Category Archives: Leica

It May Not Be About the Tool. But It IS About the RIGHT Tool

Leica: The Camera That Made Miracles. Why? Because It Was Compact Enough To Be There When You Needed It

A few days ago I spent a cold and uncomfortable evening on the porch of an abandoned house on Route 222 outside of Saratoga, North Carolina, basically the middle of nowhere. I’d been halfway through what was to be a hard workout (for me) – drive out of the city, park in Middlesex NC, where I’d start my ride, ride due east on 222 then south on 43 into Greenville, grab something to eat, turn around and hammer it back to the truck before it got too dark. 140 miles, give or take, flat well-paved roads, not much traffic, a cold but sunny day with little wind. Perfect.

My intent was to ride a good hard pace – (for me, at that distance, 17-18 mph average) – and to do so I’d grabbed a set of 60mm carbon wheels shod with lightweight “race” tires, $70 a pop ‘Michelin Pro4 Competition Limited’ tires, the idea being to minimize rolling resistance and tire weight. Plus, they’re very sexy, fast rolling and “supple” (whatever that means) and all the fast guys run them. This turned out to be a mistake.

Ten miles north of Greenville, I had my first flat. From, there 30 miles into the return journey, sun going down, I’d had 4 flats and was out of tire patches and CO2 cartridges to pump up tubes. One more flat and I was walking. A mile or two east of Saratoga, just a crossroads on a map, I heard the now familiar “swoosh” of my tire decompressing. A few minutes later I was sitting on the porch, 40 miles from my truck and 90 miles from home, freezing my ass off. Luckily, I begged a ride from a friend, who road the 120 miles from Chapel Hill to rescue me. Luckily as well, I’d loaded an audio recording of Homer’s Odyssey on my phone, which kept me company while I waited. My ride arrived just as Odysseus was sailing past the Isle of the Sirens, tied to the mast, wax in ears, his attempt to resist the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song. Funny, I thought, how the universe sends you these little hints…and how often we ignore them.

I’d no one but myself to blame for the 3 hours I spent huddled in my sweaty riding gear, 3 degrees Celsius, pitched darkness, waiting for my ride. I’d been out in the boondocks by myself, riding on a set of super-sexy “race” tires that offer little in the way of puncture protection, when I should have been riding a good set of heavy duty training tires, marginally slower and heavier, but strongly puncture resistant.  I’d chosen the wrong gear for the ride.

Two days later, I tried the same ride, but this time with Continental ‘Gatorskin’ training tires, which are known to be impervious to most anything that would flat a “faster” tire. Supposedly, they’re 8 watts slower than the Michelins. 8 hours, 30 minutes on the bike, 138 miles there and back, not one flat. Clearly, the right tire for the ride.

The point being, something, great in theory, might be great for some things but not so much for others. It’s all about context.

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Freemont, NC. I was in a Tri-X and Leica Mood


“How did I come to make the Leica? Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13×18 plates, with six double plate-holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thuringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?” Oskar Barnack, creator of the Leica


There’s no question that a 6×6 Rollei gives a “better” image than than a 35mm Leica. And yet, much of the iconic reportage photography of the 20th century was taken using a Leica. Why? Because the portability and simplicity of the Leica allowed you to get the shot in the first place. A pre-condition of getting the shot is to have a camera with you in the first place.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (here, and here, and here), we’ve gotten to a place where the phone in your pocket is usually your “best” camera. Like the Leica which preceded it, it’s small, portable, simple. Not only can you take it everywhere, you do. Your iPhone is the new Leica. Granted, it’s not as sexy, it doesn’t connote a certain status or sophistication. It’s a disposable consumer good you upgrade every two years or so. So what. It get’s the shot, and that’s the point. Photography is ultimately about photographs and not how we get them. Or, at least, it should be.

Below are a few photos I took on my most recent ride, the one where I had enough sense to choose a decent pair of training tires. Whenever I saw something interesting, I stopped and took a picture of it. With my iPhone 8. Super simple, as it’s always tucked away in my back pocket literally everywhere I go. That day, I was seeing things in a 6×6 format. In color. Back in the day, that meant I’d have to drag my Rollei along with me, loaded with color film. The odds of that all coming together were highly unlikely, meaning that as a practical matter the picture wouldn’t get taken. With the iPhone, not only did I get the photo, I got to choose the format, the film, etc on the fly, and I could change my mind after the fact if I so desired. Had you told me 40 years ago I’d be able to do that, I’d have thought you were crazy. Today it’s a given. Think about that. That’s amazing.

