What are we doing here?
I was recently approached by Andrew McClees, aka @andrewdmcclees of Instagram fame, to write an article for Frozen Wasteland on the topic of things we have learned from shooting a specific camera, a lens, a film stock, whatever. I agreed (obviously) and decided that I would try and talk about the most important camera from the panoply of different cameras that I’ve used over the years.
My ever-changing collection has shuffled through the gamut of numerous digital cameras, 35mm film cameras and medium format film cameras. To be fair, each of them has had something to teach me. Shooting a heavy RB67 from a tripod teaches you something about a slow, considered, and contemplative approach to photography. Shooting a small, lightweight digital setup teaches you something about shooting on the fly, in the moment, etc.. In that sense every one of my cameras could probably serve as source material for an essay on the way that any particular photographic tool has something to teach about the many sides of the photographic process.
However there is one camera that immediately comes to the fore as the most significant. That camera was a Leica IIIa, as well as the Leica 50mm f/3.5 Elmar that was paired with it. I came to possess this camera in a roundabout way from a familiar lust that I would guess many photographers have felt before. Stated simply, I wanted a Leica. Well, actually I had been curious about experimenting with the rangefinder format for some time and had already experimented with a Canonet and found it interesting enough to pursue further. But of course, as we all know, the ultimate conclusion when you want a serious rangefinder is that you need a Leica, specifically a Leica M.
This was all well and good except for one critical problem: I didn’t have the money for a Leica M. Prices on used film M’s were already crazy even two years ago and the more I searched for one the more I came to realize that an M probably wasn’t going to be an option. It was at this point during my quest for M alternatives that I stumbled upon the interesting world of “Barnack Leicas.”
Intermission: Leica History Crash Course
The “Barnack Leica” is really just an umbrella term used to denote the large family of screw-mount Leica cameras made prior to the first Leica M in 1954. They are collectively referred to as “Barnack Leicas” because they all share a fairly consistent mechanical heritage which leads back to the Ur-Leica (this is what they call it, it’s German), the foundational camera invented by Oskar Barnack in 1913.
The Ur-Leica was developed as a light, compact and easily portable alternative to the bulkier camera equipment of the early 20th century. It utilized a small negative made from modified movie film which, when paired with capable Leitz optics, was able to produce a sufficiently sharp enlargement that rivaled the technology of its time at a fraction of the size. 35mm photography was born. A polished version of Barnack’s brainchild was introduced to the public as the Leica I in 1925. This was followed by a number of developments over the next 30 years: the Leica Standard in 1932, the Leica II which integrated a rangefinder, also in 1932, and finally the Leica III which integrated slow shutter speeds in 1933. The last Barnack Leica produced was the IIIg in 1956, and the reign of the Barnack Leicas came to an end in 1960.
Following the genetic heritage of the Ur-Leica, Barnack Leicas have always been a relatively simple camera. At bottom they are a brass box with a viewfinder, a screw-on lens, and a shutter. Even the later Leica II and III merely added an expanded range of shutter speeds and a rangefinder focusing mechanism for additional focusing accuracy. I will admit that these cameras were a far cry from my original quest for a Leica M. But the more I read about these fascinating old cameras the more I was intrigued about the prospect of using one, and the fact that they were much cheaper didn’t hurt either. And I mean, it was still a Leica after all.
A lot of deliberation and scouring of the internet later I eventually came across the Leica IIIa + Leica 50mm f/3.5 Elmar combo that would come to be mine for sale from a Leica store in San Francisco (pro-tip: look at the used section of the various Leica stores around the US for some good deals). The camera and lens were in great shape and while the price was a bit higher than I was looking to spend it was less than buying an M and an additional lens. The condition of the pair and the fact that it was coming from a legitimate Leica store took some of the edge off of the premium as well. So, I sent Leica my money and waited eagerly for my old-but-new-to-me Barnack Leica.
The Important Stuff
Fast forward through several days of waiting and I finally got my hands on the Leica IIIa. I was immediately smitten. Unwrapping the copious bubble wrap revealed the beautiful, hefty, compact brass body, knurled advance knob, shutter speed dials, and film rewind knob, all in that beautiful Leica chromed brass. The collapsible 50mm Elmar, while undoubtedly funny looking, also had its own antique kind of charm.
Aesthetics aside there was a beautiful tactile quality to the camera as well. Advancing the film/cocking the shutter involved turning the large knurled knob several times until the film had been advanced and the shutter was cocked. Setting the shutter speed involved lifting the speed dial slightly to be able to rotate it to the desired speed. Framing and making an image involved looking into two separate windows: a tiny peephole of a viewfinder which showed a 50mm field of view, and another window through which you could use the rangefinder focusing mechanism to achieve focus. And of course, releasing the shutter elicited a responsive click and that ever-satisfying sound of the Leica cloth shutter.
There was a decidedly non-modern, even spartan simplicity to the whole thing paired with a brilliant craftsmanship that I absolutely loved. It was a camera that did everything a camera needed to do, but nothing more, and nothing less. And it fulfilled its function in ways that only the most masterfully crafted tools can, with an efficiency and precision that allows them to function effortlessly and invisibly, as all great tools should. The way that a great pen simply writes, the Leica simply made pictures. As I would eventually find out, this was part and parcel of its deepest capacity to teach.
To be sure, the methodical (some might say cumbersome) process of image making taught the virtues of a slow and considered approach, and the minimalist form factor taught the virtues of working freely, unencumbered by overly complicated equipment. The Leica certainly had technical and practical lessons to offer, but looking back these things, important in their own right, aren’t the distinctive things that the Leica taught me. I had worked with cameras in the past that had taught these and many other lessons in one way or another, but the Leica taught lessons both more subtle and arguably much more important from an artistic point of view than the merely technical or practical aspects of photography.
To concretize this a bit: wandering through the forest lugging a heavy tripod mounted RB67 or Bronica with ten or fifteen frames of 120 film might have taught me about looking carefully for potential compositions and assembling those compositional elements within a frame to construct a well ordered image. And to be sure this is important technical knowledge. But walking through the same forest with that simple old camera allowed me to more readily lose myself in the rich and meaningful experience of the landscape that had always been the impetus behind my making photos of the landscape and to more easily bring that rich and meaningful Lebenswelt into intimate contact with my photographic endeavors. This was a paradigm shift for me.
That old Leica, in its quiet simplicity, allowed me the ability to simply walk, to think, to experience, and ultimately to engage in the photographic process in a way that was richer and unencumbered by overmuch technical concern, plunged into the depths of life rather than the lifeless arena of technics. It showed me a way to blend the rich and meaningful content of my experience with my photographic work in a way that previous cameras had, for whatever reason, not. In becoming an invisible component of the rich and meaningful context of my lived experience the Leica enabled me to partake in the photographic process not simply in a detached, technical manner, but in a new, engaged, and more meaningful way deeply in contact with the heart of what mattered to me as a photographer.
I cannot imagine a more profound lesson that a camera could give to a photographer. The lesson of that old Leica was not about this or that technical or practical aspect of photography, but something that cut to the very heart of what it means to make photographs, something that fundamentally changed how I understood the meaning of photography. So, in the end I didn’t really get what I was looking for in the first place. It would be some time before I even came to own a Leica M. But what I did find in that old Leica IIIa turned out to be valuable beyond anything I could have possibly foreseen, and for that it will always hold a special place for me.
Ed. Note: You can read more, and see more of Mr. Holt’s work at his really wonderful website Brendonholt.com or on instagram as @bmholt_