Monday, July 20, 2009

Leica in 1937 and why we shouldnt feel bad

I was recently in a discussion on the net that began with one question and, as these things tend to do, it wandered off bringing in a bunch of new questions and considerations.  One of the issues that popped out for me was the question of Leica and in particular, its place in the pantheon of godlike tools early in its life.  I mean today, if someone actually puts their hand in their pocket for a $4000 camera and $1000-$5000 lenses we assume (often wrongly) they are pretty serious and determined to follow the hallowed footsteps of luminaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson.
But what did a Leica mean for those luminaries?  One of the reasons I was interested was that in recent discussions, it appears to be assumed that back when HCB, Robert Capa etc were emerging and embracing these new cameras, Leica's (and similar cameras of the newish 35mm format) were novelties, toy's, not to be used by "serious" photographers.  The fact that Leica et al came under the heading of "miniature" seemed to lead many modern readers to simply assume that these camera's were not to be taken particularly seriously at the time and that the photographers that embraced them were the equivalents of the subversives using Lomos, Holgas and iPhones as cameras today.  The flip side of this argument is the belief that worrying about having good gear is, paradoxically, a sign that you may not be serious enough.
In the kind of serendipity usually reserved for movies I was also browsing through a local bookshop last week and stumbled across an incomplete (I could only get volumes 1 and 2 of a 3 volume set) copy of "The Encyclopedia of Modern Photography" and a similar (though much thinner) book titled "Manual of the Miniature Camera" a little net research indicates each of these books was published somewhere in late 1937 to early 1938.   In these books I found enough to indicate that the modern idea of the "novelty" of the Leica and its position at the bottom of the photographic rung (at least by the mid to late 1930's) was seriously misplaced.
First, let us look at the definition of the "miniature camera".   According to my Modern Encyclopedia (of 1937) a miniature camera was anything with a film size of 6cm x 6cm or less!  So by that definition a Phase One P65 is a miniature.   Thinking about this a bit more, it seems as though anything that was likely to require an enlarger to produce any sort of print was a "miniature" camera. 
Next, let’s consider how the Leica system was described. In simple terms, within its category, ie cameras with a film size of less than 6 cm x 6 cm the Leica system was regarded and the system to have. In the opening paragraph of the 1937 encyclopedia Leica was described thus:

"Today the camera (Leica) has a worldwide reputation both for its mechanical and optical perfection and for its extraordinary versatility."

Then after a page and a half of description its finishes with:

"It is probably true to say that no other camera is so complete a range of technical equipment available as with the Leica, making as near to the ideal of a universal camera as scientific and manufacturing ingenuity is likely to achieve. With the serious amateur, the advanced worker and the professional alike it inspires a confidence that, properly handled it will respond to any demand that is made upon it effectively."

Finally, there is the sordid business of the price. Here I turn from the 1937 encyclopedia to the Manual of the Miniature Camera. First, it appears these books actually began life as Magazines that a publisher has edited and bound as a single volume. This is interesting because it means ads often remain behind as little time capsules to be pored over 70 years later. At the back of the Manual there’s an ad from a UK store, City Sale and Exchange. Over there, the most expensive camera in their ad is the Leica IIIb with a 50 f2 lens at 43 pounds. The Zeiss Contax II with a 35 f3.5 is 40 pounds. When we get to Kodak and Rolleicord we are down to 12 to 16 pounds. Now I’ve got to admit, I have no idea what other format cameras were selling for. The Encyclopedia has a bit of a list too but that’s RRP so isn’t necessarily accurate however, it does list a huge number of brands from Balinda to Wessex and the Leica’s are the most expensive camera in the book bar none.

Note if anyone is interested, in 1937 a Leitz 200mm f4.5 could be yours for 37 pounds.

So what does this mean?  Well before I begin spruiking my ideas, my 'research' is very narrow, relies upon only those resources I happened to have hanging around through dumb luck and therefore isn’t corroborated with much else, so I can’t claim that this is the last word on the argument and in the face of better research I'd have to rethink my theories pretty quickly. 
Perhaps most importantly I think modern readers must be very careful how we interpret words from the past.  We tend to see a word like "miniature" and instantly make assumptions about the product.  Today a miniature car, pony or camera is a toy.  Not a serious product.  In the 1930's this wasnt always the case.   The 30's was a time of things being reduced in size and increased in potency.   Technology, as we would understand it, was taking hold as radios, televisions etc escaped the labs and appeared in homes.  Of course the word "miniature" could carry negative connotations but not always, instead, it could also indicate modern, cutting edge, the future.   In a way, "miniature" in the 30's is not unlike "automatic" in the 70's.  However thats a discussion for another day.
Next, I think we should dispose of the myth that the brace of heroes like HCB were really running ahead of the crowd in grabbing the Leica driven solely by its small size and handling qualities, uncaring of its technical qualities.  Despite its small (for the time) format, within a very short time Leica was acknowledged as an excellent camera both optically and in terms of the 'aids' it brought the photographer.  Perhaps as important as the words directed at the system is the simple acknowledgment of the price.  Clearly, the decision to adopt this system in the mid to late 30's was not a cheap one or something entered into lightly.  One only chose to enter this segment of the photographic world after long and careful consideration.  Note, I'm not saying that inside HCB, Capa etc there was an Ansell Adams just wishing they could find a mule to carry their gear.  But I do contend that modern attempts to imply that these people that redefined 'street' photography were unconcerned with their equipment and the technical qualities of their camera's are misguided. 
So for us, I think we should quit beating ourselves up when we find ourselves talking gear.  Spending a lot of time to research and money to buy the equipment you think you need has a long and proud tradition in all genres of photography.  Of course be careful to keep this in perspective but the next time someone implies that the camera doesn’t matter and that greats from the past got by with just a point and shoot, take heart, that simply isn’t true. 

No comments: