Category Archives: Leica M3

Memento Mori: Ohno Tsuneya, Oct 9, 1937 – Dec 23, 2017

Post-War children watching kamishibai in 1955 – from Human Symphony: The Photo Exhibition of Tanuma Takeyoshi, from the exhibition catalogue. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. 2004.

By Shuya Ohno

[Editor’s Note: This was sent to me by reader Shuya Ohno as a beautifully designed PDF presentation. Unfortunately, I’m not sophisticated enough to publish the PDF as received, so I’ve reformatted it for publication. It’s a loving tribute from a son to a father and how that father passed his love of photography – and a Leica M3 – to his son.]

My father – Ohno Tsuneya – was born into a peaceful small town in the hilly countryside of Saitama prefecture, a few hours by train from Tokyo. His hometown, Chichibu, nestled among small mountains provided an ideal playground for a young mind to explore fields of wildflowers filled with insects, forests reverberating with cicadas all summer, and brooks and streams with nymphs, tadpoles, crayfish, and minnows. In town, he gathered with other schoolchildren on Sundays and spent his pocket change on candy so he could listen to the local kamishibai busker tell stories with his hand-painted pictures depicting fantastical illustrations of ghouls and heroes.

Like any boy during that time, he played baseball – that American import that’s also quintessentially Japanese. Like me, my father was slight in build, tall and lanky. Not athletic but loved to hike, ski, and explore. When the fever of war swept across the country, my father like all the young boys his age were indoctrinated at school to defend the motherland, and with their spindly arms taught to hold and wield bamboo poles as spears to poke at straw effigies of enemy soldiers.

My father in baseball uniform. Date and photographer unknown.

As the youngest of four siblings, my father had freedom to play. His father, a local politician, was a man of airs and appetites, a connoisseur who raised renowned hunting dogs that he had imported from Scotland. All the filial duties and expectations to succeed fell on my uncle, my father’s elder brother who my father no doubt worshiped.

WWII and the devastation of the country left Japan with per capita income less than that of India at the time. Late in the war, Tokyo in a single firebombing raid saw over 100,000 civilians killed, over a million homeless. Food was scarce. My mother’s mother sold off kimonos to buy rice, and sewed the rice into blankets to smuggle from the countryside to Tokyo for family. My father’s mother had to smuggle rice from more rural areas back to Chichibu. After the war, Japan threw itself into the long arduous task of rebuilding the country and society. My grandfather Ohno Tetsu died in 1950, during the American occupation of Japan. He was 46 years old.

My grandfather (second from right) with his prized hunting dogs. Date and photographer unknown.

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My uncle Ohno Mitsuya, boarding steamer to travel to San Francisco from Tokyo Bay. He is flanked by his two sisters, my aunts Noriko (left) and Kazuko (right). My father is in the back, second from left. Date and photographer uncertain.

My uncle Ohno Mitsuya sailed to the US to study journalism at the University of San Francisco. He never returned. Suffering from Marfan’s syndrome, he died presumably of a burst aortic aneurysm. He was only 23 years old. My father was still a teenager – and was now the only man of the house.

He came out to Tokyo to study at 9 years old, and eventually went on to study medicine at Jikei Medical University – the school he would later return to as a researcher and professor. He met my mother, Taniguchi Makiko when he was a student, bicycling across town to see her.

My mother was born on the first day of summer in 1940 in Tokyo, though her family hailed proudly from Kagoshima, the southern holdout of the last of the samurai. Her father Taniguchi Eizo served in the capital as an attorney for the City of Tokyo. During the war, her family fled to the countryside near Hiroshima after their house in Tokyo was firebombed. Eizo continued to work in Tokyo. On August 6th, 1945 my mother was 5 years old, playing when she and her mother saw a flash in the sky in the distance – it was the first atomic explosion and the end of the war. Eizo did his legal duty and served as a defense attorney during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The Taniguchi family: From left, my mother, Makiko, held by her sister Hamako, sister Hiroko, her mother Emi, younger brother Masamitsu, father Eizo, and sister Fusako.

Like my father’ father, Ohno Tetsu, my mother’s father Taniguchi Eizo died in 1950. He was 56 years old.

