Tuesday, July 23, 2019


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By  José Manuel Serrano Esparza
One of the highlights of the LHSA Annual Meeting held in Wetzlar (Germany) in 2010 was the Leica M2 Eisenhower shown there by his owner, the legendary maestro Rolf Fricke, Past President of the LHSA, Cofounder of the Leica Historical Society of America (1968), Leica Historical Society United Kingdom (1969) and Leica Historica (Germany, 1975, along with Theo Kisselbach and Georg Mann) and Regional Director of Marketing Communications at the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester (New York).

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The presence of this historical photographic tool inside the Wetzlarer Hof hotel was a relish for every attendee who had the chance of beholding this gorgeous 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder camera serial number 980 000 from 1960 (which was given away that year to United States President Dwight David Eisenhower by Dr. Ernst Leitz III) in near mint condition, working flawlessly at every diaphragm and shutter speed, and keep it between his/her hands while turning the scalloped focusing ring of the 7 elements in 5 groups Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 DR serial number 1605950 from 1958, searching for precision.

Rolf Fricke holding the Leica M2 chrome camera showing its back area with the letters D.D.E. corresponding to Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States between 1953 and 1961.
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Rolf Fricke, who has been a towering figure of Leica world for almost sixty years and is presently the greatest expert on earth regarding the history of the German photographic brand, its cameras, lenses, accessories and many more things, along with James Lager and Lars Netopil, began his passion for Leica in 1938.

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Front view of the Leica M2 Eisenhower, showing the 7 elements in 5 groups Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Dual Range lens with its knurled focusing ring and the back coupling area for a special removable spectacle viewfinder giving the correct parallax adjusted field and providing extra focusing travel for very near distances up to 48 cm, while it is used without the finder for normal subjects. The mechanical construction of this lens is impressive and still to beat in the scope of Leica M primes, sixty-three years after it was launched into market in 1956. In addition, though it is a single coated lens, its resolving power is amazing, around 105 lines/mm.

On top front of the camera are from left to right : the rangefinder window, the illuminating window for finder frames and the viewfinder window.

On the right of the lens is the self timer, absent in early models, an optional extra in Leica M2 models with numbers between 949101-949400 and built into every M2 camera from number 1004151.

Though the Leica M3 is the best 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder camera ever made (along with the Nikon SP) with its unbeatable 0.92x magnification exceedingly brilliant and sharp viewfinder, particularly in symbiosis with standard 50 mm highly luminous lenses,

German advertisement of the Leica M2 highlighting the three different frame-lines for 35 mm, 50 mm and 90 mm lenses. Id est, it was from scratch a camera straightforwardly optimized for its use in photojournalism, particularly with 35 mm wideangle lenses, though it could also get excellent results with standard 50 mm lenses and even 90 mm lenses. As a matter of fact, Alberto Korda made on March 5, 1960 in Havana (Cuba) his famous picture  " Guerrillero Heroico " of Ernesto Che Guevara with a Leica M2 coupled to an Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 lens.
© jmse

the Leica M2 is also an extraordinary camera and the forefather of all the 24 x 36 mm format Leica rangefinder cameras manufactured after it, both analogue and digital ones, in terms of the range-viewfinders used, since their VFs are based on the one designed by Willi Keiner,

Optical scheme of the VF/RF of the Leica M2 devised by Willi Keiner.

who adapted its optics for the 0.72x magnification viewfinder of the Leica M2.

And there were two significant reasons for it:

a) The production cost of the Leica M3 was huge, to such an extent that only its fabulous 0.92 x viewfinder and its rangefinder, made with top-notch glass and very complex, had a similar price to the cream of the crop of professional 24 x 36 mm format cameras from other respected brands at the time.

b) The 0.92x magnification viewfinder of the Leica M3 (sporting brightline viewfinder frames for 50 mm, 90 mm and 135 mm lenses) didn´t make possible to generate a bright-line frame for 35 mm wideangle lenses, needing the use of expensive optical viewfinder attachments to get it, which substantially increased the weight of any 35 mm lens.

c) The Leica M2 was launched into market in 1958 because Ernst Leitz II gleaned a lot of feedback from professional photographers who were going to mostly use 35 mm wideangle lenses and needed a more affordable camera that kept on preserving amazing building quality and optomechanical performance.

Advertisement made by E. Leitz Inc New York in 1958 to promote the new Leica M2 rangefinder camera, specially underscoring its built-in luminous frame for wideangle 35 mm lenses (non existing in the Leica M3), which turn it into a reference-class photographic tool in the scope of photojournalism.

