Category Archives: Leica History

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.

 

PICTO Paris

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Some time ago I received an email from Jean-Pierre Favreau, a gentleman from Paris who reads the blog, enquiring if I might put him in contact with George Fèvre, a man I knew from my days in Paris. George had been the master printer at PICTO, the venerable Parisian photo lab that handled Magnum’s film output. If you’ve seen a Cartier-Bresson or Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, George probably printed it. In addition to being an amazing darkroom printer, George was a wonderful man. It turns out that Mr. Favreau had worked at PICTO with George many years ago. Unfortunately, I had to inform Mr. Favreau that George had died a few years ago. I asked Mr. Favreau if he would tell me of his time at PICTO and he kindly sent back a reply (and also a piece he wrote about first visiting NYC as a photographer in 1981 which I’ll someday get around to publishing as a separate piece). I’ve translated his reply from the French and have included it here below.

For some context: In January 1950, Pierre Gassmann opened PICTORIAL SERVICE in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, six enlargers arranged around a long tank tray.  Lucky him – his first clients were the founding members of Magnum Photos – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Chim, William Klein, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat. The Magnum guys soon dubbed Gassmann’s lab “PICTO,” and Gassmann eventually embraced the name himself.

PICTO thereafter grew with the rapid development of press, fashion and advertising photography in the 50’s. In 1963 Edy Gassmann, son of Pierre, opened PICTO Montparnasse dedicated to color photography. With the help of Paulette Gassmann, his wife, he ultimately created multiple PICTO sites dedicated to specific services. PICTO Front de Seine opened in 1969 followed in 1984 by a high-end print workshop in Rue de Rennes. In 1985, Edy opened  PICTO Defense, one of the first European labs handling digital technology. in 1989, PICTO Bastille opened, dedicated to black and white and Fine Art photography.

041-petersphotoalbum2Pierre Gassmann and Peter Turnley at PICTO, 1983

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By Jean-Pierre Favreau

At the time I started working at PICTO I didn’t know that it was one of the most prestigious labs in the world. I was young and ignorant.  I had first arrived there in the mid-60’s, via Vavin Metro station, then onto the Boulevard Montparnasse, past the Dome and into Rue Delambre. A few steps later I arrived in front of a beautiful building where PICTO had recently moved.

I was met by George Smith. Mr. Smith was a charming man, smiling and polite. Very intimidated, I explained to him my situation – I’d like to work in his photo lab. At the end of our conversation, he asked me to do an internship in one of the labs to learn a bit and to see how I’d do, and then I would take a test the following week to see if I was skilled enough to work there. That day I met Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Boubat, Koudelka and Lartigue.  When I think back on it now I’m astonished that I worked with greats like them.

Luckily, I passed my test. George then introduced me to Pierre Gassmann, founder of PICTO , himself a great photographer. Mr. Gassmann hired me; I suspect it was actually a favor because he did not really need anyone else.

It was then that I met George Fèvre. George was the great PICTO printer. It was the golden age of PICTO, daily servicing 15-20 Magnum and other Black and White shooters,  without counting the night service. We worked like crazy. Often Mr. Gassmann, after periods of great activity, especially the fashion shows which lasted a week, would take us all out to dinner at La Rotonde or La Coupole. Those were fun times.

A famous negative. Those are George Fevre’s fingers.

PICTO eventually launched three other labs in Paris, and I eventually moved on to different things. Today, after the invasion of digital, it only has one lab dedicated to traditional silver halide processing and printing.

I ran across George Fèvre again only a few years ago. George always had this kindness and a warm smile in his eyes. He told me he was thinking of opening his own lab and seeing my satisfaction, offered me a job, which astonished me – his typical generosity . But travelling as frequently as I was at the time, we never again met up and I heard no more about George. On learning of his death, I was seized with a great sadness and blamed myself for not visiting him more often.  We often forget that the people who’ve helped us the most, and have been influential in our lives, may one day disappear. I would have loved to see him again, to talk about those good years and the famous negatives that passed through his hands, from which he created iconic prints with his incredible skill. I will miss him.

The Leica Appeal

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” No batteries, no circuitry or electrical elements, no motor – just impeccably tuned mechanical parts, working harmoniously to produce a controlled result. This description could fit a number of objects: bicycles, musical instruments and traditional watches spring to mind. Cameras, however, do not.

