Learning the Craft with a Leica

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By Tadeas Plachy. Mr. Plachy lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic

[Editor’s Note: I love stories like this. It’s easy enough to be jaded about modern Leicaphiles – those who simply buy the camera for the name and the cache that supposedly comes along with the name- and easy enough to forget that there are still people like Mr. Plachy, dedicated to learning the craft of traditional photography and wanting to do so with a camera that has meaning for them as something other than an upgradable widget. He’s right – there is something profound about the use of a precision mechanical camera like a Leica M2, 60 years old but still remarkably relevant.]

My photographic journey had already begun when my grandfather gave me his well used Leica on his deathbed. I had started in the 90’s with a cheap film camera, a Minolta point and shoot, shooting Kodak color negative film. I was a curious kid so I shot everything. My mother, who paid for the processing and prints,  was quite unhappy that I shot random things. Sadly, while moving I lost all my negatives from those years.

In 2002 I received my first digital camera. I went to London for school and took my new 1.3mpx fixed focus digital camera. I could take about 20 shots with a set of 2 AA batteries. I carried full pockets of batteries. A 128 mb compact flash memory card cost the same as the camera, so I only had one. It was full within a day. I soon put that digital abomination into a drawer and never looked at it again. Unfortunately, my digital experience killed any further interest I might have had in photography.

In 2014, my wife and I visited her parents in Herefordshire, England, for Christmas. While perusing a book store I spotted a box marked “Lomography Konstruktor.” My wife noticed my curiosity and a few days later I found it under the Christmas tree. My love affair with photography had begun again. I did some research and decided that I wanted a rangefinder. But I was still finishing my university while married, and I couldn’t possibly afford a Leica, so I went for next best thing within my budget – a Zorki 4K with Jupiter 8 50/2 lens, my ‘Russian Leica.’

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My university is close to the Castle District, one of the nicest parts of Prague. I shot with my Zorki there almost every day. Along the way I discovered I was doing something called “street photography.” Apparently I was on the cutting edge and didn’t even know it. In May, 2015 I attended a darkroom workshop and learned to process my BW negatives and print with an enlarger. I have been doing it ever since. Sadly, I suck at it, but, of course, that’s no reason to quit.

In 2015 I visited Paris with my wife and my Zorki 4K. And, as so many before me (Bresson, Kertesz etc…) I fell in love with photography even deeper there.  I noticed that my 50mm lens, which seemed  perfect for me in Prague, wasn’t allowing me to get more context of the street into my Paris shots. This is how we learn. After I returned I bought a  Jupiter 12 35/2.8 lens and Russian auxiliary viewfinder. But the memories of Paris brought me back to the fact that someday, somehow, I’d need a Leica.

With my wife I often travel around Europe. London, Rome, Edinburgh, Vienna, always with my Zorki. It was Summer in Vienna when I totally fell in love with Leica. There is a big Leica store in Vienna, just across the Stadthalle. In it everything I dreamed of. I asked if I could take a look at an M2 with a 50/3.5 collapsible lens they had on display for a bargain price. Even though it had some scuffs, scratches and few pieces of Vulcanite were missing, it was a Leica M2, and it worked. I could feel the precision when cocking the shutter. The viewfinder was so much better than my Zorki. But I still hadn’t the money to buy it, even though it was a lovely price for both M2 and the lens. But the seed had been planted.

I love the beauty of precise mechanical machines. I spent 5 years as editor-in- chief of a blog about mechanical watches. I saw how they were manufactured and how much labour goes into these intricate devices. Classic film Leicas are the same for me in this respect. That was another reason I started placing every spare penny I could into an envelope marked simply “Leica”.

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Six months after my visit to Vienna I bought my first M2 in a Prague camera store,  with guarantee. Unfortunately, its shutter was riddled with holes, which wasn’t apparent when I tested the camera in store. I returned the camera, got my money back, but my heart was sort of broken. But shortly thereafter I found another M2, a bit less nice, with some vulcanite missing, but it worked. I bought it, got it overhauled and shot the heck out of it, using my Jupiter 12 and Jupiter 8 Russian lenses and a cheap Chinese adapter. The, for Christmas that year I received a Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8, the modern one made by Cosina. It’s a good lens, probably too good for me. I added a Voigtlander VC-2 meter and now I’m all set.

