Category Archives: Leica History

Josef Koudelka’s Wristwatch

Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM

The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.

Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.

Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.

Determining anything more from within the four corners of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we need context.

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On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.

Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.

The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?  

At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells you as much.

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There are two aspects of ethics implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?

The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it.  This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable.  The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.

Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’

Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.

Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”

As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas  – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.

In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.

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I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.

Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.

The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.

Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.

 Superficially, the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context within which the photo exists.

The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.

The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.

Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.

The Leica KE-7A

The KE-7A is a specialized black chrome M4 made in 1972 by Leitz in their Midland Canada plant and offered in a limited run of 505 pieces  for the U.S. Army. 460 of those units were acquired by the Army. Where the remaining 45 civilian pieces went is unclear.

KE-7As were fitted with modified shutters to operate in temperatures to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, were dust sealed for military field conditions and made to withstand explosive concussion (i.e. bomb blast). The 460 military versions were engraved to indicate that they were standard issue US Army property ( specifically, each with FSN (Federal Stock Number), Cont. (contract designation), and U.S. (United States) markings) and came supplied with a Leitz Midland made 50mm f2 “Elcan”.  The Elcan 50mm f2  (“Elcan” being a contraction of “Ernst Leitz Canada”) was constructed of 4 elements for minimum size for military use. Where the “KE-7A” designation comes from is anyone’s guess.

In 1972, the M4 had been discontinued and replaced by the M5. I can only assume that the Army had placed its order during M4 production and Leitz were committed to provide a camera based on the M4 design. As with all assumptions, this may be wrong.

Is There Still Room for Serious Photographers in the Clown Car That is Leica?

Mixed Signals

As of April of this year, SlimStats, a WordPress plug-in that tracks site visits, claims that I’ve topped 1 million visits by unique IP addresses, with a little less than 5 million hits, to the site. Half of that has been in the last year.

I know, in the larger scheme of things, those numbers are small potatoes, a fraction of what established sites like Steve Huff or the other guy’s, whatshisname, but then again, how many people are interested enough in Leica cameras to follow a blog like this? Frankly, I’m amazed and baffled…but also really grateful for my readers and all they’ve contributed. I’ve met wonderful people through the site, and learned a lot from readers far more knowledgeable than me. I’ve been invited places and done things I’d never have gotten to do were it not for good folks who occasionally read me.

A few thank-you’s are probably in order. First, thanks to everyone who has written a blog comment with a compliment or dropped me an encouraging email when I’ve periodically disappeared. These mean a lot to me, simple acts of kindness from one human to another, the sort of thing that seems increasingly scarce in the wired environment. Had it not been for the encouragement, I’ve probably have inactivated the site by now, which would have been a loss, at least for me, because I find the fact that the site remains open and needful of new content occasionally keeps me involved in my photography and intellectually active.

Second, thanks for bearing with the increased abstraction of the subjects; my orientation to photography has always had a philosophical turn and I suppose it’s easy enough for me to go down intellectual rabbit-holes that aren’t of interest to most readers. I’ve tried to leaven the heavier stuff with the more mundane, and will continue to do so given the Leica cult makes ridicule not merely easy but required – Leica-land being a place where great photographers/artists like Frank, HCB, Koudelka et al and those of us who love and use the iconic film rangefinders must share space with the social climbers, stuffed shirts and gas bags currently associated with the iconic brand. Frankly, I tape over my Leica logos not to keep people from stealing my cameras but rather to prevent them associating me with the typical clowns who’ve seemed to have colonized and conquered a once great brand.

