[First published in the original, now long gone, Camera & Darkroom magazine. The original date of publication is lost to history—or at least it's good and buried—but it was some time before '94, in the era of the M6, well before the introduction of the M7 and far before the first digital Leica. (UPDATE: It was 1992.) My feelings about Leica have cycled up and down over the years, but were on an uptick when I wrote this. —MJ]
By Mike Johnston
"On peut faire n'importe quoi avec le Leica."
(One can do anything with a Leica.)
Photography is beset by a peculiar affliction, in that utterly necessary to its practice is what nineteenth-century commentators called the "magic black box," which in its most basic form is "a light-tight chamber with a hole in it." The hole has long since been replaced by a lens, and the chamber (in Latin the word is, of course, "camera") has over the years of its evolution been crammed full of, and surrounded by, of all manner of refinements both mechanical and electronic. It remains impossible to design and build a perfect camera; which means, of course, that humans keep trying, and the fruits of their attempts has been an endless succession of fascinating gadgets. So, side-by-side with the class of people who might be called "photographers," there has also arisen a type of people who are, first and foremost, lovers of cameras.
The two are often confused; the fact that the most detached and dedicated photographic artist must pay some attention to his equipment, paralleled by the fact that the most refractory equipment fanatic is also likely to take some pictures, only blurs the boundaries still further. No painter ever made such a big deal over his brushes, though, no sculptor his chisels, as the fuss we photographers and photography enthusiasts tend to make over our cameras.
In some ways this makes sense. Cameras can be delightful objects, extraordinary mechanical devices, historical artefacts, works of art or miracles of workmanship. Like a beautiful watch or a piece of jewelry, such things can give pleasure, all on their own, quite apart from their functional usefulness (or lack of it). Furthermore, a camera at its best is an intimate tool, and by its nature will help set the parameters of its user's working methods, even influence the type and the style of its user's finished work. And sometimes they can even insinuate themselves in their owners' hearts, like pet cats.
Still, cameras are ultimately only tangentially—one might even claim incidentally—connected to the significance of most photographs, no more closely than the pen is connected to a poem. The "peculiar affliction" I mentioned earlier derives from the fact that a substantial percentage of people who love photography evidently don't care a whole lot about photographs, other than their own. But many of them care a great deal about cameras. At the worst, the camera is in that case reduced to a fetish, a status symbol, or an appliance or convenience, like an electric toothbrush or the kitchen clock.
But at the highest reaches of the field there are two opposing currents: the camera collector, whose interest and passion is centered on the camera as both object d'art and historical artifact; and the master photographer, whose interest and passion is centered on making pictures which embody the best of which he or she is capable.
The area where these two groups overlap is understandably quite small. But at the locus where these two great opposing tendencies most exactly converge, there sits (upon a pedestal, one might say, backed by roiling clouds and lit by bolts of lightning) a single device, a camera of lore and legend: the fabled Leica M.
Although the Leica was not strictly the first 35mm camera, the Leica and 35mm still photography arose more or less simultaneously. The Leica’s inventor, Oskar Barnack, could not in his wildest fantasies have imagined the reach and extent of some of the design decisions he made in those days before the Great War, when he cobbled together a device for running exposure tests on common movie film (the first of two Ur-Leicas, now arguably the most valuable cameras on Earth). The size of the film itself was destined to become the worldwide standard for still photography. The shape of the rectangle, determined when Barnack simply doubled the standard 18mm x 24mm movie frame in order to eke a little more picture quality out of his little camera and to change the orientation of the rectangle relative to the film path, has since become the most recognizable proportion in all of still photography, familiar at a glance. Even the longtime "standard" focal length of the lens for the format—50mm—was selected by him (although the earliest prototype Ur-Leica has a 40mm lens, according to the British Leica technician Malcolm Taylor, who was engaged by Leica to clean and restore the priceless relic). Had Barnack known all that, perhaps he would have done some things differently—at the very least, bequeathed to us a better-proportioned rectangle!
