Author Archives: Leicaphila

Thinking Back on a Photo I Once Took

“The beholder feels an irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long, forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.” Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography.

I buy a coffee and chose a window seat with a view onto Main Street. The people who sit around me, young, affluent, seemingly well-educated, interact with their phones or, if past a certain age, read a book. An eclectic mish-mash of music – 50’s crooners to 70’s funk to hipster folk-rock – plays a bit too loud in the background. What little conversation I hear is the perfunctory dialogue of the service industries, trite blandishments that lubricate commercial interactions. The conviviality within the space sounds forced, an affectation, as if the patrons were being made to try out for a part.

He catches my eye because of the incongruous sight he presents amidst the casual abundance around him. At first glance I mistake him for a fisherman, the kind you occasionally see trying to catch a meal from the banks of some sad industrial culvert. He wears a grey hoodie, holds a pail in one hand and what looks to be a window washer’s pole in the other. He moves as if through a medium slightly more viscous than he expected, a mix of hesitancy, resignation and muted expectation. He crosses Main Street, traverses the public art installation plaza and stops in front of the gourmet cupcake store, where he puts down his pail and props his window washer’s pole against the storefront facade. As he opens the store door the woman who works the counter approaches him. They meet halfway between the door and the counter. They speak briefly, and then he turns and leaves, retrieves his pail and pole, turns the corner and walks away out of my line of sight.

One hundred years ago, Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois hailed this town as a model of progressive black society. Known as “Black Wall Street,” Parish Street, just around the corner, housed the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company and numerous banks offering home mortgages and small business loans to local blacks. Since then, the black “middle class” has either moved up and on or migrated downward to more prosaic neighborhoods, where you can buy drugs or the cheap services of a woman without having to walk very far. Just a few years ago, before the gentrification, downtown was deserted save for a few homeless folks. Storefronts were boarded up or empty. I remember walking there with my Leica, feeling self-important, searching for a trophy to take home. I’m reminded now of a picture I took then – the image of a defeated looking woman dragging her bag of possessions past a faded cardboard Statute of Liberty displayed in an abandoned store window.

Walking the same street last week, I encountered a group of well-dressed folks in front of the old Kress Building on Main Street, one of the latest in a series of downtown renewal projects, now high-income lofts catering to urban professionals. The people wore name tags and appeared to be part of a guided downtown tour hosted by a prominent local university. I recognized one of the group’s guides as a well–regarded academician I’d previously seen on public television. She seemed enthused about downtown’s revitalization and pleased with the role she might be playing. I heard snippets of talk among the assembled, words and phrases that sounded vaguely anthropological, and then talk of catching lunch at a place next to the gourmet cupcake store, a new restaurant that serves local craft beers and wood-fire baked artisanal pizzas.

In some strange sense, I felt vindicated that I took that photo all those years ago. It’s evidence of what we’d otherwise forget. What would these people have to say to that haggard woman dragging her bag past the faded cardboard cutout? Would they even care that she had lived here, that it was home to her, and she had since probably moved elsewhere to accommodate them? No one is denying her a place to call home, certainly not these good people helping revitalize a moribund downtown.

The waitress presents me my check with unwelcomed gregariousness. My ‘Mexican Coffee’ will set me back 5 dollars with tip. Some earnest alt-rock group plays a tone-deaf version of John Lee Hooker’s “Catfish Blues” in the background, sacred music profaned by the well-meaning. As I exit the cafe, an elderly black woman, clutching a bag of donuts, moves quickly past the cafe window, eyes averted, as if this storefront hides some toxic secret.

Summer Break at Leicaphilia

I’ve started receiving inquiries recently whether I’m OK, as in “Things have been a little dead on the site recently. Everything OK with you?” Which is very nice, knowing that a few folks look forward to reading the blog and miss it when it goes dark.

The answer is Yes, I’m fine, thank you for asking. I’ve been incredibly busy in my professional life dealing with important things i.e. things that, were I to screw them up, would cause no end of misery for certain people. So there’s that. There’s also the fact that I am presently devoid of anything interesting to say about Leicas, film photography or photography generally. Just one of those inevitable fallow periods, a time to turn my attention elsewhere.