This was the key factor for the German photographic firm to focus production on the Leica M2 and subsequent models of Leica rangefinder cameras featuring 0.72x magnification viewfinders, because from late fifties it was evident that the 50 mm standard lenses (which had been mostly used in the halcyon days of black and white photojournalism during the second half of twenties, thirties, forties and first half of fifties) were being replaced by the 35 mm wideangle objectives as more versatile and main lenses in both black and white and color photojournalism.

Something that was greatly enhanced from 1958 onwards with the launching into market by Ernst Leitz Canada and Ernst Leitz Wetzlar of highly luminous 35 mm wideangle lenses like the 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 1st Version SAWOM (1958-1979) designed by Walter Mandler, the 6 elements in 4 groups Summaron-M 35 mm f/2.8 (1958-1974) delivering exceptional sharpness for the time and featuring a wonderful focusing ring smoothness and precision, comparable to the 6 elements in 5 groups Asahi Takumar 55 mm f/1.8 Super-Multi-Coated with metallic scalloped focusing ring in M42 mount (1971-1972), and the 7 elements in 5 groups Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 (1960-1995) designed by Walter Mandler.

Not in vain, many foremost photojournalists got during sixties and seventies a number of iconic pictures with Leica M2 rangefinder cameras attached to highly luminous 35 mm M lenses, like Nick Ut´s Napalm Girl on June 8, 1972 in Trang Bang during the Vietnam War, Susan Meiselas Cocktail Molotov´s Man Pablo Arauz in the village of Estelí on July 16, 1979 during the Nicaraguan War, Joel Meyerowitz´s Fallen Man in Paris in 1967, Catherine Leroy´s pictures of corpsman Vernon Wike attending a dying G.I during the Battle of Hill 881 in full Vietnam War in 1967, Sean Flynn´s pictures of Vietnam and Cambodia with Leica M2 and 7 elements in 5 groups Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 (1961-1995), Bruno Barbey´s picture of Italian old women walking during a procession in the town of Trapani (Sicily) in 1964 with his Leica M2 black paint and Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 made in Wetzlar, some of the 1989 pictures made in Romania by the New York photographer Joseph Rodríguez, some images made during sixties by Ralph Gibson with a Leica M2 he bought in 1961, many of the pictures made with two Leica M2 cameras by Ian Berry in Sharpeville (1960, with fleeing protesters running for their lives as police opened fire, using Ilford FP3 b & w film) and Zululand in 1961 (A trading store warehouse being used as a mission doctor´s clinic, with Ilford HP5 b & w film), Vladimir Panasenko´s images of Mid Market Street made by him in San Francisco from eighties with eight different Leica M2 cameras, and many others. 

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LHSA member Dave Berry from Frisco (Texas) looking through the 0.72x magnification viewfinder of Rolf Fricke´s Leica M2 Eisenhower inside the Wetzlarer Hof Hotel during the Leica Historical Society of America Annual Meeting held in that wonderful village of Germany in 2010.

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David Farkas, owner of Leica Store Miami, member of the LHSA and a recognized international expert on all kind of Leica photographic gear, cameras, lenses, accessories, etc, looking through the 0.72x magnification VF of the Leica M2 Eisenhower inside the Wetzlarer Hof Hotel during the Leica Historical Society of America Annual Meeting held in Wetzlar in 2010. The cosmetic appearance of this camera, fifty years after its construction, goes on being a riveting sight. Needless to say that everything in it works like a charm, without any programmed obsolescence.

© jmse
Top area of the Leica M2 Eisenhower, showing from left to right : the extensible rewind knob, the accessory shoe, the shutter speed dial ranging from 1 second to 1/1000 second + B, the film transport lever, the shutter release button and the film counter. The mechanical construction of this camera is superb, hand made, with top and bottom brass plates.

© jmse


That way has the Leica M2 accurately been defined by Thomas Pindelski.

And he is absolutely right, to such an extent that even currently, this camera goes on being frequently used by a number of internationally recognized photographers excelling at that photographic genre like Eric Kim, Chris Cooper (getting pictures of Melbourne and its surroundings with a Leica M2 coupled to a Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.4 lens and using Kodak Tri-x 400 b & w film), Zhang Weiren in China (getting pictures oozing his subjective way of expressing the objective world he photographs, in addition to deeming composition of a picture as a priority in mind, leveraging his ability to draw as much potential as feasible from the Leica M2 virtues in this regard), Thilo Remini (an Austrian photojournalist) and others.

