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.

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

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.

27 thoughts on “Is There Still Room for Serious Photographers in the Clown Car That is Leica?

  1. Mike Ricciuti

    I really couldn’t agree more with this post. The contrast between storied past and luxury-brand present could not be more stark. Yet, at the local Leica store, sales appear to be booming, so from the perspective of the bottom line, the marketing plan must be working. But I don’t know who’s buying the Hello Kitty and Lenny Kravitz editions. One point of contention with the statement “intellectual rabbit-holes that aren’t of interest to most readers.” On the contrary: please keep it coming!

    Thanks,
    Mike Ricciuti
    Boston, MA

  2. insolublepancake

    I’ve just had the misfortune to see the promotional video for the Leica M10 “Zagato” edition. The “difficult project” they announce at the start seems to be .. making a metal shell for an electronic camera? Come on guys.

    1. Scott Paris

      @insoluble I read your post, and like a voyeur at a train wreck, I had to go see.
      Appalling.
      “The concept of light weight and the concept of speed is represented by the lens hood that can be pulled out and locked in a single motion.”
      “The double bubble focus ring like on the Abarth 750 of 1955.”
      No, just no. There is little or no confluence between the design of automobiles and the design of cameras.
      Oh, and it has a grip, which is apparently a shocking new idea.
      AND, while there is nothing in the world wrong with being Japanese, or wearing a beret, or speaking Italian, the combination of the three is just humorous. Amazing that the Leica people did not notice.
      Thanks a bunch, @insoluble. I’m going to have to go listen to a lot of loud music to wash that out of my head.
      (The other video, about the binoculars, is every bit as bad.)

  3. Rob Campbell

    I think that intellectual rabbit holes are the most interesting ones of all.

    The marketing ploys of Messrs Leica really are their business, and if they have hit upon a formula that keeps the factory open… so be it. There is no need to buy into any of it, and if sticking with the old formulas doesn’t work anymore, they have to move along with everyone else.

    The thing is, it’s not just cameras and their marketing that have shifted gear, the very nature of photography, especially as a job, is almost unrecognizable today. Remember stock? One could make a lot of money out of that, but today they speak about ninety cents a pop, and the shamateur is delighted, not at the 90c but at the presumed glory of “getting into print”. Sheesh; you got there because you were cheap!. But you killed the business.

    Bokeh. Another bit of oriental art philosophy tarted up to excite the buyer. I know perfectly well what bokeh is supposed to describe; however, insofar as my own experiences with it, working as a pro, you got what you got with the systems into which you’d invested: Nikon and ‘blad, in my own case. They were used for different job types, as required. The idea that I might suddenly leap out and buy into another system just to take advantage of some fashionable new taste in blur would have been absurd; a cocktail of brands within the same format would have been madness.

    Another thing about bokeh, is that with small cameras, it’s usually something that you see after the event. You compose, focus and shoot usually with the lens wide open. If you try to stop down to see actual DOF in use, you get an impression of it, but that’s about all. Sure, today you can use Live View, or some viewfinder magnificaion ruse, but then you have abandoned the very quality that was supposed to be behind the M-type bodies: speed of operation. Of course, that’s as much a nonsense as is the claim that an slr stops you seeing the shot at the moment of shooting it. Truth is, by the time the mirror get ever so briefly in the way, it’s too late: you already made the shot decision before the goddam mirror moved. Photography is replete with myth and bullshit.

    I’ve mentioned before, here too, perhaps, that I didn’t buy into Leica during my working days, when it would have been no problem whatsoever – and tax-deductible – because when using a small format commercially, you need to use all the real estate it offers; seeing less than you get, parallax problems etc. makes such cameras as rangefinders close to hopeless. When the R cameras came out, even they were way behind Nikon in so many ways. And even back then, Leicas were always priced in another dimension. Not much positive of what the French call rapport qualité-prix – or something like that.

    However, the hucksters were ever with us, but today’s digital world has given them an open marketplace that didn’t exist before. Courses, workshops, these were always around in one form or another, but there wasn’t the opportunity of conflating them with dressing à la fop and similar stuff. Schools were rare and not easy to get into – you often had to be employed in the trade to be eligible. Open competition in “teaching” has replaced learning with showbiz, and photography is so much the poorer for it. Anyay, you can only ever teach how to use equipment; the rest you have to have in your personal makeup.

  4. Malcolm Farrar

    I also agree entirely. You put into words only what I feel when I walk with my M6 in the streets where I live; shame, embarrassment maybe, in case someone sees that red dot. Many times I’ve taped that name and logo over only to remove it later because, well it just seems so silly because, after all, it’s just a camera, isn’t it? I love the simplicity of my Leica, the lenses, the rangefinder experience, the quality.