I’ve recently found a job near my university. I’m 5 minutes walking from Prague Castle and the Castle District, where I love to shoot. Mostly every day, after 8 hours of mind shredding crazy stupid boring and pointless work for my government I find it most relaxing to go shoot photos with my M2. Sometimes I shoot 2 rolls in 2 hours, sometimes it takes me 2 weeks to get through a roll of HP5, which I load from 100 ft rolls into old East German canisters I got in a flea market. I’m slowly starting to blend into the city life in the quarters where I shoot. People who live there are starting to recognize me. I’m still on a steep learning curve. My photos are far from perfect, although the technical side is pretty easy these days, I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.

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I don’t want to make excuses, but Prague is a really hard place to shoot. In the historical center, you can’t find any locals who live there. We no longer have those small shops or cafés where locals would get together and have a chat – just tourist traps and people selling rides on Segway. In any event, I can see that through my photography I’m becoming a different person then I was before. More curious, more involved. I continue to shoot my trusty M2, mostly everyday out in the streets of Prague or wherever I find myself (soon I go to Budapest, Barcelona and London again…), documenting the world and life around me. I know the Leica is just a tool, that great vision is what makes a great photograph, but I must say, my Leica M2 is one of the best tools I could wished for.  As for my grandfather’s Leica…that’s a story for another day.

10 thoughts on “Learning the Craft with a Leica

  1. Tadeas Plachy

    I need to be more carefull with my spelling, long time out of school and my written English is suffering 😀

    Thanks for publishing!

  2. Rob Campbell

    ” I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.”

    That, of course, is the universal truth that drives each one of us forward, and removes the lost souls early in the journey. Photography is easy: you can learn the how in a day; the difficulty is always about the why and the what.

  3. Theseus

    Thank you for sharing your story Monsieur. Please, let us know the missing part of it, what happened to your grandfather’s Leica.

    Thiseas

  4. Wayne

    I think your content is good. One thing that has always struck me about photographs: it seems they cannot be fairly judged until some time passes. I mean, a photograph, at least to some measure, is about time; and it can not take on it’s true value until it has a chance to do a little time traveling.

    I frequently see old photographs in various offices and businesses. It always strikes me that they were probably seen as pretty mundane….at the time they were first taken and developed; But now, 30, 40, or 50 years on, they seem anything but.

    Thanks for the story.

  5. davide

    I use very often my dear Zorki 4 camera, especially with the tiny Industar 22. Love it, I have it from more than 30 years, and after a recent CLA it continue to work perfectly. No need a Leica! 😉

  6. David Murray

    I’m so glad you got a Leica at last. The 50mm f2 Jupiter 8 is a good lens. A friend bought a Zorki 4K a few years ago and also found a Jupiter 12 35mm f2.8 lens. He decided to use the 35 and gave me the 8. I then bought a 1955 double stroke M3 and a 50mm screw to bayonet adapter. I discovered that my lens likes mono film rather than colour. This was in 2003. I’m still using this combination with a Weston Master V meter. I found a lens hood with a rubber ring that slides over my lens and ‘ sure this improves contrast. I was using my M3/J8 last week in Whitby (I’m in England). I have my negs scanned to disc so my M3 is a digital camera! I am a fan of Ilford XP2 iso 400 Chromogenic Mono.

    1. Tadeas Plachy

      David Murray: I used my Zorki 4K with J8 and J12 lenses on my trip to Hereforshire last month and I shot just color (some portra 400 and Agfa Precisa CT100 slide film) and I found the pictures are almost too contrasty and saturated – pretty weird result with these old lenses which shouldnt be really that contrasty. But my heart is with the black and white, even thou I will probably shoot few rolls of that Agfa slide film in spring or early summer to capture some colors.

  7. Max Jenkins

    The photos attached to the story are quite good, most especially the first. You are doing the important bit – taking photographs. I encourage you to continue – and start a website or post on one of the established sites like Flickr.

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