Friday, August 31, 2012

Bless Me Barnack (Les)

Morning shipmates - well yer Captain was a tad surprised and disgusted this week with the footage from the Mars Curiosity voyage. 
A mighty and dangerous undertaking across the seas of darkrness, and a solemn and important voyage, yet it was patently obvious those coves at NASA weren't into the music they had to play, but had to show willing. I wonder how many dubloons crossed palms for that . . .
Did ye see the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fan, trying to stomp his feet in time to some modern homogenised-rap? 

Why they say the sky is the limit
When I’ve seen the footprints on the moon
Why do they say the sky is the limit
When I’ve seen the footprints on the moon
And I know the sky might be high
But baby it ain’t really that high
And I know that Mars might be far
But baby it ain’t really that far

Let’s reach for the stars
Reach for the stars
Let’s reach for the stars
Reach for the stars
Let’s reach for the stars
Reach for the stars
Let’s reach for the stars

(let me see your hands up)
(let me see your hands up)

Can’t nobody hold us back
They can’t hold us down
They can’t keep us trapped
Tie us to the ground
Told your people that we don’t mess around
When we turn it up
Please don’t turn us down
We will turn it up
Louder than we was before
Like the lion out the jungle, you can hear us roar
When I lie in here, it’s like a sonic blaster
Flying just like nasa, out of space master

Hands up, reach for the sky
Hands up, get ‘em up high
Hands up, if you really feel alive
Live it up, live it up

Why they say the sky is the limit
When I’ve seen the footprints on the moon
Why do they say the sky is the limit
When I’ve seen the footprints on the moon
And I know the sky might be high
But baby it ain’t really that high
And I know that Mars might be far
But baby it ain’t really that far

Let’s reach for the stars (reprise)

Oh yus m'dearios, it fairly makes you want to jump into your spacesuit and head off doesn't it. 
I wonder how Cap'n Scott would have felt with an equivalent cranking away on his gramaphone?

And I know that the Pole might be far
But baby it ain’t really that far . . . .

Anyway, even Mog looked up from his plate o'shrimp and flicked his tail in disgust. **
We particularly liked the look on the face of the guy with the mowhawk who looked like he'd been asked to eat a plate of mealy-infested biscuits.
Why would they do that?
That is all I shall say.
Personally I feel a good shanty would have been more appropriate . . something like 'The Sailor Likes His Bottle-O'.
It's got a good beat and ye can tap your toes or haul rigging to it.

The Mate was drunk, and he went below,
To take a swig of his bottle-o
A bottle of rum, and a bottle of gin,
And a bottle of Irish whiskey-o

His bottle, oh, his bottle-o
The sailor likes his bottle-o

Tobaccio, tobacci-o,
The sailor loves tobacci-o,
A cut of the plug, and a cut of the Swiss,
And a cut of hard tobacci-o,


The maidens, oh, the lasses-o
The sailor loves the Judys-o
A gal from Liverpool and a gal from the Tyne
And a lassie so fine and dandy-o


A bloody rough house, a bloody rough house,
The sailor loves a roughhouse-o
A kick in the arse and an all-hands-in,
A bloody good rough-and-tumble-o


So early in the morning
The Sailor likes his bottle-o
A bottle o'rum and a bottle o'gin
and a bottle  o' Irish whiskey-o
So early in the moring
The Sailor likes his bottle-o

So early in the morning
The sailor likes his baccy-o
A packet o' shag and a packet o' twist
and a packet o' Yankee Doodle-o
So early in the morning
The sailor likes his baccy-o

So early in the morning
The sailor likes the lasses-o
The lasses o' Blyth and the lasses o' Shields
and the lasses across the water-o
So early in the morning
The sailor likes the lasses-o

There's a stoke o'sea-farers would agree with me.
Getting the feelings from the Capn's who'd put in that day, we all felt the NASA debacle was a disservice to the memory of the late Mr.Armstrong.
Anyway, in a curved-ball of strangeness, this week Mr.Sheephouse has gone plain off his trumpet, and has written a mighty ode to the legendary Les Dawson.

