Category Archives: Famous Leica Users

Bruce Davidson and His Leicas

Bruce Davidsons Leica collection collection_mini

Bruce Davidson’s Leicas

Bruce Davidson began taking photographs at the age of ten . After attending Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, he was drafted into the army and stationed near Paris. There he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. When he left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine and in 1958 became a full member of Magnum.  He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962 and documented the civil rights movement in America. In 1967, he received the first grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts, and used it to document the social conditions on one block in East Harlem. 

Q: Why do you like the Leica so much and why is it a great tool for what you do?

A: For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it’s small, it’s relatively light, quiet and unobtrusive. Modern reflexes look like sneakers; they don’t look like cameras. They look like something else from another world. That’s why I’ve always had Leicas in my life. For example, right now I’m thinking about doing something where I want to walk around. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet and that means Leica…

…most of my bodies of work from the circus photographs in 1958, the Brooklyn gangs and even the civil rights movement, the Leica worked because it’s quiet, mobile and has excellent optics. I remember during the civil rights movement, when I wasn’t sponsored, but on a fellowship, something happened to my Leica and I called Marty Forscher, the Leica repairman for all the professional photographers. He talked me through it and I fixed the camera myself on the road — which was pretty amazing.

I’d like to back up to the question “when did Leica come into your life?” It came into my life when I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). At that time, in the early 1950s, there were 140 students in the photography department, including two women. Of course, I was smitten by one of them and I was trying to court her. I met her at the women’s dorm in the living room sitting on a couch. She said, “I want to show you something.” She ran up to her room and came down with this huge book of photographs called The Decisive Moment, a collection of images by Cartier-Bresson, and we sat together looking through all of the amazing photographs. I had never seen anything like it. She said to me, “I really love this photographer.” So, I said to myself, “If I could take pictures like this guy maybe she will love me too.” So, I went out and spent all my monthly allowance on a used Leica. I actually tried to imitate the imagery of Cartier-Bresson. Of course, it didn’t work. The young female student ran off with a history professor, and I was left with Cartier-Bresson. That’s what started me off. I began to take street photographs.

Q: So how was it meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson when you were in Paris?

A: It all started when I went from RIT to working for Eastman Kodak. I had my own studio at Kodak, but I was bored so I decided to apply to Yale. I got in and took Yosef Albers’ color course. I then was drafted into the military and was sent to the Arizona desert. It was the most remote, isolated camp you could find — 7,000 feet up in the desert. I would hitchhike on weekends to Mexico to photograph bullfighters, and I made friends with Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter. While thumbing my way from the fort to the Mexican border, I came upon an old guy in a Model T Ford and I stopped him. The town was called Patagonia — really just a post office, a grocery store, a bar and a railroad site. And this old guy took me in and I lived with him on weekends. I forgot about the bullfighting and I just photographed this old couple with my Leica. That was my first full-bodied work and if you look at it closely today, it really predicts the way I would spend my life photographing.

Brooklyn Gang  Bruce Davidson

Q: Can you share the story about how you discovered the Brooklyn gang?

A: As I remember, there was a gang war going on that was all over the Daily News. I took the subway to Brooklyn, found the group and took color photographs of their wounds and bandages for their lawyers. That started my relationship with them and the rest is history. It was slow going in the winter months, but when they went to Coney Island in the summer, that’s where I took the most pictures….I think got in with them because I had a Leica. It was small, it was quiet and discrete, and it was simple. I would take pictures of them and then I would bring the pictures back to show them. I didn’t judge them. I wasn’t a social worker. I just photographed the mood of these teenagers — a street gang.

Garry Winogrand and His Leica M4….errr, M3?

imageSo, here’s a picture of Garry Winogrand with his famous M4, you know, the one he ran about 100,000 rolls through and generally beat the hell out of, the camera itself now somewhat of an icon. Except that, as alert Leicaphile Andrew Fishkin points out to me, the shutter advance lever is most definitely not an M4 lever, but rather the old style M2/3 full metal lever. So, given the presence of a dedicated exposure numbering  window next to the shutter release, this would appear to be an M3 as opposed to an M2. Whatever Winogrand was doing with an M3, well, we’ll never know.

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Winogrand’s M4

As for the lens, the more I look at it, it looks like a 21mm Super-Angulon and not the 28mm Elmarit he “always” shot with. So much for “what everybody knows” about Winogrand.

