Photography is a process. A technical process(to be more exact, with a suit of technical artefacts. Any artefact has a function and a goal. The function of the camera is to produce a photograph, itself also an artefact. The question why we want to photograph has at least three answers: one focusing on the process, the act of using the tool, one focusing on the goal: the finished photograph, the physical print or the virtual image on the screen and one related to viewing the photograph. Most theoretical, philosophical, artistic and social studies take the product and viewing the photograph as their objects of analysis. Studies of the practical use of photography as a physical tool and a physical product are hardly conducted. Still the experience of viewing a photograph and of the act of taking a photograph might be part of the answer.
A good analogy might be the bicycle or the pencil. The bicycle as a tool has a close association with craftsmanship and material quality that at the same time enhances the riding experience. The pencil is a simple and flexible tool that can be used for drawing a machine and writing a novel.
The most important reason for taking photographs is the complex relationship between human vision and the reality around us that is composed of physical things that very dynamically change shape and position. Human perception is not static and passive like the camera light-sensitive surface. Vision studies indicate that only a fraction of the stimuli from the environment reach the retina of the eye and the brain processes only a small part of the impulses that are fired from the retina. There is a biological cause for this behaviour. It takes the brain some time to construct an image from the many random stimuli that are recorded on the retina. The faster this construction occurs the higher the chance that the human interprets the dangers in his environment and can respond accordingly. The urban space is particularly troublesome for the brain to interpret because of the fast appearance and disappearance of dynamically moving objects that change location and shape continuously. This is the reason why we only see a small part of what is really happening in the world around us. Garry Winogrand is famous for the quote that he wants to photograph something because he wants to see how things look like when photographed (“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,”). The result however is less important than taking the picture: Winogrand at the end of his life exposed 2500 rolls of film but left them undeveloped, because he preferred the process of getting there: being on the streets, viewing through the viewfinder and releasing the shutter (he used among others a Leica M4-P).
The fact that human perception processes only a part of the visual stimuli can explain why artists and artistically inclined photographers insist on the creative intent of painters and photographers. The photograph is not a mechanical copy of reality as claimed, but the result of an intentional act to reproduce the world as it is experienced and seen.
One can understand the actual reason to take photographs by considering the technical and physical process of photography. There is a strong element of chance involved when taking a photograph. The physical reality around us, the human observers, is dynamically and constantly changing and human vision can only capture a small selection of the scene within the field of observation. It takes the brain about 0.3 second to construct an image from the visual stimuli, processed by the brain. What exactly happens in a narrower time slot (when the shutter speed is 1/50 or 1/1000 sec.) cannot be observed. (It was Muybridge who used time lapse techniques to show the real movement of a galloping horse or a jumping person). Here the element of chance plays its part. A photograph records automatically and indiscriminately everything that reflects or emits light within the field of vision of the lens at every instant however small. That is why a portrait session so often goes wrong and why a snapshot of a gathering of people may disclose a less than flattering posture or gesture. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “optical unconscious”. Every photograph shows details of which the photographer was not aware when the photograph was made. Some photographers have even proposed that the detective approach of a Sherlock Holmes may be required to study a photograph. The important and probably main question when one looks at a photograph is: what happened here?
Why do we like to look at photographs?
The most often cited reason why we like to look at photographs, is the so-called “Kodak Moment”: the moment we all ant to remember as it was at the time of taking the picture. These pictures belong to the dreaded category of the family snapshot, the boring highly ritualised photographs of the socially and psychologically important moments in life. This is the popular version of the visual notebook, which is the idea that inspired Barnack to design his Lilliput camera in the first place. Photographs allow us to study the scene without eye movements and without disturbances because the objects in the photograph do not move and can be looked at as long as we want.
Why do we want to take photographs with a Leica?
One obvious response is based on the fact that the Leica is different. This drive to be different might be one of the main reasons why people buy a Leica camera. In the current world of photography where photographs are calculated images, the visual differences between brands is vanishing and image quality is now so high that performance is converging to a common denominator. Even the subject matter of the average photograph is standardised. The choice of camera model and type is one of the few elements one has to distance oneself from the others.
The attraction of a Leica camera is partly based on the design and partly on the haptonomics of the material. The Dutch photographer has referred to the admiration of the Leica as techno-erotics. This sentiment has also been expressed by Bruce Weber when he remarked that his Leica is like a beautiful woman.
