Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Don't fancy Leica!

This is a "quick and dirty" translation from Russian of the article I found in the old "Soviet photo" magazine, issue dated Jan 1934 with portrait of Stalin on its cover (of course, what else?):

Re-publishing today a photography article this old deserves at least an explanation, so here it is:
There was a time when 35mm film was rapidly gaining popularity while older types of larger format cameras and films, still in use at the time, were slowly becoming outdated. Most of the new 35mm cameras of the period were extremely expensive and out of reach of regular soviet citizen for the obvious reasons:
  • the production of 35mm Leica copies (FEDs) just started, they were not yet available for order;
  • there was no free trade with abroad;
  • the cameras actually were expensive;
  • the salaries were very low.
But still, part of the soviet elite and professionals who by nature of their work had to use photography were looking to acquire the latest equipment: it was fashionable, it was cool, it was better then the old, and in almost all cases it was (ta-dam) ... Leica! Few examples come to mind:
  • ...poet Bulat Okudjava in his teenage years before WWII imagining himself in "...black pants, white Apache shirt and "Leica" hanging from the shoulder" (see his short story "Certain failures among continuous successes");
  • ...writer Ilya Ilf buying "Leica" using money borrowed from Eugene Petrov, his co-author and friend; Eugene was joking that after this he had "no money no co-author", because Ilf was busy photographing and did not have time to work and earn salary; with this camera Ilf photographed the USA in mid-30s, which resulted in their illustrated book "One-Story America", published in USSR in 1936 and known to English readers as "Little Golden America".
The article below is written by soviet official, Semyon Evgenov, director of SOYUSPHOTO trust. SOYUSPHOTO was created in 1931 by decree of the ruling communist party as the country's main propaganda organization to produce and publish photo-illustrations for Soviet magazines, newspapers and other types of publications, so despite the fact the article was published in the widely distributed photography magazine, it was truly meant to be read and fully understood by the few elite readers, as it was usual for Soviet press of stalin's period. It is poorly written in crude soviet official language I tried to imitate in translation, where photography gear referred as "photography weapons" and photographers as "photo-workers". The author is following his absurd line of reasoning minding his own petty goals -- like saying something bad about some photographers and something good about others (by coincidence, the "others" work for the author in his SOYUSPHOTO trust), but at the same time it is interesting and funny to see the parallels to the 70s photography discussions "automatic vs manual", early 2000s topics "film vs digital" and so on. Well, enough said, here is the article:

S. Evgenov

"Soviet Photo", № 1, 1934.


What to choose – glass1) or "Leica"?


In the controversy about “Leica” both sides are equally wrong: those who think “Leica” is the best weapon for a photo-reporter, and those who reject it entirely.


We believe the most correct solution is this: “Leica” is absolutely indispensable for shooting in remote and lengthy trips or expeditions, in the Arctic, in expedition to Pamir, during the Karakum2) car adventure and alike. “Leica” has no alternative where equipment and film should occupy minimal space and have a minimum weight.


“Leica” is also irreplaceable in all cases where photo weapons should be put to use as quickly as possible. This could happen not necessarily in distant expeditions; it could be for covering meeting at the railway station, where photojournalist has to move in the crowd, quickly change points of view, shoot from the raised hands and so on.


Finally, the “Leica” and only “Leica” has to be used when the most sensitive negative material available to photographer for the photo-shoot is leica’s type negative material, i.e. leica’s film3).


“Leica” has flaws: even in the hands of most experienced masters it does not yield depth, conceals distance, and kills subtle nuances of light. Beautifully composed frames of such “Leica” masters as Ignatovich4) and Langman5) are usually flat, taken from a distance and the composition is done by arrangement of planes; the texture in their pictures almost non-existent, light and shadows are presented by big planes. The best leica works of Sterenberg, Kedoyarov, Markov-Grinberg6) are much softer.


Another common drawback: working with “Leica” will “undermine the creative discipline”, so to speak, corrupting the photography worker. "Leica" provides an opportunity to make a lot of shots in the short time. Undisciplined, nutty shooter, using this quality of “Leica”, stops thinking of the composition, loses himself, begins clicking at random, stretching luck – “let’s shoot many” – he thinks, – “should be something good to choose from later”.  Random frames are rarely come up good and photographer not only stops in his personal growth, but easily rolls back.