Since the 1980s, the consumer photography industry has been obsessed with electronic features. Digital cameras, obviously electrical, dominate the market today, but even in the latter days of film, motor winders, autofocus, electronic zooms and automatic exposure were aggressively marketed as tools to make photography ‘easier’. This obscured the fact that, at its heart, photography is a mechanical process. All that is required to take a picture is a light-sensitive material (either film or a digital sensor) and a shutter to allow light to hit that material

…..So what is the modern appeal of Leica cameras? In this world of plastic digital models, reliant on technology that becomes outdated every few years, Leicas offer something different: an antidote to gear-focused consumerism that distracts from the artistic process. The Leica M3, which many still regard as the pinnacle of the company’s efforts, features just two controllable elements: the aperture of the lens (i.e. how much light it lets in) and the shutter speed (i.e. how long it allows light in). This means there’s nothing in the way of the photographer and their creative vision – nothing to go wrong, once experience takes human error out of the equation….”

-Temoor Iqbal, writing in European CEO Magazine

A PJ’s Continued Love Affair with his Leicas

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

How did you first come to use Leica cameras?

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

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

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

Why do you continue to use Leicas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Leica In A Bag

Bag with Leica“Leica Leitz KE-7A Set Sealed Unopened Extremely Rare”

Schouten Select Cameras is offering a Leica KE-7A on Ebay for $45,300. Apparently the fact that it comes in a bag pushes the price up by $5000:

As said the camera is offered as originally sold in a sealed and unopened paper bag. A x-ray photo is included to show the contains of the box. You see these kind of camera more but the rarity of this camera is that it is offered in the original sealed paper bag. Although I do not advise I can open the bag to inspect the camera for you at a Euro 5000 nonrefundable deposit. If you decide not to buy at any reason the deposit will not be refunded as the value will then be less. The set is offered without any warranty. Bank transfers only for this item. Picture no. 7 is a sample photos and not photos of the actual item (thanks to Leica Store Lisse – Foto Henny Hoogeveen).

Only you can decide if the bag is worth an extra $5000. Here is the actual bag:

Leica-KE-7A-1294805_04A Bag Worth $5000 because it purportedly has a Leica in It

Does that mean a buyer can pay $40,300 and have Schouten keep the bag?

Apparently, Schouten also gives you the option, not of buying the camera (or the bag) but of looking in the bag – for $5000. You don’t get the bag, you just get to look in it. How many looks you get for $5000, or whether they charge $5000 a look, remains unclear.

In any event, Schouten promises you there actually is a Leica KE-7A in the bag, and not a brick. They’re offering an X-Ray, purportedly taken of the bag, as proof. How you could possibly tell that what you’re looking at in the X-Ray is a KE7A, or whether the X-Ray is even of the bag (could it be an X-Ray of another bag?) I’m not sure. For $43,500, you’re simply going to have to take their word. Whether they plan on charging you to look at the X-Ray remains unclear as well.

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fake scultureFor Sale: One of 4 Genuine “Fake Leica Leitz Sculptures”

If a Leica In A Bag is not exotic enough for you,  or if your inability to look into the bag absent handing over $5000 in cash to some Dutch guy selling the bag is a dealbreaker for you, Schouten will sell you a “Fake Leica Leitz Sculpture” for $83,750, and they’ll throw in One Day Shipping, anywhere in the world. Absolutely Free.

Apparently, the guy who made this made several editions: a “Huge Fake Leica”, a “Small Fake Leica”, a “Fake Leica” in gold and a Fiberglass model. Offered is the “Small Fake” one. It is not in a bag, and is available to be looked at. As best one can tell, you will not be charged to look at it.

What model Leica it purports to be is unclear. It has the angled rewind crank of an M4, a red dot of an M4-P, a battery housing of an m6 or m7, and a slow shutter speed dial of a Leica III, which leads me to surmise that the guy who made it is Russian.

Digital Technology and Its Discontents

Kubrick 2arab

Photo A:  A Man With a Leica, Circa 1950. Photo B: A Man With a Leica, Circa 2015. What Does The One Have to Do With The Other?

I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted not having it around. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon. But the economy of means possessed by the film cameras somehow feels absent in the Digital M’s, the traditional M’s restrained simplicity having crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.

The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8  it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end. The respective experiences themselves bear almost no relation to each other. You might as well be engaged in different activities. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?

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The tools you use to create structure what you create. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that genuine agency arises in the context of submission to the tools we use, tools that have their own intractable ways. The important thing to remember, if you agree with Crawford, is that the experience we can have is dependant on the tool we chose to use. The design of a tool conditions the kind of involvement we will have in the activity. Some tools are better adapted to the requirements of skillful, unimpeded action, while other tools can prevent skillful self-assertion and can compromise the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world.