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It’s Leica’s radical turn to banality that both miffs and fascinates me, and its manifestations have been an unspoken but obvious focus of the site since its inception. Given my readership stats, it looks as if other people feel the same way. Listen: I get Leica Cameras AG is a capitalist business concern owned by the Blackstone Group, whose primary purpose is to make money. I get that one makes money by giving people what they want to buy, and if that means producing tacky trinkets and overpriced crap, or cynically trading on the inherited goodwill and name recognition of a brand, well, so be it, that’s their right. That doesn’t mean that that’s the honorable way forward, or that I, someone whose allegiance to the brand was created by farsighted business decisions of previous owners using the same brand – decisions that stressed simplicity and excellence of design and timelessness of product – should remain loyal to that ownership group and what they’ve done simply because they’ve bought the name. I suspect that Ernst Leitz is rolling over in his grave seeing the shameful spectacle currently associated with the brand. Is it Leica AG’s fault that it attracts the hucksters and hangers-on that it does? Not necessarily, but it seems to me they’re at least silently complicit with it, what with their glow-in-the-dark designer Leicas and celebrity editions cynically cranked out to maximize their market –  or their at least tacit approval of self-promoting charlatans fleecing naive and unsuspecting consumers – that they at the very least encourage it by corporate bad taste.

Joseph Koudelka – an iconic image with an iconic Leica M….errr Exacta**

How does one square all this nonsense – what I refer to as the ‘Overgaardization’ of the brand, with its remarkable history? What does any of this have to do with Ernst Leitz, the functionally brilliant 35mm Leicas, HCB, Robert Frank, the M3, the incredible history of Leica within photo-journalism, the precise mechanical jewels which built Leica’s reputation – the Leica I,I, III, the M2, M3, M4? It seems to me that we have an obligation to the excellence that’s come before, that’s been created and sustained by the brilliance of the past, to honor and protect it and see that it’s transferred to new generations of photographers. We as traditional photographers – film users – learned in traditional forms of the practice, forms that have been in use for the past 120 years, are tasked with passing that information on to the next generation of image makers, a digital generation largely unfamiliar with photographic history who wouldn’t know of the exceptional tradition embodied by Leica without our input. We are the stewards, the trustees, of that tradition, and it’s our obligation to see that it gets properly transmitted to posterity.

Robert Frank, Self-Portrait, Paris 1999

Likewise, Leica AG are the stewards of Leica’s history. Their decisions, either cynical or far-sited, will have immense significance for the Leica brand going forward. The question is: What do they owe us, traditional Leica lovers and users, the base that got them where they are, today? I’m not sure I can answer that question, except to say that they can do a hell of a lot better than some of the tacky things they’re currently doing or encouraging by default. Certainly, they can do better than this. Frankly, I think that some of them should be ashamed of themselves.


**As noted to me by astute readers, Koudelka’s Gypsy series was not shot with a Leica but rather with an Exacta. He used 2 Exakta cameras with 25 mm Flektogon lenses and ORWO 400 film. Koudelka switched to a Leica after he left Czechoslovakia and became member of Magnum. I assume Leicas were expensive and rare in communist Czechoslovakia. I prefer to leave my mistake up, however, because it’s humbling and should remind you that you shouldn’t believe everything I say without confirming it for yourself, which is good as a general rule of life.

Amelia Earhart’s Leica….

…is up for sale by some guy on Ebay. 70K. Rest assured, it’s legit. Ms. Earhart was kind enough to sign some paperwork saying it’s her’s before she boarded her plane (the paperwork “almost like new”):

Im selling Amelia Earharts camera which was gifted by her to a family memeber in 1933 after returning back from a  trip to Chicago with her Husband.
The camera has been in my family possesion since that time and has been in long term storage, the camera appears to be working correctly.
The hand signed card was personally signed by Amelia and given to my Grandfather  along with the camera by Amelia Earhart back in 1933 in Rye New York
Everything is authentic , Ive known this camera all my life
the signed card is almost like new as it has been stored carefully
will post world wide
I would like the camera to go to a museum if possible.
Please note I have absolutley nothing to prove that this was in fact Miss Earharts Camera and research would need to be done to confirm such, I have absolutely no idea how to do that myself. From memory over 40 years ago my Father told me that she found it fidly to load, Miss Earhart may have studied Photography , my Grandfather had said as much and described her as a keen photographer , she preffered a Kodak folding camera as I recall being told a very long time ago. she was also described as very nice and down to earth,

Could be true, I guess, although it reeks of the typical “Third Man Camera” scam. Apparently, the same camera had previously been up for auction last year in Glasgow with a similar story:

A RARE camera which belonged to American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart is to go under the hammer in Glasgow.The pilot’s prized possession will be just one of a collection of vintage and modern cameras to go on sale this month.

