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The leica world, part one

The photographic process was announced around 1840 as a tool for a faithful copy of reality. The exact physical functioning of the process was not yet known, but there were enough experiments to prove that it worked. The important characteristic of the new medium was the automatic and autonomous action inside the camera between the period that the operator uncapped and capped again the lens.
There was a fascination during the whole of the 19C for
machines and mechanisms, based on Comte’s philosophy of positivism.
The mechanical character of the photographic process was a source of admiration, but also of disdain. The automatic technique of copying and representation was interpreted as
mechanical objectivity, as a scientific tool and not worthy of a creative project. The minimal intervention of the operator reduced the human and aesthetic element in artistic activities. Photography then was the essence and emblem of mechanical objectivity and appealed to scientists of the time. It is significant that the announcement of the technique of the daguerreotype was made by Arago, an eminent scientist.
The dissemination of the photographic process between 1840 and 1890 was accompanied by the attempts, some more some less successful, of many photographers and artists to
redefine photography as an art form with special characteristics that distinguished it from painting and at the same time could emulate it as far as the results were concerned.
Even when the claim that photography is a useful medium for artistic expression is accepted, it can not be disputed that during exposure the recording of reality is a fully autonomous physical process and thus prone to chance. The
element of chance is an often neglected aspect of the photographic process, presumably because of the dominance of the concept of the ‘decisive moment’. The moment (in German Augenblick) as a concept is part of a long philosophical tradition that starts with Kierkegaard. During the 1920s and 1930s it finds a new interpretation by Heidegger and his contemporary , the artist and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In its essence, the simple snapshot can be regarded as the prototype of the more elaborated concept of the decisive moment as it has been interpreted by Cartier-Bresson and the surrealists. The Leica camera has been (literally!) instrumental for this style of photography. With this small and responsive camera HCB could observe directly ordinary life, In that period there was no distinction between a photojournalist, a street photographer and an artist. The most used term was simple ‘photographer’. The Surrealists liked photography precisely because of its mechanical and automatic character: walking like a flaneur on the streets, the photographer might find and record a compelling reality beneath the banal surface of ordinary experience. The Leica camera with its eye level viewfinder would enable the photographer to observe the action as it unfolds before his eyes. Reality is permanently on the run and the idea of an image a la sauvette (on the run) matches the dynamic of reality permanently unfolding. The photograph is at the moment of its creation already old, a vanishing element. These are deeply existential thoughts that the average photographer is not aware of and in fact should not reflect about. Most photographers take pictures of scenes and persons that evoke pleasant feelings that can be experienced again when looking at the photographs at a later moment.
The question why we take photographs at all, when everything has already been recorded can be partly answered by a reference to this memory of emotions. The Surrealists had a good point when stressing the automatic and mechanical character of the photographic process.
The experience and realisation of the instrumental character of the process of the capture of a slice of reality is quite strong when one is using a camera loaded with a film cartridge. The automatic process of recording, developing and printing is clearly visible as are the limits of the user intervention. The modern solid-state capture and post-procssing manipulations are rather effective in shielding the photographer from this realisation. There is indeed a
fundamental difference between a chemically recorded imprint on a silver-halide emulsion layer and the numerical record of a matrix of image points. Many contemporary Leica photographers dismiss this distinction and use quite superficial arguments to make their case. There is no denying that the digital technique has liberated photography from a technical bias.
Photography has never been simpler. It is therefore remarkable that many photographers stress the fact that the application of computer-based software (also known as photoshopping) is an example of superior technique. The fixation on technical specifications is as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when selecting a film and a developer were almost as important as following the rules of the Zone System. The modern equivalent of this system is the software to ‘reconstruct’ a Raw file or a JPEG-file.
art photography is heavily influenced by this style of computer manipulations. What exactly ‘art’ might be, is nothing more than a convention and defined by artists themselves, museums, art galleries and academics. This has always been the case, but since the exhibition in 1967 by MoMa’s curator Szarkowski, the so-called street photography has been promoted as a true example of photography as an art form. The concept of the ‘snapshot-aesthetic’ made the humble amateur and domestic snapshot culturally and socially respectable.
