Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

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.