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Tuesday, October 28

Did Leica kill "Leica photography"?

I've just been reading a thought-provoking six-month-old post on the blog that seemed a natural follow-up to Phil's post of yesterday on this blog. It posits the idea that Leica itself killed what we think of as "Leica Photography" as practised by HCB, etc. I'd encourage you to have a read as it also talks sense about lenses and, possibly, shames those of us too preoccupied with sharpness, bokeh or whatever.

The author argues that Leica, during its peak years, was never about the best, sharpest lenses but about the best-made, quietest and most functional cameras. He believes that the company, since the 1990s, has moved away from its core values, spurred on by internet pixel-peepers.

In support of this, he says:

The old 50/2 Leitz Summars and Summarons were markedly inferior to the 50/2 Nikkor. The 85/2 and 105/2.5 Nikkors were much better than the 90/2 first version Summicron; the Leitz 50/1.5 Summarit, a coated version of the prewar Xenon, was much less sharp than the newly designed Nikkor 50/1.4. The W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 blew the 35mm Leitz offerings out of the water, and the LTM version remains, 60 years later, one of the best 35mm lenses ever made for a Leica.

Digital photographers "fetishize" sharpness and detail just because they can and it's something that never infected film photographers twenty years ago when different values held sway.

Here's an interesting passage from the leicaphilia post that doesn't pull any punches:

For the greats who made Leica’s name – HCB, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka – it had nothing to do with status. It was all about an eye, and a camera discreet enough to service it. They were there, with a camera that allowed them access, and they had the vision to take that shot, at that time, and to subsequently find it in a contact sheet. That was “Leica Photography.” It wasn’t about sharpness or resolution, or aspherical elements, or creamy bokeh or chromatic aberration or back focus or all the other nonsense we feel necessary to value when we fail to acknowledge the poverty of our vision.

I love lenses as much as most other photographers but I've noticed that I tend not to be so interested when I'm in a fruitful place photographically-speaking. I suspect most of us tend to concentrate on gear when we can't find the inspiration to produce good work.

Every now and again, it's handy to be reminded of this as I was by this post and Phil's. Buying a new lens is harmless if you can afford it but, from my point of view, it's a sticking plaster rather than a cure for photographer's block. It's probably better in the long run to think up a new project or to even have a complete break from photography than to add another lens.


Gerald said...

I agree, and feel a similar way when people obsess about things like, for example, dynamic range. OK, maybe if you're Ansel Admas doing LF landscape work, then it's important to have that extra nth degree of shadow detail. But nobody ever suggested Robert Capa's D-Day pictures are worthless because some of the shots are a bit blurry, the shadows blocky or the highlights blown.

For myself, I want my photography to be as simple as possible. That's why I've never been drawn to the digital world, where you seem to find a lot more of this attitude.

David M said...

Readers might like to search for AD Coleman's long-running series of posts on the Capa photographs (Contax not Leica, but that's a minor matter). The frankly rubbishy quality enhances the idea that they were made under fire; it's entirely appropriate. A 10x8 shot would suggest that things were not really too hairy at the time.
On the other hand, a tranquil landscape with the Capa qualities would suggest either extreme carelessness or extreme irony. Even then, the irony would depend on the sort of expectations that I've hinted at above.

Doug H said...

Another good article from Leicaphillia
Maybe some people are waking up to the realization that digital cameras are not for those who love their tools as well as the results.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks, Doug. It's always good to know that there are people that think the same way as us still around. :)

Leigh L said...

I don't know the source of the image, but 'gearfaggotry'? Really?

Bruce Robbins said...

Can't help you there, Leigh. I plucked it off the web where it's common enough but I haven't looked to see where it originated.