Category Archives: Leica Photographers

Out and About in New York and LA

By Philip Wright

Boston, Massachusetts is a looooong way from Melbourne, Australia. Thirty-two hours long, if you take layovers into account (and you should!). So when I lucked on the job of accompanying my son Alex there earlier this year to help him with his transition to college, my wife Sue very kindly suggested I might like to take a bit of time on the return leg, perhaps visit New York and Los Angeles, maybe catch some exhibitions and take some photographs.

Say what?

After giving the proposition much serious consideration (for two seconds) I was on the booking websites, and eventually four days were allocated to each city. To state it clearly – that’s four days in New York, then four days in Los Angeles, with nothing to do but take photos. I still pinch myself. Gigs don’t come much better than that.

So, next thing to decide was, what camera or cameras to take, with what lenses and what film. I was attracted to the minimalist idea for a while (one of each), but then reasoned that I had the capacity to take more, and foresaw that I’d want to cover a fair bit of territory photographically, and therefore could make use of various combinations. So in the end I settled on my two M6TTLs, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses, Tri-X and Portra 160, plus I had a few rolls of Adox Silvermax that I threw in as well. So much for minimalist.

Why this gear in particular? Well, my M6TTLs have different viewfinder magnifications – my silver one has a 0.58 viewfinder, the black one a 0.85. So one camera to handle 28mm and 35mm, the other perfectly suited to 50mm and 90mm. Check. The lens choice is easy because it’s basically what I generally use. I figured I’d use the 35mm most of the time, with the others in lesser proportion spread around fairly equally. I really wanted the 90mm because I envisaged some nice cityscapes in evening light, and the others are what I use mainly for people and street shooting. The film was basically dictated by what I had, and as it turned out I also had to buy some more in New York. I didn’t really anticipate that I’d use any colour in New York, but wanted some for the few pictures I thought I’d get the opportunity to take in Boston, and I figured that perhaps in LA I’d take some. So again, check.

Why Leica? Very simply because I figured I’d be spending whole days in these incredible places with nothing to do but think about and pursue photography, so I wanted to take the cameras I have most fun with. No contest there – the Leicas win hands down. And with those beautiful lenses, which I often feel I don’t use enough, there really was no argument – even overcoming my initial concerns of “what if I lose some gear, or get robbed” or whatever. Plus I found I could pack that amount of gear fairly compactly into my ThinkTank Streetwalker backpack as cabin baggage, which would also enable me to get the film hand-inspected, rather than it going through x-ray machines.

So, that’s the way it went down.

The upshot of the trip is that, most importantly, Alex settled incredibly well into student life in Boston and loves it there (well, OK, not so much the winter weather, but still).  

And what of my eight glorious days in New York and Los Angeles? They went by in a blur of walking, subways, freeways (LA), visiting exhibitions (Danny Lyon and Diane Arbus and MOMA in New York, various architectural sites in LA) and of course, taking photographs. As an example, one morning I got to walk through Central Park to the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer, and that very afternoon found me, Leica in hand, at Coney Island where she and countless others of the greats had taken such wonderful, iconic pictures. I can’t tell you how much it meant to finally, after seeing it in great pictures my whole life, walk along that boardwalk.

Overall, the pace was frenetic, and the experience was magical. At the end of each jam-packed day I was exhausted, but energized as well, and keen to be up at 5am the next day to start all over again. I was as happy as… well as a bloke who can’t think of an idiomatic expression clever enough to express it; and I think – no, I know – that I came away a better photographer because of my total immersion into it.

Oh, and on my return I even sold a bunch of my other (non-Leica) gear and bought a third M6TTL, this time with a 0.72 finder, because afterwards I realized I could have gotten away with just the one camera body, and the 0.72 finder fits the bill perfectly.

Now, back here in Melbourne, the thought occurs to me that Alex’s music course will take him four years to complete. Which leaves plenty of scope for Sue and I to go over and visit him. Hmmm…

The Camera That Brought Me Back to Myself

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“The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize.”


I was obsessed with photography when I was young. I lived in Memphis and I wanted to follow along in the tradition of William Eggleston, whom I idolized. I studied for four years and made a very serious stab at capturing the tumbledown look of the South. I even worked at a newspaper for a time. But something went wrong. The work simply wasn’t good, and in spite of stupidly struggling with the problem day and night, I just couldn’t find my way to the ideal image. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Years passed. The shitstorm of trying (or failing as it were) to be a responsible adult destroyed my illusions about producing a great work of art, and for a full decade I lived very poorly, having completely lost the thread of my original vision. My camera collected dust and was eventually forgotten amongst other weird relics from my former life as a “creative person.” It was a cliche I laughed about, wondering how I could ever have been so naive. I made asinine remarks whenever I encountered people who liked to bullshit me about “following your dreams” and so forth. I worked in the service industry, mopping up after rude tourists who had apparently made better life-decisions than I had. My conclusion was that even if you completely threw yourself into what you truly cared about, no one would ever thank you for it. You would have to cram it into your off hours with little or no emotional energy left for the task. You would have to pay for it out of your own empty pocket. Things would only get more and more difficult as time went by. You were doomed.

I may have been wrong; I don’t know. That’s just what I happened to be feeling during those years of insecurity.

