Up until the 1920′s cameras were huge and not very portable. Leica changed all this when they cleverly developed a camera that could use 35mm cinema film. Cinema film runs vertically so the frame measures 18 x 24 mm. Leica designed their camera to transport the film horizontally to create a larger frame size of 24 x 36mm. With the launch of the Leica 1 in 1925 the age of 35mm film photography was born. But such a small format needed a very sharp lens to withstand the enlargement that would be needed. Leica developed a special 50mm f 3.5 lens for the job. The Leica 2 came in 1932 with innovative rangefinder focusing. Leica cameras were compact, discrete and quick to use
At about the same time a young Henri Cartier Bresson was being wowed by the photography of Martin Munkacsi , Bresson found the image “Boys at Lake Tanganyika” particularly influential. He said of it “I understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influences me. there is such an intensity in the image, such spontaneity , such “Joie de vivre”, such miraculousness that even today it still bowls me over”.
Bresson was inspired to take up photography himself but he needed a camera that would be an extension of his eye, that would make him blend in to a crowd or intimate situation so he could capture his “Decisive Moment”. That camera would be the Leica.
What makes Cartier Bresson’s images special is his talent for capturing a precise moment in time
Like a predator, observing then silently, patiently, waiting for the exact moment to present itself , and ….. ”Click” captured.
Portraits that convey a narrative, capturing a moment of unawareness, a depth and realism in a subject.
Cartier Bresson was a master of candid photography.He shot with just one lens, a 5omm for almost all of his work. He would walk the streets, draw his camera up to his eye and shoot, all in one smooth unobtrusive motion.
The Leica company had continued to refine the design of their cameras through the 1950′s. The Leica M3 was introduced in 1954 with a new bayonet lens mount and there were subsequent model upgrades through to the end of the film era with the M7 then the MP in 2003. Then came digital and first the M8, cropped sensor then the M9, full frame sensor and now the M. However with all the improvements and innovation the current camera still retains the classic look, manual rangefinder focusing, accepts lenses made in the 1950′s and above all still enables the user to be discreet and unobtrusive which were the qualities that encouraged Henri Cartier Bresson to pick it up and make those classic images over 80 years ago.
I wanted to see if I could somehow go back to basics and dispense with the sophisticated and obtrusive equipment that I normally use and try working with a small relatively simple camera to see if it could influence my style and force me to see in a different way.
I made inquiries at The Leica Centre in Mayfair and I’m really grateful to Rachel Barker who was able to let me have a Leica M9 with a 35mm lens on loan.
I had a commissioned project that I wanted to try using the camera on. An undergraduate prospectus for BPP University I wanted the portrait images of the students both at leisure and in the university environment to have a relaxed candid feel to them.
I wanted to walk amongst the students, oblivious, whilst lectures were going on and be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible whilst getting really close in.
One of the alumni, Shaun Dias, had ambitions to become an MP. We didn’t have permission to shoot in The Houses of Parliament. Low key, quiet, rapid and unobtrusive was the only way to go.
I wanted to portray the tutors as professional but approachable, informal and relaxed. Alan Thompson, School of Foundation & English Language Studies
I wanted to experiment with a shallow focus, wide angle portrait style. Katrina Taylor LLB (Hons) Student.
Often you just see a picture and need to grab it before the subject gets bored.
The Leica M9 isn’t exactly a “point and shoot” but it’s light and has an all metal, precision engineered, quality feel that takes some practice to use. Remembering to line up the double image squares in the viewfinder manually is important as there’s no autofocus and you can’t just blaze away shooting because the buffer will trip you up, so think and shoot carefully. That’s a bit like the way it was in the film era.
The controls are simple and there’s everything you need with no over complicated menus to learn. Live View, since the 1930’3 the cameras have had it, its the viewfinder window !! Its very sharp too.
I won’t be giving up my other cameras totally but there’s definitely a place on my wish list for an M. If you want one or some advice the very nice people at the Leica Centre will be pleased to help you.
I’m grateful to Beth & Natalie at BPP for letting me experiment on their project and thank you to Helen Kershaw and Marie & Ray Webster from WRG for having the confidence to commission me in the first place. Thanks also for all the bag carrying, card downloading, focus checking, assistants Claudia Moroni and, for also retrieving my MacBook Pro from Euston Lost Property, Philip Banks. I think we got a great result !