Saturday, August 23, 2014

Photographing Decay with the Leica Camera


Long-time readers know I used (and still use!) film cameras, and especially Leicas, for decades. Here is a short review (note: no urban decay in this article, just Leica history and 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 sprocket holes. By advancing the film sideways in the camera, 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. Mike Johnston, former editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine, wrote an excellent summary about Leica on his blog, The Online Photographer.
Rare 1920s Leica advertisement (Courtesy of Dan Tamarkin, Tamarkin Camera, Chicago, Illinois)
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. (Update May 31, 2020: Central Camera was burned and looted during the George Floyd riots on the night of May 30, 2020.) 

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 II. During the war, some Leicas were smuggled through Sweden for use by Allied intelligence services (and an occasional general and wealthy industrialist?).

My Dad's Leica IIIC

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 use. The one he bought had a coated 5 cm ƒ/2.0 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 (or not so surprising after all), stopped down to ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8, it is almost equal to many 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, Burma, a Kodachrome from 1957 taken with this IIIC.

Lenses and Clever Accessories

Many of the earlier screw-mount Leicas were sold with the 5cm ƒ/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 look 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.). 

Leica M3

Leica M3 with 50mm ƒ/2.8 Elmar-M lens
Leica M3 with 35mm ƒ/2.0 Summicron-RF lens
One of the most sophisticated and brilliant mechanical Leicas was the M3, 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 (or any company) ever made. This finder included the rangefinder patch in the overall viewing scene along with white frame bars that showed the coverage for 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. It also introduced the new Leica M bayonet fitting for quick lens attachment. Many experts still consider the M3 to be the finest M camera ever made. Mike Eckman wrote a fine summary of the M3 and its history

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, along with two lenses. This M3 was a late dual-stroke model which Leica in NJ converted to single stroke. It had the newer geometric progression of shutter speeds, like all 1970s and 1980s cameras. 
Spanish instruction manual for the Leica M3
Leica marketed their products worldwide. They supplied advertisements and instruction manuals in most European languages. I am not sure about Asian sales in the 1950s and 1960, but in recent decades, Japanese photographers have been major buyers.

Leica M lenses

The lens on the M3 in the above photograph is the superb first generation, 8-element 35mm ƒ/2.0 Summicon-RF 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 supplied some of Leica's most famous lenses as well as special optics for military use.
For many years, I used a 50mm ƒ/2.8 Elmar-M lens. This was a post-war refinement of the original Elmar with lanthanum glass to improve performance. Notice the round iris. At ƒ/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 in a hotel for a weekend, opened trunks full of camera odds and ends, gossiped, 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 ƒ/2.0 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 feet. I still use this lens.
This is a Type 2 50 Summicron without the close-focus mechanism. You will never see more meticulous 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, and you can buy E39 filters that screw in directly. I wonder why Leica did not make bayonet mount filters, like Zeiss and Rollei? 
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 or internet warrior: he is the guy who will argue vehemently in forums that he does not need a hood because he thinks his kit zoom lenses have some sort of magic modern coatings rather than spend 2 seconds and simply attach the hood.)


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. But hearing aide batteries work at the correct 1.35 volts.

Leica M2

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 ƒ/2.0 Summicron lens is on the body. 
1958 advertisement for USA market announcing the new Leica M-2 camera
E. Leitz introduced the M2 in 1958 at a cost of around $280 in the US market. Recall that in those days, so-called "fair trade" (i.e., price-fixing) laws often fixed the price of an item among all retailers. Fair trade laws were fought in the courts, and by mid-1975, fair trade had been eliminated in 25 states. 
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 50mm 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 ƒ/2.8 Tele-Elmarit lens from the early-1980s, a compact and handy 90 for travel use. I used it for 25 years. The rubber hood included a holder for series 5.5 filters, which were quite rare. 
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 ƒ/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. The famous Hassselblad SWC camera used a 38mm Biogon lens.
Some people claimed that Leica lenses were tailored for the color response of Kodak's famous Kodachrome film. That is probably just hyperbole, but properly exposed Kodachrome slides were brilliant.

Closing Notes

Leica film cameras and lenses are among the few photographic products that hold 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 of the cost of entry, the internet world is full 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 and is equipped with a super-duper zoom kit lens. Dpreview attracts the most toxic and ignorant of these fanbois and photo-frauds. 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."

On the opposite note, 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." "My (digital jpeg) pictures have that Leica glow." Time to gag or retch. Leicaphilia wrote about deconstructing the Leica mystique

But the M Monochrom is tempting: a digital camera with an 18 pixel CCD monochrome sensor - yes, black and white only. The haters on the camera sites scoff, but obviously manyt never used black and white film (and it is clear many of them know almost nothing about photography anyway). But it is $8000 - hmmm, maybe I'll ask my daughter to buy me one. Phase One sells a monochrome back and camera for about $55,000. Maybe I will order that one.....

If you are interested in a rangefinder camera, the 35MMC blog has a handy article on what is a rangefinder and how it differs from a focus system that projects the image on a frosted glass or plastic (the single lens reflex type of camera). 

If you are serious about improving your photography, Mike Johnston from The Online Photographer recommends The Leica as a Teacher. "I suggest shooting with nothing but a Leica and one lens for a year. Shoot one type of black-and-white film (yes, even if you're completely devoted to color and digital, and hate film and everything it stands for. You don't have to commit to this forever; it's an exercise). Pick a single-focal-length 50mm, or 35mm, or 28mm. It doesn't have to be a "good" lens—anything that appeals to you and that fits the camera will do. Carry the camera with you all day, every day. Shoot at least two films a week. Four or six is better (or shoot more in the spring and fall and less in the dead of summer and winter). The more time you spend shooting, the better." 

Mike Johnston also wrote a short history of the 24×36mm format, first used by Leica's Oscar Barnack in his UR-Leica experimental camera, and how this format has lingered into the digital era as a semi-standard size for the sensors (so-called "full-frame," which was formerly known as the miniature format). 

Update August 25, 2014 - Famous Leica Users

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 - Some Tri-X Examples

On a 2014 trip to Burma, (Myanmar), I took Kodak Tri-X 400 film in my Leica M2. 
This is a scene from the waterfront of Mandalay, with the Irrawaddy River in the background, taken with my 35mm ƒ/2 Summicron lens (pre-aspherical) with yellow filter. The contemporary Tri-X is amazing and has slightly finer 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 digital crowd who insist that photography is not possible without 108 megapixels, autoexposure, enormous penile stabilized zoom lenses, equivalence, their "workflow" with Lightroom, and, most important of all, autofocus. Oh, the the horror of it all.

Update Sep. 24, 2020

I found a price list for Leitz products from January 15, 1974 from E. Leitz in Rockleigh, New Jersey. These are "official" prices and retail at the discount venders was probably 10 or 15% lower. Note how a Leicaflex SL with 50mm ƒ/2 lens was $1197.00. At that time, you could buy a Nikkormat with 50mm ƒ/2 for around $250. So yes, the Leicaflex was "better," but would you really ever see the improvement on a photo print? Using the U.S. Inflation Calculator, that $1197 in 1974 equates to $6311 in 2020, so a half or less than an equivalent modern digital Leica M or SL with lens. 

Appendix A

From an old email from the Leica Users Group forum with USA prices for 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

Some 1968 USA prices from a Leitz USA catalogue:
M2 no lens  $214
M3 no lens  $288
M4 no lens  $288
Leicaflex SL no lens  $465


Suzassippi said...

Interesting story!

Brad McMahon said...

If you want to convert prices to modern day equivalents - go here.

Anonymous said...

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

Kodachromeguy said...

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

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