I googled up Henri Cartier-Bresson today to see what sort of camera he used for one of his famous pictures. As I suspected, it turned out to be a Leica – in this case one of the early screw-mount versions. And as I had thought, it was mounting a 50mm lens at the time. An interviewer at the time asked him the methodology of it and it was simple – he had the camera, it worked, he was used to the perspective of the 50mm lens. It seemed such a casual response that you get the feeling that he would have been just as happy to use a bread roll or a shoe horn if it would have captured the light…
Such a different philosophy to those espoused in the many equipment forums on the internet – and the camera club discussions held weekly. These feature arguments for and against everything with the complexity of an Ayn Rand philosophical tract. Passion is displayed and heat is generated – a comfort in cold club rooms of a winter night. Very little illumination is produced, and no pictures worthy of HCB at all.
My own experience of Leica cameras several decades ago would bear out Henri’s opinion – they work well, and the 50mm lens is one of the best choices that people are offered with them. If they were an affordable price they might fall into the hands of more imaginative photographers – as it is they are sometimes operated by people who have the price but not the passion.
But I must not grumble – there are at least four other camera makers who produce digital street cameras that would meet all of the desires of HCB and they can be had for 1/4 of the Leica price. Some frankly ape the style, but do so with refinements that the old Leica could never dream of. The starting point for the Cartier-Bresson experience is affordable by nearly everyone.
Of course, few of us are prepared to become old, and bald, and French – and thus never quite approach the master. At least we can take some comfort – as we are not trying to be Ansel Adams we need not grow a beard or hike up the side of mountains. Or try to understand the Zone System. And we can get a good glass of red wine in many French cafés.