|January 4, 2004|
Has Leica Lost It?
Opinionated Commentary about the M7, MP, and Digilux 2Good morning, and Happy New Year! Thanks to all who wrote in response to last week's column. Because of all the interest, I'll put it in the hopper to present another column about collecting sometime during the coming year. Thanks, too, to anyone who contributed to the kids of the Blackfeet tribe. Please see the beginning of last week's column for the relevant information on that.
Last year I did a "Best of 2002" column, but this year I'm leaving it to Steve Sanders at Steve's Digicams to do so. Most people these days are interested in digital camera buying advice, and Steve is miles ahead of me in terms of experience with a broad range of cameras. Click here for his simplified list of good "bang for the buck" digital cameras at every price level.
You also may want to take a look at a hotly controversial review of the dazzling new Sony F-828 digicam by Michael Reichmann. As usual, Michael is blunt about his surprising conclusions. Look for other reviews of this camera on Steve's Digicams, dpreview.com, and imaging-resource.com too.
And now, on to the legendary Leicas.
Garry Winogrand's M4. (Photo © Cameraquest, reproduced by permission.)
As every pundit is proud to be able to tell you, "Leica" stands for "Leitz camera." Which is nice to know, except that Leicas are no longer Leitz cameras, because the Leitz family no longer owns the company and no longer permits the company to use the family name.
Since its divestiture by the founding House of Leitz, Leica the camera company's fortunes have been an uncomfortably up and down affair. I won't recount the procession of ownership and distributorship changes, the public stock offering, the R8 fiasco, the buy-in by the French neckerchief manufacturer Hermés, et cetera ad infinitum — not because I'm incapable of doing the research, but simply because I don't really care and I kind of doubt you do either. Suffice it to say that the road has been rocky. Bankruptcy, although not exactly banging down Leica's door, has often been detected lurking in nearby shadows.
And many times over the past decade or so, I've had cause to wonder if the
current management of Leica really gets it — "it" being the true
gestalt of the Leitz Camera — or whether they've just lost it.
Exhibits A, B, and C
A few cases in point:
The gestalt of the Leitz Camera: Small and cunning like this early A, not beeg and oogly like the 'Hunchback of Solms,' a.k.a. R8. (Photo © Cameraquest, reproduced by permission.)
This, that, and the other
The Leica, in a mot juste I repeated in a long-ago article, both creates and resolves its own neuroses, and everybody who considers himself or herself an insider will come down on the issue wheresoever he or she chooses, regardless of what I say. For me personally, though, all was forgiven when the new MP arrived on the scene.
I wrote the very first SMP column about the M7 (archived only on Luminous-Landscape.com, since that was the only place this column appeared in the beginning), and I still think the M7 is an intelligent updating of the classic concept. I've heard all the gripes and kvetches about it (it takers two seconds to turn on, you lose the full-time manual shutter, the only AE lock is with a half-press of the shutter, this, that, and the other thing), but really, that's nattering. Do you think any of the people doing all that complaining could manage to take pictures if all they had was an old SLR with a 50mm lens? Do you think they could possibly muster the resourcefulness to deal with a camera that wasn't absolutely perfect, and be able take pictures anyway? I think they'd manage — assuming they had any valid inspiration to take pictures in the first place, that is. My advice to anyone who thinks any camera isn't perfect is: get over it. Humans can be very clever. We can actually learn to deal with adversity, such as struggling to overcome something like a two-second turn-on delay. Use what you have. Adapt to its weaknesses. You'll get by.
Drollery aside, I still think the M7 was sorely needed, and that it's well
implemented. If I were to recommend a Leica for users to buy, it would
certainly be an M7 — AE is undeniably quicker than an uncoupled
meter, and being able to lock in an exposure and shift the field of view is
plenty of control for most. It's quick, too.
To the manner bornMuch as the M7 gets my approval and would get my dollars, however, the MP is the camera that convinces me that Leica's really back on track. While the M7 is practical, the MP is beautiful.
Let's face it: at this point in history, what we really need is assurance that at least one camera company will go on building excellent and classic 35mm cameras far into the future (whether it also builds digital cameras or not), so that classic 35mm photography can survive. If things go so far that there ends up being only one, shouldn't that one survivor be Leica? I sure think so. And what could be better as a purist, classical 35mm camera to bear the old standard proudly into the digital age than the MP? What else has the history, the tradition, the reputation, the quality, the longevity, and the usefulness to deserve survival more?
The MP is essentially a hybrid of the M3 and M6, with a few incremental
improvements in functionality. It has the smoother winding action of the
older M models, and, from the M7, the extra element in the viewfinder that
gets rid of the occasional finder-patch glare. They redesigned the meter
circuitry, or so I hear, and gave the rewind knob a friction bearing. Those
things are nice. Fact is, though, while those niceties are appreciated,
there just ain't nuthin' wrong with an M6, or an M4 for that matter. It's
not like an extra element in the finder is so revolutionary it's going to
kick off the cataclysm of the Apocalypse. Photographers have somehow been
making decent pictures with Leicas for years.
Now that's style: the peerless MP. (Courtesy Leica Camera.)
Where the MP really scores is in its style. Leica got all the style cues just so. Here's the glorious manifest of everything that's been done right:
Bottom line? The MP is pure Leica to the manner born. It is high style
Leica; essence de Leica. This isn't a dopey commemorative
— it's a soldier's saber. Its beauty isn't added on, but built
in. There's only one way it could get more lovely, and that's if you put
some wear on it, some honest signs of hard use. That would be the only way
to improve one.
Rock and roll photographer Jim Marshall's M4. The only way to improve an MP
would to add a little honest wear to it. (Courtesy Leica Camera.)
So anyway, as I was saying, I was worried for a while there that maybe Leica had lost it. But then the MP came along, and I saw that even if they had, they've found it again. So never mind; everything is forgiven; and here's to a prosperous and long, long, long life for the new standard-bearer.
— Mike Johnston
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He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.
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