the latter would be a better match for Ernst's B&W photographs, most of which were made in the '40s, '50s and '60s with Rolleis and Leicas. So the publisher—reluctantly and at no little expense—did a test, running both the old and new technologies on a sampling of prints. When we spread out the press proofs for comparison, the decision was clear: the digital scans seemed to cause ink to float more on the surface of the paper; done that way, Ernst’s images had less depth and were overly-sharp at the edges of things, imparting a harsh tonality he never envisioned. I wanted the ink to be absorbed by the paper more. The differences were subtle, but real. Low-tech won, expensive and labor-intensive though the production may have been. (Of course, this may go a long way toward explaining why the book has never been reissued, turning it into a hard-to-find collector’s item.)
Given digital's relatively rapid ascendancy, it can come as no surprise that today, virtually all books—pictures, words, whatever—are made using new technologies whose rough edges presumably have been mostly smoothed out since 1992. Scanning and the ability to create digital files can rightly be thought of as having brought about the democratization of publishing, a good thing if ever there was one.
And as Ralph noted in his email to TOP, "the book will surely prevail." Consider the volume currently in my hands. Photography Unplugged (2009: Rocky Nook, Santa Barbara, CA—here's the U.K. link), is its title—not a little ironic in the digital era. This handsome production, a 200-page, 50-year retrospective of German travel photographer and university professor Harald Mante, is a paean to Kodachrome, his film of choice for both personal and professional work. "Paean"—the word itself is ironic, considering that this first commercially viable color film was primarily developed by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, an unlikely pair of classical musicians and amateur photographers, in the mid-1930s.
The two Leopolds—"Man and God," as they were called at Kodak—figured out how to incorporate RGB dye couplers into the processing chemicals, rather than the film itself as with the now far-simpler to process E-6 films, using a very complex infusion method that soon utilized an equally complex selective reexposure on what was essentially black-and-white film stock. From its beginning, Kodachrome has required very sophisticated processing at full-fledged labs. But the end result was spectacular: since the color was not built into the film but added later, actually displacing silver, emulsion layers could be significantly thinner, allowing for reduced light dispersion and superior sharpness. According to my 1939 edition of Color in Photography, by Ivan Dmitri, Kodachrome was manufactured in its early years with an ASA speed of 8. Not that long ago it was available in E.I.s of 25, 64 and 200. The slower versions offered a grain structure so fine as to be virtually invisible.
Little wonder magazines such as National Geographic and Holiday for many
years mandated its use by its photographers. Little wonder photographers
such as Sam Abell, Costa Manos, Douglas Faulkner, Jay Maisel, Ernst Haas—not to mention Harald Mante, and yours truly—gravitated to it. But
Kodachrome’s complexity was its undoing. Where once there were labs
throughout the world working around the clock, slowly but surely the
equipment wore out. In the face of a waning markets and disappearing
profits, production lines were not rebuilt or replaced. Dwayne's Photo in
I had never heard of Harald Mante, or seen any examples of his impressive body of work, until Mike, knowing my connection to Kodachrome, had Mante’s book sent to me. It was a revelation (and a little like looking in a mirror, despite some clear differences in the ways we see). His editor and publisher (and clearly old friend and admirer), Gerhard Rossbach, wrote in his forward: "The idea for this book developed during numerous conversations with Harald Mante about the need to set a counterpoint to the increasing 'homophony' that modern, digital photographic processes produce. Here, we want to show you Harald Mante's work in its purest form, without the aid of computers or Photoshop. In other words: what you see here is Harald Mante unplugged, with each original, unprocessed image showing the moment exactly as Harald Mante saw it through the viewfinder of his camera."
In a brief statement, "Goodbye Kodachrome," Mante himself says, "Kodachrome was the first slide film I ever used, and [has] remained my staple for decades." His book, he notes, is "...a perfect way for me to say 'Goodbye' and 'Thank You' to this famous film!"
I have just loaded my final roll into the Retina, appropriate since it was probably the Kodak camera line that benefitted most over the years from Kodachrome's original popularity. While I shoot, I will also be trying to figure out how I will ever match Kodachrome's qualities: that deep, liquid color, those cool, muted shadows, that wonderful sharpness, the absolute clarity, the three-dimensional look and feel I've learned to see and capture. For me, rating K-64 at 100 and exposing for the highlights has become second nature. Like Harald, for 50 years I have visualized my pictures in Kodachrome color. Now I’ll have to learn new ways to see.
Both Kodachrome illustrations are from Jim Hughes' American Classics Series.