** yes, we do have a particularly nice and sea-worthy AV system on the Goode Shippe.


I have handled quite a few cameras over the years, Rolleiflex, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Praktika, Minolta, Kodak, Braun, Agfa, Petri, more Nikon, more Pentax, Sinar, Wista and so on, so really it quite unusual for me to be surprised by something, but I have been with a recent purchase.
It took a number of months of saving and selling, but after managing to hold myself back over all the tempting cameras there are out there, I recently purchased a 1954 Leica IIIf (Red Dial, Delayed Action) and to say I am surprised and knocked out would be an underestimate.
It is sitting just next to me as I type this, and I find myself looking at it and wondering about the life it must have had. 
It is in remarkably great condition for a camera that is 7 years older than me, so one can only assume that it was purchased and looked after by someone who wanted to care for their precious possession. It isn't in perfect condition like it has been kept in a cabinet though; no, rather it has the feeling it has been used. 
Back in their heyday and before the Japanese manufacturing machine got into its stride, the Leica was the camera everyone wanted. And it was EXPENSIVE. 
They were available in Britain right through the 1930's, until a certain Mr.Adolf decided to upset the world and then you couldn't get them for love nor money, and even when World War II ended, if you were a British photographer, unless you were professional (and could prove you needed to buy an expensive camera) it was virtually impossible to purchase a Leica. This was due to the post-war import restrictions:

Post-war foreign currency regulations and related import prohibitions made it impossible for amateur photographers in the UK to buy new cameras from other countries if the ex-factory price of the camera (that is, the price the importer or dealer paid, excluding freight charges) was more than a very low figure - from memory I think this was £5.
Only professional photographers, who could prove that they needed an expensive new camera for their work, could obtain an import licence to buy a Leica or Rolleiflex. This rule was the reason for the rise of the British camera industry during the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s, resulting in cameras like the Reid III (a virtual clone of a Leica IIIb), the Ilford Witness (which took Leica lenses), the Periflex (a reflex focusing camera that took Leica lenses) and the MPP Microcord and Microflex, respectively near clones of the Rolleicord and Rolleiflex of the time. Import restrictions were gradually relaxed in the late 1950s, so it became possible for amateurs to buy new cameras like the Retina IIc and IIIc, the Exakta Varex and the Rolleicord. They did not end until 1959/60.
After the Second World War, second-hand Leica prices were very high and few could afford them. In April 1946, RG Lewis advertised in Miniature Camera Magazine a Leica IIIa with f/2 Summar, then about ten years old, for £103 17s. This equates to about £2,650 today, which is a huge sum for a second-hand camera.
I have not been able to find a new price for a Leica IIIf for you in the time available, but to give you an idea, a new Leica M3 with f/2 Summicron was advertised by Wallace Heaton in October 1962 at just under £183. At that time, as an advertising copywriter aged 21, I was earning about £700 per year and was considered well paid, so you could approximate £183 then as being equivalent to about £5,000 today. The IIIf ten years earlier would probably have been in the same general area of price.

From a letter to Amateur Photographer by Ivor Matanle

In the rest of the post-war world there were no such restrictions, but even then, it was still a very considered purchase. For instance, in Germany, a Leica (with lens) was roughly above the higher (Doctors etc) median average average monthly wage which was approximately 300 Deutschmarks.
So, assuming say 325 DM in 1954 (roughly 166 euros) is equal to about £131 today (2112); allow for inflation from 1954 and you reach the staggering equivalent price of £2878!
This is for a light tight box, with a rangefinder, reliable film transport mechanism and a lens. 
In anyone's terms that is a hell of a lot of money.
I think you can safely assume you are looking at a precision piece of work.
I can only assume that mine was either purchased by a professional photographer, or was bought from elsewhere in the world by some enthusiastic amateur and ended up its life in a nice, pipes and slippers, cosy British pub-land where not a lot happens and you can take a few pictures every month or so.
Can you imagine purchasing such an item in the early 1960's?