My father was 13, my mother was 10 years old when they lost their fathers. My mother’s mother, Emi, died after struggling with severe depression for eight years. My parents came of age without having a father in their lives.

My father hiking.
My mother’ student portrait.

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My father loved photography – the art, the activity, the ritual, the tools. One of the last times he and I shared an outing was a brisk February Sunday in 2004, a day before my 38th birthday. We spent the afternoon at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to see a retrospective of Tanuma Takeyoshi.The exhibit spanned 60 years of Tanuma’s career, beginning with images of post-War children in Tokyo from 1949 that he took as a young apprenticing photojournalist.

In 1956, the Family of Man exhibition came to Tokyo. Tanuma was inspired by this exhibition and went to see it again and again. So did my father. The exhibition is still regarded as a grand undertaking, 503 photographs from 68 countries – its magnitude matched only by its own hubris and that of its curator, the photographer Edward Steichen.

My father, Michi, and me on Bear Mountain.

However naïve it may seem today, the driving aspirations and ethos of the exhibit, to capture and encompass humanity in its multitudes as a single connected family, was situated firmly in the liberal ideology of its time, reflected in the contemporaneously articulated charter of the United Nations:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and… to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

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My father before a camping trip, camera ready at his hip.

The post-war Japanese intellectual of the late-Twentieth Century was an amalgam of times and cultures. Adorned with a black beret or a bucket hat, tucked into a turtleneck, the aficionado of culture and the cool connoisseur of consumer goods practiced as an amateur naturalist, a hobbyist polymath, and a citizen of the world. Simultaneously Modern and Romantic, the intellectual eccentric saw himself as hero, like a Sherlock Holmes – a Victorian avatar that still stubbornly abides in Japan.

It is not surprising then that my father left us in the United States and returned to Japan. He had brought us, my mother and my brothers, Shinya and Michiyuki to the US when I was 6 years old. My parents remained a married couple – we were still a family – just separated by 13 time zones and 6,740 miles. He left when I was 14. I had worshiped him until then.

Family portrait with Christmas tree. Shot with a self-timer in our apartment in Fort Lee, NJ. ca. 1974

Throughout my high school days, I felt his absence, and filled it with rage. I was angry at myself for feeling angry toward my father – I felt like I was desecrating some sacred filial code. I drove my mother crazy, at times to tears. She deserved none of it. It took me into adulthood until I stopped following in his footsteps and abandoned science, until I worked feverishly making art, and then making social justice change that I felt relieved of my anger, forgiving my father and accepting and understanding him. He never saw it as abandonment, just a temporary necessity dictated by his work ethic. My mother eventually joined him after Michi graduated from Rutgers. Michi was perhaps the most American of us for having grown up in the US since he was 3 years old, but he too went to settle back in Tokyo.

Me at 17, Nara Japan
Me in my senior year of High School, 1984.

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My father taking a photograph with his Nikormat at a Bicentennial rooftop party. Photo by his close friend and colleague, Raymond Sweet. NYC, July 4th, 1976.

I inherited my father’s 1956 Leica M3 (#831611). It’s not that he bequeathed it to me. I claimed it a couple of days after he passed away. I like to believe he would have set it aside for me – but perhaps he meant to sell it. I didn’t know this M3 existed until I was rummaging through his cabinet of classic cameras, divvying up the collection between my brothers and myself. It was not a camera I had ever seen him use. He used a Nikormat while we all lived in the US. He gave that camera to my brother Shinya. My father used a black Leica M6 after that. But I knew what the M3 meant to him. We had years ago discussed its lineage and its reputation as the pinnacle of craft and industrialization, the greatest camera of the 20th century.

Industrialization and the availability of the easy point and shoot 35mm camera became a turning point for the modern world. Susan Sontag in her seminal essay, “Photography,” first published in the New York Review of Books in 1973 presaged my father’s relationship to his camera.

“The very activity of taking pictures is soothing,” she wrote, “and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.” For my family, it was not travel but immigration in 1972 – jarring and alienating. Language proficiency, or rather its lack, always kept my father a little apart from interactions, a little behind in conversations. I could always see his desire to drop the bon mot, the jokes and puns he had in his head, if only he had mastery over English the way he had over Japanese. Instead, he had his camera. Sontag continued, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.” It is a fine instrument for capturing and collecting moments but also a tool for defense.

