f/Egor: A Fetishist’s Guide to the Monochrom (Part 1)

Sharpness is nothing more than a fetish. So, too, is tonality. Noise, contrast, micro-contrast and megapixels? All fetishes. Even black and white. Show me a photographer and I’ll show you a fetishist.

Every new camera will titillate some photographers, while disgusting others. Fortunately, none of us are so dysfunctional that we possess every known photo fetish, but we all possess at least a few. Curiously, most of us fail to see our own proclivities as fetishes — believing that our desires represent a photographer’s “true” needs, while anyone with contrary needs is some kind of deranged sicko. In reality, we’re all deranged sickos.

When Leica asked me to shoot with the Monochrom and articulate my impressions, I knew I could follow one of two paths: either I could look at the camera strictly within the confines of my own specific fetishes, or I could use it more liberally in situations where I wouldn’t normally be motivated to take photos. Because the latter path would benefit a wider range of sickos photographers, it became my roadmap for this series of articles.

Knowing that my Monochrom impressions would be read by thousands of potential purchasers had a profound influence on what I shot and how I shot it. Normally, I tend to be a very frugal photographer. I prefer to make my selects before I press the shutter rather than after. If a shot doesn’t make my heart skip a beat, I’ll usually skip the shot. Thus, if I go out for a day with my old M2, I’ll probably come home with only 3 or 4 shots — one of which might be vaguely worthy of some future consideration. With the M9, I’ll come home with about a dozen shots, though it remains likely only one still warrants any future consideration. When the Monochrom arrived, I knew such an austere methodology would yield an article with only 2 or 3 photos. Since my readers would definitely want more, I needed to devise a way to take a lot of photos in a very short time. To meet this task, I released my inner-Winogrand. Quite famously, Garry Winogrand once stated, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” This became my mantra for my time with the camera — I photographed to find out what something will look like photographed with the Monochrom.

As a result, the goal for this article is not to shine a light upon my photographic “brilliance” (cough), but to instead illuminate the various attributes of the Monochrom, and how those attributes might appeal to a wide range of users. This is an article in which the pictures serve the story, rather than the story serving the pictures. Consequently, some of the images are trite; some are pedantic; but they exist to edify rather than entertain.

The sad result is that I can no longer write disparagingly of people who photograph walls when they write about cameras, as I’ve now joined their dubious ranks.

So without further ado, I invite all you photographic deviants to search this 3-part article for your various fetishes, beginning with the mechanical here in Part 1, and decide whether or not the Monochrom might be right for you.

Leather Fetishists

Let’s get the kinky fetish out of the way first — leather. Unlike the previous digital M’s, the Monochrom ships with a swanky leather strap. Sure, it looks nice dangling from your shoulder — but who carries their Leica like that? If you’re using your Monochrom for sport, rather than for show, you’re going to be wrapping that leather strap around your wrist, not draping it oh-so roguishly from your shoulder. I carry my Leica in-hand, where it’s ready to respond instantly to the dynamic world around me. Stiff leather does not conform to a bundle of twists about the wrist nearly as lithely as nylon. On more than one occasion, I felt the urge to open my toolbox, extract a hammer, and smite that strap into submission. On several other occasions, I fantasized about tossing the strap onto the middle of Vancouver’s Burrard Street bridge, where heavy vehicular traffic would pummel it into something approximating “pliable.” But, conscientious citizen that I am, I knew the next recipient of this demo camera would not appreciate receiving a strap that looked like week-old road kill, so I refrained. Ultimately, were I to own a Monochrom, I’d have to decide whether to cudgel the strap into something more supple, or simply purchase a nylon strap — thus leaving the supplied leather strap unscathed, and more enticing to whomever purchases the Monochrom from the estate sale that follows my demise.

The next topic in my leather litany is the camera’s synthetic leather body wrap. The Monochrom’s body “leather” is different than any other M-body I’ve owned, thus continuing Leica’s long tradition of changing covers with each new M-body release. It’s much more finely grained than my M9, meaning it’s much smoother. “Smooth” normally means “less grip,” which isn’t exactly a desirable trait for someone who carries their Leica in-hand. But looks can deceive — and while the Monochrom is definitely smoother than my delightfully pebbly M9 wrapping, I found it afforded an almost identical amount of grip when my hands were dry, and a surprisingly more reassuring grip when my hands were sweating. Sadly, none of my digital M’s have had wraps that grip nearly as well as my M6TTL which, in turn, isn’t nearly as grippy as the original vulcanite on my M2. I wish Leica could wrap these cameras in the same kind of materials used in the old days, but I suspect price and/or environmental issues prevent it.

Talking about leather may seem trivial, but when you spend all day, every day, carrying a camera, comfort and security are important.

Metal Fetishists

There are those who believe plastic — any plastic — on a camera is blasphemy. I’m happy to report that, like all the M’s before it, the Monochrom retains the highest metal percentage of any modern camera, and features the same die-cast magnesium alloy body and solid brass top deck and bottom plate as the previous models. This is a camera that will simply delight metal fetishists.

