Has Leica Lost It?

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Has Leica Lost It?

Opinionated Commentary about the M7, MP, and Digilux 2

Good morning, and Happy New Year! Thanks to all who wrote in response tolast 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 atSteve’s Digicamsto 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. Clickherefor 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 newSony F-828digicam by Michael Reichmann. As usual, Michael is blunt about his surprising conclusions. Look for upcoming 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 high-mag finder. Nice of management to make available to ordinary plebeians the higher-magnification finder of the M6J, itself anhomageto the M3, except that, uhh, they blew it.

The M3’s near-lifesize finder was surely specifically designed to enable the "floating framelines" effect. With an M3, you can look through the finder with your right eye, look at the world through your left eye, and, by adjusting your eye-dominance (which may take a little practice, but is possible), what you’ll see is a view of the world as you’d see it with your naked eyes, but with a set of framelines floating in your field of view. Unfortunately, Leica decided that, for sales purposes no doubt, the magnification of the new high-mag finder had to be just a little less than the M3’s, so that 35mm framelines could be accomodated. Alas, this also made the finder just enough smaller that the "floating framelines" effect is impossible to achieve. D’OH!

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.)

— The R8. Okay, I admit, I hate the R8 too much — something deep and psychological must be going on where me and it are concerned. But I can’t help it: it offends me. Why? Because the Leitz Camera issmall, that’s why. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica in the first place, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of his creation that he insisted that the rangefinder, added somewhat later on, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was Brobdingnagian compared to the Ur-Leica, but generally, the rangefinder cameras have increased in size subtly and incrementally over the years, with a size-inflation not unlike that which afflicts cars such as the Civic or the Mustang, as if making it a little bigger is the equivalent of making it a little better. But really, now — in this day and age when miniaturization has progressed so incredibly far, does the R8, which looks like a whale, really have to be whale-sizedtoo? Again, big and small cameras go in and out of fashion, and I don’t have any gripe in particular against big cameras (oh, well, okay, maybe I do). But in the case of the R8 it just goes against the gestalt of the Leica, and it makes me wonder, once more, if the guys in charge really get it.

— The slow drift towards shoddiness. This is hotly, almost hysterically debated among Leicaphiliacs, but I think it’s self-evident that the M6 was not quite up to the quality of the M4 and M3 (it was, after all, a modified M4-P, and no one argues that the Canadian M4’s are fully up to the standard of the German one). A leading Leica repairperson, highly esteemed on the Leica User Group, told me that the M4 was the only camera to neither improve nor deteriorate over its production lifespan; the M6, this person told me, had gotten cheaper with every change, until the very end of its life, when the most obvious cost-cutting measures were corrected — the only M model of which this gradual decline was true.

— The Digilux 2. Okay, okay, the verdict still isn’t in on this one, and I guess I shouldn’t list it as, er, a negative. For all we know now, maybe itisa "solution that brings together the traditional and the modern," in the words of Herr Cohn. And it’s certainly churlish to complain if Leica wants to dive into the new technology. That’s something to be celebrated, not decried.

Still, you can’t deny that the Digilux 2 is a departure. Firstly, it’s more of a Panasonic than the CL was a Minolta, and secondly, is it evenpossiblefor a digicam to remain useful — and hold its value — in this era of lightning-fast technological change? So, granted, it might turn out to be the Leica of digicams. We’ll see. What’s not quite clear yet is whether that term is an oxymoron in the first place.

This, that, and the other

The Leica, in amot justeI 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 thevery first SMP columnabout the M7, 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 takes 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 born

Much 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 isbeautiful.

Let’s face it: at this point in history, what wereallyneed 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 itsstyle. Leica got all the style cues just so. Here’s the glorious manifest of everything that’s been done right:

— Restored the graceful, all-metal wind lever of the M3.
— Reverted to the M3’s front buttons, instead of the chunky ’60s design of the M4 and onwards.
— Made it the right size again.
— Kept all-manual, mechanical, battery-free operation.
— Banished the red dot! Hurray!
— Restored top-plate engraving. Finally, so we don’t have to listen to Gandy complain about this any more. (Sorry, Stephen!)
— Went back to a brass top-plate! Yeah!
— Got rid of those recherché strap rub-protectors I always hated.
— Knob rewind! Classic! (Okay, so not everybody likes this.)
— Went back to therealshutter-speed dial. Away with the wrong-way ’round, oversized Alka-Seltzer tablet from the TTL.

In fact, it is more than possible — likely, I’d say — that the Leica MP is the best Leica M ever. That’s right, better than the original M3, better than the M4, better than the M6, better than any of the costly and rare variants that are traded like gold in the collector/investor market — better even than the battery-dependent, automated M7, if history, habits, andsavoir faireare taken into account.

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

NEXT WEEK: Working for Pay. How accepting filthy lucre wreaks a simple but radical change in one thing that might be very important.

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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