I had arranged to cover it for News Photographer magazine, as part of that bigger, Leica work, and as a good writer, I tried to buttonhole (in the most amiable way possible, the way a fan does the manager of her favorite actor) the Leica officials there, particularly M Systems Manager Stefan Daniel.
Daniel is a jolly fellow, with a round, youthful face and German accent -- as you'd expect. After all, he had flown in to the US just for that weekend from Leica headquarters in Solms, Germany. He had the misfortune of finding himself in the lunch buffet line behind me, and thus became subject to the inquisition. It was amiable conversation (surprisingly so, you might think, as I stood between him and lunch after a long morning), culminating in the question everyone asked: "Where is my full-frame digital M?"
He smiled wanly and rolled his eyes, leaving me with the impression that he'd heard it a hundred times before ... and there was nothing to be done. As Leica explained when the released the 3/4-sized chip on the M8, the physics of light made it impossible. I left feeling it was a game we all played, like high school kids flirting at the dance. I wanted a date, and it was out of my league.
Then the rumors began towards summer's end. The fabled M9 was coming. Camera shops in Paris were taking pre-orders. A Brit on the Leica Forum actually disassembled his M8 and proved there was room to put in a full-sized chip. (I tried to locate the post -- complete with pictures -- but it may be too old.) Chatter on Facebook and emails with my Leica-loving friends. But no, we couldn't believe it. They had disappointed us with the M8, then just teased us with the S2. This would be some modification on the M8, not the final, full-frame M dream.
I was one of the people who actually watched the web feed on 9/09/09. (The date did give me hope, and by then there had been leaks of web pages and manual uploads and photos. I was telling my friends that this was it, but had that fear in my deepest heart that I'd be jilted at the Prom ballroom door.) There was a speech from the new CEO -- a history of Leica that would not have been tedious had, a: I not known it all already, and b: the technical aspects of the webcast been a bit better -- then my old friend Stefan Daniel stepped to the lecturn with an M body. And the moment came: the full-frame M9.
The rest was anti-climactic and thus unimportant to me. (Though, I must say, I find a rising interest in the model III-like X1.) The true Leica was here, and only $7,000 (more or less).
A short aside on that last number. That's a lot of money. I'm not buying one anytime soon, not for lack of interest, as this now overlong (and nowhere near finished) post amply demonstrates, but for simple economics. It's a place I found myself in for 20 years until I awoke one morning to find I had, by way of luck, true friendship and delicate longterm spending, acquired a IIIc, three M3s and an old, chrome M4, along with a range of lenses, from 28 to 90. (It never stops, either. My wife generously found me a Zeiss 21 -- about which I had done nothing but whine for most of the year -- for Christmas last year.) I guess there's hope, if that history is anything to judge by.
But that's not the aside. What I meant to say was that $7,000 is also about what the top-of-the-line, full-frame digital Canon and Nikons cost, and even if it didn't, I would think of Stefan Daniel at the LHSA meeting again. He was doing the dog-and-pony show, showing all the new products that had come out at Photokina shortly before, when he opened the floor to questions. I soon saw that resigned look I was treated to in close up at lunch, because the subject of cost came up again and again. Much of it was driven by the S2, which had no cost associated with it then, but it also went to the product line in general. Why, people asked again and again, in ever-varying form, are Leicas so expensive?
"Leica has never been a very cheap product," Daniel finally explained. Statistically , he said (by measuring against monthly income) Leicas today are actually cheaper than in their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember thinking that a pretty impressive answer, but the questions kept on coming ... and that as when the M8.2 came in at around $5,500. So how is it that $7,000 is better?
Well, for one, see above: Nikon and Canon ran ahead to the mark with their full-frame cameras. But for another, look at the product. This is the digital camera Cartier-Bresson would have bought. That was honestly my thought as I learned more about it. And finally, I was afraid they'd run it up to $10,000 because ... well, because they were Leica and could. (Also, I have constantly argued that the S2 should be priced to undersell the Hasselblads as an economic measure for big studios: All the good parts of DSLRs and digital medium format, but cheaper than the big cameras; trade all your old crap in for one, great, easy-to-use system -- but they seem to come in for more than Hasselblad. Why?)
Secondly, I think this shows the new regime in Solms has finally got it straightened out. I hate to hack on the American, brought in by new owner Dr. Andreas Kaufmann to turn the place around only to clash with the artisnal German Kultur of Solms, but after years of stumbles, someone seems to be playing the products right. I have real hope: the right camera at the right price with what seems the right attitude.
Now I just have to figure out how to get one. Maybe I can do T-shirts, like this guy...