Henri Cartier Bresson, taken with a Leica III.
Call me a poseur, or a hipster, but old screw mount Leicas are really fun. Not just setting them on a shelf and admiring them, or walking around the house while fondling their knurled knobs and beautifully machined parts (as I’m known to do), but actually taking them out and shooting film with them, just like they were meant to do. They’re so ‘retro’ that they’re not, and for those with a philosophical bent, this sort of meta-activity (activity meant to comment on the activity itself) can be immensely satisfying, not to mention the pathetic looks you’ll get from the iphone crowd or, better yet, the conspiratorial nods you’ll sometimes receive from a fellow traveller of advanced age. For me, however, the best part is passing paths with somebody sporting a digital Leica with “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating,” often wearing a beret and taking pictures of people in coffee shops in the touristy parts of town, Billingham or Ono bag conspicuous by its immaculate appearance. These folks, when they notice you – and trust me, they’ll notice you, because for all gearheads the act of being out and about with a camera is all about seeing and being seen – often wear a look of morbid fascination, fixation admixed with potential danger, as if I was carrying a live grenade with the pin removed. I suspect they really want to inquire about it, but don’t quite know what it is or what to make of it, or, if it goes that far, how to use it.
I’m often asked, usually by the iphone crowd, “Does that thing work?” Hell yes it works, because it was built to work seemingly forever, because it’s a sublime fusion of simplicity and function, overbuilt to last for as long as you continue to service it. Keep it in use, and the most you’ll have to do is send it off to a reputable service tech like Youxin Ye every 30 years or so. I have no doubt that my grandkid’s grandkids, if they were of a mind (and could figure out how to load the thing) could be using it in another 100 years. Try that with your M240, or is it an M260 now?
Of course, some of the earlier screw mount Leicas – the IA, for example – are so outdated that even a hopeless romantic like me finds them impractical to use. In 2000, leica offered the an 0-Series replica, fully functional and sold through Leica dealers, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the 35mm Leica camera. The camera is virtually identical to the 1923 Ur-Leica prototype #104 resident in the Leica Museum. No thanks. I like my nostalgia authentic. In my mind, using one of these is like going to Las Vegas and claiming you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If I’m going to use a screw mount Leica, I’m going to use the best, most technologically advanced screw mount Leica ever built – the Leica IIIg, not some cheesy historical replica dedicated to the Sultan Of Brunei [on a side note: how is it that Leica culture could be so schizophrenic as to give us both the sublime IIIg, M2/M3 and M4 and also the “Hello Kitty” M6?].Released in 1957, the IIIg is Leica’s last screw mount camera. Had it been released in 1950 or 1953, it would be have been far more influential in subsequent Leica lore, because it’s a superb camera that’s really fun to use. Leitz had introduced the Leica M3 four years earlier in 1953 as a clean sheet design with a new lens mount and the now iconic M styling. The M3 set a new standard for 35mm rangefinders that lasts to this day.
The IIIg was introduced as the logical last evolutionary step of the old Barnack design series, a last tip of the hat to more conservative Leicaphiles who still preferred the familiarity of the Barnack camera. Its new features were incremental – the same basic ergonomics of the IIIf with a redesigned top cover and a larger and improved viewfinder similar to the M3, including an extra frosted window for the projection of different frame lines into the viewfinder.
Leitz produced and offered the IIIg for only 3 years, 1957-60, years when the M3 was meeting with professional raves and impressive sales. Japanese manufacturers were also offering their updated alternatives to the M3; the IIIg not only had to compete against the better spec’d M3, Canon P and Nikon S3, but after 1958, the Leica M2, itself a runaway success much like the M3. Next to these now iconic cameras, the Leica IIIg was a technological dinosaur, lacking the combined VF/RF assemblies of the M3 and the Canon and Nikon that allowed for a single, much larger eyepiece for simultaneous focusing and composing.
The Leica IIIg was much like the screw mount Leicas that had been produced by Leitz since the 20’s, featuring only incremental changes from the previous Barnack Leica, the IIIf ‘Red Dial:” A larger .7 mag viewfinder with two sets of illuminated, parallax corrected framelines for the 50/90 focal lengths; Shutter speeds calibrated with a modern shutter speed progression – the 2/4/8/15/30/60…. ; Separate flash synch dial replaced with two flash settings at 1/50 and 1/25th on the shutter speed dial; A film reminder dial placed on the back of the body that exceeded ASA 100.
The IIIg is not as common as earlier Barnacks. Consequently, they sell for substantially more than a well cared for IIIc or IIIf, and most of them sit on collector’s shelves or circulate among us Leicaphiles in quixotic buy/sell attempts to finally satiate an obsessive compulsion to find The Perfect Leica.
Above is a photo I took in a Paris street with my IIIg and a first generation collapsible Summicron. The photo isn’t going to win any photojournalism awards, I’m sure, but I really like it just the same. It reminds me of what I love about the city – an eclectic mix of the profane and the sacred, where the beautiful peeks out at you in the most unexpected places. It also seems appropriate that it was taken with an old Leica, the sort used by HCB for many if his iconic Parisian photos. What’s printed above is a simple scan of the negative with some minor fiddling in Photoshop. But I also have an 10×15 silver print of the same photo, printed by HCB’s own master printer George Fevre, one of my most treasured photographic possessions. How cool is that? My own Parisian “decisive moment,” captured with an iconic Leica film camera and printed by one of the World’s most masterful printers, the same guy who printed HCB’s stuff. That’s what you call “living the dream.”
I ran across the above quote in an article in Time Magazine entitled “The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming,” which, to put it charitably, is normally not the first place I look when I want cutting edge philosophical discussions, given its pedestrian readership usually located on the far end of any cultural curve. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting article, discussing things some of us, myself included, have been articulating since the inception of the digital age. Just a few years ago, saying essentially the same thing on a popular photo forum, I was roundly derided as a kook by the usual suspects. It’s not as if ignorance and lack of expansive thinking don’t have a consistent pedigree; if history teaches anything, it’s that the revolutionary implications of technological changes are never seen by the average guy until they’re impossible to ignore. Now, if Time is any indication, maybe it’s a message finally resonating with the generally educated public: the passage from analogue to digital “photography”, from a philosophical and practical perspective, is less an evolution than a revolution of the medium. What we’ve wrought, with our CMOS and CCD sensors that transform light into an insubstantial pattern of 1’s and 0’s, is not merely a difference of degree from traditional photography but rather a fundamental difference of kind. You can even make a claim that digital photography really isn’t ‘photography’ in the etymological sense of the word at all. As Mr. Connor suggests, its more accurately described as “data collecting.”
Until recently, photography worked like this: light reflected off people and things and would filter through a camera and physically transform a tangible thing, an emulsion of some sort. This emulsion was contained on, or in, some physical substrate, like tin, or glass, or celluloid or plastic. The photograph was a tangible thing, created by light and engraved with a material trace of something that existed in real time and space. That’s how “photography” got its name: “writing with light”.
Roland Barthes, the French linguist, literary theorist and philosopher, wrote a book about this indexical quality of photography called Camera Lucida. Its one of the seminal texts in the philosophy of photography, which means it’s often referred to while seldom being read, and even less so, understood. To summarize Barthes, what makes a photograph special is its uncanny indexical relationship with what we perceive “out there,” with what’s real. And its indexical nature is closely tied to its analogue processes. Analogue photography transcribes – “writes”- light as a physical texture on a physical substrate in an indexical relationship of thing to image (i.e. a sign that is linked to its object by an actual connection or real relation irrespective of interpretation). What’s important for Barthes’ purposes is that the analogue photograph was literally an emanation of a referent; from a real body, over there, proceeded radiations which ultimately touched the film in my camera, over here, and a new, physical thing, a tintype, or daguerreotype, or a film negative, was created, physically inscribed by the light that touched it.
