A Leicaflex Fit For a Queen

This is NOT the Leicaflex in question – but it’s still pretty cool; Check out the lens.

I love stories (usually apocryphal), of rare Leicas bought at yard sales or found in a dead uncle’s attic. It’s cheap permission to daydream, to indulge an escapist fantasy – highly unlikely, but it could happen to me. The tall tales are often propagated by otherwise reliable sources, attesting to the seductions of the story, but, then again, one never knows what you might end up with via an ignorant Ebay seller or Craigslist advert or eccentric uncle.

So imagine you’re the guy in 1978 who buys a used Leicaflex, serial number 1169048, from the Canadian Department of Lands and Forests who’s selling it, along with 4 Leitz lenses, as superfluous stock. You use it for a few years, and then one day you remove what appears to be a glued on brass plate covering the front of the pentaprism (because it looked odd and you’d just compared your model to another Leicaflex you found in a camera shop that didn’t have that brass plate) and you find, engraved on the camera “E II R” and below it “1867/1967 CANADA” with crown and stylized maple leaf centenary symbol. What the…?

It turns out that the camera you bought, along with the four lenses, was to be a present to Queen Elizabeth II by the Canadian Government on the occasion of her visit to Ottawa for Canada’s Centenary celebrations in 1967.  After having special ordered the camera from Leitz, the Canadians learned the Queen already owned a Leicaflex – given her by the West German Government no less- so they shelved the idea (God only knows what they did end up giving her – a jug of virgin maple syrup, or gold hockey puck?), had someone fashion a brass plate to cover the engravings and sent the whole outfit off to the Department of Lands and Forests for use by an unsuspecting staff photographer, where it was well-used and eventually sold as superfluous to requirements.

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

On a related note, readers of the blog might have gotten the opinion that I don’t like the U.K. Royal family, based on a few previous posts accusing them of being lay-abouts and funny-looking social parasites. Not true, and even were it true, I’d have no room as an American to make fun of another societies’ governance, given the insane clown who currently heads our government.

I will say this about the Queen – in my admittedly idiosyncratic opinion, she was a real looker when young. Check out the photo above and tell me I’m wrong. Her kids, however, are a different story.

 

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.

Thinking About Photography

 I think it’s time to put the shoes on again…

By Dr. Henry Joy McCracken. This is an expanded version of the article which first appeared on Dr. McCracken’s excellent blog insolublepancake.org

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on 52 rolls. I quite enjoyed this and I got to wondering as I did when I started film photography in 2015 what the origin of this attraction really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. His quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

 Mobile phones are destroying photography (with Yeti)

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is of a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent exhibition, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, just think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!

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

But — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? This of course a subject often discussed here on Leicaphilia. I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent Maison Europeénne de la Photographie, I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery [Editor’s Note: The Maison’s library is one of the coolest places in the world if you’re a photographer. I recommend everyone spend a few weeks there buried in the books]. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, “”What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls”. Here I would like to expand on the first part of that article.

Now let’s go to the library…

So, what do the philosophers have to say today? Around this time, I heard about the death of British critic John Berger, who was famous for his influential “Ways of seeing” series. The first episode, which you can see here on ubu.com is excellent (and you should be thankful that the shirts are only in black-and-white). It starts with Berger taking a knife to a painting in a gallery and ends with him turning to the camera and insisting that we must be skeptical. Many of the ideas in his program are taken from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction”, which essentially says that each work of art there is an “aura” which is diluted when it is removed from its original context. It makes sense, I think everyone would agree that Caravaggio paintings are better in churches rather than in art galleries or at home on the sofa.  And what about today, with our endlessly reproduced digital images?

 Look closely!

