Saturday, August 23, 2014

Photographing Decay with the Leica Camera

Long-time readers know I used film cameras, and especially Leicas, for decades. Here is a short review (note: no urban decay in this article, just photo notes).

The Leica Camera was invented by a brilliant optical technician, Mr. Oskar Barnack, at the optical firm of Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, in Wetzlar, Germany, in 1913. He wanted a compact camera to use on outings in the woods and mountains and decided to use the newly-introduced 35mm movie film with sprockets. He used an image area of 24×36mm, introducing a standard that has remained in use for over a century. Leica cameras were a sensation and were soon used by correspondents, spies,  and wealthy amateurs around the world. A very well-illustrated history of Leica is on Thornsten Overgaard's Leica page.
This a 1932 advertisement for the Leica model D camera from Central Camera in Chicago. By the way, Central is still in business, and I stopped by their store on Wabash Avenue only a month ago. Leicas were always expensive. In 1932, an engineer (then considered a relatively prosperous profession) earned about $2500/year or about $200/month. So this Leica D with lens was about one half or one third of a month's salary. Some 1960s prices are listed below in Appendix A.

Ernst Leitz based its success on precision manufacturing with almost no expense spared (similar to its German competitor, Zeiss). The Leica and its lenses were superior to any 35mm cameras from American manufacturers before and during World War 2. During the war, some Leicas were smuggled through Sweden for use by Allied intelligence services (and an occasional general and wealthy industrialist).
My father had wanted a Leica for years but was only able to afford one in 1949. It was a model IIIC and is still in the family. The one he bought had a coated 50 mm f/2 Summitar lens. The coatings on these post-war lenses were soft, and many were badly scratched over the years, but our example is pristine. I use it on my digital cameras occasionally because the coma and aberrations produce interesting effects. Surprisingly, stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8, it is equal to most contemporary lenses.
This is an example of a Kodachrome taken with this camera in 1953. Guess the location.
This is the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, a Kodachrome from 1957 taken with this IIIC.
Many of the earlier screw-mount Leicas were sold with the 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens, which was similar to the Zeiss Tessar lens. The Elmars were in production until the early 1960s and then re-introduced for a few years, an amazing, long-lasting optical design. Tessar-type lenses had a characteristic of emphasizing edge contrast, so black and white photographs looked contrasty and sharp. The one I had was a coated post-war red-scale model. The hoods and filters had a clamp arrangement (Leica was famous for making hundreds of semi-unique hoods, clamps, filters, and other profitable gadgets, all of meticulous craftsmanship.).
One of the most sophisticated and brilliant mechanical Leicas was the M3 rangefinder, introduced in 1954. It had a larger and much brighter finder than the older screw-mount models. Many people say this was the brightest and clearest finder that Leica ever made. This finder included the rangefinder patch in the overall viewing scene along with white frame bars that showed the coverage of the lens (for 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses). It also introduced the new Leica M bayonet fitting for quick lens attachment. I had always wanted one of the M models, and in 1981, I saw this well-used late 1950s example in Optica Lutz Ferrando in Buenos Aires. Argentina was going through one of its bouts of devaluation, so three $50 bills efficiently arranged for transfer of the M3 to its new owner.
Leica marketed their products worldwide. Advertisements and instruction manuals were printed in most European languages. I am not sure about Asian sales.
The lens on the M3 in the above photograph is the superb first generation, 8-element 35mm f/2 Summicon lens. The one I had was specifically for the M3 camera. The finder of the M3 had frame lines to show the field of view for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. If you mounted a wide angle lens on the M3, the photograph field was larger than shown by the bright lines in the finder. Therefore, you could not frame accurately. To mitigate this problem, Leica made the 35 Summicron in a version with goggles. The goggles fit over the camera's finder and reduced the magnification. In this way, the former 50mm frame bars now showed the correct field of view for the 35mm lens. It was a bit complicated but quite effective. Note that some of Leitz' best lenses, like this 35, were made in Midland, Canada. The Midland factory made some of Leica's most famous lenses as well as special optics for military use.
