The Leica world, part three

The original Leica I was the first precision miniature camera, designed by its maker, the engineer Barnack, as the ultimate snapshot camera. The first popular snapshot camera was the Eastman Kodak No. 1 roll film camera that popularized photography and at the same time gave the amateur photographer a new status. The Kodak camera had a few drawbacks: it was a wooden construction, it had no viewfinder, only one shutter speed and the prints were circular and small in size. And with a hundred pictures on one roll it took a long time before the amateur could view the printed pictures. The Leica I was made of metal parts (the metal was needed for the required precision manufacture of microscopes), had a viewfinder for eye-level viewing, a range of shutter speeds with a very fast 1/500 second, and a film strip with 36 exposures, but with very small-sized negatives that required enlargement for larger prints that could be viewed with ease. The compact size of the camera with its excellent lens was an attractive tool for scientists and explorers, artists and wealthy amateurs.
The Leica camera has evolved since 1925 with a few giant steps from the original fully mechanical, compact body with a fixed and collapsible 50 mm lens to a system camera with a coupled rangefinder mechanism and interchangeable lenses to a solid-state equipped system camera with through-the-lens exposure automation and a range of interchangeable high-speed lenses. Comparing the Leica I with the Leica M10 feels like moving through a time machine of photo-technological progress. Not changed has the close association of the Leica rangefinder camera with art photography and with the original notion of mechanical and optical excellence and precision manufacture. Also not changed has the hint of luxury that has been attached to the Leica products which has been cultivated by the company. This strategy started with the Leica Luxus and continued by a long string of special models until today (late 2017).
Many current Leica owners aspire and hope to produce images that resemble the images made by the grand masters of the Leica camera. Photography was and is a serious activity for many camera users and to do it properly one needs serious equipment. The interminable discussions in the Leica world about the choice of the best lens and the best camera (now including the best sensor) indicate a longing for perfection that is reflected in this almost obsessive act for the selection of the best tools. The assumption is that only the best tools are good enough for high quality artistic imagery. Here we see a kind of reverse logical reasoning from product to tool. It is a fact that several photographers have been producing iconic images while photographing with a Leica camera. Therefore only with a Leica camera is it possible to produce such images. A perfect image can only be made with a perfect camera and any Leica camera is a perfect instrument manufactured with the highest precision. A combination of both arguments (with a Leica it is possible and maybe even probable to take photographs in the tradition of the great masters and a perfect picture is only feasible with a finely engineered and manufactured camera like a Leica) is a highly irresistible proposition to buy a Leica camera. Current descriptions about Leica cameras abound in subjective references to these characteristics.
When the Leica camera was announced in 1925, the world of photography was dominated by amateur photography, aggressively promoted by Eastman Kodak. The style and content of amateur photography reflected the mood of the culture at large. Photography does not exist in a vacuum. The universe of photography has been stuck between the high culture of the avant-garde and modernism and the culture of everyday and modernity. Both modern art and the culture of everyday have their roots in the period 1875 - 1914, that same period that modern photography came of age. The word and concept of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ were first introduced by Gautier in 1852. Baudelaire elaborated on this idea with his essay on ‘the painter of modern life’. Gautier, nor Baudelaire were interested in theorizing about the new concept. What they wanted to do, was to extract its essence. Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that it was made up of bibelots (decorative objects) and female bodies. In the universe of art, modernism became Avant Garde and in the universe of everyday life three innovations dominated the period: advertising, mass circulation of newspaper and film (the moving photograph).
Photography was torn between both universes. In essence modernity stood for a detailed observation of everyday life in a big city. Here on the streets and in modern department stores (the glittering magasins in Paris stand out as the best example) the modern mass culture and the results of mass production could be observed. The impressionists adopted the analysis of Baudelaire that the task of the artist was to extract the essence of modernity by recording the instant of the fleeting and volatile impressions of everyday life. The only way to accomplish this task was to go into the streets - en plein air - and to observe every day events. It is remarkable that at the same time photographers who had the means to record this instantaneous moment with ease, moved into the studio to produce pictorialist and very elaborate pictures. The impressionists shocked the art world by their style of painting, but also by their choice of subject material. Before the impressionists rose to fame, it were the illustrators of magazines and advertising posters who were the most daring, because they were relieved of the burden to produce art.
