I've just been reading a thought-provoking six-month-old post on the leicaphilia.com 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.