William Eggleston’s 300 Leicas

Eggleston with Leica

Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, in the early 1950’s. Of course, one thing led to another, Eggleston bought a Leica, became a massive Leicaphile and has never looked back. “I have about 300 right now,” he claims.

In addition to classic chrome Leicas, he owns rare, custom-painted Leicas in shades of blue, green and dark gray. His camera case—a leather briefcase bought at a Memphis shop and retrofitted in collaboration with a woodworker friend—is similarly customized.

He still photographs every day.  He takes only one photo of any subject, never taking a second shot of the same thing. Eggleston is currently archiving his negatives, approximately 1.5 million of them. “That’s a guess,” he says. “I haven’t really counted.”

egglestons cameras

Famous War Photographer Don McCullin Hates Digital Photography

Lebanon civil war, young Christians with the body of a Palestinian girl, Beirut, Lebanon, 1976

Lebanon civil war, young Christians with the body of a Palestinian girl, Beirut, Lebanon, 1976

Don McCullin doesn’t trust digital photography. Calling it “a totally lying experience”, McCullin, famous photographer of war and disaster, says that the transition to digital capture, editing and storage means viewers could no longer trust the truthfulness of images they see.

One of the 20th century’s greatest war photographers, McCullin covered conflicts in Cyprus, the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, and the Middle East. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his acclaimed autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990), and 2001’s retrospective Don McCullin. Winner of numerous awards, including two Premier Awards from the World Press Photo, in 1992 he became the only photojournalist to be made Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

Speaking at Photo London in Somerset UK after having been named the Photo London Master of Photography for 2016, McCullin said he did not consider his photograph “art” and did not enjoy it being “sanitized” as is so easily done with digital media. According to McCullin, the inherent truth of photography has been “hijacked” because of the quick and easy nature of digital image making. “I have a dark room and I still process film but digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted.”

Under pressure of time, McCullin does use digital cameras for assigned work, but he remains committed to film, recalling one of his best experiences with film being just this year, standing on Hadrian’s Wall in a blizzard. “If I’d have used a digital camera I would have made that look attractive, but I wanted you to get the feeling that it was cold and lonely,” which it was, he said. For that, a roll of old school Tri-X or HP5 fit the bill perfectly.

McCullin particularly dislikes how digital cameras allow manipulation of color. “These extraordinary pictures in colour, it looks as if someone has tried to redesign a chocolate box,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t work, it’s hideous.”

Who Are You Trying To Fool?

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by Vaussore de Villeneuve, for Leicaphilia. [Vaussore de Villeneuve is the nom de plume of a working Parisian photojournalist. While it’s a screed, I think an ample dose of irreverence is needed when talking about Leica, so I thought I’d pass it on.]

You, the guy with the latest Leica. Whats with the $8000 camera and $5000 lens? Do you expect people to take you seriously because of what you’ve got hanging around your neck? Newsflash: When I see you stumbling out of the tourist bus with your shiny new Leica, the first thing I think is that you’re compensating for what you know, deep down, is a weak capacity for individual judgment and a compulsive need for approval, because serious working photographers don’t use Leicas anymore, and anyone who actually has a decent understanding of the realities on the ground knows that. And even if we wanted to, we couldn’t afford to, the collapse of photojournalism being what it is. Twenty years ago a PJ could make enough money to survive, and maybe even sport an M and a few lenses. Not now. Not even close, especially when a Leica body and a few lenses will cost the equivalent of a year’s PJ wages.

So you are, by definition, a poser, by the very fact that you’re trying to blindly emulate a way  of doing photography that doesn’t exist anymore. The guys who are doing excellent work – the heirs of the greats who often used Leica film cameras – don’t give a damn about the camera they use. And they certainly aren’t impressed by the camera you use to practice your “street photography.” They’re too busy doing hard work in difficult conditions and they’re more than likely using some innocuous camera to do it, maybe even their  iPhone, because they usually live paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t even begin to think about buying the latest Leica even if they wanted to. And whatever they’re using, they’re not carrying it in a designer bag. They can’t afford a designer bag.

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Famous Leica 1

I happen to live in a place where people often equate self-worth with the luxury they can afford. The culture here is predicated on ostentatious displays of wealth, with a constant eye to self-identity through the possession of things. The de rigueur BMW and the Rolex. I hear the stories: people who want giant bookcases, not to display the books they’ve read, but the books they’ll buy by the yard to fill them out. A 30 year old aspiring plutocrat who wants 500 art books, but presently owns none, who wants his guests to think that art is an interest of his. I know an interior designer who designed this huge, specialty bookcase for a guy like this. He asked her to purchase books that would “look good” on the shelf. She went to a site called “Books by the Foot” where you can buy books by color, size, topic, and purchased books for him based on size and color, totally random books that would never be read but whose sole criterion was to look good. She left some of the shelf empty so the guy could fill it with his own books, but he told her to just fill the bookcases out with Books By The Foot. He didn’t own any books.