 

It’s Not the Tool

By Mark Twight. All photos by the author. You can see Mark’s work at www.marktwight.com

I was born in the mountains. I grew up middle class in an American city. I climbed mountains professionally for twenty years, making first ascents in the Americas, Europe and Asia. In those years I wrote articles for magazines, shot pictures to illustrate them and gave multi-media presentations in the U.S. and Europe. Later I wrote two books on the subject. Both won awards and were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Polish.

Mountain climbing and movie work allowed me to travel to incredible places I would not have otherwise seen. Antarctica. Bulgaria. Israel. Iceland. Japan. Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan. Norway. Argentina. Bolivia. Australia. France, Italy and Spain. Detroit. Alaska. China. Russia. Kazakhstan. Canada, of course. And all over the American West.

I have carried notebooks, a pen, open eyes and a camera in every place but I am not a photographer. I have a camera. I point it at things. I know my way around it, the darkroom and the computer. My attitude and the fact that I do the things I photograph gives me unique perspective. Although I am not now the man of action I was, what I did informs what I do. And what I will do in the future.

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I was anti-Leica for years. I thought it was snobbery. I shot an old Fujica HDS in the mountains because it was waterproof but eventually the fixed 38mm lens was too tight. I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 24mm even though it was enormous compared to my partner’s Rollei. Later I graduated to a Nikon F3, and a Angenieux 70-210mm zoom. I learned my way around the darkroom, developed and printed through many, many nights and eventually got back to Nikon optics and an F5. Despite the magnificent utility of the Nikon, my experience working in black and white introduced me to the Leica brand and the famous shooters who used it. I couldn’t afford to invest so I found adequate enough cons to outweigh the pros.

Then I did a job that paid enough to buy a M6 and 28mm lens. I compared it to my F5 with a 20-35mm f2.8 lens and once I saw the results I switched wholesale. In the mountains Leica lenses easily outmatched my best Nikon primes. The 28mm Elmarit held details when overexposed, captured astonishingly rich color, and separation. I loved pointing into the sun. I shot muddy cyclocross races, sand-boarding the dunes, and in the snow. I carried it in the Alaska Range and even when temperatures dipped to -30F, when plastic film canisters shattered, the camera functioned without problem. In 2001 I bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera because it supposedly had a Leica lens, then a Canon S80 for its manual functions, then a G9, and later, a compact S100. As a reaction to muddy details at relatively low ISO values I bought a full-frame Nikon D800 so I could use my old 20-35mm but it was no pocket camera so a Sony RX1R with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens came next.

Instead of a darkroom I had Lightroom. The film in the refrigerator expired. I sold one M6 body. Eventually, I gave another to my friend because I knew he would use it. The beautiful Leica lenses sat idle. Regret nagged at me. I lived with it easily for years but it grew. And itched. I knew that sooner or later I would scratch. Then on a film set in 2014 Zack Snyder handed me his Leica Monochrom and said, “If anyone should have a camera that only shoots black and white, it’s you.” I laughed but he was right, the Gym Jones website had been exclusively black and white from its launch in 2005. That statement matched my vision and attitude. I didn’t want it to be easy to read so I floated white text on black. The viewer had to want it. I converted all images to black and white to remove the distorting influence that color can have. What remained was raw, and essential. When I finally bought a Monochrom – 13 years after I put the last roll of film through my M6 – it felt like coming home.

I pulled the lenses from their cases and relearned how to focus manually. My love for taking and making pictures returned and within a year I’d traded the RX1R for a Leica Q and carried it with me everywhere. I loved the fact that — shot at f1.7 — the images had remarkably shallow depth of field for a 28mm lens. The Q easily handles high ISO so even this night owl can make pictures, and the auto-focus is snappy. I can’t change my spots though so I still convert color images to black and white with Silver EFX in the digital darkroom. Black and white is still the way I see. Kiss or Kill.

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Spending so much time staring at images on a large monitor made me a pixel Nazi. On the screen, with the ability to ruthlessly zoom in to any aspect of a picture creates a very different relationship to the image than I have when I stand back and appreciate the totality of fine print. Dissecting local contrast at 4:1 can break the heart of any image.

This got me thinking about sharpness, which I revered when I started shooting a Leica M6. Because that’s what I thought I was seeing when I compared the M6 images to those from the F5. But maybe it wasn’t that the Leica images were sharper, instead their crisp luminosity made the wholly-adequate slides shot with the Nikon appear flat. The M6 images felt vibrant and alive, with details revealed from deep shadow, and texture preserved in areas of hotly overexposed snow. Peering through the loupe I could see greater density, or maybe depth but it wasn’t necessarily increased sharpness that caused that. Honestly, like describing taste, I have difficulty explaining why a Leica image looks different. I do know that — after almost 20 years of living with these images it isn’t as simple as cost influencing appearance. I mean, many times in the past thirty years I have spent far more and received demonstrably less.

