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A Thinking Man’s Camera

“This “pro” doesn’t boast electronic circuitry. It doesn’t have photocells to select the area of interest. No little indicators to tell you there’s not enough light. The Leica M4 is strictly for those of you who prefer to do your own thinking, your own creating.” – Leitz Advertisement, Popular Photography, 1968

Still a valid claim today. It’s interesting to think how far camera technology has come in the last 50 years, and yet, the same claims of simplicity of design and function can be made for a 65 year old design, Leica M film cameras still being enthusiastically used by photographers around the world.



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


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.

My Gear Minimalism Effort Continues

A few months ago I wrote a short post about, among other things, my realization that I owned way too many cameras – Leica film cameras in particular. Like all obsessions, while caught up in the mania, you don’t recognize the extent of your obsession. Then, one day, for whatever reason, you wake to the reality – you’ve got way too many of the things you supposedly value, the very excess of which serves to devalue the enjoyment you get from any given item.

Nietzsche said that “the mother of excess is not joy but joylessness” [Yes, I just quoted Nietzsche in a Leica blog]. Human nature is a funny thing; the more we grasp at happiness through external things, the more it eludes us, because ultimately happiness is internal, found in your relationship to things to the extent it involves ‘things’ at all. Whatever it is, it isn’t found in things. All of which is a peculiar line of thought for a blog dedicated to the admiration, use and enjoyment of mechanical Leica film cameras, but it needs to be said as a necessary corrective to the easy enough mistake of seeking happiness quantitatively.

I’ve recently published short pieces by a number of readers who’ve written to share their experiences migrating back to film use after a certain disillusionment with their digital experience. A common thread running through all of their stories is the satisfaction they’ve taken in a simple Leica outfit – one beat up user body and a lens. I’m especially struck with Tadeas Plachy’s story of the joy he’s given by his M2 and a few cheap Russian lenses. He’s discovered something we enthusiasts often forget. There’s an immense pleasure, a liberation from the constant cycle of upgrades and add-ons, in stripping down the photographic experience to its essentials, something a mechanical film Leica does to perfection. Ironically then, you can argue that what makes a film Leica an object of enduring appeal – its essential simplicity – militates against the wishfulness of idiots like me, who’ve mistakenly thought that the pleasure given the photographic act by a simple Leica mechanical camera could be multiplied by having more of them.


All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’m selling more cameras. And I’ve decided to do it here on ‘my’ blog – because, well, I can – so bear with me. I will note to you that you won’t find advertising here – now or never – even though, given the amount of hits it currently gets (over 2 million views a year) I could probably make a few bucks off it. But I’m not interested in monetizing a labour of love, the result being that you’re just going to have to deal with me hawking a few cameras every now and then.

That all being said, the items I’m selling all are as described and will make their new owners very happy, insofar as one may be made happy by a thing.

You may contact me at for further info on any of the items below.


Leicaflex SL #1283379 Black Chrome, Good User Condition $225 shipped SOLD

Everything works just fine, including meter. Viewfinder bright with no issues. Shutter sounds very strong with speeds accurate down to 1 second. Cosmetically, not beat up at all; no dents or wonkiness. Just normal usage marks.


5cm Nikkor-S 1.4 #405084 with Amedeo Adaptor for use on Leica M Mount $525 shipped SOLD

An excellent condition Nikkor-S rangefinder lens, circa 63-64?, black barrel with chrome bezel, its 40xxxx serial number puts it among the last regular black barrel 1.4’s produced for the S3 and S4 models. This particular lens is in great condition.  Glass is free from scratches, fungus or haze. Blades are free of oil. No dents or major paint loss in the lens body. Aperture adjustment is snappy.

Accompanying it is an Amedeo Adaptor that allows you to mount and use this on an M body. These adaptors are works of art; beautifully machined and finished, they feel appropriately over-engineered for use with a mechanical Leica M. New, they sell for $270, and once you use one you’ll agree they’re worth it, allowing you to use the entire range of 50mm Nikkor 1.4 S Mount rangefinder lenses on your M with rangefinder coupling.


Nikon F Plain Prism #6759251 with Nikkor SC 50mm 1.4, Very Good User Condition $350 shipped SOLD

A plain prism Nikon F is the closest thing you’ll find to a 60’s era Leica M, both in its functionality and its aesthetic beauty. To my mind, were I to have one camera to take to a desert isle, it would be a plain prism F with a 50mm Nikkor. Simply bulletproof. One of the 3 or 4 truly iconic 35mm cameras of the 20th century.

This particular F works perfectly and is an excellent example of the model. (I’m only selling it because I’ve committed myself to having only one F body, and  will never sell my collector’s quality Black Paint F with 50mm F2, both of which are new, never used, perfect). Shutter is strong and accurate down to 1 second. Prism is bright; no fungus, haze or separation. Shutter curtain in unwrinkled and unmarked. Interior is clean and looks sparingly used. Exterior body shows light wear, mainly being bright marks on the top-plate and prism. There are no dings, dents, or heavy scratches on the body.

