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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

BIG CHANGES LIKELY FOR LEICA

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Big changes may be in store for Leica Camera AG, the venerable German optical company that pioneered 35mm photography nearly a century ago.

Under new CEO Hanns-Peter Cohn, Leica may soon incorporate some popular, user-friendly electronic assists into its hitherto all-manual M-series rangefinder cameras. In their stripped-down, gadget-free glory these cameras, epitomized by the current Leica M6, are widely viewed - with justification - as the finest, most beautifully made 35mm cameras in the world.

But incorporating something like aperture-priority into a Leica M6, though a big deal for a tradition-bound company like Leica, is small potatoes in an industry that routinely stuffs electronics by the tubful into every new SLR body offered.

The really big change will come when and if Leica finally makes the leap into medium format.

Spurred in part by Swedish camera-maker Hasselblad's recent introduction of its XPan 35mm rangefinder/panorama camera - a move that threatens to cost Leica customers - the German firm is beginning to look seriously at trying to take market share away from its Swedish competitor by introducing its own high-end entry into the hot medium-format market.

Recently, over a relaxed dinner in Prague, where we and others had flown to present a commemorative Leica M6 to Czech President Vaclav Havel, Cohn was surprisingly frank when I asked him whether Leica ever would expand its product line to include a medium-format camera. Without hesitation Cohn noted that the technology to produce a Leica version of the Hassy or other such camera (one assumes it would not be called the Leicablad) is not that difficult. The real hurdle, he noted, would simply be the design of the larger-format camera, and the mechanical retooling necessary to produce such a camera to Leica's legendary high standards.

And yes, he said, he intends to move Leica in that direction.

Perhaps easier to produce sooner would be changes to the rangefinder M6, introduced in 1984 with its major innovation: through-the-lens metering and compatibility with TTL flash. To be sure, the M6 is largely intuitive to use, though it does take some getting used to. Anyone picking up an M6 for the first time after years of using automated SLRs is first confronted with rangefinder, versus reflex, focusing, and then with the job of manually setting aperture and shutter, albeit with the aid of the camera's very accurate meter. Many photographers, photojournalists especially, do this automatically. Others, however, might appreciate at least an aperture-priority option to speed picture-taking. That's what seemed to be on Cohn's mind as he fielded questions about where he wanted to take 35mm Leica photography during his watch. (It should also be noted that Leica now faces competition on the 35mm rangefinder front where it once was virtually alone. Besides the novel XPan, which is a joint Hasselblad/Fuji venture, both Konica and Voigtlander have weighed in with excellent RF models. The Konica HEXAR RF, for example, tracks the M6 on a number of fronts, including lens selection, but, significantly, has an aperture-priority mode in addition to manual. Voigtlander's Bessa-R appears to be less of a threat to Leica, offering only four lens choices to Leica's and Konica's six, and being, like the M6, an all-manual machine.)

If Leica does make the anticipated move into medium format, it hardly will be breaking new ground. Other manufacturers have straddled two formats, with varying degrees of success. Medium-format Rollei's short-lived, though much admired, 35mm compact camera with collapsible lens is a case in point. Pentax has been producing 35mm and medium-format cameras for years, notably its 67II, a brawny 6x7cm camera that handles like a 35mm. And with the XPan, Hasselblad/Fuji now have entered the two-format field as well.

So what would a medium-format Leica look like?

Here I have to confess I haven't a clue - and I didn't want to press Hanns-Peter Cohn on the point after he had been gracious enough to even admit that he was considering this major move. This was, after all, a relaxed dinner in Prague, not a press conference or formal interview, with furious note-taking and tape recording. Still, Cohn was talking to journalists on the record. (My seatmates were award-winning Danish photographer Claus Bjorn Larsen and PopPhoto senior editor Peter Kolonia.)

With proven ability to produce both rangefinder and single-lens reflex cameras, Leica could go in either direction, though if it wanted to target Hasselblad users, the logical choice would be to produce a medium-format SLR similar to, say, the popular Hassy 500 series.

Still, Leica has built its reputation on its rangefinder cameras: their superb workmanship, incredible optics and whisper-quiet shutters. In that vein, might it not be possible that Leica might go the route trod by Mamiya with its well-received 6x6cm and 6x7cm rangefinder cameras? Here I have to weigh in with my own bias. As a longtime Hasselblad user, I would be hard put to think of anything I'd want to change in terms of workmanship, design or lens quality, and therefore might be reluctant to change systems if Leica came out with a Hassy clone. On the other hand, though I was tickled when the Mamiya 6 debuted and have been delighted with its optics, I was not happy when Mamiya abruptly stopped production of this square-format gem in favor of the allegedly more popular 6x7cm version.

If Leica wanted to reincarnate its legendary rangefinder M6 in the form of a square-format Leica RF, I'd be willing to bet there would be plenty of takers - myself possibly among them.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

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Leica see enlargement

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Leica CEO Hanns-Peter Cohn poses in Prague with a commemorative Leica M6 shortly before presenting it to Czech President Vaclav Havel. The camera was the 2,500,000th Leica camera made. Cohn says the medium-format camera may be in Leica's future. (credit: Frank Van Riper)

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Ralph Gibson Workshop In Paris

Leica is hosting a five-day photography workshop in Paris with renowned photographer Ralph Gibson Sept. 9-13.

The workshop will include instruction on street photography, architectural photography, portraiture and the nude. It is open to photographers of all levels and includes free use of Leica M-series and R-series cameras and lenses. Kodak supplies free film as well.

The $3495 tuition includes hotel, land transportation and meals. Airfare is not included. Reservation deadline is July 15.

For information and/or reservations, contact Marie Zeller at Leica Camera, 201-767-7500, ext. 211.



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