He did well enough as it was, of course. Barnack entered into an agreement with the microscope manufacturing firm owned by Ernst Leitz, and in the uncertain year of 1924 the LEItz CAmera went into production. Before WWII there were some great photographers who specialized in Leica photography—Alfred Eisenstadt and Alexander Rodchenko are two names which come readily to mind—but the camera, in those days of TLRs and 4x5 press cameras, was essentially considered a contemptible toy, extreme and eccentric, dismissed among pros as "miniature." Then, in 1951, a group of Korean War photojournalists led by David Douglas Duncan discovered some remarkably sharp screw-mount lenses for the Leica made by a Japanese optical company recovering from the ravages of war, and excitedly began to carry the secret to other photographers. The company was Nippon Kogaku—Nikon—today perhaps the most respected camera company in the world. In Germany, Leitz responded by redoubling its concentration on optics with a doggedness that continues to this day, as well as, in 1954, introducing the single biggest redesign of the Leica made thus far in the company’s 77-year history: the M3, still the classic M camera and one of the most purely elegant devices ever made for taking pictures. (The Leica expert Erwin Puts detailed the designers of the M3: "Willi Stein designed the camera, the rangefinder is from Stein and Ludwig Leitz, the finder optics are from Heinrich Schneider and Willi Keiner, the M bayonet is from Hugo Wehrenfennig.") That same year, in America, Eastman Kodak introduced a revolutionary new high-speed film, which (following as it did on the heels of Super XX, or double-X) it called Tri-X.
35mm photography had come of age.
For a while, every camera company extant, including the upstart Nikon, wanted to be like Leitz. The amazing profusion of Leica copies is still keeping collectors busy and happy today. It was to be a scant five years before the introduction of the first significant Japanese SLRs, and a scant decade, perhaps (history seldom gives us precise beginnings or endings), before the SLR gained such momentum that its hegemony looked unstoppable. But that decade initiated a change in photographic seeing and a range of visual innovation that has only recently begun to appear used up. Just how significant that change was can perhaps best be seen by comparing Walker Evans’ scrupulously authored American Photographs—perhaps the best book of 1930s photography in America and the central work of Evans’ career—with Robert Frank’s 1959 masterpiece The Americans, which was in part an homage to the earlier work. Evans used a view camera, Frank a Leica.
In any event, the SLR, with its greater technical versatility, eventually killed off the rangefinder in no uncertain terms. All the Nikon and Canon system RFs, not to mention the Leotaxes and the Looks and the Niccas, are gone now.
Yet, somehow, the Leica M survived. The Leitz family finally sold the company just a few years ago, and camera manufacture now takes place at the German town of Solms, not far from Wetzlar where Barnack lived and where Leicas were traditionally made. The new factory is modern and beautiful and reflects the prosperity of the little company, but an M6 is still built the old-fashioned way: a tray of parts is delivered to each master craftsman, who like a watchmaker fabricates each camera by hand. As befits a camera of its exalted lineage (and price), QC problems are almost nil. The incidence of even minor glitches is about 1 in every 500 cameras, or, by rough estimate, about twenty times as good as the average for the industry.
• • •
David S. Landes, in his fascinating book Revolution In Time, recounts the quiet but epochal effect of quartz watch movements on the Swiss watch industry. Quartz is killing a craft which is literally centuries old. Mechanical cameras, reliable and durable though they may be, are under assault from a similar upheaval: electronics. Nothing has so revolutionized the camera industry (for better or worse) as the circuit and the chip.
One reason the Leica survives in this climate is because it is fanatically overbuilt. By the time cameras contemporary to earlier Leica Ms have become useless curiosities relegated to flea markets and junky antique shops, many Leicas are just getting well broken in, and remain usable for day-in, day-out photographing. You can handle a Leica M roughly, drop it occasionally, carry it with you wherever you go, and it will work and work and work. And it has no foibles. It is probably the least finicky, most reliable camera you can buy.
It is also one of the most expensive. A Leica M body retails for about $2,500, and can be bought new for right around $2,000. Each camera reportedly costs the company about $720 to build. This means they enjoy close to double the best-case profit margin of other companies. The mandatory 36-month Factory insurance program, which does not cover loss or theft but guarantees against any physical damage unconditionally, adds roughly $300 to the price of every camera body. There is a tiny minority of M-camera buyers who use the hell out of their cameras for 34 months and then smash them with a hammer or run them over with a car; Leica GmbH replaces them free of charge, no questions asked. Most Leica buyers, even heavy users, don’t have the heart to do any such thing. I certainly don't recommend it. (It's not like whacking the nose off the Pieta, but vandalism is vandalism.)
