Leica

The taste of this word – a brand name – has varied noticeably for me through my life as my attitude towards, and awareness of, its object has changed. As with any word, there is an education and experience effect.

The basic aesthetics of the word Leica, of course, are there regardless: a lightness that is helped by the echo of light, as well as by the liquid /l/ and the use of c rather than k for the /k/ sound. It has a femininity about it for anyone familiar with a language where -a is a common feminine ending. And, of course, it can’t help but be like likeable – or at least like like a, as in like a virgin. Those who know the red script logo will also think of its classic simplicity.

But consider the case of someone whose first camera, when he was a little kid, was a rangefinder (a Ricoh, as it happens) – a camera where you look through a window on the side of the camera that has frame lines in it and use a little yellow area with a double image to focus – and who saw his father using a Nikon F2 – a bigger camera, a single-lens reflex (SLR, meaning that there is a mirror that lets you see exactly what the lens sees), seeming more substantial, and with the ability to change lenses and all that. I naturally absorbed the idea that an SLR was a real camera (and that Nikon was the top of the heap, better than Canon, Pentax, Olympus, or Minolta), and a rangefinder camera was just a sort of toy or nonserious camera.

And when I discovered medium format (which uses larger film and takes consequently better pictures), it was by a first encounter with a twin-lens reflex (a Yashica, as it happens) and becoming aware of medium-format SLRs made by Hasselblad, Mamiya, and Bronica. These cameras make quite the noise when you fire the shutter, because the mirror has to flip up, then the shutter itself fires, and then the mirror flips back down (well, on the medium-format ones it doesn’t; you flip it back down when you wind the film and cock the shutter). When I saw something like the Plaubel Makina, which was a medium-format rangefinder with a fold-out lens, I assumed it had to be an inferior camera, and I couldn’t understand the enthusiasm I saw one camera store customer display for it.

In all of this, I was barely aware of the Leica brand. It was not significant. Any rangefinder camera looked like a toy to me. When I saw pictures of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson taking pictures with a Leica, I assumed that his pictures were great in spite of, certainly not because of, his camera, and he probably used that cheap-looking thing for financial reasons.

In the late ’90s, I had a roommate who bought a new Contax rangefinder setup. Why would he buy a rangefinder camera, I wondered? And what’s with all the different lenses? He explained that the lack of a mirror box allowed the lens to get closer to the film – allowing better designs, especially on short lenses – and the lack of a mirror also meant less motion and a quieter shutter. So I absorbed the idea that rangefinders could be good.

And, while I had bought myself a Canon AE-1 setup (not because it was better than Nikon but because it was almost as good and quite inexpensive), after a bit of time I started pulling out and using that Yashica as well (which I had souvenired from my father). And when my wife’s uncle saw it (by this time I was married), he pulled out an old Zeiss-Ikon Ikonta, a folding medium-format viewfinder camera (not even rangefinder: you have the viewfinder but have to focus by dead reckoning or with a separate rangefinder). Naturally I had to give it a try. And I found it took beautiful pictures. I was also becoming aware of the Mamiya 7, lauded by many as the best camera that took the sharpest pictures ever – a medium-format rangefinder camera (and a kind of ugly one, too, but who cares when it takes such pictures).

But I still wasn’t very much in tune with Leica. I had the sense that it was a classic camera, and I wasn’t sure if anyone still used one. I didn’t see it as a status symbol. Certainly when I read that Leica was introducing a digital rangefinder camera, I thought they were possibly nuts, though it did tell me they were still around. And I had largely stopped doing much photography because it cost so much in film and processing, and I just used a little Casio for vacation pictures.

But the next time I started looking for a new and better digital camera, I knew I didn’t want one of those bloated digital SLR systems that all the poseurs use and that scream “Me camera!” – and are a real bother to carry around. I had acquired a liking for the straightforwardness of folding medium-format rangefinders (I acquired a couple), and had learned that while a big item like a Bronica is nice, you don’t take it too many places. And that’s when I learned that the perfect camera for my needs is a nice, compact rangefinder-style camera that takes interchangeable lenses but is unobtrusive. And has nice styling, and outstanding optics, and a full-frame sensor (meaning as big as a 35 mm negative – most digital sensors are much smaller), and considerable cachet. But it also takes considerable cash, eh! A Leica M9 is several thousand dollars above my budget. So I remain a Leica virgin. (The camera I settled on is an Olympus, which I have learned is not so inferior as I thought when I was a kid; it approaches but does not reach the qualities I’d like in a Leica. See some results at www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/.) But I am now aware, through reading, that Leica is a brand name with adoring fanatics, and that many people seem to hope a Leica will make them take pictures as good as Cartier-Bresson did.

This journey, which may seem to have a lot to do with cameras and not so much to do with words, shows clearly the education and acculturation effects on perception of brand names and similar. It also shows some different trends in camera brand names:

Some have ca on the end: Leica, Yashica, Bronica, Konica. This is in fact from camera: Leica from Leitz camera, Bronica – originally Zenza Bronica – from Zenzaburo Brownie camera (Zenzaburo being the first name of its inventor), Yashica on the same model from Yashima, and Konica from Konishi and that ca again.