Around 120 lots belonging to photography enthusiast Ian Macdonald, from East Ayrshire, are to be auctioned off by McTear’s Auctioneers on March 24.The jewel in the crown is a Leica 1, which was gifted to Amelia Earhart by her husband George P Putnam.The black paint camera, which was made in 1929, is thought to have been given to Ian’s grandfather Wullie Macdonald when he worked for a cleaning firm that collected laundry from hotels and homes in New York.One of his jobs was to collect clothing from Earhart’s house in Rye and during a visiting in 1933, he commented on the aviator’s camera.

Earhart, who was the first women to fly solo across the Atlantic, told Wullie she preferred to use another model and gifted to him along with a signed card.It is expected to reach between £10,000 and £15,000 and includes a leather carry case, lens cap, range finder, two reloadable film cassettes and holder.

Ian said: “The story behind this camera is fascinating and of all the ones I own it definitely evokes the most emotion as it’s been in my family for so long.”My grandfather began the collection, then my father continued it until it was eventually passed down to me.”Over the years I’ve added to it but I feel now is the right time to sell and allow others to get enjoyment from these great cameras.”

“A Leica camera and accessories that once belonged to pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart, which is among a collection of Leicas, prototypes and other cameras due to be auctioned this month by McTear’s Auctioneers, Glasgow”

I don’t discount the possibility that the story is true and this was Amelia Earhart’s Leica, but my sense is it’s another half-baked scam designed to fool some hapless collector with more money than sense. You just need one, and God knows they’re plentiful in Leica land. However, if you’re going to command a $69,500 premium for the camera based on that claim, you’d better have the proof locked down. In this instance, the “proof” is his word based on a tall tale Grandpa Wullie told him and a signed note alleged to be from Ms. Earhart.  While living in Los Angeles in 1923, Earhart did work in a photography studio; and she and a friend later briefly operated their own photography business. But there seems to be nothing in the historical record indicating Earhart used a Leica; on the contrary, all evidence points to the fact that she used a Kodak folding camera (the seller has cleverly noted the same in his auction). There’s also another guy claiming he owns Amelia Earhart’s camera).

It’s usually the specificity of the story which raises the red flags – the fact that the camera was special ordered by a Busby Catenach of Wawatusa, Wisconsin; or the father’s notes indicating some crucial fact, contained in a letter dated 1946 complete with return address and zip code (US zip codes weren’t used until 1963); or, in this case, the claim that the camera “is thought to have been given” to Amelia in 1933 and then by Ms. Earhart to grandpa in the same year because she found it “fidly to use” whereupon in went into his collector’s vault along with the signed note – yet the camera looks very well-used, presumably by Ms. Earhart.

And who the hell just gives an expensive Leica with all the extra goodies – given to you, no less, by your husband as a present – to the laundry man when he asks about it? Think of all the potential universes out there, and tell me with a straight face you can see that happening in one of them. [ Laundry Guy: “Nice Leica, Ms. Earhart!” Amelia Earhart: “Yeah, it’s a beauty. George gave it to me for my birthday. He’s such a dreamboat, that George. How thoughtful of him! Want it?” Laundry Guy: “You mean, like for nothing?!?” Amelia Earhart: “Yup. And, while we’re at at, allow me to sign a card for you proving it’s from me. Maybe it’ll help you sell it for scads of money someday after I get lost at sea!” Laundry Guy: “Gee. Thank you, Ms. Earhart!” Amelia Earhart: “No problem…and Wullie? Make sure there’s extra starch in Georgie’s shirts”.]

And don’t get me started on the signed note: it simply looks too good, all shiny and new, and in a plastic sleeve no less, a sleeve which wouldn’t conceivably be commercially available until the 80’s, and darn, doesn’t that note fit all nice and snug in that plastic sleeve.

