Leica is one of those brand names that is magical. There are few that are as powerful, as storied, as associated with excellence in performance. Ferrari for cars. Rolex for watches. Montblanc for pens. But the list is short. Because this magic is hard won, and very hard to maintain. Indeed, Leica had its dark night of the soul back in the late ’80s when digital photography threatened to render its beautiful film cameras obsolete. But it found a way through, by parlaying its photographic and design DNA into the new technology successfully.
Put simply, Leica invented photography as we know it today. It was the company’s Oskar Barnack who pioneered the idea that you could take 35mm film as used in cinema and apply it to stills cameras, thus reducing their size to something portable and easy to use. The first commercially successful 35mm camera was launched by Leica in 1925 and modern photography was born. Prior to that, you needed bulky equipment and time to create your shots. Now, you could snap away discreetly.
Street photography became a thing in the hands of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Leica user, and war photography was rendered up-close by Robert Capa with his Leica. The Hungarian-American photojournalist famously said: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,’ and undoubtedly his Leica allowed him to get that crucial proximity. And since those early days, so many of the world’s greatest images have been taken on a Leica that it is almost embarrassing.
Witness (and as you read through this list, see how many of these images are already imprinted on your memory): James Dean walking through Times Square by Dennis Stock (1955); Che Guevara by Alberto Korda (1960); an US Navy sailor kissing a dental assistant he didn’t know on V-J Day in Times Square in New York City by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945); Muhammad Ali punching towards the camera by Thomas Hoepker (1966); a dog walker in New York City by Elliott Erwitt (1974); a terrified naked girl burning from a napalm attack in Vietnam by Nick Ut (1972); a picnic on the riverbank of the Marne by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1938); the Russians raising a victory flag over Berlin’s Reichstag by Yevgeny Khaldei (1945); a painter on the Eiffel Tower by Marc Riboud (1953); and, not to mention what is arguably the most famous war photograph ever taken, the death of a loyalist soldier during the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa (1936).
Of course, the arrival of digital required a rethink. But the look and feel of the analogue Leicas have been translated into digital machines and the lenses are still the same. One of the extraordinary things about a Leica lens system is that you can mount an old M-System lens from decades ago (as far back as 1954) that was made for use with film cameras on Leica’s latest digital model – the M11 – and it will fit and work like a dream.
The other consistency between the film cameras (which, incidentally, Leica still makes) and the digital models is the rangefinder system that means there is no internal mirror, so no shutter click when you press the button. It’s a simple mechanical action, which makes a Leica perfect for use in situations where you want to keep a low profile. I’ve also spoken to photographers who claim that the retro look of the cameras with their small lenses mean they get much more candid shots as people are not so wary of them, sometimes even mistaking them for amateur vintage kit rather than state-of-the-art equipment.
And then there is the Leica love affair with black and white. So associated with black-and-white film images is Leica that in 2012 the firm brought out what you might easily consider to be a bonkers development – the Leica M Monochrom, a digital camera that only shoots black and white. The question, of course, is why not simply convert your digital colour images to black and white? The answer: by creating a sensor that deals only in black, white and the shades in between, you get a much richer monochrome result.
One photographer who has made the Leica M Monochrom his signature tool is Brit Alan Schaller, well known for his distinctive street photography, which is characterised by its great use of light and shade. Last month, Leica released the fourth-generation M11 Monochrom and I met Schaller, who is a Leica ambassador, in the City of London for an introduction to the camera and a quick tutorial on street photography. We are by the Bank of England, and the location reminds me of a famous 1951 photograph by American Robert Frank taken in the City of London, featuring the dramatic perspective of converging buildings and a top-hatted man (a banker, presumably) in the foreground. It was taken on a Leica.
‘Most street photographers use the “spray and pray” technique,’ says Schaller, demonstrating by waving his Leica M11 Monochrom around and simulating rapid-fire depressions of the shutter trigger. ‘They shoot loads and hope that they will see something good when they get home and go through it.’
Schaller, on the other hand, adopts a more thoughtful process, something he calls ‘fishing’. This involves scoping out a location where there is good light variation – somewhere where there is a contrast of light levels or sources – that will be captured by his Leica M11 Monochrom’s black-and-white sensor. He then stands in the same position, sometimes for long periods, waiting for something interesting to happen in front of him so he can capture it. He also limits the number of shots he takes in any one location to around 20. By rationing himself, even though he’s using a digital camera where there is no finite roll of film to contend with, he believes he improves the quality of his work.
My teacher is full of good tips. He advocates moving the camera from head height, for example: ‘Most pictures of people are taken of their heads at head height by a photographer shooting at head height,’ he explains. ‘Try going down low or up high with the camera. It changes the perspective, literally, and can result in a much more interesting shot.’ He also shows me some tricks using reflections in windows, and an extreme shooting position, getting right down to the edge of the kerb to create a dramatic graphic line through the image.
And then it’s my turn.
We spend some time taking pictures by the Bank of England, where there’s a giant arch that Schaller has shot at before and which appears in one of his well-known pictures, where a man leans against a wall looking at his phone in a shaft of light that cuts across the otherwise dark entrance. We then move to The Royal Exchange down the road, where the 19th-century building’s facade with its portico and Corinthian columns makes for a spectacular backdrop.
I take a bunch of pictures, trying to remember and apply what Schaller has told me. The results are really not bad. I even grab a shot of him mid tutorial that I am really pleased with. Of course, the fact that I am using Leica’s black-and-white M11 Monochrom digital camera does help. Quite a lot.
Leica M11 Monochrom, £8,300; leica-camera.com; alanschaller.com