Some lack the c but have the a: Mamiya (a Japanese surname) and Minolta (based on Japanese for “ripening rice fields”, or so I’ve read), for instance.

Others have on on the end: Zeiss-Ikon (from a surname and a Greek word for “image”), Nikon (from Nippon Kogaku and on the model of Ikon), Canon (which has a schwa in the last syllable and so sounds different; it’s from Kannon, a.k.a. Kuan Yin, a Buddhist goddess of compassion); also some lenses have on, as in Tamron and the Bronica brand Zenzanon. There’s a sort of caon competition, we can see, with some makers going with the light ca (even if, as with Bronica, the cameras can be heavy – anyway, the Bron in Bronica certainly adds some brawn), and others going with the scientific-sounding on (as in electron, xenon, neon, nylon, and many others).

A couple have ax: Contax (an invented name chosen by a poll among the employees of the Zeiss company, which created the Contax brand in the 1930s to make cameras like Leicas but better) and Pentax (from pentaprism – thereby declaring themselves SLR makers, as SLRs are the cameras that use prisms – and Contax).

There’s also an ar/tar thread, mostly seen in films (Ektar) and lenses (Sonnar) but also on Vivitar (which makes a variety of photo equipment, the least distinguished of which is their cameras).

And then there are the odd ones: Olympus, Hasselblad, Ricoh, Plaubel, and some others. Somehow they stayed outside of the camera naming stream. And now Panasonic and Sony are also big names in cameras. The camera name threads might seem to be becoming unravelled.

Except that there are still film camera enthusiasts and anoraks. And there are still several on brands in the market (Canon and Nikon are top dogs in DSLRs). And then there’s Leica. Which, as it happens, is – for those who know and love it – the ne plus ultra of real classy cameras for real photo lovers. And for the sorts of people who want to spend a lot of money on a classic piece of fine equipment.

10 responses to “Leica

  1. Ah, Leica! The first time I came across the name was in Karl Eskleund’s World War II–era memoirs, My Chinese Wife, in which he recounted trying to sell his Leicas through a classified ad — probably to raise cash with which to escape to yet another country. He said a wealthy Arab came to his lodgings, asking to see the horses. He had assumed they were horses, for some reason, not cameras. I would LOVE to see the text of the ad.

  2. For those who are curious as to the kinds of photos I take, by the way, visit my flickr page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/ . I actually also like signs and letters, but haven’t lately taken any good ones and haven’t yet uploaded the really good ones I took a few years ago.

  3. Clarification: Twin-lens reflexes don’t make any mirror noise, because the mirror doesn’t have to flip up; you see through a different lens – so you get a preview but there’s still a parallax problem. The Yashica is the quietest film camera I have; the shutter is barely audible and makes a soft “flup” noise. (The Bronica with the mirror flipped up makes just a small click, too, but of course you can’t see what you’re shooting when you fire the shutter when the mirror is up.) The folding rangefinders are also very quiet: leaf shutters don’t make a lot of noise. Focal-plane shutters can’t help but be a touch louder, but the mirror is still the noisiest part.

  4. One may also be struck by the fact that the camera market has long been dominated by the countries that lost World War II, Germany and Japan. They also make some of the best cars. It happens that they were innovating in both areas before the war, so one may wish to think for some time about the implications.

    On another point, one brand name I neglected to mention is Rollei, known on the one hand for twin-lens reflex cameras (the Yashica I have is a Rollei imitation) and on the other for the smallest 35 mm camera ever in general production, the Rollei 35. I have one (it used to be my brother’s – see a trend here?). It’s nice; it’s what I took on my honeymoon. It’s much smaller than digital cameras that have far smaller sensors. I have to ask, if they can make a camera that takes 24×36 mm negatives that small, why can’t they do the same with a digital camera? Come on, guys! All the small digitals have sensors smaller than my little fingernail (some much, much smaller), and let me tell you, it makes a difference. Oh yes it does, never mind the megapixel counts.

    Rollei is shortened from Rolleidoskop, where roll is roll (as in roll film) and eidoskop is a Greek-derived word from roots for “form” and “look”.

  5. To find out about the camera I would own if I were rich, the Leica M9, read http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2010/08/04/my-updated-big-bad-ass-leica-m9-review/ .

    To get some more insight into the Leica cachet and image, try http://kenrockwell.com/leica/leica-man.htm .

  6. The very name Leica also causes wet dreams for birders who consider the brand to be the ne plus ultra of binoculars and scopes. The prices, though, leave most of us slinging perfectly adequate Nikons, Pentaxes, and Swifts around our necks. Leica’s only real competitor in the stratosphere of high-end outdoor optics is Swarovski (yes, the crystal people).

  7. This post has been featured on Steve Huff’s blog (largely focused on rangefinder and similar cameras, especially Leicas): http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2010/09/09/the-word-leica-by-james-harbeck/

  8. I just made a little correction of fact re: Contax, which was not a separate company but was a brand initiated by Zeiss. I suspect that the name had some influence from the Ikon in Zeiss-Ikon, which also shows up in the brand name Ikonta (which is very similar: remove the opening I, spell the /k/ with a C, and add an x on the end).

  9. Pingback: parallax | Sesquiotica

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