Category Archives: Leica Film camera

The Cult of Leica

By Anthony Lane, New Yorker Magazine, September 24, 2007

Fifty miles north of Frankfurt lies the small German town of Solms. Turn off the main thoroughfare and you find yourself driving down tranquil suburban streets, with detached houses set back from the road, and, on a warm morning in late August, not a soul in sight. By the time you reach Oskar-Barnack-Strasse, the town has almost petered out; just before the railway line, however, there is a clutch of industrial buildings, with a red dot on the sign outside. As far as fanfare is concerned, that’s about it. But here is the place to go, if you want to find the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world.

There have been Leica cameras since 1925, when the Leica I was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig. From then on, as the camera has evolved over eight decades, generations of users have turned to it in their hour of need, or their millisecond of inspiration. Aleksandr Rodchenko, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Sebastião Salgado: these are some of the major-league names that are associated with the Leica brand—or, in the case of Cartier-Bresson, stuck to it with everlasting glue.

Even if you don’t follow photography, your mind’s eye will still be full of Leica photographs. The famous head shot of Che Guevara, reproduced on millions of rebellious T-shirts and student walls: that was taken on a Leica with a portrait lens—a short telephoto of 90 mm.—by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, better known as Korda, in 1960. How about the pearl-gray smile-cum-kiss reflected in the wing mirror of a car, taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1955? Leica again, as is the even more celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945—a sailor craned over a nurse, bending her backward, her hand raised against his chest in polite half-protestation. The man behind the camera was Alfred Eisenstaedt, of Life magazine, who recalled:

I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder. But none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked.

He took four pictures, and that was that. “It was done within a few seconds,” he said. All you need to know about the Leica is present in those seconds. The photographer was on the run, so whatever he was carrying had to be light and trim enough not to be a drag. He swivelled and fired in one motion, like the Sundance Kid. And everything happened as quickly for him as it did for the startled nurse, with all the components—the angles, the surrounding throng, the shining white of her dress and the kisser’s cap—falling into position. Times Square was the arena of uncontrolled joy; the job of the artist was to bring it under control, and the task of his camera was to bring life—or, at least, an improved version of it, graced with order and impact—to the readers of Life.

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Still, why should one lump of metal and glass be better at fulfilling that duty than any other? Would Eisenstaedt really have been worse off, or failed to hit the target, with another sort of camera? These days, Leica makes digital compacts and a beefy S.L.R., or single-lens reflex, called the R9, but for more than fifty years the pride of the company has been the M series of 35-mm. range-finder cameras—durable, companionable, costly, and basically unchanging, like a spouse. There are three current models, one of which, the MP, will set you back a throat-drying four thousand dollars or so; having stood outside dustless factory rooms, in Solms, and watched women in white coats and protective hairnets carefully applying black paint, with a slender brush, to the rim of every lens, I can tell you exactly where your money goes. Mind you, for four grand you don’t even get a lens—just the MP body. It sits there like a gum without a tooth until you add a lens, the cheapest being available for just under a thousand dollars. (Five and a half thousand will buy you a 50-mm. f/1, the widest lens on the market; for anybody wanting to shoot pictures by candlelight, there’s your answer.) If you simply want to take a nice photograph of your children, though, what’s wrong with a Canon PowerShot? Yours online for just over two hundred bucks, the PowerShot SD1000 will also zoom, focus for you, set the exposure for you, and advance the frame automatically for you, none of which the MP, like some sniffing aristocrat, will deign to do. To make the contest even starker, the SD1000 is a digital camera, fizzing with megapixels, whereas the Leica still stores images on that frail, combustible material known as film. Short of telling the kids to hold still while you copy them onto parchment, how much further out of touch could you be?

To non-photographers, Leica, more than any other manufacturer, is a legend with a hint of scam: suckers paying through the nose for a name, in a doomed attempt to crank up the credibility of a picture they were going to take anyway, just as weekend golfers splash out on a Callaway Big Bertha in a bid to convince themselves that, with a little more whippiness in their shaft, they will swell into Tiger Woods. To unrepentant aesthetes, on the other hand, there is something demeaning in the idea of Leica. Talent will out, they say, whatever the tools that lie to hand, and in a sense they are right: Woods would destroy us with a single rusty five-iron found at the back of a garage, and Cartier-Bresson could have picked up a Box Brownie and done more with a roll of film—summoning his usual miracles of poise and surprise—than the rest of us would manage with a lifetime of Leicas. Yet the man himself was quite clear on the matter:

I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.

Asked how he thought of the Leica, Cartier-Bresson said that it felt like “a big warm kiss, like a shot from a revolver, and like the psychoanalyst’s couch.” At this point, five thousand dollars begins to look like a bargain.

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Oscar Barnack at his Desk

Many reasons have been adduced for the rise of the Leica. There is the hectic progress of the illustrated press, avid for photographs to fill its columns; there is the increased mobility, spending power, and leisure time of the middle classes, who wished to preserve a record of these novel blessings, if not for posterity, then at least for show. Yet the great inventions, more often than not, are triggered less by vast historical movements than by the pressures of individual chance—or, in Leica’s case, by asthma. Every Leica employee who drives down Oskar-Barnack-Strasse is reminded of corporate glory, for it was Barnack, a former engineer at Carl Zeiss, the famous lens-makers in Jena, who designed the Leica I. He was an amateur photographer, and the camera had first occurred to him, as if in a vision, in 1905, twenty years before it actually went on sale:

Back then I took pictures using a camera that took 13 by 18 plates, with six double-plate holders and a large leather case similar to a salesman’s sample case. This was quite a load to haul around when I set off each Sunday through the Thüringer Wald. While I struggled up the hillsides (bearing in mind that I suffer from asthma) an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?

Five years later, Barnack was invited to work for Ernst Leitz, a rival optical company, in Wetzlar. (The company stayed there until 1988, when it was sold, and the camera division, renamed Leica, shifted to Solms, fifteen minutes away.) By 1913-14, he had developed what became known as the ur-Leica: a tough, squat rectangular metal box, not much bigger than a spectacles case, with rounded corners and a retractable brass lens. You could tuck it into a jacket pocket, wander around the Thuringer woods all weekend, and never gasp for breath. The extraordinary fact is that, if you were to place it next to today’s Leica MP, the similarities would far outweigh the differences; stand a young man beside his own great-grandfather and you get the same effect.

Barnack took a picture on August 2, 1914, using his new device. Reproduced in Alessandro Pasi’s comprehensive study, “Leica: Witness to a Century” (2004), it shows a helmeted soldier turning away from a column on which he has just plastered the imperial order for mobilization. This was the first hint of the role that would fall to Leicas above all other cameras: to be there in history’s face. Not until the end of hostilities did Barnack resume work on the Leica, as it came to be called. (His own choice of name was Lilliput, but wiser counsels prevailed.) Whenever you buy a 35-mm. camera, you pay homage to Barnack, for it was his handheld invention that popularized the 24-mm.-by-36-mm. negative—a perfect ratio of 2:3—adapted from cine film. According to company lore, he held a strip of the new film between his hands and stretched his arms wide, the resulting length being just enough to contain thirty-six frames—the standard number of images, ever since, on a roll of 35-mm. film. Well, maybe. Does this mean that, if Barnack had been more of an ape, we might have got forty?

