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Leica in the twentyfirst century

When I think about the status and current practices of (Leica) photography in the twenty-first C I wish to reflect on
(1) the fluid borderline between the art photograph and the domestic photograph;
(2) the vanishing of the silver-halide photography (influenced by the so-called digital turn) and the disappearance of photography as a distinct social and technical activity;
(3) the status of the Leica camera as the premium precision engineered instrument.

These three topics are related, but are not the only ones that are tangent to the Leica world. Many books have been written about the Leica camera. Most fall in one of three different classes: the history books discussing the evolution of the Leitz Werke and later Leica AG; the collector books, discussing every variant of the camera models that were and are manufactured by the company and the picture books that explain the evolution of the art of Leica photography, beginning with Wolff, and then in orderly succession move on from the French Humanist photographers to the American snapshot-aesthetic street photographers. Now it is quiet in the photographic art world. In the current post-modern art world digital cameras are used to create large tableaus for exhibition purposes in museums and galleries. The Leica digital camera is hardly used by modern large scale and large format art photographers.
The Leica camera is an excellent tool for the spontaneous and instantaneous style of photography. Barnack designed the camera with this goal in mind: a handy-sized pocketable camera of high quality for recording everyday life. This goal matched seamlessly with the trend of the times: modernism as a movement was initiated already in the middle of the nineteenth century (by the writer-critic Baudelaire) to become the major movement in the first part of the twentieth century. Modernism refocused the attention on everyday events in an urban environment and admired the technological progress (1).
The Leica Company has always emphasised the close connection between the Leica and photographic art. This connection has been accentuated presumably to elevate the status of the camera from a high performance compact amateur tool for candid photographs to a tool for the ambitious photographer who wants to follow the great masters of Leica photography. It is significant that Leica now selects photographers that were famous in the second half of the twentieth century when the film-loading Leica rangefinder was the only choice for serious photographers.
Most photographs made with a Leica fall into the category of snapshots. This type of pictures is hardly exciting and is therefore neglected by most art historians and theorists. Recently a turning point has been reached. The academic and art worlds have caught sight of the amateur snapshot as a social, ethnographic and photographic artefact.
The Leica camera was designed as a candid camera and its mechanical and optical qualities were specified to ensure enlargements that could equal the image quality of the ubiquitous 9 x 12 cm or 13 x 18 cm print formats. The accuracy of the manufacture of the camera matched these requirements. The all-metal body was an innovation. The manufacturing technology of that period could guarantee the accuracy of the parts when metal was used. It was the preferred technology of the Leitz Werke as a manufacturer of a wide variety of optical precision instruments. When manufacturing technology progressed and more materials became available, the Leica camera also improved. The well-known editor of the BJP, Crawley, noted that “the quality of manufacture […] improved steadily until […] the manufacturing standard emerged from an ad hoc but workaday mechanism to within sight of a standard to which the term ‘precision’ might be applicable. “
The copies of the Reid and Canon cameras were made to a higher standard of manufacture and were a major impetus for Leitz to produce the Leica M3. In the 1950s and 1960s amateur photography became a widespread activity. The camera industry responded with a tide of innovative products. Most of them were labelled as “built with precision”, “designed by exerts” and a host of comparable phrases. True or not, the amateur photographer did not want to be seen without ‘serious stuff’. One of the most serious kits was the Leica rangefinder system. The optical and mechanical quality justified its status as the professional workhorse for available-light photography. Intriguing is the contrast between the general use of the Leica CRF and its capabilities as a high performing picture engine. Looked at the matter with a purely functional eye, there is no reason to buy a Leica CRF unless you need the reliability and durability of the instrument. Most amateur photographers are very conscious of the value of the Leica camera and use it with care. There is no sound (photographical and functional) argument for the choice of a Leica CRF when taking pictures in the candid snapshot style. The redoubtable Canon RF system would suffice! There are in fact only two or three arguments for investing in the Leica system. One is the very simple argument that the owner wants to differentiate himself from the rest and the other argument is the appreciation for the asceticism of the perfected camera, which is just a camera and not an electronic machine. It is indeed significant that the most discussed properties of the Leica camera are the mythical properties of optical excellence, carefully selected material and meticulously produced parts that are assembled by an experienced workforce. The comparison of the optical performance of the many lens es in the system (its boke(h), its wide open performance, colour correction and so on) initiates always a lengthy discussion on any internet blog or forum. The well-known discussion about the material of the top cover (zinc or bronze) is a good example of the focus of many owners of Leica equipment. Next to the question what is the best lens is the topic what is the best camera. This display of knowledge of camera lore is a harmless and sometimes amusing exercise. It does distract from a serious and honest appraisal of the technical and functional characteristics of the Leica CRF. In this respect we find the third reason for the choice for the Leica CRF system: the compact high performance lenses and the mechanical-manual operation of the camera and its attached lens. The amount of detail that can be accurately recorded by the Leica CRF is one of the big assets. The manual operation is a vivid reminder of the materiality of the photographic process, especially when using and processing silver-halide emulsions.
One of the great assets of the Leica CRF system is the small size and limited weight of many M lenses while preserving a very high image quality. With the new introductions Leica seems to have changed their strategy: several new lenses for the M-system break a barrier. One of the main complaints of the old Zeiss Contarex was the fact that the lenses for this system were designed without any regard for size and weight. The Zeiss Otus lens is the first modern design that also disregards size and weight. At first this design was negatively reviewed because of these physical characteristics. Now the new designs for the CL and SL cameras are bulky too (their performance is not disputed). The CL and SL indicate that the Leica designers follow the standard of the day: industrially-sized bodies with every possible option integrated into the body and fast but bulky AF lenses with a variable range of focal lengths. This is the current standard in a digital Coca-Cola world. The camera with a different approach that distinguishes itself from the mainstream is the Leica M CRF.