Positivism was the dominant philosophy of the 19C, but artists grappled with the problem how to combine reality with subjectivity. Reality was not simply there to be discovered, but was something to be perceived and even constructed by the mind of the observer. Artists had another axe to grind: modern man lived in the age of the machine and nothing did symbolize this machine age as the steam locomotive and the train station. Impressionists did paint steam and train stations, perhaps in an effort to depict modern life with an impressionist gaze. Around 1900 the impressionist movement had vanished, but modern life had not, nor were the streets of metropolitan cities. The Dutch painter Breitner, who secretly used the Kodak pocket camera to record the fleeting moments of the dynamic urban street. With photography, the element of chance made its debut in art painting. The impressionists had already experimented with this new phenomenon, but could not grasp it without the help of photographs. These painters were well versed in optics and physiology of the eye, knowing Fermat and Helmholtz. Their idea was to capture the impressions of the outer world at the moment the light rays touches the retina, just before the brain action starts to construct a meaningful image. This was obviously a mission impossible, but it showed the close resemblance to the process of photography. They also introduced the concept of time in their approach to painting. The word ‘modern’ derives from the adverb ‘modo’, meaning recently, just now. Until the mid-19C, society was looking to the past and painters were mainly occupied with depicting grand events from the past or copying the best work of the ‘Ancients’. The 19C was a period of rapid innovation in science, technology and industry. There was a growing realization that this period in time was a distinct and even superior stage in the history of mankind. Modernity was the latest period in history, evolving from antiquity to middle ages and from Enlightenment to Modernity. The middle-class definition of modernity (scientific and technological progress, mass production and the industrial revolution, sweeping social and economic changes) was opposed by another definition of modernity (to complicate matters!). The expanding modernity of the middle-class (the bourgeoisie) was countered by a movement of cultural and artistic radicalism. The radical aestheticism, embodied in the Art for Art’s Sake movement that promoted a disinterested ideal of beauty to counter the ugliness of modern industrial life and the exploding cities. The modern artist, according to Baudelaire, should search for novelty and beauty, that is defined as romanticism (intimacy, colour, aspiration toward the infinite). Modernity, says Baudelaire, has as its core a tendency to immediacy, an attempt to identify with a sensuous present grasped in its very transitoriness and opposed by its spontaneous nature to a past suggestive of lifeless quiescence. This description could be, word for word, adopted by the practitioners of the new technique of photography for whom the aspect of time, chance and ‘the present’ are core elements of any photography. But photographers at this time (around 1860) were still engaged with the technical intricacies of the medium and the more ambitious ones were trying to copy the style of painting of the ancients that Baudelaire was so negative about. We have to wait for the construction of the engineer Barnack to implement fully the idea of time and immediacy. The ideas of Baudelaire were implemented in a photographic way by Cartier-Bresson, who was trained as a painter and embraced the Barnack camera. His theory of the decisive moment is nothing less than the translation of Baudelaire’s urge to be modern which implies to extract a mysterious beauty from human life.

Life on the street did not only inspire the impressionists, but also the thousands of amateur photographers, who, equipped with the Kodak box, roamed the streets and beaches and pubs to take a snapshot of modern life. The miniature camera, in particular the Leica, made it even easier to capture life on the street and the snapshot evolved to the candid photograph to the documentary photograph to the snapshot aesthetic. Whatever the descriptive name, the subject did not change. As Dyer has noted in his ’The Ongoing Moment” every photographer has made pictures of a blind accordion player of a blind beggar or a scene in a barbershop or a drunken person in a pub. The subjects and genres of photography, and this holds good for amateur photography as well, have not changed in the last 150 years. The history of Leica photography is often presented and discussed as an orderly progression of images through the period from 1925 to now. The Leica camera has its technical limits that restrict the range of tasks that the photographer with a Leica camera can handle. Prominently are the available light, documentary and street photographs, especially with a high-speed wide angle lens. Today the advantages of the Leica CRF are less important for most photographers. Available light photography is now possible even with a smart phone and sensor sensitivities of close to ISO 50.000 have reduced the need for high speed lenses. Fast motorized transport has made it possible to battle the element of chance and long-range zoom lenses have made framing a lesser problem. The ubiquitous application of ever more powerful post-processing software has shifted the preparation and attentiveness of the photograph from pre-visualisation to computer-processing. With hundreds of millions of pictures uploaded every few hours and with street photography that is recording scenes that are as boring as numerous and with post-modernistic art photography as provocative and enterprising as it is incomprehensible (but not for the art scene cognoscenti), what is left for the amateur photographer with a Leica CRF to do?
To answer this question we have to move beyond the description of technological progress and also beyond an analysis of photography as a set of social practices that define the worldwide Leica owner community. The basic question is why we do photograph and the related question is what is photography anyway? A related question, not without importance is why we like to look at photographs.
Mechanical recording is the essence of the photographic process. Without a real object, a lens, a black box and a recording medium, photography as a medium would not exist. There is astonishingly little written about this mechanical copying of reality (except in purely technical literature about the chemical and optical processes).
The function of human perception is related to survival. It is through vision that we get to know the world. Human vision is very selective: only a fraction of what is captured by the eye and registered on the retina as visual stimuli, is allowed to pass through the optical nerve to be used by the brain to construct an image of the world. The brain is not a passive machine, but works with templates and stored information to construct the world view. Human perception is not reliable and picks up in principle only surfaces with physical characteristics that produce a stimulus in the retina. Thoughts, for example, are not recorded.
The camera does not have a brain and records any surface that reflects light within its field of sight. The difference between what the camera records and the image that the brain constructs is often referred to as the optical unconscious (with a reference to Freud’s theory!). This difference is one of the reasons why we take photographs: to remember the event of object as it was at the moment of exposure. Human perception is conditioned to quickly scan a scene and to identify as fast as possible enemies or in general any danger. There is no time for considered reflection. Unimportant details and objects are not processed by the brain. The camera on the other hand records indiscriminately. The level and amount of detail in a photograph has to be discovered.
