From the gold-plated Luxus to the pink Hello Kitty M6, Leica has been known to issue some questionable limited edition cameras. Another in a long list of such, Leica recently announced the “Lenny Kravitz Correspondent MP,” (which begs the question of what Lenny Kravitz has to do with being a correspondent). According to Leica,
Even as a child, the singer, songwriter and rock star, Lenny Kravitz, was fascinated by cameras. But rather than taking photos, he played with them and he never lost that fascination with them. Later in life, photographers he knew, renewed Kravitz’ acquaintance with cameras – with a Leica. But now, he was already an artist with curiosity and a particular talent for observing the world around him. Kravitz’ design, in the form of a classic reportage camera, is an homage to his first Leica.
Lenny Kravitz is famous around the world as an exceptional and very successful musician. But he treats photography with his Leica with exactly the same passion. The Leica M-P ‘Correspondent’, a desirable collector’s piece in the style of legendary reportage cameras, was created in collaboration with the artist. Thanks to deliberate, carefully executed wearing by hand, it appears as if it had been in constant use for decades and would have countless stories to tell.
Many Leica cameras are unique. But now, all 125 examples of the strictly limited Leica M-P ‘Correspondent’ set are all unique, each in its own way. An elaborate wearing process completely by hand has carefully rubbed, scuffed and scratched the black enamel finish away in several places on both the camera and lenses to let the bright brass surface shine through. The look changes every time the camera and lenses are touched and begins new, personally written chapters in the story of their design.
The Correspondent MP is, unfortunately, another exhibit in favor of the argument that Leica has become a company in the business of retailing luxury goods to foolish people with stupid money.
Granted, Leica remains a solidly profitable company. They seem to be doing very well financially, and, of course, that’s the raison d’etre of any business. I’m certain this makes Leica’s owners and management happy. But I can’t help but see it as a symptom of a larger problem, sort of a proverbial dead canary in the Leica corporate mine shaft. Leica now produces little of interest to its traditional base, photographers who used Leicas as real working tools for many years. We are no longer Leica’s target demographic.
Which is odd, because Leica has the ability to make whatever they choose to make, at a high quality level, and yet many would say they’ve abandoned what made them an iconic name to make a quick buck recycling nostalgia. In spite of currently producing innovative cameras like the MM and the S, Leica is increasingly becoming perceived as a boutique luxury goods company, trading on the cache of a brand made famous over decades by having produced top quality mechanical instruments.
It is increasingly difficult for Leica traditionalists to consider a new Leica as a camera we would want to own. Granted, Leica will have no trouble selling them to someone, and to the degree it funds development of new, innovative cameras, these sorts of frivolities for the moneyed class may be a necessary compromise for Leica. Admittedly, collector editions have been part of Leica’s DNA since the 1920s.
The problem is that it seems that’s all they’re doing these days. As time passes and the underlying foundation for Leica’s revered reputation retreats in collective photographic memory, Leica are in danger of irreparably diluting the perception of the brand, which even now remains their strongest asset. Hopefully, Leica understands that it is not a big jump from easy profits to complete irrelevancy. When your viability as a company becomes completely dependent upon the perception of your brand, there’s no going back once that perception is irrevocably compromised.
Up for auction December 6, 2014 at LPfoto Auctions in Stockholm, a rare duplicate numbered black paint MP with Leicavit:
Leitz Wetzlar, 1957, Black paint, Double stroke, a duplicate from an original series MP13-MP150, with matching black Leicavit MP. A extremely rare camera, in original condition except body housing with small strap lugs and self timer, with matching chassis number P-39* inside the camera. This is the only MP we have ever seen with a duplicate number, not two Leica cameras have the same serial number. If Leica ever almost duplicated a number, the second item had a star added after its otherwise identical serial number. In good working order, with dark brassy patina after hard professional use.
Starting auction price is 350,000 Swedish Krona (approx $47,500 US dollars). Clearly, this MP has seen more than its share of “hard professional use.” Frankly, it looks like something your heirs would find in a box in your attic and throw in the trash. I suggest whoever ends up with this thing should at least spend the extra $25 for a new vulcanite cover at http://aki-asahi.com/. Hell, while you’re at it, why not have Shintaro repaint it for you?
Probably the nicest M being auctioned is a black paint 1960, Single stroke M3 with L service seal, from original black paint series 993501-993750. It’s been beautiful restored to new condition by the Leitz factory in the 1980’s with new and vintage parts and then never used. Starting auction price is $6750 US Dollars. Now THIS is a beautiful M3.
In addition to the MP and M3 noted above, LPfoto is auctioning a number of other interesting collectible Leicas, including:
Leitz Wetzlar, 1960, Black paint, from an original series 987901-988025, with Leitz Summaron 2.8/35mm No.1678210 (BC) and front cap, rear top plate and lens with “Triple crown” engraving. A great rarity, only 125 ex in black paint made for the Swedish army 1960, and this beautiful camera is in a very clean 100% original condition and never restored, and even rarer with Summaron 35mm lens (approx. 30 lenses made). Provenance: Bought by the owner at FFV Allmaterial (=Military surplus), Ursvik 1977.
