The (Seeming) Rediscovery of the Leica M5

Some Guy named Nathan out and about using a Leica M5. This used to be very unusual.

As readers of Leicaphilia know, I am a big fan of the Leica M5. I think it’s the best metered Leica ever made. I’ve clearly been in a distinct minority over the years, more like a member of a lunatic fringe in my love of the M5, and have been since the inception of the M5 in the early 70’s. I remember seeing the ads for the M5 in Modern Photography, back when I was an impressionable kid compulsively thumbing through photography magazines like other kids did their dad’s Playboy.  In 1971 Leitz Wetzlar promised me that the M5 was now the pinnacle of the Leica M system, both an evolutionary and revolutionary advance in the iconic system. There it sat, at the top of the camera store ads in the back of the photography mags (along with the utterly weird Alpa SLR, but that’s a story for another day), imposing and yet aloof, top of the 35mm food chain, beckoning the increasingly select few who still might value the uncompromised excellence of a Leica and were willing to pay a hefty premium to own one.

Unfortunately, most leicaphiles met the M5 with skepticism or outright disdain because it was “too big,” or aesthetically ungainly, or just too different, or whatever. In short, just wrong. Such opinions were invariably a function of our mediated reality; potential buyers saw the pictures, read the reviews, assimilated other’s ignorance as truth, and most decided to pass, usually optIng for an SLR system then all the rage – a ubiquitous Nikon F/F2 or Canon F1. Most of these folks never bothered to actually use one, relying instead on the hive-mind to tell them what they should think about it (and if they’re still around, they’ve likely carried that prejudice forward).

Try googling “Leica M5 Photographer Images.” You’ll get me and Nathan and this guy. That’s it.

I meanwhile, was too young and stupid to know any better, a trait I’ve happily carried into late adulthood. Being a contrarian since birth, I wasn’t going to be content with a Nikon F or F2, or a Canon F1 (ultimately not enough for my elitist tastes even then) so I saved my money and eventually bought one, because, well, that’s what I wanted, damn it. A Leica M5. Back then that was the functional equivalent of an 15 y/o kid saving to buy a Lenny Kravitz Leica with his paper route money. I was nothing if not dedicated to the idea.

That M5 is still with me, while most every other Leica I’ve owned over the years has come and gone. Certainly there’s a measure of nostalgia involved, the inability to part with a camera that’s accompanied me for 40 years; never underestimate the emotional resonance of things long held and valued, things that come with time to define who you are. In my mind, I’ll always be an M5 guy.

*************This is how you’re supposed to hold it, Nathan

Which brings me to the point of this story. Up until a few years ago us M5 guys were pretty thin on the ground, as in almost non-existent. Arguing for the M5 was a sisyphean task. No sooner had you laboriously pushed the rock up the hill than it came tumbling back down amidst a torrent of ignorant condescension, usually by the very people who should have known better. I remember as recently as 2004, while living in Paris, running across a guy in the street with two M5’s around his neck. Two? Hell, it’d probably been 20 years since I’d seen anybody with one. My dear friend, a well-known, successful photographer, an otherwise thoughtful man with exceptional taste and a Leica film camera guy to the core, laughs at my M5 fixation. He refuses my standing offer to even use it, sniffling contemptuously as if it might sully his hands. M5 prejudice, like M5 love, for whatever reason, runs deep, much like theology, politics or sexual mores, almost hard-wired.

Yours Truly, holding my M5 in the approved manner

But a funny thing has seemingly happened along the way. The M5 has suddenly become cool. Hip even. I’m seeing threads on different photo forums extolling the charms the the M5, multi-page threads no less, of gearheads posting fawning photos and odes to this previously much -maligned bastard son of the Leica M series. Maybe the diehard iconic M lovers, along with their reflexive dismissal of the M5, are slowly being weeded out of the Leica gene pool through death and the inevitable generational shifts that come along time. Just maybe the prejudice against the M5, so obvious for so long, has dissipated enough that a new generation of Leicaphiles can see the camera for what it is without having to contend with the studied ignorance of inherent prejudices.

And maybe, just maybe, Leicaphilia has had something to do with it. I’ve been pimping the M5 since I started the blog a few years ago, pimping it at every available opportunity, because I can. And I can’t help but notice that the seeming rediscovery of the M5 has coincided with the popularity of the blog. A coincidence only? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows. I’d like to think that I’ve had a little something to do with it, but then again it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leicaphiles are finally seeing the M5 for what it is – a damn fine Leica M.