Now photography is digital, and the evolution from film to digital is not merely about of the obsolescence of film as the standard photographic medium; rather, it’s the story of a deep ontological and phenomenological shift that is transforming the way we capture and store images that purport to copy the world. Where we used to have cameras that used light to etch a negative, we now have, in the words of Kevin Connor, digital data-collecting devices that don’t “write with light,” but rather which translate light into discrete number patterns which aren’t indexical and can be instantiated intangibly i.e. what is produced isn’t a ‘thing’ but only a pattern which contains the potential of something else, something else that requires the intercession of of third thing, computation.
In August, 2003, I was sitting in the garden outside of Joseph Niépce’s Burgundy estate, where, from the window of which, Niépce had taken history’s first photograph. I was enjoying a pleasant late Summer afternoon in the company of George Fèvre, one of the unsung masters of 20th Century photography. A personal friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson, George was the master printer at PICTO in Paris and was the guy who printed HCB’s negatives from the 1950’s until HCB’s death in 2004. If you’ve seen an HCB or Joseph Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, in all likelihood George printed it.
George was an incredibly nice man, humble to a fault, full of fascinating stories about the foibles of the photographic masters and very thoughtful about the craft of photography.
Up to that day I lived in the old familiar world of traditional photographic practices: aperture and shutter, exposure, film type, developer characteristics, contrast filters and paper grades, a world whose highest achievements George had helped promulgate. What better person to talk to about photography, and what better place to do it, where it all started.
Of course, I wanted to hear his stories, first person accounts of iconic photographers and their iconic prints, and George, always the gentleman, obliged without any sense of the significance of what he was remembering. To him, the specifics of how HCB or Koudelka worked, the quality of their negatives, and how George used them to create the stunning prints that made them famous were nothing special, all in a day’s work for him. What George was interested in talking about was Photoshop, something he had just discovered and of which he was fascinated. And he said something curious to me, something I always remembered and something I stored in memory for a better time to reflect on it.
What George said was this: Photoshop was amazing. Anyone could now do with a few keystrokes what he had laboriously done at such cost in the darkroom. It was going to open up the craft in ways heretofore unimagined. But it was no longer photography. There was something disquieting about the transformation. Photography’s tight bond with reality had been broken, its “indexical” nature, as Barthe would put it, had been severed, and it was this bond that gave photography its power. We were arriving at a post-photographic era, where image capture would become another form of graphic arts, its products cut free from ultimate claims to truth. There could be no claims to truthful reproduction because there was nothing written and no bedrock thing produced, just a numerical patter of 1’s and 0’s instantiated nowhere and capable of endless manipulation. The future would be the era of “visual imaging.”
Since that day, the cataract of digital innovation has not abated but intensified— we all know the litany because we are caught up in it on every side: 36 mp DSLRs with facial recognition and a bevy of simulations, camera phones, Lyto, Tumblr, Facebook — do I need to go on?
The changes have brought their benefits: giving people the chance at uncensored expression, allowing us to easily capture and disseminate what we claim to be our experiences. Of course, there are also new problems of craft and aesthetic. Previous technologies have usually expanded technical mastery, but digital technology is contracting it. The eloquence of a single jewel like 5×7 contact print has turned into the un-nuanced vulgarity of 30 x 40 tack sharp Giclee prints taken with fully automated digitized devices and reworked in Photoshop so as destroy any indexical relationship with the real.
We are currently living through a profound cultural transformation at the hands of techno-visionaries with no real investment in photography as a practice. All the more ironic in that this has happened at a time when popular culture now bludgeons us with imagery: while photography is dead, images are everywhere. You see imaging on your way to work, while you’re at work, at lunch time, on your way home from work, when you go out in the evening. Your computerized news feed and email inbox is full of it. Even what you read has become an adjunct to the primacy of the image. The problem is that the images digital processes give us possess no intrinsic proof of their truth, its non-instantiated computated product endlessly malleable and thus cut free from ultimate claims to truth. And it’s this claim to truth that gives photography its uncanny ability to communicate with us, to make us reflect, or to aid us in remembrance, or to help us see anew.
I’m a photographer. No, let me rephrase that: I would like to be a photographer. In reality I’m merely an obsessive who takes lots of photographs in the hope that some day, just once, he will produce an image that is really, truly memorable. Like the images that Henri Cartier Bresson captured, apparently effortlessly, in their thousands. Think, for example, of his famous picture of the guy leaping over the puddle; or the one of the two stout couples enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Marne; or his magical picture of a cheeky young boy carrying two bottles of red wine on the rue Mouffetard in 1954. I like this last one particularly, because the lad in the photograph is about the same age as I was then and I often wonder if he’s still around, and what he looks like now.
You can think about this obsessiveness, this quest for the one perfect picture, as a kind of illness. If so, then I’ve had it for more than half a century. And I’m not the only sufferer. Only the other day I was reading a profile of Derrick Parfit, the celebrated Oxford philosopher, who believes that most of the world looks better in reproduction than it does in life. Unlike me, though, Parfit has specialised. There were only 10 things in the world he wanted to photograph, writes Macfarquhar, “and they’re all buildings: the best buildings in Venice – Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal – and the best buildings in St Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building”.
Accordingly, between 1975 and 1998, Parfit spent about five weeks each year in Venice and St Petersburg. (That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re a fellow of All Souls.) Like me, he dislikes the harshness of the midday sun, so he’d wait for morning or evening light. He would wait for hours, reading a book, for the right sort of light and the right sort of weather.
When he came home, Parfit developed his photographs and sorted them. “Of a thousand pictures,” Macfarquhar writes, “he might keep three. When he decided that a picture was worth saving, he took it to a professional processor in London and had the processor hand-paint out all aspects of the image that he found distasteful, which meant all evidence of the 20th century – cars, telegraph wires, signposts – and usually all people. Then he had the colours repeatedly adjusted, although this was enormously expensive, until they were exactly what he wanted – which was a matter of fidelity not to the scene as it was but to an idea in his head.”
Now that’s a serious case. My condition is nothing like as bad as that. But I recognise the longing for perfection. Parfit contracted the illness because a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera (make unspecified). I caught it via a chance encounter when I was 13.
I was brought up in rural Ireland, which in the 1950s was a pretty sober society, priest-ridden and poor – not unlike Poland before the Berlin Wall came down. On Sunday afternoons, my parents insisted that the family go for a “drive” – an idea I found tedious in the manner of teenagers the world over. On one such Sunday we wound up in Killarney, Ireland’s answer to the Lake District, and we were walking through the beautiful grounds of Muckross House when we came on a young woman sitting on a bench. She was in her 30s, neatly dressed and with a self-possessed air.
We sat on a nearby bench and my father engaged her in conversation, much to my embarrassment. It turned out that she was English and on her first visit to Ireland. Da asked if she was enjoying it. “Very much,” she replied. What did she like about the country? “Oh,” she said, “that’s easy: the cloudscapes.” She explained that she was a photographer and Ireland had very interesting light because of the way the sunlight was filtered through the clouds.
At this point I sat up and began paying attention. I had never heard this kind of talk before. “What sort of camera do you have?” I asked. She explained that she had two – “one for colour and one for black-and-white”. I was astonished: in our world families had (at most) only one camera; and any photographs they took were in black and white. Seeing my amazement she asked if I would like to see one of her cameras. I nodded eagerly. She reached into her bag, took something out, leaned towards me and placed it in my outstretched hand.
I nearly dropped it! I was expecting something of the weight of a Box Brownie. Instead I found myself holding a silver-grey metallic object that looked more like a scientific instrument than any camera I’d ever seen. “It’s a Leica,” she said. “It’s made in Germany.”
