Cult of Leica: A candid view from The New Yorker
Whenever I see the name Leica in a non-photographic publication I feel obliged to give it the once over. Most times there is disappointment in store; but definitely not in the case of a recent discovery.
Well, it’s hardly recent. My friend Maurice who edits the London Mac User Group's magazine, is also an experienced photographer and sent me a link to an old article in The New Yorker. I’ve always had a soft spot for this magazine and used to adore its British equivalent, Punch, before the first death in 1992. I never bonded with the short-lived resurrection from 1996 to 2002.
Discovering a long article on Leica in The New Yorker set me up for a treat and I was not disappointed. Written just over nine years ago in September 2007, it was penned by the magazine’s film critic, Anthony Lane, a Briton who formerly worked in London for The Independent. Although the article has been well commented on in Leica circles in the past, it is new to me and I hope it will be new to you.
To set the scene, at the time of writing in 2007 the M8 was the new kid on the block and there were still many who felt that Leica had made a big mistake in turning the M into a digital camera. It was also a critical turning point in Leica's fortunes.
This is as good a history of the Leica camera in a general-interest magazine as I’ve seen. Lane has a wonderful way with words, as you would expect from any contributor to this magazine. For instance, he comments on the fact that for the $4,000 cost of the MP you don’t even get a lens, just the body, which “sits there like a gum without a tooth until you add a lens, the cheapest being available for just under a thousand dollars.” Those were the days, I couldn't help thinking.
The article is packed with interesting quotes, including this 1932 pronouncement by Russian photographer Ilya Ehrenburg:
“Ours is a guileful age. Following man’s example, things have also learned to dissemble. For many months I roamed Paris with a little camera. People would sometimes wonder: why was I taking pictures of a fence or a road? They didn’t know that I was taking pictures of them.”
As Lane explains, “Ehrenburg had solved the problem of meddling by buying an accessory” which turned out to be the fabled Winkelsucher, allowing one to photograph around corners. I’ve also used this little guile-a-shot to good effect as I recounted (in cooperation with Adam Lee) when we wrote about our experiences with three Leica film cameras. .
Guilty as charged
And on the subject of Leica fans, Lane has a good point:
“There is an astonishing industry in used Leicas, with clubs and forums debating such vital areas of contention as the strap lugs introduced in 1933. There are collectors who buy a Leica and never take it out of the box; others who discreetly amass the special models forged for the Luftwaffe. Ralph Gibson once went to a meeting of the Leica Historical Society of America and, he claims, listened to a retired Marine Corps general give a scholarly paper on certain discrepancies in the serial numbers of Leica lens caps. “Leicaweenies,” Gibson calls such addicts, and they are part of the charming, unbreakable spell that the name continues to cast, as well as a tribute to the working longevity of the cameras.
Leicaweenie? Guilty as charged m’Lud….
But Lane himself isn’t immune to the lure of the Leica as he says: "I have always wanted a Leica, ever since I saw an Edward Weston photograph of Henry Fonda, his noble profile etched against the sky, a cigarette between two fingers, and a Leica resting against the corduroy of his jacket. I have used a variety of cultish cameras, all of them secondhand at least, and all based on a negative larger than 35 mm.: a Bronica, a Mamiya 7, and the celebrated twin-lens Rolleiflex, which needs to be cupped at waist height. ('If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly,' a scornful Cartier-Bresson said.) But I have never used a Leica.
“Now I own one: a small, dapper digital compact called the D-Lux 3. It has a fine lens, and its grace note is a retro leather case that makes me feel less like Henry Fonda and more like a hiker named Helmut, striding around the Black Forest in long socks and a dark-green hat with a feather in it; but a D-Lux 3 is not an M8. For one thing, it doesn’t have a proper viewfinder. For another, it costs close to six hundred dollars—the upper limit of my budget, but laughably cheap to anyone versed in the M series.
I like to think that in the past nine years Anthony Lane has become a Leicaweenie himself, progressing from the D-Lux 3 through the M9, M240 and on to a collection of ancient Leica lenses and accessories, perhaps including a mint Winkelsucher. We don’t know, but he is still film critic of the magazine, a post he’s held since 1993.