Few brands have the cult following of Leica, the legendary camera company that helped launch street photography and counts a century of boldface names, including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Bowie, William Eggleston and Mary Ellen Mark, among its top fans. Craig Porter, the former Director of Photography and Video at the Detroit Free Press and a four-time Emmy winner in online video, is another devotee who was led to Leica by his love of black and white photography. Ahead of Sotheby’s Agents of Style auction, which features a collection of vintage Leica cameras, we asked Porter to tell us about his all-time favourite models and how he sees film evolving in a digital age.
How were you first introduced to Leica?
In the mid-70s, we still shot only black and white, and Leica was the photojournalist’s dream camera. As a student, I was heavily influenced by photographers such as Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith.
My first Leica was a chrome-body M4 and I fell in love with its small size, incredibly quiet shutter release and the way it became an extension of my eye. Subjects weren’t intimidated by it – it didn’t create an obstacle as bigger, louder cameras can do.
Which Leica cameras have you used throughout your career?
For years I carried two black M6s and an M3 with 21mm f:3.4, 28mm f:2.8, 35mm f:2.0 and 90mm f:2.8 lenses. I would also carry a Canon SLR with a 200mm lens for telephoto shots.
What drew you to the M6 in particular?
For years newspaper photographers shot ISO 400 Kodak Tri-X black and white film. After shooting only one film for a while, you got to know your exposures instinctively and would nudge the aperture ring or the shutter speed dial as you moved through an assignment. So you didn’t really need a meter in your manual exposure camera.
When the M6 came out with an internal light meter, I found that I could integrate light metering into my shooting in a seamless way. And at that time we were starting to mix it up, shooting colour film and black and white film, often on the same assignment. So some precision was in order. Otherwise, the M6 is the same manual focus workhorse I’ve come to love.
Why do you continue to use Leica cameras? What makes them so appealing?
Unfortunately, what’s appealing about them is what makes them less useful in today’s world. But I still find the film Leicas iconically beautiful in this digital era.
It’s true: you can’t see the image immediately. You can’t transmit directly from the camera to a blog or Instagram. You can’t instantly share what you’ve just seen, as you can with digital cameras and smartphones.
But turn that around and you arrive at the need to slow down a bit, contemplate your photography, anticipate the shot and avoid scatter gunning the event. Remember, you only have 36 images on one roll of film and they go pretty quickly when you’re used to unlimited space on an SD card!
How do you see film Leicas cameras being used in a digital age?
Here’s what I would do: carry the Leica with black and white ISO 400 film. I’d use a 28mm lens with the old optical viewfinder perched on top for the cleanest view of my subjects, then use it in situations with images that I wouldn’t mind waiting to see. I’d still use my iPhone for quickie shots, selfies and my SLRs for those day-to-day colour shots you want of family and travel.
But the Leica shots? I’d have the film processed and returned to me, from which I’d do a careful edit and select only the ones I’d like to have as 11x14 prints. From there I’d either do my own darkroom work or, more likely, I’d have the negatives scanned so I could print beautiful black and white prints on a digital printer, crossing over to the digital world at that point.
Are there professional photographers you admire who use Leica cameras?
My old friends David and Peter Turnley are still carrying the digital Leicas and have done amazing worldwide work with them.
Why should people try shooting with a Leica?
I wish everyone could hold a Leica in his or her hands and release the shutter a few times. There’s a soft ‘click’ and a moment in time is captured. There’s no mirror to flap up and down. There’s no zoom to control. You can’t interrupt the shoot to stare at the back of the camera.