The Cult of M
Hand on heart, I must confess to being a bit of a Leica sceptic. Its cameras are beautiful to behold – and to hold – but the company’s glacial pace of technological advancement (its flagship M cameras only went digital in 2006) meant that I saw it as a lumbering dinosaur.
Its best-known product is the M series. Still the Leica flagship, it’s a rangefinder type, which is an anachronism, considering equivalent. Its other new features include the ability to shoot up to five frames per second (its predecessor only managed three).
These are hardly earth-shattering advancements, but remember this is Leica. The brand still maintains fully mechanical film cameras in its line-up and an M camera that shoots only monochrome images. And then there’s the digital M variant with no rear LCD screen that, according to Leica, “brings back the joy of its main rivals have long since abandoned the style, going instead for compacts, SLRs and more recently, mirrorless systems".
But ask any Leica M user what they think and they’ll tell you they didn’t buy it because it was cutting-edge. In fact, they got it precisely because it isn’t.
When Leica invited me to its Celebration of Photography event at its Wetzlar headquarters, I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about. This turned out to be serendipitous as I found out later that the event was a pretext for its CEO, Oliver Kaltner, to launch an all-new M camera. Called M10, the latest model finally adds Wi-Fi connectivity and, a decade after the M series went digital, it’s now as slim as its film anticipation of waiting to see how our pictures turned out".
The German camera manufacturer is a plucky battler, holding its own against far larger competitors. Leica employs just 1,600 people worldwide; its most recent financials peg its annual turnover at €365 million (S$552 million), which makes it positively microscopic compared to rivals, Canon and Nikon.
During a roundtable interview session the day after the M10 launch, Kaltner – who joined Leica from Microsoft in 2015 – said, “For the first time in my life, I don’t have to worry about market share. I don’t care about volume, but what I do care about is that whatever product we launch today must still be relevant in 20 to 30 years. In that time, you might even see them on auction, so this is a completely different way of thinking about product development."
I’m not sure what the face of photographic technology will look like in that time, but I’m willing to bet that the Leica M will look similar to the way it looks now.
Having said that, I think I finally cracked the appeal of a Leica M. While it’s capable of greatness, it also doesn’t suffer fools gladly, lacking an autofocus and a fully automatic mode. A person who can use a Leica M well belongs to a special club, clued in to the secret handshake of a camera without an easy mode. There’s no hiding a photographer’s talent (or lack thereof) when using one.
I tried taking some shots with the M10, and the less I say about my shots, the better.
The mystery of why a Leica M enjoys a hallowed place among photographers may still be unsolved, but one thing is certain, at least. No amount of Leica pixie dust can turn a donkey into a racehorse, or more accurately, turn Joe Average into Henri Cartier-Bresson.