Leica Resurrects the Worst Lens Ever, For $6995

Leica has announced an M mount version of the “legendary” Thambar 90mm f2.2 variable soft-focus lens. Leitz offered the original, a modified 4 element Hektor with a cemented middle pair and a bunch of uncorrected peripheral spherical aberration, between 1935-49, presumably for that era’s version of ‘Glamour Shots.’

Leica’s “Teaser” Photo for the new Thambar

According to Leica:

The Thambar’s distinctive, dreamily romantic look and unmistakeable bokeh are created by deliberately under-corrected spherical aberrations, along with a 20-bladed aperture for the circular rendition of out-of-focus highlights. Because the aberration increases towards the periphery of the optical system, both the extension of the depth of field and the degree of diffusion can be precisely controlled via the step-less aperture ring. Widening the aperture increases the soft focus, whereas stopping down reduces the effect.  The opaque area at the center of the included soft focus spot filter prevents the axial rays, which generate sharp focus, from reaching the sensor – resulting in an even more intense soft focus appearance.

Price is rumored to be $6995.00. If you really want to take dreamy photos of your girlfriend or cat and don’t have that sort of change lying around, you could simply buy a cheap 135mm Hektor (you can pick up a decent one on Ebay for less than $100) attach a generic e39 UV filter to it and smear some Vasoline over the filter. Then again, you might not get the “unmistakeable bokeh” of the Thambar, but, hey, you can’t have everything.

Jesko von Oeynhausen and Lars Netopil looking downright smug with their new Thambars

Martin Scorsese Loves Film

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, New York, 2002 Brigitte Lacombe. Shot with a Leica M film camera and 35mm Summicron

I love Martin Scorsese. His film Raging Bull, shot on  Eastman Double-X 5222/7222 Neg. B&W film, (a 35mm film you can still buy in 400 ft rolls from Kodak) is a masterpiece.  Apparently, he remains a film proponent in the digital age. This from a 2014 press release where Scorsese spoke of Hollywood’s contracting with Kodak to maintain production of various Kodak film stocks:

We have many names for what we do – cinema, movies, motion pictures. And…film. We’re called directors, but more often we’re called filmmakers. Filmmakers. I’m not suggesting that we ignore the obvious: HD isn’t coming, it’s here. The advantages are numerous: the cameras are lighter, it’s much easier to shoot at night, we have many more means at our disposal for altering and perfecting our images. And, the cameras are more affordable: films really can be made now for very little money. Even those of us still shooting on film finish in HD, and our movies are projected in HD. So, we could easily agree that the future is here, that film is cumbersome and imperfect and difficult to transport and prone to wear and decay, and that it’s time to forget the past and say goodbye – really, that could be easily done. Too easily.

It seems like we’re always being reminded that film is, after all, a business. But film is also an art form, and young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form. Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not. In the history of motion pictures, only a minuscule percentage of the works comprising our art form was not shot on film. Everything we do in HD is an effort to recreate the look of film. Film, even now, offers a richer visual palette than HD. And, we have to remember that film is still the best and only time-proven way to preserve movies. We have no assurance that digital information will last, but we know that film will, if properly stored and cared for.

Who “Invented” Photography?

I expected I wouldn’t like this video, given that I ran across it while visiting figitalrevolution.com, wherein it was reviewed as such:

While watching this video the word Photography did not come to mind…. the words pretentious, obnoxious, stupid and misleading did. Over-the-top promotions like this are nothing but porn for the cult of Leica and make me fear for their survival as a viable tool.

The lie that runs at the heart of this video is offensive: Leica invented “photography”? What kind of revisionist history is that? Many of the images featured here were shot using 4×5 cameras- which came out of the studio LONG before Leica came on the scene.

It’s too bad, because recreating these iconic images from photographic history is an interesting idea. But twisted to their own ends, Leica just ends up tipping their hand: they’re looking desperate.

I watched it and liked it, thinking it was pretty much spot on in addition to being well done.

As for the reviewer: I get it. You don’t like Leica, apparently for some of the same reasons I’m critical of them. However, the claims made in this video – certainly hyperbole from a strictly true/false perspective – are, in my humble opinion, pretty much on point. Love em or hate em, Leica “invented” photography as we know it today. You can argue around the specifics, but the basic claim is correct. Credit where credit due….

