Ernst Haas, Leica and Me

Jan 27, 2020  By Tom Campbell

This article will serve the dual purposes of explaining how I came to use Leicas, but more importantly, to remind us of the centenary of Ernst Haas’s birth on 2 March 2021, and why we should be interested.

When I opened a  copy of his landmark book, The Creation, published in 1971, my jaw dropped involuntarily, and it stayed that way as I perused it. Of course, I bought it. Seeing those photographs that Ernst Haas took with Leicas, and the photo on the rear cover fold by Gigi Minke of him holding a Leicaflex SL with 400/6.8 Telyt slip- grip lens, I knew that eventually, I would trade my Nikon kit for Leicaflexes and their lenses. After finishing college, doing two years in the Peace Corps and a year of grad school, I finally bought my first Leicaflex SL and 180/3.4 Apo-Telyt lens. I started filling out my lens collection after I entered Naval Officer Candidate School. Eventually,  I  carried two or three reflex cameras and various lenses from 21mm     to 400 mm focal lengths. The kit changed with newer camera models and some upgrades in lenses for over thirty years.

Now to move on to Ernst Haas, in my mind, a singular Genius of Seeing, and, for all intents and purposes, the inventor of small format color photography as we know it today.

Haas grew up in Vienna, Austria and experienced the aftermath of World  War  I  (WW1), the Great Depression and rise of Fascist and National Socialist politics, and World War II (WW2) and its aftermath. With some Jewish ancestry and having stayed in Austria throughout the Hitler years, his education, world view, and creative development were heavily influenced by all that happened during those years. He was well acquainted with the changes in the visual arts that erupted after World War I as Cubism, Favism, Dada, and all of the European abstractionist movements, to Surrealism. He made his first abstract photographs before the end  of WW2. While teaching photography after the end of  WW2  at an American Red Cross post, he realized a link between poetry and photography and also made the connection between photography and Surrealism from looking at photographs by Edward Weston in the post library.

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During the early 1970s, many magazines carried advertisements for the Leicaflex SL cameras and lenses showing Ernst Haas holding them. Today, the lenses are in demand as the Chinese have produced adapters to enable them to be used on digital cameras. Yes, digital Johnny’s can mount Summilux (1.4) Summicron (2) Elmarit (2.8) and Telyts (4+) on their Japanese digital cameras. No autofocus of course and mostly stop-down metering on aperture priority but hey: it’s a Leica lens!

Now this drives the prices up for guys like me with four SL bodies ( 1 black) trying to build a collection of lenses (no zooms please – very slow and for amateurs). But I got busy some years back and obtained 28-250mm lenses including the four that the original Leicaflex was introduced with in 1964 – 35/2.8, 50/2, 90/2.8, 135/2.8.

The build quality of this gear is astounding. Only my black SL body has a working meter. However, I’ve long used handheld meters with Nikon F and M3 Leicas. Sitting outside a pavement cafe in a great many cities, the Leicaflex SL and 35 or 90 lens mounted and sitting on the table, seeing the digital Johnny’s walk past and staring at it. His camera pulling on the strap with the 28-600mm F9.5 massive zoom lens 18” long. One digital Johnny took a photo of my gear. To enter into the spirit of the moment, I offered to let him take a shot of my Billingham 335 and it’s content too. And yes, he was snapping away. What a plonker!

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