Shooting from memories

Published on: November 14, 2013

Shot manually with a Leica M8 camera. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Shot manually with a Leica M8 camera. Mitch Traphagen Photo


Almost everyone is a photographer these days, displaying their photographs on Facebook and Instagram, usually taken with cell phones. Some of the results are mediocre; some are incredible. Cell phone cameras are so ubiquitous now that even famed photographer Annie Leibovitz has been quoted as saying that she recommends an iPhone to people who ask her what kind of camera to buy. After all, the best possible camera is the one you have with you and most people always have their smartphones.

Over the past few years I’ve published a few photos taken with my iPhone but that pocket device just doesn’t measure up for most of the work I do. I couldn’t possibly use an iPhone to photograph a large event. I wouldn’t want to use it to capture the photos of people for my feature stories — the least I can do is make sure people look good. And for that, I need good equipment.

My first real 35mm camera, purchased in my early teens on the advice of Jim Brandenburg, a family friend and photographer who would later gain worldwide fame, was entirely manual. I had to actually focus the lens and set the exposure by balancing a little needle in the viewfinder. I still have that camera and it still works. At the time, my Dad told me that I could pay him back with my future photo royalties.

Fast-forward a few decades and virtually everything about photography has changed. Recently, I upgraded one of my professional Canon cameras and, shortly after, photographed an event in a darkened theater. The camera was able to focus on what I could barely see through the viewfinder and the resulting image was good enough to appear in print. Technology is amazing.

That said, as camera technology gets better and better, I’m feeling my photography is getting worse and worse. I’m less a journalist or an artist capturing a moment than I am a mere cog in a recording machine, machine-gunning images captured by a high-tech wonder of technology. It simply became too much so I decided to shoot from some memories.

I’ve always admired Leica, a German company known for making some of the best lenses and cameras in the world. Unlike the big camera companies, Leica doesn’t churn out tens of thousands of bodies and lenses, thus they need to charge more to survive. They also have a long and hard-earned reputation to protect and, except for their compact cameras built to their specifications by Panasonic in Japan, all of their cameras are hand-built by craftsmen in Germany. Even the boxes that enclose them are hand made.

The company also has a commitment to and a passion for photography. In 2012, they sponsored a group of photographers from the elite photo agency Magnum as they chronicled the election in Florida. Most grippingly they provided dignity and humanity to the homeless and disadvantaged, whom both political parties tended to ignore in the run up to Election Day.

Leica is also a strong supporter of young photographers struggling to make it in a world increasingly difficult for artists.

Photography from Leica cameras has had a dramatic impact on humanity. So many of the most compelling photos in history have been made using their cameras. Some of the photos have changed the world, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by AP photographer Nick Ut of Phan Thi Kim, a young girl running naked and in terror down a road after a napalm attack in Viet Nam. That photo was taken with a Leica camera and is widely credited with helping to bring an end to the war.

Leica M8 rangefinder with a collapsible 50mm lens that dates back to the late 1950s. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Leica M8 rangefinder with a collapsible 50mm lens that dates back to the late 1950s. Mitch Traphagen Photo

A Leica was also used to capture the sheer joy at the end of an earlier war, recording for posterity the famous kiss in Times Square on V-E Day. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world’s most famous photographers, was rarely seen without his Leica. He chose the camera for many of the same reasons I’ve always admired it. It is unobtrusive, it requires thought and the work put in, when done correctly, is rewarded with stunning imagery.

At the Leica Store in Miami, they let me walk out the door with their latest model camera, the Leica M, just to try it out. The camera and the lens were valued at $15,000. It dramatically changed my outlook on my lifelong passion, carrying me back to where I began: shooting from the heart.

Leica is flying high these days. They announced the new M model last year and the waiting list to get the camera still stretches out into weeks and months — and this is a camera that costs nearly $7,000 for the body alone. Although old lenses will work just fine, new lenses could add many thousands more to the price (these days, even high-end Canon and Nikon cameras and lenses can easily cost much the same).

Perhaps what is most amazing is that the Leica is almost totally manually operated. While it will set the shutter speed, if desired, the aperture and focus must be performed manually. Unlike the older M cameras, this model also shoots video but that is just a side to what many photographers have long recognized is a beautifully made photographic instrument, ideal for producing iconic still images.

Leica is leading the pack in what appears to be a retro renaissance. Recently Nikon announced a new digital camera built to look — and be used like — one of their most famous cameras from the film era. Like the Leica M, it is a digital camera that uses the strengths of their film cameras, adding in the high technology required for photography today.

After using the Leica in Miami, I knew that it was right for me, although it was well beyond my budget. I found a relatively inexpensive six-year-old Leica M8 digital rangefinder, now two generations old, at a used camera shop. Before long, I had a small collection of four Leica lenses, most of which dated back to the 1960s and 70s, with the oldest being from 1958 (and is identical to one Cartier-Bresson had used). With Leica, almost all of their lenses going back to the 1950s still work on their cameras.

A few months later I found another M8 in the New York Leica Store. It was a back-closet beauty of which I became the first owner for a fraction of the price of a new camera. Now with two M8s, I feel more like a journalist and an artist than a machine operator. My Canon will always be with me; it is an excellent camera that is capable of so much but it is getting less use these days. An added bonus is that the relatively small size of the Leica cameras and lenses means my camera bag is now much lighter.

Leica cameras make it easy to capture impromptu moments in life. MItch Traphagen Photo

Leica cameras make it easy to capture impromptu moments in life. MItch Traphagen Photo

The Leica rangefinder is a beautiful pairing of technology and artistry. It doesn’t rapid-fire frames, it doesn’t shoot in pitch darkness, but it is a magical piece of equipment, a work of art in itself. My older Leicas may not have the latest technology but the sensors produce film-like images that most new cameras can’t match. And, to get the most out of it, I have to think about what I’m doing. My photos are completely dependent upon my own vision and skills. There are no magic buttons; I have to do the work to capture the moment that my eye sees. And once that happens, the results make my heart and soul sing. It’s a song I’ve missed since that first camera that my Dad gave me — it is wonderful to hear it again.

Leica and the Leica stores, including the Miami location, are active on Facebook (Miami, New York). Many people ask me for advice on buying cameras and while I’m no expert on compact cameras I’m always happy to talk photography; please feel free to send me an email. While it requires a little patience and practice, many cameras can be manually set to capture the images you see in your mind’s eye, despite all of the amazing technology that sometimes gets in the way.