Tag Archives: Leica M

“Leica Photography” Is Dead. Leica Killed It.

josef-koudelka-france-1987

PORTFOLIO ITALIA - ITALY PORTFOLIO

Above are two of my favorite photographs from two of the twentieth century’s most skilled and creative photographers. Both are powerfully evocative while being deceptively banal, commonplace. A dog in a park; a couple with their child at the beach. Both were taken with simple Leica 35mm film cameras and epitomize the traditional Leica aesthetic: quick glimpses of lived life taken with a small, discrete camera, what’s come to be known rather tritely as the “Decisive Moment.”

Looking at them I’m reminded that a definition of photographic “quality” is meaningless unless we can define what make photographs evocative.  In the digital age, with an enormous emphasis on detail and precision, most people use resolution as their only standard. Bewitched by technology, digital photographers have fetishized sharpness and detail.

Before digital, a photographer would choose a film format and film that fit the constraints of necessity.  Photographers used Leica rangefinders because they were small, and light and offered a full system of lenses and accessories.  Leitz optics were no better than its competitor Zeiss, and often not as good as the upstart Nikkor optics discovered by photojournalists during the Korean War. The old 50/2 Leitz Summars and Summitars were markedly inferior to the Zeiss Jena 50/1.5 or the 50/2 Nikkor. The 85/2 and 105/2.5 Nikkors were much better than the 90/2 first version Summicron; the Leitz 50/1.5 Summarit, a coated version of the prewar Xenon, was less sharp than the Nikkor 50/1.4 and the Nikkor’s design predecessor the Zeiss 50/1.5. The W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 blew the 35mm Leitz offerings out of the water, and the LTM version remains, 60 years later, one of the best 35mm lenses ever made for a Leica.

But the point is this: back when HCB and Robert Frank carried a Leica rangefinder, nobody much cared if a 35mm negative was grainy or tack sharp. If it was good enough it made the cover of Life or Look Magazine. The average newspaper photo, rarely larger than 4×5, was printed by letterpress using a relatively coarse halftone screen on pulp paper, certainly not a situation requiring a super sharp lens. As for prints, HCB left the developing and printing to others, masters like my friend and mentor Georges Fèvre of PICTO/Paris, who could magically turn a mediocre negative into a stunning print in the darkroom.

50’s era films were grainy, another reason not to shoot a small negative. Enthusiasts used a 6×6 TLR  if they needed 11×14 or larger prints.  For a commercial product shot for a magazine spread the choice might be 6×6, 6×7, or 6×9. Many didn’t shoot less than 4×5.  If you wanted as much detail as possible, then you would shoot sheet film: 4×5, 5×7 or 8×10.

What made the ‘Leica mystique’, the reason why people like Jacques Lartigue, Robert Capa, HCB, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz used a Leica, was because it was the smallest, lightest, best built and most functional 35mm camera system then available. It wasn’t about the lenses. Many, including Robert Frank, used Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses on their Leicas. It was only in the 1990’s, with the ownership change from the Leitz family to Leica GmbH, that Leica reinvented itself as a premier optical manufacturer. The traditional rangefinder business came along for the ride, but Leica technology became focused on optical design. Today, by all accounts, Leica makes the finest photographic optics in the world, with prices to match.

Which leads me to note the confused and contradictory soap boxes current digital Leicaphiles too often find themselves standing on. Invariably, they drone on about the uncompromising standards of the optics, while simultaneously dumbing down their files post-production to give the look of a vintage Summarit and Tri-X pushed to 1600 iso. Leica themselves seem to have fallen for the confusion as well. They’ve marketed the MM (Monochrom) as an unsurpassed tool to produce the subtle tonal gradations of the best B&W, but then bundle it with Silver Efex Pro software to encourage users to recreate the grainy, contrasty look of 35mm Tri-X. The current Leica – Leica GmbH – seems content to trade on Leica’s heritage while having turned its back on what made Leica famous: simplicity and ease of use. Instead, they now cynically produce and market status.

For the greats who made Leica’s name – HCB, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka – it had nothing to do with status. It was all about an eye, and a camera discreet enough to service it. They were there, with a camera that allowed them access, and they had the vision to take that shot, at that time, and to subsequently find it in a contact sheet. That was “Leica Photography.” It wasn’t about sharpness or resolution, or aspherical elements, or creamy bokeh or chromatic aberation or back focus or all the other nonsense we feel necessary to value when we fail to acknowledge the poverty of our vision.