 

Basquiat in 35mm

The photos above are from Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver The exhibition includes black and white 35mm photographs by his roommate Alexis Adler and works made by Jean-Michel Basquiat during the year he lived with Adler in a flat in the East Village, before he became widely recognized in the 80’s. While living with Adler, Basquiat moved from his SAMO tags on the surrounding streets and neighborhood into more permanent media in their shared flat. Adler’s photographs nicely illustrate the developing artist and how the context of life in New York informed Basquiat’s art.

Adler recalled how she, a Jewish girl from Seattle, a Barnard grad with a biology degree — met the Haitian-American high school dropout. Basquiat was homeless at the time. He’d just been kicked out of his high school and was crashing at her friend’s apartment. Adler, then 22, saw in Basquiat someone “deep and introspective,” in a mohawk and an “old man’s overcoat” he bought at a thrift shop.

Before he attained art-world superstardom, 18-year-old  Jean-Michel Basquiat covered the walls, furniture and floors of their East Village apartment with his creations. According to Adler, his roommate and lover at the time, “from mid-1979 to mid-1980, I lived with Jean in three different apartments, but for most of that time in an apartment that we moved into and shared on East 12th St. This was a time before Jean had canvases to work with, so he used whatever he could get his hands on, as he was constantly creating. The derelict streets of the East Village provided his raw materials and he would bring his finds up the six flights of stairs to incorporate into his art. Jean was able to make money for paint and his share of the rent, which was $80 a month, by selling sweatshirts on the street.”

In time, his paintings would sell for stupid sums; in 2012, Christie’s sold one of his paintings, “Dustheads,” for $48.8 million. He was at the height of his powers when he died in 1988 of heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.

Adler never left the East Village flat she and Basquiat shared from 1979 to 1980. Nor did she erase anything he’d left behind — the “Olive Oyl” he painted on the living-room wall, the “Famous Negro Athletes” he inked on a door. in 2014, 35 years after they parted, Adler put it all up for auction. “It became a burden. I couldn’t hold onto everything, or leave it in a safe-deposit box. It wasn’t fair to Jean. It needed to get out into the world.”

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

 

The MCA Denver exhibition and book presents New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art and the lens of Alexis Adler, documenting the fertile period from which the mature Basquiat emerged. Adler’s simple photographs show him at a vital, yet mostly unknown moment of his career. I have no idea what camera she used – frankly it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she found the time to document the mundane daily activities of her life with a then unknown friend and lover, photos that only in retrospect acquired the importance they now have, and the technological necessities of the time dictated that those photographs were analogue, giving to posterity something physical that could be preserved and passed along. Plus, they’re cool photographs – great examples of the imperfect perfection of 35mm film photography at its simplest, where content trumps technical concerns and the power of the image lies in its emotional and historical connotations.

My guess is that we’ll see less and less of this in the future. Today’s Basquiat’s, laboring anonymously somewhere, photos of whom are now subject to the ephemerality of in-substantiated 1’s and 0’s and digital rot, probably won’t have the benefit of these sorts of photo retrospectives. All the more reason we need to keep shooting film.

Leica M10 – Not a Love Letter

By Michael Rowe. Michael is a Melbourne photographer who teaches to pay the bills. He is currently pursuing his PhD in crowdsourcing [ Editor’s Note: I wasn’t aware you could get a PhD in crowdsourcing. Shows what I know. In any event, I really like his photos]. His images can be found at http://rowefoto.tumblr.com

I love the idea of the M10, and I think I can afford one. As an M9P shooter, unbridled high ISO performance is my dream. The camera as object is sexy as hell. It’s an amazing thing.

But I don’t think I’ll get one.

I shoot mostly at base ISO (160), partly because the images at base are sublime, partly because in the days of film I never went above 400 and mostly shot 125. Pretty much every photo that’s inspired me was shot on film – Tri X or Plus X or their modern equivalents.

I started shooting Leica because I wanted an authentic experience, something more than the usual fare could give me, cameras that took the decisions away from me. Too clinical in their perfection. Where’s the challenge? Leica put control and boundaries in front of me. If I wanted a result I needed to push those boundaries.

After 5 years of shooting an M I focus quickly now, can predict exposures accurately, can coax good results from slow shutter speeds and razor thin DOF in low light. Those things give me a satisfaction that other systems can’t provide. I recently changed the way I hold my hand when I focus…and my hit rate went up. I’m still learning, refining, enjoying. Low ISO is a constraint that forces hard choices. It hones my skills. 

A camera that can shoot clean up to 25,000 ISO seems overkill. I’ve bitched about not being able to get ideal shots in low light wide open as much as everyone, and I appreciate the need for a company like Leica to move with the times. But having that latitude in the sensor, while giving me a certain freedom, removes one of the key shapers of my creative work. It removes another source of imperfection, one of the three delicious trade-offs that need to be balanced when selecting exposure.