That is why looking at photographs is so common and perhaps even pleasant. The ease or comfortableness with which photographs are observed can be explained as follows:
1. The mitigation by one visual plane : a photograph has no depth and focusing the eye is not necessary;
2. The mitigation by reduction: a photograph shows a scene on a small format that can be captured at once without eye movement and all objects can be seen in one glance; when looking at a photograph only the visual sense is active; the photograph shows objects without movement and objects can be studied as long as one wishes: in reality the objects are constantly moving and it is difficult to observe details carefully.
3. The richness of details, once admired in the early Daguerreotypes, was also interpreted as non-art, because in a painting most fine detail is not represented, which makes looking at a painting more pleasant because the brain has less work to do.

What the camera records is not what the photographer sees at the moment of exposure. The world around us is visually chaotic and unpredictable. The element of chance has been skilfully used by Cartier-Bresson to develop his ideas of the decisive moment. Surrealists noted the surprise element in photographs taken of a fluid environment and used the Leica camera to document the unexpected.
When Barnack constructed the original Leica camera, he envisaged a small always ready camera for recording interesting events in a fast effortless way. He was thinking at the problems of the ordinary amateur photographer, like himself and not reflecting on contemporary art photography with a large field camera.
The interest in the snapshot is partly inspired by the realization that these photographs may provide useful information about the past. They also give an indication what were the interests of the persons who took these pictures.
The argument to take photographs of everyday life and objects is almost identical: what is now boring and conventional may be interesting for future generations, as long as the (digital) negative or print can be accepted as authentic.

Many current scholars of art history are turning away from the standard narrative that photography has to be viewed and interpreted as an art form with special characteristics (the medium-specific approach). Photography is increasingly interpreted as a vernacular practice, as defined by the French scholar Bourdieu already in 1965. The ordinary snapshot receives the attention it deserves and the discussion to distinguish between a snapshot and a so-called art photograph made by for example Winogrand becomes more and more futile.
Taking a casual and instantaneous photograph (or an image on the run) is the best way to experience and understand the core of photography. The conclusion of this discussion is that only a special style of photography is feasible in these modern times: a new radically personal and emotional photography that records persons and events and objects with which the photographer has an emotional bond.
But what justifies the use of the Leica CRF? An older Canon rangefinder camera is quite capable to support this photographic genre. And the Canon lenses are quite small and very good. The rangefinder is a smart solution, but more closely related to the finder in the Leica III. My arguments for the current Leica CRF models are not the ones that are often cited. The rangefinder is optimized for the 50 mm focal length, my favourite focal length and the accuracy is very good, even for an aperture of f/1.4, the widest I use. The Noctilux lens is too large and heavy for my tastes and I have no use for such a wide aperture. The body plus lens is still a compact unit and the layout of the dials and buttons is intuitive and easy to use, even when in a hurry. The optical quality of the lenses is outstandingly good, but one needs a tripod and very careful focusing, not only at the wider apertures to extract all performance out of the lens. When using the cartridge loading versions (actual M-A, M7 and MP) or one of the older versions (from M3 to M6) there is no shutter lag at all and freezing the moment at the required instant is easy. The simplicity of the layout and the minimal amount of features allow for a clean and simple process and technique of taking pictures. It has to acknowledged that current reflex and mirrrorless cameras have the option for an automatic pilot that is fast and almost silent. The only Leica shutter that may qualify as whisper quiet is the one in the M3 or the M7 that is even quieter and may lead the rank of quietest Leica cameras. Without the view/rangefinder mechanism and the compact high performance lenses in the range of 18 mm to 135 mm, there is no justification for buying and using the Leica CRF. The remaining question is the choice between a sensor-equipped or a cartridge-loading camera. This is a very difficult choice that needs careful and lengthy analysis sufficient for a full chapter in my new book.


Leica and innovation

Based on its own product portfolio, the Leica Camera AG Wetzlar can not realize substantial growth figures. According to the reports in the German Bundesanzeiger, the Leica CAmera AG Wetzlar had a total turnover of 304 Million Euro over 2015 (287 and 299 in 2014 and 2013). The system cameras and compact cameras had a turnover of 160, 176, 152 and 80, 60, 81). The figures of
the cameras indicate an up and down trend, reflecting the introduction of new models. The growth of both segments has reached a limiting potential of about Euro (million) 200 and 80. The photographic market is no longer a strong growth market and with the smart phones getting more and more capable, there is hardly rom for expansion. The focus of Leica on the high end and luxury market for the camera segment does limit its appeal.
If the Leica Company will want to reach the strategic turnover of 1 Billion Euro, more product categories have to be added. The cooperation with Huawei (lenses for smart phones) and now Novacel (spectacle glasses) are elements of this growth strategy. It is clear from these market movements that Leica will not be able to reach the stated goal with the reliance on camera products alone. New models will not add much inventiveness to the existing product lines. Basically the current M10 is no different from the M8 and the SL, TL and Q are hardly different from the Japanese competition. In the 1950s. new products from the Leitz Company were anticipated with great eagerness by other camera manufacturers, because the company then was at the leading edge of photographic innovation. With the exception of a small group of enthusiasts, new Leica products are nowadays hardly taken seriously by the leading camera manufacturers. (Note the reluctance of buying the Blackstone stake in the Leica company).