Most photographers, including Leica photographers, are not interested in and/or do not have the capabilities for commercial and artistic photography. They are following the tradition, established by Eastman since 1888 and improved by Barnack in 1925 of photographing events and persons that are socially and emotionally important for the photographer.
David Hurn, the well-known Welsh and Magnum photographer, 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.
Following the
canons of art photography, is not very inspiring, and copying the iconic images of well-known photographers is not easy. Most photographs, made by Leica owners (and not only by them), are ordinary snapshots of everyday life and objects. It is time to accept that this type of pictures is important for the existence of photography as an industry and as a social-cultural practice. Leica as a company, for example, would not exist when only the so-called art photographers would buy Leica cameras. We might also adopt the view of Szarkowski that sometime someone could produce a snapshot that becomes a new work of art. The average snapshot, wrote Batchen, is boring and is not the topic of interest for the usual art historical approach that stresses originality, innovation and individualism. Most photo-snapshots tend indeed to be conservative, predictable and repetitive in both subject matter and style.
There is nothing wrong with this type of photographs. They are made for personal goals. The obvious question,
why do we take photographs at all, is however hardly posed, let alone answered. For a tentative answer, support is needed from photo-psychology and neurobiology, two areas of science that most photographers are presumably not acquainted with.
The function of
human perception is related to survival. It it 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, as 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 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.
detective approach, exemplified by Sherlock Holmes who seems to notice every detail, is part of the fascination for photography. Leica lenses are famous for the clarity of detail and this performance is one of the most cited arguments to buy and use a Leica camera (the coupled rangefinder to be more precise).
The human memory has two characteristics that need to be mentioned. One is the notorious unreliability of the memory function and the other is the inability to recall visual images of persons and events that were observed in the past (
visual memory or (in German) bildhaftes Denken). We live in very complex visual environments that constantly send numerous chaotic stimuli to our sense organs. The number of objects around us may be in the hundreds or thousands. It is impossible to remember what was ‘out there’. This is often called information oversaturation.
Recent studies in the field of visual memory have concluded that large changes in a natural scene go undetected when the change happens during eye movements. The general conclusion supports the statement that human perception is very selective and in addition is basically lazy. 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.
Everything that provides pleasure, will be admired. The
pleasure in looking (Lust am Schauen) was described by Freud, but already Baudelaire pointed to the combination of flaneur and voyeur in his description of the painter of modern life. The connection between the photographic snapshot and the flaneur/voyeur is easily established. The style and subject choice of many current street photographers is a clear demonstration of this connection.
amateur photography is mainly focused on taking photographs of events or persons that evoke pleasurable memories. The restriction to the documentation of traditional motives (babies, pets, social rituals like marriages, holidays) was logical in the period that photography was an expensive hobby. In this digital era the production and dissemination of a photo has no cost at all. The consequence is that now in two hours more photos are made than in the whole 19 C.
When accepting that most amateur photographers (and most owners of a Leica camera are amateurs in the positive sense of the word) do not want to follow the artistic route,
what then is the best way of using the Leica camera.
One of the personal drives to take photographs of persons or events is the emotional experience. A person, object or event that is connected to an emotion or a pleasurable experience can be photographed in order to recall the moment of pleasure when the photograph is seen at a later moment.
Many amateur photographs are made because of a
social ritual: on a tourist tour, one may take pictures of monuments and landscapes, not because of a marked experience when perceiving the building or landscape, but because conventions urge the photographer to capture the moment. It is quite obvious that compensation is needed when the element of emotion disappears from the act of photography.
One possible route is to stress the formal, aesthetic or meaningful element of a photograph.