That said I started feeling like many of my digital images were too sharp. Harsh, even. That I couldn’t appreciate them without some jpeg compression or the physical equivalent: standing at an appropriate distance. Apparently, anything above 18 megapixels is irrelevant because that’s the maximum our eyes can resolve (this is affected by viewing distance, eyesight quality, etc., and not gospel of course). Yet we chase ever-sharper resolution with 30, then 40mp and 50mp sensors. My eyes get tired first, then my brain.

Perhaps this is a question of perspective. I want to feel the emotional impact of the whole, to re-see what my eyes actually saw, to remember or re-experience how I felt when I initially witnessed the scene I “captured” with my camera. Instead, I crop, I dissect, I zoom, unintentionally stripping away emotion until only the technical remains. Or maybe 0s and 1s just lack soul. Subject, timing and composition are my antidote to binary reductionism but I am still and often dissatisfied with the outcome of the digital capture + edit equation.

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In October 2016 I serendipitously encountered Nicholas Dominic Talvola at Chris Sharma’s climbing gym in Barcelona. He shoots film with old Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras. Properly. Astonishingly. We swapped Leica stories, handed each other our cameras, and he told me about an old 35mm lens that glows when it is shot at f1.4. He shared some images with me and I knew what I’d been missing. “Those lenses are hard to find, man. Not many of them were made and you have to get the one from Germany, not Canada and in X range of serial numbers … it should have a bit of purple cast to the reflection of light off the lens.” And the rabbit hole opened beneath my feet. “You’re going to love it on your Monochrom but you’ll die once you start shooting film again.”

I remember film. And I sometimes wonder if the problem with 0s and 1s is the immediacy. The all-important Insta. Frequency over Quality. And the metaphor of it. Who has any idea what to value or what has value when the only option on these platforms is to ignore or to like? 0 or 1. And no volume knob.

Instead, I try to make photographs that involve the viewer the way I was involved in the making. The Summilux 35mm lens Nicholas told me about gave my images an ethereal glow. It softens generally without sacrificing sharpness locally, luring the viewer to engage rather than evade.

When the image is too sharp and obvious its interpretive quality disappears. We accept what we see. And quickly move on. But when the focus isn’t obvious, when lines lead, when the whole implies more than it declares then we must interpret. The image – whether written or graphic – compels us to do so. It asks. We seek answers. Our own answers. And we wonder … which I always thought was the point.

Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.

Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search –  whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.

I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.

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Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town

Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.

I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.

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The Bois, back in the day

If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen.  An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.

Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails.  Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be? 

I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.

 

 

 

A Modest Proposal Going Forward

Selfie, Havana 1998: That was me, I was there, that’s what I remember. Let me show you.

I rarely receive critical or hostile comments about my posts, which is surprising, as I’m excessively, sometimes rudely, opinionated about certain photographic issues. Given past experience trying to debate meaningful topics on internet forums – typically I was thrown off any given forum within a week or two, usually the personal target of a moderator who thought proper forum etiquette required unquestioning allegiance to whatever accepted opinion currently ruled – that opinion usually the desired result of crafty advertising by camera companies constantly pushing the “new and improved” as a means of insuring financial viability – I assumed these same types with the same blinkered views would find their way over here, certainly given the Leica name associated with the blog. It’s why I went the first few years without a comments feature because, frankly, I wasn’t interested in what other people had to say. The whole purpose of the blog was to free myself from the constrictions imposed on a critically thinking person elsewhere. Hence Leicaphilia. It was my extended love letter to the wayward lover that is Leica and a middle finger to those who claimed the right to “mentor” me with facile answers to serious questions, questions they seemed unwilling or incapable of understanding let alone answering.

God knows bourgeois opinion is alive and well in Leica land. It’s inevitable that people who currently find Leica interesting would be bourgeois. It takes money to buy a Leica, and usually a certain mindset to put large amounts of money toward a photographic trinket so as to partake of a certain status. If it were simply a matter of using a camera that fulfilled basic photographic requirements with a minimum of fuss – which is what a lot of us who use Leicas claim to be the draw – then most Leica shooters should be running around with an old manual Pentax and a few lenses, given they remain wonderful cameras that you can buy cheap as dirt, or digital partisans would be content with their well-used Nikon D200, cameras whose evidence of use was legitimately earned and not baked in from the factory.

But, of course, we’re not. We’re standing in line to buy the newest Leica M or Q or T or whatever it is at that moment that Leica and their enablers tell us we must have, the latest and most up to date, because only then, we are told, will we finally possess a photographic instrument sufficient for our Promethean creativity. Of course, the logic of consumerism requires the process of technological “progress” never end. The very nature of capitalism admits of no endpoint, no time when we should be able to say “enough, I’ve got enough to do what I need to do. Everything from here on out is superfluous to requirements.” Were we to get to that point, Nikon, Canon and Leica would all go out of business.

