Disclaimer: I don’t have a Leica camera. And I wrote this a year ago before I met anybody who actually owned one. My observations were purely gleaned from the Leica subsection of a local photography forum. I deduced my conclusions from their posts, which seemed to center mostly (about 80%) on gear talk and limited editions and what not. Hence it may seem like a misguided and highly inaccurate post describing Leica users. For that I apologize to my friends who actually have a Leica and actually use them for photography instead of to admire and stroke and show off with it. I guess my post is actually talking about gear nuts and collectors.
Plus this piece was actually written for a mid term essay for a class I did. I got an A for this. 🙂
edit 2: I hope you get a sense of sarcasm in this whole post. I do not subscribe nor approve of this mentality at all. Leicawanker I hope you don’t misunderstand. 🙂
Introduction to Leica
The Leica camera is seen as the pinnacle of photographic standards. Their cameras and lenses are hand-assembled in their factory in Germany.
One doesn’t simply own a Leica; he is seen as embracing a way of life, a culture, owning a piece of history. Its history is instrumental in attaching a romanticized view of the camera. The Leica community is a very exclusive tight knit community. The official Leica camera website explains this in the section History and Culture of Leica.
The company publishes its own lifestyle magazine Leica Fotografie International and has worldwide societies like The Leica Society in the UK and Leica Historical Society.
So what makes the camera so unique that it fetches an exorbitant price that is not reflective of its function? This blog post will attempt to trace the romanticized notions attached to the Leica camera, using mainly Baudrillard’s (1983) object value system, Veblen’s (1994) conspicuous consumption and Bourdieu’s (1984) emulation and distinction argument.
Value of the Leica
Following Baudrillard’s object value system theory, there are four aspects that influences the value of an object.
1. Functional value, similar to Marx’s use value. In this case, the Leica camera take’s pictures.
2. Exchange value which is the economic value, similar to Marx. The most advanced Leica film camera, the M7, is worth at least SGD$7000 brand new, without lens.
3. Symbolic value, value assigned to the object in relation to another subject. The camera might symbolize a gift for a birthday.
4. Sign value, its value within a system of objects. Amongst other cameras, the Leica has a position of quality with superior craftsmanship.
For Baudrillard, an object’s final value is influenced by its symbolic and sign value more than it’s functional and exchange value. What the Leica camera does is to take pictures. Any other camera is able to take pictures. In essence, a camera is basically a light tight metal box that holds a lens.
The reason for the Leica camera’s exorbitant price tag lies in its sign value. The Leica, while purchased for its functional value of taking pictures, is also purchased for its sign value – to signify superior quality and precision.
The phrase “the Leica is handmade” is frequently bandied about to justify the high exchange value. It is a nod to the skilled craftsmen of past – a romantic view of skilled labor. Although Leica’s latest digital cameras, the M9 and M8 were plagued with problems, many loyalists still swear by the reliability and precision of Leica cameras. The sign value of the object is ingrained into the hyper-realities (a term coined by Baudrillard) of the Leica loyalist. Their constructed realities overshadow the actual realities of the camera. They embody the object with the idea of superb craftsmanship even though there are many documented cases of Leica digital cameras failing.
Leica as Identity
Using Baudrillard’s analysis of value, we have established how Leica cameras attain their exorbitant exchange value in light of their high sign value. This brings us to our next question, why then do people still purchase these Leica’s despite their price tag? Veblen (pg 28) is handy in providing an answer to this question. Possession of goods, according to Veblen, is the “conventional basis of repute and esteem”. So how did the Leica attain its reputation?
One reason could be its rich history. The Leica brand is marketed not just as a camera, but as a lifestyle and culture. It is seen as a key to the entry of an exquisite world of precision engineering. Its capabilities are “legendary” and the quality a “class of its own”. It helps “transform vision into personal creative fulfillment, in many cases nurturing a fervent passion for expression that spans the decades.” These statements, although grandiose, can be found on the Leica website under the heading “culture”. The very fact that its history and identity is packaged under culture shows how Leica sees itself as not just a brand, but a way of life.
The Leica camera has captured many iconic documentary images and many award winning images were taken with Leica’s. Almost all the photographers in the renowned Magnum Photos agency use a Leica. Thus we can also see how many users of the Leica wish to emulate the photographic elite by using the same tools, in the hopes to also capture award winning images.
Baudrillard (pg 123-4) informs us that consuming a commodity means that we use its “sign value” as a way of differentiation. It also aids in forming social relations with members interested in the same signs. For the Leica cameras, in addition to having a sign value of superior craftsmanship as discussed earlier, it also represents prestige. It connotes Veblen’s (pg 73-74) “gentleman of leisure”, who consumes goods which are the best in its class as “an evidence of wealth”. In a sense, his identity becomes defined and expressed by what he now owns – a Leica camera. His status as someone with the taste (of photography and the arts) and the means (to afford a Leica) is cemented with the possession of the camera.
Owning a Leica allows one to differentiate oneself from those who cannot afford one becoming a distinguishing factor in marking in-group access. This fits Bourdieu’s argument on distinction as a way for social groups to mark themselves off from each other. With almost everyone being able to afford a camera to take pictures, owning an exclusive Leica is one way which photographers, pilots, dentists, creative consultants, doctors and executives in the case of the Singapore charter, can distinguish themselves from another.
An extension of Bourdieu’s framework can also be applied in this case. Many Leica owners not only distinguish themselves from non Leica owners, but further distinguish themselves from each other through the purchasing of limited edition cameras.
Leica as Lifestyle
Leica is renowned for releasing limited edition version of their cameras. They usually collaborate with renowned prestigious fashion brands like Hermes and Neiman Marcus and other luxury brands like Audi. For example, Leica recently teamed up with a designer for Audi to create 500 pieces of the Limited Edition Titanium Leica M9 which costs a whopping $29 000 seen below.
In 2009, Leica and Hermes collaborated to release 200 pieces of the Hermes Leica M7 with calf skin, costing $14 000.
Limited Edition Hermes M7
Limited Edition Neiman Marcus
Neiman Marcus partnered with Leica to release the Limited Edition 50 pieces M9 costing $17 500. For a Leica user, these collaborations are a further proof that his camera of choice is a marker of a luxurious lifestyle.
I hope that I have successfully demonstrated using Baudrillard’s object value system how a product of very normal use value (taking pictures) has acquired an elevated exchange value through its sign value. The Leica camera is steeped in historical traditions and marketed as a piece of engineering precision, which helps to increase its exchange value. Furthermore, the Leica camera is a status and prestige marker to distinguish the owner from others. Lastly, the partnership Leica has with other luxury brands further intensifies the link between the brand and the prestige attached to the consumption of the product.