Philosophy & Reflections

The Contrarian with the Contax – By Frank H. Wu

January 13, 2018

I am a contrarian. When I was looking to start again in film photography, I knew immediately that I wanted a vintage Contax G2. My goal was to have a camera that was compact enough for “every day carry,” which meant I was considering primarily rangefinders. Almost anyone who has the least interest in this art form ranks the Leica brand as what they most hope to own, if they rich enough or good enough, or rich enough to suppose they are good enough. My interests have always been iconoclastic. I did not set out to be different for the sake of difference, but for whatever reason my choices usually are not conventional.

The Contax G2 is a cult classic in its own right. With proprietary Zeiss lenses, including a 45mm prime said to be ample justification to buy the whole kit, this titanium model still seems contemporary and handsome. The ergonomics are perfect. Everything is in the right place for me. They did not design for obsolescence back in the day. The manufacturer, boasting German origins, bought by Japanese owners, is defunct though, perhaps adding to the appeal. On the internet the prices continue to increase, because adapters allow the glass to be mounted to new mirrorless cameras. My seller bundled the champagne body with the 45mm and 90mm; and I subsequently found the unusual zoom, which I have not yet tried.

So many of our decisions can be explained by our personal histories rather than any rational process. I have to admit I am no different than most of us who have grown up in a consumer culture. I like to acquire products. I would prefer to believe I’m not naive in believing buying the latest gadget will make me happy or popular. But I would be lying to myself if I denied that I enjoy possessing a new item, albeit more tool than toy. When the Contax G2 came out, more than a generation ago, it was priced for people with much more disposable income than I enjoyed then. As much as I might have desired one, I ended up purchasing a Sigma SLR for an order of magnitude less — that was a bit of an oddball pick as well, a story for another day. In maturity, I have the means for the Contax G2. As with film photography, deferred gratification turns out to be better than its instant alternative.

There are risks in relying on used equipment, but uncertainty is inherent to any worthwhile experience. The lens had to be cleaned of a speck of fungal accumulation, like a fingerprint left on the inside. The shutter doesn’t fire perfectly, as if there is a focus priority that locks it with no override. The complex electronics of the Contax G2 guarantee that eventually it will fail. Any repair will give pause, even to the most committed fan.

Nonetheless, my pleasure from film photography exceeds my pleasure from digital photography. I must be more mindful. I cannot erase mistakes. Thus it would not be an overstatement that film photography makes me a better person. I am more deliberate and patient. There cannot be much more reason to take up a hobby. I appreciate this opportunity.

In a series of guest posts on this blog, I will share the story of my photographic experience as it develops, if you will pardon the pun. Photography is intrinsically a social activity. There are those, such as Vivien Maier, who produced images for themselves alone — though even her pictures were of people and eventually came to light. By and large, photography is intended to be exposed, to offer another play on words. It is for us to show others what we have seen. Even if the later viewer is only ourselves, the record is for a different version of the photographer, one whose mind’s eye plays tricks in later life or cannot summon up the recollection.

Film simulates life. Digital merely simulates film. That is the difference.

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  • Reply
    Mathew Chatterton
    January 14, 2018 at 12:51 am

    “Almost anyone who has the least interest in this art form ranks the Leica brand as what they most hope to own, if they rich enough or good enough, or rich enough to suppose they are good enough.”

    I’d argue against this. I’m far from being wealthy but I chose a Leica M2 as the affordable option. Although not cheap the fully mechanical Leica can always be repaired whereas the Contax will eventually die an unrepairable death. I couldn’t justify sinking however many hundreds of pounds into something that could die at any moment. However if ever I do find myself with money to waste I would love to try one.

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    January 14, 2018 at 3:40 am

    “Almost anyone who has the least interest in this art form ranks the Leica brand as what they most hope to own, if they rich enough or good enough, or rich enough to suppose they are good enough.”
    Really? C’mon Frank. Why the swipe at Leica users? If you want to use the G2, or a pinhole camera go for it. But your childish comments serve to detract from an otherwise intelligent article.

  • Reply
    January 14, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    “… if they rich enough or good enough, or rich enough to suppose they are good enough”. Excellent turn of phrase surely to be taken with a pinch of salt – shouldn’t really bother anyone unless they’re worried they fall into the latter category!

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    January 15, 2018 at 12:44 am

    It’s a pity that the comments so far have been about a phrase you dropped into your post.

    I love the G2. If there were one camera I’d want revisiting, this is it. I have a Leica M2 but there is something about the G2 and its lenses which sets it apart (even though I use Zeiss lenses on the M2). Its only weakness is that there is no true manual focus. Fortunately I was able to find a new one as well as the used one I had served by Kyocera

  • Reply
    Adam Laws
    January 15, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    Welcome Frank, I look forward to yours posts.

    The G2 is a technological marvel. As a primary camera it was far more technically capable than my Leica. I could use it within the studio due to its high shutter sync. With 1/4000s shutter I didn’t have to worry about bright sun or carry an ND filter. It’s trully a delight especially if you need to rattle of a roll quickly or your eyes are struggling with rangefinder patches.

  • Reply
    January 16, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    The G2 is 22 year old technology, with the added hazard of no manufacturer cover, impossible to find parts and independents who are unlikely to open one up at any price. You have to really love the Contax G experience to accept those parameters.

  • Reply
    February 25, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    I think the G2 has a 1/6000s shutter on auto! Which is incredible. I love mine. Buy the 21mm, it’s the best lens…

  • Reply
    David Hill
    February 17, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    We could argue endlessly over these points: The G2 and it’s Zeiss lenses are wonders. The tech will fail someday. Mechanical gear has inherent durability and repairability. Leicas are exceptional, but expensive. Piffle. Choose something. Pick your poison — and get out shooting.

    There is another point Frank inserted to close out his discourse: “Film simulates life. Digital merely simulates film. That is the difference.” … and there’s yet another hornets’ nest.

    As one who grew up shooting/ processing/ printing film, I appreciate that sentiment. I appreciate the effort made by digital software vendors to process output so as to emulate favorite film stocks. Is this necessary? No. The myriad of forms that film takes to represent life shows how imperfect a medium film is. Digital, whether reproducing our beloved imperfections or creating its own, is no more or less than another process of simulating life. The tools are film and digital, lenses and light and chemistry and electronics, all expressive of life in a myriad of imperfect simulations. The medium is expression and emotion. Together they are the art and the wonder and the beauty of photography.

  • Reply
    John Andre
    September 14, 2020 at 3:27 am

    No pictures. Lots of words, yet no pictures.

    I’d rather lead with photographs than gear. Yes, I shoot a G2 I bought new in 2002. But…outside the Camera Club, nobody cares what I shoot with… they care only what I display, and whether or not they like it.

    I’m far more concerned with getting good prints today, than I am about getting my G2 repaired if it were to break down.

    Also, If the 45mm Zeiss is such a great lens, surely people must like the photos? 😉

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