In the 1950s and 60s, we had one camera store in our small town. The sign hanging over the entrance steps was shaped like a super-sized folding bellows Kodak Kodo No. 0. The shop name was scribed in neon lights and they stayed open until 9:00 pm. To my youthful and impressionable eyes, it was a transcendental emporium for image-making, a portal for any – no… everything! – photographic. I passed near every day on my walk to and from junior high school.
One afternoon I encountered an instrument that was to have a profound influence in, and on, my life. It was the epitome of machined beauty. Immediately, I wanted one. Badly. I sensed it might be expensive but the price was not something ever discussed in polite company. The knowledge of what it really cost came later.
The object of my desire was a Leica. It belonged to Peter, a German friend of my father. I was surprised at the heft of what was labeled an M3. It was light-years (a phrase I had learned recently) beyond my simple Bakelite Ansco Panda.
An immediate drawback was that it was a German product and this was anathema to my father. I believe the only reason Peter and my father were able to become friends was that they were both veterans of the Second World War – albeit from different sides. My dad, who had volunteered at the age of 17, once said to me that he did not hold a grudge against conscripted Axis soldiers, only officers, politicians and the rich who sent them to war.
A well-stocked Carnegie Library sat next to my school. At the age of thirteen one ‘graduated’ from the children’s library, entered via a lower-level side door, to being able to get a card in one’s own name for the adult, main library. Perched atop a knoll, the main library was accessed by negotiating many steps to the imposing front doors. Here was to be found the intellectual wealth of mankind. It was my favorite haunt in town and I eventually read all the books in the sections on archaeology, ancient history, space travel and, of course, photography. Many days I took ten cents from my lunch money to have a librarian make a photocopy for me on that temperamental, first-generation machine. Those waxy, cream-colored, easily fading, Xerox copies were magic.
After my first encounter with the Leica, I scoured the photography section for books of photographs along with information on the Leica camera. It was an exciting time in photography and 35mm bodies were making inroads into the world of the professional, although the Olan Mills studio and the photographer for the annual school portraits still used view cameras and Hasselblads for their work. In the books, however, I saw that war and documentary shooters often were using the small 35mm cameras that came to dominate.
It was about then I remembered the August 1942 Life Magazine in our home library that described and mapped the travels of George Rodger, one of the founders of Magnum. I pulled it out and dreamed of the places I could, and would, travel with a Leica!
In 1969 I moved on to the three-year high school and it was here that I became friends with a guy who used a Nikon for the school newspaper (which was published as a section of the town Sunday newspaper). The Nikon also seemed very nifty and my devotion to owning a Leica wavered. But the dalliance did not last and I eventually settled my desire on the black paint M4, the most beautiful camera I had ever seen (in pictures)!
The high school was miles from home but there were times I had to walk if my classmate, who drove a Dodge Charger, (a great asset in high school!) was sick. Late one autumn afternoon I gathered the courage to stop in the Camera Shop, looked around and asked if they had a Leica camera I could look at. With surprise the man at the counter asked me why. I said I might like to buy one.
Life Magazine © 1942 Time Inc.
“How old are you?”
“Do you know what it costs?”
“No, is it very expensive?”
“Well… it’s all relative.”
“Do you have one in stock? An M4.”
“Great! Could I see it?”
“Yes. It’s a nice chrome one – but it’s already spoken for. However, you can see everything Leica offers in their latest catalog.”
I had not considered there might be a catalog. It was wonderful and I poured through it looking at the bodies, lenses and accouterments. But the prices!
Then, I saw a camera that looked like it had my name on it:
#10,402 Leica M4 in black finish without lens $339.00
November 1969 Leica catalog (left) and January 1969 catalog (right). As now, prices rose between catalogs!
It was $30 more than the chrome model. I asked about Nikon prices. He showed me a Photomic FTn. The price, $500, was a lot more than the Leica. And, it was a lot bulkier.
About then came the recognition that the price of the Leica body, according to the catalog, did not include a lens. I asked; the shopkeeper confirmed. I said I would have to look at my savings and think about it. I left, rueful that I should ever be able to buy my dream camera. But, a little excited, too. I had, I knew, $400 of my bar mitzvah money left.
That night at the family dinner table I told my dad that I had gone to the camera shop and looked at a catalog to find a camera of the same brand as Peter’s. But newer.
“A Leica?” He asked.
“Can’t you find a Kodak or something?”
“The Kodak Retina is also made in Germany and it’s not what I really want.”
“What else is out there?”