Possibly the world's worst Leica picture, but it will have to do.
The box by the way is a lacquered Japanese tea box circa 1900.

Even in those days, the Barnack Leica's looked antique next to Leica's then new M-series and the Japanese rangefinders from Canon and Nikon.
So, whoever purchased my camera must have made a decision, and fallen in love.
And it is an easy camera to love.
I pick it up, and can feel the treasuredness of it.
It was made in a long-gone age where a large number of articles were 'hand-made' and robots were definitely not the norm; each camera was built by a human being from carefully made and sourced components. Each human was valued for their skills and abilities.
They took an average of 40 man hours to assemble, which I find extraordinary - basically a whole working week for one camera. 
They are over-engineered really - rather like the Nikon F, but that engineering was there for a simple reason - to make the cameras as robust and reliable as possible, and given the large number still around and in use (compared to their main competitor of the time, the marvellous Zeiss Ikon Contax) that engineering ethos has been proven right. 
Actually you can say the same for Nikon F's and F2's too - reliable brick outhouses is the expression I would use, and their adoption by vast numbers of professional photographers back in the 1960's and 70's (and the fact that many are still eminently usable) is testimony to that. 
So why on earth would I want to buy a camera that was manufactured before I was born? 
Well as previously detailed in FB's, I have a keen interest in mechanical things, even though I am no mechanic myself. My Father was an engineer, as was my Grandfather, and I suppose some of that genetic makeup has helped my fascination with mechanical cameras become a hobby.
Though the bar is raised very high for any newcomers into the Olde Sheephouse Home For Mechanical Marvels:
I hold the Nikon F2 as probably the best mechanical SLR ever made. 
The Rolleiflex range of Twin Lens Reflexes are the most astonishingly well-designed and built cameras. A Rollei's Synchro-Compur is always surprisingly quiet - just a snick on fast speeds and a tiny buzz on longer ones
Up till now though, the best shutter I owned was on a Minolta Autocord - it still functions perfectly (despite the camera having been made in 1958 and obviously having lived a very tough life) with a very quiet and accurate buzzing on longer speeds. 
I have a 1950's Prontor SVS leaf shutter on a Kodak Ektar lens and that too is wonderful considering its age - it buzzes like a fat Bumblebee. 
The Nikon F shutter is something else - quiet and efficient - the original F is actually quieter in action than the F2 or F3.
All of my cameras have buzzed and clicked and snicked and buzzed, and I love them all actually.
But I have to say, now that there is a new shutter in town - that of my Leica.
There are screeds of words written about Leica shutters. The whole field of candid photography was made possible by the invention of it, and the camera that encases it.
It is a relatively simple design, under-stressed and running on the two curtain principle (as do most film-based cameras) however there is just something about it that is so darn spot-on.
It opens and closes with a fluid mechanical sound, a precision burring culminating in a postive stop, rather like a door being closed firmly (but obviously, quietly).
1/1000th and 1/500th of a second have a reassuring positivity to them.
Get down to the slower speeds and the tell-tale 1/15th finishes its run with a good sound rather similar to some small ball-bearings being dropped and bouncing quietly on a hard surface - this is entirely normal for a Leica (and indeed a mechanical Nikon - early F's were essentially copies of Leica shutters apparently) and just indicates that the gear-train is returning and is working correctly.
One second opens and closes with a click-buzz-click, and T (or Timed) is delightful in the way it click-buzzes as the shutter opens, stays totally silent for the duration of your exposure, and then when you are finished and turn the low-speed dial, it does the whole thing in reverse and buzz-clicks as the shutter closes. 
In a word it is a miracle of ingenuity and precision.
It just feels right every time you release the shutter.
I like that.
And call me strange, but I feel like I have to live up to its abilities.
When I hold this svelt chunk of brass and cogs and gears and satin chrome and vulcanite and glass, I can feel the history of it seeping into my bones.
Pick it up and you can feel it.
Fanciful I know, but it is almost like you are being geed along; spurred onwards to be more daring, compose better, make better photographs, concentrate more, make better photographs!
Can inanimate objects be imbued with a soul?
Can they pick up some of the spirit of previous owners and add their own spin on it?
Well, again laugh me right out of the classroom if you like, but yes, I think so.
The 'mechanical' or 'man-made' soul is an airy concept which most people have difficulty with, but I have encountered it on a number of things:

