Category Archives: Leica Photographers

Which Leica Goes Best With My Filson Bag?

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Bag aficionados are a sorry bunch, even in the netherworld of gear heads. They demark the low-water mark of gear mania, about as far low as you can go in the world of photo dilettantism. Even I, incorrigible gearhead that I am, a guy who writes a blog dedicated to a brand of camera, which is itself a fairly acute form of gear mania, finds the luxury camera bag fetish unseemly. Admittedly, there’s no harm in it, just as there’s no accounting for the passions of otherwise reasonable men. As a passion, It certainly is less dangerous that racing motorcycles or jumping out of planes or cave diving or any of the other irrational enthusiasms grown men possess.

That being said – listen up, you guys rocking your M240 with the Noctilux and a pocket full of ND filters so you can shoot everything at full aperture for the amazing, creamy bokeh – Filson has the bag for you. Created, no less, by Magnum Pj’s, you know, the guys who patented the “Decisive Moment” (how cool is that ?!?). From the Filson website:

“Award-winning photojournalists David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry know that photography is about taking risks, getting close and being ready for anything. That’s why we worked with them to design photography bags for those who refuse to stay indoors. We combined the craftsmanship used to develop our rugged luggage with the decades-deep expertise of Harvey and McCurry to create durable camera bags built for use in the field.”

As for me, if I’m going to be “taking risks, getting close, refusing to stay indoors,” give me the oldest, most beat up, shittiest looking bag I can find. If it looks like I’ve got a 40 ounce in there, or if I’m using it to carry motor oil for my motorcycle, all the better. Or, better yet one of those beauties from China for $8, free shipping. The last thing I need is a designer bag with a designer label while i’m rocking $18,000 worth of Leica swag, getting close and taking risks.

Bruce Davidson and His Leicas

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Bruce Davidson’s Leicas

Bruce Davidson began taking photographs at the age of ten . After attending Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, he was drafted into the army and stationed near Paris. There he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. When he left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine and in 1958 became a full member of Magnum.  He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962 and documented the civil rights movement in America. In 1967, he received the first grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts, and used it to document the social conditions on one block in East Harlem. 

Q: Why do you like the Leica so much and why is it a great tool for what you do?

A: For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it’s small, it’s relatively light, quiet and unobtrusive. Modern reflexes look like sneakers; they don’t look like cameras. They look like something else from another world. That’s why I’ve always had Leicas in my life. For example, right now I’m thinking about doing something where I want to walk around. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet and that means Leica…

…most of my bodies of work from the circus photographs in 1958, the Brooklyn gangs and even the civil rights movement, the Leica worked because it’s quiet, mobile and has excellent optics. I remember during the civil rights movement, when I wasn’t sponsored, but on a fellowship, something happened to my Leica and I called Marty Forscher, the Leica repairman for all the professional photographers. He talked me through it and I fixed the camera myself on the road — which was pretty amazing.

I’d like to back up to the question “when did Leica come into your life?” It came into my life when I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). At that time, in the early 1950s, there were 140 students in the photography department, including two women. Of course, I was smitten by one of them and I was trying to court her. I met her at the women’s dorm in the living room sitting on a couch. She said, “I want to show you something.” She ran up to her room and came down with this huge book of photographs called The Decisive Moment, a collection of images by Cartier-Bresson, and we sat together looking through all of the amazing photographs. I had never seen anything like it. She said to me, “I really love this photographer.” So, I said to myself, “If I could take pictures like this guy maybe she will love me too.” So, I went out and spent all my monthly allowance on a used Leica. I actually tried to imitate the imagery of Cartier-Bresson. Of course, it didn’t work. The young female student ran off with a history professor, and I was left with Cartier-Bresson. That’s what started me off. I began to take street photographs.

Q: So how was it meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson when you were in Paris?