In other words, if Mr. Ian MacDonald thinks he’s on the level (and he may), it sure appears Grandpa Wullie’s been telling him one heck of a story. And if you’d “like to see the camera go to a museum,” then ring up a museum instead of hawking it on Ebay. Just a thought. At least he’s considerate enough to wear white gloves when he uses the thing.

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

*************

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.

 

Leica’s Continuing Appeal

Lars Netopil is vice president of the Leica Historical Society and the owner of the Leica Store Wetzlar Old-town). He is also an advisor for Leica Camera AG’s Historical Archive and Museum Department. The following is his take on the continued popularity of the Leica M line and the difference between a digital and film Leica:

Q: 60 Years of M-System – a history of highs and lows, but more than anything a history of a continuity, compatibility and charisma that is unprecedented in the camera industry. And that applies to both analogue and digital. With the M Edition 60, Leica have now released a digital model that seems the very embodiment of the M concept. How would you as a historian describe the secret behind the sheer timelessness of the rangefinder concept?

A: There have been, and still are, a number of great camera systems. However, the Leica, and in particular the Leica M, are in a different league: socially, emotionally and in terms of prestige. David Douglas Duncan voiced this when I spoke to him just recently. At an age of nearly 99, he looks back over 60 years of the M as an experienced photographer. You have already named one important factor – the system’s uncompromising compatibility. An M3from 1954 can still receive the full Leica service, and can be used with all contemporary M lenses without restrictions. This is globally unique in several ways. If you consider every M lens produced over the past sixty years to always have been the best in the world, this compatibility is certainly far from insignificant. Along with all of its technological merits, the prestige, according to Duncan, certainly also plays a part in the secret. To draw a parallel to the automobile market: A customer who buys a Ferrari, even just for the purpose of driving through Frankfurt, still has the winner’s podium of Formula One somewhere in his mind. Also, the Leica always was and still is a fashion item. This is something we currently notice most strongly with our customers in China. There, you “wear” a Leica – regardless of whether each and every customer necessarily utilises the true image capabilities of the lenses, or not. There is another factor I would like to address, and that’s the system’s permanence. A photographer who buys an analogue M does so for a lifetime. The same goes for M lenses.

It is very interesting to see the Leica M Edition 60. In essence, it is a digital M7 that has been stripped back to ISO control, TTL exposure meter and optional aperture priority mode. For the purpose of pure, truly concentrated photography it is probably the most attractive digital camera currently on the market. But it is digital nevertheless, meaning: an electronic product in the widest sense, whose validity is subject to a finite time period. To use an analogy: The tires on your car will one day have to be discarded, regardless of their superior quality, and even regardless of whether you wore them out on the road or kept them in perfect condition on your cherished collector’s car – even then, they will crack with the strain of time at some point. In the same vein, no matter how high-end the digital M’s opto-mechanical rangefinder may be, the rest of the camera is more or less a computer. This is why Leica made an excellent decision in creating the Leica M-A, illustrating a very clear commitment to analogue photography. In sixty years time, a contemporary M-A will still work just as remarkably as an M3 from 1954 does today. And the same goes for the M lenses, some of which will be 120 years old by then.

Who “Invented” Photography?

I expected I wouldn’t like this video, given that I ran across it while visiting figitalrevolution.com, wherein it was reviewed as such:

While watching this video the word Photography did not come to mind…. the words pretentious, obnoxious, stupid and misleading did. Over-the-top promotions like this are nothing but porn for the cult of Leica and make me fear for their survival as a viable tool.

The lie that runs at the heart of this video is offensive: Leica invented “photography”? What kind of revisionist history is that? Many of the images featured here were shot using 4×5 cameras- which came out of the studio LONG before Leica came on the scene.

It’s too bad, because recreating these iconic images from photographic history is an interesting idea. But twisted to their own ends, Leica just ends up tipping their hand: they’re looking desperate.

I watched it and liked it, thinking it was pretty much spot on in addition to being well done.

