Camera brands inspire great passion in photographers and we street photographers are no exception. We all have our beloved brand, don’t we? In some ways I am a devoted Ricoh GR user – as most of my well-known work was produced with one. Yet, I have also owned and used a slew of other cameras over the many years I’ve been making photographs. I’ve used a Pentax K1000 (my first ‘serious’ camera), Yashica Electro 35, Minox 35, Olympus MJU II, Rollei 35, Leica M, Q, X, various Panasonic models, Fujifilm X series, and a bunch of toy cameras including the cult classic, Harinezumi Guru. I’ve loved many of these cameras, hated others, and simultaneously loved and hated some of them also. So it goes.
I recently stumbled across a comment on a blog post that proved both immediately amusing and thought-provoking. The poster, “Per”, while prompting people to visit a Ricoh GR forum on Facebook writes, “The images that people post there are amazing. In contrast [to the] Leica M group [which] have the most boring images on the internet.” While I did recognize some “brand snubbing” seeping through in these comments, I did also wonder if certain camera brands do attract a certain “kind” of photographer. Hence this philosophical investigation. Beginning with my own approach to photography, perhaps the approach I know best, or at least the most intimately, I know that I’ve been most drawn to cameras like the Ricoh and the Harinzeumi and that my style is edgy, haphazard, and at least partially abstract. Did those cameras develop my style, or did I gravitate toward those cameras because of my proclivity for this particular look? This same question could be posed to others as well. Put another way, do we see a lot of edgy photography in the Ricoh GR group because the camera lends itself to that look, or do we see it because fundamentally edgy photographers gravitate toward that particular camera? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Copyright ⓒ Michael Ernest Sweet
Let us look at each scenario in turn. The idea that the camera makes the style or look is not a novel one. And I can easily buy into this idea. When I have used Leica cameras over the years they have, indeed, caused me to slow down and to think about (even overthink) the composition etc. My “Leica” photos have a very traditional look to them. But is there really anything, objectively, about the Leica that produces “boring” photographs? I’m quite sure there is not. That doesn’t mean certain correlations cannot be found though. For example, Leica cameras are expensive – they always have been relative to the market more generally. In this way, they have most commonly been acquired by people who are, first and foremost, affluent to some degree. Likely, this affluence has not come via making art, at least not initially. What does this all mean? Well, what I am really trying to say here, in a roundabout way, is that many Leica cameras quite naturally fall into the hands of non-artistically talented photographers. As was commonly said, Leica is the dentist’s camera. Conversely, cheaper, but well-functioning cameras, are more commonly sought out by budding artists for their affordability and, in some cases, their ability to produce less-common looking or unique images. It was often said, for example, that the Ricoh GR (especially the early digital iterations) produced a distinct film-like image that other cameras did not.
As one can see, the situation is not really one of the chicken or the egg, exactly. Both chicken and egg come as an intertwined package here, as I suspect the actual chicken and egg do also. Yes, the physical camera, in some ways, seems to engender a certain “style” of photography, but it also, unquestionably, attracts a certain “kind” of photographer too. Not many dentists line up for a Harinezumi Guru. As a result, a lot of amateur (or worse) photography by rich people ends up in the Leica forum. Good Leica photography by people with an artistic sensibility is also there, but harder to spot, at least in the wild. Think of it this way: Many watch aficionados can be spotted wearing a Rolex, but you cannot really spot a watch aficionado merely by looking for Rolexes. Why? Because the dentist is also wearing a Rolex. So too is the lawyer, the banker, and the college dean.
Copyright ⓒ Michael Ernest Sweet
In the end I must, I regret, return to an age-old and often-repeated adage: The camera is merely a tool. To respond to Per’s comment, the Ricoh GR is plenty capable of making bad photographs, it’s just that most bad photographers don’t lust after that particular camera. Hence, the forums associated with it are much cleaner, much more aesthetically accomplished. That said, camera brands and our loyalty to them is not something easily or immediately understood. There can be no doubt that the Ricoh GR, as a camera, has contributed uniquely to my signature style of street photography. Could I have made the same body of work with my Leica M, absolutely not. And for that I not only thank Ricoh, but I remain passionately loyal to the brand. Where I stop short, however, is in making any kind of declaration about the Ricoh GR’s inherent ability to make better photographs by mere virtue, and only by mere virtue, of it being a Ricoh GR.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian award-winning photographer and writer. He is the author of The Human Fragment, a full-length art monograph from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael lives and teaches in New York City. Visit my new Instagram account @mesweetphotos
Michael’s Brilliant Photography Book: The Human Fragment can be purchased from Amazon