The Leica M3D

Leica M3D black paint, November 2012 (1955, serial number M3D-2)

david Duncan Camera 2
Only 4 M3D’s (M3D-1 to M3D-4) were produced by Leitz. All were custom made for LIFE magazine photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Each was mated to a black Leicavit without the standard MP engraving. (Note the auxiliary rewind crank, presumably added by Duncan after the fact.)

If you see one on Ebay at a decent “Buy It Now” price, snap it up quick (don’t expect it to be described as “Minty” however). This M3D, with Leicavit and Summilux, was sold at auction on November 24, 2012 for 1,680,000 Euros.

The MP: What’s Old Is New Again

leica-MP-black-paint-1958

In 1956, Leica produced the MP, a “Professional” version of the M3 with long winding shaft and fitted Leicavit. Original MPs were two-stroke, and like unlike the M3, had no self-timer. The film counter was, like the M2, external and needed to be manually set. Essentially, the MP was a dual stroke M2 with 50mm viewfinder and Leicavit attached, produced a year before the introduction of the M2 in 1957. Sale of the camera was restricted to “bonafide working press photographers.” In order to purchase an MP, dealers had to specify the name, address and professional credentials of the purchasing customer. In all, Leica produced 449 cameras, 311 chrome and 138 black paint, although some existing M3’s were converted to MP’s by Leitz in the early 60’s. These conversions did not carry the MP numbering.

leica_mp_126 3

The MP was discontinued in 1957 after the introduction of the M2, which also used the Leicavit winder and had the advantage of a .72 viewfinder that accommodated the more popular 35mm focal length.  In 2012, MP #126, shown above, sold at auction for $158,000.

In 2003, Leica introduced a “New” version of the MP with TTL exposure metering. A new Leicavit-M was offered as an accessory. The single stroke winding lever was the metal one-piece type found on the M3/MP.  The viewfinder was the same version as found on the M7, and was available in 0.58, 0.72 and 0.85 magnifications, although the new black paint version was only offered with the 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Like the original MP, the top-plate was made of brass and carried the engraved Leica logo.

1585

Leica also produced 500 “Hermes Edition” MP’s in 2003. These were chrome and covered in “Hermes Barenia calfskin.” I doubt many found their way into the hands of “bonafide working press photographers.”

Hermes MP

The Leicaflex SL: The Camera That Almost Bankrupted Leitz (No, It Wasn’t the M5!)

I love the Leicaflex SL, but I understand its not for everybody…or even most people. It’s big, and clunky and is brick heavy. In its day it cost half as much again as its competition – The Nikon F – without offering nearly as much system versatility; no interchangeable prisms or even focusing screens, no alternative backs or motors, extremely expensive but limited optics.

Its not surprising, then, that the Leicaflex system never really caught on with professional photographers as an SLR system camera. Leitz had only reluctantly accepted the public’s move from rangefinder to SLR and was slow to market a Leica SLR camera. Nikon had beaten Leica to the punch by 5 years with its comprehensive and affordable F system, and it didn’t help that Leica’s initial ‘standard’ Leicaflex (1964-68) was hopelessly outdated upon introduction, using non-TTL metering from an opening on the face of its reflex pentaprism. Ungainly and inaccurate. By the time the SL was introduced in July of 1968, the Leicaflex system was an afterthought for most photographers.

Given the late start, It also didn’t help that with the introduction of the SL Leitz chose a commercial policy of selling the SL and SL2 bodies at a cost below the cost of manufacture i.e. for every one they sold they lost money. The hope was that the money lost on bodies would be made back on the sale of Leitz lenses. The fact that Leica lost money on every Leicaflex sold should tell you something about the camera itself: while the Nikon F with metered prism sold, presumably for a profit,  for $400, the SL sold, at a loss, for over $600. Pick one up and use it, even today, and you’ll understand why it cost Leitz so much to produce the SL.

SL 1

As a teenage boy coming of age photographically in the early 1970’s, what I desired was a Nikon F, only because the Leica M5 was simply too expensive to contemplate. I never much thought of the Leicaflex SL. Seeing it in the store advertisements in the backpages of Modern Photography and Popular Photography, It seemed a brutalist Teutonic oddity that even Leica never totally embraced, it and its lenses priced in the stratosphere. Leica ceased production of the Leicaflex in 1976 and thereafter concentrated most of its efforts on the M system, a decision that at the time seemed suspect but now appears inspired.

