Nuts and Bolts
March 2008

by Bill Pierce

A number of blogs and Web sites have devoted a great deal of space to discussing the recent and somewhat abrupt dismissal of Steven Lee as CEO of Leica. There has been much conjecture as to the reasons and much of that has been centered around the Leica M's introduction into the digital world. Truth is, the M8 was well underway long before the arrival of Steven Lee. And Leica's problems started long before the M8 or Steven Lee were around, long before.

My perspective is from that of a news photographer. The Leica and other 35mm rangefinder cameras were superb tools for us from the time the introduction of high-quality, high-speed film like Tri-X allowed us to move to 35 from roll and sheet film cameras. They were small, quiet and focused large-aperture normal and wide-angle lenses with accuracy. The 35mm cameras from Leica had usually spent a long time being field tested. And they were superbly built. You probably had a new camera relubricated and the rangefinder accuracy checked with your lenses. But, until you smashed it, drowned it or had it stolen on the road, it pretty much survived with only the periodic CLAs (clean, lubricate and adjust) that all hardworking mechanical cameras received.

Even when the Pentax SLR appeared with its somewhat primitive instant return mirror and auto stop-down (but not reopen) diaphragm, the rangefinder held its own because of its ability to accurately focus large-aperture wides and normals more accurately and consistently than the SLR. Even today a long-based rangefinder is often going to handle those lenses, wide open with dimly lit, low-contrast subjects more successfully than an autofocusing DSLR.

Consequently, a standard rig was quite often two rangefinders (wide and normal lenses) and an SLR (longest lens). Everybody's heroes – Cartier-Bresson, Duncan, Mydans, Eisenstaedt, Erwitt – used rangefinders. Walter Huen brought the Leica School to the photojournalism departments of colleges – a two-day series of illustrated lectures on how to use the camera, even pointing out that for those on a budget Canon made more economical lenses that fit the Leica bodies. Even young photographers who were superbly pictorial in their vision, photographers like Constantine Manos and Alex Webb, used Leicas.

And then that disappeared. Ownership and management changed. Folks like Hermes, the French luxury company, became involved. Suddenly the Leica was a conspicuous consumption item. People talked about the softness of the leather covering. More special runs of commemorative cameras were introduced. And you could special-order cameras with particular metal finishes and colored leather covering. I was asked to test and write up a camera by a photo magazine. The person I spoke to at Leica had, until then, been working with handbags and offered to loan me a camera for testing for "several days."

To a great extent, the Leica – a superb tool, if not the only tool – simply disappeared from the world of the young photojournalist and documentary photographer.

I talked to a German Leica employee several years ago who told me they could have had a digital camera ready to go in the late '90s. If that was premature, it certainly couldn't have been worse than the introduction of the M8. A lot of faulty cameras had to be returned to Germany. I didn't get an M8 that worked properly (one just stopped working completely, another produced some kind of electronic flare that wiped out part of the image every few frames) until my third one. If the marketing of the film Leica has undergone some rough spots, these have been dwarfed by the rough spots in the introduction of the digital Leica. And today's journalist is only going to be interested in a digital camera. In his world, film is dead.

I always thought the use of Leicas by some pretty remarkable professional photographers promoted its use by some serious amateurs. And I thought the increased volume in sales that the advanced amateurs provided helped keep the cost reasonable. The pros probably benefited a little more from the ruggedness of the camera; the amateurs probably were able to more often take greater advantage of the superb optics. But, in the world of news photography, there is just one problem with that. It's not Hermes. It's not Steven Lee. It's not the disappearance of the Leica School. It's that when Canon, Nikon and others had digital cameras suitable for news photography, Leica didn't.

I see very few M8s in the hands of young, starting photojournalists. I see them in the hands of middle-aged photographers and old people like me. And, soon, that means that they won't be in the hands of the established, working photojournalists.

I find that rather sad - not because a camera which is a great part of the history of photojournalism is fading, but because a useful tool is fading. We've mentioned the ability of a rangefinder to produce an accurate focus in dim, low-contrast situations with wide-open, high-speed wide and normal lenses. What other lenses do you use in those situations?

How about the fact that it is a relatively small camera that nobody pays attention to (except Leica nuts, who will stop you in the middle of a riot to ask you what you think of your camera)?

Look into the viewfinder of a DSLR and you can see a beautiful picture. But you will have no idea what is outside of the frame or in those areas that are out of focus. Raise a rangefinder to your eye and little happens outside of bright line frame outlining that area that will become the photograph. It has all the charm of looking through a sheet of glass. Background and foreground are in focus. You can see outside the frame. You see what's going to come into frame. A long time ago I said that an SLR viewfinder lets you make pictures and a rangefinder's bright line frame lets you take pictures. For me that makes a rangefinder a most useful news tool.

I have no idea how Leica will fare in the future, but I certainly wish them well. I need a variety of digital tools, and the rangefinder camera is a unique and useful tool. It also, in the case of the M8, produces an exceptionally high-quality image; you don't have to compromise quality just because you want to take advantage of its unique features. Hopefully, it will turn out to share the ruggedness and durability of its film brothers.

So, my love/hate relationship with Leica continues. I have no choice unless Canon, Nikon or somebody else gives me that choice.

It seems appropriate that this month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column" at least be taken with an M8. It was shot at a street fair in NYC at EI 1200 as dusk fell.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer