My Life with the Leica – Part One
Ever since my younger days in high school I have been a Leica guy. My dad was a big Leica fan and had a nice collection of cameras and lenses. He even had a Leica 2c enlarger in the darkroom. Yes my dad really enjoyed his Leica's and passed that on down to his two boys.
When I was 15 he gave my brother and I each a Leica 3g with a collapsable 50mm lens on the camera. He instructed us on the use of the lens and camera operation but for two teenagers it was a bit overwhelming. The amount of very dark frames with a circle in the middle were annoying to he and us so the 3g's and the collapsable 50's went back and were replaced with used Leica M3 double strokes. My brother and I love these cameras just as much today.
During my high school years the M3 and the 50mm went everywhere with me. I was in Jr. ROTC and I was the official photographer for our unit. I travelled to several army bases with our high school battalion and recorded everything we did. My dad had a Leica leather case for the M3 and meter and we fashioned two Agfa film tins to the strap to make the camera easy to carry. I felt like a war photographer - well kind of. I was also in charge of photography for the year book for two years which meant I went everywhere with that camera. Proms, teachers, classrooms, sports, graduations, you name it I was there with the Leica and my only lens a 50mm f2. The sports events were more sideline stuff since shooting action was out of the question with the 50mm.
Back in 1971 our family took a trip to northern Italy for a skiing vacation. My dad was ill with cancer at the time but was in remission and this trip was something he always wanted to do with us. We had a wonderful time making pictures as we travelled throughout northern Italy. I will always remember my dad waking me up early to go on a little photo expedition in the northern city of Milan which at the time was a very industrial city. I just remember it as dark and foreboding but unfortunately non of my photos have survived. The Leica M3 and 50mm with the meter on top of the camera were a technological marvel for the time. We wandered around the city by our hotel looking for people out walking their dogs or interesting buildings or signs. It was a fun time with my dad and I will never ever forget it. As we made it up to Cervinia, which is the other side of the Matterhorn in Zermatt Switzerland, the photo taking was more interesting and all of us had fun taking photos of the Alps and the skiing that we were there for. It was here that my dad taught my brother and I the secret behind correct exposure with snow. He said "the reflected meter only tells you what the exposure is for the light falling on the subject in 18% grey so you need to open up a stop and a half". It worked like a charm. Back then you had to wait until you got back to see the results. We used to mail them out in pre-paid mailers to be processed by Agfa or Kodak. It was like Christmas when they came back.
While still in high school my dad started a photo class for my friends and I with the carrot being a group show at a gallery in Rockport. We all took to it with gusto. My dad bought us all these small Kodak books that had tons of information in it and we would have an assignment each week regarding something in the book like depth of field or composition. It was a great experience. All of us kids, which totaled about five, including my brother gained an enormous amount of experience during this time. But it was the access to my dads darkroom and the magic that happened there with the Leica 2c that floored all of us. The other kids quickly got their parents to set up their own darkrooms and the fun was on. The result was a great show at a gallery in Rockport. Several of us sold pieces (including myself) which hooked me on photography as a career at the age of 16.
The Leica 2c is such a wonderful enlarger and I still have it in the basement covered up in my now unused darkroom. Back then auto focus was unheard of and it was pure magic to see it work. My dad and a friend of his John Fields helped me see what could be done with a little dodging and burning to bring out the best print possible. It was this formative training in the darkroom that started my career for me. As I think back my dad and John Fields showed me the importance of full contrast prints. My early editors were wowed by my prints and that is a full reflection on my dad, his friend, and the Leica 2c.
My dad John K. Williamson on a photo expedition with his friend John Fields (who made this photo of him) in Sweden Maine in the mid 1960's with what looks like a Leica M3 and collapsable Leica 50 or 90.
In my next installment – In part two I talk about my college years with the Leica and the start of my career.