Such is the stellar performance of this camera when it comes to doing street photography, particularly in synergy with 35 mm wideangle lenses, thanks to its excellent and highly resistant to flare 0.72x magnification viewfinder enabling a very convenient and crisp view to photographers, the huge discretion enhanced by the whispering sound generated on pressing the shutter release button (because the Leica M2, in the same way as every Leica M rangefinder camera, lacks any swiveling mirror), the incredibly short shutter lag (time elapsed between the pressing of the shutter release button and the exposure itself) of 12 milliseconds, clearly beating in this regard the shutter lag of the best professional digital cameras of 2019 in different formats, its unobtrusive look as a further fundamental trait to go unnoticed, its silky smooth operation, its impressive reliability (it's an utterly mechanic camera that doesn´t need any batteries).

It´s true that it lacks any built-in light meter, but you can use the sunny f/16 rule, and as explained by Eric Kim, if you are good at metering with your eyes, this camera is a good bargain.

Because though products of this level of excellence are not cheap, the Leica M2 price/performance ratio is really difficult to beat.

© jmse

Back area of the Leica M2 Eisenhower showing the finder eyepiece, the electronic flash synchronizing outlet, the flash bulb synchronizing outlet and the film indicator.

The letters D.D.E. (standing for Dwight David Eisenhower) are engraved on top right.

The Leica M2 Eisenhower was donated in 2017 to the Ernst Leitz Museum for Photography and Photographic Technology at Leitz Park (Wetzlar) by Rolf Fricke, along with his extensive collection including many other valuable items like his Leica Null Number 113, one of the 25 preproduction series units manufactured in 1923 and whose aim was to implement a market research prior to the introduction of the Leica I (Model A) at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1925.

However incredible it may seem, 24 x 36 mm format analogue Leica cameras in both LTM39 and M Mount have experienced a significant renaissance during the last ten years, to such an extent that today in 2019 there´s a very active and profitable worldwide market niche with this kind of first-class optomechanical photographic products, thanks to the strenuous labor of highly experienced collectors, world-class mavens and firms that right off the bat relied on these masterpieces of craftsmanship : Rolf Fricke, James Lager, Paul-Henry van Hasbroeck, Hans Ploegmakers, Lars Netopil, Ottmar Michaely, Shinichi Nakamura, Holger Daberkow, Roger Hicks, Carl Merkin, Will Wright. Duncan Wong, Japan Camera Hunter, Peter Coeln´s Vienna Leica Shop, Tamarkin Camera, Jo Geier Mint & Rare, Solms Camera Fair (the best one in the world devoted to classic Leica gear), Wetzlar Camera Auctions, Eric Lam, Gilbert Yuen of Fotopia in Hong-Kong, Frankie Lee of M & K Cameras in Hong-Kong, Breguet Camera in Hong-Kong, Douglas So with his wonderful art deco F11 Fotomuseum (opened in 2014 and containing a wide range of landmark and rare Leica cameras, lenses and nearly 1,500 photobooks, including oodles of signed editions and maquettes, as well as holding great photographic exhibitions), Peter Loy, Wolfgang Sauer, Henry Chau, Claus Sassenberg, John Singleton, Raymond Piganiol, William Fagan, Ivor and Elaine Cooper, Hamish Gill and others.

Inevitably, a question arises : What are the reasons for this amazing significant revival of analogue 24 x 36 mm format LTM39 and M Leica cameras using chemical b & w and color films in full digital era and implemented by people already having superb digital cameras like the Leica M10, Leica M10-P, Sony A7RIII and others?

There are a number of key factors:

a) Analogue and digital photography are not rival or enemy entities, but complementary ones, as different creative means of artistic expression with also different aesthetics of image and bokehs.

In addition, the symbiosis between both of them can yield unique results.

Regarding this, to get pictures with analogue screwmount Leica rangefinder cameras like a Leica II (Model D), Leica III, Leica IIIa, Leica IIIf, Leica IIIG, etc, coupled to Leitz vintage lenses optimized for black and white becomes a real treat for any enthusiast of photography looking for that kind of image exuding filmic aspect and particularly excelling at the capture of special atmospheres and nuances.

Something similar happens when photographing with first-string photographic tools like a Leica M3, M2, M4, M4-P, M5, M6, M7, MP, etc, coupled to vintage screwmount or M bayonet lenses, with the added benefit that they can also use the most modern aspherical lenses delivering second to none values of resolving power and contrast.

