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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The first time I encountered a Leica was nearly 40 years ago in a leaky rowboat in Central Park Lake. My friend Marty, a very serious, very good, photographer on our high school newspaper, had managed to scrape up enough money to buy a brand new Leica M2, and he proudly showed it off one sunny day as we went out shooting together in Manhattan, winding up at the Central Park boat basin. If I remember correctly, my camera back then was a Dejur "Dekon," a comparatively inexpensive SLR obviously trying to trade on the name "Nikon" and doing a pitiful job of it.

Even to a young teenager, the quality of this Leica camera was obvious. The silky way the lens worked, the comfortable, authoritative heft of the camera in my hand. But what stuck in my mind that day was the sound of the shutter-unlike any I ever had heard. It was a soft, enticing, gentle sound, so unlike the loud clatter of an SLR.

I didn't know it then, but I was hooked. It would take four decades for me to finally come around, but come around I did. The current incarnation of the legendary Leica rangefinder camera-my TTL M6-may be the finest camera I ever have used, including my Nikons, my Hasselblads-even my Zone VI 4x5 view camera.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about the rowboat.

Marty and I would regularly shoot together-sometimes cutting classes to do it. Once, don't ask me how, Marty managed to get a tryout with one of the top fashion magazines (Vogue, if memory serves) and before I knew it, we were cutting school again, picking up a drop-dead gorgeous model at her midtown apartment and spending the better part of a morning photographing her around Times Square. [Actually, Marty did all the shooting. I tagged along to carry and load his cameras-as well as to ogle the model. Hey, I was 15, OK?]

The Central Park near-disaster happened suddenly, during a one of those springtime-in-New York days that make people write songs. We had rented a rowboat, figuring there might be some pictures to be made from the water, and managed to dope out the oars and oarlocks sufficiently to make it to the middle of the lake.

That's when we noticed we were taking on water. A lot of water. "My goodness," we observed (or words to that effect).

If Marty's Leica had been a new car it would still have had that new car smell, it was that fresh out of the box. Even I was more concerned about Marty's camera. We rowed like hell and, thankfully, made it to the shore with only our shoes and trouser bottoms the worse for wear. Not surprisingly, our enthusiasm for boating had been, well, dampened, so we resumed our picture-taking on foot.

But the memory of that M2 stayed with me.

Segue ahead forty years. I had been using Nikons almost exclusively for my 35mm photography; Hassys for my medium format work, and every so often a medium format Mamiya 6 rangefinder. Still I could not help but be aware of what only could be called the cult of Leica. No other camera seemed to have such a diverse or devoted following. People collected them almost as sculpture. They held their value amazingly well. My fellow journalists swore by Leicas (both rangefinder and SLR) for their unsurpassed optics, even if many of my colleagues were forced by their publications to switch to digital.

I had to get a new Leica to see if what enchanted me as a teenager could still dazzle me as an adult.

Hoo boy. Leica sent me a loaner M6 shortly before my trip to Prague last month (May) and it didn't take long for me to figure I had to buy it. And, yet, in today's autofocus, Program-mode, motordriven world this is not the camera I ever would recommend to someone just starting out. Even if that person were able to easily afford a $2,000 camera body and lenses that run roughly the same amount apiece, the rangefinder Leica M6 is a camera one steps up to as a photographer, not steps into as an amateur.

And yet…and yet…this is a camera that is stripped of all pretense and electronic hoopla. It is an all-manual camera. Rangefinder focusing, once the most common form of focusing in the days before single-lens-reflex cameras, can in many ways be more accurate than manual SLR focusing, especially in low light. The camera is unobtrusive (no loud motordrive or mirror housing). It is built like a tank, albeit a tank made by Mercedes-Benz, but a tank nonetheless. So, in theory, anyway, this could be the perfect camera on which to learn the basics of exposure and composition.

In practice, though, I regard the M6 as a very specialized tool, and therefore, one that the average amateur might find too limiting. Its flash sync speed is an anemic 1/50 of a second, meaning that one could never shoot fill-in flash, or "synchro-sun" pictures outdoors. [In fact, you could not shoot any flash pictures unless you had at least a separate, hot shoe-mounted portable unit; the M6 does not have a pop-up flash.] Because it is a rangefinder camera, the M6 does not take long telephoto lenses above 135mm, nor the zoom lenses so popular on SLRs today. And unless you're really into "retro," manual film advance and manual exposure setting easily may turn into hassles, if you're used to your camera doing all the work for you. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that, in order to load the camera, you have to totally remove the baseplate and load film into an open camera bottom. [When I asked a Leica exec recently if there ever was a chance Leica would redesign the M6 to have a hinged back like that on virtually every other camera, he replied that to do so would lessen the rigidity of the M6 body, and that would simply be unacceptable.]

So what does make this camera so marvelous?

Very simply, the Leica M6 is the most beautifully engineered, most ruggedly built, quietist, sharpest-oh hell, sexiest-camera I've ever held in my hands.

As a professional, I will use my M6 for specialized purposes and apologize to no one for spending thousands to have precisely the right tool for the right job. I will use this camera for available light shooting with my medium wide, razor sharp, and very fast f.2, 35mm Summicron-just as Cartier-Bresson did, with such hauntingly beautiful results.

This is a camera that insinuates itself into your life, so elegant and unobtrusive is it. Already I carry it with me almost every day.

I'm sorry now it took me 40 years to realize this.

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.


Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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