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 This reminds me of so many things

Surprisingly, what I’ve found is that there are a lot of really thoughtful, intelligent, experienced people who read the blog and agree with me about most things. I assume it’s because it’s not the same old thing that one finds in most camera/photography blogs, where the emphasis is usually all about gear and the gear discussion is typically weighted towards the next new thing without anyone stopping to think about where the whole thing is heading and why we need it to head that way. It does make sense: internet forums tend to attract the most neurotic and rabid partisans of any given subject; normal people, enthusiasts with a sense of perspective, typically aren’t found on internet forums debating the bokeh of the Aspherical Summicron. They’re more interested in meaningful photographs and the means to create them, which involves discussion and understanding of photographic history and various aesthetic choices. This isn’t to say that a certain level of gear talk isn’t interesting or normal. It is. Appreciation and discussion of the tools we use should be part of that discussion, but it needs to be seen in context.

It seems to me that modern photographers too often confuse means with ends. By this I mean that we’ve become fixated on the tools we use and not on the purposes we’re using the tools for. Of course, this neurotic focus on photographic tools didn’t start with the digital age; film users were, and are, just as fixated on the technical aspects of the craft as today’s digiphiles. What’s changed is the pace of technological change, now so fast it’s almost impossible to keep apace. No sooner has some technological advance been introduced then it’s been made obsolete by the next advance. This hyper-accelerated pace of technological advance, unique to the digital age, seems great in theory, but in practice its only benefit is that camera makers can continue to claim a reason to sell us a new camera every 18 months. Baked into this process is a cynical duplicity on the part of camera manufacturers and their Madison Avenue agents- claim your latest offering to be a necessary advance, something that makes the previous iteration -the one you told us 18 months ago to be the greatest thing ever- obsolete, worthless, of no value. Rinse and repeat every 18 months or so, ad infinitum, then let the dupes and fellow travelers, the “reviewers”, drive the process forward. No one seems to ask “to what end?” As such, there’s no equilibrium to be reached, no point at which we’re allowed to say yes, that’s it, this is all good enough, I don’t need anything else to effectuate my photographic intent, thank you.

*************A couple of years ago I bought a box of glass negatives in an antique store in Orleans. This is one of them, scanned. Tell me that’s not cool.

At least there’s no equilibrium reached without a conscious decision to get off the ever revolving hamster wheel of “technological improvement.” It’s my opinion that you need to get off the technological hamster wheel if you are to develop creatively. Fixation at this superficial level of your photography is a dead end, deflecting you from real creative issues. This is where Leica and Canon and Nikon want you – perpetually dissatisfied, yet holding out hope that the next incremental technological “advance” will finally get you there. At base, if I look back on all I’ve written the last few years, the one consistent theme of the blog is that it’s possible to be happy and creatively fulfilled working within the parameters of basic photographic needs – aperture, shutter and film or equivalent spec-ed sensor. The rest is all optional. It may be fun to collect cameras or own the latest technology or simply find a pleasant diversion in identifying with a particular brand or type of camera, but those things aren’t necessary to be a serious photographer. What’s necessary is a mindfulness of the craft and its history, an understanding of your agency within the process and a consideration of the means by which you can realize your intent.

If I look back on almost a half century of dedicated photography, I’m struck by the obviousness of the fact that the meaningful photos I’ve made during that time have nothing to do with types of cameras or with technological prowess. Relying on technical virtues for visual interest is a cheap parlour trick. One of my favorite photos ever, a print of which hangs in a good friend’s house – which I admire every time I’m there – was taken with a wooden pinhole camera, handheld for a few seconds. Just a wooden box and some light sensitive film – and a user with an aesthetic sense built up over years by reading and looking and studying and thinking. Or they’re products of an individual sensitivity to the ephemeral nature of time and the miraculous nature of photography. You don’t get there by obsessing about cameras; you get there with a broad, liberal understanding of the world and your temporary and precarious place in it.

The most interesting posts I’ve published – interesting for me, at least – are those that involve specific photographs and the photographer’s understanding of the photograph. The history of the photograph. The reason that photograph means something to someone, the role that photograph plays in that person’s consciousness, its emotional and psychological payoff.  I’d like to do more of that going forward, in addition to the usual silliness that helps me keep the gearhead impulses in perspective. I’d like to hear more from others, see the things that a love of photography has helped them articulate and how they’ve thought about it and done it. That, for me, get’s to the heart of the miracle of photography and why its remained a central interest in my life and why I keep at this modest attempt to articulate it.

