The mass consumer market, once focused on providing a broad range of goods and services to all people, irrespective of class and society barriers, n order to give manufacturing industries the broadest possible market penetration, has become in the words of Benjamin Barber:
In order to turn reluctant consumers with few unsatisfied core needs into permanent shoppers, producers must dumb down consumers, shape their wants, take over their life worlds, encourage impulse buying, cultivate shopoholism and invent new needs.
Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private-market logic ("What I want is what society needs!") and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy ("What society needs is what I want to want!").
This is capitalism's all-too-logical way of solving the problem of too many goods chasing too few needs. It makes consuming ubiquitous and omnipresent, turning shopping into an addiction facilitated by easy credit.
Look at the current market for the ubiquitous DSLR in its different incarnations from basic to professional, whatever these words mean. A year ago we had the Canon 30D, and this particular model was greeted by the ever more uncritical press as a super model, capable of delivering top quality images. Now we have the 40D and the same ritual is being repeated. More features of course and improved characteristics, focused on more speed, more convenience, more foolproof handling. Without doubt, the 2008 model 50D will elicit even more praise, and so on to the 2009 60D. The language runs out of words to evaluate the several models: from top to super to turbo to uber-top.
We now have cameras capable of capturing images at a sensitivity of 25600 ISO, at a speed of 5 pictures/second, with vibration reduction of five stops and with accurate AF at a speed faster than the time span of an eye blink. We have Liveview, WLAN image distribution and exposure bracketing over five stops. Without any effort we can now take sharply focused, well-exposed pictures at any shutter speed we want and at every aperture setting we want in every lighting condition. And for those who do not wish to loose any instant in life can buy a camera that can handle 60 frames/second. We prefer easy above difficult, simple above complex and speed above slowness. The new Olympus E-3 now boasts of the fastest AF in the market and the manufacturer assumes that this will be a buyer incentive or a USP, a unique selling point.
We note this mechanism also in the Leica world: the M8 has a now modest resolution of 10Mb. As soon as the 12Mb and 20Mb models were introduced, the Leica experts all over the world are demanding and predicting a new M9 with that same amount of pixels, because it is a market law that nobody wants to work with yesterday’s camera model with ‘obsolete’ characteristics.
Nobody asks the logical and sensible question whether we need or can handle all these features. Barnack would be surprised that the same persons who use his cameras seem unable to grasp the essence of the design and would be willing to threaten his idea of simplicity and longevity.
In my very personal view, the Olympus E-3 is a benchmark product, at least feature-wise. The Leica M8 is almost primitive when you compare both products feature for feature. The E-3 automates and optimizes every aspect of photography where the M8 has to delegate this to the qualities of the operator. The M8 is still constructed around the rangefinder and the E-3 does away with the whole concept of a eye-level finder.
The main question whether we really need all these features that allow the photographer to take pictures fast, simple and easy has for the moment no clear answer.
What we do know and notice is a slow fading away of once valued elements in photography. Most test reports that are globally available claim that the current generation of lenses is of excellent quality. Critical tests however show that many lenses, especially the zoom versions have a dismal level of quality. The basic design of high quality lenses like the Nikon, Canon, Sigma etc is very good: computer aided designs make sure the design is theoretically OK. But the assembled and manufactured versions often are often wide below this target quality. The mechanical and optical defects are however hardly noticed today: we do not use film anymore where defects are mercilessly revealed. With the powerful post-processing software most defects are disguised. Now that we are able to shoot 30 pictures in a few seconds with bracketing of exposure and white balance and even AF tracking and all this in combination with high shutter speeds, high ISO values and vibration reduction, it would be very surprising if a few of the images in such a burst would not satisfy the operator.
When we compare really well-designed and carefully manufactured single focal lenses from Leica and Zeiss, even when manufactured15 years ago, we are shocked with the optical and mechanical quality that the current photographer is being offered and is forced by the current brainwashing to believe this is progress.
The M8 is certainly not perfect and can be improved in many areas. In my reviews I have noted several defects and I am sure Leica is working on improved versions of the product.
I prefer a modestly equipped manual camera with lenses with really good built-quality and outstanding optical design that require the photographer to think and feel about his photography above a camera that shields the photographer from the basics of the craft by introducing chance as the main principle for creating good pictures. That said I have to confess that the E-3 is a very convincing tool and it is quite easy to seduce me into buying one. But so is the new Nikon D3 and the Canon 1Ds etc.
More on this in the next article: From New Vision to New Aesthetics.