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When the Leica I made its eventual début, in 1925, it caused consternation. In the words of one Leica historian, quoted by Pasi, “To many of the old photographers it looked like a toy designed for a lady’s handbag.” Over the next seven years, however, nearly sixty thousand Leica I’s were sold. That’s a lot of handbags. The shutter speeds on the new camera ran up to one five-hundredth of a second, and the aperture opened wide to f/3.5. In 1932, the Leica II arrived, equipped with a range finder for more accurate focussing. I used one the other day—a mid-thirties model, although production lasted until 1948. Everything still ran sweetly, including the knurled knob with which you wind on from frame to frame, and the simplicity of the design made the Leica an infinitely more friendly proposition, for the novice, than one of the digital monsters from Nikon and Canon. Those need an instruction manual only slightly smaller than the Old Testament, whereas the Leica II sat in my palms like a puppy, begging to be taken out on the streets.

That is how it struck not only the public but also those for whom photography was a living, or an ecstatic pursuit. A German named Paul Wolff acquired a Leica in 1926 and became a high priest to the brand, winning many converts with his 1934 book “My Experiences with the Leica.” His compatriot Ilsa Bing, born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt, was dubbed “the Queen of the Leica” after an exhibit in 1931. She had bought the camera in 1929, and what is remarkable, as one scrolls through a roster of her peers, is how quickly, and infectiously, the Leica habit caught on. Whenever I pick up a book of photographs, I check the chronology at the back. From a monograph by the Hungarian André Kertész, the most wistful and tactful of photographers: “1928—Purchases first Leica.” From the catalogue of the 1998 Aleksandr Rodchenko show at moma: “1928, November 25—Stepanova’s diary records Rodchenko’s purchase of a Leica for 350 rubles.” And on it goes.

Ilsa Bing Leica

Ilsa Bing

The Russians were among the first and fiercest devotees, and anyone who craves the Leica as a pure emblem of capitalist desire—what Marx would call commodity fetishism—may also like to reflect on its status, to men like Rodchenko, as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Never a man to be tied down (he was also a painter, sculptor, and master of collage), he nonetheless believed that “only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life,” and he went on the attack, craning up at buildings and down from roofs, tipping his Leica at flights of steps and street parades, upending the world as if all its old complacencies could be shaken out of the bottom like dust. There is a gorgeous shot from 1934 entitled “Girl with a Leica,” in which his subject perches politely on a bench that arrows diagonally, and most impolitely, from lower left to upper right. She wears a soft white beret and dress, and her gaze is blank and misty, but thrown over the scene, like a net, is the shadow of a window grille—modernist geometry at war with reactionary decorum. The object she clasps in her lap, its strap drawn tightly over her shoulder, is of the same make as the one that created the picture.

When it came to off-centeredness, Rodchenko’s fellow-Russian Ilya Ehrenburg went one better. “A camera is clumsy and crude. It meddles insolently in other people’s affairs,” he wrote in 1932. “Ours is a guileful age. Following man’s example, things have also learned to dissemble. For many months I roamed Paris with a little camera. People would sometimes wonder: why was I taking pictures of a fence or a road? They didn’t know that I was taking pictures of them.” Ehrenburg had solved the problem of meddling by buying an accessory: “The Leica has a lateral viewfinder. It’s constructed like a periscope. I was photographing at 90 degrees.” The Paris that emerged—poor, grimy, and unposed—was a moral rebuke to the myth of bohemian chic.

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Henri Cartier Bresson

You can still buy a right-angled viewfinder for a new Leica, if you’re too shy or sneaky to confront your subjects head-on, although the basic thrust of Leica technique has been to insist that no extra subterfuge is required: the camera can hide itself. If I had to fix the source of that reticence, I would point to Marseilles in 1932. It was then that Cartier-Bresson, an aimless young Frenchman from a wealthy family, bought his first Leica. He proceeded to grow into the best-known photographer of the twentieth century, in spite (or, as he would argue, because) of his ability to walk down a street not merely unrecognized but unnoticed. He began as a painter, and continued to draw throughout his life, but his hand was most comfortable with a camera.

When I spoke to his widow, Martine Franck—the president of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, in Paris, and herself a distinguished photographer—she said that her husband in action with his Leica “was like a dancer.” This feline unobtrusiveness led him all over the world and made him seem at home wherever he paused; one trip to Asia lasted three years, ending in 1950, and produced eight hundred and fifty rolls of film. His breakthrough collection, published two years later, was called “The Decisive Moment,” and he sought endless analogies for the sensation that was engendered by the press of a shutter. The most common of these was hunting: “The photographer must lie in wait, watching out for his prey, and have a presentiment of what is about to happen.”

There, if anywhere, is the Leica motto: watch and wait. If you were a predator, the moment—not just for Cartier-Bresson, but for all photographers—became that much more decisive in 1954. “Clairvoyance” means “clear sight,” and when Leica launched the M3 that year, the clarity was a coup de foudre; even now, when you look through a used M3, the world before you is brighter and crisper than seems feasible. You half expect to feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. A Leica viewfinder resembles no other, because of the frame lines: thin white strips, parallel to each side of the frame, which show you the borders of the photograph that you are set to take—not merely the lie of the land within the shot, but also what is happening, or about to happen, just outside. This is a matter of millimetres, but to Leica fans it is sacred, because it allows them to plan and imagine a photograph as an act of storytelling—an instant grabbed at will from a continuum. If you want a slice of life, why not see the loaf?

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Leica M3

The M3 had everything, although by the standards of today it had practically nothing. You focussed manually, of course, and there was nothing to help you calculate the exposure; either you carried a separate light meter, or you clipped one awkwardly to the top of the camera, or, if you were cool, you guessed. Cartier-Bresson was cool. Martine Franck is still cool: “I think I know my light by now,” she told me. She continues to use her M3: “I’ve never held a camera so beautiful. It fits the hand so well.” Even for people who know nothing of Cartier-Bresson, and for whom 1954 is as long ago as Pompeii, something about the M3 clicks into place: last year, when eBay and Stuff magazine, in the U.K., took it upon themselves to nominate “the top gadget of all time,” the Game Boy came fifth, the Sony Walkman third, and the iPod second. First place went to an old camera that doesn’t even need a battery. If the Queen subscribes to Stuff, she will have nodded in approval, having owned an M3 since 1958. Her Majesty is so wedded to her Leica that she was once shown on a postage stamp holding it at the ready.