Digital photography has brought with it a tremendous expansion of the possibilities of getting pictures with analogue Leica cameras made between 1925 and nowadays, thanks to photographic shops and firms having state-of-the-art professional scanners like the virtual drum Hasselblad Imacon Flextight X5, sporting a tremendous ability to draw maximum information feasible and impressive level of detail with both b & w and colour 35 mm films, with 8,000 dpi digitizations from original negatives, color depth of 16 bit and a Dmax of almost 5.

And though not reaching the stratospheric results of the Hasselblad Imacon scanners, there are some hugely cheaper models from other brands delivering excellent results on scanning 35 mm negatives and slides, like the

Epson Perfection V800,

Plustek OpticFilm 8200 and others.

To get such high quality digital negatives from 24 x 36 mm format film rolls exposed with analogue Leica cameras (getting splendid results and post production versatility after the photographic act, through the use of software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) is currently the best and most convenient way to obtain the full potencial of original chemical emulsions like Fuji Across 100 II, Kodak Ektar 100, Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Velvia 100, Kodak Tri-x 400, AgfaPhoto APX 100, Rollei Retro 400S, Ilford Pan F 50 Plus Ilford Delta 100, Ilford FP4 Plus 125, Ilford Delta 400, Ilford XP2, Kodak T-Max 400, Rollei Retro 80S, Fujicolor Pro 400H, Fuji Provia 100F, Kodak Ektachrome E100 and others, in synergy with  the analogue rangefinder Leicas optimized for handheld shooting and the extraordinary Leica lenses, with an uncommon connectivity proving the ingenuity and talent of Oskar Barnack, Dr. Ludwig Leitz, Willi Stein and Hugo Wehrenfenning as diachronic main technological architects of 24 x 36 mm format analogue Leica cameras.

b) Analogue Leica cameras are masterpieces of precision and craftsmanship, very well made, with painstaking attention to detail, hand made, manufactured with the best noble metals (specially brass and aluminium) and often sublimely chromed.

c) They are utterly mechanic, very reliable and can be repaired if needed. 

d) Their cosmetic appearance is gorgeous.

e) They boast a legendary past and are the core of a photographic, cultural and technological heritage for mankind, since a significant percentage of the most iconic pictures in the History of Photography were made with these cameras.

f) Its resale value is very interesting as an investment. As a matter of fact, most times they increase their purchase worth with years.

g) Though very small and light, they are very sturdy cameras, able to endure any harsh photographic environment or extreme temperatures, since they don´t need any batteries.

h) They work flawlessly and smoothly, in spite of the many decades elapsed since their construction, and to listen to its purely metallic components in action is an unutterable pleasure for any lover of traditional mechanics and miniaturized engineering, paticularly the sound of their horizontally travelling focal plane shutters.

It´s true that special or rare analogue Leica cameras like the gorgeous Leica M2 Eisenhower can reach astronomical prices and are nowadays probably the safest investment on earth, even more than gold and Krugerrands.

But there is an alternative route for those enthusiasts and collectors of analogue Leica cameras also having a penchant for getting pictures with them.

It is the way pioneered by James Munro with his concept of affordable Leica collection, set forth in 1993, when Sidney Gamsu was president of the LHSA, and according to which it is not necessary at all to be a very wealthy person to be able to get little by little a very interesting and usable collection of analogue Leica cameras and lenses, making photographs with them.

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And to prove this, he published the delicious 20 page little book in 21.5 x 28 cm titled " The Affordable Collection " (with articles written by James Munro and Will Wright along with pictures made by Lewis M. Tobias), with highly useful advice on how to do it.

It is the path likewise chosen by the legendary Leica pundit and photographer Tom Abrahamsson, always advocating the keynote that Leica cameras are to be used, that he followed up to his last days in Vancouver getting pictures with his beloved black Leica M2 coupled to a non aspherical 8 elements in 6 groups Voigtländer Nokton Classic S.C 35 mm f/1.4 lens, a path that has also been adopted by many other Leica collectors, some of them with a relatively recent background in this scope, like William Fagan, who began to use Leica cameras eleven years ago, has currently more than thirty analogue Leicas of different times (even a Leica I Model A from 1926 coupled to a Leitz Elmar 50 mm f/3.5), is particularly fond of LTM39 Leicas and gets pictures with them using both b & w and color film.

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Whatever it may be, the Leica M2 Eisenhower now inside the Ernst Leitz Museum for Photography and Photographic Technology at Leitz Park is only a very small part of the fascinating life of  Rolf Fricke, one of the most important persons in the history of Leica brand and a seminal figure in the preservation of the German photographic firm´s immense cultural, historical, technological and human legacy.

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