Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

December 2015

goal for 2016

Photography has scientific roots as I told in my book ‘Leica Practicum” and recording the real world (the ‘unseen’ world) was a major preoccupation of the scientists/photographers of that period. When the Leica camera was introduced in 1924-1925 this focus on recording real life was even enhanced and as a response Leitz made a wide range of scientific accessories to enable the photographer to record life as never seen before. The photographic style did not change over a long period and the urge to record life (for documentary and/or remembrance purposes) dominated photography. The famous street photographers added a humanistic touch to this urge and their photography became known as testimonial or evidential photography. When the cheap and easy method of digital photography conquered the world the style changed again. Now the essence of photography is the so-called propaganda photography, very skillful in the hands of commercial advertisement and publicity photography, but also creeping into the journalistic photography. Notorious is the method of embedded photography in war zones, but it is also visible in more normal situations as press conferences and official photo-opportunities. The selfie is the most recent instant of this propaganda-style because the selfie is simply made to demonstrate how happy, rich or popular the maker is. There is a subtle but important difference between a 1950s box camera photograph of a holiday scene, made for personal use (remembrance), and a 2015s smartphone selfie, made for propaganda purposes because this image is instantly uploaded to the social media for public consumption and not for preserving a memory.
When one encounters a photo with the text attached, ‘made with Leica abc and lens xyz’ (and one may easily exchange Leica with Canon, Nikon or any other high grade camera system) there is a snippet of propaganda involved, because this statement has not only informational, but trivial value, but also demonstration value. It is intriguing that it is no longer possible to differentiate between camera types on the basis of the content or technical quality of the image (as was the case with analog pictures in the period 1950 -1980). When one looks at the various images in the camera brochures, issued by the main camera makers, it is very difficult (if not impossible?) to discern in these images that are clearly intended as illustrations of proof of performance the characteristic quality of the camera that is being profiled or in modern terms framed. The impact of post-processing and prepress technology is evidently at work here, but even when one looks at the raw images (the non-manipulated negatives so to speak) the digital technology is the great equalizing force that reduces most pictures to a common denominator. It is the challenge for 2016 to start making pictures with a true Leica substance and style.

Essence of Leica RF photography

What is the ‘essence of (Leica) rangefinder photography’? I tackled this question (with an emphasis on the word ‘Leica’) in my book “Leica Practicum”. The most recent Leica M 262 ( an appropriate designation would be Leica M-E II (E for essence?)) tries to embody the purist characteristics of the classical rangefinder photography. Leica itself seems to be unsure what this concept might represent. When reading the marketing texts one gets the impression that ‘pure’ implies simple (no electronic viewfinder, no live view, no video mode)and when one concludes the logical reasoning the other cameras in the M range (M, M-P and MM-II) are not-pure and by implication do not embody the spirit of classical rangefinder photography. I am at a loss what might be the difference between modern, classical, analog or digital rangefinder photography when one accepts that the technology is different but the photographer’s eye is not. If one wishes to write with clarity and precision (as demanded by Strunk and White: The Elements of Style) rangefinder photography is nothing less or more than photography with a rangefinder camera. When I take pictures with my Canon L ( a classical rangefinder camera) I am cultivating rangefinder photography. The adjective ‘pure’ is a difficult concept because there are so many different meanings ranging from undiluted to unadulterated. Pure is often used in relation with simple and then the Canon L (no exposure meter, only a film cassette) is identical to the Leica M-A, also a very simple rangefinder camera. In the past Leica was infused with the engineering spirit, a spirit that may be equated with precision and clarity: you cannot build when you do not have a clear idea what it is what you wan to build.Now Leica is infused with a marketing spirit, a spirit that may be equated with nebulous speak and buzz words. It is a pity that many writers about Leica photography have adopted the same style. It would be nice when the reporting about Leica would become more scientific.
A study by the university St. Gallen (Switzerland) about the real world market leaders in several segments shows a broad array of companies. The study uses a number of criteria to differentiate between real and self-promoted status as a market leader. On the list you find Jenoptik, Leitz GmbH (Oberkochen) (no relation with Leica, Wetzlar) and Schott AG, but no Zeiss or Leica.
The Austrian chip manufacturer AMS (austriamicrosystems) produces parts for Apple products and Apple is indeed one of its main customers. AMS has connections with Texas Advanced Optoelectronics Solutions. In fact Apple seems to be the main customer of AMS and now Apple seems to have withdrawn a number of orders. (I write ‘seems’ because the info is from the Swiss magazine Finanz&Wirtschaft and they write that Apple does not comment on who supplies parts for their products). One of the many partners of AMS is by the way Fujitsu! On November 20 this year AMS announced that it had bought CMOSIS (since 2013 owned by venture capitalist TA Associates). This action is seen as a (successful) attempt to balancing their dependence on one customer. The amount of money is not known but AMS has a yearly turnover of about 500 million Euro. CMOSIS’ has a portfolio of low noise, global and rolling shutter, high dynamic range, and high frame rate image solutions serve a broad range of markets including machine vision, medical, broadcast, traffic, scientific and photographic imaging. CMOSIS does not manufacture the chips themselves but the Leica sensors are made by a company in France. Presumably the chip production will now move to Graz in Austria. What impact this move will have on the sensors that are being used by Leica is not yet clear.

ten years M8

In 2016 the M8 celebrates its tenth anniversary. It will be a modest ceremony and Leica will not pay any attention to this. Since the M8 in 2006 we have seen a steady stream of newer and (if we have to believe the many comments) every time better models. If you had followed the advice to buy every time the new model M9, M240, including the Monochrom and the several P-models, you would have invested more than $40000 over a decade. Perhaps you had part-exchanged the previous models and collected (at an average second hand price of 40 - 50% of the new price) some $15000 - $20000. Still a net investment of more than $20000 in ten years time (a mere $2000 per year one may argue).
When you had bought a M3 in 1955 it would be still on the market, essentially unchanged and worth the same as when you bought it.
That is progress! It is also possible to look at the developments from a technical and artistic perspective. Technologically there is no doubt that the digitalization of the photographic progress has benefitted the technically inclined person. It is a matter of quantum efficiency: the silver halide molecules have a QE of less than 10% and the solid-state transistors have a QE of around 40%. Artistically however there is a complete standstill. And this is a pity because one of the main arguments to buy digital cameras and the associated technology is precisely this advantage in the artistic possibilities. I do not refer to the many manipulations done with Photoshop and its clones: these are fads and fancies. When one flies over the many notices that dedicate themselves to promoting the newest Leica product as the best ever, one sees a remarkable phenomenon: the images that are inserted as examples for the technological and artistic capabilities of the product not only look surprisingly indistinctive but show no progress at all in the main theme: expanded artistic expression. That most pictures are indistinguishable from the previous generations may be taken for granted.
My advice for 2016 (the celebration year if ten years digital M) is a simple one: stop reading about new Leica products by the evangelists, stop buying new Leica products (or if you really need one buy the M-A and the M262) and devote the full year to improve your artistic capabilities. This at least is my intention for 2016: January: finish the book about Leica optics, and then take some time to explore new artistic avenues with the MM2 and the M-A or even the M3.