    The problem is Leica is more than just a camera, it’s a brand, it’s (usually) quite expensive, it is for many a luxury and for some the only photographic tool they’ve finally come to use.

    It is sad, and annoying, that passionate Leicaphiles find these ‘editions’ embarrassing and I suspect it’s the main reason we tape over the red dot. Or buy an M-A.

    It would be a wonderful thing if Leica Ag simply decided to stop all this nonsense and just make wonderful, simple, beautiful photographic tools like they used to. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

    Keep the posts coming, I read them all.

    Malcolm Farrar,
    Cumbria, UK

    1. Rob Campbell

      Malcolm, if Leica were to do as you suggest, it could well vanish like the dinosaur.

      The world at large neither knows nor cares a fig about Leica, those who buy and/or use it; ’tis but a conceit to image anyone cares, other than those few who live in yesteryear.

      If there is a genuine concern attached to all of this hyper sensitivity, it should perhaps be reserved for the less than casual thief, who knows a lot about brands. Rolex lives in similar country; I can tell you that the great majority of folks have no idea what a Rolex looks like – that Bond movie is far too old. But, I know for a fact that the youthfful criminal fraternity does. My daughter was wearing hers as she taught, and a young pupil wandered over and asked her to confirm: he then went on to tell her that he knows people who would kill her in order to steal it… there was a case some years ago of an Indian gentleman in the London area being followed home and killed on his own doorstep for his Rolex.

      In that sense, brands matter.

      1. Keith Laban

        I’ve used Leica M series cameras exclusively for five years. I cover camera branding regardless of make. This in the main was due to my desire not to be associated with branding professionally rather than any attempt at disguise and has continued since. I always have grips attached which changes the appearance of the cameras, but again this is purely a question of handling characteristics rather than disguise. I admit the above may have had an impact on the following.

        This notion that Leica owners are somehow targets. I’ve worked in many cities, towns and villages in Europe, North Africa and India and with regard to my Leica kit have never had any unwanted attention anywhere. I’ve also never had any comment from anyone regarding the camera I’m using. I shoot in locations that are considered unsafe and have been advised to avoid, in fact I’m drawn to them, but have never felt any threat. Perhaps if one feels like a target then one looks like a target? Generally subjects appear to be far more at ease when confronted with a tog wielding a small camera. By contrast my Hasselblads used to draw attention like bees to honey and frightened the bejesus out of folk.

        Security guards at airports have told me not to bother taking my cameras out of my bag as they don’t consider them to be serious cameras or – somewhat more worryingly – a threat. On more than one occasion we’ve happened upon organized groups of photographers who cannot but help drawing attention to themselves, wielding huge DSLRs with bazooka like lenses, as they do, only to overhear the comment “they must be serious photographers”: really, you have to laugh.

        Would I do what I do with a Rolex on my wrist, well no, but there again I wouldn’t do anything, go anywhere with a Rolex on my wrist. Each to their own.

        OK, so I’ll walk out the door tomorrow Leica in hand and get mugged. Sod’s law.

        😉

        Keith Laban
        Surrey UK
        http://www.keithlaban.co.uk

        1. Rob Campbell

          The Rolex is a mixed blessing.

          When I was still working and reasonably agile, I used to tote a camera case with ‘blad logos all over it as well as the odd Nikon sticker. I never gave it a thought. Ditto the Rolex. Not quite true: the bag made me feel I was getting somewhere… childish, but that’s fashion photography. The Rolex? It did let me get into some locations that would have kept me out with a Citizens. It works surprisingly well like a key. It also made sound sense during my episode working on beaches here and there. Life.

          Yesterday afternoon I had to go to hospital for a visit to the opthalmist lady; she’s Polish, you know – well, of course you don’t as I never mentioned her before. The point? yes, the point. The place I have to go is a clinic where the base hospital sends overflow patients, and to get there, where parking is impossible, I park in the actual main hospital complex and wander down an empty country lane and into the main town and the sub-clinic. For that trip, the Rolex is locked away and I depend on the cellphone. Clearly, I’m not that agile anymore (it’s an age thing!). That lane would be an open grave until some wandering pooch found the trace in the air. If I get done, at least the son still gets the watch and the responsibility: I quite like the concept of mixed blessings.

          🙂

          Rob

          http://www.roma57.com

          1. David Murray

            I too am very wary of wearing my Rolex Submariner Date. I usually wear it in winter with a pullover sleeve covering it. Recently, 2 men were convicted of murdering a guy in his 20s for his Rolex in London last year. They have been given life. The Rolex was never recovered. I can recommend the Omega Speedmaster – I’ve been wearing one since 1977. Nobody notices this.

