Leica MP: revisited
Since its introduction in 1925, the Leica camera has quickly become the role model for the miniature precision camera and for the new vision style tool. The precision engineering that was implemented into the manufacturing of the camera was the decision of Leitz and their scientific background as microscope manufacturers. For the generation of photographers that used the camera as an extension of their eye and as a tool to visualize their emotions about the environment they were experiencing, that aspect did not get any attention at all. We may even be curious about the future of the Leica if that small band of artists in the early thirties had not adopted that instrument as the premium medium to communicate their new way of visual representation.
We are used to assume that the Leica as a tool was instrumental in the new vision, as defined by Cartier-Bresson and his fellow photographers, like Ilse Bing and Kertesz. The fine biography of Pierre Assouline (see below) gives a different answer.
There was a discussion between the great French humanist photographers (Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau) whether the Leica with 24x36 or the Rolleiflex with 60x60 was the best tool for the job. Both men produced images that are sometimes remarkably close in style and content. And the great Dutch photographer, Ed van der Elsken, used a Rollei before adopting the Leica, but you cannot infer from the images, which one was made with what camera.
The Leica then had to have some special characteristics or personality in order to become the tool of preference for the majority of the new vision photographers.
The two faces of the Leica.
The Leica is undoubtedly a tool of scientific capabilities. The engineering precision, the optical quality of its lenses, the ruggedness, all add to the needs of the user who needs accuracy and reliability of the images for further study. The large array of scientific equipment that Leitz produced for the Leica camera from the IIIseries and the M3/2 line is impressive and wellknown.
The new vision photographer had different needs. It is known that Cartier-Bresson never used the rangefinder, but simply estimated the distance. He also used mostly the 50mm at medium apertures (f/8) to get enough depth of field. He used Tri-X film and estimated always the exposure. In the three years of shooting in India, he only used 300 rolls of film, not enough to wear down the mechanism of his Leica. Yet, HCB and others had a very emotional relation to the camera and carried them always and everywhere. He did not see the Leica as an instrument to get nice pictures, but as a kind of Geiger-Muller-counter that indicates the secret vibrations of the life around him. The Leica then is the perfect tool for capturing life as it evolves. But one needs a sensitive eye and mind to see below the surface of life happening around us. The Leica, according to HCB, interrupts the least in the emotional relation between the photographer and his view of the world, in short the camera supports his life style. At the moment that HCB in 1970 did change his life style, he dropped the Leica and never made pictures again.
The aspect of mechanical precision and the emotional relation are not by itself related. The superb Contarex did not spark any interest by users. There are several cameras that have a level of engineering that is close to or even as good as that of the Leica or even better. The Hasselblad, the Contarex, the Nikon F and Canon F1 come to mind. Only the Nikon F started a cult that is close to that of the Leica, The famous group of London fashion photographers around David Bailey started the Nikon F hype in the same way as a generation before them the Leica artists had done. And as before, the mechanical precision of the camera was not the most important item. It was the style of life and the approach to photography that produced the emotional bond.
Indirectly the high level of quality engineering did support that emotional bond. In the case of the Leica the superb smoothness of the operation and the almost seductively shaped body added to the concept of taking pictures without any operational obstruction.
In addition, there is a mutual recognition between an artist striving for personal perfection and an instrument that is built with the highest level of workmanship.
The fascination for the camera then is based on two aspects: it should support and enhance the type of photography the user wants to exploit and the working of the camera should give a feeling of confidence and total reliance. You can understand the functions of the Leica mechanism after a short study and you can use the mechanism to do exactly what you want it to do. To understand is to control.
The fascination with the Leica mechanism and engineering also complements the workmanlike aspects of the photographic process.
None of the great Leica photographers has ever made any comment about the camera mechanism and the mechanical engineering. All mentioned that the camera did inspire them or supported them in their photo-vision. The engineering is so to speak the hidden part of the personality of the camera.
The Leica MP: the way of taking pictures.
When I wrote my report about the MP, I did approach the camera from the perspective of the Leica photo-artist. And I stressed the emotional aspects of the photographic process and the role of the Leica as a tool. Basically the MP is for 90% identical to the M7 and for that matter the M6 or M3. Many reviews talk about the purely mechanical functions of the MP and confront them to the electronic bias of the M7. It is indeed remarkable that most comments are focussed on the mechanical construction as the primary advantage of the MP and not about the MP as the tool for creative photography as it should be. The MP is for the artist-photographer whose style of photography matches the personality of the camera. The main advantages are simplicity, direct and absolute mastery of the controls and confidence inspiring ergonomics and feel. The fact that Leica designed the MP in such a way as to resemble closely the M3 is a strong indication that they see the MP as being the heir to the new vision style of photography of the thirties to fifties.