As for the reviewer: I get it. You don’t like Leica, apparently for some of the same reasons I’m critical of them. However, the claims made in this video – certainly hyperbole from a strictly true/false perspective – are, in my humble opinion, pretty much on point. Love em or hate em, Leica “invented” photography as we know it today. You can argue around the specifics, but the basic claim is correct. Credit where credit due….

 

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part Two

Florence

If you’re familiar with Leica history, you’ll know that the Leica revolutionized photography because it was small and light and allowed photographers to carry it with them wherever they went. Prior to the Leica, cameras were big and heavy and cumbersome, requiring tripods and supporting paraphernalia to laboriously process the results. The Leica conquered the world not because it produced the ‘best’ photos but because it got the shot, technical specifications secondary. Thus the long storied history of the Leica in the documentary tradition.

I’m reminded of this reality while traveling with my M4 and digital Ricohs, both of which I’ve rarely used on my current trip, mostly because I’m sick of lugging them around. I have burned a couple of rolls of film with the M4, but it’s mostly been shots of people dear to me, usually at homes of friends or out to dinner etc. And that’s because those are the photographs I want to last, because those are the photos that ultimately have meaning for me and it’s comforting to know I’ll have a negative, a physical thing to refer back to in the years ahead.

What I love about film is its permanence. In the last year I’ve been bulk scanning a lot of my negatives from when I was young and just learning photography, and what amazes me is how fresh those negatives are even close to 50 years later. Print them up again now, using the latest technology (Lightroom, Photoshop, Silver Effects, archival inkjet printing) and its almost as if I’ve been transported back through time, back again with family, friends and lovers long gone. A while ago I scanned and printed  a 40 year old negative of my first dog, a sweet little girl named Shannon I’d rescued from a shelter in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey. While our time together was short – a few years before I moved south and Shannon grew old and happy with a girlfriend’s family – she’s always remained special to me, and that photo, now framed and hanging in my bedroom where I see it every night from my bed, often triggers in me involuntary memories long forgotten, returning me almost palpably to another life and the ones I then loved. Loved ones only truly die when there’s no one to remember them anymore, and that picture, just a casual snap on an uneventful day, keeps her alive for me even though she’s been dead now for 30 years. I’m awed by this power photography possesses, the power to give permanence to these simple moments that mean everything in a life. Would that same photo shot digitally, a file nested somewhere on a hard drive, have survived for 40 years? I’m not sure. Why take the chance?

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Naples

So I’ve made a conscious decision to continue to shoot film for the reasons above. But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is that I don’t really need to lug cameras and bags around with me to document my trip. My iPhone works just fine. In fact, it works better than fine. While I’ve not yet printed any of them, at least insofar as they appear on a computer screen, they look great, at the very least a level of quality equal to that we expected from our 35mm cameras, and the ease of use is incredible, as is the ability to process the results creatively in a way undreamed of 10 years ago. All the photos used to illustrate this post were shot and post-processed with my iphone, all with a few quick easy keystrokes.

Two shots of a fascist era bulding in Naples, both with the iphone. using either Snapseed or Hipstamatic, I post-processed both right there on my phone in a minute or two.

In a real sense, given its convenience and ease of use, the iphone is the legitimate digital heir to the Leica legacy. Quick and easy, always in my pocket, I’ve gotten all sorts of photos I’d normally have missed. I think at this point, the technology having sufficiently matured, the stand-alone  camera is obsolete except for specific applications that require non-standard focal lengths or for those willing to do the extra work for increasingly marginal gains. But it will never completely negate the viability of film: When I want a photo I know will last, film it is.

The (Seeming) Rediscovery of the Leica M5

Some Guy named Nathan out and about using a Leica M5. This used to be very unusual.