The overarching quality, rarity, and jewel-like precision of the cameras have made them second only to original prints as perhaps the most collectable objects in all of photography, and they're swapped and resold among collectors almost like a form of currency. For working photographers, though, this preciousness can be a drawback. It is not easy to take for granted a tool which costs as much as a used car. It makes it difficult to afford the cameras, too, and beginners or casual users are thus seldom familiar with Leicas. And it is a sad fact of life that many Leicas are built super-tough and ultra-durable in order to withstand the rigors of an occasional featherdusting as they sit, forever unused, on some collector’s glass shelf somewhere.
• • •
The expense and investment potential of a Leica contribute to masking the other really extraordinary thing about it: its handling. This is the greatest of the secrets shared by the camera's initiates. For, whatever they may have become, Leicas were, from the start, made to be used.
Manipulating an M is a learned skill. It may not feel intuitive right away, handled gingerly at a camera store. But, as Andrew Matheson notes, "It is a camera you can get to grips with." Those who have learned its ways are fervent in their praise, and share in their knowledge of its secrets like members of a medieval guild. For one thing, the feel of the winding crank and the shutter release are unimprovable. The solidity and ruggedness of the camera is awesome—Leicas are not fragile. The clarity and three-dimensionality of the viewfinder becomes addictive; with all but the widest lenses, the ability to "see around" your shot is a decided aid in recognizing better pictures. And, finally, there is zone focussing, a technique taught to me by photographer Carl Weese: protruding from several of the Leica lenses, there is a thumb-sized focussing knob. With practice, it is possible to learn how to guess focussing distances by eye and set the lens to very nearly the proper degree of rotation before you lift the camera to your eye. This is a learned skill, and depends on the photographer. I got very good at it at one point, and would show off my ability for the entertainment of others like a dog that can do tricks. But, once mastered, it unquestionably has an appeal that even the most advanced autofocus is not able to match.
Then there is its unobtrusiveness. The Leica is extremely quiet and modest-looking. It doesn't threaten. In the field or out in the street, where Leicas are most at home, this gives it an edge which can hardly be overstated: pictures can almost be stolen, as for instance Robert Capa’s first published photograph, of Leon Trotsky, was made surreptitiously, from under Capa's coat.
Finally, the Leica M is simple to the point of being spartan, so it is always ready. It won't break down, it won't defeat a reactive snapshot with safety interlocks, it won't grind to a halt with a battery running out of oomph—in short, it won’t quit on you. Its indomnitable mechanical simpicity lends it the functional beauty of utterly reliable performance. For this reason, it is a camera a photographer can come to trust. That in itself is something which ought be itemized in with the cost, right along with the insurance program and the rare-earth glasses used in the lenses.
• • •
The Leica, it has been said, both creates and resolves it own neuroses. No single camera has been the subject of such strong and deep passions, of such argument and debate, of such veneration and resentment; and no camera (unless you count all the wooden field view cameras in history as one) has so indelibly cast its mark over the history of the medium.
All sorts of arguments, pro and con, have been made over the years about the Leica. It has been sworn by, dismissed, ignored, and, by its partisans, much loved. Despite all of that, however, one thing is sure: for whatever reason, Leicas have been responsible for far, far more than their proportional share of great work. The list of great photographers who have been associated with the Leica during all or part of their careers is stunning; it is an honor roll. Off the top of my head, here's a very partial list:
William Albert Allard
David Douglas Duncan
W. Eugene Smith
In the end, that is what counts the most. The Leica, like the proverbial old soldier, may one day fade away. But it will never die.
Copyright 1992, 2014 by Michael C. Johnston
[Note: This post is a "rerun." I've been recuperating from a health event and trying to minimize workload, so the Comments Section has been closed for most of these rerun posts. However, I'm feeling better, so I'll keep the Comments open for this one. But please, go easy! —Ed.]
Featured Comments from:
Yonatan Katznelson: "Never once have I felt the slightest twinge of a desire for a Leica...until now. Sigh. This too shall pass."
latent_image: "Well, actually the date is not lost to history. Publication date was August 1992. That was a great issue featuring articles on James Fee and Walker Evans."
Mike replies: Thanks! And I loved that article about James Fee too. Very unfortunately he died early (same age I am now, 56) in 2006, of liver cancer, at his home in Beverly Hills. But his website is still up.