Leica M

and the

Inner Journey

Steve Courmanopoulos


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Photography operates at many different levels. It documents people, places and events for posterity. As a commercial tool it presents products and services in the most appealing manner (do those Victoria's Secret models really look that good?). As a social and political force it emphasizes a point-of-view in order to mobilize action and resources. And as a vehicle for self-expression it represents the unique vision of one individual. But there is still another level, and it's one that takes the photographer into a very different personal experience: Photography as a tool for inner self-discovery. While any camera can serve this purpose, the Leica M is particularly well suited to this exploration.

Counter-Disruptive Technologies


Few products can claim to have endured virtually unchanged for more than half a century. And while it can be said that the Leica M has seen its own fair share of technological innovations, these remain primarily internal; the external form and functionality nearly identical between the original M-3 and a new MP.


Christensen (1997) coined the term disruptive technology to describe a product or innovation that radically changes the way a task is performed, eventually displacing the current product and raising the expectations of users with increased performance, often at a lower cost. Examples of disruptive technologies are all around us, the most obvious for photographers being the rapid movement from film to digital.


Yet, there remain some products and technologies that I call counter-disruptive, resisting this trend while creating a passionately loyal following. These products, either by chance, genius, or inspiration, are so closely aligned with fundamental human values that they often run parallel to the newer entries, a sort of technological comfort food amidst a buffet of change and choice. For example, e-books have failed to overtake the demand for traditional paper-based books because they simply do not resonate with how the human brain is wired to process information for extended periods of time. A computer screen may be great for reading an e-mail, a letter, or business proposal, but it is notoriously unpleasant for absorbing literature or other conceptual material, especially when this is more than a few pages long and requires prolonged concentration


I would challenge any business executive, scientist, or student, who carries an electronic Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) to open their briefcase or backpack and show me that they do not also carry a pen or pencil and some paper. Simply put, pen and paper operate on a human scale, and as such may actually be irreplaceable.


If the Leica M falls in this class, what exactly does it enable the photographer to achieve that more feature-laden products do not?


Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub

By vacancies joining them for a wheel's use;

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

Comes from the hollow of its absence;

Doors, windows, in a house

Are used for their emptiness;

Thus we are helped by what is not

To use what is.


As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (in Bynner, 1944) reminds us, absence, or “what is not” is a crucial element in the usefulness of certain devices, as it also is in any personal quest for self-knowledge. Some Leica M owners feel compelled to justify its price on the basis of the camera’s qualities: robustness, durability, hand-crafted workmanship, and the wonderful optical qualities of Leica lenses. They miss the point however, because these qualities relate to what a Leica M is rather than what a Leica M does, or more specifically, what it allows the photographer to do. The Leica M is most notable for what it lacks: complexity, indecision, obtrusiveness, and obstructed vision. The Leica M is above all about eliminating barriers in order to focus on one thing only: the scene in front of our eyes.


Once the photographer has mastered the simple controls of focus, aperture, and shutter speed, there is nothing to come between the mind, the eye, and the emerging image. Look through the viewfinder and what do you see? Nothing but a clear view of the scene in front of you, including elements outside the framelines. No electronic viewfinder that reminds you of watching The Honeymooners on your parents' old television. No beeps, bleeps, or other distractions. No flash unexpectedly going off because it happens to be the default setting for the camera's processor. No auto-focus motor whining away. No Program Mode when it should have been on Manual. And above all, the knowledge that the shutter will actually fire this time, and every other time, without hesitation and with virtually no delay between decision and execution.


Is a Leica M for everyone? No. It is however, ideally suited for photographers who wish to explore their world at a deeper and more personal level.


Portals to the Self


"Know thyself" urged Socrates, arguing that the unexamined life is hardly worth living. But self-knowledge is not easily acquired because the Ego protects us from the truth through defense mechanisms intended to preserve its illusion of ourselves and the world. Denial, projection, rationalization, anger, avoidance, and even blaming others, are a few examples of the myriad mechanisms the Ego uses to prevent self-knowledge.