Gift Cam

A Gift From a Friend: a Leica IIIf

By Ron Himebaugh

It’s unusual to use film nowadays. With the advantages of digital technology using film can seem pointless. That is unless process is the point. And if that is so, then why not go all in, with a rangefinder, even a bottom loading “Barnack” camera? Compared to contemporary digicam-o-matics there are a few hurdles, but once you are used to viewing through a peephole finder, focusing through another, trimming the leader, setting the film counter, mastering a cumbersome loading procedure and keeping your finger off a spinning shutter dial, it all falls into place.

These nuisance factors aside, film not only has its own image characteristics but the process itself of using film holds its own reward. That process requires an investment of attention and respect for the medium that seems missing in the iPhone age. Not that something has to be difficult to be worthwhile, but can some things be just too easy? (for a great argument for the iPhone, see this). It is hard to escape the feeling, which has been noted since photography was invented, that the easier it is to take pictures the easier it is to make them bad. Of course the idea is to take more good pictures, and in this regard the older technology can encourage thoughtful engagement. I think.

Old cameras are cool, with the look of precision, the heft of substance. They feel good to use because they respond in a satisfying tactile and audible way. Does anyone fondle a Canon SureShot? I think that if you like the way something feels when you use it, then you will use it and get better at using it, and the better you get, the more you will use it, etc.

Remember the Kodak Instamatic? It was designed for folks who couldn’t be bothered going through this sort of trial just to get a film loaded. In the thirties the Barnack loading scheme must have looked pretty good to the plate camera crowd. Even the M3 was a bottom loader albeit with a hinged back for easier access to the film. Not until the Leicaflex did Leitz think a conventional side hinge provided enough rigidity for the necessary film flatness.

I am thinking these things because someone gave me a camera.

My friend Chris, visiting from out of town and, knowing my interest in film photography, asked if I had a Leica and would I like one? He had meant to bring it and would send it when he returned home. A week later it came: a lllf, and– bonus! – it was the self timer model. It is the kind of camera I like to get, showing some dirt, a little history, accumulated effects of time passed, needing love, warmth, and a rubdown.

Ta da!

How nice this, my favorite screw mount camera, the penultimate Leitz bottom loader. It is to my mind the most attractive of all Leicas and surpassed in sheer industrial beauty only by the Zeiss Contax lla, of the same time period. The Contax was more advanced, with a combined view- and rangefinder, removable back, and spectacular, as opposed to merely excellent lenses.

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My own experience with Leica could be said to have started with my first good camera, a Made-in-Occupied Japan Canon, with a very Elmar-like Serenar lens. It was 4 weeks of paper route earnings, $20 in 1961. I was 13 and my next big buy was a 13th edition Leica Manual, filled with sophisticated photo topics: document copy work, forensic and lab microscopy, sports photography, photo-journalism, medical and scientific documentation, lens formulations, and terms like Newton’s rings and circles of confusion. The manual was intimidating but churned a need for a lllf and a Summitar lens—the M3 was impossibly out of reach. Wanting to know what was inside the camera I took the Canon apart—regrettably easy to do—and had a paper bag of parts and no idea how to put them back together. Some time later the hard sought lllf and Summitar landed.

Stack o’manuals, gift -cam and Nikon F. The F came along 3 years after the 3f in this picture was built. It represented a quantum leap in capability over the Leica.

I have digressed.

The camera Chris sent to me had belonged to his Dad, who, as I understand it, used it in his work, principally to take pictures for instruction guides that he wrote. It had been long in disuse, which is death to a Leica. Chris has no real interest in photography, and—thank you, Chris–generously gave it to someone who would use and value it. I am grateful.

A beautiful 3f in need of a little make-over

Q-tips, mineral spirit, toothpicks, an hour or so and the job is done. The chrome was pitting in a few areas. It had, I believe, interacted with moisture and leather over time to build a residue of vertigris, but it came off more easily than I thought it would.

A new skin from Cameraleathers.com replaced the failing vulcanite, and while a traditionalist (or would not be using Leica in the first place), I have a fondness for gray leather covering. Or, in this case, faux leather.

Here is what it looks like:

The winding has a slight hitch, not bad but it isn’t quite right. The one second works well when limbered up, but characteristic of old timers, is stiff after sitting awhile. It will go to Youxin Ye for a tune-up. He is a short drive away and I like watching him work and he seems to enjoy the company.

One useful item for these peephole rangefinders is a bright line finder and of course Leitz makes a nice one, the SBOOI.

My Gift Leica with the Leitz  SBOOI viewfinder

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The 1/15th shutter speed works great.