It’s no insult to call the M3 a gadget. Such beauty as it possesses flows from its scorn for the superfluous; as any Bauhaus designer could tell you, form follows function. The M series is the backbone of Leica; we are now at the M8 (which at first glance is barely distinguishable from the M3), and, with a couple of exceptions, every intervening camera has been a classic. Richard Kalvar, who rose to become president of the Magnum photographic agency during the nineties, remembers hearing the words of a Leica fan: “I know I’m using the best, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Kalvar bought an M4 and never looked back: “It’s almost a part of me,” he says. Ralph Gibson, whose photographs offer an unblinking survey of the textures that surround us, from skin to stone, bought his first Leica, an M2 (which, confusingly, postdated the M3), in 1961. It cost him three hundred dollars, which, considering that he was earning a hundred a week, was quite an outlay, but his loyalty is undimmed. “More great photographs have been made with a Leica and a 50-mm. lens than with any other combination in the history of photography,” Gibson said to me. He advised Leica beginners to use nothing except that standard lens for two or three years, so as to ease themselves into the swing of the thing: “What you learn you can then apply to all the other lengths.

Lee Friedlander Maria

One could argue that, since the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the sense of Europe as the spiritual hearth of Leica, with the Paris of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson glowing at its core, has been complemented, if not superseded, by America’s attraction to the brand. The Russian love of the angular had exploited the camera’s portability (you try bending over a window ledge with a plate camera); the French had perfected the art of reportage, netting experience on the wing; but the Leicas that conquered America—the M3, the M4, and later the M6, with built-in metering and the round red Leica logo on the front—were wielded with fresh appetite, biting at the world and slicing it off in unexpected chunks. Lee Friedlander, photographing a child in New York, in 1963, thought nothing of bringing the camera down to the boy’s eye level, and thus semi-decapitating the grownups who stood beside him. (All kids dream of that sometime.) Men and women were reflected in storefront windows, or obscured by street signs; many of the photographs shimmered on the brink of a mistake. “With a camera like that,” Friedlander has said of the Leica, “you don’t believe that you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.” One shot of his, from 1969, traps an entire landscape of feeling—a boundless American sky, salted with high clouds, plus Friedlander’s wife, Maria, with her lightly smiling face—inside the cab of a single truck, layering what we see through the side window with what is reflected in it. I know of long novels that tell you less.

Robert Frank Shoe Shine
Robert Frank Americans

Before Friedlander came Robert Frank, born in Switzerland; only someone from a mountainous country, perhaps, could come here and view the United States as a flat and tragic plain. “The Americans” (1958), the record of his travels with a Leica, was mostly haze, shade, and grain, stacked with human features resigned to their fate. No artist had ever studied a men’s room in such detail before, with everything from the mop to the hand dryer immortalized in the wide embrace of the lens; Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the book, lauded the result, taken in Memphis, Tennessee, as “the loneliest picture ever made, the urinals that women never see, the shoeshine going on in sad eternity.” Then, there was Garry Winogrand, the least exhaustible of all photographers. Frank’s eighty-three images may have been chosen from five hundred rolls of film, but when Winogrand died, in 1984, at the age of fifty-six, he left behind more than two and a half thousand rolls of film that hadn’t even been developed. He leavened the wistfulness of Frank with a documentary bluntness and a grinning wit, incessantly tilting his Leica to throw a scene off-balance and seek a new dynamic. His picture of a disabled man in Los Angeles, in 1969, could have been fuelled by pathos alone, or by political rage at an indifferent society, but Winogrand cannot stop tracking that society in its comic range; that is why we get not just the wheelchair and the begging bowl but also a trio of short-skirted girls, bunched together like a backup group, strolling through the Vs of shadow and sunlight, and a portly matron planted at the right of the frame—a stolid import from another age.

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Garry Winogrand Leica

Garry Winogrand’s M4

I recently found a picture of Winogrand’s M4. The metal is not just rubbed but visibly worn down beside the wind-on lever; you have to shoot a heck of a lot of photographs on a Leica before that happens. Still, his M4 is in mint condition compared with the M2 owned by Bruce Davidson, the American photographer whose work constitutes, among other things, an invaluable record of the civil-rights movement. And even his M2, pitted and peeled like the bark of a tree, is pristine compared with the Leica I saw in the display case at the Leica factory in Solms. That model had been in the Hindenburg when it went up in flames in New Jersey in 1937. The heat was so intense that the front of the lenses melted. So now you know: Leica engineers test their product to the limits, and they will customize it for you if you are planning a trip to the Arctic, but when you really want to trash your precious camera you need an exploding airship.

If you pick up an M-series Leica, two things are immediately apparent. First, the density: the object sits neatly but not lightly in the hand, and a full day’s shooting, with the camera continually hefted to the eye, leaves you with a faint but discernible case of wrist ache. Second, there is no lump. Most of the smarter, costlier cameras in the world are S.L.R.s, with a lumpy prism on top. Light enters through the lens, strikes an angled mirror, and bounces upward to the prism, where it strikes one surface after another, like a ball in a squash court, before exiting through the viewfinder. You see what your lens sees, and you focus accordingly. This happy state of affairs does not endure. As you take a picture, the mirror flips up out of the light path. The image, now unobstructed, reaches straight to the rear of the camera and, as the shutter opens, burns into the emulsion of the film—or, these days, registers on a digital sensor. With every flip, however, comes a flip side: the mirror shuts off access to the prism, meaning that, at the instant of release, your vision is blocked, and you are left gazing at the dark.

To most of us, this is not a problem. The instant passes, the mirror flips back down, and lo, there is light. For some photographers, though, the impediment is agony: of all the times to deny us the right to look at our subject, S.L.R.s have to pick this one? “Visualus interruptus,” Ralph Gibson calls it, and here is where the Leica M series plays its ace. The Leica is lumpless, with a flat top built from a single piece of brass. It has no prism, because it focusses with a range finder—situated above the lens. And it has no mirror inside, and therefore no clunk as the mirror swings. When you take a picture with an S.L.R., there is a distinctive sound, somewhere between a clatter and a thump; I worship my beat-up Nikon FE, but there is no denying that every snap reminds me of a cow kicking over a milk pail. With a Leica, all you hear is the shutter, which is the quietest on the market. The result—and this may be the most seductive reason for the Leica cult—is that a photograph sounds like a kiss.

From the start, this tinge of diplomatic subtlety has shaded our view of the Leica, not always helpfully. The M-series range finder feels made for the finesse and formality of black-and-white—yet consider the oeuvre of William Eggleston, whose unabashed use of color has delivered, through Leica lenses, a lesson in everyday American surrealism, which, like David Lynch movies, blooms almost painfully bright. Again, the Leica, with its range of wide-aperture lenses, is the camera for natural light, and thus inimical to flash, yet Lee Friedlander conjured a series of plainly flashlit nudes, in the nineteen-seventies, which finds tenderness and dignity in the brazen. Lastly, a Leica is, before anything else, a 35-mm. camera. Barnack shaped the Leica I around a strip of film, and the essential mission of the brand since then has been to guarantee that a single chemical event—the action of light on a photosensitive surface—passes off as smoothly as possible. Picture the scene, then, in Cologne, in the fall of 2006. At Photokina, the biennial fair of the world’s photographic trade, Leica made an announcement: it was time, we were told, for the M8. The M series was going digital. It was like Dylan going electric.