 

Nice Leica. How Much for the Box?

Above is a beautiful Red Dial IIIf with 5cm Summitar. Looks to be in exceptional condition considering it’s going on 70 years old, but it’s also just a classically beautiful camera irrespective of age. That’s the beauty of old Leicas really, the fact that they might still appeal aesthetically, not merely as something “vintage,” but just as a camera, a tool to use to photograph things. As for its functional utility, I’ve covered that ground ad nauseum here in the past. Pick that Red Dial up, learn which way the knobs turn, point it at stuff and shoot. Works perfectly, and there’s no need to run RAW files through B&W emulation software or add grain in post production, assuming you’ve figured out how to load it with film. That camera and a roll of HP5 comes close to my idea of photographic nirvana.

As for the Summitar, I’ve never used one so can only tell you of what I know second hand. Leitz made them between 1939 and 1955 in collapsible thread mount. It was a seven-element improvement of the six-element Summar Leitz produced between 1933 and 1940. Apparently the Summar was pretty soft at f2 and “suffered from” vignetting (which begs the question of whether vignetting is bad; I think most b&w photos benefit from marginal vignetting). The lens coatings were soft as well. It’s almost impossible to find a Summar these days without obvious coating issues. As for the Summitar, it made way for the legendary Summicron and is now mostly forgotten. In any event, given its pedigree, it’s the perfect compliment for the Red Dial.

The camera is owned by a reader, someone who emailed me a few weeks ago to say hi, thank me for the blog and tell me he was coming into some Leica equipment via a friend’s death. He wasn’t sure just what it entailed but he’d get back to me once he received it. The Red Dial and Summitar are what he got. I’m envious. It’s a beautiful rig; you rarely see a Red Dial with bright, unfaded red lettering, and a critical look at the top-plate, bottom plate and lens exterior indicates the camera hasn’t seen much use.

In addition to the camera, he received a number of boxes, not for the Red Dial but rather one for an M6TTL and one for a Tri-Elmar. Unfortunately, they were empty. The Tri-Elmar in particular would have been a nice find, as they’re going for insane amounts of money these days, why I’m not quite sure. I owned one 15 years or so ago, and found it the antithesis of those qualities that made Leicas desirable – it was big, clunky, slow, counterintuitive. I never used it and sold it off at a loss (under $1000), given it was the first version, which at the time was considered inferior to the second version for some arcane reason. Now, given the peculiarities of Leica ownership, a decent copy will set you back anywhere from $3500-$6000. Sigh.

Interestingly enough, as I noted to my reader, the boxes for the Tri-Elmar and M6TTL were probably worth the value of the Red Dial body, assuming he found someone foolish enough to pay the going price. Which of course, is crazy, but then again, there is nothing totally rational about the value of things Leica.

Transcribing the Real – Part One

Above is a photograph that immediately caught my eye among the mass of photos coming out of Las Vegas in the wake of the insanity there. It was taken by Chase Stevens, a staff photographer with the LV Review-Journal. At the risk of aestheticising other people’s misfortune, it’s a beautiful photo in its own way in addition to having documentary value. Were I to know nothing about Mr. Stevens, I’d assume he’s familiar with Frank/Friedlander/Freed/Winogrand, as the photo mirrors that aesthetic, and the use of black and white references the film era. As for its documentary value, it’s less a stand-alone photo than one in a series of photographs illustrating what happened that night, but it certainly works as one in a series. You can see the series here, along with a short article about Steven’s excellent work that night.

If you clicked through the link I’ve provided, you’re probably confused, because the photo used in the link is not the one above but rather this one:

The Las Vegas Tropicana on lockdown on Oct. 1, 2017. Chase Stevens—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP 

same photo, but in color and obviously digital. I prefer the b&w version; you may be indifferent or prefer the later.