        2. Scott Paris

          Oddly, the only cameras that have ever attracted attention in the U.S. are my Rolleiflex and Autocord, and all the attention was positive.
          “Wow, nice camera.”
          The only watch, (I don’t own a Rolex) a $15 Timex. A teenager in Tulum wanted badly to buy it from me.

  5. Nico

    Yeah, I agree… more or less. I don’t like the special editions, and I don’t like the Thorstens of the world. But I really, really like my digital Leica cameras. I don’t give a shit about brands. It is just that Leica makes cameras I like to use. For all the nonsense they produce they also make wonderfull cameras. To paraphrase Malcolm F. (see above): it’s the only photographic tool I’ve finally come to use, because the digital M is a wonderful, simple, beautiful photographic tool.

    And about the ‘intellectual rabbit-holes that aren’t of interest to most readers’, well, in that case, I’m not ‘most readers’ 🙂

  6. Keith Laban

    Unsurprisingly I tend to be hardest on the manufacturers of the cameras I use. That said, as long as Leica carry on producing wonderful, simple, beautiful and unique photographic tools that facilitate and inspire then I could care less how they fund that production.

    Keith Laban
    Surrey UK
    http://www.keithlaban.co.uk

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I understand your opinion, and I know its fairly common among many, but I think it rests on a false assumption, that being that doing the tacky stuff Leica does is somehow necessary to keep them afloat. My position is that they could be financially viable AND be a real camera company honoring their heritage, in fact my opinion is that is the only viable way forward for Leica. What they’re doing now is milking their historical legacy in a shortsighted way that’s irrevocably damaging their once good name. Leica is becoming a punch line, and they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.

  7. william

    Leica’s cavalier attitude about its past and its rush to its immediate market futures has resulted in a drop in prices of its previous cameras at an unprecedented rate. One used to buy a Leica with the assurance that it would hold its value. Look at the rapid resale drop of the 240 and the 262. They will be worth virtually nothing soon. You can even pick up an M10 for a pretty reduced price now. There are so many Leica models now I can’t keep up. I still love my Leica film cameras, but I’ve given up on Leica for digital and have gone with Sony (even with their ridiculous menus and lousy aesthetic).

  8. Keith Laban

    I’ve little interest in “brands” per se or Leica as a “brand” or a “name”.

    Like it or not the M system is a niche product. I’m pretty sure had Leica relied on the continuing development of the M system as their source of income they’d not be here now. Don’t get me wrong, I love the M system, use the bodies exclusively and enjoy working with them more than any other system I’ve ever used. Leica has been producing tacky “special edition” bodies and lenses as a source of income for decades and if that’s what it takes to remain in business then more power to their elbow.

    Keith Laban
    Surrey UK
    http://www.keithlaban.co.uk

  9. Keith Laban

    Rob, thanks for the welcome. As you know I’ve been reading with interest for a while now and felt it was time to dip my toe in the water.

  10. Keith Laban

    Hopefully those fun, colourful little cameras will actually be bought and used, unlike the “special editions” many of which will spend their lifetime in an unopened box or glass cabinet, far too precious to actually see use.

    Keith Laban
    Surrey UK
    http://www.keithlaban.co.uk

  11. Nico

    The thing is, Leica at the moment is the only company that makes cameras I want to use: wonderful, simple, beautiful photographic tools. That doesn’t mean I (have to) like the Thorstens of this world, the bokeh-nonsense on their website, the special editions, or the way they handle their legacy. I really don’t, but I will not let that stand in the way of doing what I enjoy: going out and take photographic notes of the world around me.

    So to answer your question, Tim: Yes, definitely yes.

  12. Elizabeth

    Thank you for continuing your blog. I always look forward to reading every one of your thoughtful posts 🙂 by the way, love the image Paris 2004 from your previous post, lovely and elegant, two things decidedly lacking in so much photography.

  13. David Levenson

    Just a small correction, to an otherwise excellent article. The Koudelka picture was taken on an Exacta with a 25mm Flektagon. He did not have a Leica when he shot ‘Gypsies’

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      You are correct. I’ve changed it so as not to perpetuate the mistake. Thanks for the correction.

  14. Radim

    Josef Koudelka did not use Leica M for Gypsies project in the sixties. In that time he used 2 Exakta cameras with 25 mm Flektogon lenses and ORWO 400 film. He switched to Leicas after he left Czechoslovakia and became membert of Magnum.

    1. Rob Campbell

      I used Exakta cameras too, including what turned out to be a useless Flek. and I git rid of the lot for Nikon F the moment that I could go into the shop and pay for it.

      To be fair, at the time Exakta were pretty much the leading – if not really sole – makers of good slr cameras. At least they had real pentaprisms!

      🙂

      Rob

      http://www.roma57.com

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