Her essay is still incisive, perhaps more so with the advent of the cellphone. “People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture-takers, at home and abroad. Everyone who lives in an industrialized society is obliged gradually to give up the past, but in certain countries, such as the United States and Japan, the break with the past has been particularly traumatic.” Migration only exacerbates this break.

For the last two years of his life, my father was bed-ridden in the hospital. He was intubated and then given a tracheotomy, taking his voice. By the end, he lost his desire to communicate, left his thick glasses by the bed and no longer cared if he could see.

My parents at Jikei University Hosptial. My father had undergone an aortic valve replacement surgery. Complications post-surgery kept him in the hospital for two years until his passing. My mother visited him every day. I took this photo with my father’s M6. 2015

I inherited from my father, not only his camera, but also his adulation for what he glimpsed in that Family of Man exhibit – a vision of humanity suffused with dignity and love for all people, an exaltation of the everyday, the celebration of the common person, and the democratization of art

​Now I strive to take photographs that express my love for the world. And every time I pick up the M3, every time I press the shutter, it is a continuing conversation with my father. The viewfinder of this old camera is his eyes, as I ask him, “Do you see? Do you see?”

My wife, Medhanit Tekle with two local children in Aksum, Ethiopia. 2018. We were married 6 months after my father’s passing. I took this during our honeymoon with the Leica M3.

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All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag.

Miles Davis and His M3

Miles Davis and Leica

Miles Davis At Newport 1958. Miles with his Leica M3.

Miles Davis was a musical genius. ‘Genius’ is one of those designations that gets massively overused ( I just read a book on Garry Winogrand wherein he’s repeatedly referred to as a “genius”). It applies to Davis. He single-handily created a number of jazz idioms- cool jazz, bebop, fusion, and mentored many quartet era jazz greats – Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter. Like all geniuses, he wasn’t afraid to fail, and some of his stuff, especially his later ’70s era fusion work, seemed strained on arrival, a repudiation of much he had done in the ’40s through the brilliance of the ’60s, although in hindsight, some of it works in a way hard to recognize at the time. But the best of it – The late ’50s Coltrane Quintets, the early ’60s Shorter Quintets, the brilliant fusion of his 1970 Bitches Brew– is transcendently sui generous, stunningly one-of-a-kind in a way unlike anything else produced before or since.

If you buy one ‘real’ jazz album in your life ( as opposed to the dumbed-down muzik played on elevators and restaurants), I suggest his 1959 Kind of Blue, featuring Davis’s ensemble sextet of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. So beautiful it will make you weep. In 2003 it was ranked #12 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in any musical genre, a list compiled by influential 20th-century musicians, critics and producers. You know you’re good when your peers universally recognize your genius.

Miles Davis and Leica

His autobiography. Miles, is a remarkable read. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a jazz fan. It’s a fascinating study of the artistic psyche. Davis was raised in an upper-class black family – his father was a medical doctor – and Miles was classically educated both in music and the humanities. He was a man of great talent but also an elegant man of great style and sophistication, supremely confident in himself and his ability, as he should have been. But the shit he put up with as a black man in a white man’s world beggars belief. Conventional ’40s and ’50s white America treated him as an “uppity nigger” who didn’t recognize his place; Davis refused to play the game. Throughout, he coupled smoldering anger at ignorant, self-important white critics with a detached dignity that infuriated much of the jazz public. While relentlessly criticized for constant innovation, in retrospect he moved the jazz idiom along in necessary ways. He was both a fascinating artist and human being.

When asked about his Leica Miles claimed he knew little about it; as for his technical acumen, he just used the settings the man in the shop had shown him. I love that. Like his music, straight to the essence, no pretense.