The rest of that afternoon is lost in a haze. I do remember her talking about how one should use a yellow filter when photographing landscapes in black and white (it deepens the blue of the sky and makes clouds stand out), about framing and composition, and some stuff about focal lengths. But what I came away with were two ideas: one was that photography was something that was challenging, interesting and rewarding; the other was that if you wanted to do it properly you needed serious kit.
That kit was invented 100 years ago this year in Wetzlar, a small town in Germany, where a 35-year-old technician invented a camera that would shape the way we perceived the world for the rest of the 20th century.
His name was Oskar Barnack, and he worked for a company called Leitz which made microscopes for scientific research. He had been hired by Ernst Leitz, the proprietor of the company, in 1911 and by 1913 had risen to be its director of research and development. His abiding passion, however, was not microscopy but photography, an art form that at that time required not just technical skill but a physique strong enough to lug around a large plate camera and its load of 16.5cm x 21.6cm glass plates.
Barnack suffered from acute asthma and the weight of the kit caused him difficulty in breathing, so he set out to reduce the load. He first tried fitting four images on to a single glass plate, but abandoned that approach because the quality of the images was poor. (At that time photographic prints were mostly produced by contact printing from the negative and so quality was directly proportional to the size of the negative: the bigger the glass plate, the better the result.) Barnack concluded that lightweight photography would have to be done with something less dense than glass plates, and with smaller, lighter, cameras.
At this point, he had a stroke of luck. One of his colleagues, Emil Mechau, was working on a project to improve the performance of movie projectors, particularly the infuriating fluttering of the images when projected on to a screen. He was working with 35mm celluloid roll film – a format invented by Thomas Edison in the 1890s which eventually had become standard for the emerging motion-picture industry. Barnack had found the lightweight recording medium he sought. All that was needed was a camera that could handle it.
Barnack set about designing and building one. The prototype he came up with was made of metal (hitherto cameras were hand-built, often exquisitely, with hardwood). The camera took one picture at a time, the film being wound on manually by means of a sprocket wheel that engaged with the holes on the sides of the film strip. Because the film moved horizontally – rather than vertically as in a movie camera – he decided that the dimensions of each image should be 36 x 24mm, and that a roll of 36 images would fit in the camera body.
Thus were set the basic parameters of 35mm photography. There remained, however, one problem. Since the 36 x 24 images were tiny by the standards of the day, the only way to produce large images of acceptable quality would be to print them via an enlarger. The tiny images would have to be phenomenally sharp, which meant that they needed lenses of extraordinary optical quality. Here again Barnack was lucky: one of his colleagues at Leitz was a genius with optics named Max Berek, who designed a 50mm lens (the first Elmar) that delivered the kind of optical performance Barnack’s camera needed.
The first three prototypes of the camera were produced in late 1913 and early 1914. It was called the Ur-Leica (Lei from “Leitz” and Ca from “camera”). It was astonishingly small, fitting comfortably into one’s hand, had a two-speed shutter, an automatic frame-counter and Berek’s f3.5 Elmar lens (which collapsed into itself when not in use, making the camera even more compact). It was a breathtaking, revolutionary device that would change photography for ever.
It would be some time before the world found out about it, however. One of the first photographs Barnack took with the camera shows a spike-helmeted German soldier who has just affixed to a public building a copy of the Emperor’s Order for total mobilisation. Germany, along with the rest of Europe, was descending into the first world war.
Leitz survived the war and the ensuing depression. The first commercial Leica – the Leica I – was launched at the Leipzig Fair in 1925. It was already much more sophisticated than the prototypes. It had a built-in optical viewfinder, shutter speeds ranging from 1/20th to 1/500th of a second, an accessory shoe – and Berek’s Elmar lens. Just under 59,000 of the Leica I were made and those that survive are now among the photographic world’s most coveted collectibles. Five years later, the first Leica with interchangeable lenses was introduced. The revolution was under way.
Leica cameras transformed the embryonic genre of photojournalism. Journalists had been using cameras almost from the dawn of photography: think of Roger Fenton documenting the Crimean war, Matthew Brady doing the same for the American civil war or Jacob Riis’s photographs of the lives of the poor in the tenements of 1890’s New York. These pioneers were constrained by the bulk of their equipment and their reportage was correspondingly static and formal. In most assignments, aspiring photojournalists stuck out like sore thumbs, or at any rate like the tripods they were obliged to use.
The Leica changed all that. Suddenly it was possible to be unobtrusive. The camera fitted in a coat pocket. It didn’t need a tripod and was quick and quiet to operate. So photography became fluid, informal, intimate: the technology no longer got in the way of telling the story. So new kinds of storytelling evolved, published in the new illustrated magazines such as Picture Post and Life.
These publications developed new ways of laying out and presenting stories, creating the narrative not with slabs of text but with photographs, captions and short pieces of text. Freed by Barnack’s 36-exposure rolls from the straitjacket imposed by glass plates and cut film, photographers were suddenly able to take as many shots as they needed, enabling editors back at base to choose from their contact sheets the images that best suited the narrative they were creating. The heyday of this kind of photojournalism was from 1925 until the 1960s, when the illustrated-magazine format began to wilt under the pressure of television news and features.
At the heart of photojournalism was the Leica. Almost all the great photojournalists of the period had at least one of them in his or her bag. (The only exception I can think of is our own Jane Bown: she always worked with Japanese SLRs.) Many of the images that became, in one way or another, iconic of the time were shot on Leicas: Nixon jabbing his finger at Khruschev; Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara; Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings [Editor’s Note: Capa shot a Contax, including the D-Day pictures; somehow the story has been transformed as another famous event shot with the ubiquitous Leica. it wasn’t in this instance.]; Cartier-Bresson’s photograph ofGandhi’s funeral pyre; Bert Hardy’s image of the Queen attending the Paris Opera in 1957; Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of a Gestapo informer being publicly exposed by a woman she had betrayed. And so on. Leica seeped into popular culture, such that when Dorothy Parker was asked to review Christopher Isherwood’s I Am a Camera she replied, “Me no Leica” and everybody got the joke.
Leicas have never been cheap (the latest model in the M-series costs about $6,000 just for the camera body) but when you handle one you can see why. They are beautifully engineered precision instruments, and that kind of precision costs money. They have a reassuring heft and solidity, and shutter actions that are exquisitely balanced and quiet. (Even today some US courts define acceptable noise levels for courtroom photography in relation to the noise level of a Leica shutter.) And they go on for ever (my venerable M4-P dates from 1980 and still seems as good as new) – and Leitz will fix and service them if they falter.
Until the early 1970s the cameras contained no electronics – not even an exposure meter – which meant they were astonishingly robust. The playwright Arthur Miller once recounted an occasion when he and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, were invited to dinner by Fidel Castro. “On arriving in the Palace of the Revolution,” Miller recalled, “my wife was immediately required to give up her Leica before meeting Castro. The man taking the camera promptly dropped it from a high bin to the stone floor.” Later on in the evening, however, an aide handed Castro a book of Morath’s photographs. On seeing them Castro “promptly ordered an underling to return her camera to her. And he had no objection to her photographing him the rest of the evening.” The Leica still worked flawlessly.
The other reason why Leicas are eye-wateringly expensive is the glassware. Leitz lenses are astonishingly good in terms of sharpness, resolution and colour rendition. The top-end Noctilux f0.95 50mm lens, for example, is capable of admitting more light than any other lens in the world. But at nearly £8,000 it can also deplete your current account faster than any other lens in existence. I know only one person who has this lens, and he long ago made so much money from technology companies that he doesn’t notice the cost. But even a standard 50mm Summicron f/2 lens costs around £1,600.
