I arrived in Cologne early this morning. The weather is amazing, with clear blue skies and temperatures hovering around 70 deg F. After the usual two hours sleep on the plane, I took a three-hour nap in the hotel. Usually, this is a sure-fire way to prolong jet-lag, but with the Leica Design Preview event later in the evening, sleep was a good thing. If the S2 VIP event was any indication, it'd be a late night. And in fact, it still is.
I arrived at the Palladium event hall around 8:30pm, found myself “on the list” and proceeded in to the main event space. Lots of people mingling, copious amounts of food and beverage, mood lighting galore, a beautiful car or two for good measure… all in all, the makings of a solid Leica event. I encountered several familiar faces and we caught up until the projection screen lit up with an intro video, teasing the big surprise.
German film actor Kai Wieisinger took to the stage and introduced Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, owner and Chairman of Leica Camera AG. Kaufmann joined Weisinger on stage and proceeded to talk about the new compacts to be introduced at Photokina tomorrow: the D-Lux 5,V-Lux 2 and a black X1. But….. he had bigger news. Another introduction, this time Walter de Silva, the head of design for the Volkswagen Group. De Silva ventured onto the stage and proceeded to wax about the collaboration with Leica and what a nice change it was to work on cameras instead of cars. Kaufmann, for his part, explained the long-standing Leica heritage of special and limited edition cameras. And it's true. As much as some would lambaste Leica for rolling out another limited edition camera for collectors, the tradition is a long-standing one. I have a great reference book with every Leica product made from the very first Ur-Leica to about 2004. There are A LOT of limited edition cameras through the years dating back to the 1950's, with some notable ones like the original MP, the Millennium M6TTL, the Titanium M7, and more recently the MP3. Truthfully, Leica has always been highly successful with these, selling out in record time. And the collectors who are passionate about Leica appreciate the care that goes into these models, as well as the rarity that is imposed by offering limited quantities.
After Kaufmann's little teaser, a video explaining de Silva's design process played overhead and the M9 Titan became official: a Walter de Silva designed M9, made out of titanium, with a matching 35mm Summilux ASPH. 500 of these sets would be made.
Stefan Daniel, product manager of the M system joined the others on stage and gave a little more detail on the camera. They wanted to create something different and new. De Silva and his team dictated the styling cues while Stefan and his team at Leica tied to make the engineering side of things work. All the visible metal parts of the camera are milled from solid titanium, which is a very expensive and time-consuming process, due to the hardness of titanium. In order to place the ever-famous red Leica dot directly centered over the lens, the frame line illuminator window had to go away. A fixture on M cameras since the very first M3 in 1954, the M9 Titan uses red LED illumination to project frame lines through the viewfinder. The frame lines themselves are still created the old fashioned way, with a mechanical frame line mask assembly. I'd love to see Leica move in this direction for future M cameras and hopefully implement the next logical step – LED illumination with LCD electronic frame lines. This way, 6-bit lenses could pull up the correct frame lines and theses frames could be adjusted more accurately for parallax and coverage variance at different distances. Obviously, what I want and what Leica plans to do are not necessarily the same thing. If I have the chance, I will see if I can get Stefan's input on this concept.
Other obvious changes are the addition of a sapphire glass LCD cover, the redesign of the rear thumb wheel and multi-direction pad, the lack of a cable release socket on the shutter button, the lack of a left-side USB plug (hooray), the disappearance of the strap lugs and frame preview lever, as well as the use of Audi seat leather for wrapping. As far as special editions go, this one is more than just a different leather wrapping – it is an entirely redesigned housing and very divergent look. Stefan even admitted in jest that he was worried early on in the design process, but felt confident after seeing the first round of designs. Redesigning an icon like the Leica M takes a lot of guts. Change is difficult.
To complete the party on stage, the new Leica CEO Alfred Schopf got up to participate in the official group unboxing. Seeing the camera for real, I have to say that it really is quite beautiful and most certainly a modern, yet timeless take on the original iconic M. Like many things Leica, I'm sure the M9 Titan will be a highly polarizing force and a lightning rod for any disappointment some might feel. The reception at the event was overwhelmingly positive and everyone involved seems genuinely pleased.
After 20 minutes of interviews, pictures, videos and general schmoozing, Kaufmann again spoke to the crowd. Another long-standing Leica tradition is the gifting of significant serial number cameras to artists, celebrities, and dignitaries. In this case, he would be presenting the 4 millionth Leica camera to a special individual. Not a celebrity outside of photo circles, but most certainly deserving of the honor, Steven Sasson was selected to be honored and joined Kaufmann at the podium. Sasson invented the portable digital camera in 1976 while working at Eastman Kodak. It featured a 100×100 pixel CCD array capable of 2-bit B&W imagery, which was recorded on an audio cassette tape. The whole contraption weighed a fair amount and was powered by a fleet of AA batteries. But…. It was portable, battery powered, and featured removable media. Sasson's invention has come a long way in the past 34 years, and clearly the M9 is a product of his work. I had the pleasure of hearing Sasson speak at an LHSA annual meeting three years ago in Rochester at the George Eastman House. He still has the original prototype and actually brought it with him show and tell. Truly, a great choice by Leica to honor this photographic pioneer.
With the presentations over, all that was left was some delicious food, cold Koelsch and a rock band from Hamburg. I helped myself to all three. To cap off the evening, my wife Juliana and I (yes, she joined me on this trip) had our picture taken in the entry hall. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill event photography. Lit by Briesse packs and shot with a Leica S2. A closer look showed that it was indeed a 120mm Macro mounted on the front to boot. Perhaps this is a good indication of things to come tomorrow. (Please keep in mind the image posted here bears only a likeness to the original – I photographed the print given to us with a D-Lux 4 in my hotel room by the light of a single desk lamp)
Stay tuned and be sure to send me any questions you may have. Photokina starts for real in the morning…