In a way, this had to happen. The tide of our lives is surging in a digital direction. My complete childhood is distilled into a couple of photograph albums, with the highlights, whether of achievement or embarrassment, captured in no more than a dozen talismanic stills, now faded and curling at the edges. Yet our own children go on one school trip and return with a hundred images stashed on a memory card: will that enhance or dilute their later remembrance of themselves? Will our experience be any the richer for being so retrievable, or could an individual history risk being wiped, or corrupted, as briskly as a memory card? Garry Winogrand might have felt relieved to secure those thousands of images on a hard drive, rather than on frangible film, although it could be that the taking of a photograph meant more to him than the printed result. The jury is out, but one thing is for sure: film is dwindling into a minority taste, upheld largely by professionals and stubborn, nostalgic perfectionists. Nikon now offers twenty-two digital models, for instance, while the “wide array of SLR film cameras,” as promised on its Web site, numbers precisely two.

Lee knows what is at stake, being a Leica-lover of long standing. Asked about the difference between using his product and an ordinary camera, he replied: “One is driving a Morgan four-by-four down a country lane, the other one is getting in a Mercedes station wagon and going a hundred miles an hour.” The problem is that, for photographers as for drivers, the most pressing criterion these days is speed, and anything more sluggish than the latest Mercedes—anything, likewise, not tricked out with luxurious extras—belongs to the realm of heritage. There is an astonishing industry in used Leicas, with clubs and forums debating such vital areas of contention as the strap lugs introduced in 1933. There are collectors who buy a Leica and never take it out of the box; others who discreetly amass the special models forged for the Luftwaffe. Ralph Gibson once went to a meeting of the Leica Historical Society of America and, he claims, listened to a retired Marine Corps general give a scholarly paper on certain discrepancies in the serial numbers of Leica lens caps. “Leicaweenies,” Gibson calls such addicts, and they are part of the charming, unbreakable spell that the name continues to cast, as well as a tribute to the working longevity of the cameras. By an unfortunate irony, the abiding virtues of the secondhand slow down the sales of the new: why buy an M8 when you can buy an M3 for a quarter of the price and wind up with comparable results? The economic equation is perverse: “I believe that for every euro we make in sales, the market does four euros of business,” Lee said.

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Edward Weston
Henry Fonda

I have always wanted a Leica, ever since I saw an Edward Weston photograph of Henry Fonda, his noble profile etched against the sky, a cigarette between two fingers, and a Leica resting against the corduroy of his jacket. I have used a variety of cultish cameras, all of them secondhand at least, and all based on a negative larger than 35 mm.: a Bronica, a Mamiya 7, and the celebrated twin-lens Rolleiflex, which needs to be cupped at waist height. (“If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly,” a scornful Cartier-Bresson said.) But I have never used a Leica. Now I own one: a small, dapper digital compact called the D-Lux 3. It has a fine lens, and its grace note is a retro leather case that makes me feel less like Henry Fonda and more like a hiker named Helmut, striding around the Black Forest in long socks and a dark-green hat with a feather in it; but a D-Lux 3 is not an M8. For one thing, it doesn’t have a proper viewfinder. For another, it costs close to six hundred dollars—the upper limit of my budget, but laughably cheap to anyone versed in the M series. So, to discover what I was missing, I rented an M8 and a 50-mm lens for four hours, from a Leica dealer, and went to work.

If you can conquer the slight queasiness that comes from walking about with seven thousand dollars’ worth of machinery hanging around your neck, an afternoon with the M8 is a dangerously pleasant groove to get into. I can understand that, were you a sports photographer, perched far away from the action, or a paparazzo, fighting to squeeze off twenty consecutive frames of Britney Spears falling down outside a night club, this would not be your tool of choice, but for more patient mortals it feels very usable indeed. This is not just a question of ergonomics, or of the diamond-like sharpness of the lens. Rather, it has to do with the old, bewildering Leica trick: the illusion, fostered by a mere machine, that the world out there is asking to be looked at—to be caught and consumed while it is fresh, like a trout. Ever since my teens, as one substandard print after another glimmered into view in the developing tray, under the brothel-red gloom of the darkroom, my own attempts at photography have meant a lurch of expectation and disappointment. Now, with an M8 in my possession, the shame gave way to a thrill. At one point, I stood outside a bookstore and, in a bid to test the exposure, focussed on a pair of browsers standing within, under an “Antiquarian” sign at the end of a long shelf. Suddenly, a pale blur entered the frame lines. I panicked, and pressed the shutter: kiss.

Leica M8

On the digital playback, I inspected the evidence. The blur had been an old lady, and she had emerged as a phantom—the complete antiquarian, with glowing white hair and a hint of spectacles. It wasn’t a good photograph, more of a still from “Ghostbusters,” but it was funnier and punchier than anything I had taken before, and I could only have grabbed it with a Leica. (And only with an M. By the time the D-Lux 3 had fired up and focussed, the lady would have floated halfway down the street.) So the rumors were true: buy this camera, and accidents will happen. I remembered what Cartier-Bresson once said about turning from painting to photography: “the adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world.” That is what links him to the Leicaweenies, and Oskar Barnack to the advent of the M8, and Russian revolutionaries to flashlit American nudes: the simple, undying wish to look at the scars.

A Trinocular Vision

Erik van Straten

“When it comes to organizing the world into a picture, the photographer has little to go on…[his] only constraining form is his frame. Inside those four edges there are no structural traditions, only space.” — Ben Lifson

Robert Capa famously said that if your pictures weren’t good enough you weren’t close enough. I always thought that was wrong. Sometimes you can miss a picture by being too close.

Aesthetics is a question of where you place the frame. As psychologist Rudolf Arheim notes, the visual world surrounds us as an unbroken space, subdivided conceptually but without limits. Photography is the practice of isolating a portion of that whole, always with the understanding that the world continues beyond the frame’s borders. Part of what gives a photo meaning is the larger context within which it resides; sometimes that context is implied, sometimes it’s expressly pictured. Sometimes the subject is found within the frame while its context lies out of frame. Other times the photo is the dynamic of context and form within the frame; for this you need distance. Robert Capa would be an example of the former; Henri Cartier-Bresson would be an example of the latter. There’s room for both in photo aesthetics.

I say all of this because I’ve been admiring the photography of Erik van Straten, a Dutch amateur photographer [‘amateur’ in the sense that he doesn’t photograph for profit] whose work you’ll find in various corners of the net. If anything, his photography is a rejoinder to the cliche of getting close. His work possesses a dynamic power precisely because he’s chosen to stand back when necessary. For van Straten, the key is not getting near, or sufficiently far, but “being the right distance.”

