Category Archives: Famous Leica Users

Renouncing the Digital Feedback Loop (Reclaiming Your Autonomy from Technology)

A sloppy, irresolute photo taken with a film camera

Photographs are everywhere, and it’s easy to lose sight, or not even see, their reality as things in themselves. Most people have a simple way of understanding photographs, as reflections of existing  states of things. The belief is this: photos represent the world itself, even if they are windows from a particular point of view; the photographic world and the world out there are essentially the same. I call this the ‘naïve’ view of photography.

This naïve view begs the question, of course, of what to do about black and white photography. Most things “out there in the world” are not exclusively black and white or tones thereof. So, black and white photography, even within a naïve view, is an abstraction.

What of color? Well, we can agree that the color of the scene presented doesn’t miraculously transfer itself onto a roll of film or a sensor. The process of “reproducing” color photographically is a transcription, the same as any other image making process, an attempt to ‘re- create’ a state of things via an abstraction. Like any abstraction, what is transcribed and the transcription itself will always vary to some extent even when the intent is to be as “accurate” as possible. How its ‘re-created’ is a function of two things – the choices and skill of the photographer and the potential offered by the tools one uses.

So, if photos are abstractions, we have to, in the jargon of semiotics, ‘decode’ them (make the intention behind them understandable), because ultimately photographs are about communicating something. How do we do that? As a photographer and not a philosopher, I’d suggest that a successful photograph is one where the photographer’s intention has been realized, where a human’s intention overrides any intentions inherent in the camera itself.

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Vilém Flusser was a Czech born philosopher of language and communication who wrote verbose philosophical tomes no one reads anymore, assuming they ever did (that’s him, above). In 1983, prior to the digital age, Flusser wrote Fur Eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) in which he argues that cameras themselves have intentions (I presume, were you to cut through the ponderous academic jargon, he’s really talking about camera manufacturers driven by profit motives). He lists them as follows:

  •  to place the camera’s inherent capabilities into a photograph;
  • to make use of a photographer;
  • to create a feedback relationship between photographers and the camera and its products which creates progressive technological improvement so as to produce “better” photographs;
  • to produce “better” photographs.

All of which is to say, in common parlance, that the photographic tools you use and the capabilities they offer you will tend to structure the types of photographs you produce with them, by naturally pushing you in the direction of utilizing what they (the photographic tool), not you, might do best.  Examples of this phenomenon would be the “bokeh” craze currently all the rage with a certain type of gearhead, or the current fetish for sharpness, where the benchmark of the “quality” of a photograph is determined by how resolute your corners are.

Maybe it’s just me, but photographic aesthetics seem to have changed markedly since the inception of digital photography, to my mind for the worse. Optical characteristics have increasingly replaced emotional resonance as the criterion of a “good” photograph, the result of a repressive stranglehold of sharpness and resolution on the photographic imagination which is itself driven by the particular characteristics of digital capture. Flusser would say that the camera has made use of the photographer, its intentions having triumphed over the potential intentions of the human, the result of the inevitable feedback loop between tool and user. I would add that, as far as creative possibilities are concerned, this is a step back rather than a step forward.

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Of course, you could argue that the same logic applies to traditional film photography, and you’d be correct up to a certain point. The types of photographs you’re able to take with film also structure the results you get. With film photography that structuring typically takes the form of limits on what you can do, circumscribing your ability to take photos in certain situations or producing results within a limited aesthetic spectrum, setting the parameters within which the photographer must work as opposed to actively pushing him in a certain direction. There’s a big difference.

Above is a photograph by Antonin Kratochvil, a Czech born photographer and a personal favorite of mine. He’s long been known in journalism circles for his idiosyncratic approach, both technologically and aesthetically. Fellow photographer Michael Perrson describes seeing Kratochvil in a Croatian refugee camp using two old Nikons with beat-up, generic 28mm lenses, cameras “that looked like they could no more be traded for a pack of chewing gum than be a tool to make professional photos,” other photographers snickering at the Eastern European hack. Pictures he shot there would find their way into Broken Dreams, his award-winning monograph of the ecological devastation of Soviet era Eastern Europe.

