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December 2017

Quo Vadis Leica?

Recent introductions by the Leica Company beg the question what the goal might be. As always there will be of course two groups of reviewers: the Leica-friendly cheerleaders who will argue that the new lenses and cameras are the best ever, fill an important gap in the Leica portfolio, are a must-have product and epitomise the Leica spirit. The second group will find focus errors, colour fringes (somewhere in the background at pixel-peeping monitor scale), bokeh problems in lenses and ergonomic flaws and lacking must-have features in camera bodies.
The important topic of what advantages the products have in the modern post-photographic era are hardly considered.
The new Noctilux-M 1.25/75 mm ASPH will be framed as the ultimate portrait and reportage lens. But this is a very conservative approach. Any lens can be used for any purpose. The usual approach for a portrait is to focus on the eyes and have the rest of the face in the unsharp zones. Many portraits require a merger depth of field and the photographer needs to stop down to 5.6 or smaller to get the required result. The NX-75 is very heavy (more than one kilogram) and big (a volume of 391376 mm^3). The current NX-50 has a weight of 700 grams and a volume of 322563 mm^3. The original SX 75 has a weight of 560 grams and a volume of 307876 mm^3. Compare this to a really compact lens, the Apo-Summicron 50 mm: weight of 300 grams and a volume of 107640 mm^3. Modern Leica-M lenses have a very steep gradient between sharp and unsharp. This is a fine characteristic because it draws the eye to the exact sharpness plane when you are using the lens wide open or stopped down a few stops. Opto-mechanical however it is a problem. The focusing mechanism of the M camera will work at its limits and expect a fair amount of out-of-focus photos. The NX 75 will be used most often handheld if you wish to exploit the really excellent wide open properties. The high contrast and very good definition of fine details wide open are a big improvement compared to the old SX75. At f/1.4 it was difficult to take spot-on sharp pictures. The weight of the lens, the slim depth of field (at two meters ±3 cm!)and the movement of the head all add to the risk of focus. With the SX75 you had a slight advantage because the sharp-unsharp gradient was a bit smoother and this property helps to mask small focus errors. This luxury you do not have when using the NX75. Add the increased size and weight and the bodily movement and the off-focus limit is often reached and surpassed. One could select a high shutter speed in combination with a high ISO value (a simple choice in modern digital M cameras) to reduce the risk. There is much room for experiment and training. As is the case with the NX50, the new NX75 is a lens that needs to be learned in order to use it effectively. It is no universal lens like the Apo-Scron 50, 75 and 90. One may wonder why Leica has produced this lens, especially with such a high price tag of more than ten thousand Euro and limited use.
The same question may be asked when considering the re-edition of the Thambar, again a lens with very limited appeal and a price tag of around 6000 Euro.
The high optical and mechanical qualities of modern Leica lenses are beyond dispute. The volume of the lenses for the L-mount may be defended with the argument that one needs room for the many sophisticated mechatronic functions. The M-lenses however are traditional opt-mechanical constructions. The thick and heavy lens elements in the NX75 require stable (and heavy mounts) and this may explain the weight and size. When a lens design grows above its natural size (the fate of the famous Contarex lenses) one needs to reflect on its purpose. The SX75 made sense in its day. A high speed reportage lens was needed to get all available light onto the toe of the emulsion curve and a 1.4/90 mm was really a bridge to far in size and optical construction. A focal length of 75 mm was a good compromise.
The NX75 may be compared to the Canon 1.2/85 which has comparable vital statistics but incorporates an AF unit. The optical prescription is more adventurous and risky, but the price tag is a fraction of what Leica asks.
The main topic however is the need for a very high speed lens. The classical argument is the aesthetic one for a composition of selective focus. Fashion and indoor sports photographers demand the high speed because it allows them to direct the attention of the viewer to the main object. This was the case when film was the preferred medium. The NX75 will presumably be used mainly on digital bodies, where the post processing capabilities allow for every imaginable image manipulation. Then high speed must be balanced against ergonomic characteristics. Manual focusing with a rangefinder and a big lens is not everybody’s cup of tea. A very high speed lens that allows precise and selective focusing follows an outmoded concept, especially in the current digital era. Leica was once famous for its optical designs with universal appeal and scope of application. The f/2 lenses were and are excellent examples of compact designs with high performance and wide usability. The f/1.4 lenses in the 50 and 35 mm focal lengths are in the same league. With the f/1.4 designs in the 28-21 mm focal lengths, and with the NX designs of 50 and 75 mm the barrier of sensible weight and size (and price!!) has been pushed into dimensions that no longer fit the concept of the compact manually focusing CRF camera.