Another option is to stress the technical expertise that is needed to take a photograph. There is a
strong connection between art and technology, not in the sense of a causal relation, but in the sense of a co-existence in time. Technology, instruments, machines and positivism emerged and became important in the 19C. The Leica camera in the early 20C had to fight an uphill battle for acceptance in a photographic world that was dominated by the larger format Kodak Box and other types of cameras with large-sized negatives. A mastery of the miniature format technique was necessary to compete with the results possible with the ubiquitous large format camera. The required enlargement of the small negative implied that the negative had to be as flawless as possible and that the engineering quality of the camera could support this technique. For a long period the Leica camera was the only one that was designed and manufactured with the required precision. Ownership of the Leica gave the photographer the quality of a connoisseur. The precision engineered miniature camera, pioneered by the Leitz company, is nowadays manufactured by numerous companies. The Leica camera is no longer the exception it once was as a professional and durable instrument. These characteristics are nowadays incorporated in many types of cameras. There are hardly any professionals left who exclusively use the Leica CRF camera. One of the reasons is certainly a shift in photographic style: available light and candid photography is hardly practiced anymore because its potential for powerful and interesting photographs has been exhausted. The protection of the personal sphere, even in the public domain, has been much stronger than it was in the past. Only celebrities and paparazzi have established a symbiotic relationship. The motor-drive and the long tele (zoom) lens have long ago eclipsed the close-distance intimate photography with the high-speed 35 mm wide-angle lens on a Leica camera.
Buying and using a Leica rangefinder camera may be partly justified by the urge to copy the masters who made the Leica photography style unique in the history of photography. This style, however has for a long time been obsolete. The technical advantages of the Leica CRF camera (fast focus in dim light, near-silent shutter noise, large, clear viewfinder) have been diminished by the relentless technical progress, including AF, silent modes, large and clear viewing screens). The current mirrorless digital cameras deliver most of the advantages that the original mirrorless camera (the Leica CRF) once set apart from a sea of single lens reflex cameras and pocket viewfinder cameras.
The incorporation of the semiconductor image sensor as a capture device inside the camera body and the ample integration of software algorithms for AF and AE lowered manufacturing costs and improved the accuracy and flexibility of the mirrorless camera to become a direct competitor of the current Leica M series. Leica itself has shown the method: take a Leica M body, remove the view/range-finder mechanism, incorporate an integrated shutter- motor-drive mechanism, AF software, and dispense of the compact lenses to incorporate a fast AF module and you get the Leica SL.
Silver-halide photography, with its
closed eco-system has been almost completely forgotten. This was by the way the technique that most masters of Leica photography had used till 2006. Then the Leica M8 was introduced with a modern vertically running metal blade shutter unit and a Kodak APS-H sized sensor. All these electronic components had to fit inside the classic-sized and shaped body. The then inevitable consequence was an increase in thickness of the body shell. The latest version is the Leica M10 with upgraded components and a simpler user interface. The adoption of image sensor technology by the Leica company has however exposed the Leica M camera to the volatile market forces of the electronic consumer industry and the mass media.
The impression of professionalism and durability, sprinkled with a dose of prestige and a drip of snob-appeal, is the mix that most buyers of the Leica M prefer.
The metal body, the solid feeling and the precise, but smooth operation of all knobs and buttons and the fact that the camera is manually assembled from precision manufactured parts add to this image. John Naughton in the Guardian (2014) describes his reasons for owning a Leica:
He has the almost-obsessive quest for the perfect picture, like the ones made by Cartier-Bresson and others. He delves into the history of the Leica and points to the embryonic genre of photojournalism, made possible with the Leica camera because of its compactness and unobtrusiveness. Leica cameras in his mind are beautifully engineered precision instruments with a reassuring heft and solidity.
Apart from the feeling of the camera, it are the lenses which are ‘astonishingly good’. He bought a second-hand M2 with a 35 Summilux lens as a young scholar and this set taught him everything he knew about photography.
Such accounts can be read in a variety of ways and with different emphasis by almost every Leica aficionado. It is a mix of myth, fact and emotion. With the viewpoint of marketing and brand promotion, some of these characteristics can be enlarged. The Leica M Process Book, not authorized by Leica, makes a number of statements that echo the sentiments of the average user.:
Leica cameras are designed to help photographers perfect their craft by having them slow down and focus on the essentials first.
