You’ll Be a Better Photographer if You Use a Leica

Leica  Ad 002

“The essence of communication is intention.” Werner Erhard

Let’s face it: Leica cameras are ridiculously expensive and technologically crude. They lack common features found on cameras a fraction of their cost. They can be finicky and incredibly expensive to maintain and repair. Their digital offerings, when not plagued by manufacturing defects, have been years behind the curve in an industry where technical obsolescence is measured in months, not years.

I’ve owned a few digital M’s along the way, but exercising the rational part of my brain, sold them and have since settled on a Nikon D800E for exacting work and a couple of Ricoh GXRs for easy digital capture. Both the Nikon and the Ricoh produce stunning files, and, if there exists in the digital era certain cameras that approach the minimalist perfection exemplified by the Leica M in the film era, the Ricoh GXR is surely one of them. The folks at Ricoh hit it out of the park with the GXR and it’s A12 M mount, but also its 28mm and 50mm AF modules mating a dedicated sensor to impeccable optics. I remain completely blown away by how good my photos are from the GXR. As for the D800E, well, we’re easily talking resolution and dynamic range found in medium format 6×9 cameras. That’s crazy.

And along the way I’ve followed, admittedly with a certain amount of schadenfreude, the debacle that is the delaminating CCD sensor of the M9, ME and MM. As I understand it, Leica still sells the MM and ME with a sensor they know, at some point, is going to need replacing, for no other reason than its defective by design. Yet, people are still queueing up to buy them, knowing all of the above. And, I must admit, in moments of weakness, I’m tempted to plunk down five grand and pony up for a Monochrom, outdated, delaminating CCD sensor be damned. When all is said and done, I must admit, that’s one cool camera.

**************

It used to be that a ‘serious’ photographer had to do things and master techniques that required specialized knowledge and training. Any art school graduate who’s been made to read Leslie Stroebel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes as a foundation of their studies in photography learned that a serious interest in photography required an understanding of its technical aspects, aspects that required considerations of mathematics, physics, chemistry, psychology and physiology. Armed with the skills such knowledge provided, we could easily differentiate ourselves from the dilettantes who took snapshots and dropped their rolls off to be developed at the corner drugstore. We were serious about the craft of photography, and we versed ourselves in its chemical and physical underpinnings and the means to manipulate its variables to produce something unique, a product of our specific vision. And it was this knowledge that was a prerequisite of our photographs being qualitatively better than the snapshots of the dilettante, even if, in practice, there was little about the photographs themselves that might have distinguished one from the other. Our photographs had intentionality.

Russian Reichstag Dude

Digital photography is radically democratized. Everybody can do it, and do it well without any real understanding of the mechanisms involved.  My niece, who knows nothing about photography as a craft, routinely produces stunningly beautiful photographs with her iphone, photos with more power and aesthetic character than 99% of those uploaded in endless procession by “serious” photographers on enthusiast sites like Rangerfinder Forum or Photo.net.  She has an “eye.” Digital image-making (I hesitate to refer to it as photography) is essentially idiot-proof; point the device, press the button, send out the result for other’s perusal. If you’ve got an “eye,” chances are your results will be good, often better than the best creations made during the film era by serious photographers with advanced knowledge and painstakingly acquired technical expertise.

If we profess to value the dissemination of visual reality, this is good, an advance, because we as photographers are freed from the encumbrances of the technological constraints that stand between us and the creation of our vision. Now all of us can document our lives and the lives of others around us without first hurdling the technical bar existent in analogue days. Photography need no longer be a craft, a practice that requires something other than a common aptitude. Anyone can do it, and do it well.

But there’s a catch. The tools we use, and the manner in which they allow us to use them for our creative purposes, have an authority in the process, because they function to structure our attention in a certain way. The design of the tool conditions the nature of our involvement in our creative practices, an “ecology of attention,’ in the words of philosopher and social theorist Matthew Crawford, that may be more, or less, adapted to the skills needed to meaningfully involve the craftsman in his creative actions. Tools do matter. I would suggest that, in spite of the tired cliche that “it’s not the camera,”, your skills are dependent, in a real sense, on the camera.

*************

1404546_604197392960065_471474832_o

Maybe this helps lead us to an explanation of why some of us consciously reject the ease of modern photography, preferring instead to treat our photography as a craft that requires a certain intentionality. Many of us believe that the values that Leica has heretofore embodied – simplicity grounded in the assumption that the photographer understands the process and is best able to choose the appropriate variables, aesthetics driven by functional concerns, a need for the transparency of the camera in the process because it is ultimately only a tool in service of our particular vision – are necessary aspects in what we define as “photography.” We’ve learned and practiced a craft we define as “photography” that requires knowledge, skill, intentionality, and we see these aspects eroded to the point of irrelevancy with the remarkable inovations of the digital age.

So, we chose to “do it the hard way,” even though its now no longer necessary as a technological necessity. Granted, an evocative photograph is an evocative photograph irrespective of the means of its capture, but many of us still find a great satisfaction in the process of photography, a process that requires specialized knowledge and tools that allow us to translate that knowledge into a photograph that embodies our intention. And for these purposes, there exists no better camera than a Leica M. It’s minimalism of design and function creates the perfect tool with which to exercise intentionality in the practice of our craft. We get to do the thinking and make the appropriate choices. To do so it requires of us a sophisticated knowledge of basic photographic principles. We ‘take’ the photographs, not the camera.

Do we get ‘extra points’ for difficulty? No. A good photo is a good photo, whether I take it with my unmetered M4 and chose a film and developer to enhance the effects I’m looking for, or whether my niece pushes a button a her iphone. We both may create beautiful photos, but I’ll do so as a ‘photographer’ who understands and values the process, while her motivations, concerns and interests in what she’s doing may never have reached the level of mindfulness. To my mind there’s a huge difference between us, not merely a difference of degree but a qualitative difference in who we are and how what we do defines us. “Snobbish” ? Possibly. True? Most definitely.

And that’s why I’m intrigued by the Monochrom. It looks, feels, and operates like a traditional analogue camera. No ‘modes,” no image stabilization, no wifi, no mindless automation. You get to choose. Is it hopelessly crude from a technological standpoint? Yes. But if you’re looking at it with those technological parameters as decisive factors, you simply don’t understand how the function of photography is a guiding interest for a remaining few. Insofar as a digital camera is capable of recreating the minimalist design and function of a traditional analogue camera, its the best current option for carrying forward the practice of mindfulness in the photographic process, a practice many of still desire in an age of the mindless ubiquity of iphones and social media.155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0