Trying to answer that one I quickly got deeply into writings on photography and images, featuring such luminaries as Sontag, Barthes, Baudrillard, Sartre and more recent writers like Manovich and Lechte. I even came across Flusser, previously mentioned here on Leicaphilia. Being the empiricist that I am I quickly felt I was on unstable ground because a lot of the writings seem to be based on reasonable-sounding assertions which are in fact mutually contradictory. You basically get to choose the point-of-view you like the sound of. So, that’s what I am going to do here, because the point for me is to try understand the emotional reaction one can have when confronted with different kinds of images. What’s worse, considering these philosophers, and I am sorry to level this old criticism: many of them don’t even take photographs!

Well, the one who does take photographs is Baudrillard, so perhaps we should pay more attention to him. His idea in Simulacres et Simulation is that today in our society the (symbolic) representation of things has actually displaced the things themselves [Editor’s Note: Thomas de Zengotita’s magnificent book Mediated is a must read for understanding how representations drive how we think and act]. He has a ‘hit list’ of what bad things can happen to images, and the last one sounds to me suspiciously like a digital image: “it bears no relationship to reality and is its own ‘simulacra'”. So this seems to me what digital images are, simulacra, and perhaps we instinctively realise this when confronted with a purely software-defined image which has been stripped of it’s “aura” by incessant (perfect) digital replication.

 Is this part over yet?

In the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You might argue that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software” (in my readings I learned that, amusingly,  motion-picture films are only ever processed by “open source” developers, ones for which the chemical formula is known). But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as the idea of capturing only a single image a time is now completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely so successful because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls on a film Leica for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

Another Parisian moment (at the observatory wall)

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

My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. There was just one close-to-retirement prof in his department who taught the students how to scratch film negatives. Fun, but much faster in software. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. One of the philosophers I read (you can guess which one) insisted that, in fact, the image does not exist as a physical object. This certainly goes in the direction of the equivalence of digital and analogue technologies.

But… there is a difference. My conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything because the act of scanning and “dematerialisation” of the negative is a pretty contradictory activity after all that I have said here. However, that would mean a lot more time in the badly-ventilated Observatory dark room…

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.

 

Basquiat in 35mm

The photos above are from Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver The exhibition includes black and white 35mm photographs by his roommate Alexis Adler and works made by Jean-Michel Basquiat during the year he lived with Adler in a flat in the East Village, before he became widely recognized in the 80’s. While living with Adler, Basquiat moved from his SAMO tags on the surrounding streets and neighborhood into more permanent media in their shared flat. Adler’s photographs nicely illustrate the developing artist and how the context of life in New York informed Basquiat’s art.

Adler recalled how she, a Jewish girl from Seattle, a Barnard grad with a biology degree — met the Haitian-American high school dropout. Basquiat was homeless at the time. He’d just been kicked out of his high school and was crashing at her friend’s apartment. Adler, then 22, saw in Basquiat someone “deep and introspective,” in a mohawk and an “old man’s overcoat” he bought at a thrift shop.

Before he attained art-world superstardom, 18-year-old  Jean-Michel Basquiat covered the walls, furniture and floors of their East Village apartment with his creations. According to Adler, his roommate and lover at the time, “from mid-1979 to mid-1980, I lived with Jean in three different apartments, but for most of that time in an apartment that we moved into and shared on East 12th St. This was a time before Jean had canvases to work with, so he used whatever he could get his hands on, as he was constantly creating. The derelict streets of the East Village provided his raw materials and he would bring his finds up the six flights of stairs to incorporate into his art. Jean was able to make money for paint and his share of the rent, which was $80 a month, by selling sweatshirts on the street.”

In time, his paintings would sell for stupid sums; in 2012, Christie’s sold one of his paintings, “Dustheads,” for $48.8 million. He was at the height of his powers when he died in 1988 of heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.

Adler never left the East Village flat she and Basquiat shared from 1979 to 1980. Nor did she erase anything he’d left behind — the “Olive Oyl” he painted on the living-room wall, the “Famous Negro Athletes” he inked on a door. in 2014, 35 years after they parted, Adler put it all up for auction. “It became a burden. I couldn’t hold onto everything, or leave it in a safe-deposit box. It wasn’t fair to Jean. It needed to get out into the world.”

