Call me a poseur, or a hipster, but old screw mount Leicas are really fun. Not just setting them on a shelf and admiring them, or walking around the house while fondling their knurled knobs and beautifully machined parts (as I’m known to do), but actually taking them out and shooting film with them, just like they were meant to do. They’re so ‘retro’ that they’re not, and for those with a philosophical bent, this sort of meta-activity (activity meant to comment on the activity itself) can be immensely satisfying, not to mention the pathetic looks you’ll get from the iphone crowd or, better yet, the conspiratorial nods you’ll sometimes receive from a fellow traveller of advanced age. For me, however, the best part is passing paths with somebody sporting a digital Leica with “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating,” often wearing a beret and taking pictures of people in coffee shops in the touristy parts of town, Billingham or Ono bag conspicuous by its immaculate appearance. These folks, when they notice you – and trust me, they’ll notice you, because for all gearheads the act of being out and about with a camera is all about seeing and being seen – often wear a look of morbid fascination, fixation admixed with potential danger, as if I was carrying a live grenade with the pin removed. I suspect they really want to inquire about it, but don’t quite know what it is or what to make of it, or, if it goes that far, how to use it.
I’m often asked, usually by the iphone crowd, “Does that thing work?” Hell yes it works, because it was built to work seemingly forever, because it’s a sublime fusion of simplicity and function, overbuilt to last for as long as you continue to service it. Keep it in use, and the most you’ll have to do is send it off to a reputable service tech like Youxin Ye every 30 years or so. I have no doubt that my grandkid’s grandkids, if they were of a mind (and could figure out how to load the thing) could be using it in another 100 years. Try that with your M240, or is it an M260 now?
Of course, some of the earlier screw mount Leicas – the IA, for example – are so outdated that even a hopeless romantic like me finds them impractical to use. In 2000, leica offered the an 0-Series replica, fully functional and sold through Leica dealers, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the 35mm Leica camera. The camera is virtually identical to the 1923 Ur-Leica prototype #104 resident in the Leica Museum. No thanks. I like my nostalgia authentic. In my mind, using one of these is like going to Las Vegas and claiming you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If I’m going to use a screw mount Leica, I’m going to use the best, most technologically advanced screw mount Leica ever built – the Leica IIIg, not some cheesy historical replica dedicated to the Sultan Of Brunei [on a side note: how is it that Leica culture could be so schizophrenic as to give us both the sublime IIIg, M2/M3 and M4 and also the “Hello Kitty” M6?].Released in 1957, the IIIg is Leica’s last screw mount camera. Had it been released in 1950 or 1953, it would be have been far more influential in subsequent Leica lore, because it’s a superb camera that’s really fun to use. Leitz had introduced the Leica M3 four years earlier in 1953 as a clean sheet design with a new lens mount and the now iconic M styling. The M3 set a new standard for 35mm rangefinders that lasts to this day.
The IIIg was introduced as the logical last evolutionary step of the old Barnack design series, a last tip of the hat to more conservative Leicaphiles who still preferred the familiarity of the Barnack camera. Its new features were incremental – the same basic ergonomics of the IIIf with a redesigned top cover and a larger and improved viewfinder similar to the M3, including an extra frosted window for the projection of different frame lines into the viewfinder.
Leitz produced and offered the IIIg for only 3 years, 1957-60, years when the M3 was meeting with professional raves and impressive sales. Japanese manufacturers were also offering their updated alternatives to the M3; the IIIg not only had to compete against the better spec’d M3, Canon P and Nikon S3, but after 1958, the Leica M2, itself a runaway success much like the M3. Next to these now iconic cameras, the Leica IIIg was a technological dinosaur, lacking the combined VF/RF assemblies of the M3 and the Canon and Nikon that allowed for a single, much larger eyepiece for simultaneous focusing and composing.
The Leica IIIg was much like the screw mount Leicas that had been produced by Leitz since the 20’s, featuring only incremental changes from the previous Barnack Leica, the IIIf ‘Red Dial:” A larger .7 mag viewfinder with two sets of illuminated, parallax corrected framelines for the 50/90 focal lengths; Shutter speeds calibrated with a modern shutter speed progression – the 2/4/8/15/30/60…. ; Separate flash synch dial replaced with two flash settings at 1/50 and 1/25th on the shutter speed dial; A film reminder dial placed on the back of the body that exceeded ASA 100.
The IIIg is not as common as earlier Barnacks. Consequently, they sell for substantially more than a well cared for IIIc or IIIf, and most of them sit on collector’s shelves or circulate among us Leicaphiles in quixotic buy/sell attempts to finally satiate an obsessive compulsion to find The Perfect Leica.
Above is a photo I took in a Paris street with my IIIg and a first generation collapsible Summicron. The photo isn’t going to win any photojournalism awards, I’m sure, but I really like it just the same. It reminds me of what I love about the city – an eclectic mix of the profane and the sacred, where the beautiful peeks out at you in the most unexpected places. It also seems appropriate that it was taken with an old Leica, the sort used by HCB for many if his iconic Parisian photos. What’s printed above is a simple scan of the negative with some minor fiddling in Photoshop. But I also have an 10×15 silver print of the same photo, printed by HCB’s own master printer George Fevre, one of my most treasured photographic possessions. How cool is that? My own Parisian “decisive moment,” captured with an iconic Leica film camera and printed by one of the World’s most masterful printers, the same guy who printed HCB’s stuff. That’s what you call “living the dream.”