Leica aficionados may discuss in detail the differences between different camera models. This is trivial but fun. Introducing a new 75-mm-lens with an aperture of f/1.2 (previously f/1.4) is hardly innovative, even when the performance is much enhanced. And a different sensor-architecture in the M10 compared to the previous models will presumably change (in subtle terms) the image quality and certainly change the production efficiency. This is an element of technical evolution, not part of an innovation.
A truly innovative design, like the Leica M5, failed to impress the market and its production ended soon. The original Leicaflex was an engineering masterpiece, but as a camera tool it lacked the innovative characteristics of many Japanese models. The M-models, from M6 to M10, are based on the same design that goes back to the M3. Crawley once stated that the M-design had remained in a kind of goldfish bowl, an apt metaphor for todays design strategy of the M-line. Undoubtedly there will be sometime in the future an M11 with an increased number of pixels, to get even with the Sony, Canon and Nikon models of today. Such a ‘new’ model may even sport a reduced number of functions to enhance the feeling of minimalism and improve the direct relation with the core of photographic technique. A really innovative optical finder combining elements of the Fuji X-100 and the (now) classical Contax G series is far away. Incorporating an SL type of viewfinder in the M would not count as innovation, only as product integration.

The Leica world, part two

When, in 1839, the process of photography was announced and introduced to a curious public, the most important feature was the autonomous recording by the machine of a part of reality, simply by the action of light. How exactly this happened was not known, but the mechanical nature of the process pushed the operator out of this process. This was quite remarkable, because every known process of producing images or pictures required the active involvement of a human being: a painting could not be produced without a painter who used his ideas, expertise and craftsmanship to select paint and brushes and who used his eyes to convert what he saw onto a canvas. Many artists accepted the mechanical nature of photography, because they were aware of the fact that the camera records things that the eye could not see. Studying photographs improved their sensitivity for critical observation. Photographs were not seen as art works but as simple snapshots to see hidden aspects of nature. This is the reason why Surrealists were so eager to accept photography as a means for aligning the optical unconscious (a term adapted from the works of Freud) with normal conscious viewing. The Leica camera with its fast and discreet operation was a favourite tool.
Photography was soon seen as a utilitarian, even scientific, process, but many photographers were interested in elevating the status of photography to the level of an art form, comparable with painting. Around 1900, the Kodak camera was adopted by the masses and a new style of amateur photography emerged, actively promoted by Eastman. The typical content and style of the amateur snapshot was not acceptable to promoters of the Aesthetic Movement who wanted to upgrade photography to an art medium. A handful of amateur photographers aspired to produce ratlike pictures. The fine art photographer of that day stressed the composition and lighting, and the careful arrangement of tasteful backgrounds to emphasise the decisive influence of the camera operator on the final result.
There has hardly anything changed since that period. Fine art photography is still the Holy Grail of many photographers. Art photographers stress the fact that the equipment is not relevant, but the photographer is. Especially his/her ability to see what others do not see, is important. Selecting the right moment to press the shutter and waiting for the good light is part of the vision. Intention and expression is another element of this approach to art photography. There is a dedicated effort to distinguish themselves from the amateur whose pictures are boring and conventional. A group of amateurs tries to copy what the great masters of photography have accomplished. This group may be referred to as the serious or advanced amateur, the adjectives are indicative of the attempt to differentiate between folk art and fine or high art. We must walk a delicate line: high versus low and elite versus popular are distinctions that are perhaps no longer valid in our (post)modernist visual culture.
The Leica Company is definitely trying to define photography with a Leica as art photography and many owners of Leica cameras would agree. There is a clear contradiction in this position. On one side stands the claim that the artist is the most important element in the chain of producing and consuming art photography and the claim that the tool is not relevant. On the other side stands the claim that the Leica camera is instrumental in producing a certain style of art photography. The somewhat complicated explanation refers to the qualities of the camera (rangefinder, optics, fast operation) that are supposed to support the photographer in combination with the vision of the artist in producing art. The snapshot aesthetic and the medium specificity are the broad concepts that underwrite this explanation.
The escape from this dilemma (tool versus vision) is a fall back on the technique and technology of photography. Technique should combine tool and vision. After the digital turn Leica users have a new dilemma: the high performance of the digital technology and its ease of use versus the focus on technological and optical features. A case in point is the dynamic range of a sensor, which combines the exposure with the subject brightness range. The dynamic range of a specific film/developer combination could only be established with scientific precision if you had access to a densitometer and reliable resolution figures required a microscope or a microdensitometer. The current digital files are arrays of numerical values and can be analyzed by a host of programs on the computer. Photoshop is a good example of such a program. The upshot of this new field of digital image processing (which is basically a version of signal processing) is an extremely detailed numerical analysis of some characteristics of the photograph. This assessment of the dynamic range is a good example. There is some discussion among Leica users which camera has the largest range, the M10 or the M240 or the SL.
One of the comparisons claims that the M240 has a range of 10.05 stops, the M10 10.60 stops and the SL has 10.81 stops. To be honest: a difference of 0.2 stops falls within the usual tolerance range of the system performance. The average scene has a contrast range of six to seven stops and a very high contrast scene may have 15 stops difference. For most scenes the difference of 0.5 stop between the M10 and M240 is irrelevant and for very high contrast scenes the capabilities of both cameras are not good enough. In reality there is another factor that is hardly ever considered when discussing these technicalities: when the difference between two adjacent levels of brightness is less than what can be detected by the eye (the so-called JND: just noticeable difference) the two patches will be seen as equally dark or bright. If this happens to be the case with the two darkest and brightest levels, the effective dynamic range will shrink by two levels.