That bookcase serves as a mask for this man. Its his status marker, a means to impress upon others a certain narrative about himself, his supposed discrimination and refinement. In actuality he can’t define any interests or tastes of his own other than the interest of being thought a certain way by others. And so with you, the new Leica consumer. Your Leica is your mask. And it’s a shame, because Leica used to be a quality camera brand whose cameras were understated, elegant, simple and practical. And some of their digital models still are, although that’s not why you’ve fixated on them now. You buy them as markers of your supposed discrimination and taste. At some point in the last 25 years, people like you hijacked the brand for your own puerile purposes, initiating the transformation of Leica from a photographic tool to a cross between an investment and fashion accessory, a situation that accelerates with each passing year. Its left us traditional Leica users, holding our beat up M3’s and M4’s, cameras that have functioned for us as craftsman’s tools, orphaned and inconsequential to Leica when faced with your tasteless money.

Famous Leica 3

Do me a favor: stop sullying an iconic brand with your status anxieties. You’ve ruined the pleasure I take in using my well-worn Leica, because now, when I’m out and about with my M4, a camera I’ve used for almost 50 years, one nobody used to pay attention to because they thought it was just an old camera, a camera that was sent back to Leica for rebuild after I dropped it into the Niger while falling out of a sawdagart in Biafra 40 years ago, people now accost me, mouth agape, asking about it. Is that a Leica? Cool! How much does it cost? My uncle is really into photography and has one. Does your’s have The Leica Glow? You know it’s bad when the 17 year old behind the counter at the boulangerie asks if it really takes good pictures like they say.

Really, all you’re doing is showing off to the low hanging fruit, the untutored but well-meaning chaps who will make certain assumptions about you because of the supposedly cool camera you use. The people who know better – well, they know better.  When you’ve bought into a world where products define the people who use them, your identity becomes inseparable from the perception of the goods you use to identify yourself. People will make certain assumptions about you as the user. That cuts both ways, however. What you don’t seem to understand is this: the great unwashed might be impressed, but someone in the know, someone serious about making images, as opposed to the equipment they use to do it, well, what they think when they see you with your $8000 digital Leica with the conspicuous red dot, taking pictures at the book fair, is this: loser.

 

 Actually Using An Old Leica to, You Know, Take Pictures

Leica IIIg LPfoto 1A sublimely beautiful Black Paint Leica IIIg. You can actually take pictures with it

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?

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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?].For sale-12Released 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.

aaaa-08413The author’s incredibly cool Leica IIIg

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.

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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.”

 

Digital “Photography”: Based On A True Story

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Which One Do You Prefer?

“Digital capture quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality, that physical relationship between the object photographed and the image that differentiated lens-made imagery and defined our understanding of photography for 160 years. The digital sensor replaced to optical record of light with a computational process that substitutes a calculated reconstruction using only one third of the available photons. That’s right, two thirds of the digital image is interpolated by the processor in the conversion from RAW to JPG or TIF. It’s reality but not as we know it… Veteran digital commentator Kevin Connor says, “The definition of computational photography is still evolving, but I like to think of it as a shift from using a camera as a picture-making device to using it as a data-collecting device.”


I ran across the above quote in an article in Time Magazine entitled “The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming,” which, to put it charitably, is normally not the first place I look when I want cutting edge philosophical discussions, given its pedestrian readership usually located on the far end of any cultural curve. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting article, discussing things some of us, myself included, have been articulating since the inception of the digital age. Just a few years ago, saying essentially the same thing on a popular photo forum, I was roundly derided as a kook by the usual suspects. It’s not as if ignorance and lack of expansive thinking don’t have a consistent pedigree; if history teaches anything, it’s that the revolutionary implications of technological changes are never seen by the average guy until they’re impossible to ignore. Now, if Time is any indication, maybe it’s a message finally resonating with the generally educated public: the passage from  analogue to digital “photography”, from a philosophical and practical perspective, is less an evolution than a revolution of the medium. What we’ve wrought, with our CMOS and CCD sensors that transform light into an insubstantial pattern of 1’s and 0’s, is not merely a difference of degree from traditional photography but rather a fundamental difference of kind. You can even make a claim that digital photography really isn’t ‘photography’ in the etymological sense of the word at all. As Mr. Connor suggests, its more accurately described as “data collecting.”