The Leica as An Investment

A Two Page 1973 Leica Advertisement

I ran across this 1973 ad for the Leica M5 and the Leicaflex SL and started thinking about the relative value of Leicas over time and how that value manifests itself today. Many of us consider our Leicas as ‘investments’ in the sense that it’s a pretty safe place to park some cash with the understanding that you’ll be able to get most, or all, or even more, out of it when you sell it. It’s a way I justify buying Leicas to my wife: we could either park an extra 3 grand in our bank account, serving no practical purpose except collecting chicken scratch for interest, or we could ‘invest’ it in the purchase of a Leica, a thing I’ll use and handle and admire and get some practical satisfaction from. I’ll take photos with it and it will inspire me to write about it on the blog. I’ll either like it or I won’t, but I’ll have the experience of having owned it, used it, better understood and appreciated it. And then, if we need the money again, I’ll sell it to a Leicaphilia reader and usually break even. Voila! Money put to good use. And a reader gets a decent deal on a decent camera that they know they can trust. What’s not to like? Of course, Leica could help me circumvent this process by sending me a camera or two to test, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. Who knows? Surprise me, Leica. I promise you an honest review.

The first thing that struck me was how expensive, in real terms, the M5 was in relation to the Leica models that had come before. If you run the purchase price numbers given by Leica through an inflation calculator, you’ll come up with the equivalent amount of circa 2021 dollars that purchase price represents. So, for example, buying a Leica Model II d in 1939 for $100 was the equivalent of paying $1900 for it in today’s dollar; a IIIg in 1958 for $163 would be the equivalent of paying $1467 for it today ( interestingly enough, the Professional Nikon, the Nikon SP, with a 50mm Nikkor f/1.4, sold in 1958 for today’s equivalent of $3,000); today an M3 would cost new $2373, the M4 $2320. Expensive, but not prohibitively so. The M5 body, were it sold today, would cost $3663. That’s a big increase in price over the iconic M3 and M4. With a decent Leitz 50mm Summilux (the lens it’s wearing in the Leica advert), it’d cost you >$6000 in today’s money. So, Leicas were pricey even back then. And the M5, now the unloved ugly duckling selling at a discount to the M2-M7, commanded a premium price over the iconic M2, M3 and M4.

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Nikon Price Guide From 1976: Click on it to enlarge it and open it up in a new tab

It also gives us some sense of why the M5 might have ‘failed’ in the market [arguable, but that’s a discussion for another time], as opposed to its failure as an evolution of the M system [which it most certainly was not]. In addition to being technically deficient as a pro ‘system’ camera (based on the inherent drawbacks of a rangefinder) in relation to the Nikon F2 and Canon Ftn, it cost a fortune. To compare, a Nikon F2 Photomic with 50mm Nikkor 1.4, then the state-of-the-art, retailed for $600, although in actuality it sold out-the-door for maybe $500. The M5, you paid full price. Throw in $350 for a Summilux. In today’s money, that means buying a new Nikon F2 with 50mm 1.4 Nikkor in 1973 would set you back $3100, while an M5 with a 50mm 1.4 Summilux in 1973 would cost the equivalent of $6070 today. The M5 with lens was essentially double the price of the top shelf Pro Nikon with lens, which was then the professional’s system of choice.

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What do they go for today? You can sell the M5 and Summilux you bought in 1973 today, almost 50 years later, for +/- $3500. It’s probably going to need a going-over by one of the few techs who still work on the M5 – Sherri Krauter, DAG, one or two others, but that’s the buyer’s problem, not yours. Not a bad return for a camera you’ve used for 48 years. An M4 body, purchased in 1969 for $2300 will fetch you $1500-$1800; a single stroke M3 $1300-$1500; a Leica II d you paid $1900 for in 1939, today, you’ll you get +/- $300. Not exactly a prudent “investment” if you’re looking for a return on your money, but certainly excellent resale value of something you’ve used for half to three/quarters of a century. Like most things Leica, what appears crazy can in reality be quite prudent. Taking it all into consideration, buying a Leica is, moneywise, pretty much a smart idea.

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?

The Last M3 Ever Made….

…is currently for sale on Ebay for $395,000. Payable by Paypal.

“The last Leica M3 and “Newest” Leica M3 made. Production serial No. 1164865. UNIQUE, RARE, OUTSTANDING and SPECTACULAR in every respect!From the last and smallest batch of 20 cameras made in 1966, this being the FINAL and LAST camera of the production line and the final termination of THE GREATEST RANGEFINDER camera EVER MADE if not THE GREATEST CAMERA ever made.A true historical find and in NEW condition, NEVER USED, IN NEW condition as it left the factory more than 60 YEARS ago!
With the original matching serial No. service card and (red + white ) rope that came with the camera, box, foam fittings, caps and allNEW! condition with the original untouhed “L” seal.Along with letters of authenticity from Leica, special order request, original matching order # from the original owner in 1968, receipt and additional letter from Leica to reiterate the authenticity of this camera. “

Seriously. Would you pay $400k for a Leica M3? And if you would, would you think of buying it on Ebay?

