Washington, D.C. May 2015. Without comment.
It seems like most landscape photographers, from Ansel Adams to Henry Holdsworth, have their shots of aspen groves. There is something about their uniformity, vulnerability, the fluttering leaves, the marks on the lower trunks that look like eyes, that hold photographers in thrall. Most of these shots are in black and white, and in winter, to showcase the contrast between white and black. And sometimes we see a grove of aspens in the summer, and it Is colorful, and we put the viewfinder to our eye. Leica M, 28mm Summicron, Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.
So Wilco surprised us all, Christmas in July, with the free download this week of Star Wars. If the album sucked, it would be a stunt. Because the album is first rate — stripped down, back to the roots, unpretentious and punk-rock pure — it stands as a marvel. Let’s think about what they’ve done here, for a moment.
Out of insecurity, corporate hubris, and the sentimental gullibility of a longtime partner, U2 forced upon us whatever it was that album was called that Apple foisted upon our iTunes library last year. U2 is a much bigger, more successful band than Wilco, at least they have been over time, and out of what Bono admitted was a need on their part to make sure everyone listened to what they still could create, they took a big payment from Apple and all of us woke up to find an album we didn’t ask for hogging bits on our hard drives. It wasn’t bad, but the manner they forced it on us was so oft-putting, it left a copper and merde taste in everyone’s mouth, save for members of the U2 fan club. And it backfired perfectly: the album proved that U2 had outlasted its welcome, which was kind of sad.
Wilco is an amazing success story, as an entity. After living through one of those epic record label disasters that foretold the imminent collapse of the industry — when one unit of Warner Bros. rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, still perhaps their greatest record, only to have it picked up and released by another unit of Warner Bros. — over time, Wilco took complete control of their fate, and as “I Love My Label” attests, they created the only record label they could trust: themselves. Wilco is an institution, American superstars for lovers of good music. They treat their fans to live albums downloadable from their website, tour when they wish, host their own festival. They do everything on their own terms. But do they still, you know, matter? Are they still relevant, great?
Star Wars is a really great album, reveling in the guitar-based core of the band. Whereas on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the band came to us like mysterious radio signals out of the foggy sea, and whereas the most recent The Whole Love sounded like a band that didn’t want to cede the mantle of progressive experimentation to Radiohead — another band that surprises all with free album releases — Star Wars sounds like smart and soulful kids getting together in a studio to have fun. They just happen to be a magically adept unit, able to turn on a dime, rock harder than bands the age of young Spencer Tweedy, and have a recognizable sound to mine.
We’re grateful to Wilco for the free album, which happens also to be a brilliant career move — a true gift which we can access on our terms, even as they offer it to us on theirs. We are grateful to Wilco for a whole lot more than this album, but it’s a nice reminder, isn’t it?
We had great fun out West principally using the Leica Monochrom (typ-246) to capture images of Jackson Hole in black and white. Every once in a while, though, a natural experiment takes place where we come across an image we took in color that is virtually the same as what was captured in black and white. Monochrome has stopping power, timelessness. Ah, but sometimes color nails it. You be the judge.
That’s the way our M-240 caught the sunset underneath the Sleeping Indian, with the 75mm APO-Summicron-Asph. And this is the way our Monochrom caught it with the 50mm APO.
We thought the black and white image was nice enough to print. But we now believe color wins here, hands down. Yes, you do not need a monochrome-only camera to make such experiments, but as readers of Tulip Frenzy know, we like the idea of deliberately going out to take monochrome-only images. This time, though, we’re glad we brought along the M.
But not the evening. However, when it came to process this image, there were so many mosquitoes captured in the sky, to try removing them might have ruined everything. So, in the interest of historical accuracy, we left them in. Jackson Hole, Schwabachers Landing, Leica Monochrom (typ-246), 28mm Summicron, orange filter.
And moments later, there was this. Same issue with the bugs, dammit.
Vacations are in Kodachrome, bright with light and color. From northern climes, we go to the vivid tropics in the winter. And if we are lucky enough in summer to be able to go to the Mountain West, to the beach, or to cities to which we have always wanted to visit, of course we remember what we’ve seen as we saw it, in saturated color. But with the release in mid-May of the Leica Monochrom (typ-246), our hankering to shoot in black and white meant we looked forward to an annual visit to the Tetons with a slightly different set of intentions, a different eye.
Yes, we brought an M that shoots in color, too, and we have used it. But to see a familiar environment through the sensibility that shooting with the Monochrom forces upon you is to open yourself to a certain poetry, or said with less grandiosity, to an historic way of seeing. (Historic here referring to Ansel Adams, Edward Weston.) Now, the image of fireworks in Jackson Hole on the 4th of July could not have, I believe, been taken with my M — I was shooting at 10000 ISO. The picture immediately above could have, of course, been converted to black and white, or shot with black and white film. But here’s the thing: if I hadn’t had the Monochrom with me, would I have thought of that scene — with its soothing blues and greens — in black and white? Is the greatest value that having the luxury of being able to shoot with a camera that only records images in black and white the effect it has on your sensibility, your eye?
We know we wouldn’t have been able to shoot the above image with the M9 Monochrom, because it was taken with the Elmarit-R 180 f/2.8, which we could for the first time use with our Monochrom, as the new one operates on the same platform as the M-240, which takes R lenses.