Here we have the case of irrelevant accuracy: because it can be measured it is important.
Technical competence (once a characteristic of the craftsperson and the artist!) has been a good substitute for the fine art claim. Leica has changed their slogan from Leica means precision to my point of view to reflect the original change from tool to vision. Nowadays the manufacturing quality and the luxury element are stressed. Note the notorious video of 45 minutes that showed the surface treatment of the body of the TL camera. In the current world of mass media, visual cultures and social media, the social process of photography, because of its ubiquitous nature (more photos are uploaded in two hours than were mede during the whole 19th century), is in danger of becoming invisible.
We should acknowledge that the genres and contents of modern (digital) Leica photographs have not changed since 1930, except that the technical quality of modern (digital) pictures has been improved since the days of the Leica III with Summer lens.
There are some good reasons to use a Leica camera. Superior image quality, engineering and manufacturing competence and an inherent connection to fine art photography however are no longer the prime reasons to buy and use the Leica (digital) cameras.



The leica world, part one

The photographic process was announced around 1840 as a tool for a faithful copy of reality. The exact physical functioning of the process was not yet known, but there were enough experiments to prove that it worked. The important characteristic of the new medium was the automatic and autonomous action inside the camera between the period that the operator uncapped and capped again the lens.
There was a fascination during the whole of the 19C for
machines and mechanisms, based on Comte’s philosophy of positivism.
The mechanical character of the photographic process was a source of admiration, but also of disdain. The automatic technique of copying and representation was interpreted as
mechanical objectivity, as a scientific tool and not worthy of a creative project. The minimal intervention of the operator reduced the human and aesthetic element in artistic activities. Photography then was the essence and emblem of mechanical objectivity and appealed to scientists of the time. It is significant that the announcement of the technique of the daguerreotype was made by Arago, an eminent scientist.
The dissemination of the photographic process between 1840 and 1890 was accompanied by the attempts, some more some less successful, of many photographers and artists to
redefine photography as an art form with special characteristics that distinguished it from painting and at the same time could emulate it as far as the results were concerned.
Even when the claim that photography is a useful medium for artistic expression is accepted, it can not be disputed that during exposure the recording of reality is a fully autonomous physical process and thus prone to chance. The
element of chance is an often neglected aspect of the photographic process, presumably because of the dominance of the concept of the ‘decisive moment’. The moment (in German Augenblick) as a concept is part of a long philosophical tradition that starts with Kierkegaard. During the 1920s and 1930s it finds a new interpretation by Heidegger and his contemporary , the artist and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In its essence, the simple snapshot can be regarded as the prototype of the more elaborated concept of the decisive moment as it has been interpreted by Cartier-Bresson and the surrealists. The Leica camera has been (literally!) instrumental for this style of photography. With this small and responsive camera HCB could observe directly ordinary life, In that period there was no distinction between a photojournalist, a street photographer and an artist. The most used term was simple ‘photographer’. The Surrealists liked photography precisely because of its mechanical and automatic character: walking like a flaneur on the streets, the photographer might find and record a compelling reality beneath the banal surface of ordinary experience. The Leica camera with its eye level viewfinder would enable the photographer to observe the action as it unfolds before his eyes. Reality is permanently on the run and the idea of an image a la sauvette (on the run) matches the dynamic of reality permanently unfolding. The photograph is at the moment of its creation already old, a vanishing element. These are deeply existential thoughts that the average photographer is not aware of and in fact should not reflect about. Most photographers take pictures of scenes and persons that evoke pleasant feelings that can be experienced again when looking at the photographs at a later moment.
The question why we take photographs at all, when everything has already been recorded can be partly answered by a reference to this memory of emotions. The Surrealists had a good point when stressing the automatic and mechanical character of the photographic process.
The experience and realisation of the instrumental character of the process of the capture of a slice of reality is quite strong when one is using a camera loaded with a film cartridge. The automatic process of recording, developing and printing is clearly visible as are the limits of the user intervention. The modern solid-state capture and post-procssing manipulations are rather effective in shielding the photographer from this realisation. There is indeed a
fundamental difference between a chemically recorded imprint on a silver-halide emulsion layer and the numerical record of a matrix of image points. Many contemporary Leica photographers dismiss this distinction and use quite superficial arguments to make their case. There is no denying that the digital technique has liberated photography from a technical bias.
Photography has never been simpler. It is therefore remarkable that many photographers stress the fact that the application of computer-based software (also known as photoshopping) is an example of superior technique. The fixation on technical specifications is as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when selecting a film and a developer were almost as important as following the rules of the Zone System. The modern equivalent of this system is the software to ‘reconstruct’ a Raw file or a JPEG-file.
art photography is heavily influenced by this style of computer manipulations. What exactly ‘art’ might be, is nothing more than a convention and defined by artists themselves, museums, art galleries and academics. This has always been the case, but since the exhibition in 1967 by MoMa’s curator Szarkowski, the so-called street photography has been promoted as a true example of photography as an art form. The concept of the ‘snapshot-aesthetic’ made the humble amateur and domestic snapshot culturally and socially respectable.