So Much Yes

Yes, I know this is satire, But still. It’s brilliant. I’d love to have this guy do some videos for Leicaphilia.

If you follow it back to YouTube, be sure to peruse the comments, which are almost as good as the video.

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This one? Satire? I’m not sure; it appears to be nothing more than a cute kid trying out film photography. Nothing wrong with that. In any event, Lindsey’s Grandpa sure has a nice M3:

On a related note, is there something inherent in Leica film cameras that compels new users to go to cafes to take pictures?

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Next, a sometimes literate, sometimes rapturous ode to the “Best Camera Ever Made.” While it’s easy to be smug and have a chuckle at their expense, I do like these kids’ enthusiasm, and I suspect I was probably much like them at that age. That being said, enjoy the video….just don’t be a “Hatter” :

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Finally, this from “professional photographer” Kenneth Wajda. Let me preface this by saying: Mr. Wajda seems a nice man and I’m sure he’s a very competent photographer, probably infinitely more competent with a camera than me. He seems the sort of guy I could share a beer  with and learn a thing or two from. But, Dear Lord, there’s something unsettling to me about this, something undeniably disturbing about the whole thing from an existential perspective. Is that how I come across on Leicaphilia? Is this what I’ve been doing for the past five years? Is this me? If so, my apologies. Just shoot me now.

[ADDENDUM: I owe Mr. Wajda an apology. What was meant as harmless fun I realize now was a cheap shot at him. I’m all for taking cheap shots at deserving subjects, but, from all indications, Mr. Wajda is doing a great job of sharing his passion for photography and educating folks in the process. He deserves better than some fool on the internet making fun of him.]

Leica M3 #1097779 and the Principle of Falsification

Having had published this blog for a few years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of interesting, knowledgeable folks who know a lot about Leica film cameras. Happy to say that I’ve been the beneficiary of more than a few person’s knowledge and expertise, in the form of advice given, life experiences recounted, expertise freely and gladly shared. I’ve taken advantage of the blog to sell cameras and lenses to readers, never an unpleasant experience among the many transactions. Suffice it to say that Leicaphilia readers seem to be good, decent people sharing a love of Leica film cameras and happy to do the right thing when dealing with others similarly situated.

One of the benefits of the blog is that I’ll frequently receive inquiries from people I don’t know, asking me about a camera or lens they’ve inherited or been given, and it’s always fun to help them identify what they have and often tell them they might have a few thousand dollars worth of equipment in hand, especially when they’ve previously been pitched a ridiculously low-ball offer by a friend, family member or local camera dealer. Invariably, they go away happy, armed with a fair assessment of the worth of what they have and grateful for the help.

A few weeks ago I received the following email inquiry from a guy in Alabama, name and exact location not really relevant at this time:

Sir, I came into possession of a Leica M3 a few years ago after my father in law passed. It appears never used, has multiple lenses, and some paperwork. The camera serial number is 1097779. From what I have been able to research online, there appears to be a wide valuation range, especially with the lenses. Can you provide an estimate or recommend a reputable appraiser for these items? I am happy to provide pictures of the camera and lenses. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Interesting: a late-run M3, apparently “never used,” with a bunch of lenses. Could be worth something. So,  I did what I’d usually do; I went to the appropriate source and ran the serial number given as a preliminary matter, and ….Holy Shit! did I read that right?….M3 #1097779 falls within one of the last 150 camera runs of factory produced Black Paint M3’s. If it’s genuine, this could be a very valuable camera. And it comes with “multiple lenses and some paperwork.” Yup…send me pictures. Send me a bunch of pictures.

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Above are a a few of the pictures sent back to me in response, pictures of what is obviously a Black Paint M3 with serial number appropriate for the claim. At first glance, and taking into consideration the relatively poor quality of the pictures, yes, it looks in damn good condition, possibly “never used”; as for the lenses, they all have their own boxes, apparently with matching serial numbers, at least one of them is black paint (the Tele-Elmarit 135 f4) and there’s some documentation about the provenance of the camera.