Bare bones

(Reading time 15 minutes)
Photography passed the hundred years anniversary at the same time that the first Leica camera was announced: 1925. The Leica I was the first miniature camera, completely made of metal, that looked like a modern machine and operated like one. It was not perfect, but its compact size, smooth working buttons, knobs and dials and high optical quality enabled an alternative style of photography. This style had no name, but was related to the snapshot method adopted by most amateur photographers since introducing the Kodak box by Eastman around 1900. Using a Leica camera, the photographer had to know about the technical aspects of the photographic process to correlate the camera mechanism and engineering with the photographic results. The Leica camera (and all other manually operating 35 mm cameras) was an integral part of the photographic process.

Photography covers more ground than producing a picture by an orderly and transparent chemical analogue process or a concealed digital signal processing method. Photography is about an effort to capture the elusive moment. This effort inspired Cartier-Bresson to search for the decisive moment. Before him, the Impressionists already made an art of the instantaneous. Baudelaire said “modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”. For modernity, light is the vehicle and the resource. Talbot referred to his process as photogenic drawing, but was insecure about the word ‘drawing’ and sometimes replaced it with ‘writing’. Lady Eastlake noted that photography was a new form of communication “neither letter, message, nor picture.”

The Impressionists are well versed in contemporary visual theory. They knew what you see is not what there is. Photography was an excellent means to show the difference between what the camera captures (and what could be out there) and what the brain constructs based on the visual impulses on the retina. These painters tried to capture the impression of the image of nature on the retina before the brain reconstructs the neural impulses. The photographic snapshot accomplishes this feat in exactly a fraction of a second. The snapshot represents the quintessential process of photography.

From the beginning, photography has been approached as a technique and as an art form. The rigid physical process and the limited influence that the photographer had on the final result turned over the balance to the technical side. Many theorists would claim that the means that the photographer has to influence the final picture (standpoint, moment of exposure, choice of focal length and aperture and so on) shrink into insignificance in comparison with the physical fact that the photograph only captures light reflecting surfaces with the one-eyed perspective of the optics of the camera. Even when the aspirations to an art status may be accepted by the art community, it is a hollow victory for photography. Nobody knows what art is. Instead of being caught up with a hopeless theoretical discussion, the discourse should be focused on the character of photography to ‘fix the shadows’. This implies looking at the commonplace and recording it the ultimate snapshot! Sherlock Holmes remarked that “there is nothing as unnatural as the commonplace”. David Hurn, the well-known Magnum photographer of Welsh origin, has remarked that 80% of of all good photography is based on the snapshot. He added that good photographs originate in the act of recording, simply and directly, a subject which is emotionally or intellectually engaging.
Such an approach is far removed from the art aspiration that seems to be a necessary ingredient of amateur photography in order to be allowed in the Hall of Fame of the Leica Gallery of Art Photography.

Surrounded by digital gadgets, the modern photographer has hardly any analogue experience. Such experience is intimately related to the practice of the craftsman. The Leica M camera has a metal body that feels like a machine and connects to the material world.
The use of the handheld exposure meter also adds to this feeling of work and craftsmanship. Handling a film cartridge and exposing and developing the film strip produces a feeling of manual competence that is lost when taking pictures with a digital camera, even a digital Leica M (the DRF). The sensor-equipped Leica M tries, with some success, to combine the analogue experience of the metal body with the ease and effectiveness of the digitalization of the photographic process. When using an SL , TL or CL, one gets a good sign of how far removed the Leica products are from their own core philosophy.

Talbot called the process of photogenic drawing a ‘pencil of nature’, implying that nature uses the photographic process as a draughtsman would use a pencil. The pencil is the emblematic tool of the engineer and as ubiquitous and as indispensable as photography is.

Photography can record everyday things mechanically and automatically. In this sense it is far removed from the use of the pencil that does nothing without being handled by a person. Still, there are many similarities: the pencil is a pleasure to use, it is simple, it can be used for artistic and scientific purposes, it generates an analogue feeling. The discussion around photography has become wrong-footed by the insistence of theorists that a faithful record of reality should be the same as saying that a picture is true. Like the topic of photography as art, the topic of photography as truth neglects the actual physical process of photography.
When photography is used for personal goals and with the intention to derive a pleasurable analogue experience, like using a pencil and paper for writing, these topics of art and truth are becoming irrelevant. The physical photo (the paper print) vanishes behind the content, which appears as a collection of facts. The skill and insight of the photographer are always significant, but the content comes first. Whatever the view of the photographer, there have to be some real life facts to record. Looking at facts requires adopting the attitude of the detective and asking the question what is happening here. The brain is conditioned, for reasons of efficiency and speed, to process primarily the changes in a scene, not the whole scene. It would be a waste of time and brain power to process the same information continuously. Users of the JPEG file format are familiar with this idea.