Until recently, photography worked like this: light reflected off people and things  and would filter through a camera and physically transform a tangible thing, an emulsion of some sort. This emulsion was contained on, or in, some physical substrate, like tin, or glass, or celluloid or plastic. The photograph was a tangible thing, created by light and engraved with a material trace of something that existed in real time and space. That’s how “photography” got its name:  “writing with light”.

Roland Barthes, the French linguist, literary theorist and philosopher, wrote a book about this indexical quality of photography called Camera Lucida. Its one of the seminal texts in the philosophy of photography, which means it’s often referred to while seldom being read, and even less so, understood. To summarize Barthes, what makes a photograph special is its uncanny indexical relationship with what we perceive “out there,” with what’s real. And its indexical nature is closely tied to its analogue processes. Analogue photography transcribes – “writes”-  light as a physical texture on a physical substrate in an indexical relationship of thing to image (i.e. a sign that is linked to its object by an actual connection or real relation irrespective of interpretation). What’s important for Barthes’ purposes is that the analogue photograph was literally an emanation of a referent; from a real body, over there, proceeded radiations which ultimately touched the film in my camera, over here, and a new, physical thing, a tintype, or daguerreotype, or a film negative, was created, physically inscribed by the light that touched it.

Now photography is digital, and the evolution from film to digital is not merely about of the obsolescence of film as the standard photographic medium; rather, it’s the story of a deep ontological and phenomenological shift that is transforming the way we capture and store images that purport to copy the world.  Where we used to have cameras that used light to etch a negative, we now have, in the words of Kevin Connor, digital data-collecting devices that don’t “write with light,” but rather which translate light into discrete number patterns which aren’t indexical and can be instantiated intangibly i.e. what is produced isn’t a ‘thing’ but only a pattern which contains the potential of something else, something else that requires the intercession of of third thing, computation.

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4-1-niepce-view_from_the_windowThe First Photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827, Le Gras, France

In August, 2003,  I was sitting in the garden outside of Joseph Niépce’s Burgundy estate, where, from the window of which, Niépce had taken history’s first photograph. I was enjoying a pleasant late Summer afternoon in the company of George Fèvre, one of the unsung masters of 20th Century photography. A personal friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson, George was the master printer at PICTO in Paris and was the guy who printed HCB’s negatives from the 1950’s until HCB’s death in 2004. If you’ve seen an HCB or Joseph Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, in all likelihood George printed it.

George was an incredibly nice man, humble to a fault, full of fascinating stories about the foibles of the photographic masters and very thoughtful about the craft of photography.

Cartier-Bresson-negative-HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932). Picto Labs, Paris. Hands: George Fèvre, Paris 5/11/87 © John Loengard

Up to that day I lived in the old familiar world of traditional photographic practices: aperture and shutter, exposure, film type, developer characteristics, contrast filters and paper grades, a world whose highest achievements George had helped promulgate. What better person to talk to about photography, and what better place to do it, where it all started.

Of course, I wanted to hear his stories, first person accounts of iconic photographers and their iconic prints, and George, always the gentleman, obliged without any sense of the significance of what he was remembering. To him, the specifics of how HCB or Koudelka worked, the quality of their negatives, and how George used them to create the stunning prints that made them famous were nothing special, all in a day’s work for him. What George was interested in talking about was Photoshop, something he had just discovered and of which he was fascinated. And he said something curious to me, something I always remembered and something I stored in memory for a better time to reflect on it.

What George said was this: Photoshop was amazing. Anyone could now do with a few keystrokes what he had laboriously done at such cost in the darkroom. It was going to open up the craft in ways heretofore unimagined. But it was no longer photography. There was something disquieting about the transformation. Photography’s tight bond with reality had been broken, its “indexical” nature, as Barthe would put it, had been severed, and it was this bond that gave photography its power. We were arriving at a post-photographic era, where image capture would become another form of graphic arts, its products cut free from ultimate claims to truth. There could be no claims to truthful reproduction because there was nothing written and no bedrock thing produced, just a numerical patter of 1’s and 0’s instantiated nowhere and capable of endless manipulation. The future would be the era of “visual imaging.”