The photo above was taken with my new IIIf, the one below taken with a different lllf that I  happened to have in my pocket. It was some affair where I would not ordinarily take a camera. It shows the usefulness of a small and handy camera that was the impetus for Max Barnack’s invention in the first place.

I suppose we all have a small handy camera nearby, but this one uses film. I don’t say it’s better.

Yes I do.

Better and more fun.


Ron Himebaugh is a fellow bourbon drinker who has followed photography since he was twelve – “followed” meaning an equal interest in cameras, images, and the act of taking pictures. He has a “disturbingly large collection” of photo books  rivaled by an even less healthy impulse to accumulate classic film cameras. You can find some of his work on Flickr, at Hank Carter,  an ironic reference to Elliott Erwitt’s nickname for Cartier Bresson.

 

Makes Really Deep Gudeshon. Comes With Free Shipping.

Above, a nice looking early production IIIa, model G -(not to be confused with the IIIg) with a 50mm Summar being offered on Ebay by a Japanese seller. Looks nice enough, asking price  $962.94 US, which, in addition to being a weird number, seems a little high.

What’s interesting about the camera is the seller’s description, which looks like it’s been run through Google Translate one too many times:

1935 – The Barnack Leica Leica ‡Va made in 48 years. Shed is a window is good parentheses.??I am speaking of Leica, I believe that Barnack rather than the M-type.??Rugged feel I feel the machine love.???With respect to the operation, there is no problem at all strong.???Double image also meet at infinity.??Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 lens is bright non-coated. Since the non-coated that will be fluffy in the backlighting, but such order light and cloudy or rainy day, you make a really deep Gudeshon.??? You have passed from manufacturing more than 70 years, it has maintained a generally good condition. Operation is also light.???* Also has exhibition of a classic camera that has been across the hand any person Over the decades. Purchase of direction and viscous qualitatively more nervous those seeking the status of the new par, please do not.???* Also because it exhibits elsewhere, please let me know before you buy.??Manufacturer: Ernst Rights Wetzlar??Model: ‡Va??Year of Manufacture: 1935-48 years??Lens: Zumaru 50mm / F2.0 (. Although there is a clouding of about 1mm in the front lens edges, will no problem because before peripheral ball but there is mixing of fine dust, wipe scratches less very clear)??Shutter: T, Z (B), 1-1 / 1000??Film: 135??Distance Meter: range finder??Exposure meter: None (or single exposure meter, shalt use a smartphone exposure meter app)???Appearance: big crack, Atari not, the impression that has been carefully used???Accessories: domestic metal hood, domestic UV filters, Russia made of a non-genuine cap, a little tired genuine snapshot performance case (when used with the Zumaru is, remove the front)

I’m not trying to mock the seller. God only knows what I’d come up with if I were trying to describe a camera in Japanese. That being said the description made me chuckle. And it does look to be a nice camera, so I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by the failure of the description. I will note that I recently bought a set of lightweight bicycle wheels from a Chinese Ebay seller at a ridiculous price. They were described as possessing “exceptional Kentucky..very strong Kentucky. You will enjoy.” Got em last week. Nice wheels. I’m enjoying them.

Inventorying an Obsession

As my wife frequently reminds me, I tend to go overboard with my obsessions. In my professional life, I wear a suit. I love good suits. Double-breasted suits to be precise (yes, I know they’re not currently “fashionable;” I don’t care, as I despise the whims of fashion in any context, whether it be clothing, lifestyle, music, art, photography, literature etc). Good Italian double-breasted suits – Armani, Canali, Zegna. I just went to my closet to count my suits: 32. Of course, gotta have shoes to go with the suit. I like Allen Edmonds; I’ve got 19 pair.

A few years ago I was ambling down Main Street downtown, all dressed up in my Armani suit, when I was approached by a local newspaper columnist. He asked me about my suit, said he was writing a column on how badly dressed area professionals tend to be. We commiserated, shared a laugh at the yokels with their baglike “two for one” Joseph Banks suits, he took my name and off I went. A week later I read his column; he names me the Best Dressed Guy in town. 1.3 million people in this town, mind you, half I presume are guys. I had to chuckle. Not bad for a kid who at 18 was a high-school dropout who drove a laundry truck in Paterson, New Jersey to pay the rent and who owned one ill-fitting suit bought at JCPenney which I used for the infrequent wedding or funeral of a friend.

What I didn’t tell him was that I buy all my suits used, on Ebay. The Armani I had on that day, with a tag from some high-end clothier in California, I’d paid $35 for. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $100 for a suit. Same with the shoes. I’m lucky; I’m a perfect 42 regular and a perfect size 9 shoe. If you know what you’re looking for, you can score some killer deals on used suits. Just make sure the pant waist and length are good and the jacket falls into place by a natural logic.  I rarely alter them in any way. Take em out of the box, have em pressed and start wearing them. So what if the original owner is dead. As long as he didn’t die with the suit on, I’m good with it.