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This is a Great Camera

I got thinking about the blog yesterday, in part because it was the first time I’d picked up a camera in some time. Given my status as ‘official family photographer’, I’d been dragooned into being the “wedding photographer” for my niece; you know, “could you just take some pictures during the wedding and the reception, no pressure etc etc?” As you know, it’s not that simple. Good wedding photography is an art unto itself, and I admire those who do it well. In any event, I decided to keep it simple: Two Ricoh GXR bodies, one with 50mm GR module and the other with the GR 28mm, each with an optical viewfinder mounted on the hotshoe. The combination worked perfectly, the 28 AF for the tight stuff and the 50 AF for standard shots and headshots. I’ve long thought the Ricoh GXR system to be exceptional – well built, compact, ergonomic, with superb optics mated to dedicated sensors that obviate the need for the compromises inherent in using the same sensor for various focal lengths. Plus, you have the option of the Leica M-mount sensor, allowing you to use your M lenses with an M specific sensor.

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Me. In Training. This is one of the reasons you haven’t heard much from me recently

Now that I’m clear of professional obligations, I’m off to Italy and France for a few weeks. Part of the trip involves cycling ridiculous distances at absurd speeds attempting to keep up with a French friend I refer to as the “Romainville Rocket.”  For those Parisian folks I’ve gotten to know through the blog, I’ll be in town the 12th through the 19th. Feel free to drop me a line if you’d like to buy me a coffee and talk Leicas.

In the interim, I’ll be publishing some interesting posts sent me from readers.  Leicaphilia will be up and running full steam again the end of August, assuming I survive the Romainville Rocket.

The Scarabaeus Holster for Leica

I’m not a big fan of 3rd party Leica “accessories.” I can only think of a few that were worth the expense – the Abrahamsson Rapid Winder, and the Amedeo Nikkor Rf to Leica M lens adaptor both come to mind. After that, not much else.  The Rapid Winder fills a niche left ignored by Leitz – a decent trigger winder for your M2/3. The Amedeo adaptor offers you the ability to use some awesome 50mm Nikkor RF lenses on your M with rangefinder coupling. Both are exceptionally well-engineered and constructed items, as good, or maybe even better, than what Leica could have done had they the desire.

So, recently, when I received an email from someone in Germany offering me a free “Scarabaeus” holster for carrying around my Leica, free of course with the hope that I’d pimp it on Leicaphilia, I said, sure, why not? Free is good. Send it my way. Just don’t expect a glowing review, or any review at all, for that matter.

What I didn’t tell him was that I’d seen the Scarabaeus holster before and thought it was potentially a great idea, great if done properly. I’ve always disliked camera straps and rarely use them, which leaves me using a camera bag, which brings with it its own set of problems. So I’ve often ended up using a pouch, sized to fit a body with lens, attached via a clip to my belt. It works but has its own drawbacks – it looks unwieldy (certainly not “elegant and stylish”), and constantly getting the camera in and out of the pouch can be annoying.There should be a better way.

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So, after having used my absolutely free Scarabaeus holster for a few days now, I can confidently say that it’s a great idea executed simply and elegantly. It works. It works really well, actually. The holster itself consists of a mounting plate attached via a hinge to a belt clip. Your camera connects to the mounting plate via an inconspicuous bottom plate you attach to your camera’s tripod socket. Clip the holster on your belt, swing the mounting plate open, attach the camera to the plate and, voila!, your M is now firmly attached to your waist, sitting snug at your side, ready to use. And the beauty of the holster is that it’s super easy to attach and remove the camera from the holster – clearly someone with some engineering experience thought this one through. It’s all very intuitive: grab the camera with your dominant hand, reach over with your other hand and pull up an easily accessed lock/unlock mechanism and your camera is free of the holster and ready to use. When you want to reattach it, simply unlock the holster and slide the camera bottom back onto the holster and lock. You can pretty much do it without looking.

As for the build quality of the holster, it’s robust and heavy, solid and over-engineered, exactly what you’d expect of something you’re trusting your expensive Leica to. Is it “elegant and stylish”? That’s a subjective valuation, of course. It certainly is elegant to the extent that it’s functional and is so in an obviously simple way.

You can take a further look at the Scarabaeus Holster system at http://www.photoscarab.de/. They start at $149. which is serious money for a belt clip. However, overbuilt and engineered as it is, all metal, no plastic, my sense is it’ll last forever.

 

There’s a Lenny Kravitz Joke Here Somewhere

A week ago, Leica released a new special-edition M Monochrom rangefinder named after late rock ‘n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall. Jim Marshall photographed The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash and Miles Davis, among others, presumably with a Leica. Marshall died in 2010.

Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan, photos by Jim Marshall

The Leica M 246 Jim Marshall Edition Leica M Monochrom shoots only black-and-white. It comes with a 50mm f1.4 ASPH lens. Both the camera and lens are finished in brass with Jim Marshall’s signature on the camera’s top plate. There will only be 50 models of the Marshall Edition available, each at the cost of $12,950 (about £10,050 and AU$17,400).