As Perrson notes, what makes Kratochvil a great photographer is not his equipment but rather his unique sensibility. “He believes in the craft of photography, the skill and the ability of the photographer not to let his tools control his actions.” This simplicity releases in him the freedom to see things in unique ways. Kratochvil himself laments the ever-increasing incursions of technology into the photographic process – “technology has made it so that anyone can take ‘competent’ photos. It follows that if anyone can do this, where is the respect?” For Kratochvil, the camera is simply a tool; seeing is what’s important, and a given state of technology should never compel you to see the world in any given way.

Kratochvil strikes me as a very wise man in addition to being a superb photographer. But I’m certain that most smug digital technocrats, those whom digital precision and technical perfection have led by the nose, will find his work naive and technically amateurish, as if that was the sole criterion on which photography might be judged. Such dismissiveness is the tribute the inadequate pay to the articulate.

For Sale: The Leica That Didn’t Take the Famous Photo of Che Guevara

 

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Alberto Korda and his Leica IIIc

A Leica III camera belonging to Alberto Korda, he of the famous photo of Che Guevara looking revolutionary, is currently for sale on the Dutch auction website catawiki.nl.

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Korda’s Leica III

The Leica III is being sold by Korda’s son, Dante, who describes the camera as follows:

My father, Alberto Korda, was one of the few cuban photojournalists responsible for capturing the world’s attention with the Cuban Revolution Propaganda. He followed the Cuban leaders around and became Fidel Castro’s personal photographer for more than a decade (request from Fidel Castro, who was one of his admirers). My father’s passion and exceptional skills as a photographer made every event of the revolution a magnificent moment, a genuine representation of an era of changes and beauty.

This camera was one of the favorite cameras of my father. My father actively used this camera in the fifties and sixties and kept it the rest of his life. That’s why it’s likely that my father took with this camera one of the world’s most famous photo’s ever made. The iconic image of the freedom fighter Che Guevara.

Accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and provenance from Dante Korda

Unfortunately for Dante, this is not the camera his father used to take the iconic shot, which was taken with a Leica M2.

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Korda took the photo on March 5, 1960, at a funeral service for Cubans killed when a ship carrying arms to the revolutionaries in Havana sunk. He attended on assignment for the newspaper Revolución, carrying a Leica M2 with 90mm. Castro, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Che were on the speaker’s platform. When Korda approached the platform, he immediately noticed Che. “I remember his staring over the crowd on 23rd street.” Struck by Guevara’s expression, Korda lifted his Leica M2 loaded with Plus-X and took just two frames — one vertical and one horizontal — before Che turned away.

A PJ’s Continued Love Affair with his Leicas

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Craig Porter is the former Director of Photography and Video at the Detroit Free Press. Starting as a summer intern in the photo department in 1975, he has worked as staff photographer, sports photographer, assignment editor, day slot editor, night/Nation/World editor, features editor, assistant director of photography/technology, deputy director of photography and director. Since 2000 he has been in charge of the day-to-day running of the photo and video department.

How did you first come to use Leica cameras?

In the mid-70s, we still shot only black and white, and Leica was the photojournalist’s dream camera. As a student, I was heavily influenced by photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith.

My first Leica was a chrome-body M4. I fell in love with its small size, incredibly quiet shutter release and the way it became an extension of my eye. Subjects weren’t intimidated by it – it didn’t create an obstacle as bigger, louder cameras can do.  For years newspaper photographers shot ISO 400 Kodak Tri-X black and white film. After shooting only one film for a while, you got to know your exposures instinctively and would nudge the aperture ring or the shutter speed dial as you moved through an assignment. So you didn’t really need a meter in your manual exposure camera.