I would argue that this is especially true for photography. You can choose digital technology for its quickness and ease of use, but at the certain cost to your own creative autonomy and of your experience of the craft you are engaged in. Or you can use traditional analogue processes and more fully engage your own skillful involvement to create something.

valeAA014-Edit

Valentina, Red’s Java House, San Francisco, Arista.edu 400 @800 iso in Diafine.

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While the digital/analogue argument will seem a tired exercise in nostalgia for most photographers, there remain deep biological factors at play that militate against it ever being completely resolved for some of us. Historically, creating something required a tactile interaction with materials and substances, the result of a deep intelligence that could not be learned without material manipulation and embodied experiences and an understanding of the cause and effect relationship that exists between actions and their consequences.

The hand and handiwork is a major thing that sets humans apart as a species. The earliest divergence of the species that evolved into modern humans began with an evolutionary reconfiguration of the hand allowing sophisticated tool use. You can make the case that this is, literally, what defines us as human animals, and argue that rationality, what is commonly understood to be the uniquely human, came along as a byproduct of the use of tools, as sort of a evolutionary development of the neural software necessary for tool use.

Digital virtuality is propelling us further and further away from physical, tangible experience. What is lacking in the new digital photographic paradigm is the physical experience of photography, the activity that has traditionally constituted photography, the physical making as part of the creative process. The singular final print, the end result of a chosen process of varieties of film, the mechanics of the camera, the physical activities of developing and printing.

We are in danger of losing the sense of the photograph as a physical thing. A photograph is not only seen—it is touched, read, received and manipulated. It is fully appreciated only as a product of this physical relationship, and in that relationship it will always remain elusive, a handmade object irreducible to any single dimension. The most detailed digital rendering, what you might view on your computer screen,  preserves only a vestige of the physical photograph’s real, dynamic nature. Yes, you can print a digitally produced photograph, but how many people do?

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Contemporary photography has a certain look, a function of its technology. It’s the reason many of us still shoot film. Some of us still see certain creative possibilities in ‘The Film Look’ that aren’t given us with digital capture. So, if and when digital technology advances to the point that it can reproduce the appearance of films and formats precisely, will the process of analogue alone be enough to keep some of us using it? For hand made processes, where their idiosyncrasies are intrinsic to the print, undoubtedly. But what of industrial films, which were designed to react with light in a consistent way without variation?

To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation. We should love the doing of it and do it for that reason. And I think a big part of this is engagement in the process, and in that respect I find traditional photographic processes much more rewarding, partly because they embody a certain set of skills that reward detailed attention and experienceThe analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave. The film process is a gourmet meal cooked with attention to every step in the process. Film process – how demanding it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, but it’s also why film is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for the average guy who just wants to photograph something.

Analogue users belong to the future because they are guardians of the past. Let’s hope we film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?

Another Leica Fish Story

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

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

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

———————————————-

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

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

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

•Leica 72 Half Frame Camera

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

• a 250 Reporter GG

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

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

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

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

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

The Young Man chimed in an said:

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

I requested of the young lady:

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

She replied:

“Why?”

I replied:

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

MP 39 2

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

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

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

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

Why I (Still) Love Leica

leica m-a 2In a world where most manufacturers have abandoned all-metal construction and favor automated assembly, Leica M bodies and lenses continue to push the envelope of supremely compact, superbly constructed, photographic tools. Their newest optical offerings, the 24/1.4 and 28/1.4, continue the tradition of cost-is-no-object over-the-top excellence for which Leica is known.

You have to pay through the nose for it, yes, but a Leica product is always going to be as good as it gets; certainly its never going to be just average, or worse, mediocre. Leica’s philosophy of cost-is-no-object excellence may not be compatible with your wallet, but it’s consistent with its history, where no compromise excellence has always been the guiding principle.

Leica doesn’t release a product and immediately orphan it. Witness the sensor kerfuffle with the M9, a camera which is now 8 years long in the tooth. Your 2008 M9 sensor having problems in 2016? No problem – send it to Leica for a free replacement. That’s commitment to one’s product. Of course, critics will point out that, given Leica’s price points, that should be expected. Both perspectives are correct, but give Leica credit for meeting its end of the bargain, which, in this age of rapacious capitalism and corporations whose main object is not to serve their client base but rather screw them as quickly and efficiently as possible, seems an increasingly a quaint anomaly.