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Erik van Straten

Erik van Straten was born in 1954 in Leiden, the Netherlands, and grew up in Amsterdam.  In 1971 he was admitted to the photography department of the applied arts school in Amsterdam. While there he realized that professional photography didn’t interest him. Photographically, he went his own way while nurturing his own style.

He remains a dedicated film shooter and darkroom printer. He has never ‘transitioned’ to digital photography because a well-made gelatin silver print is simply more beautiful than any photo on a screen or from a digital printer. A traditionalist, he uses various film Leicas or a Nikon S2 with standard focal lengths of 50mm and 35mm. His preferred film is Tmax400, developed in Perceptol. He makes his prints with a Leitz Focomat IIc. The photos reproduced herein are scans of gelatin-silver prints he’s created in his darkroom. You can still see in them the beautiful gray tonalities and granular textures of the gelatin-silver process even when they’ve necessarily been scanned to be presented here.

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Erik van Straten

Refreshing in this age of disembodied digital processes, van Straten’s photographs remain material documents in addition to being visual observations. They possess the tactile elements of paper and emulsion. They are physical things one centers in frames and hangs on walls. A traditionalist, van Straten considers this materiality a necessary feature of a photograph.

I find van Straten’s photos to be beautiful in a literal sense, and that isn’t a criticism but a compliment. There’s a fullness about them, an intuitive sense of space that creates a coherent whole. They’re mannered without devolving into mannerism; they are representational and yet self-referential, realistic while being stylistic. His photos are simultaneously portraits of the individual and the archetype, a blend of the specific and the universal. If they are stamped with van Straten’s psychological imprint, they also have a universal aspect, a mythic quality – what Arther Lubow calls a “trinocular vision,” a confluence of personal, objective, and mythic. They are allegories playing out in the moment, liminal zones in which the everyday touches something eternal.

Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten
Erik van Straten

The Leica Experience Without the Leica

Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition

If Leica announced they were going to offer a brand new M2, built to the original specs, coupled with a state-of-the-art Summilux 50mm f1.4 and original lens hood- and offer it as a kit for $1600, I suspect you’d happily sell your grandmother into white slavery for a chance to buy as many as possible. The lens alone would be worth the price.

Why then can’t people give away the brand new in box Nikon S3 2000 editions stowed away fifteen years ago when Nikon released the S3 Millennial edition? Think of this. A New Leica M-A, the current iteration of Leica’s mechanical film M, sells new for $5195, with free shipping; for the 50mm Summilux add an extra $4395. That’s $9590. (Given you’re buying it from B&H in New York, add $870 in local sales tax: total price door to door $10,540). Yet today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 Millennial, with 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor that is every bit the equal of the MA with Summilux, for $1600 or thereabout on eBay ( hell, I’d argue that the S3 is better built than the MA). And few people seem to want them. That’s crazy.

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Nikon S3 Millennial with 35mm W-Nikkor

Millenial Nikon S3 with W-Nikkor 35mm 1.8

In 1957 a LEICA M2 and 50mm f/1.4 lens sold for about $3800 in today’s money, while the pro Nikon, the Nikon SP went for $3,000 with a 50mm Nikkor f/1.4. Released in 1958, Nikon designed the S3 as the lower-cost alternative to the SP, sort of the equivalent of the Leica M2 in relation to the M3. The only real difference between the SP and the S3 was the viewfinder. While the SP employed two separate viewfinders that covered the 28/35/50/85/105 and 135 fields of view, the S3 employed a single viewfinder with fixed 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm framelines and no parallax correction or frame switching. Frankly, if you confined your needs to a 50 or 35, the S3 was as good as the SP, certainly as robust and well- built. In 1958, the S3 with 50mm f/1.4 cost ¥86,000 (about $2600 in today’s money) compared to the SP which was ¥98,000.

Black Paint Nikon S3
Black Paint S3 Millennial With 50mm 1.4 Nikkor-S

In 2000 Nikon reproduced the original S3 and offered it as the S3 2000 (“S3 Millennial”), an exact duplicate of their classic 1958 S3 in chrome finish.   Nikon produced 8000 cameras by hand assembly, 300 per month. In 2002 Nikon released the black paint S3 2000 with a production of 2000 units. Nikon’s cost was more than the selling price of the camera, over $6,000 each. The initial retail price for both the chrome and black paint the kit was around $6000, and most were bought up by collectors and put on the shelf with an eye to appreciation. The rise of digital photography, however, knocked the legs out from under the S3 as an investment, and many collectors are selling their new, unused, still in the box Millennial S3’s for pennies on the dollar. Today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 with f/1.4 Nikkor for $1600 on eBay.

With the M2/M3 in 1955,  Leica came up with an enduring design that made the camera a natural extension of the photographer’s hand. The M3 embodied minimalist functionality at its best, radically simple, both in design and function, everything accessible with minimum fuss.  Of course, the M2/M3 was the inspiration for Nikon’s first pro rangefinder, but the SP included some of its own innovations. For example, with its forward focusing wheel and shutter release to the rear of the top plate, it was designed to allow your index finger at the shutter trigger while using your middle finger to focus with the focusing wheel.  One-hand operation. (This is how the Nikon F, built on the rangefinder platform, inherited its unwieldy shutter position  – the recessed shutter position had been designed to accommodate the focus wheel of the rangefinder series, but, of course, made no sense on the F which didn’t have a focusing wheel. Nikon moved the shutter trigger forward on the bottom-up designed F2).

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Nikon S3 Millennial
Nikon S3 Millennial
Nikon S3 Millennial with 50mm Nikkor f/1.4 and Leica M2-R with DR Summicron

The S3 has the same minimalist ethos as the Leica, simple to use and very reliable. It’s also made to the same incredible high manufacturing standards, hand-built in the same manner as the M. And the Millennial Nikkor 50 is an exceptional lens, every bit the equal of the current Leica optics. While Nikon claims it’s a faithful recreation of the 50 era Nikkor 50, it does use modern coatings and tighter tolerances, and its output is markedly superior to the original Nikkor of which it is a recreation. It’s a testament to Nikon’s optical expertise that a 50-year-old optical design can match the best modern Leica optics.

So, if you want a new fully mechanical precision film rangefinder built by one of history’s iconic manufacturers, you can spend $10,540 on a Leica M-A with ASPH Summilux 50 – or you can buy a chrome S3 Millennial kit on eBay for $1600-$1800 (or if you want the black paint version, $2700. I’ve got a chrome version, which I actually prefer to the black paint version. For me, old Nikon rangefinders should be chrome). And, given Voigtlander offers many of their excellent and reasonably priced rangefinder lenses in Nikon S mount (21mm f4, 25mm f4, 28mm 3.5, 35mm 2.5, 50mm 2.5, 50mm 1.5, 85mm 3.5) you can assemble a nice system of new, modern optics for your new S3 without the problems that come along with 50-year-old lenses. If you choose the S3 Millennial, you can have the “Leica Experience” without the price premium, the snobbery and buffoonery, the condescending elitism, the ignorant comments from the hoi polloi, the envious looks from the guy with the x100; just the simple joy of using a superbly made mechanical rangefinder with a wide choice of excellent optics. And the camera is new – nobody else’s problems to deal with.

