Leicaphilia: The century-old allure of Leica cameras

By Lily Singh

Dan Tamarkin stood behind his glass showcase filled with Leica cameras and lenses and picked out a Leica M3 film camera, vintage 1954. He proceeded to show how the camera works and how to load the film to take pictures – and then something magical happened.


Even a photography novice could recognize that the sound of the shutter release on this camera was something special.

“The click of the shutter feels just beautiful,” said Dan Tamarkin, owner of Tamarkin Camera, 300 W. Superior St. in the River North gallery district.

Tamarkin knows the sound well. After apprenticing with his father, Stan Tamarkin, at the store’s original location in New Haven, Connecticut, Dan Tamarkin took over the family business and opened in Chicago.

“The company began back in the day when it was all handshakes and eyeball to eyeball discussions and sometimes telephone conversations,” Tamarkin said.

With this nod to the past, Tamarkin Camera nicely aligns itself with the Leica brand. The camera store has stood the test of time in a day where nearly all cameras come equipped with an auto mode. When you look at a Leica, most notably the M series, all the dials are right in front of you awaiting your manual adjustments.

If you pick up a Leica M camera, you will quickly notice one characteristic when putting your eye to the viewfinder – it is off to the left side of the camera body. Enter the term, rangefinder camera. These cameras are built so that you are not looking directly through the lens mounted to your camera, unlike the single lens reflex cameras that you see lining retail shelves.

Over the years Leica, has innovated and made all types of cameras, including new lines of digital cameras, but the most recognized and sought after version would be a Leica rangefinder.

“When you look through the rangefinder you can actually see more than what the lens is going to capture, which allows you to anticipate what’s going to come into your frame,” Tamarkin said.

It’s this ability that draws photographers like Nicholas Pinto to the this type of camera. Pinto, a Chicago photographer who studied at Columbia College, recently returned from Miami and an exhibit of his photos at the HistoryMiami museum.

A photograph by Nicholas Pinto taken with his Leica camera. Photo © Nicholas Pinto.

“When you’re walking through the world, there’s not a black screen around your eyes that only allows you to see a certain box that’s in front of you and everything else is blacked out,” Pinto said. “You have peripheral vision, you have the ability to see around you and that’s how you naturally see.” Pinto has worked with both Leica digital and vintage film cameras.

“It allows you to see what’s in front of you the most natural way,” Pinto said. “It just acts as the path of least resistance to what you’re doing.”

Leicas are commonly found in the hands of street photographers who watch and wait – wait for that perfect moment to present itself. Street photographers often want to make the smallest imprint of their presence as possible on the environment they are working in.

The Momenta Project, 2015 workshop in New Orleans. Photo © Nicholas Pinto/Momenta Workshops 2015.

The Vanguards of the 35mm Camera

Part of the charm  surrounding a Leica  is knowing that it gave birth to the  35mm camera. In the hands of masters such as Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the compact camera became synonymous with the birth of photojournalism and candid street photography.

News magazines such as Life and Look erupted with the 35mm camera and brought millions of readers great photography from across the world.

“This was the world’s first 35mm camera that went into production,” Tamarkin said.

In March of 1914, Oskar Barnack designed and constructed the first of the first, the Ur-Leica. He headed development for Leica, a company founded in 1849 and revered for precision optics and microscopes. The camera was presented to the public as the Leica I in 1925 at the Leipzig Spring Fair in Germany. While you may be able to find a Leica I to add to your collection, the original Ur-Leica is not so easy to come by.

“The only known example that’s completely authenticated is in Wetzlar Germany at the Leica factory and in their vault,” Tamarkin said. “It’s one of the few Leica models that I have not held.”

Establishing itself as the vanguard of the 35mm camera, Leica  produced high-quality cameras and lenses that led to some of the timeless photographs we have today. Alfred Eisenstaedt took the famous photo of the sailor kissing a woman in Times Square Alfred Eisenstaedt with a Leica. Che Guevara’s iconic portrait captured by Alberto Korda – also taken with a Leica. The list of classic images taken with a Leica goes on endlessly.