Back to the appropriate sources for reliable information on recent auction sales of legit Black Paint M3’s – and my research indicates that there is ample reason to assume the M3 body itself, without any of the lenses, might fetch in the neighborhood of +/- $40,000. I’ve found evidence of sales of legit Black Paint M3’s into the +$60,000 range.

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I’ve spoken with the owner at length, told him what I’ve repeated here, and am assisting him in proceeding in a manner that protects his ability to sell the camera and lenses for a legitimate price, without being screwed by unscrupulous “friends,” dealers or scammers. Luckily his wife, the daughter of the guy who purchased the camera back in the 60’s, recently turned down an offer of $3000 for the lot, rightfully deciding to make further inquiry about the value of the lot prior to making any decisions. She has numerous student loans to repay. Hence, the email to me.

I suppose the whole thing could be an elaborate scam – I’m not above being naturally suspicious in such instances; it could be an elaborate ruse cooked up by the likes of Third Man Cameras which I’ve documented recently. But everything about my interactions with the owner indicates legitimacy. The serial number matches a recognized run of Black Paint M3’s. The story behind the camera has the ring of truth. So: I’d like help from the collective wisdom of my readership: anything that looks out of place or doesn’t add up? I’d love your input.

People make decisions about what they’ll believe in two different ways. Most folks, uncritical thinkers, make an assumption and then go looking for facts that admit the assumption true. It’s a thought process that attempts to rationalize a flimsily supported belief by cherry-picking data that support the belief while willfully ignoring contradictory evidence, and it’s what scam artists rely on to hook you. You want a black paint M3, you see one with all the documentation being sold on Ebay – ‘Certificates of Authenticity’, Bills of Sale to a guy named Busby Catanach in Wisconsin, appropriate boxes and pamphlets, some cock-and-bull story about buying it from a guy at a garage sale – it all looks good because you want to believe, so you buy it for $21,000 on Ebay, which is a steal!…and you invariably find out later, if at all, that you’ve gotten screwed. Of course the seller knows nothing. This is the Third Man Camera business model. A sucker truly is born every few minutes.

Critical thinkers only make provisional assumptions until those assumptions have been tested by a process of skepticism.  In dealing with a question like this, they’ll adopt a provisional assumption provisionally supported by the known facts – it’s legit, let’s say – and then look for reasons that might falsify the assumption. Find reasons that don’t fit. If you look and look and look, and everything still fits, it’s a good bet your provisional assumption is correct. This is how good science operates – via the principle of “falsification.” If you can’t falsify a proposition no matter how hard you try, the proposition is probably true,

I’ve been unable to find anything in all this that leads me to believe this M3 is anything but a legit, pristine Black Paint M3, part of a batch of 150 produced by Leitz in 4/64. Anybody see anything I’m missing?

 

Why Do “New” Leica Film Camera Owners Always Seem to Want the M3?

A Leica M3. A Beautiful Camera, No Doubt

It’s a question I’m increasingly asking myself. It seems rather predictable these days: prospective first time Leica film camera owners fixate upon the M3 as their entree into Leica film camera ownership. Granted, find one in decent condition and it’s a wonderful camera, exemplifying all the characteristics associated with the hand-built fully mechanical M’s. And, of course, it’s iconic, the original Leica M, with a quarter million production run between its introduction in 1954 and its replacement with the M4 in 1966. But, if you’re considering buying an iconic mechanical M film camera, and assuming you’re going to want to use it to produce photographs as opposed to propping it up on a shelf somewhere, is it really the best choice?

If you want an “iconic” all mechanical film Leica M, you have 3 choices: the M3, the M2, or the M4. (I’m not going to even debate the relative merits of the LTM Leica IIIg, introduced by Leitz in 1957 as the culmination of the venerable Barnack screw-mount line. That’s a discussion for another day.) Starting with the M5, Leica incorporated metering into the M line, necessitating a battery but, more importantly, setting in motion the incremental increases in ergonomic complexity that led to the anti-iconic electronic M7. The M5 and M6, both metered, both excellent cameras, in my mind don’t qualify as “iconic” – just try to picture Henri Cartier-Bresson using an M5 or M6 to take the picture of that guy jumping over the puddle behind the Gare du Nord.  Enough said.

