Leica opens its temple to photography in D.C.


Eric Oberg, general manager of a Leica Camera AG concept store, handles a Leica S-series digital SLR camera before the opening of the company's first North American retail store May 1 in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/BLOOMBERG)
John Kelly
Columnist May 2, 2012

When I mentioned to some photographers of my acquaintance that I was getting a sneak preview of Washington’s new Leica Store — the first U.S. stand-alone retail shop dedicated to the vaunted German camera — they started to salivate.

Frankly, it was unsightly: Little globules of saliva dribbled from the corners of their mouths and dripped onto their pocket-filled, khaki photojournalist vests. Such is the effect that Leica has on some people.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The store opened this week over on F Street NW, near 10th. According to the press release, it’s “a unique lifestyle destination.” I’ll say. It has a cool, Bauhaus vibe. Like the cameras, the color palette of the store is black and red, with cameras and lenses resting in spotlit vitrines trimmed with crimson leather.

“I don’t want to call it a temple,” said Roland Wolff, Leica’s director of corporate retail. “It is a place you go to celebrate Leica.”

I’ll call it a temple.

Leica basically invented the modern camera, when an optical engineer named Oskar Barnack was trying to figure out how to elegantly slip 35mm movie film into a compact case for taking still photographs. His 1914 creation is known as the Ur-Leica, which should give you some idea of the mystical regard some photographers have for the brand.

Leica is best known for its range-finder cameras. With a range finder, you don’t look through the lens, as with a single-lens reflex camera, but through a little window. You focus the image yourself so there’s no bzzzzat, bzzzzat as the camera hunts for the proper focus.

The camera is said to be more discreet than an SLR, which is why so many photojournalists have favored them. That photo of Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin? Jim Marshall used a Leica. That photo of the girl burned by napalm running down the road in Vietnam? Nick Ut used a Leica. The portrait of Che Guevara that adorns a million T-shirts? Alberto Korda used a Leica.

Roland said Leica has always been popular in Washington, which is why they decided to open a store here. He’s not worried about the economy. The people able to spend $10,000 on a camera — which is what the body and lens of the flagship digital M9 model will set you back — aren’t affected by a bad economy.

Wild blue dander

Speaking of icons: As an Air Force brat it pains me to report that the Andrews water tower is covered in graffiti. You know that water tower: It’s the white spaceship-like thing visible from the Beltway. Well, some delinquent painted “Navy” on one side.

I called Andrews to inform them, and it turns out that not only did they know, they painted it themselves. What’s more, they’re in the process of painting “Marine Corps” next to “Navy.”

“We’re Joint Base Andrews,” explained Lt. Mark Flannery, a spokesman for the Air Force’s 11th Wing. “We want to be really clear that we’re a joint base, and even though Air Force has the lead, we have all branches here.”

Workers finished the Navy logo last month. They’ve started “Marine Corps” but are dependent on good weather for its completion.

“People have taken notice,” Flannery said. “Especially folks on the Navy side. They’re really excited. This is us saying we’re committed to being good partners.”

Go Air Force!

Pink uniforms, probably

And speaking of joint bases: I spent Tuesday morning at Leckie Elementary in Southeast for its career day. The school is not far from Bolling Air Force Base, er, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, and that installation was well represented at career day, with everyone from military police officers to military optometrists explaining what they do.

I tried to explain journalism. This was relatively easy with the third-graders, harder with the first-graders and impossible with the 3-year-olds. With them, things quickly got off-topic.

I decided to just flip through The Washington Post and show them photos. When I came to the Sports section I asked who liked baseball. One little girl’s hand shot up.

“Do you like baseball?” I asked.

“I like princess baseball,” she said.

I’m not sure what that is exactly, but I like adding that descriptor to any activity: princess rodeo, princess demolition, princess warfare. . . .

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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