What’s not to like about that?

Henry Wessel’s Western Light

In “Santa Barbara, Calif., 1977,” Wessel took a picture of a man standing on a lawn staring at a flock of birds in flight. Wessel had been standing at a bus stop at the time. “As I approached this scene, the birds were feeding in the grass,” he said. “Startled for some reason, they took flight. I instinctually shot, exposing three frames before they were gone. When I look at it now, I marvel at how much of the world is hidden in the flux of time.”

Henry Wessel Jr. (1942-2018) grew up in Ridgefield, New Jersey. He studied psychology at Penn State University, graduating in 1966. After he came upon Mr. Szarkowski’s book “The Photographer’s Eye” and through it discovered the work of Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Wright Morris and Garry Winogrand, he abandoned psychology and pursued photography. Wessel’s photographs are deceptively simple, yet there’s ‘something’ contained within them that, while inarticulable, is noticeably present. Like all good visual art, there’s a tension contained within it, something that requires the viewer’s imagination to complete.

Wessel moved to southern California in 1969. He was fascinated by the western light from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles. “I walked out of the airport into one of those clear, sharp-edged January days,” he said. “The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it.” That physicality of light is a feature of so many of his photographs.“The high Western light that fills his pictures seems almost hallucinatory,” Tod Papageorge, former director of the graduate program in photography at Yale, wrote in an email to The Times in 2006. The Curator Emerita of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sandra Phillips, described his work as “witty, evocative, and inventive… distinctive and at the same time a component part of the great development of photography which flourished in the 1970s.” 

Wessel headed the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute, joining its faculty in 1973. He advised his students that after they took their pictures, developed the film, and printed the contact sheets, they should put them away for a year. “If you let some time go by before considering work that you have done, you move toward a more objective position in judging it,” he said. “The pleasure of the subjective, physical experience in the world is a more distant memory and less influential.”

According to Wessel, the most important photographic choices were “where to stand and when to shoot,” followed by keeping technological choices to a minimum. Learn to use one camera and one lens. By limiting your tools to a single camera – a Leica M with 28mm – your sense of how light translates to film, and then to paper, would become instinctive. Mr. Wessel was never without his Leica and always alert to what was going on around him.“Most musicians I know don’t just play music on Saturday night,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “They play music every day. They are always fiddling around, letting the notes lead them from one place to another. Taking still photographs is like that. It is a generative process. It pulls you along.”

The Red Dot

I’ll admit I don’t like the red dot. It’s tacky. When Leica was Leica, there was no red dot. I’m proud to say that, when I bought my first Leica, there was no such thing as a red dot. The red dot is post- Leica M5, the M5 being both the best and worst thing Leitz ever did. Best, because it’s the last and best version of a hand-assembled M, incorporating everything Leitz had learned about interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras up to that point and, in spite of what its detractors claim (invariably they’ve never used the M5), its a better, more complete camera than the film M’s – M4-2, M4-P, M6, M7 – that came after it, which were essentially retrenchments to a fixed formula. Worst, because Leitz confused a marketing failure with a technical failure and returned to the meterless M4 in M4-2 and M4-P versions, both of which signaled Leitz’s transition from producing professional cameras to models aimed at the consumer market. Hence, Leica’s slow inexorable slide into professional irrelevancy and the rise of internet-era clowns claiming the title “Leica Photographer.”

That’s One Ugly-Ass Red Dot IMHO

The ‘Leitz’ red dot goes back to the company’s Binocular and Microscope divisions, which
used the dot on their products for many years before someone decided to impale it on the hapless R3 and M4-P. Binoculars from the mid/late 60s have a rarer black ‘Leitz’ dot. As best I can tell, the Leitz red dot first appeared on the 50th Anniversary Leicaflex SL2 in 75 followed by the1976 R3. As for the M’s, it’s first seen on a preliminary 1977 run of a few hundred M4-2, and then into full production of the M4-P, which is, with its numerous top plate markings and huge Leitz red dot, the ugliest Leica M ever, although you can get rid of the red dot easily by replacing the vulcanite. Revisionist history aside, for late 70’s – early 80’s Leicaphiles, the red dot coincided with the end of the most desired models (M3, M2, M4, and M5) and represented a perceived decline in the quality for which Leicas had theretofore been known.

  • 1980 black M4-P red dot
  • 1983 chrome M4-P red dot
  • 1987 R5, red dot moved to the right side
  • R6, R7,RE, R6.2 red dot on the right
  • M6 (1984) Leitz red dot on top center
  • R8 (1996) Leica red dot moved to the left again
  • M7 (2000) Leica red dot on top center

Leica’s final film camera, the MP (2003), thankfully did away with the red dot, although it’s been resurrected with the digital M’s and all the other assorted digital models they’ve produced. Why, I don’t know.

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Leica has learned to monetize the red dot and certain consumer’s aversion to it. Witness the M9-P upgrade, which allowed you pay $US1995 to upgrade your red dot m9 for a dotless M9-P. Granted, removal of a red dot alone didn’t cost two grand — Leica also replaced the LCD screen with sapphire glass (apparently a good thing they hadn’t bothered to use on the original M9), and threw in some new leatherette. They also got rid of the tacky M9 logo on the front plate. Gotta admit, the M9-P looks a lot better than the garden variety M9.

Erwin Puts has Massive Hissy-Fit and Quits Leica World

20/10/19 18:07
For more than 35 years I have been intimately involved in the Leica world, encompassing the history of the company, the analysis of the products and the use of the products, all under the umbrella concept of the Leica World.
I have experienced and discussed in detail with relevant persons in Wetzlar (old), Solms and Wetzlar (again, new) the digital turn and how the company evolved and changed while adopting the digitalization of the photographic process and the changing world of the internet based photography. The most recent event is the evolution from a manufacturing company to a software-based company. While a commercial success, this change of heart has accomplished a, perhaps not intended, impact: the soul of Leica products has been eradicated. A renewed interest in classical products is the result. The SL and Q are currently the hopeful products for the future. The ghosts of Huawei and Panasonic can be seen all over the campus and while the M-system is still being promoted as the true heir of the Leica lineage, it is now sidelined. Once upon a time, Leica followed its own path, guided by gifted and pioneering engineers and keen marketeers. Nowadays its products are as mainstream as every other camera manufacture.
The company has sketched a future and follows a path that I am no longer willing to go.

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Next up: Thorsten “von” Overgaard threatens to stop production of Leica inspired Elephant skin leather bags due to “soulless” bokeh of recent Leica optics.