Here’s what you’ll get for your measly $12,950 (excluding tax) when you purchase your Jim Marshall Edition Leica:

  • Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) in brass
  • Summilux-M 50mm f1.4 ASPH brass lens
  • Brass lens hood
  • Brown leather strap
  • Jim Marshall Limited Edition Estate print of “Thelonious Monk at Monterey Jazz Festival 1964′
  • “Jim Marshall: Jazz Festival” book with a special dust jacket
Jim Marshall

Being a Photographer in the Digital Age

Does Using One of These Make You a ‘Photographer?’

What does it mean to be a “photographer?” Is it the knowledge of necessary concepts like luminance and illuminance, ‘camera exposure’ versus ‘photographic exposure’, lens transmission variables and exposure latitude; understanding meter scales, light ratios, tone reproduction curves etc, and knowing how to use this knowledge to produce better, more consistent photographs? Or can it simply be someone who owns a camera and uses it with intent, without a firm grasp of the physical realities involved and the underlying processes by which one’s photographs are produced?

I suppose this is a debate which occurs whenever technological advances transform the manner in which a given task is accomplished – what is it that constitutes that task and defines those who practice it? What is essential, what is peripheral?  100 years ago ‘traditionalist’ practitioners could define photography skills as those involving the creation and development of wet plates and an understanding of the mechanics and use of view cameras; they would have looked suspiciously on Oskar Barnack and his toy “camera.”

…or Must You Use One of These?

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All of this was brought home to me recently when I went to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years; we had lost touch the way grown family members sometimes do. This was a trip to reconnect, to catch up on what each of us had been doing with our lives. What I learned is this: he’s now an avid photography buff, having developed a passion for photography in its digital manifestation. He’s the proud owner of some serious kit – a Nikon D810, D5100, a number of huge bazooka-sized pro Nikkors, all the associated computer programs with which to ‘develop and print’ the end results. And, truth be told, he’s got a good eye, and if there’s any area he lacks technical knowledge the camera will usually take care of that.

With digital tools he has the capability of producing technically excellent photos I couldn’t be capable of, even today, 45 years of experience behind me, with my Leica film camera, my 21/35/50 mm focal length manual focus rangefinder lenses, and my roll of HP5. As for matching his Photoshop skills, I’m not even going to try. I’m clueless. Which left me with a certain depressing realization: the skills I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, the arcane knowledge acquired through decades of dedicated interest in traditional silver halide photography, is essentially now worthless as a badge of expertise. I’m now just an old guy toting around an outdated camera using an obsolete exposure medium, head filled with useless arcane information. Meanwhile he’s effortlessly pumping out 30×40 color prints, tack sharp corner to corner.

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Stroebel’s “Basic Photographic Materials and Processes”

Growing up, I had been the one fascinated by photography – the cameras, the darkroom, the smells of the films and chemicals, the various skills you needed to correctly expose a film negative, to develop it and print it. While my brother was out being a normal kid with normal interests, I was voraciously reading books about photography – The Time/Life multi-volume photography series, the 15th Edition Leica Manual (still a great book), John Schaefer’s Basic Techniques of Photography Volumes 1 and 2, and, finally, as a student,  slogging through Leslie Strobel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes, a dauntingly obtuse textbook that’s formed the backbone of most serious American collegiate photography programs – building and maintaining darkrooms, immersing myself in the minutia required of being a dedicated film photographer as opposed to a generic happy-snapper with a Kodak.

What came along with such dedication and mastery was a certain condescension towards the happy-snappers. We were ‘real’ photographers, with a seriousness of purpose and a body of knowledge and practical skills we used in pursuit of meaningful photographs. They pressed a button and dropped their film off at the corner pharmacy, willfully ignorant of the processes by which the pushed button resulted in the 4×5 photo held in the hand. Trying to explain to them how that happened was like trying to explain to your Golden Retriever how his dog food got into the can.

Today, that sort of differentiation – the ‘serious’ photographer with his earned body of knowledge, versus the enthusiastic hobbyist – means little in actual practice. More than ever, the cameras we’re offered allow us to do amazing things, almost effortlessly, things even the most accomplished practitioners of film photography would have found difficult if not impossible back in the day. This is wonderful for the average guy, a levelling of the playing field by removing technical mastery from potential results. Now, anyone with a “good eye’ can be an exceptional photographer.

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However, I still stubbornly subscribe to the notion that it’s a mistake to assume technological advances resulting in easier use of technologies will always be a net positive. Every new technology contains within it both a blessing and a burden. Unfortunately, in the digital age the debate is largely to those who see the incredible power of new technology but are mostly blind to its significant downside. And then there are the few of us in opposition, seeing mainly the burdens and blindly ignoring or discounting the blessings.

