Leica M3: a tribute to a landmark design
It is now more than 40 years ago that the Leitz company introduced the M3, a revolutionary new camera, designed by Mr. Stein, a name hardly anybody nowadays remembers. In 1954 the Korean war had just ended, the Russian empire was broke and the French philosophers like Sartre gathered in the famous Parisian cafe's, brooding on existentialism.
Germany was the biggest producer of cameras and during this period the bikini has been invented as well as the TTL measuring and rock and roll. Drugs momentarily reigned the western world, TV killed photojournalism and the Berlin Wall came down.
The period started with Marilyn Monroe and ended with Madonna. Germany is no longer a camera producer and the Russian empire is still broke.
Leitz started the period with the M3 and ended as Leica with the M6, with chrome lenses still being available. As an artform, photography did not change very much. Compare the photographs of Eugene Smith with the ones of Salgado and you will see the same view. Friendlander's Nudes are almost identical to Weston's Nudes.
With the introduction of the M3 the goal of a universal 35mm camera seemed to be reached.
The camera accepted lenses form 21 to 560mm, there was a large array of scientific and technical attachments available, covering almost any conceivable photographic task. The company in 1962 proudly announced that the Leitz Werke now manufactured more than 8000 parts to be combined into hundreds of products.
Three years after the introduction more than a 100.000 had been sold. Nikon sold in the same period about 60.000 S2’s and later another 30.000. But Leitz sold an additional 200.000 M2 and M3 bodies in the same period.
It took the M6 more than 10 years to equal the production number of the M3 in the first three years.
Any M3 is still a most useable camera, able to produce stunning pictures of very high quality. Looking at many of today’s magazines (Vogue, National Geographic, Stern) many pictures could have been made with an M3 (at least from a technical standpoint). That is some performance. A car from 1954 in the current traffic would be hopelessly outclassed. The M3 is mechanically an engineering and production masterpiece. Mr Stein was the designer and Mr Uhl the person to mastermind the production department and quality assurance.
These two persons may get the credit for the fame of the M3. Modest persons with powerful ideas and the knowledge to convert ideas into steel and glass stand behind the M3 and without them the photographic world would be a much poorer place.
If the basic principles of photography did not change that much, if the best camera of 1954 is still a potent performer, why then is the M6 a relative outsider in today's photo world?
Part of the answer can be found in the classical Greek tradition of art. The marble statues of the artists are no representation of real persons, but they represent the ideals of beauty as fixed in mathematical proportions and relations. It is not reality that inspired the artist. His ideas about what reality should be are represented.
The designers of the M3 worked in the same tradition. They defined the perfect photographic instrument for a type of photography that they deemed to represent the essence of photography.
The roots of course can be found in the Bauhaus tradition of a New Vision of reality.
The M3 is just the perfect instrument for the art of the snapshot, the poetic registration of fleeting moments in a days life of urban and human experience.
There is more!
Switch from an M3 to any modern SLR. The M3 does not interrupt the stream of consciousness in the mind when experiencing and visualizing the focus of interest. Look through an SLR and you get mentally blocked, narrowed down into a small tunnel of vision: the screen.
Kenneth Clark in his book about the “Nude” noted that the Greeks were not all interested in real undressed bodies. They tried to create a distinct art form with its own rules of the game. In analogy one might argue that the M3 also created a distinct type of photography: the poetic and very realistic registration of the human experience. Salgado, Cartier-Bresson, Seymour, Boubat, Doisneau and many others played according to the rules.
Form follows function.
A modern SLR with motordrive and zoomlens is bigger and heavier than a medium format camera which boasts a much larger picture area. Here the efficiency and functionality relations are gone. The M3 is a much better design as it exploits the smallness of the 35mm format into a highly functional and efficient body. Small format photography is different from a photography based on the 35mm perforated film. The M3 reigned when Life and others dominated the communication market. Now photography is a more elaborate and artificial undertaking in the world of image-generation, a game that the digital chain can do better.
But the nature of photography has changed too. Using an M3 effectively demands a basic knowledge of the photographic processes that is nowadays almost extinct, if one is to believe the many newsgroups that discuss technical matters.
The Japanese designers accepted a long time ago that the photographic instrument should incorporate this basic knowledge, presumably with the fine intention that now the photographer could concentrate on the subject. They did forget one very important topic. Photography is not an art, but a craft. That is the rules and knowledge of the craft are part of the picture itself. The craft orientation made the classical Leica photographers so important and the M3 embodies the concept of photography as a craft second to none. The M6 is no different.
Most gadgets built into current SLR’s are not needed to make a technically perfect picture or to make a sensitive statement about the human or animal condition.
The current automated cameras are like the automatic pilot in a plane. It works alone without human intervention, but when it fails the pilot needs to know how to act. In photography most users are lost when the automatic pilot gives up. We are helpless in the face of modern technology. This is a trend of the age. Many studies will tell you that most people feel overwhelmed by high-technology instruments and hardly use 5% of its inherent functions.
The Japanese approach is of course a very valid one. The photographic mass market does not ask for knowledge, the market wants support for easy picture taking.
The M3 can only perform well if and only if the user can perform well. As an instrument it is perfectly suited to do what a user wants. Left alone it is at best an object of desire for collectors.
The M6 is basically an M3. When we use an inflation factor of 10 (from 1954 to 1995, based on the Economist data) an M6 should sell for 8000 Dutch guilders. In reality the actual selling price is about 60% of that figure. So Solms did a good job in production efficiency. Still an M3/M6 is tuned to that same idea of photography: the artless art of the snapshot.
The company needs to do more to get the M-type photography into the next century.
The freedom and joy of an expert craftsman.
When sailing over the ocean we can use a high tech-based navigational system to guide us. It will do an excellent job.
Still navigating on the stars and using one owns experience and knowledge is at least more enjoyable and a bit more of an adventure. Photographing with a 40 year old M3 provides the thrill of adventure, the satisfaction of a job well done.