Mine is a personal perspective, and there are plenty of arguments to the contrary. Why be a stickler? My iPhone 7 makes lovely images – so long as you don’t look at them too closely. Wouldn’t it be great to have true creative flexibility, more choices, better quality images? Yes, I suppose so. But not at the expense of the craft. YMMV.

Joel Meyerowitz’ induction into the Leica Hall of fame coincided with the launch of the M10. Joel, holding the new camera, was everywhere. And why wouldn’t he be. Except for the inescapable fact that every single notable image he had taken, his entire body of work, were shot with outdated, “inferior”cameras. His genius was to do what he did with what he had. Good enough for Joel, good enough for me.

As much as it pains me to say it – not this time, Leica. Let’s see how long I can maintain my resolve…

1930’s German Leica Advertisement

Mid-30’s Leica Advertisement. Given what was going on in the Fatherland at the time, one can only surmise what these women were fleeing from (tracer fire possibly?).

That looks to be a Leica III, Model F (not to be confused with the IIIf), made between 1933-39, although it might also be IIIa, Model G, the only difference being the IIIa had a 1/1000th shutter. The lens is a 5cm F2 Summar.

PICTO Paris

po_consulting_picto

Some time ago I received an email from Jean-Pierre Favreau, a gentleman from Paris who reads the blog, enquiring if I might put him in contact with George Fèvre, a man I knew from my days in Paris. George had been the master printer at PICTO, the venerable Parisian photo lab that handled Magnum’s film output. If you’ve seen a Cartier-Bresson or Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, George probably printed it. In addition to being an amazing darkroom printer, George was a wonderful man. It turns out that Mr. Favreau had worked at PICTO with George many years ago. Unfortunately, I had to inform Mr. Favreau that George had died a few years ago. I asked Mr. Favreau if he would tell me of his time at PICTO and he kindly sent back a reply (and also a piece he wrote about first visiting NYC as a photographer in 1981 which I’ll someday get around to publishing as a separate piece). I’ve translated his reply from the French and have included it here below.

For some context: In January 1950, Pierre Gassmann opened PICTORIAL SERVICE in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, six enlargers arranged around a long tank tray.  Lucky him – his first clients were the founding members of Magnum Photos – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Chim, William Klein, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat. The Magnum guys soon dubbed Gassmann’s lab “PICTO,” and Gassmann eventually embraced the name himself.

PICTO thereafter grew with the rapid development of press, fashion and advertising photography in the 50’s. In 1963 Edy Gassmann, son of Pierre, opened PICTO Montparnasse dedicated to color photography. With the help of Paulette Gassmann, his wife, he ultimately created multiple PICTO sites dedicated to specific services. PICTO Front de Seine opened in 1969 followed in 1984 by a high-end print workshop in Rue de Rennes. In 1985, Edy opened  PICTO Defense, one of the first European labs handling digital technology. in 1989, PICTO Bastille opened, dedicated to black and white and Fine Art photography.

041-petersphotoalbum2Pierre Gassmann and Peter Turnley at PICTO, 1983

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

By Jean-Pierre Favreau

At the time I started working at PICTO I didn’t know that it was one of the most prestigious labs in the world. I was young and ignorant.  I had first arrived there in the mid-60’s, via Vavin Metro station, then onto the Boulevard Montparnasse, past the Dome and into Rue Delambre. A few steps later I arrived in front of a beautiful building where PICTO had recently moved.

I was met by George Smith. Mr. Smith was a charming man, smiling and polite. Very intimidated, I explained to him my situation – I’d like to work in his photo lab. At the end of our conversation, he asked me to do an internship in one of the labs to learn a bit and to see how I’d do, and then I would take a test the following week to see if I was skilled enough to work there. That day I met Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Boubat, Koudelka and Lartigue.  When I think back on it now I’m astonished that I worked with greats like them.

Luckily, I passed my test. George then introduced me to Pierre Gassmann, founder of PICTO , himself a great photographer. Mr. Gassmann hired me; I suspect it was actually a favor because he did not really need anyone else.

It was then that I met George Fèvre. George was the great PICTO printer. It was the golden age of PICTO, daily servicing 15-20 Magnum and other Black and White shooters,  without counting the night service. We worked like crazy. Often Mr. Gassmann, after periods of great activity, especially the fashion shows which lasted a week, would take us all out to dinner at La Rotonde or La Coupole. Those were fun times.

A famous negative. Those are George Fevre’s fingers.

PICTO eventually launched three other labs in Paris, and I eventually moved on to different things. Today, after the invasion of digital, it only has one lab dedicated to traditional silver halide processing and printing.