A Leica camera took a front row seat to monumental moments in history – from documenting wars to capturing pop culture. Perhaps even some of your older family photos were taken on a Leica and you didn’t even know it.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me ‘Oh my father had that camera,’” Pinto said.

That’s one of the draws to owning a Leica. It’s the same feeling you get when you purchase a vinyl record, the nostalgia of listening to music the way your parents or grandparents used to listen.

From Satoki Nagata’s “Lights in the City” series, taken at the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, Chicago 2014. The image was captured using a Leica M8 and Summicron 50mm lens. Photo © Satoki Nagata.

Vintage Leicas draw a loyal following among photographers and collectors.

Chicago photographer and filmmaker, Mark Siska, runs his own production company, Siska Films, and is aware of the attention that comes with the small red dot, the logo on many Leicas.

“Sometimes I even cover up the red dot on there to not bring attention to myself even more because I pull that camera out, even on the street, and I have people just coming up to me and saying ‘Wow that’s a Leica, what [model] are you shooting with,’” Siska said. “That’s like one of the most powerful logos within photography, that little red Leica brand.”

Going Once, Going Twice…

The craftsmanship combined with the historical importance make Leicas a hot commodity on the auction floor.

“There are a few different types of folks that bid at auction, there are people who believe that…they will get a deal on an item that would otherwise be more expensive from a retail store, there are people who are users of the gear who want to acquire a specific item that’s rarely found,” Tamarkin said. “Then there are the people that are collectors.”

Dan Tamarkin and his father have been putting on one or two rare camera auctions a year through their auction house, Tamarkin Photographica.

“Some of our clientele spend $200, some spend $200,000,” Tamarkin said.

In their most recent auction, held November 14th in Woodbridge, Connecticut, a 35mm Leica Summilux lens sold for $23,500. The auction catalogue describes its very rare black finish. But Leica lenses in general won accolades from the start for their flawless optics.

“Some of these things are rare by virtue of how many were made, some of them are rare by virtue of how clean they are,” Tamarkin said.

If you’re lucky enough to come across an old Leica camera at an estate sale or when cleaning out your family’s attic, Tamarkin offers some advice.

“With rare cameras and lenses, rare objects in general, it’s like Antiques Roadshow, like they tell you don’t touch the patina,” Tamarkin said. “Don’t repair it, don’t restore it.”

Saving for a Rainy Day (or a Photo of One)

Becoming a coveted member of the Leica owning society comes at a price – a high one. Many times people save up for quite awhile before finally taking the plunge of owning their first Leica.

“I bought a Leica M2 camera that looked like it had been run over by a tank because it was all I could afford,” Tamarkin said. “I owned it for a year – I didn’t have a lens – I couldn’t use it, couldn’t afford a lens.”

Regardless of its functionality, Tamarkin was more than happy with the purchase he made and recounts his first year with his Leica fondly.

“I remember that year before I got that lens where I would click the camera, I would put film through it and I would wind it and rewind it,” Tamarkin said. “So yeah, people save for years for these things, a lot of them are very expensive.”

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Chicago photographer Satoki Nagata took his  “Lights in the City” series on a Leica. He became a Leica owner after reading online that the cameras are a good fit for street photography. For Nagata, the investment was one worth making.

“I feel that I don’t need to worry about the camera,” Nagata said. “I can just concentrate on the subject.”

The connection that photographers have with their Leicas is a personal one. Pinto acknowledges that while this is his weapon of choice, if the Leica didn’t exist he would still be taking photos.

“A camera is not going to make you a good photographer, it’s not going to make you a bad photographer,” Pinto said. “That is up to you.”

Leicaphiles run the gamut – those who use Leicas to take photos, those who collect the cameras and those who do a little of both.

“People that fall for it, really fall for it,” Tamarkin said.

Photo at top: Dan Tamarkin prepares to load film in a Leica M3 at his showroom, Tamarkin Camera, located in the River North gallery district. (Lily Singh/Medill)