When the M6 came out with an internal light meter, I found that I could integrate light metering into my shooting in a seamless way. And at that time we were starting to mix it up, shooting colour film and black and white film, often on the same assignment. So some precision was in order. Otherwise, the M6 is the same manual focus workhorse I’ve come to love. For professional work I carried two black M6s and an M3 with 21mm f:3.4, 28mm f:2.8, 35mm f:2.0 and 90mm f:2.8 lenses.

Why do you continue to use Leicas?

Unfortunately, what’s appealing about them is what makes them less useful in today’s world. But I still find the film Leicas iconically beautiful in this digital era.

It’s true: you can’t see the image immediately. You can’t transmit directly from the camera to a blog or Instagram. You can’t instantly share what you’ve just seen, as you can with digital cameras and smartphones.

But turn that around and you arrive at the need to slow down a bit, contemplate your photography, anticipate the shot and avoid scatter gunning the event. Remember, you only have 36 images on one roll of film and they go pretty quickly when you’re used to unlimited space on an SD card.

How do you see film Leicas cameras being used in a digital age? 

Here’s what I would do: carry the Leica with black and white ISO 400 film. I’d use a 28mm lens with the old optical viewfinder perched on top for the cleanest view of my subjects, then use it in situations with images that I wouldn’t mind waiting to see. I’d still use my iPhone for quickie shots, selfies and my SLR’s for those day-to-day colour shots you want of family and travel.

But the Leica shots? I’d have the film processed and returned to me, from which I’d do a careful edit and select only the ones I’d like to have as 11×14 prints. From there I’d either do my own darkroom work or, more likely, I’d have the negatives scanned so I could print beautiful black and white prints on a digital printer, crossing over to the digital world at that point.

It’s Good To Be King (or Queen For That Matter)

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I’ve shaken hands with Royalty, and it was no big deal. The woman I was with at the time – an Anglophile who had been married in Westminster – informed me I should feel special. I didn’t, even though Prince Charles had sought me out to shake my hand, and not vice versa. [Editor: absolutely true story.]  What, I wondered, should I feel special about? He certainly seemed nice enough, no doubt, maybe a bit peculiar looking the way old money can be, but, had I not known who he was, that knowledge freighting the encounter with a myriad of social, class and political assumptions, he would have been just another middle aged guy exchanging social pleasantries. He spoke to me briefly, idle chat about the Shakespearean production we’d just seen, and then he was whisked away in his Aston Martin. Must be Nice, I thought.

As a good American, I’ve never understood the public fascination with Royalty. It’s a great gig if you can get it, I guess: live in a castle on the government’s dime, your solemn face on the local currency. Have parades in your honor, squat at the Ritz in Paris, meet with important and influential people, all of them deferring to you. Snap your fingers and people instantly appear and cater to your every whim. And you don’t have to work, even though hardworking British taxpayers will subsidize your family to the tune of $50 million pounds a year.  When you strip away the pageantry, it seems little more than a monumentally obscene public-assistance program to one family of inbred layabouts. Makes me wonder about the Brits.

Not that we’re any better. America is a nation of rapaciously selfish, vacuous, violent and ignorant people who think they, as Americans, can do as they want because, when you get down to it, the reality is that God wants it that way. Go to any Donald Trump rally and you will be gobstruck by the complete lunacy of a large portion of our citizenry. Even so, we Americans possess the dignity of free idiots, beholden to no one but our capitalist overlords, able to indulge our endless stupidities without the need to subsidize a Royal Family to legitimate it all. We are above such nonsense.

In their defense, the current generation of Royals – Princes William and Harry – seem stand-up guys, both having served their time on the front with the British military, which is more than I can say of the plutocrats who send American kids off to war for a variety of crazy reasons. With the exception of a few principled Democrats, their kids stay home while average American kids go to be maimed and die doing the country’s dirty work.

