There was often a very tactile feeling in regards to camera choice, that I was chasing in my early years as a photographer. The way your fingers wrap tightly around the side of a well designed DSLR, the weight of the thing forcing your muscles to contract as you lift it to your eye, the violent reverberation as the mirror swiftly locks upward, echoing through your bones; all things that etch a sense of nostalgia into your consciousness leaving you longing for another opportunity to take a photograph. These things are superficial and as a photographer matures, they come to the realization that the tool they need most is the one that reflects their working process the best. A DSLR, more often than not, is a clunky metal and plastic machine with a typical zoom lens attached to the front of it erect, throwing subtlety to the wind.
My obsession with such superfluous details lasted many years. In fact, my switch to more subtle camera types – the rangefinder or the compact camera – has been very recent. If memory serves me well, I was on assignment on the beach in Santa Monica, CA with the aim to photograph candidly the many who wanted desperately to escape the summer heat wave with a moment of ocean reprieve. I trampled over the sandy beach scouring for my next subject who often noticed me before I noticed them. I was weighed down by a large Nikon D750 with a 35-70 attached to the front. At home, sat a mint digital Ricoh GR that I used often for snapshots or more intimate settings. Looking back, it may have been the best choice for the assignment I found myself in but I quickly remembered it’s limitations – slow focusing, no viewfinder save the one that I awkwardly attached to the camera’s hotshoe, and a dull battery life. Nonetheless, I forced the assignment to completion and went home.
A few months later I found myself working on a personal project in Wyoming, photographing the effects of extraction. Due to the very intimate setting I decided to bring only my Ricoh as to allow for an minimal presence. This decision, however, proved difficult. The same limitations I noticed before came to be my kryptonite in effectively producing good work. I would often miss shots completely due to the slow and unreliable focusing or I would attempt to trigger the shutter only to realize that my battery had died only halfway through my day. Sure, snap focus and spare batteries could solve my problems but after my first trip, I knew I would need a camera system that befit this type of work more effortlessly.
Like many photographers, I had lusted after a Leica for many years. The simple beauty they provide while maintaining a high level of durability is a most desirable trait while the colors provided by the M9 are yet to be mimicked by any other. Nothing compares to the feeling you get when holding one in your hand, feeling it slide perfectly in between your thumb and fingers, sitting firmly against your palm. A buttery sensation lends itself to the effortlessness of sliding the focus ring ‘round and ‘round again. Leica sets the standard for a truly beautiful camera.
Function over beauty is what I desire. Fortunately, the Leica M9 fit the mold of what I need from a camera – fairly lightweight, durable, small, reliable, nearly unnoticeable and capable of producing high quality images. I was sitting in my apartment just outside of Downtown Los Angeles (where I lived at the time) and was searching the internet for a used Leica M9. I proposed to myself that I would sell all of my gear – the Nikon with the suite of lenses and the Ricoh – in order to buy it. A few days after I began my search (and subsequently proceeded to gnaw away at my fingernails) I found what I was looking for. Without hesitation I entered my credit card info and waited eagerly for the camera to arrive. A friend and fellow photographer sold me a 40mm Leica lens that I immediately attached to the camera upon it’s arrival. It was everything I dreamed it would be.
A month later, I was back in Wyoming sitting in the dining room of one of my subjects’ house. The Leica was slung over my shoulder and sitting firmly in my hand as I confidently took photographs of them. There was a noticeable difference. Using the Leica, I had the confidence I would get the shot, the way I imagined it, in time without intruding too much on the scene – a fact I often worried about with a DSLR. My subjects often wrote off the camera as old and I found this to lessen the pressure of being photographed. DSLRs can often be intimidating for subjects.
I completed this project, Veins of God, using a Leica. This camera has informed the way in which I work and has made me a more confident photographer, understanding that the simplest of tools is often the best. My camera has become a natural extension of myself which allows me to more effortlessly photograph the scenes that unfold in front of my eye. For many photographers, finding the camera that best suits them and their working process can be a lifetime goal. Fortunately, I’ve found mine.
Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer currently based in Stockton, CA. His work focuses on environmental degradation and the resulting social consequences. You can see more of his work at his website or by following him on Instagram.