“Well… all the other 35mm cameras are Japanese or German models and more expensive.” (I had, cleverly I thought, rehearsed working this angle into answers I knew would be needed when the questioning came.) I seem to remember my father muttering under his breath at this point.
“What does it cost?”
“Well, it is expensive…. $339 for the one in black… and I have the money.”
At this point my mother interjected that she thought this a shocking amount of money to spend on a camera, especially as I already had one. And, money earmarked for college, at that! I tried to explain that the Ansco was pretty much a toy camera for amateurs.
“Well, you are not a making money professional,” she said in a manner that left no room for dispute.
My father brought an end to the conversation by saying that I ought to think long and hard about what I really wanted. We would talk about it later. In committing a sin of omission I did not offer that the price did not include a lens. Why muddy the waters?
‘Something for nothing’ was a rare commodity in a family where parents were Depression-era babies; where the idea of having to buy your children’s affection with stuff did not exist, was, in fact, as foreign in our household as having a Tibetan lama in residence (other than on the pages of The National Geographic magazine.) I knew a loan for the lens was out of the question. That left the option of saving up for it. A lot of saving. For a long time. I had asked the camera dealer if I might be able to find a used body. He thought the chances of finding a current model, black paint body slim. But, the chances of a good used lens, for a decent price, were very high. (This applied to finding an earlier Leica model, too, he offered helpfully.) I thought I might like a 50mm lens because everyone seemed to use that focal length. It was called a Summicron and was $150 new… well, the chrome one was. A black one to match the body I wanted was $171. Still, I was only about $100 shy of buying a lens. And, I was told an older, used lens, could be much less. This was progress.
Twenty-four hours can seem like an eternity to a sixteen year old. But, the next day, I returned to the store and found the man behind the counter. It turned out he was the owner.
Before I even asked he said, “Did you talk to your parents about buying a camera?”
“Yes, they were not happy with my choice.”
“Well, there are other cameras you can choose: Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic SL, Konica Autoreflex T SLR, Canon (“Light and Electrons, Connection to the Future.”), Mamiya-Sekor DTL ($180), Zeiss Ikon Contaflex S (first to use a pentaprism?), Exacta VX500 SLR, Yashica TL Electro-X, Praktica LLC 35mm SLR, Agfa, Kodak Retina S1 & S2, …” (This list proves we have come to equip ourselves with less diversity, photographically speaking.)
“Okay, thanks. I’ll have to do some research and convince my parents. But… could I see the camera, again?”
Several weeks went by and, though I did not cool to the idea of my very own Leica, high school, with its new challenges, new friends and new activities, took the forefront of my interest and time. I began to think of the possibility of buying my dream during the December holidays.
One day, sometime after Thanksgiving, I stopped in the camera shop. The owner was there and I asked him how long it would take from the day I bought my camera (as I now thought of it) to the day I would receive it. Not long he said, maybe a week. Then he had some shocking news: a new Leica catalog had arrived recently and prices had gone up. Almost $50. I was dumbstruck. Now, with 3% sales tax, my cost would be only $2 less than my total savings of $400.
Lest you, dear reader, agonize over this story as much as I did my first camera purchase, I will cut to the chase and simply write that I soon did buy my black finish M4. Thus, I joined an illustrious group and became a “LEICA man”. (I am not being sexist, here. The inside cover of my red M4 Instructions manual reads, in red type, “As a LEICA man you have the benefit of a universal photographic system….” Times were very different, indeed!)
Coda: It took me a year to buy a 50mm Rigid Summicron. That twelve months seemed interminable. I would frequently sit my M4 on the bedside table and just admire it as I went to sleep with dreams of future shooting. In the end, my mother chipped in $20 to enable my purchase of a lens. I imagine she was eager to end the misery I inflicted on the family by not having a lens – and bringing it up often in conversation!
And, oh… I finally did get to use my Leica to photograph a Tibetan lama-in-residence!
I eventually owned several of the gorgeous black paint M4 bodies.
The leading edge of the shutter curtain on my original M4 separated in December 2018.
49 years without problems was money well spent!
– “75,000 Miles in His Own Pictures and Words, George Rodger Tells of His Travels as Life War Photographer”. Life Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 6, August 10, 1942, page 61.
– George Rodger. An Adventure in Photography, 1908-1995. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press; 2003.
– Leica and Leicaflex. Cameras and Accessories. Catalog No. 42, Revised 1-1-69; page 2.
– Leitz Photographic Equipment. Catalog No. 43, [date] 11-69; page 4.