Things went on uneventfully in this way, until about a year ago, when something interesting happened. I was unemployed, and having some time on my hands, I found my way into the obscure world of Tarkovsky movies. Something in his imagery got through to me, and a  long-lost memory flickered to life. I started dreaming about photography again, and those dreams quickly escalated to a feverish obsession, just like it had been in the 90’s, when I was a teenager.

My fiancé, sensing the crisis, offered to front me the money to buy some new photography tools and start over. It was a Purple Rain kind of moment, white guitar and all. Her generosity was enough to change everything for me. In spite of the desire to be optimistic, we’ve got to be real and acknowledge that it’s impossible to think about creating a body of work when your life is in shambles, and your idea of luxury is a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes you just need some help, and god willing, sooner or later you might happen to get some.

I wanted to use a Leica. I didn’t know why; I just did. Maybe it was because all my favorite images had come from this mythical camera. It was impractical, weird, anachronistic, expensive. I had a very hard time talking myself into believing that it made sense to get one -because it didn’t. I could have used any cheap camera, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it right this time. No compromises. It’s odd how you can know something at an emotional level, but you have to drag your rational mind, kicking and screaming, along with it.

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oxendale5 oxendale1I won’t bother reciting all the reasons why Leica cameras are special; we’ve heard it all before, and a good bit of it is true. I settled on the M3 with a 50mm Summicron lens, and I am not disappointed. I love this camera. I have spent many afternoons staring at the thing over a cup of coffee and wondering why I care so much about it. As strange as this may sound, the reason is not entirely obvious. Yes, it is a “nice” camera, beautifully designed and a pleasure to operate… but that isn’t enough. It’s a camera after all, not a designer accessory (at least it used to be). The images it has produced for me are excellent, but if it were really about image quality and sharpness we would not being using 35mm film in the first place. There’s something else going on with this camera. I think the things people say about it are just excuses for fetishizing something when they can’t rationally explain why. People are complex creatures full of unknown depths, and the Leica speaks to those depths.

I thought about this carefully and I came to the conclusion that the magic of the thing is in the sheer impracticality of it. The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize. Hell, the idea of it seems almost subversive to me after all these years, and that is a very powerful feeling.

Leica signifies all these things to me, and probably to a lot of other people as well. It’s what the kids at the art college would call the Leica’s “discourse.” Some part of you senses this when you have one in your hands, even if you haven’t got the slightest idea what it is. It seems so serious,  so pure. The thing’s got gravity; it’s literally heavy. The symbolism is clear.

Today I am back in the fight with the kind of impatience and desperation that could only come from having wasted so many years without taking a photograph. I went out with just this one camera and one lens, and worked up a photo essay about depopulation in the high plains of Colorado. Good or bad I don’t know, but it is without any doubt the single best piece of work I have ever done. It has been like rediscovering all the lost ambitions of youth, and learning that they weren’t dead after all. Moreover, they have come to fruition, finally. I think the inspiration of the camera may have had something to do with that.

Joseph Oxandale was born in Louisiana in 1980 and earned his BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 2004. After doing a stint with The El Dorado News-Times in Arkansas, he moved west to Colorado. He currently lives in Denver.

To see more of his excellent High Plains photographs, visit

http://oxandaleworks.weebly.com/high-plains-lament.html

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Which Leica Goes Best With My Filson Bag?

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Bag aficionados are a sorry bunch, even in the netherworld of gear heads. They demark the low-water mark of gear mania, about as far low as you can go in the world of photo dilettantism. Even I, incorrigible gearhead that I am, a guy who writes a blog dedicated to a brand of camera, which is itself a fairly acute form of gear mania, finds the luxury camera bag fetish unseemly. Admittedly, there’s no harm in it, just as there’s no accounting for the passions of otherwise reasonable men. As a passion, It certainly is less dangerous that racing motorcycles or jumping out of planes or cave diving or any of the other irrational enthusiasms grown men possess.

That being said – listen up, you guys rocking your M240 with the Noctilux and a pocket full of ND filters so you can shoot everything at full aperture for the amazing, creamy bokeh – Filson has the bag for you. Created, no less, by Magnum Pj’s, you know, the guys who patented the “Decisive Moment” (how cool is that ?!?). From the Filson website:

“Award-winning photojournalists David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry know that photography is about taking risks, getting close and being ready for anything. That’s why we worked with them to design photography bags for those who refuse to stay indoors. We combined the craftsmanship used to develop our rugged luggage with the decades-deep expertise of Harvey and McCurry to create durable camera bags built for use in the field.”

As for me, if I’m going to be “taking risks, getting close, refusing to stay indoors,” give me the oldest, most beat up, shittiest looking bag I can find. If it looks like I’ve got a 40 ounce in there, or if I’m using it to carry motor oil for my motorcycle, all the better. Or, better yet one of those beauties from China for $8, free shipping. The last thing I need is a designer bag with a designer label while i’m rocking $18,000 worth of Leica swag, getting close and taking risks.

Bruce Davidson and His Leicas

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Bruce Davidson’s Leicas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn Gang  Bruce Davidson

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

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

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

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

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Winogrand’s M4

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

William Eggleston’s 300 Leicas

Eggleston with Leica

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

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

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

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