There are special drawbacks to using “Leica” in SOYUSPHOTO7) work: enlargements from “Leica” are far greater than from the glass. Of course, good print masters can pull 50x60cm and even more from  technically superb leica negatives, but in a case of mass printing by mid-experienced print workers (like it is in the case of the SOYUSPHOTO production facility) even 20x30cm or 30x40cm enlargement is a problem.


SOYUSPHOTO office receives photographs as negatives. Process of selection of leica’s negatives, identifying their qualities and characteristics is much more complex compared to the selection of the glass plate or wide film negatives. Experienced editors make blunders editing leica’s negatives, sending things to press not suitable for production, which have to be rejected later. Shipment and storage of leica’s negatives seems easier - roll film does not break8). But it wears out, can be scratched, it collects fingerprints, and finally comes completely useless earlier than the glass plate negatives.


From what had been said about “Leica”, in my opinion, one can also deduct advantages and disadvantages of the photographic glass plates and wide film. There is no wonder that abroad “Leica” did not become a press camera. Photo-reporters there still prefer large format cameras, up to 13X18cm, and there “Leica” is an amateur camera. We are trying to put the Soviet photojournalist in better working conditions than the conditions of the bourgeois press photographer.


In this regard, along with the klapp-camera9) and other equipment we allow “Leica”, we even recommend it in some of the cases like mentioned above, but with a caveat: take “Leica” if you can’t take bigger camera, when there is no place for it, there is no way to carry a supply of plates, when you do not have time to deploy a conventional camera. But remember, no matter what you shoot (if you know how to shoot at all) you will shoot glass better than the “Leica”. Pamir, sultry Karakum desert, Red Square full of people, illuminated by the soft rays of sun just breaking through the clouds, all of it you can show wider, larger, more expressive, more “juicy” while shooting glass or wide film, and editing by the office will do error‑free selection of the best material.


Based on these provisions, the SOYUSPHOTO office, starting from the second half of 1933 is equipping its best photo-reporters with both “Leica” and tropical Nettar10), striving to regulate the use of “Leica”, and forthrightly fighting the habit of some photographers to use exclusively “Leica”.


A few more reasons against ”Leica”: as proven by real experience the study of photography should not start from “Leica” and one should not start shooting “Leica” before universalka11) and klapp-camera had not been mastered to perfection. Photo-reporters who started using “Leica” untimely usually exhibit delayed growth and do not use all the features of "Leica".


The craze for “Leica” is over. Recently popular among Moscow and provincial photo-reporters opinion that the first-class photo-reporter is the reporter shooting “Leica” is gradually getting rid of.


Once again, this does not mean: “Leica” is not needed, down with “Leica” -- this means: do not get addicted to “Leica”, remember her huge flaws, the enormous difficulties of mastering all her virtues, perfectly master the universalka and klapp-camera first.


In the wake of XVII Party Congress the magazine "USSR in Construction" published luxuriously printed issue dedicated to the four Bolshevik victories (work of Epron, Karakum auto expedition, climb to the Pamir, stratospheric balloon flight).


Materials on panorama photography will be published in the next issue



1) Glass plate camera

2) Desert in Central Asia, site of early soviet auto expedition

3) 35mm roll film

4)Boris Ignatovich (1899-1976), soviet photographer

5) Eleazar Langman (1985-1940), soviet photographer

6) Early soviet photo-reporters associated with Soyusphoto

7) Soviet official photography trust created in 1931; S. Evgenov was its chief editor

8) Compared to glass plate negative

9) Klapp-Taschen or similar camera, from the early 20th century; a large format wooden-bodied strut‑folding camera with nickel-plated metalwork and a leather bellows often used by early Soviet photojournalists. Soviet versions: “Reporter”, “Tourist”.

10) Contessa Nettel Tropen large format camera made by Zeiss in early 20th century.

11) Jargon name of universal folding large format camera with ground glass. Soviet cameras of this type: “FOTOCOR-1”, APFO


  1. Thanks for sharing. It's always very instructive to see how history repeats.

  2. I loved the "common drawback" paragraph. It speaks to our current digital friends.