My friend's collection of ancient weapons
A dagger made for a planned escape from a concentration camp
A Buddha made from mammoth ivory
A Victorian barometer
Ancient nails and stone tools and buttons
A Roman alabaster marble found on Dere Street
A Nikomat (early Japanese market Nikkormat)

So yes, my fancy has taken flight again, for I feel it in the Leica. 
There is a definite something there.
I nearly always don't feel this way about things I have purchased though; for instance to illustrate my point, many years ago I owned a Yamaha SG3000 guitar. It was a stunning example of the Japanese luthiers art, and nowadays an extremely rare and collectable guitar.
But you know what, it had absolutely no soul whatsover. I played it and played it and played it, but could I unlock what might or might not have been inside it? Could I hell, so I traded it.
So what is it? Why am I feeling like this?
Could it be my delight in my new purchase is making me lose all sense and rave on?
Well, people would tell you that on most things I am a fairly level headed person. And especially with cameras I can read them quite quickly, from having studied them and handled them and indeed repaired them.
But something is different this time.
Quite different.
Twilight is falling as I write this, and my wee Leica is still sitting there, looking at me, almost saying that I should load some film and go and use it again.
And I will.
It was made to be used, and used well.


In use:

If you are from an SLR background (and most people are) you will find using a Barnack the most antiquated, difficult, thought-provoking, hard-to-use camera you have ever encountered.
I'll state that again in different terms:
Unless you are prepared to immerse yourself in the depths of user-operated everything you may well find it a frustrating learning curve, but be heartened . . . whatever doesn't kill us makes us strong . . so be persistent!
Pick one up and study it.
It looks like a camera.
It feels like a (small) camera.
It has weight and solidity.
But what's this? Two dials for shutter speeds? No wind-on lever? A shutter button in a semi-awkward place? No batteries??
Yes. You'll feel like you are holding an antique.
Even loading the film (it has to be trimmed first!) is a tricky manouevre.
Believe me, peering at the very small range finder window, checking it, getting your focus right, then composing your photograph through a separate window, re-checking the focus again and firing the shutter, is not the easiest nor quickest of actions. In fact coming from the luxury of a bright split-image viewfinder on a Nikon, it is a downright pain.
In the various Leica manuals there is an excellent illustration of the correct sequence of events of using the camera. 

One thing that tends to get skirted over is the rangefinder 'telescope' (you can see its lever at the 10 o'clock position next to the knob in Steps 6 and 7 above). Basically this is a variable focus function of the rangefinder itself.
Focus the rangefinder telescope lever at infinity and you have infinity focus and then you can get the two rangefinder images to superimpose for accurate focus. However, what isn't said, is that for anything else up to infinity, it is possible to focus the rangefinder telescope on the object you are interested in.
If you are handling one, try this:
Keep the telescope set on infinity and turn it towards something close.
What you are seeing through the rangefinder telescope  is still visible, but it becomes unclear and definitely isn't in focus.
Adjust the lever backwards towards your face and your subject matter will snap into focus. Then you can focus the lens so that the two rangefinder images coincide.
You can focus very very accurately with this, but it rather makes the whole idea of the decisive moment even more of a marvel!
Fast it is not.
You have to use anticipation at every stage of making photographs with it, and yet, a large number of the most incredible photographs ever made were made with exactly this system.
It is the sort of camera that you need to adjust to, rather than for it adjust to you.
As an experienced photographer, I can honestly say that not one single camera has made me feel more all fingers and thumbs than the Leica, and yet, 6 or 7 frames in, it felt like the most natural camera to use in the world.
This machine, if you decide to go the route of acquiring one, will inspire you and frustrate you, but above all else, it will concentrate you like nothing you've ever experienced.
It could well be the boon your photography has been looking for.
Above all else, it is a wonderful and beautifully made tool.
I would say it is pretty much the epitomy of the camera builders craft.