A: It all started when I went from RIT to working for Eastman Kodak. I had my own studio at Kodak, but I was bored so I decided to apply to Yale. I got in and took Yosef Albers’ color course. I then was drafted into the military and was sent to the Arizona desert. It was the most remote, isolated camp you could find — 7,000 feet up in the desert. I would hitchhike on weekends to Mexico to photograph bullfighters, and I made friends with Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter. While thumbing my way from the fort to the Mexican border, I came upon an old guy in a Model T Ford and I stopped him. The town was called Patagonia — really just a post office, a grocery store, a bar and a railroad site. And this old guy took me in and I lived with him on weekends. I forgot about the bullfighting and I just photographed this old couple with my Leica. That was my first full-bodied work and if you look at it closely today, it really predicts the way I would spend my life photographing.

Brooklyn Gang  Bruce Davidson

Q: Can you share the story about how you discovered the Brooklyn gang?

A: As I remember, there was a gang war going on that was all over the Daily News. I took the subway to Brooklyn, found the group and took color photographs of their wounds and bandages for their lawyers. That started my relationship with them and the rest is history. It was slow going in the winter months, but when they went to Coney Island in the summer, that’s where I took the most pictures….I think got in with them because I had a Leica. It was small, it was quiet and discrete, and it was simple. I would take pictures of them and then I would bring the pictures back to show them. I didn’t judge them. I wasn’t a social worker. I just photographed the mood of these teenagers — a street gang.

Garry Winogrand and His Leica M4….errr, M3?

imageSo, here’s a picture of Garry Winogrand with his famous M4, you know, the one he ran about 100,000 rolls through and generally beat the hell out of, the camera itself now somewhat of an icon. Except that, as alert Leicaphile Andrew Fishkin points out to me, the shutter advance lever is most definitely not an M4 lever, but rather the old style M2/3 full metal lever. So, given the presence of a dedicated exposure numbering  window next to the shutter release, this would appear to be an M3 as opposed to an M2. Whatever Winogrand was doing with an M3, well, we’ll never know.

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Winogrand’s M4

As for the lens, the more I look at it, it looks like a 21mm Super-Angulon and not the 28mm Elmarit he “always” shot with. So much for “what everybody knows” about Winogrand.

William Eggleston’s 300 Leicas

Eggleston with Leica

Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, in the early 1950’s. Of course, one thing led to another, Eggleston bought a Leica, became a massive Leicaphile and has never looked back. “I have about 300 right now,” he claims.

In addition to classic chrome Leicas, he owns rare, custom-painted Leicas in shades of blue, green and dark gray. His camera case—a leather briefcase bought at a Memphis shop and retrofitted in collaboration with a woodworker friend—is similarly customized.

He still photographs every day.  He takes only one photo of any subject, never taking a second shot of the same thing. Eggleston is currently archiving his negatives, approximately 1.5 million of them. “That’s a guess,” he says. “I haven’t really counted.”

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Magical Thinking and the Illusion of Continuity

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“With the introduction of a perpetual upgrade program, every LEICA M8 will forever be a state-of-the-art digital camera. Today’s and tomorrow’s users will always be able to incorporate the latest refinements and developments in handling ease and technology. It is our aim to secure your investment in the LEICA M8 for the future. While other digital cameras quickly become outdated and are replaced by newer models, our new concept extends the value retention and resistance to obsolescence embodied in the Leica ethos. Over time, we will gradually offer new product features and developments as upgrade options, declares Steven K. Lee, CEO of Leica Camera AG. Our customers can therefore still invest in the photographic tools they need without worrying that they will miss out on improvements and technological developments along the way.”

 

The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.

As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value  because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.

The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers,  at a pace in the rear of the digital pack.  This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.

Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.

The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.

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So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.

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Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I  he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.

Yevgeni Khaldei’s “Reichstag Leica” To Be Auctioned

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The camera used to take an iconic image that came to symbolize the Russian victory over Nazi Germany is to go on sale at auction this November in Hong Kong. Photographer Yevgeni Khaldei, who worked for the Soviet news agency TASS, shot the image of Russian soldiers waving the Hammer and Sickle flag from the top of the Reichstag using a Leica III, sometime after the building had been captured.yevgeni-khaldeis-leicaRussian Reichstag Dude

The camera, bearing the serial number 257492 is accompanied by an Elmar f/3.5 50mm lens with the serial number 471366 and is set to be auctioned on 30th November. Auctioneers Bonhams has set a guide price of $HK 3,000,000-4.500,000 (equivalent to £230,000-340,000 or $390,000-580,000).

