When I speak of “leicaphilia” in what follows I’m referring to the love of all things Leica that animates many of us partisans of the iconic Leica brand. If you don’t suffer from it you probably won’t understand it. If you just read about it, without having suffered from it yourself, with all the semi-mystical attributes often ascribed to Leicas by folks who should know better, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply another irrational mania that afflicts humans in a myriad of ways, whether it be in the form of the religious or political, psychological or philosophical. Even for us long-time Leicaphiles, suffering the most from the malady, it’s difficult to justify many of our enthusiasms in our more rational moments.
I understand, and I’ve often used this blog to try and deflate some of the more pernicious claims seriously addled Leicaphiles sometimes make – you know, your Leica makes you a better photographer, or you’re not really serious about photography unless you use a Leica, or there’s an identifiable ‘Leica Glow’ one gets when using Leitz optics, or one can easily identify negatives and files produced by Leica cameras and Leitz lenses, or your M8, with its obsolete sensor and abysmal DXO score, somehow still produces files rivaling what you can get with a Nikon D5.
And then there’s all the ancillary crap attempting to hitch its wagon to the exclusivity that association with Leica can provide – bags, grips, leather cases, thumbs-up contraptions, lens hoods, soft release shutters, red dots, black dots to cover up the red dots, replacement leather skins of various textures and hues, and my personal favorite for ridicule, Frankensteinian dual hot-shoe brackets that allow you to mount both an external finder and meter on the top of your diminutive little IIIf, akin to putting a lowering kit and spinning neon wheels on your beautiful vintage BMW 2002.
I don’t pretend to be a ‘fine-art photographer’. Photography for me is a process of documenting things, of keeping records. As a documentarian, I try not to romanticize the tools I use. And, while, emotionally, I’m still stuck in the film era, from a practical perspective the ease of digital wins out when I need something with a minimum of fuss or on a deadline. (When I need something absolutely permanent, however, film always wins out). My philosophy, when it comes to choosing a camera to use for a given need, is this: grab whatever works best. Lately, that usually means a Nikon D3s or, if quick and easy, a digital Ricoh, or, for what’s really dear to me, a film camera, preferably a rangefinder – an M4 or M5, a Hexar RF, a Voigtlander Bessa R2S or a Contax G, all great cameras – or a Nikon F5 loaded with HP5.
Amsterdam, 2015, Hexar RF and 28mm M-Hexanon, HP5 @ 800 in D76
It’s really only peripherally about the camera you use. It’s ultimately about the photographs you create, and the photos you create are a function of your technical mastery of your tools coupled with your aesthetic and reportorial sense. It’s about understanding shutter speed, aperture and depth of field, mastery of exposure; using the correct lens for a given task; understanding how perspective changes with distance and focal length; understanding the physics of the color of light; and last, and most importantly, knowing what’s important to point your camera at.
Having said all that, I’m just as susceptible to all the nonsense than are the unapologetic fanboys who give Leica a bad name in more serious circles. I obsess over the particulars of thoughtfully made photographic tools — the tiny details done just right, the haptics of a knurled knob or the aesthetic balance of chrome and vulcanite, the muffled ‘thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter.
Damn if I don’t spend a lot of my time fondling my film Leicas, ‘exercising’ the shutter while waiting for the decisive moment, or just simply carrying them around with me, admiring them for their mechanical beauty. Right now my enthusiasms seem to be centered on a Leica IIIg with cool vintage 5 cm lenses attached. Of course, tomorrow it might be different; I could very well pick up an M2 and switch emotional gears, now proclaiming it the coolest camera ever, or a black M4 mounting a Summicron that feels sublime in use. It need not even be a Leica. It could be a Nikon S2 or SP or F or even an F5, a Hexar RF or my current obsession, a Bessa R2S. Consistency, I must admit, is not my strong suite when it comes to my irrational attachment to film cameras. In this I am in agreement with Salvador Dali, who advised that it’s best to frequently contradict oneself so as not to be predictable, because the worst, the most boring one can be is predictable, consistency being, as Oscar Wilde once noted, the last refuge of the unimaginative.
The sorts of fondler’s interactions many of us enjoy speak to a need that is embedded in our relationships with traditional film photography, a tactile enjoyment of the process of photography and the pleasures given by the finely crafted tools we’ve used in that process. A fascination with, and admiration of, the tools themselves is part of what drew us to photography in the first place, and us fondlers have no need to apologize for this.