I ran across George Fèvre again only a few years ago. George always had this kindness and a warm smile in his eyes. He told me he was thinking of opening his own lab and seeing my satisfaction, offered me a job, which astonished me – his typical generosity . But travelling as frequently as I was at the time, we never again met up and I heard no more about George. On learning of his death, I was seized with a great sadness and blamed myself for not visiting him more often.  We often forget that the people who’ve helped us the most, and have been influential in our lives, may one day disappear. I would have loved to see him again, to talk about those good years and the famous negatives that passed through his hands, from which he created iconic prints with his incredible skill. I will miss him.

The Leicaphilia Guide to Leica-Related Websites

My thoroughly idiosyncratic, subjective opinion of various Leica-related websites, in no particular order. Take it for what it is…and sorry for offending anyone.

APUG: A-
Hardcore film users. Emphasis on “hard core.” Need to know developing times for some weird Hungarian film pushed to 6400 ISO and developed in Diafine? Someone here is bound to know. Bury your head in its archives for an extended period and you’ll learn everything you need to know about film photography.

Japan Camera Hunter: B+
Camera porn.

Erwin Puts: B
The perfect site for Leica techno geeks. Putts is obviously a bright, knowledgeable man who loves his Leicas and knows a ton about them. Reading the site, however, is about as interesting as reading the manual that comes along with your Canon Rebel.

Leicaphilia. C+
A weird melange of Leica history, facts, social criticism, self-righteous luddite indignation and ostentatious philosophical meandering. The functional equivalent of a reasonably intelligent college student blog, by turns entertaining and thoughtful, often paranoid, repetitive and stupid. Still can’t figure out who runs it, however.

Summilux.net. A-
The French Leica forum. I love the French and highly recommend the laconic and often world weary skepticism of almost everything here. Got to be able to read French though, which disqualifies 99.9% of American readership.

RFF: D+
Ahh, Rangefinder Forum. Unabashedly dedicated to over-the-top gear fetishism (“what three Leica bodies and six lenses should I take on my bus tour of Khazakstan?”; or “I’m wondering what gives better bokeh for pictures of my cat? The Elmarit 2.5 ASPH or the third version Cron?”). To be fair, It does have some decent people and technical info to offer, (Bill Pierce and Tom Abrahamssen are treasures, as is Sonnar guru Brian Sweeney, who seems to know everything ) but it too often devolves into the virtual equivalent of old guys meeting at McDonalds to discuss their grandkids. If you must go there, tread lightly, don’t suggest anything remotely thought-provoking or counter “common sense” (this place just oozes bourgeois insecurity) and, whatever you do, don’t challenge the self-appointed forum guru, an easily identified forum “mentor” whose idea of “mentoring” is to compulsively hector, in his most pretentious Queen’s English, anyone with the nerve to express an original opinion not first thoroughly vetted by him.

LUF: B+
RFF without the annoying and often sadly ridiculous RFF Moderators, and thus significantly lighter on the herd mentality and conformist passive-aggression toward independent thinking.

Steve Huff: C-
Likes to take pictures of his wife.
He is what he is. I admire his enthusiasm, and you gotta give him credit for finding and exploiting his niche, which he has done in an impressive manner, although his critical faculties leave something to be desired. Typical new gear review: “its the best camera ever! I’ve fallen in love with photography all over again! ….”. Rinse and repeat.

Ken Rockwell: D+
See Steve Huff. Rise and repeat except delete the wife photos and add some really cliched cheesy photography I’d be embarrassed to turn into an “Intro to Photography” course given at the local community college.

Thorsten Overgaard: C
Scientology meets Leica mania, or the Leica world’s particular version of “alternative facts.” There’s something weirdly fascinating about the site, as if it were an infomercial written by a Leica engineered Bot. I always feel slightly dirty after going there, like I need a shower.

Dante Stella B+
Mr. Stella is obviously a bright, well-informed man, and he’s an excellent writer. There’s a lot of good film era information here. Unfortunately, the website is hopelessly outdated.

Cameraquest: B+
Would get an A for all the useful info, except the website design itself has all the sexiness of the AOL era. My bet is he’s still using dial-up. The proprietor apparently is a licensed dealer of Voigtlander products (good on him), although from looking at his website, you’d assume he’s probably selling them out of the trunk of his Ford Taurus.

La Vida Leica: D-
Unofficial propaganda arm of Leica Inc., sort of the Fox News of Leica Nation. Leica “News and Rumors” for those who’ve drunk the Leica digital Kool Aid. Think “Shutterbug” magazine with nothing but Leica 24/7.