For many years, I used a 50mm f/2.8 Elmar lens. This was a post-war refinement of the original Elmar with lanthanum glass to improve performance. Notice the round iris. At f/2.8, it was a bit soft and perfect for portraits. I bought it at a swap meet in Houston. That was one of those social events where old geezers rented tables for a weekend and opened trunks full of camera odds and ends, and talked camera, and maybe made some money (and maybe drank a bit?). The Internet and eBay largely killed off these meets.
One of the finest lenses from the 1950s was the 50mm f/2 Dual-Range Summicron (the Type 2 Summicron). Rangefinder lenses could only focus down to about 3 feet. So once again, Leica developed goggles to adjust the field of view. Mount the goggles on the lens, and it would push a release button, allowing the helicoid to focus to about 1.5 ft. I still use this lens.
This is a Type 2 50 Summicron without the close-focus mechanism. You will never see better mechanical finishing and craftsmanship than exhibited on these lenses. They were heavy because the mounts were chrome-plated brass. The optical quality is almost as good as any 50mm lens today.
These are Series VI filters for black and white film. I still use them on my M2, a Rolleiflex, and on a 4×5" camera. Series filters do not have threads. They are placed into an adapter holder, which is threaded for the appropriate lens. Many older Leica lenses were E39 size. 
This is the Leitz polarizer filter. Because you can not see the effect through the lens, as with a single-lens reflex camera, this filter was designed with a pivot. Swing the filter out, view through it, adjust the amount of polarization desired, then pivot it 180° in front of the lens. Brilliant.
This was the folding metal hood for the Summicron lens. It was beautifully made but bulky. Note that cinematographers use larger barn door hoods with their $100,000 lenses. (You can always tell an amateur photographer: he is the guy who will argue vehemently that he does not need a hood because his lenses have some sort of super modern coatings rather than spend 2 seconds and simply attach one.)
The Leica rangefinder cameras before the M5 of 1971 did not have built-in light meters. So for models M3, M2, M4, and MP, Leica marketed these elegant little CDS meters that fit into the flash shoe and coupled with the shutter speed dial. Another clever design, and more proof that Leica was a master of inventing unique accessories. Problem: the meter used mercury PX625 batteries, which are now banned.
This is the Leica M2 camera. It was similar to the M3, but the viewfinder had a wider-angle view and could mount a 35mm lens without the goggle attachment. I bought this gorgeous example from a friend here in town. A 1980s-vintage Type 4 50mm f/2.0 Summicron lens is on the body. 
Photojournalists around the world used Leicas. Cuban photographer Alberto Kordahe took this iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara with a Leica M2 and 90mm lens. The title is Guerrillero Heroico ("Heroic Guerrilla Fighter"). The Wikipedia article is an interesting read. Hmm, even the anti-capitalists liked Leicas.
This is my second M2 body. My stepdad bought this one (and the Dual-Range lens in the previous pictures) in 1966. He lived in Greece, and at that time, such luxury goods were taxed at over 100 percent. So a friend bought it in Germany and brought it back in her suitcase. 
This is the 90mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit lens from the early-1980s, a compact and handy 90 for travel use. I used it for 25 years.
This is the ground-breaking Russar 20mm lens, made in the Soviet Union. This was a symmetrical super-wide lens with a deeply-protruding rear lens element. It was only a f/5.6 lens, but was contrasty and had great color. The original patents were from Michail Rossinov in 1946. In 1951, Zeiss modified the design for their legendary Biogon super-wide lens. Lomography has re-introduced this 20 (now made by Zenit) with M-mount to use with modern film or digital cameras. I am not sure how well it will work on digital, but the fact that it is still in production after 60 years is pretty amazing. And Zeiss still makes Biogons in mounts for various cameras.  
Some people claimed that Leica lenses were tailored for the color response of Kodachrome. That is probably just hyperbole, but properly exposed Kodachrome slides were brilliant.

Leica film cameras and lenses are among the few photographic products that held their value for decades. There is still an active market for film Leicas on auction sites. If you could afford the initial cost, any lens lasted for decades and often could be sold at a profit. 


Leica still makes cameras, both film and digital models. In fact, Leica Camera AG may be the only camera company that is profitable today. The digital models resemble the classic rangefinder bodies but are somewhat thicker. They are expensive, and the lenses, still the best in the world, are breathtaking in cost. As a result, there are plenty of Leica-haters, mostly the jealous "photographers" who post on forums about how their digital xyz camera is so much better because it has more functions and more buttons. Dpreview features the worst of these techno-dweebs. As Roger Hicks writes in his amusing personal photographic journey, Leicaphilia, "Leica-haters may refuse to believe it, but Leicas are cameras for people who take their photography seriously."