Several others have chosen the Leica camera because so many iconic pictures have been made with the rangefinder camera (ironically most are made with the silver-halide capture technique and only a handful are recorded on solid-state media). The assumption is that using the same camera will inspire the photographer to be as creative as the masters. Leica of course stimulates this kind of reasoning because it allows the company to sell more products. While artists and engineers insist on simple tools (brushes and pencils) to create and design the most complex products, amateur photographers (the professional photographers not excluded!) insist that the tool they need to use must be ‘serious kit’. During the 1950s it became fashionable to describe and promote cameras as precision instruments. The ownership and use of a precision engineered camera became an important element:
“There is something about a group of fine mechanical parts assembled into pleasing shapes with skilful craftsmanship that creates a desire for ownership and a pride of possession, whether it be an automobile, a mobile sculpture, or a camera.” (Lahue)
The Leica camera introduced in the photographic world a new concept: the accurately-engineered miniature camera. The large variety of 35 mm cameras in the 1950s is an example of technological exuberance, the tendency in technology to produce many variations on the basic theme of an invention. Finally the industry settles on a few basic designs, as is the case nowadays in the landscape of digital cameras: there are only three types left with almost identical functions and performance, but different sensor sizes: SLR, mirrorless ILC and HQ compacts with fixed lens. Such is the power of marketing that any serious photographer (casual, hobby and professional) wanted and still wants to be seen with a high quality high performce camera. There were, in that glorious period of silver-halide film domination, several valid reasons to purchase and use the Leica camera. A precision mechanism was required to get the most out of the tiny negatives when big enlargements was the goal. Without high performing lenses and accurately aligned mechanisms this goal is impossible to attain. It is a rather strange freak of technology that software algorithms, inside and outside the camera body are able to enhance the image quality of lower quality source pictures. Still the accuracy of the manufacture and assembly have been increased substantially by using CNC machinery and computer assisted assembly.
Leica purchasers still fancy the idea of careful manual assembly by highly trained craftsmen and meticulously applied quality control by experts. It is about time to shelf this myth. A modern digital Leica camera is more like an assembled computer with printed circuit boards, flexible electronic circuits and lots of software, ASICs and other computer and memory chips,, sealed between two magnesium shells and a metal top and bottom cover. Many components, such as the back display, the main circuit board and the shutter mechanism of the M camera is manufactured outside the company (and additionally in other types; components such as the AF stepper motor and the electronic finder). The Leica company is slowly evolving into a design company where the specifications are developed and the components are made by other parties.
The design and manufacture of the lenses belongs to a different chapter. In the past one had to buy a Leica body to be able to enjoy the characteristics of the Leica optics, but since the introduction of the Konica Hexar RF and the Zeiss Ikon ZM one can attach Leica-M lenses to several camera bodies. The possibilities have been enlarged with the introduction of mirrorless digital system cameras. Leica itself has made the compatibility of their lenses between their different camera models a strategic asset.
There were sound reasons to select a Leica camera. The mechanical quality of the camera matched the optical performance of the lenses, the camera and its lenses were compact, picture taking was fast and intuitive and the rangefinder offered accurate, fast focus and a large clear viewing system, perfectly suitable for the modern snapshot style of the documentary photographers. The 1967 exhibition in the MoMa (New Documents) was a remarkable tribute to this, then new, photographic fashion. Some characteristics of the Leica CRF have been overtaken by current technology: shutters are silent, durability and accuracy have been increased and the automation of most important features (focus, exposure, rapid transport) have stripped the Leica CRF of its prominent role.There are however three characteristics that are still unique, even within the current Leica product portfolio: the compact size of the lenses, the manual operation of the focus setting of the lenses and the rangefinder mechanism. The Leica M in its digital and film-loading versions is the best choice if one wants a camera that connects to the long heritage of the precision miniature camera and at the same time connects seamlessly to the vintage style of photography (in every sense). The characteristics of the camera body (metal parts, efficient layout of the controls and a clean, uncluttered design) are functionally important and add to the feeling of handling a technological artefact of outstanding qualities. One often hears the remark that all Leica cameras have a solid feel and a substantial weight that are an indication of its superior mechanical qualities and high precision of its component. This remark is in itself not convincing: there is no direct connection between weight and solidity on the one hand and the accuracy of manufacture on the other.
What and how do we photograph (with a Leica)
Taking pictures happens in a social space, but we can only take pictures of things in physical space. This is a crucial difference. The camera can only record the materiality of the surfaces of the things in physical space. We can overlay this pattern with a social layer and add meaning to the photograph. This function however is something that the observer adds to the basically neutral photograph. The picture shows a technically fabricated world without any meaning. The early photographers looked with amazement and curiosity at the photographic process that reproduced automatically and without human intervention a part of reality. It is a technical image and has no relation with the visual image that is constructed in the brain. Many observers have tried to compensate this shortcoming by approaching and interpreting a photograph as a counterfeit painting, giving it the status of art. The boundary between art and non-art exists only in museums and academic circles. Photographs are informational (“this is what happened”) and automatically produced. Photographers go to considerable lengths to claim that choice of moment, of position and of technical details (focal length, ISO value, aperture, shutter speed) to determine what is captured and how and what the observer may see. All these arguments are used to insist that photography is not a mechanical/technical but an operator mediated/influenced process.
The physical objects that can be photographed because their surfaces reflect or emit light, determine what will be visible in a photograph. Photography has many characteristics of a signal processing technology: there is a source, a transmitter/decoder and a receiver. It is almost inevitable to discuss some properties of the physical reality to understand what this source is.
Some very critical thinkers claim that our world is a social world and no longer a physical world. In a sense this may be the correct way of approaching the world in which we live.