Leica doesn’t release marginal lenses for high prices to protect their higher-end products. Leica doesn’t release marginal anything (with the obvious exception of some of the more ridiculous collector’s editions, which seem to me almost an ironic inside corporate joke). Leica’s design and philosophy is simple and well-known. Create the best, cost be damned. Make people pay for it, and be proud of it. If you don’t like it, feel free to go elsewhere.

No other camera company is doing that. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, all of them, in addition to some stellar top of the line stuff, release marginal lenses, cheap cameras, incoherent products; and when the do offer a good product, they usually abandon them in short order, moving on to the next gimmick to sell to what they clearly consider a gullible and easily fleeced client base. Fuji is the only other company that even comes close to Leica’s design philosophy, and you can see the attraction Fuji’s products have for aspiring digital Leicaphiles; a Fuji has become the standard entry level Leica alternative for those looking for what Leica offers but unwilling or unable to afford the price premium.

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155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0As an example of differing design philosophies, let’s talk about how digital camera companies design well-corrected lenses.  Digital technology has opened new opportunities for camera companies to make “better” optics via software correction. In camera, previously destructive things such as aberration, distortion, vignetting, and flare can be reduced or eliminated via software tuned to the characteristics of a particular lens. Olympus and Panasonic have taken this philosophy and run with it.

The result is a natively poor lens optically that can be made to perform like a better lens due to  the software running behind it. Go to a website that measures raw distortion and look up the specs of some of the lenses offered with current digital cameras. The native distortion is off the charts. I’m talking 6%. Back in the days before software correction, a 6% distortion would be considered a broken lens.

There are two 12mm prime lenses for the Micro 4/3 system: the SLR Magic f/1.6 and the Olympus f/2.0. The SLR Magic has distortion of 1.26% and costs $500. The Olympus has distortion of 5.4% and costs $800. Moreover, the SLR Magic is nearly a full stop brighter. In fairness, the Olympus is sharper and does correct aberrations in-lens, but in the battle of optical quality, the SLR Magic wins. And it’s less expensive. The moral of the story: Olympus thinks its client base are gullible idiots who’ll buy shoddy goods at inflated prices because of the label attached to it. Ironic, because that’s what Leica haters have been accusing Leica of doing for years. Leica does not do this. It may offer you something expensive, but it won’t ever be cheaply made. If someone at Leica ever even floated that idea as a viable business strategy, I suspect he would be forced to commit a Teutonic variation of seppuku.

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leica_m-a_black_frontLeica is not offering you a photographic tool designed as a cheap commodity, replaceable every few years. They’re not asking you to buy into a system thats going to be orphaned in short order. They’re not offering you average optics at inflated prices; they’re offering you exceptional optics at a price point that justifies the venture. And yet, a lot of irrational anger seems directed at Leica, usually by people with only a passing knowledge of its history.

It’s cheap optics at inflated prices that should make you angry. Plastic cameras that fall apart in a year should make you angry (yes, you Sony, with your NEX cameras. My wife has had two; they’re both computerized pieces-of-shit that became non-functional in short order). Abandoned systems should make you angry because the value of a lens is at least partially dependent on how much you can sell it for in the future, and if that lens is for a system that’s obsolete, you’ve now got an expensive paperweight.

So, after all is said and done, I would never buy brand a new Leica digital camera or one of their lenses, mainly because I can’t afford it, or even if I could, other less expensive digital offerings meet whatever needs I require of a digital capture device. When I want to take photographs, I’m happy to totter around with my film Leicas and my vintage lenses. However, don’t get me wrong: I respect Leica and their history, and respect their uncompromising design philosophy, even if it means that I’m priced out if it. They may be expensive, but they are also unique and necessary at a time when cameras have become commodities with a limited shelf life. I applaud Leica for attempting to keep alive whatever vestiges of the old paradigm – where a camera and its lenses were viewed as working tools designed and manufactured with quality and longevity in mind.

How do you put a price on that?

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Do They Actually Sprinkle Magic Dust on Leica Lenses?

