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In 1986, while working on my Master's thesis in architecture, I made a research trip to New Delhi. During the near 24 hours of continuous travel I made a brief stop in Frankfurt where I saw, and held, my first Leica camera. As a poor, and married graduate student, I could not afford it, but knew even then that I wanted one. It is hard to believe that it took me 32 years to get one. And even harder to believe is that it was prompted by my desire to return to the simple challenges of making images - with a reliance only on the exposure triangle and manual focus.
Now, I have nothing against auto focus and high end sensors in sophisticated cameras. In fact I shoot all of my landscape work with a Fuji GFX50S and have shot with other digital systems ranging from Nikon to Fuji, with a Sony or two sandwiched in between. I have a fairly prescribed process in my landscape work that allows me to achieve a certain look to my images and even with all the technology in the camera, my process is largely based on how I shot with a 4 x 5 view camera. Over time I branched out photographically exploring architecture, portraits and street. It wasn't until I started making street images that I began to think more about the basic concepts of making photographs and how that informed the way I shot. This is not to say that I had any qualms with my cameras of choice - the Fuji X-Pro 2, X-T2, and the X-H1 - as they produce amazing image quality. But I relied heavily on auto focus while grabbing shots without really thinking about what was in front of me. I wanted a different experience, one that would ultimately make me think about the scene, the light, and the moment, in a way that fostered more craft, skill, and challenge. A friend suggested this desire was akin to buying a car with a manual transmission as opposed to an automatic one. A manual transmission requires a symbiotic connection between the car and the driver. The very act of pressing the clutch and shifting gears is an extension to the driving experience. It is a connection born of feel, knowing when to shift, or when to downshift without having to look at the tachometer.
This concept is not new to me as I grew up driving a stick shift as well as shooting with manual cameras. My first camera was a Yashica Rangefinder, given to me in 1968, and I went on to shoot with Nikon FTN's and 4x5 - all film based cameras. No auto focus, histograms, or program automatic settings. Just the beauty of match needle metering. Exposing film required understanding the light and manipulating the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed along with knowing when to pull or push the exposure. I always felt connected to those cameras. Simple machines that relied on light and emulsion and the eye of the photographer.
Getting here, to the point where I have a Leica in my hands, has taken a long time. But I suppose that is what photographic journeys are like. I am not a camera loyalist by any stretch, or even a pixel peeping fanboy of a particular brand. Just ask any of my friends who have seen me go through cameras like Carter's has pills. And even my current love affair with the Fuji GFX50S may someday morph into something else. Who knows? But wow, just holding that Leica M is visceral for me. The build quality, craftsmanship, and unyielding simplicity of form is alluring and beautiful. Even the menu system is simple and clean. Of course it is a digital camera, and one might argue that while in my retro nostalgia, why not just go back to a film camera? Well I might do that one day but I am not a complete Luddite yet (not that my film friends are Luddite's, mind you). I think its perfectly fine to mix some old school with new technology and the Leica M satisfies that craving. So far.
The images in this post are exploratory, shot over a period of a few weeks while trying to wrap my head around only a few controls on the camera. I had to think more about the light and my ability to zone focus was more than shaky. Needless to say my successful capture percentage declined. I would get close to capturing a moment only to fumble with settings or miss the focus point altogether. But I was okay with this. In fact it only made the times I nailed a shot more triumphant. I can tell you I culled out a lot of bad shots during my shakedown period with the camera. I relied heavily, like being on crutches, on the cameras live-view screen, histogram and focus peaking. But I am beginning to develop some trust with the camera and have even begun to put my eye to the OVF where the only information I have is the frame lines, exposure dots (kind of like a digital version of a match-needle meter), and a simple match focus. Talk about having to think. Some might ask what is the point of this exercise. For me it is simply engagement and connection to a camera built with German precision and an unquestioned pedigree for quality. It is like driving with a stick shift, feeling the road, and listening to the sounds of the engine, completely focused and in the moment. How can one argue with that.
All of the images in this set were shot using various Voigtlander lenses, including the 40mm f1.4, the 28mm f2.0, and the 21mm f1.8. I like Voigtlander's glass. It's not perfect and generally renders in an old school kind of way. Unlike my landscape work where I strive for maximum near to far focus, with these lenses I strive more for placing the focus on a specific point while letting parts of the image fall out of focus. And while I am trying to nail down the focus I am alternately trying to hit the right exposure. I don't get it right all the time, and probably not even half the time, but it is a joyful process once again. I think I will keep on driving this "stick shift".
As always, if you have found your way to my site, I truly appreciate your visits. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to drop me a note. thanks again, RHC