Tag Archives: Leica Rangefinder

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and affordable F system, and it didn’t help that Leica’s initial ‘standard’ Leicaflex (1964-68) was hopelessly outdated upon introduction, using non-TTL metering from an opening on the face of its reflex pentaprism.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.

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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.

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 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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