Most photographers, including Leica photographers, are not interested in and/or do not have the capabilities for commercial and artistic photography. They are following the tradition, established by Eastman since 1888 and improved by Barnack in 1925 of photographing events and persons that are socially and emotionally important for the photographer.
David Hurn, the well-known Welsh and Magnum photographer, has remarked, that 80% of of all good photography is based on the snapshot. He added that good photographs originate in the act of recording, simply and directly, a subject which is emotionally or intellectually engaging.
Such an approach is far removed from the art aspiration that seems to be a necessary ingredient of amateur photography in order to be allowed in the Hall of Fame of the Leica Gallery.
Following the
canons of art photography, is not very inspiring, and copying the iconic images of well-known photographers is not easy. Most photographs, made by Leica owners (and not only by them), are ordinary snapshots of everyday life and objects. It is time to accept that this type of pictures is important for the existence of photography as an industry and as a social-cultural practice. Leica as a company, for example, would not exist when only the so-called art photographers would buy Leica cameras. We might also adopt the view of Szarkowski that sometime someone could produce a snapshot that becomes a new work of art. The average snapshot, wrote Batchen, is boring and is not the topic of interest for the usual art historical approach that stresses originality, innovation and individualism. Most photo-snapshots tend indeed to be conservative, predictable and repetitive in both subject matter and style.
There is nothing wrong with this type of photographs. They are made for personal goals. The obvious question,
why do we take photographs at all, is however hardly posed, let alone answered. For a tentative answer, support is needed from photo-psychology and neurobiology, two areas of science that most photographers are presumably not acquainted with.
The function of
human perception is related to survival. It it through vision that we get to know the world. Human vision is very selective: only a fraction of what is captured by the eye and registered on the retina as visual stimuli, is allowed to pass through the optical nerve to be used by the brain to construct an image of the world. The brain is not a passive machine, but works with templates and stored information to construct the world view. Human perception is not reliable and picks up in principle only surfaces with physical characteristics that produce a stimulus in the retina. Thoughts, as example, are not recorded.
The camera does not have a brain and records any surface that reflects light within its field of sight. The difference between what the camera records and the brain constructs is often referred to as the
optical unconscious (with a reference to Freud’s theory!). This difference is one of the reasons why we take photographs: to remember the event of object as it was at the moment of exposure. Human perception is conditioned to quickly scan a scene and to identify as fast as possible enemies or in general any danger. There is no time for considered reflection. Unimportant details and objects are not processed by the brain. The camera on the other hand records indiscriminately. The level and amount of detail in a photograph has to be discovered.
detective approach, exemplified by Sherlock Holmes who seems to notice every detail, is part of the fascination for photography. Leica lenses are famous for the clarity of detail and this performance is one of the most cited arguments to buy and use a Leica camera (the coupled rangefinder to be more precise).
The human memory has two characteristics that need to be mentioned. One is the notorious unreliability of the memory function and the other is the inability to recall visual images of persons and events that were observed in the past (
visual memory or (in German) bildhaftes Denken). We live in very complex visual environments that constantly send numerous chaotic stimuli to our sense organs. The number of objects around us may be in the hundreds or thousands. It is impossible to remember what was ‘out there’. This is often called information oversaturation.
Recent studies in the field of visual memory have concluded that large changes in a natural scene go undetected when the change happens during eye movements. The general conclusion supports the statement that human perception is very selective and in addition is basically lazy. That is why
looking at photographs is so common and perhaps even pleasant. The ease or comfortableness with which photographs are observed can be explained as follows:
1. The mitigation by one visual plane : a photograph has no depth and focusing the eye is not necessary;
2. The mitigation by reduction: a photograph shows a scene on a small format that can be captured at once without eye movement and all objects can be seen in one glance; when looking at a photograph only the visual sense is active; the photograph shows objects without movement and objects can be studied as long as one wishes: in reality the objects are constantly moving and it is difficult to observe details carefully.
3. The richness of details, once admired in the early Daguerreotypes, was also interpreted as non-art, because in a painting most fine detail is not represented, which makes looking at a painting more pleasant.
Everything that provides pleasure, will be admired. The
pleasure in looking (Lust am Schauen) was described by Freud, but already Baudelaire pointed to the combination of flaneur and voyeur in his description of the painter of modern life. The connection between the photographic snapshot and the flaneur/voyeur is easily established. The style and subject choice of many current street photographers is a clear demonstration of this connection.
amateur photography is mainly focused on taking photographs of events or persons that evoke pleasurable memories. The restriction to the documentation of traditional motives (babies, pets, social rituals like marriages, holidays) was logical in the period that photography was an expensive hobby. In this digital era the production and dissemination of a photo has no cost at all. The consequence is that now in two hours more photos are made than in the whole 19 C.
When accepting that most amateur photographers (and most owners of a Leica camera are amateurs in the positive sense of the word) do not want to follow the artistic route,
what then is the best way of using the Leica camera.
One of the personal drives to take photographs of persons or events is the emotional experience. A person, object or event that is connected to an emotion or a pleasurable experience can be photographed in order to recall the moment of pleasure when the photograph is seen at a later moment.
