“The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize.”
I was obsessed with photography when I was young. I lived in Memphis and I wanted to follow along in the tradition of William Eggleston, whom I idolized. I studied for four years and made a very serious stab at capturing the tumbledown look of the South. I even worked at a newspaper for a time. But something went wrong. The work simply wasn’t good, and in spite of stupidly struggling with the problem day and night, I just couldn’t find my way to the ideal image. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing.
Years passed. The shitstorm of trying (or failing as it were) to be a responsible adult destroyed my illusions about producing a great work of art, and for a full decade I lived very poorly, having completely lost the thread of my original vision. My camera collected dust and was eventually forgotten amongst other weird relics from my former life as a “creative person.” It was a cliche I laughed about, wondering how I could ever have been so naive. I made asinine remarks whenever I encountered people who liked to bullshit me about “following your dreams” and so forth. I worked in the service industry, mopping up after rude tourists who had apparently made better life-decisions than I had. My conclusion was that even if you completely threw yourself into what you truly cared about, no one would ever thank you for it. You would have to cram it into your off hours with little or no emotional energy left for the task. You would have to pay for it out of your own empty pocket. Things would only get more and more difficult as time went by. You were doomed.
I may have been wrong; I don’t know. That’s just what I happened to be feeling during those years of insecurity.
Things went on uneventfully in this way, until about a year ago, when something interesting happened. I was unemployed, and having some time on my hands, I found my way into the obscure world of Tarkovsky movies. Something in his imagery got through to me, and a long-lost memory flickered to life. I started dreaming about photography again, and those dreams quickly escalated to a feverish obsession, just like it had been in the 90’s, when I was a teenager.
My fiancé, sensing the crisis, offered to front me the money to buy some new photography tools and start over. It was a Purple Rain kind of moment, white guitar and all. Her generosity was enough to change everything for me. In spite of the desire to be optimistic, we’ve got to be real and acknowledge that it’s impossible to think about creating a body of work when your life is in shambles, and your idea of luxury is a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes you just need some help, and god willing, sooner or later you might happen to get some.
I wanted to use a Leica. I didn’t know why; I just did. Maybe it was because all my favorite images had come from this mythical camera. It was impractical, weird, anachronistic, expensive. I had a very hard time talking myself into believing that it made sense to get one -because it didn’t. I could have used any cheap camera, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it right this time. No compromises. It’s odd how you can know something at an emotional level, but you have to drag your rational mind, kicking and screaming, along with it.
I won’t bother reciting all the reasons why Leica cameras are special; we’ve heard it all before, and a good bit of it is true. I settled on the M3 with a 50mm Summicron lens, and I am not disappointed. I love this camera. I have spent many afternoons staring at the thing over a cup of coffee and wondering why I care so much about it. As strange as this may sound, the reason is not entirely obvious. Yes, it is a “nice” camera, beautifully designed and a pleasure to operate… but that isn’t enough. It’s a camera after all, not a designer accessory (at least it used to be). The images it has produced for me are excellent, but if it were really about image quality and sharpness we would not being using 35mm film in the first place. There’s something else going on with this camera. I think the things people say about it are just excuses for fetishizing something when they can’t rationally explain why. People are complex creatures full of unknown depths, and the Leica speaks to those depths.
I thought about this carefully and I came to the conclusion that the magic of the thing is in the sheer impracticality of it. The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize. Hell, the idea of it seems almost subversive to me after all these years, and that is a very powerful feeling.
Leica signifies all these things to me, and probably to a lot of other people as well. It’s what the kids at the art college would call the Leica’s “discourse.” Some part of you senses this when you have one in your hands, even if you haven’t got the slightest idea what it is. It seems so serious, so pure. The thing’s got gravity; it’s literally heavy. The symbolism is clear.
Today I am back in the fight with the kind of impatience and desperation that could only come from having wasted so many years without taking a photograph. I went out with just this one camera and one lens, and worked up a photo essay about depopulation in the high plains of Colorado. Good or bad I don’t know, but it is without any doubt the single best piece of work I have ever done. It has been like rediscovering all the lost ambitions of youth, and learning that they weren’t dead after all. Moreover, they have come to fruition, finally. I think the inspiration of the camera may have had something to do with that.
Joseph Oxandale was born in Louisiana in 1980 and earned his BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 2004. After doing a stint with The El Dorado News-Times in Arkansas, he moved west to Colorado. He currently lives in Denver.
To see more of his excellent High Plains photographs, visit