But I digress.

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That’s the Queen, above, Prince Charles’ “Mum,” with a beautiful Leica M3 and Summicron. She is, apparently, an avid photographer. For all the useless photographs we have of her, it’s interesting to see the Queen on the other side of a lens – in this instance a 50mm f2 rigid Summicron fastened to her beloved Leica M3. Leitz Wetzlar gave her this particular model, specially engraved, in 1958.

In 1986, when asked to choose a stamp image to commemorate her 60th birthday, she chose a picture of her with her Leica M3, which is sort of weird, if you think about it, unless, of course, the Queen is a hard-core Leicaphile. If so, I’d be interested in knowing why, way back then, she preferred the M3 to an M2 or even a IIIg. Does she still have her M3? Was she ever tempted to trade it in for a newfangled M5 in those crazy 70’s? Still shoot film? And what, pray tell, does she think of this whole new digital thing? Now that, and not some idle chitchat about the latest stuffy production of some long dead playwright, would be an interesting topic of conversation, one I’d be happy to engage in were she to approach me. In any event, I’m not sure what she’s shooting now, but whatever it is, she probably didn’t pay for it.

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A Considered Reply to a Leicaphobe

By Peter Becker

This is in response to the recent Leicaphila article “Who Are You Trying to Fool?

This blog definitely causes a Leica owner to pause, at least for a moment. Am I a poseur? A hapless dilettante trying to be like one of the great photographers of history by using the out-dated equipment that was the best in their day but certainly not what they would choose today? “Salt of the Earth” definitely shows the Salgado of our time using the longest Canon lenses I’ve ever seen, on multiple late-model Canon bodies strapped across his chest as he treks across the farthest reaches of our planet. No thought, apparently, to using a somewhat lightweight “M” to ease the burden.

Is it wise to rely on manual focus when autofocus has been perfected to the point of offering so many weighted alternatives? Every time I aim my Leica M at something on the move or try to capture one magical but fleeting moment, I wonder. Am I sacrificing convenience or perhaps modern necessity in a subconscious (or maybe conscious) attempt to come across as a shirtless Brad Pitt?

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Do I fondle the flawless German design and workmanship and swoon over the heft of an object that will last several lifetimes, even though Leica itself will probably try to make it seem obsolete in a year or so.

I’m not sure.

But I wouldn’t trade a modern, less expensive building for my historic office, built in 1913 as dressing rooms for an early movie studio, where all the rooms are en filade and there’s no reception area. The unusual configuration of rooms causes everyone to interact a lot more, encouraging the collaboration that I, at least, believe is an essential part of an architectural practice. And everyone wants to come to my studio and revel in its history and its beauty. Not a bad way to attract and keep clients and associates alike. And its spaces are taller and quieter than the new ones, with exceptionally stout walls that keep the elements out very nicely and grow into parapets that hide more solar collectors than the greenest of new buildings generally receive.

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Newer conference tables are bigger and stronger and cheaper, with chairs that provide individual lumbar support and glide around effortlessly, but I wouldn’t exchange these for my Biedermeier set from circa 1820, whose table is a lovely ellipse, the perfect shape for getting everyone involved, and made of inlaid fruitwood veneers that surely tend to make people think a little more seriously before they speak. And the beautiful but slightly fragile chairs tend to keep people’s feet on the ground, holding their attention and providing comfort for only as long as any meeting should last.