Just to flesh this out a little more, the IIIf was almost the end of a long evolution of cameras designed by Oscar Barnack and built upon by his successors. They were made by the company of Ernst Leitz in the city of Wetzlar in Germany.
Basically Leicas popularized the whole concept of miniature photography, setting the photographer free from the tripod and the plate and the focusing cloth (although to be fair other cameras had done this too, but not with the same sense of style and purpose).
I won't write much about the evolution of the camera. If you find yourself interested there is a ton of information out there, but suffice to say that though the basic design of the Oscar Barnack Leica remained relatively unchanged from the late 1920's, in the 1950's it was looking decidedly old-fashioned. Especially when sat next to its children, the Leitz M-Series. After one last gasp for the screw-mount Leica with the IIIg, the Leitz company decided to concentrate its efforts on the M's and the rest is history.

The above was made with my Leica.
I rather like it.
What you don't see is the fact that I mucked up my concentration and caused the water's horizon to be squint! Lucky for me I can sort that out at the print stage . . .
It was made on Agfa APX 100 at EI 100 and developed in Kodak HC 110 Dilution G for 18 minutes at 21 Centigrade. Agitation was gentle. I used a water-bath to soak the film, poured that out, agitated for the first minute, and then on minute three and every third minute thereafter gave 15 seconds gentle agitation, making my last agitation cycle at 15 minutes. The grain is a bit mushy, and I feel something like dilute Rodinal would be a better developer, but the glow is there and the overall feel too.

A note about the lens:
The observant amongst you will notice that the camera is not fitted with the correct lens, which of course should be either a Leitz Elmar, or a Summicron.
Unfortunately for me, my finances cannot stretch to one of those at the moment, so I purchased a Russian-made Jupiter 8. It was made by the KMZ company in the good old USSR in the 1970's and whilst not the sharpest knife in the drawer it isn't the bluntest either. The Jupiter 8 is a grandchild of the mighty Zeiss Sonnar (my favourite lens) and indeed, it manages to impart some of that glow I associate with the lens, mostly found in the photographs of Mr.Walker Evans and a large number of pre-WII photographers. Apparently the master of the Leica, Mr. Henri Cartier-Bresson, also used Sonnars prior to his receiving a collapsible Summicron from Leitz.
The Sonnar glow can also be found in a number of the Japanese lenses also designed for the L39 mount (Leica 39mm screw mount) namely the Canon f1.8 and the Nikon f2.
The marvellous writer Dante Stella has a good run-down on the Canon line here:

And the other notable writer Stephen Gandy at Cameraquest details lots of others here:


Anyway, again, that's me - God bless and thank you for reading.
I'll leave the death of the screw-mount Barnack Leica to a comparison between the photographers from two different Leica manuals, for the IIIf and the M4.

Dig the crazy jumper Dad!
What's that you're shooting?
The Leica M4, because you never know when.

They're the same, yet totally different: cosy jumper for the 1950's IIIf; smart Italian suit for the 1960's M4.
I'm currently with the former, though a trifle beatnikish.


1 comment:

  1. You and the Leica sound like a match made in heaven, Phil. You're obviously getting to grips with it judging by the pic. Enjoyed the sea shanty as well. Remind me to give you a rendition of "T'was on the good ship Venus" sometime...