The 35mm Film Look

Fomapan 400 @ 800 ISO

I’m currently experiencing the nostalgic embrace of 35mm film. I’ve just bought a Nikon F100 for next to nothing (it’s crazy how cheap superb film cameras not named Leica are these days). My F5 has been dusted off ( that damn thing is a brick!) and my M5 is once more following me around the house.

I’m also embarked upon the Sisyphean task of developing over 300 rolls of film  – 100 or so Tri-X, 100 or so HP5, 50ish Kodak XX, 50ish Fomapan 400, all shot at 800 ISO and developed in Diafine. Just finished scanning my first 8 roll batch, some HP5 and some Tri-X mixed together (that’s the beauty of Diafine; everything gets developed the same irrespective of ISO, and you don’t have to stress about developer temp either).

These are a couple of keepers from those rolls, bulk scanned via a Pakon 135 scanner, minor exposure and tone adjustments in LR/SEP. They look like film in a way a digital file can’t be made to look. They lack the crispness of digital files but more than make up for the lack with a certain holistic ‘warmth’.

Or maybe not. Who knows. I just know I love film. Maybe you don’t. That’s OK…maybe.

Leica M5, 35 VC 2.5, HP5 @800

Nikon S2, 35 VC 2.5, Tri-X @ 800

It’s Not the Tool

By Mark Twight. All photos by the author. You can see Mark’s work at www.marktwight.com

I was born in the mountains. I grew up middle class in an American city. I climbed mountains professionally for twenty years, making first ascents in the Americas, Europe and Asia. In those years I wrote articles for magazines, shot pictures to illustrate them and gave multi-media presentations in the U.S. and Europe. Later I wrote two books on the subject. Both won awards and were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, and Polish.

Mountain climbing and movie work allowed me to travel to incredible places I would not have otherwise seen. Antarctica. Bulgaria. Israel. Iceland. Japan. Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan. Norway. Argentina. Bolivia. Australia. France, Italy and Spain. Detroit. Alaska. China. Russia. Kazakhstan. Canada, of course. And all over the American West.

I have carried notebooks, a pen, open eyes and a camera in every place but I am not a photographer. I have a camera. I point it at things. I know my way around it, the darkroom and the computer. My attitude and the fact that I do the things I photograph gives me unique perspective. Although I am not now the man of action I was, what I did informs what I do. And what I will do in the future.

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I was anti-Leica for years. I thought it was snobbery. I shot an old Fujica HDS in the mountains because it was waterproof but eventually the fixed 38mm lens was too tight. I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 24mm even though it was enormous compared to my partner’s Rollei. Later I graduated to a Nikon F3, and a Angenieux 70-210mm zoom. I learned my way around the darkroom, developed and printed through many, many nights and eventually got back to Nikon optics and an F5. Despite the magnificent utility of the Nikon, my experience working in black and white introduced me to the Leica brand and the famous shooters who used it. I couldn’t afford to invest so I found adequate enough cons to outweigh the pros.

Then I did a job that paid enough to buy a M6 and 28mm lens. I compared it to my F5 with a 20-35mm f2.8 lens and once I saw the results I switched wholesale. In the mountains Leica lenses easily outmatched my best Nikon primes. The 28mm Elmarit held details when overexposed, captured astonishingly rich color, and separation. I loved pointing into the sun. I shot muddy cyclocross races, sand-boarding the dunes, and in the snow. I carried it in the Alaska Range and even when temperatures dipped to -30F, when plastic film canisters shattered, the camera functioned without problem. In 2001 I bought a Panasonic Lumix digital camera because it supposedly had a Leica lens, then a Canon S80 for its manual functions, then a G9, and later, a compact S100. As a reaction to muddy details at relatively low ISO values I bought a full-frame Nikon D800 so I could use my old 20-35mm but it was no pocket camera so a Sony RX1R with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens came next.

Instead of a darkroom I had Lightroom. The film in the refrigerator expired. I sold one M6 body. Eventually, I gave another to my friend because I knew he would use it. The beautiful Leica lenses sat idle. Regret nagged at me. I lived with it easily for years but it grew. And itched. I knew that sooner or later I would scratch. Then on a film set in 2014 Zack Snyder handed me his Leica Monochrom and said, “If anyone should have a camera that only shoots black and white, it’s you.” I laughed but he was right, the Gym Jones website had been exclusively black and white from its launch in 2005. That statement matched my vision and attitude. I didn’t want it to be easy to read so I floated white text on black. The viewer had to want it. I converted all images to black and white to remove the distorting influence that color can have. What remained was raw, and essential. When I finally bought a Monochrom – 13 years after I put the last roll of film through my M6 – it felt like coming home.

I pulled the lenses from their cases and relearned how to focus manually. My love for taking and making pictures returned and within a year I’d traded the RX1R for a Leica Q and carried it with me everywhere. I loved the fact that — shot at f1.7 — the images had remarkably shallow depth of field for a 28mm lens. The Q easily handles high ISO so even this night owl can make pictures, and the auto-focus is snappy. I can’t change my spots though so I still convert color images to black and white with Silver EFX in the digital darkroom. Black and white is still the way I see. Kiss or Kill.

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Spending so much time staring at images on a large monitor made me a pixel Nazi. On the screen, with the ability to ruthlessly zoom in to any aspect of a picture creates a very different relationship to the image than I have when I stand back and appreciate the totality of fine print. Dissecting local contrast at 4:1 can break the heart of any image.

This got me thinking about sharpness, which I revered when I started shooting a Leica M6. Because that’s what I thought I was seeing when I compared the M6 images to those from the F5. But maybe it wasn’t that the Leica images were sharper, instead their crisp luminosity made the wholly-adequate slides shot with the Nikon appear flat. The M6 images felt vibrant and alive, with details revealed from deep shadow, and texture preserved in areas of hotly overexposed snow. Peering through the loupe I could see greater density, or maybe depth but it wasn’t necessarily increased sharpness that caused that. Honestly, like describing taste, I have difficulty explaining why a Leica image looks different. I do know that — after almost 20 years of living with these images it isn’t as simple as cost influencing appearance. I mean, many times in the past thirty years I have spent far more and received demonstrably less.

That said I started feeling like many of my digital images were too sharp. Harsh, even. That I couldn’t appreciate them without some jpeg compression or the physical equivalent: standing at an appropriate distance. Apparently, anything above 18 megapixels is irrelevant because that’s the maximum our eyes can resolve (this is affected by viewing distance, eyesight quality, etc., and not gospel of course). Yet we chase ever-sharper resolution with 30, then 40mp and 50mp sensors. My eyes get tired first, then my brain.

Perhaps this is a question of perspective. I want to feel the emotional impact of the whole, to re-see what my eyes actually saw, to remember or re-experience how I felt when I initially witnessed the scene I “captured” with my camera. Instead, I crop, I dissect, I zoom, unintentionally stripping away emotion until only the technical remains. Or maybe 0s and 1s just lack soul. Subject, timing and composition are my antidote to binary reductionism but I am still and often dissatisfied with the outcome of the digital capture + edit equation.

