The Leica IIIg: Pleasure of Use As An Aesthetic Experience

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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.