Leica M8: Tanning for 2,000 years and a much missed digital M
My first digital Leica camera was an M8 and one of the first projects I undertook with it was to photograph Baker’s tannery in Devon back in 2011 . That’s where I source the leather for Classic Cases. Those first images resulted in an audio slideshow for the BBC News web site and, so far, two exhibitions.
It’s the last oak-bark tannery in the UK and when I set up Classic Cases to produce hand-made leather cases for Leica cameras it was the first place I went to in my search for top-quality hides.
In the small town of Colyton in east Devon in England J & FJ Baker & Co Ltd have been producing top-quality leather for longer than anyone knows. The current owner, Andrew Parr, told me “there has been a tannery on this site since Roman times”. That’s around 2,000 years.
On my first visit I asked if I could look around and take a few photos and knew immediately that I wanted to do a project on the place. After discussing it with Andrew I spent five days at the tannery wandering around at will. At this point I had no commission but it was a personal project that I just knew I had to do. I had only recently bought the M8 and it was the obvious place and situation to give it a run.
My first twenty minutes looking around produced a couple of acceptable photos; one, in fact, remains one of my favourites from the whole shoot — ‘cleaning the de-hairing machine’. Yet looking at those first images was initially very disappointing. The colours were a mess, with a mix of daylight, tungsten and fluorescent light, often in the same photo, making any set of photos colour balanced was impossible. It was then I decided to switch to black and white, and, in doing so I instantly knew that not only would it solve the problem but it improved the photos. My return visits were all done with monochrome shooting in mind.
My sadly long departed M8 was excellent for doing the job. Having recently re-visited the files and re-worked them in Lightroom 6, I am amazed at the quality. It wasn’t a full frame camera, the crop was x1.33 which had the effect of changing the focal length of M lenses — a 50mm became a 67mm on the M8, for instance. For the exhibition that first went up at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a few years ago I had several images printed to 20” x 24”, even after cropping, and they look really good. Perhaps even more amazing is that the opening shot was printed to A0 — that’s 30” x 46” and the result is outstanding. For such an early digital camera I find that amazing.
I wandered around the tannery with the M8, first photographing the lime pits where the skins are placed to remove most of the hair. Monday morning’s selection process was next as the skins are graded and then moved on to the oak bark pits where the ‘chosen ones’ spend a year to complete the tanning process.
The last area is the finishing shed where the oils are added. Shooting only with available light to preserve the atmosphere, the M8 was a marvel. I’ve seen other people’s photos from the same tannery — clearly shot with DSLRs and fill-in flash — and it really doesn’t work. It’s the classic situation where after a while the people I was photographing just ignored me, very little sound from the camera, no flash and keeping quietly on the side lines, except when I wanted a close-up. If it were not for the fact that you can no longer get the screens replaced in an M8 I would seriously consider buying one as a ‘cheaper’ back-up to a full-frame M.
The photos from my days in the tannery have been shown widely over the last few years, with an audio slideshow being produced for the BBC News Web site and an exhibition at the Royal Albert in Exeter. The same exhibition is now on show until March 4th at The Devon Guild in Bovey Tracey, south Devon. But for those, the majority reading this I suspect, who aren’t going to be able to get to the exhibition the audio slideshow is available on my own web site.
I have been using the leather from Baker’s tannery since 2009 when I started Classic Cases. To complement the Leica cameras I make the cases for it is important for me to use the best quality leather I can find. It costs a bit more but there is pleasure in producing the final product which I don’t think you get any other way.
I sold the M8 some years ago when the M9 came along but there really is something in me that misses that camera, I know someone who still owns it and perhaps I need to give her a call.
All photos copyright Paul Glendell – no reproduction without permission