Many amateur photographs are made because of a
social ritual: on a tourist tour, one may take pictures of monuments and landscapes, not because of a marked experience when perceiving the building or landscape, but because conventions urge the photographer to capture the moment. It is quite obvious that compensation is needed when the element of emotion disappears from the act of photography.
One possible route is to stress the formal, aesthetic or meaningful element of a photograph.
Another option is to stress the technical expertise that is needed to take a photograph. There is a
strong connection between art and technology, not in the sense of a causal relation, but in the sense of a co-existence in time. Technology, instruments, machines and positivism emerged and became important in the 19C. The Leica camera in the early 20C had to fight an uphill battle for acceptance in a photographic world that was dominated by the larger format Kodak Box and other types of cameras with large-sized negatives. A mastery of the miniature format technique was necessary to compete with the results possible with the ubiquitous large format camera. The required enlargement of the small negative implied that the negative had to be as flawless as possible and that the engineering quality of the camera could support this technique. For a long period the Leica camera was the only one that was designed and manufactured with the required precision. Ownership of the Leica gave the photographer the quality of a connoisseur. The precision engineered miniature camera, pioneered by the Leitz company, is nowadays manufactured by numerous companies. The Leica camera is no longer the exception it once was as a professional and durable instrument. These characteristics are nowadays incorporated in many types of cameras. There are hardly any professionals left who exclusively use the Leica CRF camera. One of the reasons is certainly a shift in photographic style: available light and candid photography is hardly practiced anymore because its potential for powerful and interesting photographs has been exhausted. The protection of the personal sphere, even in the public domain, has been much stronger than it was in the past. Only celebrities and paparazzi have established a symbiotic relationship. The motor-drive and the long tele (zoom) lens have long ago eclipsed the close-distance intimate photography with the high-speed 35 mm wide-angle lens on a Leica camera.
Buying and using a Leica rangefinder camera may be partly justified by the urge to copy the masters who made the Leica photography style unique in the history of photography. This style, however has for a long time been obsolete. The technical advantages of the Leica CRF camera (fast focus in dim light, near-silent shutter noise, large, clear viewfinder) have been diminished by the relentless technical progress, including AF, silent modes, large and clear viewing screens). The current mirrorless digital cameras deliver most of the advantages that the original mirrorless camera (the Leica CRF) once set apart from a sea of single lens reflex cameras and pocket viewfinder cameras.
The incorporation of the semiconductor image sensor as a capture device inside the camera body and the ample integration of software algorithms for AF and AE lowered manufacturing costs and improved the accuracy and flexibility of the mirrorless camera to become a direct competitor of the current Leica M series. Leica itself has shown the method: take a Leica M body, remove the view/range-finder mechanism, incorporate an integrated shutter- motor-drive mechanism, AF software, and dispense of the compact lenses to incorporate a fast AF module and you get the Leica SL.
Silver-halide photography, with its
closed eco-system has been almost completely forgotten. This was by the way the technique that most masters of Leica photography had used till 2006. Then the Leica M8 was introduced with a modern vertically running metal blade shutter unit and a Kodak APS-H sized sensor. All these electronic components had to fit inside the classic-sized and shaped body. The then inevitable consequence was an increase in thickness of the body shell. The latest version is the Leica M10 with upgraded components and a simpler user interface. The adoption of image sensor technology by the Leica company has however exposed the Leica M camera to the volatile market forces of the electronic consumer industry and the mass media.
The impression of professionalism and durability, sprinkled with a dose of prestige and a drip of snob-appeal, is the mix that most buyers of the Leica M prefer.
The metal body, the solid feeling and the precise, but smooth operation of all knobs and buttons and the fact that the camera is manually assembled from precision manufactured parts add to this image. John Naughton in the Guardian (2014) describes his reasons for owning a Leica:
He has the almost-obsessive quest for the perfect picture, like the ones made by Cartier-Bresson and others. He delves into the history of the Leica and points to the embryonic genre of photojournalism, made possible with the Leica camera because of its compactness and unobtrusiveness. Leica cameras in his mind are beautifully engineered precision instruments with a reassuring heft and solidity.
Apart from the feeling of the camera, it are the lenses which are ‘astonishingly good’. He bought a second-hand M2 with a 35 Summilux lens as a young scholar and this set taught him everything he knew about photography.
Such accounts can be read in a variety of ways and with different emphasis by almost every Leica aficionado. It is a mix of myth, fact and emotion. With the viewpoint of marketing and brand promotion, some of these characteristics can be enlarged. The Leica M Process Book, not authorized by Leica, makes a number of statements that echo the sentiments of the average user.:
Leica cameras are designed to help photographers perfect their craft by having them slow down and focus on the essentials first.
The Leica M is a compact precision design with the best of materials and quick to use unobtrusively. The camera is popular with street and wedding photographers.
A sober technical assessment of the M4-2 was made by Popular Photography around 1980. The technicians (Norman Goldberg) note that the camera is a classically designed and executed fine mechanism with low friction mating of gears everywhere. The shutter mechanism and the rangefinder unit are selected as examples of engineering quality because of the many adjustments possible. The excellent craftsmanship and experience of the persons who operate the machines and who assemble the parts, making small adjustments to ensure the butter-smooth operation of the camera, are specifically described. Such a description is indeed the core of the mythical craftsmanship that gave the M3 to M6 its reputation. This praise may be important for the buyer who has to justify the high cost of the camera and its lenses.