There are several remarkable antinomies in the argumentation around a Leica camera, solid-state equipped or cartridge-loading. Here floods a list, certainly not complete:
(1) The choice of materials of a solid-state equipped camera ensures a prolonged durability, but the pace of technology and the demands of the marker require a continuous refreshment of the camera models. This relatively fast product cycle causes a drop in value and popularity. The M8.2 is still a very good camera for most purposes that the Leica photographer will strive for. The popularity of this particular model is very low now. The risks of break down and a scarcity of repair parts does not bode well for a prospective owner. Compare this state of affairs with the situation for the Leica M4: this one can be repaired by any competent repairperson and there is an abundance of spare parts.
(2) The insistence by all buyers of a Leica camera that it should deliver the highest possible image quality is at odds with the modest demands for the final result. The so-called pixel peepers use a ridiculous process to examine the properties of a virtual image file.
(3) Many older users of the Leica CRF complain about a reduced ability for accurate focus with the manually operated rangefinder and switch to one of the autofocus models. At the same time the subjects of the photographer are in many cases static, a condition that does not require fast and accurate autofocus. The photographers who use a Leica rangefinder camera had and have zone focusing, attentive observation and a host of other methods at their disposal to cope with fast changing situations.
(4) A comparable argument can be set up for the automatic exposure mechanism that is available since the M7. Many commentators in books and on the internet state that AE is needed to ‘get the results’. On the contrary: an external handheld exposure meter suffices to measure the ambient light and experience can change the settings. In open air there is a stable illuminance value between 11.00 and 15.00 hours.
This list of purely photographic problems and how to cope with them is an indication that photographers now have lost their traditional grasp of the technical matters. The ubiquitous software algorithm is the root of this situation. The efficiency of the processing of the numerical data (after the analog-digital converter has transformed the analog data into numerical ones) ensures that almost every fault of the user is compensated and supports the user when knowledge or experience of the photographic process is lacking. The downside of this reliance on unknown processing algorithms is the dependence of the user on the choices and ideas of the software developer inside the company. With chemical materials the user knows exactly what is going on and how the processes can be handled to get the desired results: the Zone System is an excellent example of the controlled manipulation of the photographic process.
The hallmark of the Leica camera is the accuracy of the manufacture. The literature of the Leica company refers often to this characteristic. The most used examples are however the taken from the optical design and manufacture. In this domain the tolerances are indeed small (0.001 mm are common). The manual assembly of elements with such narrow tolerances is not simple and requires highly trained and gifted workers with a sensitive tactile feeling. Some workers are indeed capable of handling such narrow tolerances.
The manufacture and assembly of the camera body is a different story. The adjustment of the sensor surface alignment and distance from flange to surface is computer-assisted. It depends however on the worker how to handle the upper and lower tolerances.
The purely mechanical parts are manufactured to a tolerance of 0.01 mm (now: it was 0.02 mm). As said, the tolerance level can be held (now and in the past) to very narrow limits when the whole process is competently monitored and verified. There are several levels of precision.
The first is micro-precision: workpiece accuracies below 10 microns. The second is ultra-precision: workpiece accuracies lower than 3 microns. The third is nano-precision: workpiece accuracies below 1 micron. Camera products fall in category one and optical products fall in category two. In the world of machine shops, levels one and two are normal practice and easily achieved. The claim that Leica products can be designated as high-precision might be true, but the claim should be supported by actual numbers. It is too simple to state the claim and let the visitors of the factory be impressed without factual evidence (this happens a lot, alas! And not only when doing a factory visit at the Leica Company in Wetzlar).
It is a common response in the industry of camera manufacture to state that the publication of standards of manufacture and the tolerances used during machining and assembly are secret because of its sensitivity of such figures. There are however three aspects to discuss in this respect: the specified tolerance levels by the design and engineering department.; the actual tolerance levels in the machine shop and assembly process (including the measuring tools and the competence of handling them) and the measuring of the tolerances at the final control.
It is a curious paradox that the accuracy of manufacture and assembly increases at the same time that the effectiveness of the digital processing of image data would allow a lowering of the manufacturing standard. The Leica products have always distinguished themselves by the (high-)precision of engineering and manufacturing, because this characteristic is supposed to be a unique selling point.
This level of manufacturing accuracy is appropriate for the film-loading cameras because the silver-halide processing chain follows a pattern of stepwise degradation of image quality. The digital processing workflow on the other hand has at every step the potential of an improvement of image quality.

The disappearance of photography as a distinct social and technical activity is a fact now that the modern visual culture is omnipresent and has absorbed photography as only one of many producers of imagery. Everyone takes photographs at every moment of everything and uploads them to one of the social media on the internet. Billions of pictures are taken every week (perhaps every day, no one knows exactly). The content of these pictures is not distinguishable from what can be seen in the classic family album. Photography as a process is inherently amateurish and it shows! Photography as a craft may be classified now as one of the disappearing old-school trades. The discussion on the forums and in the magazines is as traditional and conventional as ever. The embracement of the digital technology has not liberated the user. Fifty years ago the most discussed questions were: what film to use, what camera, what lens for best imagery, for portraits and so on. Now the questions have hardly changed. What film to use has been exchanged for what sensor to use, how many pixels do I need, but the questions about cameras and lenses are still the same. Everybody has its preferences now and in the past. The Pentax promoters are as active as the Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji, Canon or Leica promoters. Only a very few persons dare to propose that photography has nothing to do with the equipment and everything with the subject and with what happens in the brain of the photographer.