If there’s been one obsession as long-standing and profound as my camera obsession, it’s motorcycles. I’ve had at least one almost continuously since I was 12. Gotta be a sportbike – light, aerodynamic, fast. At the height of my cycling insanity I had 6 in the garage, a few Ducatis, a few Aprilias, the stray KTM, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda. 20 years ago I was spending insane amounts of money ( insane for me at least) buying, selling, modifying, tracking, racing motorcycles. I retain the broken bones, permanently concussed goofiness, dead friends and depleted bank accounts as proof. Luckily for me, I woke up a few years ago and said “enough is enough,” shortly after I attended the funeral of a friend, 34 years of age and with the world by the balls, who killed himself on a typically insane group ride through North Carolina backroads, and then a few weeks later came milliseconds from killing myself and an innocent cruiser rider out for an easy Sunday ride who had decided to make a U-turn in the road at the crest of a hill. Safe enough to do if you assume everyone else behind you is doing approximate legal speeds; much more dicey when some idiot (me) is hammering up the road at closing speeds of 145mph on a 400lb 180hp bullet. Luckily we both survived our encounter. I went home, took off my leathers, cleaned out my shorts, and vowed never again. Sold all my bikes (except one, which sits under a tarp in the backyard). I have no interest in riding it. Funny how that works.

400lbs of head-warping, sphincter clenching fun. Forged Magnesium Wheels, Full Titanium Exhaust, Ohlins suspension, all the usual go-fast engine work etc. Pushed out about 180 rear wheel hp. I’d reached such a level of insanity that it often didn’t feel fast enough.

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Presently, I’ve whittled my obsessions down to three: bikes, books, and cameras. Bikes I’m keeping in check. Just have four (well 7 really, if you count the 3 around town bikes) and given one or two always seems to have a flat tire or broken spoke or something, that seems about right. You need at least one ‘climbing bike’ (very light), 2 general road bikes (with varying wheel depths) and one ‘winter training bike’ (to ride in the rain and muck). A couple need to be carbon framed, one needs to be aluminum framed, and, for authenticity’s sake, you should have an old steel frame, preferably a hand-built lugged frame from the 70’s, rebuilt with modern groupset and deepdish carbon wheels that can serve as an excellent pedagogical device as I dump younger hotshot cyclists on their 13 lb carbon bikes while climbing extended 7% grades. I’ve pretty much got all that covered.

Books are a lost cause. My house is full of them. They spill out of every nook and cranny of the place. 15 years ago, the collection having reached fire hazard stage, I held a “Free Book Giveaway Party”, inviting friends who, in return for bringing a decent bottle of wine, got to take home as many books as they liked. That helped, but 15 years later I’m back where I left off,  books everywhere. My wife, who also loves books but is privy to our monthly Amazon bill, has brokered a resolution – don’t give them away, but don’t buy any more. Instead, start re-reading all of them. That should keep me busy for awhile. Makes sense, and in the last few months I’ve reread a bunch of stuff I’d forgotten was so good – Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and undoubtedly the funniest book ever written, Portnoy’s Complaint; JB Priestly’s Journey Down the Rainbow; various Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost; River of Shadows; The Faraway Nearby); and, feeling frisky, Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (I walked past Dante’s house in Florence this summer; figured I’d read his book again as an adult to see what all the fuss was about. Overrated. If I’m going to read antiquated “serious” lit, give me humanist classics without the medieval theological claptrap – The Iliad, The Aeneid etc. Even then, I’m skeptical whenever I’m told I must love something because it’s old and venerated, like Homer or Shakespeare. I get that the Iliad is a 3000 year old construction of an ongoing oral bardic tradition, but I’d easily consign it to the flames forever if it was a choice between it or Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a 20th Century masterpiece that speaks as if it were written with me in mind. As for Shakespeare, don’t even get me started (I say this as someone who in a previous life spent a semester at Exeter College, Oxford reading Shakespeare)).

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And then there’s the camera obsession, my oldest and most difficult to uproot. Difficult because I’m not sure it’s really about cameras per se. I’ve struggled to parse out the difference between a fixation on cameras and a larger love of photography. Granted, I retain a preference for the types of cameras that helped form my initial enthusiasm for photography, but if I think about it, that enthusiasm was ultimately the product of the photographs, in my case not the studied, mannered photos of an Ansel Adams, who seemed to be the one photographer even those with no interest in photography knew and admired, but even in my youth seemed to be a grittier sort, the emphasis being on what the photo conveyed and not the dexterity of the conveyance.

