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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Precision Machines, Large and Small

I've used Leica cameras since 1967, and in 1968, I shot riots in Paris, France, using cameras like those two I'm pointing out, the Leica MP, and the black Leica M3 and M2. For photojournalists in the 1960s, they were our workhorses. Small, discrete, lightweight, with the ability to focus precisely in low light—ever notice how all the worst riots happen after dark?—these cameras saved our lives by getting us the pictures, earning us our rent money, and occasionally deflecting a whack by a police baton or a flying stone. This half of Leica's family tree brought back memories.

For those of you who don't know me well, I've been a photographer about twice as long as I've been a writer, and for many of the 43 years I've been making pictures, my camera of choice has been Leica. I love their precision, I love the quality of their lenses, I love their balance, and the way they feel in my hands.

Photographers who have driven a 911 understand this; and 911 drivers who have shot with Leica M cameras get this: The Leica M is the 911 of photography. Throughout this three-plus week work trip so far, the similarities between the two companies and these two products has struck me repeatedly. What each of these machines do is remind you that you can do better, either to make better photos, or to drive better through a turn. They force—okay, I'll use a bad pun, they drive you—to do better at what you're doing.

My friend Jerry Reilly shares my fondness for Leica and he arrived in Germany with a couple lenses and two Leica M digital bodies, one of which quit on us soon after he arrived. Porsche's head of archives Dieter Landenberger is a talented, energetic, and accomplished photographer himself (he won best of show in the annual Auto Motor und Sport photo contest, top prize for which was a Leica!) and he recognized our challenge. We wanted to make a big series of photos of each interview subject so we can have recent photos of each individual for this book, and possibly stitch them into a kind of video an e-book version of Porsche Racing History further down the line.

Dieter phoned Leica, north of Frankfurt, and today was our day to Journey to Mecca. Andreas Dippel, manager for Press & Public Relations, treated us royally, getting us first to customer service where the shutter of Jerry's M9 was pronounced dead-on-arrival. Andreas hurried us through the process, introducing us to the head of M9 technical repairs and the camera goes under his surgical care first thing Thursday morning.

History kind of stops you in your tracks. My Porsche Racing History collaborator Jerry Reilly talks with Andreas Dippel, Leica manager for Press and Public Relations, about the two cameras Dippel has pulled out of the company historic vaults for us to see today on our visit to Leica headquarters at Solms, German.

Once back at World Headquarters, Andreas then led us on a tour past all phases of Leica lens and camera body assembly. It is extraordinarily high-tech low tech. By that I mean, there are perhaps as many as a hundred proprietary machines and processes and computer programs that the 180 technicians use to hand-build every camera, from the D-1 point-and-shoot up to their flagship S2 single-lens reflex digital (yours for only 18,600 Euro without lens—that's roughly $25,000 at today's exchange rate. Because the processes are Leica "property," we couldn't shoot in the assembly factory but Leica also has opened a Leica boutique at the front of the factory where these photos are made.

As we wrapped up the visit, Andreas excused himself for a moment and returned with two treasures from the vault. Both are shown here; one is the camera that belonged to one of the engineers on the Hindenburg. The engineer perished in the fire after its tragic crash landing at Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937 but his Leica camera was recovered from the wreckage. The other saved the life of a British photojournalist covering the war in Vietnam. A bullet hit the camera just below the viewfinder, smashed part of the camera, and ricocheted away.

According to Andreas, this camera belonged to the chief engineer of the Airship Hindenburg which crashed and burned upon landing May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, NJ. The chief engineer perished in the fire. Rescue crews and investigators found his camera in the wreckage. It now is part of the Leica historic collection and will be displayed at their new museum in Wetzlar when their new factory opens in 2013.
British war photographer Tim Page has a lot of good things to say about Leica cameras, not the least of which is that this one saved his life. The story, as I got it, was that Page was aboard a US PT boat in the Gulf of Tonkin that mistakenly got strafed by American fighters. The sturdy Leica castings deflected the bullet.

At this point, the Leica "museum" is little more than a family tree at the bottom of which are the earliest cameras produced by founder Oskar Barnack, and at the top, the latest digital models. But Dippel reminded us of Leica's coming return to its hometown of Wetzlar, (just 8 kilometers away,) with plans for a museum to show the hundreds of treasures in the Solms vault. Plans have been approved and ground breaking is scheduled for next month.
This is "our" office in the Archives. My recorders are right in front of legendary engineer Hans Mezger, and Jerry Reilly's Leica is poised to shoot a continuing stream of images. In some cases, we have enough to make a major motion picture, coming soon to a theater near you.

The last photos I'm including here is one that shows how we are doing this book at this point. I record each interview on Olympus digital voice recorders - that way, if one fails, or if a battery dies, I have the words on the other recorder. On top of that, I tested both of them thoroughly before I came over and each records voices slightly differently. With sometimes challenging accents, it's a real help to have two versions of the same word or phrase. Dieter has essentially turned over the archive library to us for our interviews. Yes, others work in there, researching various projects, but the cooperation we have gotten from archives staff and our interview subjects has been incredible.

On the right, Porsche engineer Hans Mezger returned for a second conversation with us Tuesday, and he brought us up to date with his racecar and racing engine developments till his retirement in 1993. The good news for Porsche fans is Mezger continues to this day as a paid consultant and he joked with us that he works longer hours now than he did when he was still an employee.

Engineer Hans Mezger ponders a question. I initially create all my questions in the MacBook, record the answers on the two digital voice recorders, and make notes along the way so I remember key phrases and new bits of information.

What have we learned? What did Hans Mezger tell us about why Indy efforts failed in 1989 and Formula One failed in 1990? The answers—and these are answers now that have had the benefit of four other interviews to fill in holes—surprised me. Am I going to tell you? Absolutely—in the book.

That's what all this is all about.

Stay tuned.

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