The Leica M is a compact precision design with the best of materials and quick to use unobtrusively. The camera is popular with street and wedding photographers.
A sober technical assessment of the M4-2 was made by Popular Photography around 1980. The technicians (Norman Goldberg) note that the camera is a classically designed and executed fine mechanism with low friction mating of gears everywhere. The shutter mechanism and the rangefinder unit are selected as examples of engineering quality because of the many adjustments possible. The excellent craftsmanship and experience of the persons who operate the machines and who assemble the parts, making small adjustments to ensure the butter-smooth operation of the camera, are specifically described. Such a description is indeed the core of the mythical craftsmanship that gave the M3 to M6 its reputation. This praise may be important for the buyer who has to justify the high cost of the camera and its lenses.
Crawley in his review of the M4-P (1982) questions the quest for ultimate quality and thinks that the matter is debatable in terms of the working photographer to whom the 35mm camera is an everyday tool. The success of the Canon and Nikon products is proof that his caution was correct. When discussing the reputation and prestige of the camera, he points to the fact that the customers are convinced that there is no better camera than the Leica and there is also the conviction that the optical skill and engineering of the company remains unsurpassed. It is evident from the careful choice of words that Crawley is slightly critical of the beliefs of the Leica customers, but basically agrees with the verdict. This was perhaps valid in the 1970-1990 time frame, but it is now 2017!
There is a deeper reason for using a Leica M camera than accurate manual focusing or the engineering and optical quality.
attraction of the Leica CRF camera for the amateur photographer resides in its simplicity of use, its excellent compact wide aperture lenses and its conscious connection to the core elements of photography. This connection is more visible when using silver-halide (film) emulsions than when using a solid-state equipped camera. The Impressionists used this word deliberately. Reality imprints itself on the retina of the human eye. It is the duty of the artist to reproduce this image without much interference of the brain. The same process seems to happen when film emulsions are used: reality imprints itself by transferring light energy onto the silver halide grains in the emulsion. This process can be clearly envisaged. It is much more difficult to imagine the analog-digital conversion from photon count to numerical values in an ordered matrix in a digital file. The one-to-one correspondence between luminous object-points and the projected image points (as optical theory declares) is produced by an automatic and autonomous process. The specific photographic elements are the impact of the shutter speed, the optical system and the framing of the object ate moment of exposure. These are also the specific elements selected by the Lab Report by Popular Photography. The shutter refers to the moment or instant, the chance, the viewfinder refers to the gaze of the observer or photographer.
The element of chance is very important because it connects the characteristic of the automatic recording with a freezing of the movement of objects with the help of a high shutter speed (anything above 1/50 second). There is no photographer who can accurately predict what will be recorded by the camera in that fraction of a moment. The vibration and sound of the focal plane shutter and the mechanical shutter release connect the photographer to this core element of photography.
The gaze relates to the emotion and attention that the photographer has to have for the event or object to be recorded at the moment of freezing and framing the event or object. The large and accurate range/viewfinder of the Leica CRF camera is an obvious reminder of this element of the roots of photography.
The personal emotionally loaded snapshot is an excellent model for this type of photography. The French name is ‘photographie instantanée’. It is, in this context, revealing that Barnack designed the original Leica camera as a tool for a precise recording of everyday events and persons. This is identical to the Kodak snapshot, promoted by Eastman.
In a book that promotes the style of the personal, emotionally inspired snapshot, it is appropriate to start with a report on the development of the snapshot camera from the Kodak Box to the Leica CRF. A parallel development is the snapshot style from the writings of Baudelaire to the Impressionists and through the Surrealists to Modernism. A second layer will analyse the techniques for high definition imagery in both the silver-halide and solid-state technologies, in combination with a choice of Leica lenses. This layer is important because of its focus on the Leica technique for high quality snapshots. The Leica M7 and the Leica M8 will be used as the prime models to present the differences in analog and digital techniques. The third layer will look at the roots of photography: the theory of information and signal processing, the theory of perception and representation in science and art. This layout of layers implies that readers can select what to read.