Basements can be magical places, or they can be junk heaps. You always hope for the magic, that amidst the mouldy clothes and Christmas ornaments, you’ll find treasure. So when my mother-in-law mentioned that her father’s old Leica was packed away somewhere in her home, I left behind a me-shaped puff of smoke in the air and made a bee-line for the basement.
For an all-out camera-obsessed goon like myself, the mere possibility of stumbling upon a vintage Leica widened my eyes to a disturbing degree. The German company has long been an icon of design, craftsmanship, and quality with their rangefinder cameras and lenses. When you are a camera nut, a found Leica is the stuff of dreams.
After a bit of searching, I spotted large plastic bin labelled “photography”. A good omen. Inside were a number bags and boxes. I rummaged. And then my eye caught some wonderful retro text on a slightly weathered cardboard box: “Leica M2”. Words cannot describe the jig my heart danced at that moment.
The Leica M series began in 1954 with the M3, the first to sport the familiar Leica design. It has changed only slightly since. The M2 came in the late 50’s, shortly after the M3, with a few minor changes and a lower price.
Seeing as how I was looking at a 50-year-old camera, I was amazed at the great condition it was in — original box and all original manuals to boot. Even more amazing was the plethora of accessories to round out the cache. Sets of lens filters, a cable release, a leather Leica branded carrying case — the works.
Luckily, I married into a wonderful, generous family (Thank you thank you thank you!). My mother-in-law, Carol, was nice enough to entrust me as caregiver of the Leica. Like any child with a new toy, I gathered the items and found an out-of-the-way nook to spread out, inspect, and tinker. With the internet at my disposal, I quickly learned about the 50mm f/2 Summitar lens and the unique bokeh it produced. I learned about the Leicameter light-meter and how its selenium cell has probably decayed beyond function after 50 years. And of course, later on, I went out and picked up a couple of rolls of film, something I hadn’t done since college.
To think, this artifact a half century old could still be used exactly as it was when it was made, and produce pictures every bit as lush and nuanced as anything you could capture with a first-rate digital camera.
The excitement of discovering these old hunks of metal and glass really exposed how impermanent our gadgetry has become. Most modern devices get deemed obsolete and are unceremoniously disposed of. I am sure there are some who keep every mobile phone they have owned stowed away in a shoebox, but decades from now, when the dust is blown off, those phones will be little more than bricks chuckled at for their their antiquated design.
I am not one to long for yesteryear. I love tech and most of what it brings us. I love smartphones and tablets and digital cameras! And I generally scoff at people who think these devices have bastardised our souls. But I must admit, staring at the brass casing underneath the Leica M2’s shiny exterior, and the wonderful photos I have taken with it, makes our future past seem in peril. What are we robbing future generations of by not building our everyday lives to withstand time? Is it just the minor experience of stumbling into an attic or basement, resurrecting dusty gadgets of yore, or are there larger truths at stake??
But then I return to earth and remember that technology is much more zen than we give it credit for. For every experience we mourn as the victim of the digital age, there are others being formed right in front of our eyes — taken completely for granted. And decades from now, we will be ranting about how authentic things were way back in 2012.
I’ll continue to revel in vintage wonderland with my Leica M2. Hopefully it will last another 50 years and find its way into the hands of my grandkids. In the mean-time, I can keep amassing a vast digital record of my life, something that has the potential to out-live any gadget, and that some future relative will hopefully enjoy and learn from. Maybe there are larger truths somewhere in there.