As readers of Leicaphilia know, I am a big fan of the Leica M5. I think it’s the best metered Leica ever made. I’ve clearly been in a distinct minority over the years, more like a member of a lunatic fringe in my love of the M5, and have been since the inception of the M5 in the early 70’s. I remember seeing the ads for the M5 in Modern Photography, back when I was an impressionable kid compulsively thumbing through photography magazines like other kids did their dad’s Playboy.  In 1971 Leitz Wetzlar promised me that the M5 was now the pinnacle of the Leica M system, both an evolutionary and revolutionary advance in the iconic system. There it sat, at the top of the camera store ads in the back of the photography mags (along with the utterly weird Alpa SLR, but that’s a story for another day), imposing and yet aloof, top of the 35mm food chain, beckoning the increasingly select few who still might value the uncompromised excellence of a Leica and were willing to pay a hefty premium to own one.

Unfortunately, most leicaphiles met the M5 with skepticism or outright disdain because it was “too big,” or aesthetically ungainly, or just too different, or whatever. In short, just wrong. Such opinions were invariably a function of our mediated reality; potential buyers saw the pictures, read the reviews, assimilated other’s ignorance as truth, and most decided to pass, usually optIng for an SLR system then all the rage – a ubiquitous Nikon F/F2 or Canon F1. Most of these folks never bothered to actually use one, relying instead on the hive-mind to tell them what they should think about it (and if they’re still around, they’ve likely carried that prejudice forward).

Try googling “Leica M5 Photographer Images.” You’ll get me and Nathan and this guy. That’s it.

I meanwhile, was too young and stupid to know any better, a trait I’ve happily carried into late adulthood. Being a contrarian since birth, I wasn’t going to be content with a Nikon F or F2, or a Canon F1 (ultimately not enough for my elitist tastes even then) so I saved my money and eventually bought one, because, well, that’s what I wanted, damn it. A Leica M5. Back then that was the functional equivalent of an 15 y/o kid saving to buy a Lenny Kravitz Leica with his paper route money. I was nothing if not dedicated to the idea.

That M5 is still with me, while most every other Leica I’ve owned over the years has come and gone. Certainly there’s a measure of nostalgia involved, the inability to part with a camera that’s accompanied me for 40 years; never underestimate the emotional resonance of things long held and valued, things that come with time to define who you are. In my mind, I’ll always be an M5 guy.

*************This is how you’re supposed to hold it, Nathan

Which brings me to the point of this story. Up until a few years ago us M5 guys were pretty thin on the ground, as in almost non-existent. Arguing for the M5 was a sisyphean task. No sooner had you laboriously pushed the rock up the hill than it came tumbling back down amidst a torrent of ignorant condescension, usually by the very people who should have known better. I remember as recently as 2004, while living in Paris, running across a guy in the street with two M5’s around his neck. Two? Hell, it’d probably been 20 years since I’d seen anybody with one. My dear friend, a well-known, successful photographer, an otherwise thoughtful man with exceptional taste and a Leica film camera guy to the core, laughs at my M5 fixation. He refuses my standing offer to even use it, sniffling contemptuously as if it might sully his hands. M5 prejudice, like M5 love, for whatever reason, runs deep, much like theology, politics or sexual mores, almost hard-wired.

Yours Truly, holding my M5 in the approved manner

But a funny thing has seemingly happened along the way. The M5 has suddenly become cool. Hip even. I’m seeing threads on different photo forums extolling the charms the the M5, multi-page threads no less, of gearheads posting fawning photos and odes to this previously much -maligned bastard son of the Leica M series. Maybe the diehard iconic M lovers, along with their reflexive dismissal of the M5, are slowly being weeded out of the Leica gene pool through death and the inevitable generational shifts that come along with time. Just maybe the prejudice against the M5, so obvious for so long, has dissipated enough that a new generation of Leicaphiles can see the camera for what it is without having to contend with the studied ignorance of inherent prejudices.

And maybe, just maybe, Leicaphilia has had something to do with it. I’ve been pimping the M5 since I started the blog a few years ago, pimping it at every available opportunity – because I can.  And I can’t help but notice that the seeming rediscovery of the M5 has coincided with the popularity of the blog. A coincidence only? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows. I’d like to think that I’ve had a little something to do with it, but then again it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leicaphiles are finally seeing the M5 for what it is – a damn fine Leica M.