The Nikkor S.C. 50mm f1.4 is also in excellent condition. Glass is clean. No scratching, haze or fungus, no separation. No noticable internal dust. Focus smooth, apertures click nicely. All in all, a really good example of a 60’s Nikon F era fast Nikon standard lens.

The Leica Appeal

m4 2

” 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

Now THIS is a Beautiful Leica

s-l1600-2 s-l1600-3

Currently for sale on Ebay from a seller in France, what looks to be an unused, pristine chrome two-lug M5, #13553167. The serial number puts its production date as 12/1972, which is smack dab in the middle of the M5’s production run but late enough to avoid the shutter issues that beset the earlier models. Seller claims everything works properly.

What would I pay for it? God only knows. I wouldn’t be interested in it as a collectible but as a user, so the box and all the supporting stuff would be irrelevant to me except insofar as it confirms the claim that the camera hasn’t been used much, but, of course, this potentially cuts both ways – lack of use for the last 45 years might leave you with a camera in need of service, and the one downside of M5 ownership is that M5 specific service isn’t cheap, usually double what you’d pay for a traditional M.

In any event, in my opinion, a good working M5 is about as good as you’ll get in a Leica M, and the chrome versions are the aesthetically more pleasing. Granted, not everyone agrees with me. Some Leicaphiles loathe the M5, which is their right. It’s my observation that the folks who hold the most negative opinions about the M5 are those who’ve never used one.s-l1600-1 s-l1600-5

Leica. The Unreasonable Choice

peterf1Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Why do I want a Leica M film camera? Honestly, I’m asking you, because I can’t figure it out. I’m basically a digital native photographer: although I grew up in the last years of film’s supremacy, I didn’t get seriously into picture making until I bought a Canon digital point-and-shoot in 2004. From there, I followed the familiar camera-DSLR-mirrorless trajectory. At each step, the image quality got better, the cameras got more responsive. Now, with an Olympus OMD E-M10 as my daily driver, I’m far more likely to not see a shot than blow it because the camera couldn’t.

And yet. A mechanical Leica. Apparently, now I want a camera that costs money every time I release the shutter, that requires me to focus manually with the camera mashed against my face, not to mention set aperture AND shutter speed on my own (and since I’m looking at fully mechanical bodies, doesn’t even suggest what those settings should be), that needs to be disassembled after taking 36 frames (and forces me, right then, to decide what the ISO will be for the next 36). Also, it’s heavier than my current kit. And it costs more. What the hell am I thinking?

Whatever it is, I think it’s been percolating for awhile. From time to time over the last several years, I’ve started looking at metal-bodied SLRs on eBay before deciding I was just being silly. I had a lot of fun researching obscure lenses that might work on my NEX 5N (I once blew a whole night learning about Exacta-mount lenses) and I enjoyed using the old Olympus 38mm Pen half-frame lens that I bought from someone in Japan. Sure, it was a great performer above f2, but I really liked the mechanical solidity of it, a dense metal knuckle with a focus ring that felt good against the fingers compared to the plasticy stuff I was used to. I’ve long been interested in what I refer to in my head (though not, generally, out loud) as “knob feel” – the tactility of control surfaces. One of the main reasons I bought the E-M10 over the contemporaneous Panasonic GX7 was knob feel: the Panasonic’s control wheels had an unsatisfying clicky movement that I couldn’t abide. But a fine mechanical camera has knob feel all its own. The knobs and wheels and rings actually do something – they aren’t the disconnected surface of a virtual machine but physically linked to their purpose. This changes the way they feel, both in the fingers and in the mind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOlympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens. So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

And speaking of mind, I took a pleasure in that old half-frame lens that was entirely apart from its functional qualities, something more poetic than practical. What light had already passed through its glass? Whose fingers had focused it? Imagining the answers to these questions somehow enriched my experience of using the lens. And what stirs imaginings more than a Leica?

Then there’s the harder-to-admit part. The credence in legend. The illusory connection to a tradition that encompasses some of the greatest practitioners of photography we have known. The ridiculous but irresistible sense of aligning one’s self with genius through the tools used by geniuses. Is there a pathos in this, an admission that I have not produced immortal greatness with the best tools of my day, and so I retreat to tools proven in another age? Well, let’s look out rather than in.

SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. Inside the sliding doors of the bullfight arena.© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

Then there’s the soft Neo-Luddism that permeates our moment, with our reactionary gaze towards the vintage and authentic. Do I entertain ideas about how digital abundance erodes the thought I put into each frame? Do I harbor fantasies that shooting film will force me to contemplate, slow down, consider, and perhaps see more clearly? Do I imagine that each image will be more precious, will be imbued with some quality that is otherwise sacrificed to digital disposability? I confess, this does seem to be the case.

Now, you might reasonably suggest that there are less torturous ways of dabbling in film and old cameras than joining a cult whose demands are as onerous as Leicaism. And I would retort that, first off, I’ve tried other mechanical cameras and they didn’t do it for me, knob-feel-wise. And second, la la la, I can’t hear you. I don’t want a reasonable camera. I want one that satisfies my unreasonable hungers, that sings silently over the sadnesses of the everyday.

Peter M. Ferenczi writes, teaches and photographs in Paris. This piece is reprinted from his blog, You can see his work at