The entire philosophical premise of my blog, if it has one, is that there needs to be a dissenting voice to counteract the headlong embrace of digital technologies, even in light of their obvious benefits. It’s larger than the facile dismissal of the consequences of an inevitable generational shift, you know, bleeding edge hipsters versus us edgeless oldsters. There are very important issues involved, and photographic culture ignores them at its peril.

If I put aside my bruised ego for a bit, my resentment in having my skill set made obsolete, I can isolate my discomfort with digital technology by pointing to its ‘virtuality.’ Peel back both the experience and the results, and there’s very little “there” there. It all seems rather thin and formulaic, devoid of a robust sense of mastery. You end the day with nothing of substance except more files on your computer and at best a vague sense of agency; you’ve pointed your camera at things, pressed the button, viewed the virtual results on a screen of some sort, maybe shuttled the file over to a printer that spits out a print. What mastery might be involved usually seems to be in the service of manipulating results to fit an idealized Hyper-reality, a sort of Madison Avenue transcription of the real into the simulated realities of advertising and entertainment. Unfortunately, the world I live in little resembles the world I see depicted in car commercials. What’s the point in technologies that assist us in pretending it does?

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So, I will continue to use my mechanical cameras and continue to believe in the power of agency – making a thing happen through my intention and action. I will continue to delight in the “kurr-thlunk” of a mechanical shutter which physically opens a window through which light passes and impregnates a strip of cellular material with the evidence of its presence. I can then process this material – itself an embodied physical experience – and I’ll end up with a negative, a physical thing I can physically manipulate to produce one more physical thing, a photograph. The entire process will embodied from beginning to end (by embodied I mean the exact opposite of virtual; in embodied processes I’ll get my hands dirty by interacting with brute, physical things, things like mechanical shutters that respond to the exertion of pressure , rolls of film, acetic acid, squeegees, D76 at 1:1 dilution, varying weights, sizes and grades of paper etc).

Digiphiles often have what they consider a reasonable retort to a traditionalist like me – They’ll reply that, in photography,  you don’t get points for difficulty. Correct, as far as that goes. But we’re talking here of photography as a practice, as a thing that’s done and gives value in its doing. And I think it gets back to a certain level of agency – I did that; I made the decisions that produced that photo as an end result, and I made those decisions from a history of embodied experience, a history of failed and successful photographs that taught and refined my skills in so doing. Or… I pointed the camera, after first selecting an appropriate mode offered me by my camera manufacturer, and created that jpg I’m sending you as an attachment to my email; you’re welcome to print it out should you want a hard copy.

A Leica M5 Made in 1992

You learn something new every day. Above is a beautiful chrome Leica M5 , serial number 1918015, which puts its manufacture date in 1992, 17 years after the last full run of the M5 in 1975. I had no idea any M5’s were produced after 1975. Apparently, Leitz made a further run of 20 M5’s in 1992:

1918001 1918020 Leica M5 1992 20

The one above is currently for sale on Ebay, ***from a dealer in Tokyo, which leads me to believe Leitz probably made a specially requested run of 20 cameras for someone in Japan. The seller wants $1888 for it, which is a damn good price for a Leica that eventually should become very desirable as a collectible.

I ran across this while perusing a popular camera forum I usually try to stay away from. Of course, the mere mention of a Leica M5 has brought out a number of thoughtful folks espousing their M5 opinions (some good, some bad, all considered), and then of course the resident forum “Mentor” (!) putting an imperious kabosch on the proceedings by categorically declaring all M5 users lumpen proletariat idiots, apparently based on the fact that he used an M5 once and didn’t like it, it being too big for his delicate fingers, (or was it that the viewfinder window scratched his monocle?), all further discussion met with compulsive browbeating.

*** It appears the same camera is being offered by two different Tokyo based Ebay sellers, one the auction on Ebay’s American site, listed above; and also, on Ebay UK for a price in UK pounds equal to approximately $2900. Confusing, and slightly concerning, although there may very well be an innocent explanation. In any event, it’s a great deal at $1888 as sold on Ebay’s US site if in fact its legit.

Leica M3 #1097779 and the Principle of Falsification

Having had published this blog for a few years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of interesting, knowledgeable folks who know a lot about Leica film cameras. Happy to say that I’ve been the beneficiary of more than a few person’s knowledge and expertise, in the form of advice given, life experiences recounted, expertise freely and gladly shared. I’ve taken advantage of the blog to sell cameras and lenses to readers, never an unpleasant experience among the many transactions. Suffice it to say that Leicaphilia readers seem to be good, decent people sharing a love of Leica film cameras and happy to do the right thing when dealing with others similarly situated.