These prices attract the derision of some amateur photographers, who see them as proof that Leica has sold out – abandoned the business of serious photography for the universe of luxury goods dominated by Louis Vuitton, Breitling et al; the world of the Financial Times‘s nauseating “How to Spend It” supplement. It is true that the red dot that was the badge for the Leica brand had become something of a fashion icon – to the point that serious photographers took to obscuring the dot with black tape. (In recent models, Leica has abandoned the dot.) But people who buy Leicas as fashion accessories often come unstuck, because you have to know what you’re doing in order to use the M-series cameras. There’s a lovely sequence of photographs online of Eric Clapton using his M8, for example. He takes the photograph, then looks in puzzlement at the LCD monitor and the camera until he eventually realises that the lens cap is still on. The Queen, meanwhile, has been an assured Leica user for decades. And she always takes the lens cap off.
Like other great engineering companies, Leica nearly missed the digital revolution. Initially, the new technology didn’t seem to pose a challenge to high-end photography: the pixellated images produced by sensors the size of a baby’s fingernail were too crude. But the bell began to toll for analogue photography in 2003 when Canon released the EOS 300, the first competent digital single lens reflex, and Nikon followed soon after with its D70. It was only a matter of time before larger sensors would start to produce images as good as those obtainable from film.
As the Japanese giants raced to introduce sensors that would match the size of Oskar Barnack’s original 35mm frame, Leica looked like a rabbit transfixed in the headlights of an oncoming car. Instead of updating its M-range to take digital sensors, it fiddled about in an alliance with Panasonic to produce expensive but essentially derivative consumer cameras which were really just rebadged versions of Japanese originals. For a time it looked as though Leica would go the way of Kodak,, another company that had dominated analogue photography but failed to master digital.
In the end, Leica was rescued from its near-death experience by a wealthy Austrian entrepreneur, Andreas Kaufmann, who gradually acquired a controlling stake in the company between 2002 and 2006 and turned it round. The first digital M-camera, the M8, was launched in 2006. It was a flawed product, but at least it showed that it was possible to combine Leica’s traditional mechanical excellence with bigger sensors. And when the M9, with its full-frame 36 x 24 sensor, appeared in 2009 it was clear that the firm might weather the storm. Which it seems to have done: last year Leica reported annual revenues of around €300m and its 600 employees have moved back to a futuristic headquarters in Wetzlar, aided no doubt by the sacrifices of fanatics like me who took out second mortgages to buy M9s.
I bought my first Leica when I was a graduate student at Cambridge. It was a second-hand M2 with a 35mm Summilux lens and foolishly extravagant for a skint young scholar. In retrospect, though, it was one of the wisest purchases I ever made – not because it was an investment (though it could have been that) but because it taught me everything I know about photography. It forced me to think about what John Berger called “ways of seeing” rather than merely taking shots. It also pulled a comforting rug from under my feet: no longer could I blame my inferior work on the cheap lenses and crappy cameras that were all I could afford. With the same kit as Henri Cartier-Bresson, if I failed in the quest for the perfect picture then I only had myself to blame. Forty years on, that’s still the position. Still, tomorrow’s another day…
Fifty miles north of Frankfurt lies the small German town of Solms. Turn off the main thoroughfare and you find yourself driving down tranquil suburban streets, with detached houses set back from the road, and, on a warm morning in late August, not a soul in sight. Nobody does bourgeois solidity like the Germans: you can imagine coming here for coffee and cakes with your aunt, but that would be the limit of excitement. By the time you reach Oskar-Barnack-Strasse, the town has almost petered out; just before the railway line, however, there is a clutch of industrial buildings, with a red dot on the sign outside. As far as fanfare is concerned, that’s about it. But here is the place to go, if you want to find the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world.
Many people would disagree. Bugatti fans, for instance, would direct your attention to the Type 57 Atlantic, the only car I know that appears to have been designed by masseuses. Personally, I would consider it a privilege to die at the wheel of a Lamborghini Miura—not difficult, when you’re nudging a hundred and seventy m.p.h. and waving at passersby. But automobiles need gas, whereas the truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.
There have been Leica cameras since 1925, when the Leica I was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig. From then on, as the camera has evolved over eight decades, generations of users have turned to it in their hour of need, or their millisecond of inspiration. Aleksandr Rodchenko, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Sebastião Salgado: these are some of the major-league names that are associated with the Leica brand—or, in the case of Cartier-Bresson, stuck to it with everlasting glue.
Even if you don’t follow photography, your mind’s eye will still be full of Leica photographs. The famous head shot of Che Guevara, reproduced on millions of rebellious T-shirts and student walls: that was taken on a Leica with a portrait lens—a short telephoto of 90 mm.—by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, better known as Korda, in 1960. How about the pearl-gray smile-cum-kiss reflected in the wing mirror of a car, taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1955? Leica again, as is the even more celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945—a sailor craned over a nurse, bending her backward, her hand raised against his chest in polite half-protestation. The man behind the camera was Alfred Eisenstaedt, of Life magazine, who recalled:
I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder. But none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked.
He took four pictures, and that was that. “It was done within a few seconds,” he said. All you need to know about the Leica is present in those seconds. The photographer was on the run, so whatever he was carrying had to be light and trim enough not to be a drag. He swivelled and fired in one motion, like the Sundance Kid. And everything happened as quickly for him as it did for the startled nurse, with all the components—the angles, the surrounding throng, the shining white of her dress and the kisser’s cap—falling into position. Times Square was the arena of uncontrolled joy; the job of the artist was to bring it under control, and the task of his camera was to bring life—or, at least, an improved version of it, graced with order and impact—to the readers of Life.
Still, why should one lump of metal and glass be better at fulfilling that duty than any other? Would Eisenstaedt really have been worse off, or failed to hit the target, with another sort of camera? These days, Leica makes digital compacts and a beefy S.L.R., or single-lens reflex, called the R9, but for more than fifty years the pride of the company has been the M series of 35-mm. range-finder cameras—durable, companionable, costly, and basically unchanging, like a spouse. There are three current models, one of which, the MP, will set you back a throat-drying four thousand dollars or so; having stood outside dustless factory rooms, in Solms, and watched women in white coats and protective hairnets carefully applying black paint, with a slender brush, to the rim of every lens, I can tell you exactly where your money goes. Mind you, for four grand you don’t even get a lens—just the MP body. It sits there like a gum without a tooth until you add a lens, the cheapest being available for just under a thousand dollars. (Five and a half thousand will buy you a 50-mm. f/1, the widest lens on the market; for anybody wanting to shoot pictures by candlelight, there’s your answer.) If you simply want to take a nice photograph of your children, though, what’s wrong with a Canon PowerShot? Yours online for just over two hundred bucks, the PowerShot SD1000 will also zoom, focus for you, set the exposure for you, and advance the frame automatically for you, none of which the MP, like some sniffing aristocrat, will deign to do. To make the contest even starker, the SD1000 is a digital camera, fizzing with megapixels, whereas the Leica still stores images on that frail, combustible material known as film. Short of telling the kids to hold still while you copy them onto parchment, how much further out of touch could you be?
To non-photographers, Leica, more than any other manufacturer, is a legend with a hint of scam: suckers paying through the nose for a name, in a doomed attempt to crank up the credibility of a picture they were going to take anyway, just as weekend golfers splash out on a Callaway Big Bertha in a bid to convince themselves that, with a little more whippiness in their shaft, they will swell into Tiger Woods. To unrepentant aesthetes, on the other hand, there is something demeaning in the idea of Leica. Talent will out, they say, whatever the tools that lie to hand, and in a sense they are right: Woods would destroy us with a single rusty five-iron found at the back of a garage, and Cartier-Bresson could have picked up a Box Brownie and done more with a roll of film—summoning his usual miracles of poise and surprise—than the rest of us would manage with a lifetime of Leicas. Yet the man himself was quite clear on the matter:
I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.