What is happening here can be answered when looking critically at photographs. Any photograph has been subject to the element of chance. The contact sheet is proof of this aspect of photography. In this digital age the method of asset management is the computer-based analogy of the physical contact sheet. If chance were not involved in the production of a photograph, the whole idea of the selection of the best image out of a series would not exist. Waiting for the exact moment has been superseded in modern times by the technique of taking pictures at a speed of a movie camera (24 images per second). Even this method cannot guarantee that the decisive moment has been captured. The photograph taken in a snap moment can be approached from two different perspectives. The photographer cannot influence the dynamism and contingency of the event, the continuum of experience, itself. This contemplation is the cause of the veridical core of photography as the truth-telling medium. Without this veridical core the reportage and the photo document would loose its importance. The second perspective on the snap moment that cannot be influenced by the photographer points to the classical art-question: how can the photographer claim that the resulting picture is a work of art when the photograph was accidentally taken. A common defence of the photographer that choice of equipment and choice of the photographic parameters are the result of skill, effort and conscious thinking about subject, framing and moment of exposure., seems to be quite hollow and forced.
The physical base of the imaging chain (silver and silicon!) and its visual context needs to be understood to get a clear view on the core of photography, independent of the debate about photography in the art world and in the community of photographers themselves who seem to copy many ideas and arguments of the art world.
Starting point is the physical reality of our everyday life and our perception of it. This is a macroscopic view, not the microscopic view of the scientist. Only a fraction of the continually changing macroscopic reality that is projected on the retina is processed by the brain.

The photograph of a section of this reality captures only the light reflecting surfaces with a eye-eyed perspective and during a fraction of second. It is a singular event. The camera records everything in its angle of view that reflects or radiates light, indiscriminately and automatically. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the object points and the image points, only regulated by physical laws. It is an automatic process for which the snapshot photograph is the best example.
Because human beings are not aware of what is happening exactly at this instant in time, the photograph presents an image we may not recognize in detail, but with which we are familiar (it is, part of the everyday life we are accustomed to). As soon as we look at photographs of events that we do not know or recognise, the alienating effect sets in. The earliest example are the photographs by Muybridge that show a running horse or a walking human in slow motion. The urge to photograph springs from the desire to record the very event which we are intimate with and which we want to remember. It is often said with some derision that the holiday maker really enjoys his vacation only after viewing the ordinary holiday pictures that were made. The Italian writer Italo Calvino, in the mid 1950s, has written a short story (“The Adventure of a Photographer”) , that is hardly ever mentioned in the discussions about photography, but contains many real gems of insight. The story starts with this description:

“When spring comes, the city's inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another. They come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags; they spend days waiting, with sweet anxiety, to see the developed pictures (anxiety to which some add the subtle pleasure of alchemistic manipulations in the darkroom, forbidding any intrusion by members of the family, relishing the acid smell that is harsh to the nostrils). It is only when they have the photos before their eyes that they seem to take tangible possession of the day they spent, only then that the mountain stream, the movement of the child with his pail, the glint of the sun on the wife's legs take on the irrevocability of what has been and can no longer be doubted. Everything else can drown in the unreliable shadow of memory.”
The photographic technique that is described may seem dated( it is all silver halide), but the observations are to the point and actual. Events and things that are not recorded on film, are vanishing in memory and do no longer exist in a personal history. There are two reasons why the snapshot is important: (1) to preserve a slice of reality before it vanishes from memory and (2) to study what the brain missed or did not deem important enough to process. Winogrand is confirming the second argument when he said that “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks when photographed”. The casual snapshot, made by the putative amateur photographer, lacks one essential ingredient that Calvino refers to in this paragraph.

“Now he felt that something in the essence of photographic man was eluding him, the secret appeal that made new adepts continue to join the ranks of the amateurs of the lens, some boasting of the progress of their technical and artistic skill, others, on the contrary, giving all the credit to the efficiency of the camera they had purchased, which was capable (according to them) of producing masterpieces even when operated by inept hands (as they declared their own to be, because wherever pride aimed at magnifying the virtues of mechanical devices, subjective talent accepted a proportionate humiliation).”
This ingredient is the role of craftsmanship in taking photographs. Two different positions are found in the literature: it takes ten thousand hours of hard work to learn photography and photography can be learnt in less than one hour. Both positions are true. When you just want to take a picture of something that interests you, the procedure of operating the original Leica I is a good example. Just set the aperture to f/8, the shutter speed to 1/50 sec, the distance to four meters, frame the ‘something’ at eye level position and press the shutter. This is the same technique that many street photographers use with any Leica CRF or DRF. When you wish to learn all details of Photoshop or the classical Zone System, ten thousand hours may not be enough. Craftsmanship is more than knowledge and skill at performing a task. As a first approximation craftsmanship (or its humble sibling workmanship) means using any technique or apparatus in which the quality of the work is not predetermined and depends on the judgment, care and dexterity which the maker exercises when he works. Such a description is applicable to the photographer and to the carpenter or painter or machine operator. The idea is that the final quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making. One core idea is that the workman or craftsman works without division of labour. When division of labour is applied to the production of a good, the workman is one element in the mechanisation of the process. Here we may find the reason why silver-halide photography is still popular: the photographer works without division of labour from pressing the shutter to developing the final print. Digital photography has a workflow where major portions of the process are outsourced to computer software and social media distribution.

