As part of my recent trip to Italy I managed to get two days in Rome sans entourage, (they were having a lovely time by the pool in Umbria). My plan was to get the train into the city early and head for Fotoforniture Guido Sabatini (my favourite camera shop in Italy) and shoot my way back to the hotel. There, having regrouped, I would embark upon a free-form street-photography meander until I ran out of energy/film/flip-flops.
A brief heat test in Perugia earlier in the week had confirmed that taking both the Leica and the Hasselblad (with multiple lenses) would slow me down and hurt my shoulder. When the time came to pack, the Canon F1 snuck in at the last minute. (I planned to shoot monochrome in the F1 and keep the colour in the Leica).
Fotoforniture Guido Sabatini
I lost time from my deluded schedule due to an issue with the hotel. The solution took some time to find and involved me staying in a room over an adult cinema on the wrong side of the city. As a result it was both hotter and later than I’d planned when I got to the store.
This shop is ace. It’s a glorious subterranean, air-conditioned, bright white cave of dreams which sits in a leafy area nearer the Vatican than the station. It has a great selection of modern cameras, (at least I think it does, I didn’t really look), film in a bunch of formats, (certainly 4x5,120 roll and 35mm), and then there is the used section.
I should clarify that I got in touch with the store prior to my visit to ensure that they would be open, this was an important part of my holiday. As it was they were going to close for two weeks at noon that day.
There are invariably dozens of items that here that I quite fancy, and at least a couple that cause me some serious consternation. This time I went prepared, with a budget in mind and my list. I had thought that I might replace the 35mm Voigtlander that I sold so foolishly earlier in the year. I might find a nice 35mm lens for the F1, a 90mm for the Tachihara or perhaps a Zeiss or Leica 50mm to test against my 7Artisans. The team are nice, forgiving of those whose ambition with Italian outstrips their talent and a knowledgable bunch. Thierry, who runs the used section is clearly used to foreign idiots getting under foot and drooling over his wares, he wears it well.
Instead of any of the things on my list, I fell in love with a Hasselblad Flexbody. Not only was it not on the list, it was nowhere near the budget I’d set out for myself. I’d never seen one in person before and was immediately struck by the genius of its design and construction, the just out and out coolness of it.
I have been bitten by the large-format bug, but since losing my darkroom I haven’t been able to do much. The idea of having some perspective control in a system I already love was intoxicating. Standing in heat outside, driven by the knowledge that the store would close soon for the summer, making all sorts of deals with myself, I went crazy and bought the damn thing.
Having made the purchase I found myself walking back across the centre of Rome at around midday. I was hot, partly due to the heat and party due to a gnawing sense of buyer’s remorse. (I wasn’t perturbed by the awesomeness of the camera, just the expense and the whimsical nature of my purchase process).
On top of this the shopping bag with the Flexbody in it made shooting difficult, and the extra weight of the F1 in my other bag made everything hotter and more complicated. I began to panic that I was squandering my time in Rome. I arrived stone-baked back at my hotel to shower, review my purchase, and to revel in the air-conditioning. I felt the pressure to get back out and start shooting but consoled myself in the knowledge that I had time before it got dark and the later I left the safety of my room the cooler the streets would be.
Eventually I headed out with my new super-light load-out. Leica, film, light-meter (for emergencies), empty water bottle, (fill it from the fountains), and a wallet. I love Rome. It’s a lovely city to visit, a small centre packed with history, amazing architecture, and great food, coffee, and beer. In August it contains few Romans, most of whom have made a dash for the sea breezes on the coast. What it has in spades then, is a lot of hot, full, and caffeinated tourists some of whom are clutching beers.
I started walking, deliberately not paying much attention to the direction I was going. I’ve tried on a few occasions to photograph ancient Rome, but it always feels derivative and unnecessary. The centre exists as a theme park of sorts, where few Romans go and fewer Romans live. Shooting the monuments invariably feels like I’m taking selfless-selfies, defining my position in relation to a famous landmark by dint of taking its photograph, one like so many others.
What I wanted was to photograph a living city, or be it a transient population inside a theme park city, in the hope of finding some truth or meaning, and also to eat tacos.
No zealot like a convert
To warm up I shot contrasting architecture, trying to find the flow and the confidence. With a 50mm lens I feel like you need to be close, and to be close you have to push. I’ve been using the 50mm lens on my 5dmkIV so much of recent that I have come to expect crop-depth, I assume I’ll be able to crop in tightly upon my subject and so maintain a distance. I don’t have that depth with the Leica, and I should have pushed in more, (or bought a 90mm).
I mention this because I’ve grown to really like shooting the Leica. I find a genuine, unaffected pleasure in using it. The mechanical consistency and suredness of the engineering is just lush. There is no confusion about the snick of the shutter, or the uniform tension on the frame advance that ratchets so satisfyingly. (It turns out I’m all about a single stroke). It’s fast, (provided you aren’t trying to nail focus on a moving subject at f/1.1), more compact than anything else I have, and it makes me smile.
Separation can be difficult in photography. Divorcing oneself from one’s state of mind when one took a photograph can make it hard to view the result dispassionately. Likewise, liking or disliking a camera can affect the view of the work one creates with it. I like my large format work disproportionately because it invariably requires a greater physical effort to produce. As a result I have been guilty of trying to champion work that is at best successful rather than outstanding.
My conversion to Leica has had been gradual and it has its (expensive) downsides too. Aside from regret about selling my Voigtlander 35mm f/1.7, for the first time I find myself lusting after a digital body. Worse still, even though I’m happy with the performance of the 7Artisans 50mm lens I also fancy the Leica 50mm f/1.4. Some investigation has revealed that the duo I would like would cost about £7k and be wonderful, and insane. In the meantime my budget Leica (comparatively) and I have made a connection. Whether it breeds good work, or work I just choose to champion remains to be seen.
Eventually I ran out of flip-flops, found some awesome tacos, and called it a night, pictures below.