Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts


The Italian movie ‘Le Meraviglie’ is an important artistic document. The content and the message are a true comment on modern worries. The movie has been shot on celluloid or in Italian ‘pellicola’ and the maker of the film (Alice Rohrwachter) has chosen this medium with  conviction. Her argument is that digital film making is faster and easier and more practical than working with pellicola, but not necessarily produces better results. This indeed echoes the current position of many Leica photographers who claim that digital makes photographing cheaper, easier, more practical and technically superior, but on the other hand that digital imagery has not changed or improved since the golden days of celluloid-photography. Alice Rohrwachter makes the observation that fast and practical are not synonymous with good. Many things are not good when done fast: a good example is lovemaking. 
Since I own the Leica M-A I have not made any digital images. I work now almost exclusively with Tri-X, developed in a tanning developer, made by Moersch (Tanol). This developer produces an extended tonal scale and reduces the grain impression. The results on A4 prints are excellent and show all the characteristics of true Leica pictures. It are pictures with personality and clearly different from the smooth digital representation. I am not abandoning digital technology, for obvious reasons. I have to say that working with celluloid and following the technique of  the photo detective (explained in my book Leica Practicum) is satisfactory and fits with the Leica tradition. 
This technique is evidently different from the style of Winogrand or the decisive moment approach. There is much confusion about the true meaning of this decisive moment style. The interpretation most often observed in articles and discussions is the idea that the photographer has a mental format (a previsualized image) that he wants to capture in the real world on the streets. The moment that the real world configuration matches the mental image is very fleeting and exists only for a fraction of a second. The photographer has to snap this situation during this very short moment that it exists and the camera needs to respond instantly to the photographer’s pressure of the shutter release button. This is the background when there is a complaint that some camera has some shutter lag and therefore is not suitable for the decisive-moment-style. But the idea of strolling around and encountering a surprise moment tat has to be captured instantly is not the way Cartier-Bresson worked. The title of his book ‘Images a la Sauvette’ means ‘Images on the run’ and explains a style of photography. He has no preconceived idea, but wants to be in unity with the situation to reveal its significance. He is conscious of a situation developing to a certain state and in practice he even works consciously to steer the development in the direction he wants. This explains the observation that he dances around when he is taking pictures. This approach implies that the photographer is not taken by surprise, but is already dedicated to take pictures. He then has all the time in the world to make his camera ready for action. The possible time lag can be countered by activating the camera. To be really honest, I do think that the quickness of response of the photographer is the most important part of the time lag. 
The digital photographer can shoot at will to capture the moment, but the celluloid photographer has to be more attentive to what is happening and to be more conscious of when the moment is there. Indeed it is known that CB was one bundle of nerves when he was photographing, because missing the moment was aways a possibility. But missing the moment is more about the mental or emotional component and less about the precise moment of pressing the shutter, however important this is as a technical issue. 
This train of thinking does not neglect the fact that some cameras have a shorter time lag than others. The M-A has no time lag at all, technically speaking, but even the digital M has some time lag, perhaps less so than the X or X-Vario, but it can not be neglected and one has to give it some attention when taking theses pictures on the run.