Since that day,  the cataract of digital innovation has not abated but intensified— we all know the litany because we are caught up in it on every side: 36 mp DSLRs with facial recognition and a bevy of simulations, camera phones, Lyto, Tumblr, Facebook — do I need to go on?

AAAAAAA-6George Fèvre, Le Gras, France, August, 2003

The changes have brought their benefits: giving people the chance at uncensored expression,  allowing us to easily capture and disseminate what we claim to be our experiences. Of course, there are also new problems of craft and aesthetic. Previous technologies have usually expanded technical mastery, but digital technology is contracting it. The eloquence of a single jewel like 5×7 contact print has turned into the un-nuanced vulgarity of 30 x 40 tack sharp Giclee prints taken with fully automated digitized devices and reworked in Photoshop so as destroy any indexical relationship with the real.

We are currently living through a profound cultural transformation at the hands of techno-visionaries with no real investment in photography as a practice. All the more ironic in that this has happened at a time when popular culture now bludgeons us with imagery: while photography is dead, images are everywhere. You see imaging on your way to work, while you’re at work, at lunch time, on your way home from work, when you go out in the evening. Your computerized news feed and email inbox is full of it. Even what you read has become an adjunct to the primacy of the image. The problem is that the images digital processes give us possess no intrinsic proof of their truth, its non-instantiated computated product endlessly malleable and thus cut free from ultimate claims to truth. And it’s this claim to truth that gives photography its uncanny ability to communicate with us, to make us reflect, or to aid us in remembrance, or to help us see anew.

Leica Liking and Other Matters of Faith

 

Famous leica james Dean

Michael Sweet is a Canadian writer and photographer. He lives in New York City.

I recently stumbled into a Facebook conversation about Leica and how great they are. How perfect the photographs from a Leica camera are etc. You know how this goes, right? We’ve all seen these rants. Well, here is a counter rant. Leica is a good camera, perhaps even a really good camera, but certainly nothing like it’s mythologized status.

After my recent article, Street Photography Has No Clothes, I figured I might as well tackle another controversial issue in the world of photography, and street photography more particularly – “Leica liking” and the mythology that surrounds it. So here goes, for better or for worse. Mostly worse, I expect. Keep in mind that writers present a point of view, an opinion, and good writers do this unapologetically. It doesn’t, however, mean that my opinion is not open to debate.

Leica is a luxury brand (and arguably a camera company) which manufactures very good, but certainly not perfect or “best in existence” cameras. What they are truly good at, these days, is cashing in on the Leica myth – that if you own a Leica you have arrived as a photographer. This works nicely these days with everyone aspiring to be some form of “photographer”.

27 Purist! Leica The professional 35 - 1967

Leica Was The Best – In The Analog Era

Leica was the best. It was. In the analog era, Leica had it nailed because they figured out how to make a camera body (a mechanical thing in those days) that would not wear out. Try it. You can’t wear out a Leica M if you try. This was a huge plus in the era of the Nikon F, which one could easily wear out with heavy use. So Leica made a name (a history, a myth) for itself by building a great camera body and adding (let us not forget) amazing glass. Now, considering how many people, especially street photographers, shoot these analog cameras, one would be hard pressed to tell the resulting photographs apart – Nikon F versus Leica M. I mean how much definition do you really get when you zone focus and push Tri-X two stops! Besides, who’s making gallery-sized prints of street photography anyway?

Furthermore, this analog-era argument for Leica superiority doesn’t hold up anymore, despite Leica’s best efforts to keep it alive. How well-built do you really need your digital camera? Won’t it out date itself in five years (ten at the very most) anyway? But those lenses you say, don’t forget those great Leica lenses. Okay, Leica makes great lenses, pop one on a Sony and save yourself five grand. And, get using the lens in a way that you can actually tell the difference. If I made a website where you could go and look at photographs made with Leica glass and photographs made with say Sony glass, you’d be scratching your head to tell the difference. Especially given how the vast majority of users use these lenses. Okay, maybe you could tell the difference, because I don’t want to get into an argument with you, but most people could not. Someone should set up this experiment and give it a go.

I digress. Back to the story here. So in this Facebook chat someone is trying to convince me that Leica cameras represent photographic perfection. They make better photographs than a Canon or a Fuji, or an Olympus or a Sony. Hard argument at the best of times. I offered a little resistance and then the conversation changed to: Well, I can make comparable photographs with my Sony or Nikon, but ask me which camera inspires me to shoot, which camera I love to hold and use – it’s hands down Leica. Fair enough. You like the feel of a Leica. I can buy that, they are still very well made cameras which provide a luxury tactile experience. It doesn’t hurt to also know in the back of your mind that your holding onto 10K.

