Sunday, October 24, 2021

Ordnung Muss Sein

You'd think that Germans would be very orderly about naming things. Orderliness is a German cultural trait carried almost to a fault. 

Some military historians have claimed that the very disorderliness and ad hoc nature of the American armies in Western Europe gave them an edge against their Wehrmacht opponents. Perhaps the GI's would scatter a bunch of random objects in the middle of a forest clearing and when the Germans scurried out to put them in alphabetical order they'd get blasted with BARs and Tommy guns.

The photo below is of a 1939-vintage Leica IIIb. 

That's some very orderly-sounding nomenclature. Just from the name you know that it's better than a Leica II, and an improvement over the Leica IIIa, in the same way you know that a similarly 1939-vintage Panzerkampwagen IIIf was better than a Panzerkampfwagen II and an improvement over the Pzkw. IIIe. (This was a historical period where ordnung got a bit out of hand between the Rhine and the Elbe.)

Too much ordnung.

After the war, the ordnung wind got knocked right out of Leica's camera naming sails, as is related in this hilarious article which is worth reading even if you're not a camera nerd because it's just that funny:
When Ernst Leitz GmbH invented the M system in 1954, they named their first M camera the Leica M3 for a very good reason. The name M3 signaled to the unwashed masses that the camera was a rangefinder (the German word for this is messucher) with three framelines (the number 3). The name makes sense and camera-likers knew what they were buying. For this reason, the Leica M3 went on to be the best anything that anyone had ever made anywhere. But every Leica camera since then has been a gigantic leap backward, and a complete and unmitigated disaster.
Incidentally, all this talk of rangefinders and frame lines explains why Leica dwindled from a maker of photographic tools used by pros to a lifestyle brand largely reduced to peddling Veblen goods to the brand conscious bourgeoisie and well-heeled hipsters.

See, that Leica IIIb has a viewfinder with frame lines in it for a 50mm lens. When you attach a 90mm lens to it, like the one in the picture, you need to either try and guess what fraction of the image in the viewfinder will actually make it into the narrower 90mm field of view, or else clip an auxiliary finder (unhelpfully named the SGVOO) in and hope that parallax doesn't jack you up too much.

Single lens reflex cameras added a bit of bulk compared to the little Leica rangefinders, and the slapping noise of the SLR's mirror mechanism was unavoidably noisier than the whisper of a cloth shutter, as anyone who's watched a press conference in the marble hallway of a government building knows, but the convenience of actually seeing the final image in the viewfinder outweighed all that. 

Japanese SLRs ate the professional camera market whole in the Seventies, leaving Leica, who avoided the technology for as long as possible before releasing an overly-complex super-Teutonic SLR, to flounder.

The "diesel Leica".

This is why Leica discussion on the web these days is largely lawyers and orthodontists discussing the stitching on half-kilobuck waxed canvas bags on rangefinderforums while NFL sidelines, presidential press conferences, and National Geographic covers are the province of Nikon, Canon, (and, increasingly Sony, but that's a tale for another post.)