One of the reasons to select the Leica CRF is the optical performance of its lenses that can produce high fidelity photographs. Such photographs support the idea that photography ’s truth is disclosure rather than evidentiary. The fidelity of the recorded scene invites the observer to become a detective, to study the details and then asking what is happening here and why are these details juxtaposed or why do they converge. Cartier-Bresson developed the theory of the decisive moment. The photographer should wait until all elements of the observed scene cohere formally and some would say aesthetically. The flaw of this approach is the working of chance when during that tiny moment of 1/00 of a second the position of the elements changes or new elements pop up. High-fidelity is a concept borrowed from the sound industry and points to an additional, largely ignored view of the photograph. Modern thinkers about photography interpret the relation between the recorded brightness pattern on the surface (luminous trace) of the photography and the corresponding visual brightness pattern of a segment of reality as a representation or an index. This approach is obviously derived from art theory and shares the fate of all concepts in art theory: endless discussions about meaning and use. It might be more productive to approach photography with the vocabulary of model and analogy. There is a curious coincidence that silver-halide based photography is described as analogue photography. An analogy is composed of correspondence and difference. Some aspects of the photograph correspond with the real object and some aspects are different. That is why no one would confuse the photograph with the depicted object. They are similar, but not the same. In science the concept of model and analogy is used to explain new and unfamiliar results from experiments with a reference to known models and analogies. Using an analogy is the basis of thinking. The early supporters of the new process of photography used analogies to describe the working. Lady Eastlake (1857) describes the photographic image as the disclosure of the world rather than its creation. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1859) characterizes the world as a picture whose essence lies in its photographic reproducibility, turning the argument on its head. Talbot (1839) compared photography to nature imprinting itself on the picture, to reproduce herself. Some commentators linked photography to a specific picture, the self portrait and remarked that all nature shall be its own painter. An important observation was made by Lady Eastlake when she compared the appearance of the photographic image to the creation of the world. It is well-known that humans see the world with their eyes. One might say, when following the realist interpretation, that the world is revealed to the observer through the process of observing or seeing. Realists assume that the world exists, independent of the human observer. The photographic print when immersed in the developing agent, slowly reveals what has been captured on the negative by the camera. This phenomenon implies an analogy between the development of the print with its image of a scene and the human observation of that same scene. There is a major difference which may be referred to as optical unconscious: there are details in the physical world that are too small or occur too quickly for us to see, but the camera captures them.

The classic dichotomy between photography as evidence or an automatic copy of reality or as a constructed image, made by or strongly influenced by the operator has only a diminishing value. It leads to a debate that is useless, at least for the practicing and thinking photographer. The proposal to interpret photography as an analogy for something else (in this case the idea that the world presents itself differently to the camera than to the human eye) is quite interesting. It changes the standard account that the observer views the world objectively or constructively to the account that the world reveals itself to the innocent observer. Cézanne who described himself as a ‘recording machine’ reverberated the same sentiment. This account corresponds to the approach of a detective when looking at photographs. Photographic images are associated with the disclosure of the world. This is different from the usual accent that the photographer constructs an image to have a meaning. Basically a photograph is a document that informs about the world. Amateur photographers who take their snapshots for personal use effectively accept the idea that a photograph captures only what the world reveals to the observer, camera-lens or brain.These ideas are not new. Perceptive writers, like Proust and Kierkegaard, have pondered the ‘pure eye’, ‘fleeting moment’, ‘moment of vision’ as elements of the human condition.

The decisive moment ( “the image on the run”), captured with a Leica camera combines the seemingly simple personal photograph with a thorough reflection on the nature of craftsmanship, inspired by the handling of the Leica CRF and the technique of silver-halide photography. The Leica CRF is much more than an instrument with a number of features and a long history. It is time to stop with the fixation on the camera as a legend (which it is not) and appreciate its role as a machine within the tradition of craftsmanship, that is the mastering of material skills.

This text is not an argument against the current digital technology and its undeniable advantages (simplicity, performance and efficiency) in producing what has been called computational images. It is an argument to reconsider the values of photography as a “miracle of analogy” (pace Proust). As soon as we shake off the yoke of art and technology and start taking pictures as accurate records of everyday life (the good, bad and ugly aspects!) we may recover the joy of using a camera that was Barnack’s concern when he constructed the Lilliput camera.