Goodbye Leica, hello Bessa
Some say more-a, some say less-a
I say ‘Phooey’ to the stress-a
And go shooting with my inexpensive Bessa
(with apologies to Allan Sherman1)
The Leica rangefinder camera, especially the classic M3 and M2 bodies, were the icons of my youth. So many famous photographers used them for slice-of-life realism on the street, in shops, at war, that the Leica name took on an image of not just the best-made cameras on earth, but also the coolest. The beguiling images of Henri Cartier-Bresson hover over the Leica name like an unexpurgated spirit. If you were young and excited by photography, you were excited by the thought of owning a Leica some day. They were, and are still, very expensive to buy new. Worse, for years even the used ones became collectibles, keeping the price out of the range of all but those most determined to own one.
Then came a sea change. Digital photography marked the start of a new era of photographic imaging and, slowly at first, then gaining speed rapidly, the price of fine film cameras began to plummet. In the past two or three years, even a good-condition M3 or M2 could be had for under $1000, then closer to $500. Like many who’d shared the dream, I bought a good M2 user. It had a little wear and a few scuff marks that prevented it, thankfully, from falling into collectible status.
It was everything it had been cracked up to be. Solid, with a deep feeling of precision and longevity, it made me feel like I’d joined the big leagues. The mystique held, for awhile.
Of course none of my images bore any resemblance to HCB or any other famous photographer. I don’t have vision nor am I a street shooter. I simply like to walk about with a camera and take photos of things that catch my eye. They’re usually things that would not interest many others. Not being a commercial photographer or having any aspirations to being an ‘art photographer’, whatever that is, I never minded this part of it. The camera itself was a pleasure to use. Mostly.
Then, as I worked my way through recovery from a heart attack and a couple of angioplasty/stent procedures, I began to feel the weight of gear in a different way than I had as a younger photographer. Every time I took out the Leica, it felt heavy to me.
I was also getting spoiled. Enjoying the bottom-feeder’s prices of film gear, I began collecting some Nikon SLR film bodies and I realized how much I liked built-in metering and swing-back loading. I picked up a Bessa R screwmount rangefinder and found myself actually preferring it to the Leica, even though it wasn’t nearly the same build quality. Moreover, when I went shooting with the Bessa, I didn’t feel the weight of history bearing down on me. It was just a good shooter, no more, no less.
I vowed to thin down my increasing collection of film cameras to just a few I enjoyed shooting the most. This applied particularly to rangefinder cameras. After a few years of shooting with them I had a handle on what I liked: bayonet-mount lenses, mostly 35mm or 50mm focal lengths, built-in metering, and swing-back loading. I never once enjoyed bottom-loading the M2 and I tired of carrying a separate meter. The Leica, I decided, had to go.
I opted for a fresh start, selling as much existing rangefinder gear as I could, and buying a brand new camera to take me through the next few years. I thought about the exciting Bessa R4 with its built-in framelines for wide-angle lenses, but with rangefinder cameras I shoot with my CV 21/4 infrequently while I shoot with 35/50 about 90% of the time. That tipped me towards the Bessa R3 series with its 1:1 viewfinder for both 40 and 50mm lenses. To top off the purchase I decided to get the CV 40/1.4 Nokton as my primary lens. I also chose the convenience of aperture-priority metering, with optional manual metering, hence the ‘A’ in my new Bessa R3A.
Regrets? None. In fact, I’ve never regretted selling any camera. I don’t get sentimental over cameras or lenses. They come, they go.
The Leica went to an especially nice home; a long-time member of the Rangefinder Forum purchased it from me. I know the M2 will continue to be appreciated, and that makes me feel good.
I really like the Bessa. It’s not too heavy or too big, and I intend to carry it around a lot. Of course it has to compete with my Nikon SLRs and DSLR for my attention, but I always want to have one decent rangefinder in my kit.
It’s a lovely thing to be able to live out a dream. Perhaps it’s even better to realize that the dream belonged to a younger version of yourself. At this stage of my life, I’ll take my ‘vernacular’ pictures and let someone else be haunted by the spirit of HCB.