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This lens sells for $10,995 

Funny how the perception of a brand changes over time.  Leica became an iconic brand by being the first manufacturer to offer a 35mm system camera. Small and discreet, the perfect carry-around in your pocket camera. Zeiss, which was generally considered to make better optics, came onto the scene only shortly after Leica but produced the unreliable Contax I body (whose design had to jump through hoops to circumvent Leitz patents) as the means to use their excellent optics. As such, Leicas remained the camera of choice for professionals through the 50’s. But there’s more to it than just that. After the war, while the Zeiss factory was carted off to the Soviet Union by victorious eastern bloc troops, Leitz, by virtue of their location in the western bloc, remained to produce cameras. Due to such serendipity, Leitz kept the burgeoning post war photojournalist market to itself until the advent of the Nikon F.

As for the idea that Leitz has always produced the best optics, a quick review of the historical facts on the ground prove otherwise. Already in the 50’s, many working photographers sought out Nikkor optics in preference to what was available from Leitz. During Korea, David Douglas Duncan used a pair of Leica IIIc’s, one with a Nikkor 5cm F1.5 and the other with a Nikkor 13.5cm F4. 

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While a whole generation of gearheads now swear, retroactively, by the traditional superiority of Leitz glass, there was nothing intrinsically superior about Leitz optics through the 50’s, although the Summicron 50mm f2, introduced in 1953 with the M3, is a fine lens, but early versions suffered from the same problems as many other post-war Leitz lenses, namely soft coatings and badly formulated lubricant which caused gassing, haze and mold. The best LTM lenses that you can still find these days tend to be Canon or Nikkor optics built in the 50’s, or, of course, the excellent modern LTM Voigtlander optics produced by Cosina since the late 90’s.

By the 60’s Leitz optics prevailed in the rangefinder market because Leitz was the only manufacturer still committed to building and marketing rangefinder cameras, which, by the mid 60’s had been eclipsed as professional tools by the rise of the SLR in the form of the Nikon F. Most other manufacturers, including Nikon and Canon, were now creating SLR optics, leaving Leitz as the only player in rangefinder optics.

In the 70’s, when I came of age photographically, people were just beginning to perceive Leitz lenses as superior to Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses. But if you compare older examples – the vintage lenses collectors and enthusiasts clammer for today – , for example, 35mm lenses (Biogon versus Elmar) , 50mm (Sonnar versus Summar), or 180/200mm (f2.8 “Olympia” Sonnar versus f4.5 Telyt), it’s hard to understand this, except as an example of the success of subsequent Leitz marketing and retroactive causation. The 50mm Summicron Rigid didn’t hurt either.

 In the 70s Leitz made some fine cameras but also some very bad business decisions; German Leitz would have stopped rangefinder production had it not been for the management at Leica Midland in Canada. Thereafter some of the best Leica M optics (and R) came not from Germany but from Walter Mandler and his team. Mandlar had joined Leitz at Wetzlar in 1946, and, having moved thereafter to Leitz Midland, took advantage of Leitz’s new glass research lab to create some of Leitz’s finest optics.  On Mandler’s retirement the subsequent dismantling of Leitz Canada lens design shifted back to Wetzlar under Wolfgang Vollrath, who crafted improvements to Mandler’s designs. These post Midland lenses are great optics, but they are evolutionary, not revolutionary, dependant upon glass technology advances, well programmed computer optimisation and decreased manufacturing tolerances available to all manufacturers.  

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Of course, current Leica lenses are uniformly excellent, the product of 60 years of developmental know-how since the first Summicron was produced. And, in the last 40 years, Leica has slowly, consciously morphed from a maker of exquisitely hand-crafted mechanical cameras to a producer of exceptional optics, with prices to match. And that’s ultimately the difference between a Leitz optic and a Nikkor or a Canon – the price, and what goes into that price. At the prices they sell their lenses, Leica can afford to make them exceptional. Nikon and Canon and Zeiss and Voigtlander and Ricoh could do the same but choose not to; it’s not as if Leica possesses some esoteric lens making skill that can’t be duplicated elsewhere at the right price point. A case in point is the Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 offered by Nikon with the Millennium Nikon S3 in 2000. It is the same optical formula as the Olympic Nikkor of 1964, a Double-Gauss 7 elements in 5 groups except now made with modern coatings and the decreased tolerances offered by computerized production. Ultimately assembled by hand, checked and rechecked, it was an element of Nikon’s quixotic statement that it could produce cameras and optics every bit as good as any other manufacturer in the world…and it’s every bit as good as the Leica current Summicron ASPH, regardless of what any hardcore Leicaphile wants to tell you. These days you can buy one on Ebay from Japan, still in the box (with a brand new Millennium S3 attached for good measure), at about a 1/4th of the price of a Leica Summilux ASPH.