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

 

The MCA Denver exhibition and book presents New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art and the lens of Alexis Adler, documenting the fertile period from which the mature Basquiat emerged. Adler’s simple photographs show him at a vital, yet mostly unknown moment of his career. I have no idea what camera she used – frankly it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she found the time to document the mundane daily activities of her life with a then unknown friend and lover, photos that only in retrospect acquired the importance they now have, and the technological necessities of the time dictated that those photographs were analogue, giving to posterity something physical that could be preserved and passed along. Plus, they’re cool photographs – great examples of the imperfect perfection of 35mm film photography at its simplest, where content trumps technical concerns and the power of the image lies in its emotional and historical connotations.

My guess is that we’ll see less and less of this in the future. Today’s Basquiat’s, laboring anonymously somewhere, photos of whom are now subject to the ephemerality of in-substantiated 1’s and 0’s and digital rot, probably won’t have the benefit of these sorts of photo retrospectives. All the more reason we need to keep shooting film.

Leica M10 – Not a Love Letter

By Michael Rowe. Michael is a Melbourne photographer who teaches to pay the bills. He is currently pursuing his PhD in crowdsourcing [ Editor’s Note: I wasn’t aware you could get a PhD in crowdsourcing. Shows what I know. In any event, I really like his photos]. His images can be found at http://rowefoto.tumblr.com

I love the idea of the M10, and I think I can afford one. As an M9P shooter, unbridled high ISO performance is my dream. The camera as object is sexy as hell. It’s an amazing thing.

But I don’t think I’ll get one.

I shoot mostly at base ISO (160), partly because the images at base are sublime, partly because in the days of film I never went above 400 and mostly shot 125. Pretty much every photo that’s inspired me was shot on film – Tri X or Plus X or their modern equivalents.

I started shooting Leica because I wanted an authentic experience, something more than the usual fare could give me, cameras that took the decisions away from me. Too clinical in their perfection. Where’s the challenge? Leica put control and boundaries in front of me. If I wanted a result I needed to push those boundaries.

After 5 years of shooting an M I focus quickly now, can predict exposures accurately, can coax good results from slow shutter speeds and razor thin DOF in low light. Those things give me a satisfaction that other systems can’t provide. I recently changed the way I hold my hand when I focus…and my hit rate went up. I’m still learning, refining, enjoying. Low ISO is a constraint that forces hard choices. It hones my skills. 

A camera that can shoot clean up to 25,000 ISO seems overkill. I’ve bitched about not being able to get ideal shots in low light wide open as much as everyone, and I appreciate the need for a company like Leica to move with the times. But having that latitude in the sensor, while giving me a certain freedom, removes one of the key shapers of my creative work. It removes another source of imperfection, one of the three delicious trade-offs that need to be balanced when selecting exposure.

Mine is a personal perspective, and there are plenty of arguments to the contrary. Why be a stickler? My iPhone 7 makes lovely images – so long as you don’t look at them too closely. Wouldn’t it be great to have true creative flexibility, more choices, better quality images? Yes, I suppose so. But not at the expense of the craft. YMMV.

Joel Meyerowitz’ induction into the Leica Hall of fame coincided with the launch of the M10. Joel, holding the new camera, was everywhere. And why wouldn’t he be. Except for the inescapable fact that every single notable image he had taken, his entire body of work, were shot with outdated, “inferior”cameras. His genius was to do what he did with what he had. Good enough for Joel, good enough for me.

As much as it pains me to say it – not this time, Leica. Let’s see how long I can maintain my resolve…

1930’s German Leica Advertisement

Mid-30’s Leica Advertisement. Given what was going on in the Fatherland at the time, one can only surmise what these women were fleeing from (tracer fire possibly?).

That looks to be a Leica III, Model F (not to be confused with the IIIf), made between 1933-39, although it might also be IIIa, Model G, the only difference being the IIIa had a 1/1000th shutter. The lens is a 5cm F2 Summar.