Leica Day At RIT; Preserving Traditions With An Eye To The Future

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), the world-renowned center of imaging tech, research, and photographic education, and Leica Camera, acclaimed for its legendary cameras and outstanding optics, proclaimed May 6, 2008 as Leica Day. The daylong event, hosted by RIT at its impressively large modern campus, was celebrated with speeches, lectures, tours, slide shows, seminars, and parties. The occasion marked a visit by Andreas Kaufmann, the CEO of Leica Camera in Solms, Germany, who was there to donate 20 classic Leica M4-2 and M4-P cameras, each fitted with a brand-new Leica Summarit-M lens, to RIT's School of Photographic Arts and Sciences "to assure that analog photography continues to be a key element of photographic education at the highest levels." The bequest, valued at $50,000, was graciously accepted by William (Bill) DuBois, chair of photographic arts and a professor at the school, who noted, "As long as film is being produced we are committed to teaching our students how to incorporate it into their professional repertoire." He also expressed his gratitude to the Eastman Kodak Company for donating 400 rolls of their new Portra 400NC film to help support the program.

Andreas Kaufmann, CEO of Leica Camera, with the Leica M8.
© 2008, Jason Schneider, All Rights Reserved

Kaufmann, a charming and articulate speaker, held the audience spellbound with a fascinating illustrated history of Leica, including its ongoing transition to digital imaging, exemplified by the 10 Leica M8 cameras now in use at RIT. He then revealed the amazing story of how the vintage Leicas were acquired. "We didn't have any remaining inventory of these classic models," he explained, "so we had to buy them discreetly at online auctions, attracting as little attention as possible so the prices wouldn't skyrocket. Despite our best efforts, the prices did go up, and it took us over 18 months to obtain 20 M4-2 and M4-P models in excellent condition. All were completely reconditioned at Leica USA in Allendale, New Jersey, and fitted with new 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lenses."

A genuine photographic enthusiast and collector himself, Kaufmann sported a new black Leica M8 with a vintage 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens and mingled with the crowd, shooting pictures of smiling Arts and Sciences students with their "new" Leicas and the assembled dignitaries. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres were served after the speeches.

Additional highlights of Leica Day were riveting presentations and slide shows by two veteran, award-winning photojournalists and Leica shooters--Chris Usher, a member of the White House Press Corps who showed some of his searing documentary images of New Orleans people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and Alex Webb, a long-time member of Magnum Photos who displayed profoundly affecting and insightful images taken from his seven acclaimed books documenting "cultural borders" from Mexico to Istanbul. Both are long-time Leica film shooters who are now trying their hand with the digital M8, and both followed their presentations with heartfelt and candid Q & A sessions, with most of the questions coming from eager young RIT students pursuing careers in photojournalism, documentary, and fine art photography.

A fascinating finale to all the official events was an extemporaneous lecture on Leica rangefinder shooting techniques delivered by RIT alumnus Justin Stailey of Leica USA to two-dozen perky and inquisitive Leica-toting Arts and Sciences students enrolled in the program. Kaufmann and DuBois were honorary attendees, and both smiled knowingly as Stailey explained how to take advantage of the special virtues of the rangefinder camera and gave numerous hints, tips, and tricks on how best to hold, compose, and shoot discreetly with a Leica M based on his long hands-on experience.

It was clear from their questions that the RIT students were engaged and excited about participating in the Leica film project. At an impromptu farewell dinner hosted by Leica at a nearby Italian restaurant, execs from RIT, Leica, and Kodak toasted to an ongoing partnership and pledged to expand and strengthen the program going forward. It was a fitting conclusion to Leica Day, a beautiful spring day in that most photographic of American cities, Rochester, New York.