And there are fans who blather on orgasmically about their Leicas. On photo blogs, they write nonsense such as "I can really see the Leica heritage and century of precision and lens crafting in these jpegs taken handheld with my new Leica xyz." Time to gag or retch. 

But the M Monochrom is tempting: a digital camera with an 18 pixel CCD monochrome sensor - yes, black and white only. Plenty of "photographers" on the camera sites scoff, but obviously they never used black and white film (and it is clear most of them know almost nothing about photography anyway). But it is $8000 - hmmm, maybe I'll ask my daughter to buy me one.

If you are interested in a rangefinder camera, the Danish photographer Thorsten Overgaard wrote an excellent article on how to focus with the rangefinder and how it differs from focus systems that project the image on a frosted glass or plastic (the single lens reflex type of camera). 

Update August 25, 2014

Here is Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953 with her Leica IIIF IIIC (similar to the same as my dad's IIIC, but she was not his friend).
Here is Elvis with his Leica. He was not a family friend, either. He has his left index finger on the viewfinder window.
Queen Elizabeth with her Leica M3. Sigh, also not a family friend.
Erwin Rommel had one, too.

Update February 28, 2015

On a 2014 trip to Burma, (Myanmar), I took Kodak Tri-X film and my Leica M2. 
This is a scene from the waterfront of Mandalay, with the Irrawaddy River in the background, taken with a 35mm f/2 Summicron lens (pre-aspherical) with yellow filter. The contemporary Tri-X is amazing, and has slightly smaller grain that the version of a few decades ago.
This is the unused Pegu Club in Rangoon, the former exclusive English officers' club once patronized by notables like George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling.
This is the central train station in Rangoon (Yangon), also with the 35mm Summicron lens.

Update January 2016


The Online Photographer blog had an interesting description of a visit to the treasure vaults at the George Eastman House. The vaults contain 16,000 significant cameras. The author described how Kodak was a pioneer in digital technology and had predicted the fall in film sales, but was unable to make money on digital hardware. 

Update March 2017

This is the cover of the Japanese journal, Photographic Industries, showing a Leica M3 with an unusual reflex-viewing attachment and a long-focus lens.  
A 1960s advertisement for the Leica M4 emphasizing the essentials  of photography. Better not show this to the techno-dweebs who insist that photography is not possible without 108 megapixels, autoexposure, and enormous stabilized zoom lenses. The horror of it all.

Appendix A

I found an old email from the Leica Users Group forum with prices of the M2 camera in the 1960s (in US Dollars):

Catalog 35, FEB 60:
M2 body 216.00
M2 w/35mm f/3.5 Summaron 298.50
M2 w/35mm f/2.8 Summaron 321.00
M2 w/35mm f/2 Summicron 390.00
M2 w/50mm f/3.5 Elmar 267.00
M2 w/50mm f/2.8 Elmar 276.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 rigid Summicron 345.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 DR Summicron 384.00
M2 w/50mm f/1.5 Summarit 315.00
M2 w/50mm f/1.4 Summilux 414.00

Catalog 38, JAN 65:
M2 body 264.00
M2X body (no S/T) 225.00
M2 w/35mm f/2.8 Summaron 384.00
M2 w/35mm f/2 Summicron 441.00
M2 w/50mm f/2.8 Elmar 333.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 rigid Summicron 423.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 DR Summicron 465.00
M2 w/50mm f/1.4 Summilux 474.00

Catalog 39, JAN 66:
M2 body 249.00
M2X body (no S/T) 214.00
M2 w/35mm f/2.8 Summaron 372.00
M2 w/35mm f/2 Summicron 412.50
M2 w/50mm f/2.8 Elmar 318.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 rigid Summicron 399.00
M2 w/50mm f/2 DR Summicron 438.00
M2 w/50mm f/1.4 Summilux 447.00

4 comments:

  1. If you want to convert prices to modern day equivalents - go here.
    http://www.measuringworth.com/

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Leica used by Brigitte Bardot is a IIIc. Note the absence of a flash synchronisation dial under the shutter speed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you are right. You have sharp eyes, thanks for the correction.

      Delete