Leica had asked me to spend a few days in Köln, mostly at Photokina interviewing some photographers, but also using one of their cameras to “document the city”. As a student of Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, just like the Good Saint Cameron, I’d learned well that one never shirks the duty of privilege. This was a revolutionary basic axiom that the Good Saint had bravely scrawled into the Brasenose walls before my time. So of course, I accepted Leica’s offer instantly.
Waiting in the liminal space of Manchester Airport’s departure lounge, I consulted once again my trusty photography guidebook. Step Two & Three said, respectively, “Connect with the locals,” and “Research a list of big words for your artist statement.” I smirked, walked up to the first German-looking person I saw, and forcefully said, “Fussballweltmesterschaftsqualifikationspiel.” They stared quite blankly at me, but neither Step had said anything about pronunciation and, at this point I was far too busy planning speeches for my inevitably forthcoming awards to go much further than this.
But arriving into Köln, I was unprepared to face Step Four in the Great Photography Code. It read, “Your great work must include a story of having gone through hell to make the images, thus conferring a sense of exclusivity and scarcity upon them.” Since scarcity and exclusivity necessarily entail Great Art, I could not miss this step. I stalked up the steps to the underworld of Photokina, complete with it’s 7 halls of hell. Like an Escheresque remake of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, if you will. My odyssey was to reach the Leica Booth intact.
For those of you sufficiently un-visual to have been, Photokina is like a never-ending camera supermarket filled with fast-lens junkies obsessed with what to buy, to the point of not caring what the purchases might be used for. Is this new Nikon flash compatible with my old IV sync cable? Can that Olympus battery grip be mainlined straight into my wrist? Can this Epson printer ink be microwaved in 3 minutes? I’m fiending damnit, and I don’t care if my fix has been photoshopped, just so long as it’s shot RAW.
And, with everyone stopping to snap pics of everyone else stopping to snap pics of everyone else stopping to snap pics of, well, you get the vicious circle of constantly bumping into people that left me wishing that “shooting people” wasn’t so metaphoric after all. If I couldn’t shoot them, they all of them were at least managing quite successfully and continuously to stab me. You see, it is a well-observed and beginner’s level photographic principle that, to be a Good Photographer, you absolutely need above all other things to own some bags. The true photo-bag connoisseur, however, eschews the tawdry Billingham, or Lowepro, and goes straight for the brand-emblazoned paper or card variety. Complete with pointy edges. And this, mostly, seems to be the Photokina’s stock in trade.
The bright yellow Nikon bags caused a particular stampede that had me contemplating a temporary career in wildlife photography. But every brand was guilty of street corner selling these instagram hits of photo-adrenalin. Young kids were scooping up Olympus bags like Ritalin. And then there were the old hands, getting bags for their bags to go in. I wanted to put a bag on my head just for the sin of being there.
But, with a deep breath and deft flash of my frankly flashy Leica badge, I soldiered through the mass of unwashed camera straps, and found my home at last. In the darkened Leica Gallery, I prayed to pictures by Nick Ut and others for guidance. Then I consulted Step Five of the photographer’s guide. It proffered this, “Have a crisis of faith in the truth of your medium.” Well, all photographs lie, but people (and practical guides to mastering photography) never do, I guess.
I went out, onto the streets of Köln. Past the paper-bag-carrying, camera-toting photo-tokers, all feverishly photographing the same scene of the same bridge and cathedral that are, to Google Earth’s best knowledge, the only things that actually exist in Köln. I crossed the bridge over the Rhine, carrying a Leica X2 as a Charon in my hand. I walked until I was lost in this city, until I’d fallen off the flickring edges of this strange and digitally distant land. And then I stopped.
And there, I made these pictures. They’re the Rorschach of my travel. Or an X-ray of my soul’s agitation at the products of blind photographic consumerism I’d tried to turn my back upon. You can maybe call them memory cards and, yes, I know I could have bought some back at ‘Kina, but really, all that I could find in there were endless empty paper bags.