As for the M4-2 and M4-P, both non-metered all mechanical M’s, purists argue they ‘really’ weren’t legitimate M’s but rather stop-gap cost-cutting throwbacks used by Leitz to buy time while they figured out what to do about the M line post-M5 debacle. At the very least, it’s a truism that neither camera was aimed at, or appealed to, the working photographer. If your goal is to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, then the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both it and the M4-P just look cheap, the M4-2 with a tacky “Leitz” logo stamped onto the top-plate; the M4-P with the same stamped logo and also a hideous red dot on the front vulcanite. Yuck. And they both continued the unfortunate trend, started with the M5 and brought down through the M lineage to this day, of stamping the “Leica” and the M designation on the front of the faceplate, an unnecessary cluttering up of the camera’s simple lines, with the result being the start of the now well-established practice of showing your hard-core Leicaphile cred by taping these over with black tape. Finally, there’s the recent all mechanical MP, an admirable attempt by Leica to maintain the iconic M profile in the digital age, but alas, too expensive and without any vintage cred.

Neither of these are “iconic” Leica Film Cameras

So, we’re left with the M2 and M4 as alternatives to the M3. The M2, prospective owners might think, would have come before the M3, but they’d be wrong. The M2 was first offered for sale in 1958, four years after the introduction of the M3, intended to be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the M3. There were some cost-cutting features vis a vis the M3: the exposure counter was an exposed dial you reset by hand as opposed to the M3’s auto-reset windowed counter, and Leitz found a way to cut production costs of its viewfinder in relation to the costs of the M3 viewfinder; but, the M2 viewfinder is main reason many working photographers opted for the M2 over the M3, and I would argue it’s also the reason the M2 remains the preferable alternative if you’re a first time Leica Film camera owner.

This One Certainly Is

The results of long experience with M’s by serious photographers seems to have confirmed the belief that the true “native” focal length for the 35mm rangefinder camera is a 35mm lens, itself a perfect combination of focal width with “normal” perspective. The 50mm focal length, especially when used on a rangefinder, seems just a bit too narrow, a bit too restricted in venues like enclosed low-light spaces where M’s have traditionally been most effective. The downside of the M3 is its .91 viewfinder magnification, a life-size magnification perfect for using a 50mm Noctilux, Summicron or Elmar and longer 90 and 135mm lenses but too narrow to use with a 35mm focal length without auxiliary finder. Hence the M2 with .72 magnification viewfinder allowing native framelines for 35/50/90 focal lengths – offered by Leitz a few years after the introduction of the M3 – as much a response to the limitations of the M3 as it was a “reduced-cost” alternative.  It’s no coincidence that the M2 became the M of choice for working photographers using Leicas in the 1960s. It was, and remains, the more practical alternative if your interest is using the camera.

Which brings us to the M4, produced by Leitz from 1967 to 1970 (marginal production as well from 71-75 when the M5 was also being offered as the first metered M). It retains the native .72 magnification viewfinder of the M2 with a bunch of incremental improvements: a 135mm brightline frame in addition to the 35/50/90 M2 trio, a really cool-looking angled cranked film rewind in place of the M2/M3’s fiddly lift-up knob that took forever to rewind a film roll, a faster 3 prong “rapid loading” (!) take up spool, and it was offered in black chrome, a much more durable finish than the black paint M2’s and M3’s that looked like crap after a few months of intense use.

Now THIS is a Real M4: Not bunged up with tacky logos or Red Dots, and not dumbed down to a price point

What I really love about the M4 is its solidity and refinement. To me it feels even more solid yet refined than does the M3. It’s a non-metered M with all the kinks worked out. It is the last iconic M (The M5 being ignored for the moment because of its unique form factor) that truly embodies all the virtues of the Leitz hand-assembled bodies. It is to the non-metered M line what the IIIg is to the Barnack line – the model line’s most refined and sophisticated representation. Were I to choose one Leica M body that most closely met the criteria of a useable iconic M, it would be the M4. Give me mine in black chrome please.