One of the benefits of the blog is that I’ll frequently receive inquiries from people I don’t know, asking me about a camera or lens they’ve inherited or been given, and it’s always fun to help them identify what they have and often tell them they might have a few thousand dollars worth of equipment in hand, especially when they’ve previously been pitched a ridiculously low-ball offer by a friend, family member or local camera dealer. Invariably, they go away happy, armed with a fair assessment of the worth of what they have and grateful for the help.

A few weeks ago I received the following email inquiry from a guy in Alabama, name and exact location not really relevant at this time:

Sir, I came into possession of a Leica M3 a few years ago after my father in law passed. It appears never used, has multiple lenses, and some paperwork. The camera serial number is 1097779. From what I have been able to research online, there appears to be a wide valuation range, especially with the lenses. Can you provide an estimate or recommend a reputable appraiser for these items? I am happy to provide pictures of the camera and lenses. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Interesting: a late-run M3, apparently “never used,” with a bunch of lenses. Could be worth something. So,  I did what I’d usually do; I went to the appropriate source and ran the serial number given as a preliminary matter, and ….Holy Shit! did I read that right?….M3 #1097779 falls within one of the last 150 camera runs of factory produced Black Paint M3’s. If it’s genuine, this could be a very valuable camera. And it comes with “multiple lenses and some paperwork.” Yup…send me pictures. Send me a bunch of pictures.

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Above are a a few of the pictures sent back to me in response, pictures of what is obviously a Black Paint M3 with serial number appropriate for the claim. At first glance, and taking into consideration the relatively poor quality of the pictures, yes, it looks in damn good condition, possibly “never used”; as for the lenses, they all have their own boxes, apparently with matching serial numbers, at least one of them is black paint (the Tele-Elmarit 135 f4) and there’s some documentation about the provenance of the camera.

Back to the appropriate sources for reliable information on recent auction sales of legit Black Paint M3’s – and my research indicates that there is ample reason to assume the M3 body itself, without any of the lenses, might fetch in the neighborhood of +/- $40,000. I’ve found evidence of sales of legit Black Paint M3’s into the +$60,000 range.

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I’ve spoken with the owner at length, told him what I’ve repeated here, and am assisting him in proceeding in a manner that protects his ability to sell the camera and lenses for a legitimate price, without being screwed by unscrupulous “friends,” dealers or scammers. Luckily his wife, the daughter of the guy who purchased the camera back in the 60’s, recently turned down an offer of $3000 for the lot, rightfully deciding to make further inquiry about the value of the lot prior to making any decisions. She has numerous student loans to repay. Hence, the email to me.

I suppose the whole thing could be an elaborate scam – I’m not above being naturally suspicious in such instances; it could be an elaborate ruse cooked up by the likes of Third Man Cameras which I’ve documented recently. But everything about my interactions with the owner indicates legitimacy. The serial number matches a recognized run of Black Paint M3’s. The story behind the camera has the ring of truth. So: I’d like help from the collective wisdom of my readership: anything that looks out of place or doesn’t add up? I’d love your input.

People make decisions about what they’ll believe in two different ways. Most folks, uncritical thinkers, make an assumption and then go looking for facts that admit the assumption true. It’s a thought process that attempts to rationalize a flimsily supported belief by cherry-picking data that support the belief while willfully ignoring contradictory evidence, and it’s what scam artists rely on to hook you. You want a black paint M3, you see one with all the documentation being sold on Ebay – ‘Certificates of Authenticity’, Bills of Sale to a guy named Busby Catanach in Wisconsin, appropriate boxes and pamphlets, some cock-and-bull story about buying it from a guy at a garage sale – it all looks good because you want to believe, so you buy it for $21,000 on Ebay, which is a steal!…and you invariably find out later, if at all, that you’ve gotten screwed. Of course the seller knows nothing. This is the Third Man Camera business model. A sucker truly is born every few minutes.

Critical thinkers only make provisional assumptions until those assumptions have been tested by a process of skepticism.  In dealing with a question like this, they’ll adopt a provisional assumption provisionally supported by the known facts – it’s legit, let’s say – and then look for reasons that might falsify the assumption. Find reasons that don’t fit. If you look and look and look, and everything still fits, it’s a good bet your provisional assumption is correct. This is how good science operates – via the principle of “falsification.” If you can’t falsify a proposition no matter how hard you try, the proposition is probably true,

I’ve been unable to find anything in all this that leads me to believe this M3 is anything but a legit, pristine Black Paint M3, part of a batch of 150 produced by Leitz in 4/64. Anybody see anything I’m missing?