Asked how he thought of the Leica, Cartier-Bresson said that it felt like “a big warm kiss, like a shot from a revolver, and like the psychoanalyst’s couch.” At this point, five thousand dollars begins to look like a bargain.
Many reasons have been adduced for the rise of the Leica. There is the hectic progress of the illustrated press, avid for photographs to fill its columns; there is the increased mobility, spending power, and leisure time of the middle classes, who wished to preserve a record of these novel blessings, if not for posterity, then at least for show. Yet the great inventions, more often than not, are triggered less by vast historical movements than by the pressures of individual chance—or, in Leica’s case, by asthma. Every Leica employee who drives down Oskar-Barnack-Strasse is reminded of corporate glory, for it was Barnack, a former engineer at Carl Zeiss, the famous lens-makers in Jena, who designed the Leica I. He was an amateur photographer, and the camera had first occurred to him, as if in a vision, in 1905, twenty years before it actually went on sale:
Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13 by 18 plates, with six double-plate holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thüringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides (bearing in mind that I suffer from asthma) an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?
Five years later, Barnack was invited to work for Ernst Leitz, a rival optical company, in Wetzlar. (The company stayed there until 1988, when it was sold, and the camera division, renamed Leica, shifted to Solms, fifteen minutes away.) By 1913-14, he had developed what became known as the ur-Leica: a tough, squat rectangular metal box, not much bigger than a spectacles case, with rounded corners and a retractable brass lens. You could tuck it into a jacket pocket, wander around the Thuringer woods all weekend, and never gasp for breath. The extraordinary fact is that, if you were to place it next to today’s Leica MP, the similarities would far outweigh the differences; stand a young man beside his own great-grandfather and you get the same effect.
Barnack took a picture on August 2, 1914, using his new device. Reproduced in Alessandro Pasi’s comprehensive study, “Leica: Witness to a Century” (2004), it shows a helmeted soldier turning away from a column on which he has just plastered the imperial order for mobilization. This was the first hint of the role that would fall to Leicas above all other cameras: to be there in history’s face. Not until the end of hostilities did Barnack resume work on the Leica, as it came to be called. (His own choice of name was Lilliput, but wiser counsels prevailed.) Whenever you buy a 35-mm. camera, you pay homage to Barnack, for it was his handheld invention that popularized the 24-mm.-by-36-mm. negative—a perfect ratio of 2:3—adapted from cine film. According to company lore, he held a strip of the new film between his hands and stretched his arms wide, the resulting length being just enough to contain thirty-six frames—the standard number of images, ever since, on a roll of 35-mm. film. Well, maybe. Does this mean that, if Barnack had been more of an ape, we might have got forty?
When the Leica I made its eventual début, in 1925, it caused consternation. In the words of one Leica historian, quoted by Pasi, “To many of the old photographers it looked like a toy designed for a lady’s handbag.” Over the next seven years, however, nearly sixty thousand Leica I’s were sold. That’s a lot of handbags. The shutter speeds on the new camera ran up to one five-hundredth of a second, and the aperture opened wide to f/3.5. In 1932, the Leica II arrived, equipped with a range finder for more accurate focussing. I used one the other day—a mid-thirties model, although production lasted until 1948. Everything still ran sweetly, including the knurled knob with which you wind on from frame to frame, and the simplicity of the design made the Leica an infinitely more friendly proposition, for the novice, than one of the digital monsters from Nikon and Canon. Those need an instruction manual only slightly smaller than the Old Testament, whereas the Leica II sat in my palms like a puppy, begging to be taken out on the streets.
That is how it struck not only the public but also those for whom photography was a living, or an ecstatic pursuit. A German named Paul Wolff acquired a Leica in 1926 and became a high priest to the brand, winning many converts with his 1934 book “My Experiences with the Leica.” His compatriot Ilsa Bing, born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt, was dubbed “the Queen of the Leica” after an exhibit in 1931. She had bought the camera in 1929, and what is remarkable, as one scrolls through a roster of her peers, is how quickly, and infectiously, the Leica habit caught on. Whenever I pick up a book of photographs, I check the chronology at the back. From a monograph by the Hungarian André Kertész, the most wistful and tactful of photographers: “1928—Purchases first Leica.” From the catalogue of the 1998 Aleksandr Rodchenko show at MOMA: “1928, November 25—Stepanova’s diary records Rodchenko’s purchase of a Leica for 350 rubles.” And on it goes.
The Russians were among the first and fiercest devotees, and anyone who craves the Leica as a pure emblem of capitalist desire—what Marx would call commodity fetishism—may also like to reflect on its status, to men like Rodchenko, as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Never a man to be tied down (he was also a painter, sculptor, and master of collage), he nonetheless believed that “only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life,” and he went on the attack, craning up at buildings and down from roofs, tipping his Leica at flights of steps and street parades, upending the world as if all its old complacencies could be shaken out of the bottom like dust. There is a gorgeous shot from 1934 entitled “Girl with a Leica,” in which his subject perches politely on a bench that arrows diagonally, and most impolitely, from lower left to upper right. She wears a soft white beret and dress, and her gaze is blank and misty, but thrown over the scene, like a net, is the shadow of a window grille—modernist geometry at war with reactionary decorum. The object she clasps in her lap, its strap drawn tightly over her shoulder, is of the same make as the one that created the picture.
When it came to off-centeredness, Rodchenko’s fellow-Russian Ilya Ehrenburg went one better. “A camera is clumsy and crude. It meddles insolently in other people’s affairs,” he wrote in 1932. “Ours is a guileful age. Following man’s example, things have also learned to dissemble. For many months I roamed Paris with a little camera. People would sometimes wonder: why was I taking pictures of a fence or a road? They didn’t know that I was taking pictures of them.” Ehrenburg had solved the problem of meddling by buying an accessory: “The Leica has a lateral viewfinder. It’s constructed like a periscope. I was photographing at 90 degrees.” The Paris that emerged—poor, grimy, and unposed—was a moral rebuke to the myth of bohemian chic.
You can still buy a right-angled viewfinder for a new Leica, if you’re too shy or sneaky to confront your subjects head-on, although the basic thrust of Leica technique has been to insist that no extra subterfuge is required: the camera can hide itself. If I had to fix the source of that reticence, I would point to Marseilles in 1932. It was then that Cartier-Bresson, an aimless young Frenchman from a wealthy family, bought his first Leica. He proceeded to grow into the best-known photographer of the twentieth century, in spite (or, as he would argue, because) of his ability to walk down a street not merely unrecognized but unnoticed. He began as a painter, and continued to draw throughout his life, but his hand was most comfortable with a camera.
When I spoke to his widow, Martine Franck—the president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, in Paris, and herself a distinguished photographer—she said that her husband in action with his Leica “was like a dancer.” This feline unobtrusiveness led him all over the world and made him seem at home wherever he paused; one trip to Asia lasted three years, ending in 1950, and produced eight hundred and fifty rolls of film. His breakthrough collection, published two years later, was called “The Decisive Moment,” and he sought endless analogies for the sensation that was engendered by the press of a shutter. The most common of these was hunting: “The photographer must lie in wait, watching out for his prey, and have a presentiment of what is about to happen.”
There, if anywhere, is the Leica motto: watch and wait. If you were a predator, the moment—not just for Cartier-Bresson, but for all photographers—became that much more decisive in 1954. “Clairvoyance” means “clear sight,” and when Leica launched the M3 that year, the clarity was a coup de foudre; even now, when you look through a used M3, the world before you is brighter and crisper than seems feasible. You half expect to feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. A Leica viewfinder resembles no other, because of the frame lines: thin white strips, parallel to each side of the frame, which show you the borders of the photograph that you are set to take—not merely the lie of the land within the shot, but also what is happening, or about to happen, just outside. This is a matter of millimetres, but to Leica fans it is sacred, because it allows them to plan and imagine a photograph as an act of storytelling—an instant grabbed at will from a continuum. If you want a slice of life, why not see the loaf?
