Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Leica worship

"Leica advertisement, 1935"

One of my favorite writers, Anthony Lane has a piece about Leicas in this week's New Yorker. It's called "Candid Camera: the cult of Leica," . I found it disappointing, no doubt partly because I'm such of fan of Lane's acid, fearless but also oddly jolly and good-natured film reviews. Then too, I admire the whole idea of "critic at large" -- that in this age of specialists one writer can take on film, literature, politics and, yes, even photography. But this time I think, instead of critiquing the Leica cult, Lane joined it.

Full disclosure. Near the end of the 80s I published a piece about Leicas in GQ Magazine (pre-digital). They were doing a "best of..." series on consumer products for their target readership of fashionable, well-heeled young men. The editors had decided Leica was the "best" camera (later I did a piece on Swiss army knives, the "best" jackknife). For that article, like Lane, I quoted Cartier-Bresson about photographer-as-hunter. I wrote about how the Leica viewfinder allows you to see outside the frame &, unlike SLRs with their mirrors, to actually see the subject at the moment of exposure. I wrote about the precision, the silence, the workmanship etc, etc. . .

I had never owned a Leica; never used one. But I generally believed what I wrote. Leicas were legendary. Nearly every photographer I admired used Leicas, at least until the mid-60s. The list is astonishing. Here's just a few: Andre Kertecz, Alfred Eisenstadt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, William Klein, Robert Capa, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander. Lane says even William Eggleston used a Leica, which I didn't know. At the time I started shooting -- in the mid 70s -- M series Leicas were still the tool of choice for many artists and photojournalists, but they had gotten very pricey for newcomers. I started out with a used Pentax & moved on to Nikons. I knew equipment is important, but I had never been able to make myself care about it, and cost was always a factor.

By the time I wrote the GQ article Leicas had become a fetish. They were a status symbol & an investment. Dentists bought Leicas, along with a full complement of lenses, and kept them carefully stored in their original boxes. They were still beautiful, worked wonderfully. Many great photographers were still making great pictures with them. But the 35 mm workhorse, the one banging around in the luggage of serious shooters, was now probably a Nikon.

Today I don't know -- it would probably be a Canon -- but definitely digital. I could easily succumb to nostalgia for a sharp little camera that does everything you want but doesn't even need a battery. It seems more honest somehow. But I'm not going there. I'm grateful for my D200's autofocus, excellent auto exposure & helpful playback. My eyes aren't good enough anymore for all that focusing. I used to love clicking through the F stops & shutter speeds, the rhythm of shooting & winding film -- the brisk thumb turn as a kind of punctuation -- but I don't want to work so hard anymore. I'm like my parents when they gave up the stick shifts & started buying cars in which all you had to do was put it in Drive. The only thing I care about is the pictures.

Lane quotes Lee Friedlander talking about Leicas, but I think he could as well be talking about today's modest little 8 megapixel point & shoots. "“With a camera like that you don’t believe that you’re in the masterpiece business. It’s enough to be able to peck at the world.”


Nancy said...

lovely essay about the Leica, Tim. I love the image of dentists buying them like people by books for their coffee tables.

This subject reminds me of the area I live in in England: it's famous for its old architecture. Americans covet it. People come from the world around. And what does the xoning board say ? We must continue building fake old buildings to "fit in".

I say, every generation has its own styles. And you're right, if those great photographers had had access to digital cameras, they'd have been just as pleased as you. Because, whatever the camera is, it's down to the humanity of the individual taking the picture; that person's creative spark & story-telling skills. For that there is no buying and hoarding. Thank goodness the ability to make a great picture is not for sale in any shop.

Christine (CA) said...

I have read the New Yorker essay earlier today and was entranced, as much by the description of the "kiss" of the shutter as anything else. I'd love to hear that, but the thought of actually dealing with film again in a quantity big enough to warrant having that pricey a camera is daunting. I think I'll stick with the "slice" of my Nikon. Nice essay. I'd love to read those old GQ pieces. What a trip.

Ron Diorio said...

I read this article before seeing this post and was thinking about how limiting a conversation about equipment can be to an authentic consideration of a photogrpaher's art.

The Leica did it ....

Keith Dannemiller said...

"I could easily succumb to nostalgia for a sharp little camera that does everything you want but doesn't even need a battery. It seems more honest somehow"

I don't know about the honesty part, but, yes, among other things about it, I like my M4 because I don't have to remember to turn it off. I still use it quite a lot.
Keith Dannemiller

Anonymous said...

I think of Leica as a serious camera for a serious kind of photographer. I've never used one and only held one a few times. I handled one of their digital models at PhotoExpo last fall. The most appealing attribute is that it remains a compact little camera with a good range of fast lenses. It's still too costly for me, and I agree with Ron that some of the people who buy this may just be buying the prestige of the package. But I might think differently were I a working photojournalist or documentarian working in settings where the light is low, the action fast and the potential for adversity high.

Furcafe said...

Hey, it's not just dentists who buy Leicas, but lawyers (like me), too! I do use mine regularly, though, & am often amused by those who believe that any camera can magically improve one's photography. I share your disappointment @ Lane's article as I think it would have been much more interesting if he had examined more closely, & critically, the link between an artist & his/her tools. I found it strange that someone could write a paean to a camera he had hardly ever used (Lane admits towards the end that he never used a Leica until he rented a new M8), but it appears you did something similar in your GQ days. As a side note, it is indeed a shame that nice tools like Leicas are too expensive for many artists, but Leicas have always been expensive (even back in the '20s & '30s, their core market was well-off amateurs). It was just that back in the day, there wasn't an abundance of inexpensive good-quality gear, so we can thank the Japanese photographic industry for today's cornucopia.