In 1976, as an 18 year old, I purchased my first Leica, an M5 bought new at a discount (but still expensive) price from Cambridge Photo in NYC. In 1984 I purchased one of the first production M6’s. Since then I’ve owned and operated almost ever M model made, and currently own an M2, M4 and two M5’s. But I never much thought of the Leicaflex;  it was only recently, almost as an afterthought, that I discovered the classic simplicity of a Leicaflex SL. I met a nice woman who was selling her father’s camera collection. Her father had owned 3 camera stores in the Boston area in the 60’s and 70’s, and he had been a Leica enthusiast. He had set aside a boxed SL with 50mm Summicron R and Leitz leather camera case and used it infrequently, if at all. It looked unused. I paid less for the entire boxed affair than most people pay for a smartphone they’ll throw away in 2 years.

The SL just may be the high water mark of Leitz’s traditional hand-built manufacturing prowess. What it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in feel and workmanship. As with the M’s, nothing superfluous has been added for commercial appeal. The Leicaflex SL is mechanical simplicity defined, with a heft and feel that makes the F seem cheap and flimsy by comparison. Close you eyes and wind on the film and you’ll swear you have an M in your hands. Look through the viewfinder and find a size and brightness that puts the F to shame with its low light focusing capabilities. Plus you get to use the wonderful, albeit expensive, Leitz lenses.

Ultimately, I had to decide: was my perfect SL to be a collector’s shelf queen, or would I use it? It was easy enough decision after I’d handled the SL – you use it and you marvel at your fortune in owning such a wonderful precision instrument.

400px-LeicaflexSL-mot

 

 

Garry Winogrand’s M4

Born in 1928 and died in 1984, Winogrand is considered by many to be one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century. By the early 1970’s when he purchased this M4, he was shooting roughly 1000 rolls of film a year, a pace he accelerated until his death from cancer in 1984.

While Winogrand is known for his wide angle vision (many of his iconic photos were taken with a 28mm Elmarit) he typically carried two camera bodies with him, one with a 28 and one with a moderate telephoto. This particular M4 was produced in Wetzler in November, 1970, which means it probably saw 12 years and approximately 15,000 rolls of concentrated use by Winogrand.

According to Stephen Gandy, this M4 passed to one of Winogrand’s friends, who still uses the camera. I’m pretty certain Winogrand would have wanted it that way.

20130812-M4_Winograd 1

The M5. Leica’s Misunderstood Masterpiece: A Revisionist History

In 1971, Leica introduced its successor to the M4, the Leica M5. In development since 1966, the M5 represented a tour de force of then current rangefinder technology – it was the first metered M camera and the first 35mm rangefinder to combine interchangeable lenses with a through the lens (“TTL”) metering system. Among its other design innovations,  its viewfinder incorporated a coupled light meter and shutter speed data in the viewfinder itself, it relocated the ungainly rewind crank of the M4 to the left end of the base-plate, its shutter speed dial overhung the front of the camera so you could set shutter speed while keeping you eye to the viewfinder, and it located the carry-strap lugs both at the left end of the camera so that the camera would hang vertically rather than horizontally when worn.  It was also the first M camera to use black chromium for the finish of its black versions (much more durable than the black enamel previously used).

It’s semi-spot meter utilized a 8mm diameter double cadmium sulfide resistor located on a carrier arm centered 8mm in front of the film plane. When pressing the shutter release, the carrier arm swung down parallel to the shutter curtain and hid in a recess below the shutter itself. It remains, to this day, the most accurate meter ever put into a Leica M film camera. The M5 viewfinder used the same 68.5 base length and .72 magnification as the M4 with the added feature of viewing the shutter speed and match needle metering.

2453372_1_l

 So, why is the M5 commonly considered a “failure,” the camera that almost bankrupted Leica? Anecdotal testimonies claim that M5’s sat on dealers’ shelves for years after production stopped in 1974 after only 4 years. I purchased my first Leica, an M5, new in 1976, 2 years after its date of manufacture. I remember a steep discount to the official retail price.

The answer, I would claim, is not so much its aesthetics or its size (the two most common explanations for its demise) but rather a confluence of factors, both internal and external to Leica, a confluence that would have doomed the M5 in whatever guise Leica chose to go forward with its M series. 

The first reason is simply the tenor of the times photographically. By 1971, rangefinder technology was seen by both professional and amateur as an antiquated throw-back with numerous disadvantages. Professionals had increasingly embraced the Nikon F system and its excellent but affordable optics, and amateurs had followed the lead and made SLR’s dominant in the 35mm market. Even Leica had bowed to the future, although reluctantly. At the beginning of the 1960s, Leitz continued to believe in the inherent advantages of the rangefinder over the SLR, but found it necessary for their continued relevance to produce and market their own SLR system, the Leicaflex.