The M3 had everything, although by the standards of today it had practically nothing. You focussed manually, of course, and there was nothing to help you calculate the exposure; either you carried a separate light meter, or you clipped one awkwardly to the top of the camera, or, if you were cool, you guessed. Cartier-Bresson was cool. Martine Franck is still cool: “I think I know my light by now,” she told me. She continues to use her M3: “I’ve never held a camera so beautiful. It fits the hand so well.” Even for people who know nothing of Cartier-Bresson, and for whom 1954 is as long ago as Pompeii, something about the M3 clicks into place: last year, when eBay and Stuff magazine, in the U.K., took it upon themselves to nominate “the top gadget of all time,” the Game Boy came fifth, the Sony Walkman third, and the iPod second. First place went to an old camera that doesn’t even need a battery. If the Queen subscribes to Stuff, she will have nodded in approval, having owned an M3 since 1958. Her Majesty is so wedded to her Leica that she was once shown on a postage stamp holding it at the ready.
It’s no insult to call the M3 a gadget. Such beauty as it possesses flows from its scorn for the superfluous; as any Bauhaus designer could tell you, form follows function. The M series is the backbone of Leica; we are now at the M8 (which at first glance is barely distinguishable from the M3), and, with a couple of exceptions, every intervening camera has been a classic. Richard Kalvar, who rose to become president of the Magnum photographic agency during the nineties, remembers hearing the words of a Leica fan: “I know I’m using the best, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Kalvar bought an M4 and never looked back: “It’s almost a part of me,” he says. Ralph Gibson, whose photographs offer an unblinking survey of the textures that surround us, from skin to stone, bought his first Leica, an M2 (which, confusingly, postdated the M3), in 1961. It cost him three hundred dollars, which, considering that he was earning a hundred a week, was quite an outlay, but his loyalty is undimmed. “More great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50-mm. lens than with any other combination in the history of photography,” Gibson said to me. He advised Leica beginners to use nothing except that standard lens for two or three years, so as to ease themselves into the swing of the thing: “What you learn you can then apply to all the other lengths.”
One could argue that, since the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the sense of Europe as the spiritual hearth of Leica, with the Paris of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson glowing at its core, has been complemented, if not superseded, by America’s attraction to the brand. The Russian love of the angular had exploited the camera’s portability (you try bending over a window ledge with a plate camera); the French had perfected the art of reportage, netting experience on the wing; but the Leicas that conquered America—the M3, the M4, and later the M6, with built-in metering and the round red Leica logo on the front—were wielded with fresh appetite, biting at the world and slicing it off in unexpected chunks. Lee Friedlander, photographing a child in New York, in 1963, thought nothing of bringing the camera down to the boy’s eye level, and thus semi-decapitating the grownups who stood beside him. (All kids dream of that sometime.) Men and women were reflected in storefront windows, or obscured by street signs; many of the photographs shimmered on the brink of a mistake. “With a camera like that,” Friedlander has said of the Leica, “you don’t believe that you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.” One shot of his, from 1969, traps an entire landscape of feeling—a boundless American sky, salted with high clouds, plus Friedlander’s wife, Maria, with her lightly smiling face—inside the cab of a single truck, layering what we see through the side window with what is reflected in it. I know of long novels that tell you less.
Before Friedlander came Robert Frank, born in Switzerland; only someone from a mountainous country, perhaps, could come here and view the United States as a flat and tragic plain. “The Americans” (1958), the record of his travels with a Leica, was mostly haze, shade, and grain, stacked with human features resigned to their fate. No artist had ever studied a men’s room in such detail before, with everything from the mop to the hand dryer immortalized in the wide embrace of the lens; Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the book, lauded the result, taken in Memphis, Tennessee, as “the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see, the shoeshine going on in sad eternity.” Then, there was Garry Winogrand, the least exhaustible of all photographers. Frank’s eighty-three images may have been chosen from five hundred rolls of film, but when Winogrand died, in 1984, at the age of fifty-six, he left behind more than two and a half thousand rolls of film that hadn’t even been developed. He leavened the wistfulness of Frank with a documentary bluntness and a grinning wit, incessantly tilting his Leica to throw a scene off-balance and seek a new dynamic. His picture of a disabled man in Los Angeles, in 1969, could have been fuelled by pathos alone, or by political rage at an indifferent society, but Winogrand cannot stop tracking that society in its comic range; that is why we get not just the wheelchair and the begging bowl but also a trio of short-skirted girls, bunched together like a backup group, strolling through the Vs of shadow and sunlight, and a portly matron planted at the right of the frame—a stolid import from another age.
I recently found a picture of Winogrand’s M4. The metal is not just rubbed but visibly worn down beside the wind-on lever; you have to shoot a heck of a lot of photographs on a Leica before that happens. Still, his M4 is in mint condition compared with the M2 owned by Bruce Davidson, the American photographer whose work constitutes, among other things, an invaluable record of the civil-rights movement. And even his M2, pitted and peeled like the bark of a tree, is pristine compared with the Leica I saw in the display case at the Leica factory in Solms. That model had been in the Hindenburg when it went up in flames in New Jersey in 1937. The heat was so intense that the front of the lenses melted. So now you know: Leica engineers test their product to the limits, and they will customize it for you if you are planning a trip to the Arctic, but when you really want to trash your precious camera you need an exploding airship.
If you pick up an M-series Leica, two things are immediately apparent. First, the density: the object sits neatly but not lightly in the hand, and a full day’s shooting, with the camera continually hefted to the eye, leaves you with a faint but discernible case of wrist ache. Second, there is no lump. Most of the smarter, costlier cameras in the world are S.L.R.s, with a lumpy prism on top. Light enters through the lens, strikes an angled mirror, and bounces upward to the prism, where it strikes one surface after another, like a ball in a squash court, before exiting through the viewfinder. You see what your lens sees, and you focus accordingly. This happy state of affairs does not endure. As you take a picture, the mirror flips up out of the light path. The image, now unobstructed, reaches straight to the rear of the camera and, as the shutter opens, burns into the emulsion of the film—or, these days, registers on a digital sensor. With every flip, however, comes a flip side: the mirror shuts off access to the prism, meaning that, at the instant of release, your vision is blocked, and you are left gazing at the dark.
To most of us, this is not a problem. The instant passes, the mirror flips back down, and lo, there is light. For some photographers, though, the impediment is agony: of all the times to deny us the right to look at our subject, S.L.R.s have to pick this one? “Visualus interruptus,” Ralph Gibson calls it, and here is where the Leica M series plays its ace. The Leica is lumpless, with a flat top built from a single piece of brass. It has no prism, because it focusses with a range finder—situated above the lens. And it has no mirror inside, and therefore no clunk as the mirror swings. When you take a picture with an S.L.R., there is a distinctive sound, somewhere between a clatter and a thump; I worship my beat-up Nikon FE, but there is no denying that every snap reminds me of a cow kicking over a milk pail. With a Leica, all you hear is the shutter, which is the quietest on the market. The result—and this may be the most seductive reason for the Leica cult—is that a photograph sounds like a kiss.