It is an expensive mechanism to enforce discipline, as surely it would be cheaper to shoot Tri-X with a film camera, or to convert images from color to black and white. But the image above was taken on a day when it was so overcast, we wouldn’t have been motivated to drive up into Grand Teton National Park to capture it; the notion that while a dreary day in the valley, and a day you wouldn’t likely consider going swimming in a lake or hiking in a canyon, this would be a perfect day to go shoot black and white images, was a motivator. Wanting to take a picture in black and white literally got me in the car to go find the right clouds and light.
In fact, if you begin thinking of your Monochrom as your primary camera, and the one that shoots color the backup, it opens a world of possibilities. Ordinary images appeal because of the glorious unreality that is black and white — something photographers have understood for a century, only reluctantly giving way to color as an artistic medium.
As we realized after shooting for one year with the M9 Monochrom, it is liberating to abandon thinking in terms of color and purely in terms of light. The usual way one thinks of capturing a sunset is how to attain the colors in the sky. But what if the colors don’t matter, and what does matter are the tones of grey, the light in the sky, the outline of the mountains, the richness of the sagebrush?
No one is going to want to see our vacation pictures as a depiction of the time we spent out West. And yet somehow, by shooting more with the Monochrom than with the M, we suspect these vacation images will have a permanence in our own memory that the color images may not have.
The image above matches precisely the postcard that Vladimir Nabokov sent Edmund Wilson in the summer of 1949. Well, maybe the postcard photographer was fifty feet below where we stood, and the aspens — not a willow — stood on the right side. But it is close.
We know this because we are midway through the excellent Nabokov In America by Robert Roper, which includes an image of the postcard while covering the writer and lepidopterist’s most productive years. These were years in which Nabokov — Russian aristocrat and exile, genius in both Russian and English — tramped across the Mountain West, butterfly net in hand, while also writing Speak Memory, Pnin, and of course, Lolita.
We should note that in recent weeks we’ve also been listening to the amazing live recordings included in the super duper reissue of Sticky Fingers, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the best performances from both of the spring 1971 sets the Rolling Stones played at the University of Leeds, as well as that tour’s finale at the Roundhouse in London, is “Stray Cat Blues.”
Which prompts this thought: what are we to make, in 2015, of both Lolita and “Stray Cat Blues,” both incredibly appealing works of art, both centered on child rape?
We’ve read much if not all of the Nabokov oeuvre, but as great as both Pale Fire and Speak, Memory are, the standout work by the 20th Century giant is, of course, Lolita — a story about an adult who knowingly manipulates his way into being the sole caregiver of a 14-year old girl, so they can have sex three times a day while traveling the American West. The novel is at once hilarious and appalling. Our sense of its duality has always been there — it has always been both hilarious and appalling, and hilarious because it is appalling, appalling because it is hilarious. But as a college student reading it, we didn’t struggle with it in quite the same was as we do now… now that we are older than Humbert Humbert, older than Nabokov when he wrote it. Now that we are in a position truly to think about what it means that this was Nabokov’s best seller, his breakthrough, coming at the front end of the Sexual Revolution, published before 1963, which Philip Larkin has decreed is the year that sex began.
For many, many years, we have considered “Stray Cat Blues” to be the standout performance on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the Stones’ live album nonpareil from their ’69 tour, and the song is, at worst, the third-best one on Beggars Banquet, that album we would take to a desert isle. On the studio album, Jagger says he can see the young groupie is “just 15 years old,” which is bad enough, but by the ’69 tour he’d revised her age downward to 13, where it remained for the ’71 tour of the UK. (The Stones dropped it for the ’72 tour, and as far as we know, it stayed dropped for the next three decades at least. Though they have returned to it, from time to time. One wonder what kind of life the girl, 13 when she would have slept with the Rock Star, has had in the nearly 50 years since…)
And here we are, in 2015, and pedophilia — child rape — isn’t an amusing topic, if ever it was. Martin Amis famously rejected Nabokov’s focus on nymphets — N’s word for the pre-pubescent girls to which Humbert Humbert, whom we know is not a stand-in for the author — in something like six of 19 books, not on moral grounds, but aesthetics. There were too many of them, these pubescent girls so much on Nabokov’s mind. And yet, even if there were one, isn’t that too many? Not for reasons of aesthetics: let us be clear, we are talking about morality.
Over the years, we’ve read about Lolita as a metaphor for Nabokov, the cultured European, discovering his love for the young, quivering America he sailed to on literally the last boat out of France before the arrival of the Nazis. (In a way, similar to Roman Polanski, are we supposed to excuse Nabokov his child lust because he was a victim, first of Lenin, then of Hitler?)
But we can’t. We adore Lolita, one of the great novels of the 20th Century, and a miles better American road novel than On The Road. We can listen to Mick Taylor playing lead on “Stray Cat Blues” six days per week. Martin Amis also once famously defended Philip Larkin against the charge of his sexism and cultural obtuseness by reminding readers of the epoch in which Larkin wrote his poetry, comparing the censoriousness against him as equivalent to condemning pre-Renaissance painters for not having yet discovered perspective. But we don’t actually buy this defense here. Lolita is hilarious, yes, but it is a horrific story, and we do judge it. And the same goes for “Stray Cat Blues.”
And yet we read the one, listen to the other, all the while understanding how glad we are that as a culture we have, finally, discovered perspective. Today, few are the artists who will find an audience writing or singing so casually of molestation.