I’m somewhat less happy to report that the brass top deck is finished in black chrome, rather than black paint. The type of black finish is, not surprisingly, its own sub-fetish in the Leica world — with black paint fetishists occupying one dungeon and black chrome fetishists occupying another. Black chrome has a tendency to look a bit dull and weathered out of the box, but takes a pretty good beating without ever becoming duller or more weathered. The black chrome finish on my old M6TTL is virtually indistinguishable from the black chrome finish on the brand-new Monochrom — meaning either that the M6 looks “new” or the Monochrom looks “old,” depending on whether you’re a “glass is half empty” or “glass is half full” kind of person.

The powdery luster of a black paint body (like my M9) is, I believe, the “prettier” of the two black finishes. One of the main characteristics of black paint is that, over time, it wears away and the brass shows through. Some find this look “ugly,” while others (like me) think it’s beautiful. To me, a brassed camera is a loved camera. My M9 is just beginning to show the tiniest hint of brassing, and I couldn’t be happier — it’s like a badge of honor. Leica designed the Monochrom for maximum stealth, so one could argue that an old brassed camera becomes “flashier” and thus less “stealthy” than an old black chrome camera. But I think the older a camera looks, the more stealthy it becomes — simply because people tend to completely dismiss any photographer they see carrying what they perceive to be an old camera.

Ultimately, if you’re going to let the fact the camera is finished in black chrome rather than black paint influence your purchase decision, you’re not a fetishist — you’re just plain nuts.

Handling Fetishists

How does the camera handle? With photographers possessing a profusion of polarizing proclivities (how’s that for some impressive alliteration?!), it’s a question without a definitive answer. The Monochrom is, of course, a rangefinder. It features the same basic body and controls as the Leica M9 which, in turn, is ergonomically similar to every other M-series camera dating back to 1954. Whether or not you think this is a good thing depends on whether or not you like rangefinders. For my photography, there is no better form factor, and I’m absolutely delighted that such a bold and purposeful camera has arrived in rangefinder form. Those familiar with the M9 will find the button layout identical and the menus very similar to (though, obviously, not exactly the same as) Leica’s flagship color digital M9.

Operationally, the Monochrom handles identically to my M9. I had expected that the Monochrom would be even slower than the M9 at writing image files to the SD card, but I ran a series of tests in which I triggered both cameras simultaneously, and they took exactly the same amount of time — even when shooting a 4-shot burst in “continuous mode” (which, admittedly, is a feature I’ve never once used).

Unfortunately, I did experience one recurring issue with the Monochrom that I’d experienced only once in 3 years with my M9 — camera lock-up. Specifically, every few days, the Monochrom would completely lock-up when I pressed the shutter button. It wouldn’t take a photo, it would just die. The camera became completely unresponsive (as if it had no battery installed), which meant the buttons, LCD and power switch did nothing. To bring the camera back to life, I’d simply remove the battery, wait for a few seconds, then re-insert it. The camera and I would then continue on our merry way, though I’d be disappointed at having missed the photo I’d wanted to take. Not surprisingly, in total adherence to Murphy’s Law, it seemed like the lock-up ALWAYS occurred during the most intriguing photo opportunity of the day. Unfortunately, I was unable to identify the root cause. Lock ups would happen whether the battery was fully charged, half-charged, or nearly depleted. They’d happen if I tried to take a couple photos in quick succession, but they’d also happen if I hadn’t taken a photo in hours. They’d happen if the camera had fallen asleep, and they’d happen if the camera was still awake. I have since returned the camera to Leica and they’re investigating whether or not my problems are an isolated case or endemic of a wider problem.

Luxury Fetishists

Some people actually acquire Leica products because of their luxury status. Leica, itself, feeds this market with special edition versions of their products — versions that will sit in display cases as objects d’art rather than in the hands of hardworking documentary photographers. From my vantage point in a completely different universe, I simply can’t imagine the Monochrom having much (if any) appeal to the luxury crowd. It’s not covered in ostrich skin. It doesn’t gleam in the showcase. Shine a light on it, and it’ll suck it dark like a black hole. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the Monochrom is, perhaps, the most austere, unadorned and restrained camera I’ve ever used. I quite like this about the Monochrom — but I suspect Luxury Fetishists will feel just the opposite.

The camera is flat black with nary a Leica logo in sight. The model name is barely discernible atop the right edge of the hotshoe, and there’s no engraving anywhere except on the back — save for a small serial number stamped atop the body, which makes the camera resemble a piece of bog-standard government issue more than an item of luxury.

Plain, unprepossessing and perhaps a touch “homely,” the Monochrom is designed to draw absolutely no attention to itself — making it essentially the opposite of a luxury camera. Save for the conceit of a leather strap, it is, pure and simple, a shooter’s camera.

So, in Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss how the Monochrom lives up to its raison d’être — photo fidelity — and all the various image fetishes surrounding it. No more “fun and games.” We’re going to get our hands good and dirty…

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. And that sound you hear? That’s either the sound of him pounding on doors trying to get hired or, more likely, it’s the sound of him pounding his head against the wall when he doesn’t. Fellow pounders are welcome to follow along on the ULTRAsomething Facebook page or G+ account.