From the start, this tinge of diplomatic subtlety has shaded our view of the Leica, not always helpfully. The M-series range finder feels made for the finesse and formality of black-and-white—yet consider the oeuvre of William Eggleston, whose unabashed use of color has delivered, through Leica lenses, a lesson in everyday American surrealism, which, like David Lynch movies, blooms almost painfully bright. Again, the Leica, with its range of wide-aperture lenses, is the camera for natural light, and thus inimical to flash, yet Lee Friedlander conjured a series of plainly flashlit nudes, in the nineteen-seventies, which finds tenderness and dignity in the brazen. Lastly, a Leica is, before anything else, a 35-mm. camera. Barnack shaped the Leica I around a strip of film, and the essential mission of the brand since then has been to guarantee that a single chemical event—the action of light on a photosensitive surface—passes off as smoothly as possible. Picture the scene, then, in Cologne, in the fall of 2006. At Photokina, the biennial fair of the world’s photographic trade, Leica made an announcement: it was time, we were told, for the M8. The M series was going digital. It was like Dylan going electric.
In a way, this had to happen. The tide of our lives is surging in a digital direction. My complete childhood is distilled into a couple of photograph albums, with the highlights, whether of achievement or embarrassment, captured in no more than a dozen talismanic stills, now faded and curling at the edges. Yet our own children go on one school trip and return with a hundred images stashed on a memory card: will that enhance or dilute their later remembrance of themselves? Will our experience be any the richer for being so retrievable, or could an individual history risk being wiped, or corrupted, as briskly as a memory card? Garry Winogrand might have felt relieved to secure those thousands of images on a hard drive, rather than on frangible film, although it could be that the taking of a photograph meant more to him than the printed result. The jury is out, but one thing is for sure: film is dwindling into a minority taste, upheld largely by professionals and stubborn, nostalgic perfectionists. Nikon now offers twenty-two digital models, for instance, while the “wide array of SLR film cameras,” as promised on its Web site, numbers precisely two.
Even a company like Leica, servant to the devout, has felt the brunt. For the fiscal year 2004-05, the company posted losses of almost twenty million euros (nearly twenty-six million dollars), and in 2005 the banks partially terminated its credit lines; in short, Leica was heading for extinction. Since then, there has been something of a turnaround. Major restructuring is still under way, with a new C.E.O.—a genial Californian called Steven K. Lee—brought in to oversee the changes. According to a report of June 20, 2007, the past year has seen the company inching back into profitability, and much of that improvement is due to the M8. The camera’s birth was fraught with complications, and reports streamed in from owners that in certain conditions, thanks to a glitch in the sensor, black was showing up on digital images as deep purple—troubling news if you happened to be shooting a portrait of Dracula, or a Guinness commercial. There were also rumblings about the quality of the focus, which is the last thing you expect from a Leica. One well-known photographer described the camera to me as “unusable,” and said he sometimes felt like throwing it against a wall. But the company responded: cameras were recalled to the factory, Lee signed four thousand letters of apology, and the crisis passed. Nevertheless, the camera still needs a filter fixed to every lens to correct its vision, and Leica will want to do better next time. When I asked Lee about the possibility of an M9—an upgraded M8, with all the kinks ironed out—he smiled and said nothing.
Lee knows what is at stake, being a Leica-lover of long standing. Asked about the difference between using his product and an ordinary camera, he replied: “One is driving a Morgan four-by-four down a country lane, the other one is getting in a Mercedes station wagon and going a hundred miles an hour.” The problem is that, for photographers as for drivers, the most pressing criterion these days is speed, and anything more sluggish than the latest Mercedes—anything, likewise, not tricked out with luxurious extras—belongs to the realm of heritage. There is an astonishing industry in used Leicas, with clubs and forums debating such vital areas of contention as the strap lugs introduced in 1933. There are collectors who buy a Leica and never take it out of the box; others who discreetly amass the special models forged for the Luftwaffe. Ralph Gibson once went to a meeting of the Leica Historical Society of America and, he claims, listened to a retired Marine Corps general give a scholarly paper on certain discrepancies in the serial numbers of Leica lens caps. “Leicaweenies,” Gibson calls such addicts, and they are part of the charming, unbreakable spell that the name continues to cast, as well as a tribute to the working longevity of the cameras. By an unfortunate irony, the abiding virtues of the secondhand slow down the sales of the new: why buy an M8 when you can buy an M3 for a quarter of the price and wind up with comparable results? The economic equation is perverse: “I believe that for every euro we make in sales, the market does four euros of business,” Lee said.
I have always wanted a Leica, ever since I saw an Edward Weston photograph of Henry Fonda, his noble profile etched against the sky, a cigarette between two fingers, and a Leica resting against the corduroy of his jacket. I have used a variety of cultish cameras, all of them secondhand at least, and all based on a negative larger than 35 mm.: a Bronica, a Mamiya 7, and the celebrated twin-lens Rolleiflex, which needs to be cupped at waist height. (“If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly,” a scornful Cartier-Bresson said.) But I have never used a Leica. Now I own one: a small, dapper digital compact called the D-Lux 3. It has a fine lens, and its grace note is a retro leather case that makes me feel less like Henry Fonda and more like a hiker named Helmut, striding around the Black Forest in long socks and a dark-green hat with a feather in it; but a D-Lux 3 is not an M8. For one thing, it doesn’t have a proper viewfinder. For another, it costs close to six hundred dollars—the upper limit of my budget, but laughably cheap to anyone versed in the M series. So, to discover what I was missing, I rented an M8 and a 50-mm. lens for four hours, from a Leica dealer, and went to work.
If you can conquer the slight queasiness that comes from walking about with seven thousand dollars’ worth of machinery hanging around your neck, an afternoon with the M8 is a dangerously pleasant groove to get into. I can understand that, were you a sports photographer, perched far away from the action, or a paparazzo, fighting to squeeze off twenty consecutive frames of Britney Spears falling down outside a night club, this would not be your tool of choice, but for more patient mortals it feels very usable indeed. This is not just a question of ergonomics, or of the diamond-like sharpness of the lens. Rather, it has to do with the old, bewildering Leica trick: the illusion, fostered by a mere machine, that the world out there is asking to be looked at—to be caught and consumed while it is fresh, like a trout. Ever since my teens, as one substandard print after another glimmered into view in the developing tray, under the brothel-red gloom of the darkroom, my own attempts at photography have meant a lurch of expectation and disappointment. Now, with an M8 in my possession, the shame gave way to a thrill. At one point, I stood outside a bookstore and, in a bid to test the exposure, focused on a pair of browsers standing within, under an “Antiquarian” sign at the end of a long shelf. Suddenly, a pale blur entered the frame lines. I panicked, and pressed the shutter: kiss.
On the digital playback, I inspected the evidence. The blur had been an old lady, and she had emerged as a phantom—the complete antiquarian, with glowing white hair and a hint of spectacles. It wasn’t a good photograph, more of a still from “Ghostbusters,” but it was funnier and punchier than anything I had taken before, and I could only have grabbed it with a Leica. (And only with an M. By the time the D-Lux 3 had fired up and focused, the lady would have floated halfway down the street.) So the rumors were true: buy this camera, and accidents will happen. I remembered what Cartier-Bresson once said about turning from painting to photography: “the adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world.” That is what links him to the Leicaweenies, and Oskar Barnack to the advent of the M8, and Russian revolutionaries to flashlit American nudes: the simple, undying wish to look at the scars.
By Anthony Lane. Originally published in The New Yorker, September 24, 2007
In It Might Get Loud, a 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary about rock guitar and the creative process, White Stripes front man Jack White builds himself an electric guitar in his barn. A piece of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, an electric pickup, a hammer and a few nails, and pretty soon White is belting out an eerily hypnotic riff that might be right at home on one of his albums. It’s there right at the beginning of the film, to make the obvious point: it’s not about the guitar, it’s all about the guy playing it. Cut to the next scene – White driving a late 50’s era Mercury down a Tennessee dirt road, declaiming on the debilitating drain of technology on the creative process, in White’s words “the disease you have to fight in any creative field.”