The second reason, and I think the most apt, is Leica’s decision to produce the bargain priced Leica CL system in conjunction with the M5. Leica sold 65,000 CL’s between 1971 and 1974, mostly to the amateur market, at the same time it was marketing the M5 to professionals. As such, the CL cannibalized a large portion of the market the previously addressed solely by the M series. The production numbers point to this conclusion: Leitz sold approximately 57,000 rangefinder cameras in the initial 4.5 years of the M4’s production (1966-1971) and 92,000 rangefinder cameras in the 4 years of the M5’s production. The CL accounted for more than 2/3rds of those sales, driven mainly by a price 1/5th of the M5. The truth of the ex post facto justifications for the modest sales of the M5 (i.e. it didn’t look like a traditional M) is belied by the obvious fact that the CL didn’t look like the previous M’s either and yet it sold briskly.

It was only with the appearance of Japanese Leica collectors in the 1990’s that demand and prices for the M5 rose to levels of other M’s. Unfortunately, the M5 has continued to labor under the stigma be being a “failure.” If you’ve ever used an M5, you’ll know its a wonderful camera, the last of the true Wetzler M’s built without compromise. I even think its a beautiful camera, especially the chrome version. Whatever you think of its aesthetics, it certainly doesn’t deserve the lingering stigma attached to it.

Lee Friedlander Pays Madonna $25 For a Nude Shoot

In 1979, Madonna Louise Ciccone was a 20-year-old dancer struggling to make ends meet. Lee Friedlander placed an ad in the Village Voice seeking nude models. Ms. Ciccone, who at that time was working at a Dunkin Donuts in Manhattan,  answered the ad, and spent an afternoon at Mr. Friedlander’s apartment/studio, where he photographed her with a Leica M and 35 and 50 Summicrons.lee-friedlander-madonna 3

In February, 2009, a print of one of the photos sold at auction for $37,500.00.

lee-friedlander-madonna 4

 

lee-friedlander-madonna 6

 

Robert Frank and the Leica Legacy

Would Robert Frank be using the latest digital Leica M if he were working today? Who knows, although I doubt it. He probably couldn’t afford one, certainly if he were unemployed and making ends meet on a Guggenheim fellowship. I suspect, were he travelling the States with Mrs. Frank today, updating his classic The Americans, he’d be driving a used Hyundai and shooting a digital point and shoot he bought second hand on Ebay. Or maybe, just maybe, he’d be using a beater M and shooting Arista Premium 400 he bought bulk from Freestyle.

robert-frank-_detroit-river-rouge-plant_-1955-dia-no-1999-8-b

Frank wasn’t much concerned about his equipment. He had started out using a Rolleiflex TLR  but had switched to a Leica IIIc because it was small and unobtrusive and better suited to his documentary aesthetic. Its 50mm Sonnar was seriously out of whack, offset sufficiently from the film plane that it was exposing the sides of the image around the film’s sprocket holes.

robert-frank-from-the-bus-2

This is not to accuse Leica of being cynical or disingenuous with its ad campaign for the latest M digital. Frank did use a Leica for some of the iconic photos of the twentieth century, and he continued to use them through the 1980’s, after which he dropped out of site photographically. (I recall seeing him in NYC in that era, sitting with 2 Leica M’s on a table next to him.) They’ve earned the right to claim Frank’s loyalty.

Frank was a visual purist. It was only the image that mattered. And I don’t mean that in the sense of what digital photographers mean by ‘image quality.’ He couldn’t care less about sharpness and resolution and bokeh and all the other foolish things current photographers mistake for quality. His best images are remarkably free of such pedestrian concerns. It was always about whether the image spoke to you.

robert_frank_london

Leicas have always been expensive. They’ve always prided themselves on the quality of their optics. But there’s been a sea-change in the public’s perception of what is unique to a Leica rangefinder since the advent of the digital M. Traditionally, Leicas were prized by Frank’s generation because they were small, and quiet and discreet. Their Summicrons and Elmars and Elmarits were excellent lenses, well-made and optically sound, but they weren’t that much better than the 50’s and 60’s era offerings from Zeiss and Nikon. (Many of the iconic Americans photographs were taken with a Zeiss Sonnar.) What mattered was seeing the picture and getting the picture, needs that a small pocket-size camera that could scale focus met well.

Frank

Now Leica stands for exclusivity and unparalleled, over the top optical excellence. Nothing wrong with that. But it wasn’t why Robert Frank used a Leica, and it wouldn’t be today if he were still photographing.

robert frank 2009

Robert Frank, 2009