This is my first post as a blogger. The previous entries were recycled from my old newsletter column. I expect that I will be able to write more frequently, and I’m looking forward to not being constrained by the requirement to produce a certain number of column inches on a fixed schedule. I hope for more interaction with my readers.
My son recently gave me Anthony Lane’s beautifully-written essay from The New Yorker about the Leica mystique; to read it, go here. The piece has a few critical moments, but on the whole it is a comprehensively admiring look at what Lane calls “the most beautiful mechanical objects in the world“, focusing on the M-series. It’s well worth reading.
However, I have a quibble and a serious disagreement with the article.
First, the quibble. The essay discusses the Leica 35mm rangefinder cameras as if they were the only 35mm RF cameras that a serious photographer would consider, several times confusing the advantages of Leicas with the advantages of small rangefinder cameras in general. While Leica is the first name that comes to mind, there are at least three other high-quality lines of such cameras: the Nikon and Canon lines of 35mm RF cameras and the Zeiss Contax. One of the reasons that Leica stands at the top of the list of 35mm rangefinder manufacturers is that they started first and never quit, even as the market for RF cameras shriveled nearly to nothingness. Oskar-Barnack worked for Ernst Leitz when he finished inventing the Leica, and thus the genre (he worked for Zeiss when he first came up with the idea; when he offered the invention to his employer, they turned him down). Leitz’s competition all fell away in the 50s and early 60s. Zeiss was split up after WWII, and virtually stopped improving the Contax around 1950. On their web site, Canon says with extraordinary candor that their engineers saw the M3 at its introduction in 1954 and were so impressed with its design and build quality that they decided to call a halt to further development of their line of professional-level RF cameras and go after another part of the market. Nikon dropped its rangefinder line to concentrate on single-lens reflex cameras after the Nikon F’s runaway success.
Aside: it’s too bad that the photographic world has been deprived of a rich ecosystem of 35mm RF cameras, but Nikon and Canon clearly made the right business decision. The 35mm SLR market turned out to be many times larger than the RF market, and Leica’s belated entry into that market never got much traction. Today Nikon enjoys revenues of about 6 billion dollars annually, while Canon sells more than three times that much equipment. Zeiss, the two halves reunited after the Berlin Wall came down, has a little over half of Nikon’s revenues. Leica, on the other hand, sells about 200 million dollars worth of gear a year. All four companies are now far more than simply manufacturers of cameras and lenses.
Now, the disagreement. Lane, referencing the (admittedly long) list of (admittedly stellar) photographers who have used Leica rangefinder cameras to create magnificent images, says that the cameras can claim some of the credit for results. My first reaction was to glibly wonder if Lane’s next essay would be about all the superb novels written on Underwood typewriters.
I don’t have a problem with love of machinery. In fact, I tend to go overboard in that direction myself. I can understand concentrating that love of Leicas in general or, say, an M3 in particular, even though my personal affections for rangefinder 35mm cameras are driven by my photographic history in the direction of Nikon S2s and SPs.
Lane got me to thinking about the relationship between great cameras, great photographers, and great photographs, and, because I’m interested in this personally and have no illusions about my greatness, about the relationship between great cameras, good photographers, and good photographs. I’ll talk about that next time.