Tag Archives: Leica Rangefinder

The Leica Camera: A Tool, or a Luxury Item?

Feiniger 1952

Leica started out as maker of small, simple cameras. If you needed a small, exceptionally well designed and made 35mm film camera, they offered you the tool. Any elitism that accompanied the Leica camera was a result of its status as the best built, most robust, and simplest photographic solution. You paid for the quality Leica embodied.

Over time, as technology trends accelerated and Japanese manufacturers like Nikon and Canon grabbed the professional market, Leica shifted gears, no longer competing on whether or not their rangefinder cameras were the most useful or most efficient tools for a given purpose, although, for certain limited purposes – simplicity, quietness, discreteness, build quality – they remained exceptional as tools. Starting with the digital age, Leica now competed primarily on luxury, which is a fundamentally different promise than the optimal design of a tool.

Leica is now a luxury tools company. The cameras they sell cost more, but some photographers still choose them, some for the identity that comes along with the use of a luxury good and some for the placebo effect of thinking one’s photographs will improve by virtue of some special quality it is assumed Leica possess. But there remain some of us who still use Leicas because a Leica rangefinder is still the most functional tool for us in the limited ways they always were. We still identify with Leica not a a luxury good but primarily as a maker of exceptional tools, and this creates the ambivalence many of use feel towards the brand as currently incarnated. The ambivalence is a result of the tension of a Leica as a tool versus a luxury item.

Its a tension that Leica is having a difficult time navigating too. As a luxury item producer, Leica probably doesn’t care that its cameras aren’t cutting edge. On the other hand, Leica knows it will not survive if its product is not seen as a preferred choice of the status conscious. At some point in the evolution of every luxury branded tool, users who care more about tools than about luxury shift away to more functional options. You see this today in Leica purchasers’ demographics; the brand is perpetuated largely by those who identify a Leica as a status marker, whether that Leica be a used M purchased on Ebay by someone come of age in the digital era who wants to The Leica Experience, or a new digital M purchased largely by an affluent amateur. Professionals and serious amateurs who need the services of a small, discreet camera system have largely migrated to more sophisticated, less expensive options like the cameras Fuji is currently offering.

I suspect that the era of Leica as a working tool is gone, but the silver lining is that there remains a small but dedicated following who values mechanical Leica film cameras still as a functioning tool, and hopefully there will remain those who cater to them and service them. It would be a shame if that portion of Leica’s heritage were to be lost.

Robert Frank Gets Arrested Down South

robert-frank-leica

In November 1955, Lt RE Brown of the Arkansas State Police spotted an unshaven and shabbily dressed suspicious looking man driving an old Ford near the Mississippi River.The man’s car was full of maps, numerous papers written in foreign languages, and a number of strange German “Leica’ cameras with bags and bags of exposed films. Suspecting the man to be a communist spy, Lt Brown arrested Robert Frank and brought him to the McGehee City jail for fingerprinting and interrogation. A local citizen “who knew several foreign languages” was brought in to assist in Frank’s questioning even though Frank spoke fluent English.

The Swiss-born Frank protested that he was a professional photographer who had received a grant to travel America taking pictures. He explained that his work had been published in the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times and Life and Look magazines. Frank showed the Lt. some of his work, what looked to Lt. Brown like spy photos: blurry images, often out of car windows, of things like bridges, factories and power stations. It was only when Frank  produced a well worn copy of Forbes magazine with his name and photos prominently displayed was he finally allowed to go on his way. His fingerprints were forwarded to the FBI.

Four years later, in 1959,  some of the same pictures he showed Lt Brown would be published in book form in Frank’s seminal work The Americans.

 

ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
Little Rock, Arkansas

December 19, 1955

Alan R. Templeton, Captain
Criminal Investigations Division
Arkansas State Police
Little Rock, Arkansas

Dear Captain Templeton:

On or about November 7, I was enroute to Dermott to attend to some business and about 2 o’clock I observed a 1950 or 1951 Ford with New York license, driven by a subject later identified as Robert Frank of New York City.

After stopping the car I noticed that he was shabbily dressed, needed a shave and a haircut, also a bath. Subject talked with a foreign accent. I talked to the subject a few minutes and looked into the car where I noticed it was heavily loaded with suitcases, trunks and a number of cameras.

Due to the fact that it was necessary for me to report to Dermott immediately, I placed the subject in the City Jail in McGehee until such time that I could return and check him out.

After returning from Dermott I questioned this subject. He was very uncooperative and had a tendency to be “smart-elecky” in answering questions. Present during the questioning was Trooper Buren Jackson and Officer Ernest Crook of the McGehee Police Department.

We were advised that a Mr. Mercer Woolf of McGehee, who had some experience in counter-intelligence work during World War II and could read and speak several foreign languages, would be available to assist us in checking out this subject. Subject had numerous papers in foreign langauges, including a passport that did not include his picture.

This officer investigated this subject due to the man’s appearance, the fact that he was a foreigner and had in his possession cameras and felt that the subject should be checked out as we are continually being advised to watch out for any persons illegally in this country possibly in the emply of some unfriendly foreign power and the possibility of Communist affiliations.

Subject was fingerprinted in the normal routine of police investigation; one card being sent to Arkansas State Police Headquarters and one card to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington.

Respectfully submitted,
Lieutenant R.E. Brown, Lieutenant Comanding
Troop #5
ARKANSAS STATE POLICE
Warren, Arkansas

 

Leica M5 Selfie

aaaa--59

 

I love the M5. I have two of them, black and chrome. It’s the camera I cut my teeth on, photographically, all those years ago. Most leicaphiles dismiss it as a stylistic wrong turn. I disagree. The M5 has a beauty all its own. Personally, I prefer the look of the chrome M5, as the chrome compliments the “boxy” styling.

I also love this photo because of its unmistakable film aesthetic: the grain, the tonality, the character. (Tri-X and HC110 and a Nikkor HC 50mm). Film responds differently to light than does a digital sensor. Sensors have a flat linear response to light.  Film has a curved response, typically in a S curve, whereby both ends of the curve, the shadows and highlights, tend to be richer in tonal value than digital. Its these differences that give the unique look to both.

With the maturation of digital capture, the question of film vs digital resolution really doesn’t make sense anymore. Film and digital are two completely different media. Each has it’s strengths and limitations. Digital files can’t be made to look like this, even with extensive tweaking in Silver Efex or other programs that attempt to replicate the film look.

And certainly, no digital camera has the feel of a mechanical Leica. There’s a tactile quality to mechanical film cameras that simply has not, and cannot, be duplicated with digital.

Call me a Luddite.

 

“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 IIIg: Pleasure of Use As An Aesthetic Experience

aaaa-08413

Above is the camera I probably use more than any other camera I own, and I own a bunch of them. It’s a Leica IIIg 35mm film camera with a Leicavit trigger winder and an external viewfinder to allow the use of the 3.5cm Nikkor lens mounted on it (the native viewfinder only accommodates a 50mm perspective). It needs no batteries because it has no electronics. It is purely mechanical; not even a light meter to suggest proper exposure. Of course, being completely mechanical, it has no automation. You set shutter speed and f-stop, you wind and rewind the film by hand with a knurled knob. To focus you look through one window (the rangefinder) to gain focus and then move your eye to a second window (the viewfinder) to frame your shot.

The question I often ask myself is why? Why do I use this camera so often to the exclusion of newer, “better” cameras (leaving aside the whole issue of why film in a digital age)? Sitting next to it on my shelf is a Nikon F5, the best and most technologically advanced 35mm film camera ever made, or, if it’s a question of preference for a rangefinder camera, a Hexar RF, a metered rangefinder built by Konica in 1999 with auto exposure, auto film wind on and the ability to mount Leica bayonet mount lenses. Yet I rarely use either when I have the choice of picking up the IIIg. And you’ll never find me staring lovingly at the F5 or the Hexar as you will when the IIIg is within my view.

The answer, I presume, is simple, and speaks a lot to part of why I suspect all photographers are drawn to our craft: it is the aesthetic beauty of the photographic instrument itself, and its tactile pleasure in use that I’m drawn to. As a documentary photographer of 40+ years, my mantra has always been that the equipment is irrelevant, simply the means to the end of good photographs. Any camera in the right hands can produce stunning images; the best, most expensive, most technologically advanced camera in the hands of someone without a vision to see will produce inferior photos. But, if I’m honest with myself, that’s really not the full truth. Some cameras CAN make us better at seeing things, and it has nothing to do with what technology they offer. It has to do with how they inspire us to be mindful of what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to do. The IIIg, primitive as it is, is a camera whose very use gives pleasure and is itself aesthetic in nature.

Leonardo Da Vinci called simplicity “the ultimate sophistication.” Certain environments, modes of life, rules of conduct and designs are more conducive to harmony than others. Simplicity of a tool’s design and function, not to be confused with its automation, fosters creativity by allowing a flow to the creative process. And its non-automated operation encourages engagement, thoughtfulness, mindfulness. An automated camera encourages a lazy eye. And, of course, there is the pure aesthetic pleasure of using a thing well built. The old Barnack screw mount Leicas are mechanical jewels, built to last for generations. The IIIg is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Leica screw mount design, and hence the best Leica ever built.

My IIIg was made in 1956. I’m sure I’ll be using it till the day I draw my last breath. By contrast, in 2011 I threw away as junk my first DSLR, a Nikon D100 I bought new in 2003. The D100, like almost all cameras produced today, is a consumer item, used and ultimately used up. The IIIg remains a mechanical jewel, a serious tool built for serious use. Even today.

 

 

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 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

 

 

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.

W. Eugene Smith and Five Stolen Leicas

“Fate, it not only reigns, it gores. Ah yes, that film that working the nights into long days I did develop, I did complete, and from exhaustion I did collapse. That film (the second half of it, about 500 pictures) all packed and boxed and ready for mailing, was stolen from my car yesterday.”

W. Eugene Smith in a letter to his brother Paul, May 1955.

 

On May 20, 1955, someone broke into LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith’s car while it was parked in downtown Pittsburgh. The thieves carried off 5 Leica cameras (a mixture of If, IIf and IIIfs), 10 lenses, and a box of exposed films he had shot for his now iconic documentary project about Pittsburgh.

Local newspapers and the Pittsburgh police subsequently circulated requests to the thieves to return the film, as it represented the sum total of a month of shooting by Smith. They were told they could keep the Leicas. Two of Smith’s Leica showed up in a local pawn shop, where Smith bought them back for $40. One of the cameras contained a roll of film that, once developed, showed the thieves taking pictures of each other. The pictures were used to eventually arrest the culprits, and the remainder of Smith’s equipment was found in their possession. Smith would use these 5 Leicas to produce his monumental Pittsburgh documentary project. His stolen film was never found, in spite of a search of the Pittsburgh city dump by sanitation workers using shovels and rakes. One can only imagine what was lost to documentary posterity.

While much celebrated in the 40’s and 50’s, Smith’s reputation declined in the 60’s and 70’s with the arrival of a new generation of photographers like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Josef Koudelka.  Smith died in Tucson, Arizona in 1978, emaciated and alone. He had $18 in the bank. He had gone out into the early morning streets to search for his lost cat. He fell, hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 58.

Smith Pittsburgh