I have a Tesla, the latest thing on four wheels by far, just as I have a Nikon 800, huge and heavy, weighed down by countless electronic shortcuts that no one can remember but at least it balances out its oversized lenses with their motors that act like gyros on a spaceship and can autofocus at the speed of light and will, like the Tesla, stop on a dime. But, parked right next to the most innovative automobile on earth is my 1960 TR-3, which seemed to me like a Tesla or a Maserati when I got it in high school and still gives my goosebumps like nothing else, with its top down, its side doors hardly a foot above the pavement and its under-sized engine filling up an entire city block with its signature roar as I double-clutch through the gears with a whine that reverberates through the history of every race course ever made. That is exactly what it was meant to do and it now does it even better than ever, for there is hardly anything like it left on the road. Not every journey in life should be taken in a straight line, as quietly, comfortably and efficiently as possible. And my Leica, though elegantly quiet, is similar to the TR, light and small and nimble – and nothing is automatic. It won’t focus instantly, but it WILL, like nothing else, stop on the date that dime was made.

tr6A Nice TR3, with some guy who isn’t the author. [Editor’s Note: Has it really come to this? Are Leicaphiles now just a bunch of old bald guys who drive vintage cars?]

The Tesla and the Nikon are phenomenally well-designed and well-built pieces of equipment, perfect for a great many of our needs in life. But the TR-3 and the Leica were made to satisfy those other necessities, which are often a lot more important. And the latter two will also turn heads as if a movie star had just passed by, a byproduct that can’t be denied of a time-honored aura that goes beyond their function. But the function remains, irrefutably. The Leica M surely won’t come in first in every category, sports in particular, but in its own very wide niche, in the right hands, it still takes some of the best pictures in the world.

The Leica M will not allow the slightest bit of complacency, something so easy to fall into with today’s automatic wonders, usually set on aperture-priority, turning them into massive point-and-shoots. The Leica forces you, on every shot, to consider all the technical elements that have made up great photos from the beginning of photography and to calculate, from the myriad combinations of f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs, the best setting for this particular situation; and then you must decide exactly where the focus should be. It absolutely requires that you think, deeply, and the resulting image is very often a reflection of that extra effort.

Also, there is something magical that often only comes from taking a portrait with a Leica. It takes so long to get all the settings right that the subject can no longer hold their made-for-pictures smile and they become more like their real selves. This is especially true when you are shooting wide and going for maximum bokeh and focusing, as only a rangefinder can, on the eyelids, and, because the depth of field is so ridiculously narrow you have to say, “Don’t move!”  The person in the photo not only comes to life, you occasionally get the chance to look into their soul.

And Brad Pitt, himself, has published a great many stunning photographs with this sexy little camera.

Peter Becker is an Architect (and photographer) from Santa Barbara, California.

Another Leica Fish Story

BP M3 5414 3I found this recently, posted to a popular online photography forum by someone who knows a lot about cameras and, as best I can tell, isn’t prone to spreading ridiculous stories on the net:

OK, I’ve seen my share of camera bargains. They include an early Nikon One which sold for $12.50 at a yard sale (one of 4 cameras sold for a total of $75), another Nikon One advertised recently on Craig’s list for $375, an unsynced Nikon M four lens outfit thrown away in the trash, and an original chrome Leica MP outfit also thrown away in the trash.

Well, this beats them all hands down and comes from a retired New York City police photographer whose word I trust completely. He writes:

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“Back in July 2002, I was leaving my apartment and across the street where my police car was parked a young couple was having a yard sale to help fund their wedding.

I noticed a Black and Tan Nikon duffel bag on the ground near a small table.

I walk over, and they greeted me as their neighbor but didn’t know my name. When I went to pick up the duffle bag, I noticed on the table:
•2 original Black Leica MP’s both with matching black paint Summicron 50/2

•Leica 72 Half Frame Camera

• 2 Black 50/1.2 and 1 Chrome 50/1.2 Noctilux lenses

• a 250 Reporter GG

• 3 Black Paint M3’s with Leicavits and a bunch of other stuff.

They had small round adhesive stickers on everything. The MP’s were selling for $15 each, lenses $10, etc. I added everything up on the table and if I bought everything, it would’ve cost me $115. The young man said:

“If You take everything, just give me $100 even and the bag is on me.