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In October 2016 I serendipitously encountered Nicholas Dominic Talvola at Chris Sharma’s climbing gym in Barcelona. He shoots film with old Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras. Properly. Astonishingly. We swapped Leica stories, handed each other our cameras, and he told me about an old 35mm lens that glows when it is shot at f1.4. He shared some images with me and I knew what I’d been missing. “Those lenses are hard to find, man. Not many of them were made and you have to get the one from Germany, not Canada and in X range of serial numbers … it should have a bit of purple cast to the reflection of light off the lens.” And the rabbit hole opened beneath my feet. “You’re going to love it on your Monochrom but you’ll die once you start shooting film again.”

I remember film. And I sometimes wonder if the problem with 0s and 1s is the immediacy. The all-important Insta. Frequency over Quality. And the metaphor of it. Who has any idea what to value or what has value when the only option on these platforms is to ignore or to like? 0 or 1. And no volume knob.

Instead, I try to make photographs that involve the viewer the way I was involved in the making. The Summilux 35mm lens Nicholas told me about gave my images an ethereal glow. It softens generally without sacrificing sharpness locally, luring the viewer to engage rather than evade.

When the image is too sharp and obvious its interpretive quality disappears. We accept what we see. And quickly move on. But when the focus isn’t obvious, when lines lead, when the whole implies more than it declares then we must interpret. The image – whether written or graphic – compels us to do so. It asks. We seek answers. Our own answers. And we wonder … which I always thought was the point.

A Tale of Three Cameras

Peter Davidson is a former commercial photographer who now shoots for himself with a “hopelessly outdated” M9. The photos are all Mr. Davidson’s

Here are two cameras, both important, but separated by twenty years. The Kodak Brownie 127 and Leica M6. Each a delight to hold, simple to use and each delivering that photographic experience as a photographer, I relish. The opportunity to capture some fleeting quintessential moment that not only speaks to and for me, but to others. Personally, there is no argument as to which camera was the more valuable. The Brownie of course. And not just because that Brownie was my first camera back in 1965 and the M6 merely my first Leica in 1985. No, it was because the Brownie’s simplicity enabled me to see while not thinking (or indeed knowing) how to capture that what I saw. It just worked. And basically any camera that works well, and I don’t just mean in the mechanical sense, is essentially a means to an end. They are tools. So is this strange phenomenon of Leicaphilia a love of photography or of the tool? What is going on?

As I’m typing this, my nine year old and hence positively prehistoric and ancient (for digital) M9 is balefully staring back at me with its even older (25 years old in fact) Summicron IV single eye. Alongside is standing my equally old 90mm Tele-Elmarit with its fine coating of lens-fungus that gives results in a kind of cut-price Thambar way. All are in beautiful mint condition (apart from some fungus of course, but that is nothing). I look after my cameras. They are my tools and I trust that if I look after them, they will look after me. I shake my head at the wannabe war photographers who love to own a brassed and abused camera because of its ‘patina’. If it was previously owned by HCB, ok. If not, no thanks.

I’ve been a working advertising cum editorial professional photographer since 1971. That means, though still spritely for a man now pushing seventy years old with two major heart attacks under his belt, my eyes are not what they were. Nor are many other things. And I’m retired. All of which means I now photograph for myself and no one else.

So to return to my opening paragraph and the M6. I didn’t know any professional colleagues in my photographic field who owned a Leica back in the day. It wasn’t really the right tool for most jobs. Or any job really. It was full frame, in 21st Century speak, and as such technically limited. The Hasselblad was much bigger and hence better technical tool. As was 4×5 film and 8×10 film. The same rule applies today of course. For 35mm, or full frame if you prefer, the SLR ruled as it still does, but that is now changing. Basically, what I’m imperfectly trying to say, is that I was a TTL man through and through. The rangefinder was alien…

With my Nikon I could see exactly what I was shooting and focus quickly anywhere in the frame and could change a film roll almost one handed in the dark. The M6 was non of those things. What it was though, was a beautiful mechanical thing. A gorgeously built icon of photography. So, finding myself with some money to spare, I bought one. And found it so slow and difficult to use it drove me mad. It didn’t suit my photographic style. So I put it away for over twenty years, bringing it out occasionally to try and master the damned thing. Gradually, very gradually, it began to grow on me as my shooting style changed and I warmed to the experience. I realised, as I had long suspected, the camera wasn’t at fault, the fault lay with me.

I discovered I only needed to return to the Kodak Brownie state. Shoot don’t think. Relax. Let the camera do the work. Trust in the camera. Finally I began to fully appreciate the quiet unobtrusiveness of the small lens/camera form factor. Less intimidating for my subjects, being humble and quiet and therefor better. After nearly forty years as a photographer, I began to ‘get it’. So, of course, I sold my M6…

And bought an M9. Why? Because while I appreciate film, it’s a total pain in the arse. All my life I’ve battled Kodachrome exposure intolerance and while I loved Tri-X granularity, the whole film processing snafus, dust, scratches and water marks I can do without. And while I loved splashing about in darkrooms for hours, frankly I haven’t got many hours left.

The M9 is a flawed camera and hopelessly outdated. On paper. However, it’s secretly a film camera. That’s because it’s limitations are clear and to get the best from the camera you must work within its limitations and not in spite of them. Then it rewards you handsomely. And really, isn’t that the basis of the whole analogue resurgence? And it’s monochrome output, if the ISO is kept below 800, is to my mind the digital equivalent of Tri-X. You see, I know what this camera does. When I pick it up I know, for instance, that I will not have pressed some obscure button and accidental changed the shooting mode. Everything is simply laid out, visible and accessible. It works. It doesn’t get in the way. I don’t have to spend hours prodding menu buttons to make it do what I want. So of course I’m thinking of selling it…

Mainly because I’m finding it ever harder to focus manually. But what to get? I’ve checked out the small compact competition and they are fine, with quick auto focusing and comparatively very cheap but compromised either by ergonomics, sensor size or physical lens size. The thing is, on the M9 the 35mm Summicron lens is tiny. Really, really tiny. The Q by comparison has a huge ugly lens on its front. And it’s too wide at 28mm. And it’s fixed. I’m not convinced enough yet to part with my beloved M9. And if I do, it might have to be another Leica. Beloved? Did I use the term ‘beloved?’ Oh dear, have I contracted the strangely communicable disease of Leicaphilia? As I said earlier at the beginning of this piece, what is going on? Or as our yoof might text, WTF?

Yes, I am more attached to this camera than I am to my other long held and venerable cameras. The M9 welcomes my hand, feels right, comfortable and reassuringly solid and dependable. As do my Nikons of course… But they, in the end, are more tools for technical photographic challenges, while the M9 is more a tool for the heart, for expressiveness and intimacy. For capturing the human experience. It facilitates creating photography of meaning. So of course, as with any favourite craftsman’s tool, it also captures the heart of the photographer. How could it not?