LEICA

Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

Augen auf!

The current exhibition of iconic Leica pictures “Augen auf” (“Eyes open”) is in many respects a milestone. It shows in historic detail the rise of the Leica camera from a niche product for cognoscenti to the inevitable tool for the professional photographer, the camera that became a witness of the century and specifically of the turmoil of city life. It is also a showcase and may I add a testimony of the power of silver-halide Leica photography. And here we see the other side of the coin. Leica in the digital age has again become a niche product for the cognoscenti and a select group of professionals. The exhibition shows that the role of the Leica has been taken over or (more accurately) is on the verge of being taken over by the smartphone. Current Leica images, made with a digital Leica camera are often critically sharp, very confronting and often close-ups of socially marginalized people. The sympathetic and humanistically sensitive eye of the French documentary photographers is gone. Being ‘critically sharp’ is no longer a standard feature of Leica photographs. Nor is the camera unique in its compactness or unobtrusiveness or ease of use. These characteristics today apply also to the smartphone or the mirrorless compact. In a sense this is the ultimate proof that Barnack was right.  
I am aware that many comments will focus on the quality of the lenses, the quality of the material and the immaculate finish of the product as being some of the main reasons to buy and/or use a Leica camera. We have to admit on the other hand that Facebook and Youtube and all other media are great in communication and even greater in democratization of the photograph. If pixel-peepers would have existed in the heydays of the Leica photography (1930 to 1980) hardly any picture would have been passed the test: they are too grainy and show much less detail than could be observed at 200% at a typical computer screen. It is really a pity that the evaluation of photographs and the performance characteristics of lens/camera systems has been usurped by a small band of short-sighted individuals and that the masses follow their lead. I am and always will be an advocate for the technical qualities of a picture, but define these qualities as tonality, crispness of fine detail in the midtones, separation of highlight and shadow detail and depth preservation. These are the characteristics that give a picture its impact, perspective and allow for an accurate rendition of a slice of reality. And these are the characteristics that were and are cherished by Leica optical designers and camera engineers. 
Leica for a very long time has been sitting at Olympic heights with the implementation and improvement of these characteristics, but nowadays many others have adopted the same view and Leica is no longer alone on the top of this Olympic mountain.
Leica can with good justification claim that their lenses are still best of class when the size is included in the equation, a fact that is hardly appreciated by many reviewers. 
We have to accept that in these days the Leica myth has more nostalgia than future. The exhibition is a proof that the future is not a continuation of the past and even Leica can not disregard the writing at the wall. 
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