I asked them to give me some history behind those cameras and lenses and the young lady said:

“It was my Dad’s Stuff. He passed away a few years ago. These can look pretty as decor if you’re into photography. No one here is really into it, besides the fact they probably don’t make film for them anymore.”

The Young Man chimed in an said:

“I don’t even know where the film goes”

I requested of the young lady:

“Would you mind fetching me a bed sheet or table cloth if you don’t mind”

She replied:

“Why?”

I replied:

“I want to cover this table while I give my broker a chance to drive up from the city because you probably have between $300,000-$500,000 worth of vintage German Camera equipment and I will stay here with you until he arrives”

The young lady had her hand over her mouth, and about 30 seconds later both of them broke down in tears.

When my photography broker arrived and did his thing, he said:

“You’re a much better man than me because I would’ve walked off with everything…But it’s pretty cool, I suppose it was the right thing to do”

I replied:

“It wasn’t the right thing to do…it was the Human thing to do”

This was a young suburban couple struggling to start a life together. I didn’t even contemplate “Should I or Shouldn’t I”…
They were a young and innocent couple who didn’t know any better. I look at it from a standpoint that I wouldn’t want that done to me.”

A great yarn, no doubt, but could it possibly be true? I guess it could, but I’m betting against it. In any event, if you believe it, I’ve got a bridge I might be willing to part with on very favorable terms.

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We’ve all heard the stories over the years – the Leica MP with Leicavit turning up in a dead uncle’s closet, the black paint Nikon SP on craigslist for $15, the guy who buys a black paint M3 at a yard sale in New Jersey along with all the appropriate documents attesting to its authenticity. I suppose these could really have happened just like the story says, but, knowing human nature, I suspect the stories have morphed from an initial kernel of curious truth to the status of “fish story.” [It’s not like I’m not susceptible to the phenomenon – My story of “meeting” HCB does have a kernel of truth: in 2004 I saw him at the opening of a Sarah Moon show in Paris. Of course, as I am apt to tell the story now after a bourbon or two, HCB and Sarah Moon came to my Paris exhibition and then we all went out for coffee afterwards.]

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And it’s not like there aren’t some incredible finds out there if you get lucky. Probably 20 years ago a friend casually mentioned to me that he had a box in his closet filled with old junk cameras from his uncle. I asked him to get it out and show it to me. Upon opening the box I found an M2, an M3, a LTM Nicca, and 4 or 5 Leitz lenses, including a Canadian 35mm Summicron and a Super Angulon with finder. Being the good guy I am, I fought off the urge to offer him $25 for the lot and helped him clean everything up and sell it on Ebay, netting him a cool few thousand bucks and me a free M2 for my labors. And then there’s been an item or two bought from ignorant sellers in arms length transactions that have netted some seriously nice kit for bargain prices – a IIIg with a W-Nikkor 35mm 1.8 LTM lens I bought for a few hundred and then turned around and sold for $2500 ($1900 for the Nikkor, $600 for the IIIg); a IIIg with pristine collapsible Summicron for a few hundred, etc.

But there’s something about the reported event that doesn’t pass the smell test. First, how is it that the “Dad” just happens to accumulate an incredible amount of rare, collectible stuff, it and it only? You’d think there’d have to be a few pedestrian items too, a Canonet or a Minolta SRT-101 in there somewhere. Three Noctilux? Really? And think of it this way – if “Dad” really was as important a guy as his camera collection indicates, don’t you think his kids might have some sense that what he had was valuable? But the kicker for me, the “tell” as it were, is in the inconsequential details (isn’t it always?): “they probably don’t make film for them anymore….” Sounds like a reasonsble thing for a clueless kid raised in digital to say in 2016, but in 2002? In 2002 film cameras were normal; it was digital that was esoteric.

So, In spite of my sense that the original poster honestly believes the story, I’m calling BS. It is, however, a lovely fish story.

Oh, and did I ever tell you about the time HCB and Sarah Moon came to my show in Paris?