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Why do we take photographs with a Leica

The species of the dinosaurs became extinct about 61 million years ago in a sudden stop and not slowly dying off. There is still much mystery round the cause and the period of disappearance. Something comparable happened to the species of the Leica photography of the 20th C. This is the style of photography that can be described as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ (1970) and the ‘decisive moment’ (1950). It was also the period that the world of photography was divided by the amateur snapshot and the art photography. This discussion concerned the content and style of a photograph. The technical discussion of the photographic endeavour focused on the characteristics of the precision manufactured 35 mm camera and the specifications of the emulsions and their developers. The Leica rangefinder camera played an important part as a reference and a yardstick to which other manufactures were compared.
The disappearance of this special world of photography can be traced very easily to the emergence and rapid adoption of the digital image technology since 2000. When the Leica company introduced the Leica M9 in 2009 the classical style of the 35 mm miniature camera vanished from the scene. Many Leica users switched from a silver-halide-based photography to a silicon-based technology and tried at the same time to preserve the old world by continuing to take pictures as if nothing had changed. This is a kind of nostalgia that is firmly rooted in the picture style of the 1950s.
There is another kind of nostalgia that can be described with the title of a book, published in 2016: The Revenge of Analog. Superficially considered one may conclude that this movement falls into the category of the old crafts school: some (quite successful) photographers return to the early photographic techniques of collodion wet plate processes. It is rather intriguing that some of the most popular contemporary filters on social-picture media belong to this category of this retro-style.
Old crafts have a few characteristics that are lacking in modern technology, dominated by the computer and its algorithms. Using tools, thinking about materiality and the development of skills are all part of that mythical practice that defines artists and craftsmen. Photography in general and Leica photography in particular have since the announcement of the technical process in the early 1840s and the introduction of the Leica I in 1925 heavily relied on the crafts and arts to evolve into what has become known as the ‘witness of our time’.
The vernacular (popular) discussion about the difference between analog and digital focuses on the coding technique for signals in communication systems. This difference is often described as continuous versus discrete. This approach is certainly correct, but does not cover all aspects. The analog mentality, the tendency to see and interpret the world with associations, models, and analogies is different from the digital mentality that interprets the world as a virtual space that can be computed with numbers and can be mastered with calculations. When you know that this beautiful figure can be corrected and changed at will, there is no reason to want to preserve it exactly as it is. The image file is a matrix of calculated numbers and every cell stands for a single pixel that can be addressed and programmed.
A more interesting analysis of the concept of analog refers to the the related idea of proportion. A certain level of light energy reflecting from some material surface area sends a number of photons to a light sensitive device. In the silver-halide technique this stream of photons produces a chemical reaction that is proportional to the level of energy.
In the digital technique the semiconductor architecture transfers this light energy into a voltage level that can be measured and given a discrete numerical value.
The digital technology is without doubt more efficient, easier to use and produces improved imagery. It is also completely integrated in the techniques of signal processing and the current information/communication technologies (ICT). The modern digital camera (the digital Leica M not excluded!) is only one of the many artefacts that together constitute the contemporary infosphere.
Photography as a distinct social and technical process has changed fundamentally since the period when the amateur photographer had a special status and followed an identifiable cultural ritual, aptly described by Calvino in his short story titled “Adventures of a Photographer”. One could even assert that photography as a separate craft with its special techniques, materials, tools and expertise has vanished and has been absorbed into the general information and communication procedures of today. Theorists have given this whole process of technical and cultural change the name of a ‘digital turn’. In addition to this digital turn we can also observe a ‘visual turn’: the fact that our culture has been transformed into a visual environment where the image plays an important part. Most products and events we see are drawn or photographed or computer generated and most knowledge we have is derived from such images. We live in a vision culture and social media are primarily visual media: obvious examples are YouTube and Instagram. Photography as a process has been incorporated into the general ICT environment. Photographs as products of this process are integrated into the visual culture and even cameras as technical artefacts are increasingly incorporated into other devices and are combined with other devices: even the Leica M10 has a WiFi module and the Huawei smart phone presents itself as a camera.
The photographic camera has vanished as a special tool for producing pictures and the photographic process is also in danger of disappearing from the list of visual crafts. As an art form however photography has never been more important. The postmodernist movement in the arts has secured a place for photography as one of many tools that artist have at their disposal. Photography is part of the practices of artists who use performance installations and other activities to produce the message and the format. Most photographers are not and do not aspire to be artists and stay firmly on the amateur path, initiated by Eastman around 1900 and described by Baudelaire already around 1860.
The Leica camera was the first precision manufactured camera, designed for the amateur (the wealthy amateur to be more accurate). The draft of the original Leica I was conceived by Barnack and his team as a compact camera that could be handled almost intuitively. It was called by Leitz an automatic camera. The whole construction was made of metal, the only material at that time that could be manufactured with the required accuracy that was needed for the enlargement of the tiny negatives. Leitz had, as microscope and instrument manufacturer, enough experience with this material.
For a long period, from 1930 to 1990, the Leica rangefinder camera represented the species of the precision miniature camera and became the reference for this type of mechanical camera. In his book “The Nikon System” of 1965, Crawley could note that the Leica camera stood head and shoulders above all others in its engineering. In the 1969 edition this remark has been deleted, probably because by then the Japanese camera manufacturers had closed the gap in engineering quality. With the introduction of the Canon F-1 in 1970, they forged ahead.
Today, this assessment would hardly be different. The modern camera has evolved from a (mechanical) opto-mechanical instrument into a (digital) opto-mechatronic instrument. Many important components are no longer manufactured by the Leica Company itself and are outsourced to other companies or purchased from other companies. There is a change from vertical manufacture to design specifications, as can be seen in the construction of the Leica SL. The rather romantic idea that highly experienced workers manually adjust and assemble the camera with great care is no longer appropriate if it ever was. It is evident that the manufacturing technology, based on CNC machinery has increased the accuracy of components. Computer assisted assembly has replaced the manual adjustments. When Leica discusses the superiority of their manufacturing quality, they most often refer to the optical design and manufacture of optical elements. Optical quality is now influenced by the power of the signal processing algorithms inside the camera and on the computer and no longer the isolated part in the classical imaging chain.
The Leica user in the 21
st C is confronted with a number of choices that was absent in the period of silver-halide films and mechanical cameras. Confronted with the dual tendencies that photography has been integrated into the visual culture and absorbed by the IC technologies and is therefore disappearing as a distinct social and technological process, the main question would be: “why do we photograph?” This question is even more relevant because of the billions of images that are being made every day of everything. The next question would be to ask if we do take pictures why use a Leica camera? And the final question, after having answered both previous questions in the affirmative, would be: “What and how do we photograph?” These questions are not new, but need a new answer.