I could use the MP for a two-week holiday in the beautiful Provence department in the South of France. When taking pictures I paid additional attention to the approach of HCB: the seamless flow from instinctive urge to take a picture of whatever captures the eye to the direct and unhampered execution of the click. From a purist view, even the blinking lights of the exposure indication are a distraction as they ask you to pay attention to the topic of correct exposure. This can be simply negated by measuring the exposure before taking the picture. But now comes the snag: if you wait for the photo opportunity to occur, you are always too late. So you must go the HCB route: being a hunter of the images you want and searching for them. You can sense in a certain situation that something will happen and you need all your attention to capture the right moment. Here the MP is a fine tool: it is extremely simple to use, very supportive of the kind of photography you want as the large and bright viewfinder shows you the environment that you have selected where the anticipated event will take place. And the camera will always perform as expected and never let you down. In reality you do not even think about the camera, as it is almost a part of your existence as the Borg implants of Seven of Nine in the Startrek series.
This then is the Leica experience as its best: taking the picture is what counts and the camera will enhance that experience by its personality and construction.
The Leica MP: the seductive instrument
The Leica MP has the look and feel of the M3/M2 series and undoubtedly that is on purpose. None of the features (all-metal transport level, dropping of Leica logo on front, rewind knob) adds one milligram to the functioning of the camera, but it gives the user something to be proud of. The original Leica M design by Mr Stein and Co. is a classical example of a beautiful and functional design that cannot be improved upon. It is like a painting by Van Gogh: it is simply perfect. It is a striking design and will be seen as one of the great industrial designs of the 20th century. When I put side by side my M3, M7 and (loaned) MP, I am emotionally attracted to the M3 and MP. I do appreciate the M7 (in my view the best M ever), but compared to the M3 it is a Volvo to an Alfa Romeo. Where the M7 is functional and serious, the M3/MP are elegant and powerful.
The MP can convince by its looks and as with the Alfa Romeo, the user will feel excited just by owning it. And he will try to live up to the expectations inherent in the design. There is a beautiful book about the art of travelling, which in essence states that arriving is not the point, but the anticipation of what to expect and the road to the destination is the true value of the travel. In this sense the MP is the art of classical photography at its best.
It is a pity in my view that most reviewers neglect the art of taking pictures and the subtle match of instrument and result to get fine pictures that fit the character of the instrument. The Leica can be a very personal tool as used by HCB and a scientific tool as used by as example Paul Wolff.
The focus on the mechanical aspects is in my view the wrong approach. It may stem from the nostalgic mood that the M3 was the pinnacle of precision engineering in camera technique (which it was not) and the current mood that the M6 family (including the M7) have strayed too much away from their true origin as cost cutting and functional requirements cannibalized the design to a pale shadow of its proud ancestors, (which is nonsense).
The Leica MP: the mechanical heritage
Leica also focussed on the quality of the mechanical engineering as a unique selling point. Many reviewers have picked up this point and described the MP as the modern day M3, implicitly and explicitly claiming that the M6/M7 is not up to classical Leica levels of engineering.
Let me be clear here: we have a technical approach to engineering and an emotional approach to engineering. Technically a Toyota Lexus is better than a Mercedes-Benz S type. Still the MB will be preferred by many drivers, because of its distinctive exposition of the quality of its materials and also of course while fashion is something that needs to be followed. In this sense we assume that the plastic tipped lever of the M7 must be inferior to the all-metal part of the MP. We also infer that the plastic part can break off more easily than the metal component. Therefore we conclude that the MP is better engineered. Where the M7 has a somewhat rougher film transport and the M3/MP has a smoother one, we assume that superior engineering must be the cause. It may be a refinement or an improvement, but not one that is better engineered.
The rangefinder of the M3/MP is less flare prone than the one in the M6 series, but the basic engineering of all finder types is identical: same choice of material, same machining tools, same tolerances etc.
Visual improvements do not necessarily be accompanied by better engineering. And there are many instances in M6/M7 cameras where engineering has improved without seeing or noticing it.