Valbray-Leica-watch-camera

The “I Like A Leica Argument”

I don’t mind the “I like a Leica” argument. Everyone is entitled to like what they want and to spend their money as they see fit. But get the argument straight. Stop trying to sell Leica as the best performing camera ever made because you look silly. No one believes you, not even Leica. I know what’s going on in your mind, I’ve been there. When I began in photography I dreamed of owning a Leica. I lived and breathed Leica – all the greats had one, or so I thought at the time. Finally, after many years, I got one…then another and another. I’ve owned four or five now, both digital and analog. M6, M9, X, X2, and some re-branded Panasonic models. All have been less than impressive for me, personally. They are big, heavy, draw attention and are expensive. Do they take good photographs, likely, when used properly by a competent user. Are they the best cameras on earth? Not a chance. Most expensive, maybe. Most luxurious, likely. Once again, we see praise or hate being dished up in the photography world not based on facts and objective opinion, but rather passion, emotion, and “mob mentality”.

Leica provides an experience and a name and a legacy. This is what people are buying into. It’s like a nice watch. My Rolex is beautiful and feels nice and tells the world I have money and appreciate fine watches. Does it tell time better than my Swatch? No. In fact, well, you know the rest. If I were to go around trying to convince people that I were a better time keeper because I’m wearing a Rolex I’d be laughed out of the room. So what’s the difference? Yes, I know, just opened a door for the Leica likers to try every possible tactic they can to tear this argument to shreds. Go at it.

Before you write and tell me to “bugger off”, or that I am “jealous of better photographers than me” and a bunch of other stuff your mother raised you not to say out loud, think it over. Do you really believe, in the truest place within yourself, that you are making superior photographs because you are using a Leica… or is there just some small part of you that is longing to own a piece of that great legend that is Leica? Oh, and if you’d be so kind as to attack the argument, rather than me, as this is not, I repeat, NOT, aimed at any individual …. it’s aimed at a phenomenon… a “thing” I see out in the world of photography. Please, do not take this rant personally.

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Leica Is Better Than Sony, But Not Really

So, was there a time when the “Leica is better” argument could have held water? Yes, but it doesn’t hold up well anymore. Leica runs a marketing machine to beat out the others, who make perfectly equivalent digital cameras. Often better cameras. For example, the Leica X didn’t impress me at all. Slow, fussy, and your choice of a $500 ugly hump of a viewfinder or a $300 useless brightline finder. Same or better photographs from a Sony RX100 and far superior user experience with nearly 2G in savings. How technically “perfect” does an image need to be, anyway? Where, or rather when, should I focus shift away from technical perfection and gear to content and composition?

Not convinced? Go out into the Leica wilderness and see some of these arguments for yourself. It’s great comedy. You can easily find someone with a re-branded Panasonic telling you not only that it takes better pictures than any other camera, but also not knowing that they are holding a Panasonic and not a Leica. It’s great stuff. Then there are those that have the cheapest German made Leica they could get their hands on telling us how great the camera is because it’s not a Panasonic. Seriously?

This post will get both positive and negative reactions, which helps prove my point. If I were arguing the difference between say, a Ricoh GR and a Sony RX100, this article would die a quick death. But where Leica is concerned there is fire. It’s almost taboo to critique a Leica product and this alone should raise a few eyebrows.

Leica As Religion

Leica likers cannot be reasoned with. They run on faith, an almost religious faith. It’s like trying to rationalize the non-existence of god to a Christian. And, I guess that’s okay. I just wish a few more photographers out there would fess up and admit that we buy a Leica because they are an expensive, cool, luxury status symbol that you have finally arrived in the world of photography, or that you simply have money to burn – like my Rolex (which I don’t own, for the record) – or that you are trying to get just a little closer to Winogrand’s ghost. It’s okay to buy into an idea, a culture, we all do it. But if you’re going to lay out 10 large for a camera, just know what you’re really buying, and it ain’t better photographs. What some people seem to have missed is that the great photographers were great photographers, and they happened to use a Leica. Not that the great photographers were great photographers because they used a Leica.

Here’s how the Facebook conversation ended:

Person 1: So, are you saying I should buy a Leica? That it will make me look cool?

Person 2: Yes. No.

Me: No. Yes.