Our often irrational attachment to our old cameras, I think, is ultimately about a desire for permanence in an endeavor whose technologies now evolve at warp speed. The charms of really nice film camera are many: the look and feel of tools well-crafted for long use, the familiarity created by using them for decades. It feels nice to use a camera for a long time. Do you remember the digital camera you were using 15 years ago? Mine was a Nikon d100. And there were those funky experiments that wrote their files to 3.5-inch floppies. Remember those? See where this is going? In 15 years, at our current pace, you won’t even recognize your ‘capture device’. In any event, I have no interest in having to learn the nuances of a new technical device every other year.
Its why I love my iiif and iiig, my M4 and M5, my Nikon F and S3. Mechanical cameras, and the technology they embody, can be passed down from fathers to sons and daughters without the need of technical manuals. Learn the traditional skills of photographic capture: aperture, shutter speed, film speeds, and you’re able to figure out the marginal differences of any mechanical camera in a matter of a minute or two. In learning to master it, it becomes an habitual extension of your way of seeing, rather than a device that stands between you and what you see. I can pick up an M4 after not having touched one for years, and can still immediately operate it almost unconsciously. If I let my digital camera sit for too long, invariably I’m scrolling through menus and submenus trying to figure out some basic operation, usually standing flat-footed while what I grabbed the camera for plays itself out unphotographed.
The advance in digital technologies is stunning, but it has vitiated quaint notions of any practical longevity for a camera, even those, like Leica’s, that still pay lip-service to the idea that you might purchase a camera with longevity in mind. Camera product cycles now track the cycles for computers, because your digital camera is a computer. Manufacturers fight to see who can cram the most buttons on the back of their latest image capture device, and ‘camera nuts’ dutifully hand over their money for the latest best new thing. Hard-core consumers, longing for the next thing even as we’ve just laid hands on the current version, are where the money is, so as we queue to buy the latest ‘must have’ camera we reinforce and reward manufacturers and help perpetuate the very process by which we remain dissatisfied, perpetually craving the next update. I suppose, given the realities of consumerist capitalism, these cycles are inevitable and will remain with us as Nikon and Canon, and to a lesser extent Leica, cram more “new and improved” digital cameras down our throats well into the immediate future.
When it was new, a Leica M4 camera cost a lot of money. Fast forward to 2016, and a simple online calculator using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicates that the relative purchase price of an M4 today would be $7,080.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $1500 (approximately what a black M4 would cost new in 1974) by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1974 to 2015. So, a new Leica M4 in 1974 cost about the same, in real dollars, as a new Leica MM costs today. But the difference is this: when you bought the M4 you expected to use it for decades. I have an M4 made in 1974. It still works exactly as intended and I use it often. It’s not just a collector’s piece that sits on my shelf. I will eat my hat, however, if that MM you buy today will still be in your bag in 15 years, let alone working. And forget 40 year-old Monochroms. In a relatively short time you’ll have to sell it at a loss, or its electronics will fail and you’ll be out-of-pocket for its replacement with something else. This is the current reality now that cameras have gone from being something like a durable good, as was the M4, to a consumer electronic commodity that you replace every two years or so.
Maybe, leicaphilia isn’t simply about fondling and exclusivity; maybe it’s also the most prominent manifestation of a fading photo-cultural memory that many of us value highly and don’t want to see disappear. I’m convinced there remains a market for modern cameras (even with electronics) that are intuitively simple and built, cameras that eschew the technological dead end in favor of efficiency and directness of function, yet we often sneer when someone like Leica gives them to us. Some of us still like the notion of over-built even if there is less intent to keep something forever. It speaks to a psychologic longing for some sense of permanence in a temporary world.
Part of what makes us leicaphiles, more than just the fetishization of a particular camera, is the appreciation of the tools we’ve traditionally employed as photographers, when a Leica or a Nikon, Canon or Hasselblad film camera was the simplest, best means to do what was important. Our camera was our tool, and we built a relationship with it that lasted for decades. It’s this that’s been lost in photography’s evolution, a sense of rootedness and tradition that spanned product cycles. A simplicity and directness, a tactile pleasure in the use of our photographic tools, seen in the continued appeal of slow-boat analogue techniques and of old Leicas.