The shutter mechanism is a case: the MP shutter is being described as a full mechanical shutter compared to the electronic one of the M7. And by implication is of lesser quality. The truth is more mundane: the main parts of the shutter (curtains, springs, main roller, spring rollers, brakes) are identical as engineering parts (specifications, tolerances etc). The only difference between the M7 and MP shutter is the governing of the timing of the curtains, that is done by mechanical means in the MP and by electromagnets and some timing chips in the M7. A true electronic shutter with quartz controlled timing, you will not see in the M7.
There is a persistent myth in the Leica community that improvements, refinements and just differences must be translated in engineering quality and most assume that the changes are negative compared to earlier versions. It is true that the tension of the springs in an M7 shutter are different from the ones in a MP shutter, but does that make the M7 shutter of lesser quality, engineering wise?
Battery dependence is an issue, but on the convenience level, not on the engineering level. If it were, than the T-Ford would be better engineered than a current BMW.
The mechanical enticement
Synthetic materials may have the future and electronic components may be the best way to build complex machinery, but the lure of the machine is eternal. Let us have no illusions: injection molded synthetics can be made as accurate and with as great precision as machined metal parts.
But there is a cultural and maybe even emotional difference between a mass produced, almost anonymous product as a computer or a digital camera and a handcrafted camera as a Leica or a Hasselblad V-series.
Again we should put 'handcrafted' in the right corner: most machined parts are now made with the help of NC or CNC machinery. But there are always some details that will be done entirely by hand. A lens mount for the Leica is now CNC-produced. But the nonlinear curves (sleeves) in the mount to govern the movement of the lens elements in the Vario-lenses are done by hand, and are inspected and finished by humans.
This fact, that we know that the camera or lens has been carefully inspected and assembled and finished by dedicated workers, is part of the mystique and joy of using the Leica cameras and lenses.
We know that Leica cameras are individually checked at all important steps along the road to completion. But we should not forget that the Canon AE1, made by robots was also checked individually, but by robots who controlled every part before assembling them. With a modular construction that is easy to do. The QC of the robot assembled products may be even better than the manual method by workers. (Robots do not let drift their attention to more amusing fantasies).
In the car market the simple mechanical pickup car is the bestselling product since several years, widely outselling the sophisticated Honda and BMW cars, full of electronics and based on high qualified engineering. There is a reason for this popularity. The pick up is the closest to a horse we can think of. It is rough, not very efficient, but you can love the car, because it has a personality.
The new Porsche Cayenne (SUV) has been designed specifically to exude highest quality and best engineering and best performance. The designer noted in an interview that he had put all his attention to these qualities. When asked if he thought the car was perceived as a real Porsche, he answered: is the customer really asking this question or does he simply wants the best car in the world.
The analogy with the Leica is obvious: the Leica is a simple mechanical product, with a very strong personality (that you can love or hate) and also a product that radiates beauty, quality and durability.
And as with the pick up, you can see the use of the product. A cat has two large eyes in front of the body, that occupy a large proportion of the face and this signifies that the cat is a predator that uses vision to survive. And the Leica M with its large finder windows also indicates quite clearly this function: viewing and vision.
Cartier-Bresson has once remarked that he sees himself as a stalker, a person who observes the intimacy of human life without taking part. And that is the basic function of documentary photography: the design of the Leica camera is made for this function: to observe and capture. You can see it in the functional layout of the Leica.
Where stands the MP?
With the Leicavit M and some training of the fingers, the MP can become the instrument that will deliver very personal and moving images of the world around us, if the user is in the right mental state. The classical Leica photographers will tell you time and again that the mind is Number One and the tool is the extension. Not the other way around. But the tool must support your vision. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, is an old saying. The MP is a very fine and exciting tool, but you need a clear vision of the imagery you wish to create.
The current emphasis on the retro feel and look of the MP may satisfy some parts of the Leica community. But in essence this is counterproductive. The MP should be appreciated as a modern camera with a distinct set of capabilities, compared to other competitors. What the MP needs is a new and creative generation of photographers who see beyond the superficial details and can forge a new visual language that suits the personality of the camera and its potential.
Many current users of the M-camera demand a digital version of the M. A digital M in my view would kill the core and heart of the camera. This is stuff for another articleor use information contained in these documents, please respect the notion of intellectual property and refer to the original document or ask permission to copy parts of the text