Self knowledge then must be acquired peripherally, as if we were noticing things out of the corner of our eye. Who hasn't wondered from time to time, "why did I DO that?!", or "what WAS I thinking?!" when confronted by some of our own actions? Observing our behaviors then, provides clues about what we are really like behind the mask created by the Ego. In the same way, photography can provide insights into the deeper recesses of the Self because of what happen at the precise moment of taking a photograph.


"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" – Anais Nin


When Does a Photograph "happen"?


Every level of photography requires some conceptualization and planning. The commercial studio photographer is at one extreme, exercising great planning and repeated re-takes, while the "street" photographer is at the other, spontaneously capturing fleeting moments, usually with no time to even think about composition. But both extremes and everything in between have one thing in common: the photograph is taken at one precise moment where all planning, all conceptualization, and above all, all talk, are momentarily suspended at the instant of pressing down the shutter. At that moment the Ego's raw materials of words, thoughts and judgments are also suspended, providing a split second of access to other levels of the Self. The more spontaneous the situation, and the fewer the barriers to what the eye sees, the wider the door past the Egoic mind through which other levels of consciousness can express themselves.  The Leica M, with its minimal impediments between "seeing" and shutter release, is an extraordinary "therapist" in this process. 


From Theory to Practice


Regardless of the brand or type of camera you own, if you haven't done it for some time, try shooting with only one fixed focal length lens and one type of film for at least 30 days. Anticipate the environment you are in by taking some meter readings and presetting aperture, speed, and focus near the range you expect to be shooting in, so that adjustments are minimized when it comes time to take the picture. Forget about making any statements, pursuing themes, etc. This may sound like heresy, but don't worry so much about composition. Let the composition "happen" naturally. Your mind may be seeing something that your intellect hasn't yet perceived.


Consciously applying compositional "rules" brings words and judgments into play that may narrow the opening into the unconscious. Forget about people who constantly remind you that Cartier-Bresson and other Masters always composed and printed full-frame. Psychologists who study the nature of creativity have never been able to successfully identify what really makes a Mozart, Leonardo, or Cartier-Bresson for that matter, tick. This process isn't so much about "expressing yourself" as it is about expressing your Self. Photograph anything that moves you, without thinking about it too much.


Look at your photographs. Rather than asking the typical question, "What was I trying to say with this image?" ask instead, "What is this image trying to tell me?" Before the availability of inexpensive and rapid digital scanning of negatives, I would eyeball my negatives or contact sheet looking for a few images worth printing. The negatives would then be safely stored away, never to see the light of day again. Today, I digitize my negatives (not all Leica M users are dinosaurs!). Each time I open the "My Pictures" folder on my computer I am once again confronted by all these discarded images, often finding myself drawn to some dismissed picture for another visit. Many of these photos have now become amoung my favorites, although the final image has little to do with what I thought originally drew me to the situation. What stands out is that something is happening at the moment of taking the picture, at a level beyond ordinary Egoic consciousness, which makes me bring the camera to my eye and push the shutter at some precise moment. That same "something" draws me back to the discarded image in an "instant of recognition". Here are some personal examples:


This process has nothing to do with right and wrong answers. The photograph looked at from this perspective is like a Rorschach inkblot…the only thing that matters is what you make of it. And above all, remember to have fun with this exercise and not take it too seriously, in the words of Sigmund Freud: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".



Steve obtained his psychological training at McGill (B.Sc.) and California State University (M.A.), and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology having returned to finish his PhD in 2003 after a long career in organizational psychology. He has been passionate about photography and Leicas for more than 35 years, and has owned many different cameras, including several digital models. His preferred kit is a Leica MP with 35mm Summilux ASPH 1:1.4. Some of his images are on display at: http://www.imageriecreative.ca and at http://www.leicaboutique.com


 Bynner, W. (1944). The way of life according to Lao Tzu. New York: Perigee

 Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator's dilemma, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

© Copyright Steve Courmanopoulos 2006



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This article was originally published in Viewfinder Vol39 No.1 Click here to see entire magazine