A few weeks ago I participated in the workshop run by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson and hosted by Leica Fotografie Internal, in Hamburg. My motivation for attending was as a long-time fan of Rax’s photography, and at the same time a hope that a few days of mentoring by a dedicated black & white, people and storytelling photographer would give a useful nudge to my dedicated colour, people-less and non-storytelling photography. Oh, and add to that my total lack of Leica ownership. Well, spending a couple of days two years ago with Neil Buchan-Grant in Venice certainly expanded my horizons, so why not. Of course, in that case I had my relatively strong relationship with Venice to fall back upon. Of Hamburg I knew precisely nothing.
The workshop attendees were not exclusively wealthy Leica owners. A few were clearly ultra-wealthy Leica owners :-). And a handful were, like me, non-Leica owners, and a few people even confessed to prefer colour. So I wasn’t totally isolated. And of course I got to pretend I owned a Leica for a weekend, as I casually laid it on the table at Starbucks.
Unfortunately the weather on my first day in Hamburg was worse than dismal. Incessant, bucketing rain, empty streets, terminally grim. It wasn’t even that kind of bad weather which is good for photographers. Nope, it wasn’t even good for ducks.
We had a quite loose assignment. Apart from a directive to produce at least one selfie (Rax has a sense of humour), the general idea was to produce a coherent series of some 20 photographs, which could be edited down in one to one sessions to 6, together with a set of 6 from previous work which we were asked to bring along. Finally the completed work was to be presented to the group.
Well, most everybody else wandered off and produced some nice black & white street photography. You can see some of it here. I’m quite impressed with what some people managed to produce. I certainly didn’t manage to tune in to Hamburg street life in that what.
Instead I reverted to type and tuned in to waste and desolation. I fixated on a few hundred square meters around the new Überseequartier U-Bahn station, which emerges like a buried alien artefact in the middle of an area of mostly disused dockland being transformed into Living Spaces for Bright Young Things etc. I found the state of transition quite captivating, if hardly up-lifting. However it did offer plenty of opportunity for a formal approach to urban landscape.
The selection curated by Rax narrowed down to 5 photographs, as can be seen at the end of the LFI gallery linked above. I respectfully disagree with part of his selection - my own set is here.
New camera! Well, sort of. It isn’t mine, but LFI in Hamburg kindly lent it to me for a weekend. As unlikely as it sounds, up until last weekend I had survived without ever using a Leica.
In camera forum land, Leicas are general the subject of scorn, being reviled as expensive, “under-specified” neck jewellery for poseurs and millionaires. I’ve never much cared for these debates, although there is a certain fascination in observing them. I’ve never given a lot of thought to owning a Leica, first because I can’t afford them, and second because there isn’t actually a model that particularly appeals to me. However the Q does, marginally, so given the opportunity I was happy to try it out.
So, the Leica Q is a fairly compact fixed focal 28mm camera, with built-in viewfinder. The lens is a fast f1.7 summisomethingortheother. I’d seen one once in a shop window, and it struck me as being pretty big, but in fact it feels quite compact, similar to an Olympus Pen, but of course a lot bigger than the Ricoh GR which could be considered to be a rival.
The Q feels very, very solid in the hand, and personally I find it very comfortable to hold, with the recessed thumb grip being a very astute piece of design. I guess some might describe the feel as luxury, but to be honest I’d go more with very well built precision engineering, and a good example of form following function. When you pick it up, it simply demands to be used. A bit like the GR, in fact.
It’s certainly an enjoyable camera to use, and the results are pretty good, too. Are they €4000 good ? Well, that rather depends just how wedded you are to a 28mm field of view, and how much disposable income you have. I could stretch to €600 or so for a Ricoh GR, but €4000 for a Leica Q isn’t realistic in this household. Please note, I’m not saying you don’t get value for money - by and large I’d say you do: apart from the flawless construction, you get a fabulous electronic viewfinder, by far the best manual focus system I’ve seen on a digital camera, and of course a lens which apparently is practically worth €4000 on its own.
The Leica Q isn’t perfect though, and the weak spots in my opinion are in the electronics. There are some weird handling glitches, for example the digital horizon vanishes when you half press the shutter button - just when you need it most. And also with the shutter button half-pressed, when you rotate the aperture ring the aperture display in the viewfinder doesn’t update. The menu could do with a little bit of categorisation, and I could not find a way to configure playback to show the image only, free of distracting icons and clutter. I expect a touch more refinement in that department at that price. Nevertheless, I was sorry to have to give it back. Not so sorry to be truly tempted to buy one, although a 35mm version could conceivably push me over the edge.
For a moment I could pretend to be William Eggleston... bet he could afford a Q. And put it to good use, too.
(All photos - except the first - by Leica Q. Somehow I had the ISO stuck on 800 all weekend. I could have sworn I had it on Auto)
I’m currently participating in a weekend workshop run by Icelandic photographer Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson, and organised by Leica Fotografie International (LFI). Fortunately LFI don’t discriminate against non-Leica owners, so they let me in.
Ragnar is known as a black & white photographer. If I were known, it would not be as that. He is also known as a “people” photographer. Ditto. And he uses Leicas. So, what the hell am I doing here ? Well, firstly, he’s also a very fine and accomplished photo book author (and writer and storyteller), and I’m very interested to work out how to progress from single photographs to coherent series. Also, similarly to a workshop I attended a while back co-run by Neil Buchan-Grant, who is predominantly a portrait photographer, I find I learn more from people who do different things to me than by those who do the same. Generally, by now I should be more or less able to photograph a landscape. Emphasis on “should”. But my soaking up methods, approaches and techniques from photographers working in other styles, I hope to add other dimensions to the stuff I do.
Well, that’s the theory. I also enjoy hanging out with people like Ragnar, who is erudite and very funny, apart from being a fabulous photographer (and apparently professional pilot), and with the other people on the workshop (most of whom who own Leicas - but they still talk to me).
Hamburg is not a place I’ve visited before, and tomorrow and Sunday I have the challenge of putting together some kind of coherent series. Not to mention a self-portrait, somehow. I’ve had a bit of a dry run today (“dry” meaning in torrential, relentless rain), and the following is the shot I like most so far.
Oh, and LFI have kindly lent me a Leica Q - the most expensive camera I’ve ever used. Hope I don’t drop it or leave it on the U-Bahn.