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Leica ever since the onset of the digital era. I love Leica film cameras. To my mind, the best, most functional, least ostentatious cameras ever made are the M2, M3, M4 and M5. Nothing superfluous, no bells, no whistles, everything you need and nothing more. Perfection via simplicity and design. No wonder people still pay premium prices for Leica film cameras long into the digital age. You will pry my black chrome M4 from my fingers when I die. Not a second before.
It wasn’t always that way. When the Leica I debuted in 1925, most photographers dismissed it as a “toy designed for a lady’s handbag,” too small and imprecise, beneath the requirements of a ‘serious photographer.’ And shortly thereafter, Leitz offered the first in a continuing line of questionable collector’s editions, starting in 1929 with the gold plated, lizard skinned Luxus Leica I, over the top limited editions that have caused some to question the commitment of Leitz to the needs of serious photographers.
But, after the initial skepticism, and the discovery of the liberating effects of being able to slip a camera in one’s pocket, the Leica was greeted with fierce devotion by a generation of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest documentarian of his time, called shooting with the Leica like “a big warm kiss, a shot from a revolver, like the psychoanalyst’s couch:”
I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.
In 1932 the Leica II arrived, along with a coupled rangefinder for precise focusing, and shortly thereafter the Leica III with subtle improvements and slower shutter speeds up to 1 second. Production of the “Barnack” Leicas continued until 1960.
I still use a IIIg Barnack, simplicity defined, with knurled knobs to wind and rewind the film, no meter, a shutter speed dial to set the mechanical cloth shutter, and a simple aperture ring on the lens itself. Even today, it feels right in use, comfortable in hand, the photographic equivalent of a well-worn pair of leather shoes built to last, certainly an infinitely more pleasing ergonomic experience than that offered by today’s crop of professional digital cameras, which in reality are more computer than camera, with voluminous instruction manuals and nested menus to match. With the IIIg no instruction manual is needed – well, in fairness, some might need one to figure out how to load the film – and one needs only some fundamental knowledge about how apertures and shutter speeds control light and how light interacts with film. Load your film and go out and shoot. No chimping. This is why I love my Leicas – IIIg, m2, m4, m5, and (to a lesser extent) my M7.
And yet, I’ve often claimed to hate their digital cameras, in spite of the fact that I’ve owned two (an M8 and an X1) and loved them both. When I think about it objectively, the current Monochrom seems to me the closest thing to a traditional Leica film camera in the digital age, embodying the same ethos, but transformed somehow to meet the digital reality. And the fact that I’ve loved the M8 and X1, both much maligned by digiphiles, while philosophically “hating” Leica digital offerings, should tell you something about my ultimate sympathies. In reality, I’ve realized, I don’t hate Leica digital cameras; what I hate is digital photography. Of course, as an ‘amateur’ (not because I work in a different field, but because I do what I do for love), though one who has studied documentary photography in some fairly august institutions and with some incredibly fascinating people, I have the option of choosing a medium without reference to cost, efficiency or technological expectations. Some of us just prefer our photographic tools to be simple, much like Jack White prefers his Montgomery Ward electric guitar to a Fender Limited Rosewood Telecaster.
The strengths of Leica’s digital cameras are the very thing they’re criticized for by the digital generation, and its because Leica’s philosophy has been to give their customer base a digital camera that mimics, as far as is feasible, the feel and function of a traditional mechanical film camera. They are, to the extent that a digital camera can be, simple, stripped to the essentials much like their film equivalents. The technology is kept in the background as far as that is possible, the experience meant to be a viable digital simulacron of the analogue experience.
If there’s one thing I do wish, its that Leica would move past the stale arguments about “IQ.” That battle was fought a long time ago, and unless you want to print 50 inches on the long side (which is itself absurd for a traditional photographer), the debate in the digital era now should be about functionality, ergonomics, the feel in the hand, the tactile experience, the “haptics” of the photographic act. The 12 mp Leica X1 is uncluttered and simple, as close to a traditional mechanical film camera in the digital age as you’ll find. The criticisms of the camera are perceived “faults” only if you buy into the misguided priorities of advanced digital cameras. They become irrelevant when you look at the X1 as Leica’s attempt to duplicate, as much as possible, the tactile and ergonomic experience of a traditional analogue camera. Slow AF? Scale focus. Actually, I’d prefer manual focus. Slow lens? You don’t need fast lenses in the digital age. Just crank up the ISO. A 2.8 fixed lens allows Leica to build a small pocketable camera. Low res LCD? Big deal. I’m of the opinion LCD screens have been the worst thing to ever happen to photography: instant feedback is expected, at the expense of being in the moment. Of course, the X1 needs the screen because that’s how you compose; but if you put an optical viewfinder on the hotshoe, just like I do with my IIIg, you’re good.
My grandfather lived to be 96. He loved to drive his car, and he drove virtually every day until the day he died in 1998. Not bad for a guy with a stiff neck who had to back out of his driveway onto a busy urban avenue in New Jersey without looking.
“Gramps” was a man who loved his cars, and he loved the Nash Rambler above all else. To him, the Nash Rambler was the pinnacle of automotive engineering. He had pictures of Ramblers hanging throughout his musty old house, and he never missed an opportunity to extol the Nash’s virtues to his bemused grandchildren. By the late 60’s/early 70’s when I was coming of age, Gramps had been relegated to buying AMC cars (the successor to Nash). AMC are the folks who brought you the Pacer, which has (rightly) gone down in American automotive history as one of the most hideous cars ever built. But my grandfather swore by his AMCs, because, of course, they were the same folks who built the Nash, and nobody, especially not his snotty-nosed know-it-all grandson, was going to convince him they weren’t the world’s best vehicle. I started driving in 1974, my first car a 1962 Volkswagon Bug with holes in the floor and rust up to the windows, and every time it broke down my grandfather would come get me and invariably remind me that if I had bought an AMC he wouldn’t be needing to pick me up on the side of the road so much.
I’m reminded of my grandfather and his Nashes when I pull out my Leica film cameras at family gatherings. The next generation – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews – look at me the same way I remember looking at him when he’d launch into his Nash soliliques: bemused and half pitying for an old man clinging to a disappearing world, unable to emotionally adapt to newer, better technologies. “Why do you use that old camera?” They’ll ask, half mocking, as they take selfies and pictures of their food with their iPhone. “Don’t you have to put the film in some chemicals before you can see the pictures?” And then I patiently explain to them about grain, and latitude, and the beauty of HP5 in D76, about contact sheets and being discriminating in what one pictures and shares, and they look at me with a look that attempts to conceal the fact that they think I’m a pitiable old man. Put aside for the a moment the following: I still have a full head of hair with a luxurious ponytail, I race 175 horse power motorcycles around closed circuits at 175 mph, and I listen to The White Stripes in my spare time.
What I like about my old Leica film cameras, and what I find lacking in most current digital cameras, is the way the simplicity of the technology, stripped to its essential functions, allows you, paradoxically, an easier creative flow. The technology isn’t in the way. I’m not bewitched by it, lured into believing that it offers something creatively not offered by a simpler device. It’s Jack White’s point: creative acts aren’t the product of a technology, whether it be a guitar or a camera; they are the product of a unique creative human act. The guitar, or the camera, is simply the conduit, and that conduit can either refine, or coarsen, the connection to our creative vision. In the words of Anthony Lane,
The truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.
So, I give Leica credit. In this age of 100,000 RGB Metering Sensors, “Scene Intelligent Auto Mode with Handheld Night Scene and HDR Backlight Control Modes,” image stabilization, face recognition technology and 14 fps burst modes, I can still open up my B&H catalog and order a brand new Leica MP or M7 film camera, or, if I prefer digital, a Monchrom with manual focus and completely manual exposure capabilities, just like my M4. That’s remarkable in this day and age, and Leica deserves profound credit. Enough, I suspect, to allow one to look the other way at the occasional Hello Kitty Limited Edition.