Reichstag Camera

Jorge Fidel Alvarez: Street Photography With a Leica M Film Camera

WHN38-30Jorge Fidel Alvarez, Wuhan, China, 2014. Leica M6 and Tri-X.

Everybody does “street photography” these days. Go to Tumblr or Flicker and you’ll find reams of it posted day after day. Most of it is not very good, nothing but throwaway looks with no internal dynamic to make you look again. Just.people.on.the.street. Really good street photography somehow rises above the pedestrian view, revealing a greater narrative within a sliver of everyday life. There is always something surprising about it, something unexpected that draws your eye and makes you want to look again. It poses a question, draws you in for a second look, gives you a glimpse of something incongruous, something you don’t expect to see in the way you’re seeing it, inviting a unique interpretation for each idiosyncratic viewer.

Take the above photograph by Jorge Fidel Alvarez: A man, presumably, with a bizarre mask stands facing the camera, something decorative hanging over where he stands; his demeanor unreadable, maybe slightly menacing.  The scene radiates something indefinably sinister. An elderly Chinese woman stands in the background, smoking, staring at either the masked man or the western photographer. I wonder: who in her mind is normal, and who is exotic?  The photo fascinates me, but I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at, so I look at it again and fashion a narrative to fit what I think I see. The photo suggests various interpretations; its up to me, the viewer, to work it out for myself. (The masked man is actually a welder using a homemade steel mask, which, after the stories we’ve told ourselves, almost seems irrelevant).

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Good street photographers shoot a lot. The father of modern street photography, Garry Winogrand, using a Leica M4 film camera, shot over 12,000 rolls of film between 1971 and his death in 1984. When he died at the age of 56 he left over 6500 undeveloped rolls of film. Winogrand’s heirs, today’s street photographers, work in a digital age where photographs are cheap and ubiquitous, easier than ever to take, store and share. With the advent of camera phones, public resistance to strangers with cameras in public places has lessened. Yet exceptional street photographs remain as rare in the digital age as in Winogrand’s day. And almost no one shoots the street with film anymore. The ease of digital capture makes street shooting with film a proposition for only the most dedicated and hardcore film fanatics.  So I’m fascinated when I see great street work done on film. Jorge Fidel Alvarez is a great street photographer, and he works with film.

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Alvarez is a French photographer living in Paris. He is a 2004 graduate of SPEOS, Paris, where he studied under Georges Fèvre (master printer for Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka, among others). The Institut Culturel Français en Chine (The  French Cultural Institute in China) recently invited Alvarez to Wuhan, China to shoot that city’s streets and exhibit the resulting work at the New World International Trade Center in Wuhan. The plan was simple: fly Alvarez to Wuhan for nine days of shooting whatever caught his eye, back to Paris for two weeks to process, select and print his work, and then back to Wuhan to exhibit 20 prints,, opening reception May 29, show to run through June 12. (details)

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Jorge Fidel Alvarez, May 29, 2014, New World International Trade Center, Wuhan, China

Alvarez, who uses digital for his paying work as an architectural photographer, chose to use a Leica M4 and M6, with 25mm and 35mm lenses, while in Wuhan. (At least one Chinese reviewer found his choice of “antique cameras” memorable.) He shot 70 rolls of 36 exposure Tri-X over the course of 9 days.

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Alvarez, who has been shooting the street since the 80’s when he bought his first Leica, took up professional photography comparatively late, after a first career in IT. He has carefully studied the work of other photographers – his Paris flat’s bookshelves are lined with the work of European masters Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Koudelka, Lartigue, Doisneau, Frank. In 2003, enrolled in the photography curriculum at SPEOS Paris, he discovered the American Garry Winogrand. Alvarez’s mature work can hint at the European formalism of Cartier-Bresson and Boubat, and one see’s as well the more spontaneous elements of Frank, Daido Moriyama and Winogrand- but his vision is unmistakably his own, a fascinating amalgamation fusing the poise and balance of a studied, mannered aesthetic with the arbitrary and instantaneous.

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