And maybe that’s where my ambivalence about present-day Leicas comes from. Back in the day, Leicas to me were the embodiment of that grittier photographic ethos, of photos grabbed on the fly in less than optimal conditions by ‘real’ photographers who were all about the shot. They had a certain cache that came from their status as brilliantly simple yet effective tools, tools that had been crafted to meet a specific purpose with a utilitarian efficiency. Nothing superfluous, no unnecessary adornments, no compromises dictated by prevailing photographic fashion. That seemed to me the epitome of cool, a sort of anti-fashion that in its purity rose to its own level of fashion. Fashionable precisely because it didn’t aspire to fashion; to use a Leica was to be above fashion, a statement of indifference to anything but the art of photography itself.

Now, of course, it seems precisely the opposite. Photography for the sake of fashion. Owning a Leica is now the functional equivalent of wearing the Canali suit so you can show people the tag, or parading up Rodeo Drive at 25mph on your 200hp Ducati wearing full Dainese race leathers when any decent rider in jeans and t-shirt on a Kawasaki 250 would lose you around the first set of good curves, or spending $10,000 for a 12lb Colnago bike with all the expensive carbon parts while you’re too lazy to lose the extra 10lbs around your waist. In the age of the boutique Leica, the photographic end has been detached from the means. All bling, no substance (or at least no interest in substance). Better yet if it’s bling dressed up to look like a serious working camera – weathered black paint the latest craze; throw it in that Magnum inspired Ono bag (just be careful cause you might scratch it up yourself). Hell, you can even get one weathered from the factory, weathered to precise specifications by Leica artisans. Perfect camera for the moronic ‘look at me’ Facebook/Youtube generation or some second rate derivative talent like Lenny Kravitz.

Notes From Home

Me, somewhere in Italy,  a la Vivian Maier

As some of you may have noticed, Leicaphilia went dark for a bit, partly out of negligence and partly from ambivalence. This summer saw a number of personal and professional issues come to the fore – let’s call it an existential interlude – (“crisis” probably being too strong a word) – the end result being that keeping up with the site got pushed way down on my list of priorities. An interesting thing happened along the way, however: I got lots of emails (and even a call to a relative) inquiring about my well-being, which is nice. I do appreciate them all. And yes, I’m fine, thank you very much. Other than being 15 lbs heavier from eating too much pizza and drinking too much wine while in Italy, I’m good.

The larger question, the source of the ambivalence, remains the issue of whether this blog – the emphasis on film photography generally and Leica film cameras in particular- has anything  left to say. I’ve been publishing it for 5 (?) years, or thereabouts, and it often seemed to me that recently I’ve been simply refashioning the same argument over and over e.g. I love old mechanical film Leicas, I love both the craft and the aesthetics of film photography, and I think we do photography an injustice when we consider the practice of film photography an anachronism. So, I was seriously considering just shutting it down without further ado and going back to whatever else I’d go back to were I not thinking about such topics.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), based on the response I’ve got after going dark, some of you seem to miss it and think it fills a niche. I was especially taken with a guy who contacted me through the Leica Forum to inquire what was up. He liked the blog because it was the only place on the web where someone might discuss both photography and Wittgenstein. I like that, and he’s right: I’m of the opinion that Wittgenstein and others, ostensibly “philosophers” without any real connection to photography as a practice, might have interesting ideas which apply to how one thinks about photography and what we do as “photographers.”

Paris, August 2017. Shot with an iphone

My recent trip to Italy and France – which I documented in my last few posts – also contributed to the ambivalence. While I took an M4, a few lenses and bag bag of film, I ended up barely using them, opting instead to use my iphone 6, as much an impromptu decision as a calculated plan. I just got sick of dragging a camera bag everywhere I went, and I saw no real need to reflexively engage everything with a camera to my eye. For travelling light, you simply can’t beat a camera phone, and it helps when it doubles as your phone, laptop, map, compass, flashlight, ipod and notepad. But I also saw two exhibitions of film photography – one of various photographers at Museo di Roma in Trastevere, the other a Walker Evans exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris that I was fortunate to be walked through before hours (knowing people has its perks) – both of which renewed my belief that nothing digital is capable of matching the simple beauty of black and white film photography.

7 am, Paris. Cycling through Paris early morning is a great way to see the sites

Now home, I’m procrastinating dealing with the seemingly inevitable problems that come along with iPhone photography, the first and most obvious of which is that most of the photos I took are no longer on my phone but in ‘the Cloud,’ and, of course, I can’t get into ‘my’ Cloud. Meanwhile, the 8 rolls of film I took are waiting to be developed, no ‘Cloud’ or password or whatever the hell else needed. Just some Diafine and an 8 roll tank. More to come soon, I promise.