Reality may have changed, photography has changed as it is following the digital path, but one thing has not changed: the photographer. When one looks at the pictures made between 1840 and now, there is remarkably little change in the style and content of the average and even the artistic photograph. It is common knowledge that photographs can be made for reasons of communication or documentation. The real difference between both processes has still to be explained by the experts.
Recording everyday events, especially those that are happening in urban environments and in family scenes, is the goal of modern culture. Baudelaire started this trend when he wrote about the painter of modernism. Eastman saw a big commercial opportunity in promoting the camera to document leisure and travel activities and targeted the female part of the population to pick up the Kodak Box and start taking photographs. Barnack was at least inspired by these developments and designed the Lilliput camera as an easy-to-use visual notebook.
Most casual and personal photographs show positive events and happy moments. Because these photographs fix some moments in life and the human memory forgets about all other moments, the photographer and the viewers of these photographs have a very selective view of the past. On holiday, the picturesque alleys and the sunset at the horizon are being photographed, but not the beautiful girl behind the ice-cream vendor’s cart. The point of these examples is the extent of the emotional attachment. The alley and the sunset are photographed because of the so-called photogenic content and possibly composition, but there can hardly be any emotional or personal involvement. The pictures are simply too conventional to have emotional value. An illuminating example of this propensity to conventionalism are the many signs by Kodak on locations that offer opportunities for pleasant photographs.
The broad spectrum of everyday events, individual relationships and casual contacts offer many chances to take pictures with an emotional and personal relation to what has been recorded. Sherlock Holmes noted that
“there is nothing as unnatural as the commonplace”.
The Welsh (also Magnum) photographer David Hurn remarked:
“Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are. ”
This combination of things as they are, a personal emotional involvement with these things (and people) and the detective approach (the camera records the unseen things) is the primary answer to the question what and how to photograph with a Leica in this 21st C. The ‘how’ is still a bit underdeveloped (pun not intended). The Leica camera has become famous because of the image quality of its lenses. Today one would almost automatically select one of the digital models of the Leica M CRF. The performance of the lens is in this case clearly connected to the software inside and outside the camera. The quality edge is eroded however, partly because many other manufacturers of photographic optics employ the same division of labour. Optical design has evidently reached a platform. There is a limit to what one can accomplish optically and mechanically within a rigorous financial straightjacket. The current optical designs for the Leica (digital) cameras emphasise the high performance at the wider apertures and the (emotional) quality of the out-of-focus areas (the so-called boke(h) effects). The result is indeed impressive, but the cost is high (the selling prices are sky-high, regrettably matching the physical volume of the lenses).
The silver-halide technology has a simple and clean-cut physical process. The lens has been designed to be a self-sufficient and separate link in the imaging chain that also includes the silver-halide emulsions and their specific characteristics. Both elements are separately optimised based on their specific qualities, but in tandem. The famous increase of micro contrast of the Leica lenses during the 1960s has been inspired by the introduction of high acutance films and developers.
For the style of imagery, defined by a radically personal, and emotional photography of everyday happenings (instantaneous photography) where chance plays an important role (the unexpected always happens!), the Leica CRF with its small volume, compact lenses and fast intuitive handling is a very good choice. The film-loading models have several advantages besides being part of the long and famous pedigree. They connect acutely with the essence and experience of the photographic process (the materiality that is), the handling is convenient and with a time lag of less than 20 milliseconds the shutter release is for all intents and purposes instantaneous. The blink of an eye takes on average 1/3 of a second (300 to 400 milliseconds). The average digital reflex or mirrorless AF camera has a shutter time lag of 0.15 to 0.05 seconds between pressing the release button and the actual release of the shutter.
There are of course many Leica users who do not want or are unable to process their own black and white films and make prints in the (wet) darkroom. It is possible to simulate the silver-halide photographic process with a digital M camera. These versions have the same rangefinder mechanism and the same compact high performance lenses of their film-loading siblings, but use the semi-automatic aperture priority exposure measurement of the M7. A handheld external exposure meter is always a smart option and pre-setting the shutter and aperture increases the speed of operation. The capability of the sensor and software to compensate for the underexposure (equals a higher ISO setting) is a very positive argument for choosing a digital CRF version. A disciplined photographer, who is committed to follow the analogue path, should select one ISO value that mimics the film speed values (ISO160, ISO320, ISO1250) and stick to this selection for about 35 pictures (the amount of negatives on the usual film roll). The RAW image files are to be ‘developed’ in the computer by a simple program that only decodes the data and converts them to a TIFF file (one such program is DCRaw). Then a number of these images should be printed on real physical paper, preferably A4 size, the standard for wet darkroom printing. This printing stage is very important because it signals the final step in the imaging chain and produces a really interesting comparison with the negative/positive chemical process.
It is quite easy to argue that these restrictions on the functionality of the digital camera and its role in the current imaging chain (where the final result is distributed over a network as a virtual file to be seen on a computer or smartphone screen) are reducing the digital camera to an old-fashioned analogue one.
I would like to argue that this approach might restore the feeling of excitement and wonder that the photographers in the olden times must have experienced.