Crawley in his review of the M4-P (1982) questions the quest for ultimate quality and thinks that the matter is debatable in terms of the working photographer to whom the 35mm camera is an everyday tool. The success of the Canon and Nikon products is proof that his caution was correct. When discussing the reputation and prestige of the camera, he points to the fact that the customers are convinced that there is no better camera than the Leica and there is also the conviction that the optical skill and engineering of the company remains unsurpassed. It is evident from the careful choice of words that Crawley is slightly critical of the beliefs of the Leica customers, but basically agrees with the verdict. This was perhaps valid in the 1970-1990 time frame, but it is now 2017!
There is a deeper reason for using a Leica M camera than accurate manual focusing or the engineering and optical quality.
attraction of the Leica CRF camera for the amateur photographer resides in its simplicity of use, its excellent compact wide aperture lenses and its conscious connection to the core elements of photography. This connection is more visible when using silver-halide (film) emulsions than when using a solid-state equipped camera. The Impressionists used this word deliberately. Reality imprints itself on the retina of the human eye. It is the duty of the artist to reproduce this image without much interference of the brain. The same process seems to happen when film emulsions are used: reality imprints itself by transferring light energy onto the silver halide grains in the emulsion. This process can be clearly envisaged. It is much more difficult to imagine the analog-digital conversion from photon count to numerical values in an ordered matrix in a digital file. The one-to-one correspondence between luminous object-points and the projected image points (as optical theory declares) is produced by an automatic and autonomous process. The specific photographic elements are the impact of the shutter speed, the optical system and the framing of the object ate moment of exposure. These are also the specific elements selected by the Lab Report by Popular Photography. The shutter refers to the moment or instant, the chance, the viewfinder refers to the gaze of the observer or photographer.
The element of chance is very important because it connects the characteristic of the automatic recording with a freezing of the movement of objects with the help of a high shutter speed (anything above 1/50 second). There is no photographer who can accurately predict what will be recorded by the camera in that fraction of a moment. The vibration and sound of the focal plane shutter and the mechanical shutter release connect the photographer to this core element of photography.
The gaze relates to the emotion and attention that the photographer has to have for the event or object to be recorded at the moment of freezing and framing the event or object. The large and accurate range/viewfinder of the Leica CRF camera is an obvious reminder of this element of the roots of photography.
The personal emotionally loaded snapshot is an excellent model for this type of photography. The French name is ‘photographie instantanée’. It is, in this context, revealing that Barnack designed the original Leica camera as a tool for a precise recording of everyday events and persons. This is identical to the Kodak snapshot, promoted by Eastman.
In a book that promotes the style of the personal, emotionally inspired snapshot, it is appropriate to start with a report on the development of the snapshot camera from the Kodak Box to the Leica CRF. A parallel development is the snapshot style from the writings of Baudelaire to the Impressionists and through the Surrealists to Modernism. A second layer will analyse the techniques for high definition imagery in both the silver-halide and solid-state technologies, in combination with a choice of Leica lenses. This layer is important because of its focus on the Leica technique for high quality snapshots. The Leica M7 and the Leica M8 will be used as the prime models to present the differences in analog and digital techniques. The third layer will look at the roots of photography: the theory of information and signal processing, the theory of perception and representation in science and art. This layout of layers implies that readers can select what to read.

Can Leica be trusted?

Companies that work for other companies or for consumers need trust as a basis for transactions. Now that many companies are no longer trusted (software to manipulate emission, sweatshops for cheap clothing, and so on) and critical reviews and investigations are difficult to access, this topic is more important than ever.
The actual Leica company is no exception. In the past, it was an engineer-driven company and the information about its products was reliable and could be checked. Critique by outsiders was taken seriously and even invited to make a better product. When the company informed the users that the high shutter speeds were working within ±30 % of its nominal value this info could be accepted as accurate. Most information was not readily and publicly available, but it was possible to access the responsible person within the company.
This attitude has changed since the company has become product- and market-driven. Insightful technical information is hardly available and the marketing department does its best to generate confusion. Are the Summarit/2.4 designs really optically fully redesigned Summarit/2.5 lenses. How does the new sensor in the M10 differ from the previous design in the M/240? Every new sensor is claimed to have optimized shapes for the lenslets, but there is no technical information about the exact shape and its impact on the final image quality. The actual reliance on the reports by field testers for some of the practical consequences of the newly introduced technology is not sufficient as most reviewers do not use measurements to support their claims but only visual comparisons. We know how unreliable the human visual perception is: what you see is what you want to see.
The M10 uses compression software to reduce the size of the files in order to increase the storage capacity of the buffer. But there is no information about the type and quality of the software. The SL is assumed to have a very fast AF, but one needs numerical information to be sure that this claim is substantiated. The fact that field and magazine testers say that the AF is very fast is not good enough for the inquiring mind who needs to base conclusions of facts. Every other product in the photographic market has comparable claims.
In the past the Leitz technical bulletins were reliable sources of information and could be used for decision making. Now we have only diffuse marketing speak. This is of course the trend of the day and not different from what is available from other companies. Leica buyers who pay a premium price, should be entitled to receive all technical information available, that helps to understand why Leica is what is claims to be.