The B&W version is actually my creation (apologies to Mr. Stevens). I downloaded his photo as published and ran it through Silver Efex with a B&W film emulation that specified certain tone, contrast and grain values inherent in a given film stock (in this instance I think it was Kodak Plus X, maybe my favorite B&W film of all time, unfortunately no longer manufactured). I did it because my aesthetic sense told me, the first time I saw the photo, it should a ‘B&W photo’; that what seemed to me the obvious reference back to Robert Frank’s 1955 Manhattan cowboy photo required it be B&W:

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, but I suspect not.  I’m fairly certain that Mr. Stevens has some familiarity with Frank’s image, and the photo he decided to take that night owes some unconscious debt to Frank. I’m certainly not criticizing him in any way: that’s how creativity works. We learn by assimilating the work that’s come before, and if we’re good, we find a way to put our own small spin on an established aesthetic, the result being our own idiosyncratic photographic style. Creators who are truly sui generis, unique with no real creative antecedents, come along very infrequently, maybe once or twice a century in any given discipline. The painters Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack come to mind, in photography HCB and Robert Frank.

*************

The larger question for me, what led me to manipulate Mr. Steven’s photo to suite my tastes, is the issue of the “objectivity” of photographs. As photographers, I assume all of us have at some point in our photographic evolution realized that the naive belief that photos objectively show “things that happened” in an unbiased way, without containing any subjective adulteration is, well, naive.

If Mr. Stevens had done what I’d done – ran his files through Silver Efex before he turned them in to his editor, would that have constituted an improper manipulation of his supposedly objective photographs that violated journalistic ethics? If so, what if, in the race to get to the scene Mr. Stevens had grabbed an old Leica loaded with Tri-X and shot his assignment with it? How would that differ, from an ethical perspective, from him shooting the scene with an M240 in RAW mode and sending the whole thing off to the editors for selection and editing? Is one more genuine, more real than the other? And if one is, what gives us the right to say so?

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burn’s documentary on the Viet Nam War, currently running on public television here in the States. What strikes me is the incredible aesthetic beauty of the era’s photography (as distinct from the often disturbing subject matter), most of it B&W 35mm film, a beauty that digital documentary simple is incapable of. This is the photography I cut my teeth on, so I’m biased, but my opinion is that that B&W Film documentary aesthetic, de rigeur through the late 70’s, is effective in a way that digital capture simply isn’t. Is it “more real?” No. More “objective?” No. “Better?” Yes. Of course, this claim for the relative quality of one versus the other is subjective to an extent, but I’ll argue in future posts that it has an objective basis. I may even drag a few “philosophers” into the discussion. Humor me as we proceed.

 

Carl Zeiss Jena LTM 50mm 1.5 Sonnar For Sale….For $5500!?!

Ran across this Ebay listing by Breguet Camera for a Zeiss Jena 50 1.5 Sonnar:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Ex-Carl-Zeiss-jena-sonnar-50mm-f-1-5-LTM-for-Leica-screw-mount-L39-Prototype-/311619439379

Asking price $5490.

I’ve written about this lens elsewhere. Wonderful vintage rendering, perfect mate for your film Leica if you’re looking for something other than arid, clinical digital excellence or you just want something unique.

I’m confused why they’re asking so much. Typically these are going for +/- $750 these days. They’re claiming it’s a “prototype,” which can mean anything (my understanding is that most of these were “prototypes” in the sense that they were assembled to various specs and standards depending on what was in the parts bin and what could be scrounged up at any given time i.e. there was never a ‘standard version’ of which an original could be considered the “prototype.”) I’d be interested in hearing from folks in the know (are you out there Brian Sweeney?) why Breguet thinks it’s worth what they’re asking.

UPDATE: This from “Sonnar Guru” Brian Sweeney (that’s what I call him; Mr. Sweeney, who knows more about LTM Sonnars than any other man on the planet, is too modest to claim the guru title for himself):

It looks like a custom conversion, not a factory prototype. I’ve used one of the original Factory Prototype 5cm F1.5 Sonnars in Leica mount- looks nothing like this. I think Zeiss made ~50 prototype lenses in 1932. They are the older style design with no filter ring. The earliest 5cm F1.5 that I converted using a J-3 mount is from 1934, with the newer style machining that is compatible with the Russian lens mounts. As far as pricing- it only matters if someone pays the asking price, the asking price of this lens is ridiculous.I have a 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” from the same batch. I converted it to Leica mount. I asked $450 for the last converted Sonnar that I sold, a beautiful Bloom on a 1936 5cm F1.5. Maybe in 50 years someone will call it a prototype…