Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

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.