Starting auction price 390,000 Swedish Krona (approx $52,750 US Dollars)
Leitz Wetzlar, 1960, Black paint, from an original series 987901-988025, with Leitz Elmar 2.8/50mm No.1636136 (B, Filter rim with one minor dent), rear top plate and lens with “Triple crown” engraving. A great rarity, only 125 ex in black paint made for the Swedish army 1960, and this camera is in 100% original condition with dark brassy patina and never restored. Provenance: Bought by the owner at FFV Allmaterial (=Military surplus), Ursvik 1977. Slow shutter speeds irregular.
Starting auction price is 350,000 Swedish Krona (approx $47,500 US dollars).
On November 22, 2014, Westlicht Auction will put up for sale, among other things, two Leica MPs, MP-375 and MP-24, both with matching Leicavit. Both mechanically sound. The only difference between the two cameras is that one is chrome ((MP-375) and one is black paint (MP-24). The chrome MP-375 could easily be described on Ebay as “MINTY!” The MP-24, not so much.
Westlicht expects MP-375 to sell for a maximum of €60,000 and MP-24 a maximum of €180,000. In effect, the guy who buys MP-24 will be paying a €120,000 premium for the black paint, most of which, given a quick look at its photo, has already worn away.
‘Black Paint’ is one of those serendipitous features that has assumed incredible importance for ‘collectors.’ Years ago, some professional users wanted cameras that were less apparent in the field (usually PJs in Korea and Viet Nam getting shot at), so manufacturers like Leica and Nikon started producing black cameras along with traditional chrome using black paint (as that’s all that was available at that time). The black paint wore much quicker than the traditional chrome finish and a well worn black paint Leica or Nikon usually signified a professional user. Most amateurs avoided the black cameras because they looked old and beat up much too fast for their tastes. As a result of customer complaints about the lack of permanence of black finished models, Leica offered new black chrome models, black anodized chrome over brass meant to be much more durable, starting with the M5 and the Leicaflex SL.
Leica resumed offering black paint models again with the M6 TTL, mostly due to nostalgic demand from fondlers. Today, the black paint fetish has assumed the irrationality of the Tulip Mania of 1636-1637, usually doubling or tripling the value of any pedestrian vintage Leica or Nikon. Like all matters of style, speculative investments based on such ephemera are tentative at best. My advice: buy the chrome MP and use the extra €120,000 you’ve saved to buy an original Thomas Kinkade painting.
Above is a used Leica MP. It’s made of titanium. It’s currently for sale at the Miami Leica store for $39,995. First come, first served.
The Leica MP Titanium (0.72) camera was introduced in April 2007 to commemorate the 1st anniversary of the opening of Leica Store Ginza in Tokyo, Japan. It was produced exclusively for the Japanese market and was available only at the Ginza store in Japan. All exterior metal parts and fittings are made of titanium, similar to the Leica M7 Titanium and the Leica M9 Titan. The camera weighs approximately 90 grams less than a regular MP. A signed (by then-CEO of Leica Steven Lee) certificate of authenticity is included.
Which gets me thinking: if I had $40,000 burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted a titanium 35mm film camera of exceptional quality, I could always go to Ebay and pick up a nice titanium Contax G1 for less than $125. And I’d still have $39,875 left for film. Of course, it’s not a Leica, but it’s a damn fine camera with a host of truly exceptional dedicated Zeiss lenses, each the equal of the latest stratospherically priced Leica offerings. And it has ‘modern’ features that the Leica lacks, like Auto Focus and Auto Exposure and a built in motor drive, all housed in a beautiful titanium body, just like the $40k MP. But that’s not the point, is it?
“Collectors,” the sort of people who would buy a titanium MP, aren’t buying one so they can use it to take pictures. You’re not going to see a stubbled photojournalist pulling one from a beat up rucksack in some third world hot spot. I get that. And, given the crazy prices collectible Leicas go for, you can easily make the argument that a titanium MP might be a pretty safe investment. But….
Being old enough to remember when beat up Leicas were routinely pulled out of rucksacks in third world hot spots, I’m still emotionally married to the idea of the Leica as a functioning photographic tool. Call me a relic, but that’s why they’ve always appealed to me: traditional Leicas – the M2, M3, M4, and to a lesser extent the M5 and M6 – were the simplest of photographic tools. Nothing more than the strictly necessary features, nothing that presumed to do the thinking for you. Of course, that minimalist ethic is long dead photographically. Pick up the latest issue of PDN and every young up and coming hotshot has a big plasticky Nikon or Canon with a lens the size of an RPG launcher draped around his or her neck, extolling the necessity of its’ 100 Point Matrix Auto Focus. Or, even more depressing, go over to Rangefinder Forum or your favorite photo forum and join the discussion about which bag goes best with your M240 and attached Noctilux; while there, you can post pictures of your cat taken at full aperture.
Maybe its this obscene denigration of Leica’s real history that has caused throw back Leicas like the titanium MP to have become fetish objects commanding insane prices, collectors attempting to hearken back to an era where cameras were not computers but simple, reliable mechanical instruments. In my mind, however, a better way to scratch that itch is a buy a “real” Leica, a beat up M4, say, on Ebay. You can find beautiful examples for under $1000, cameras you’ll actually use to photograph things. With the money you’ve saved, you can travel the world for a few years all the while documenting your travels with your beloved M4. Or you can just stay home and photograph your cat with your Noctilux wide open. Either way, you win. And you’ll have plenty of money left for that fancy Filson bag.
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.
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.
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.
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.”