What Does Owning a Leica M mean here? (or anywhere I suppose)

The brand of the red dot has been accused of attracting snobbery beyond compare, it’s a rich man’s game and of that there can be no doubt, but where is it really at nowadays in The Land of Smiles for adherents to this brand?


Materialism is huge in Thailand. Don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise for a moment. The ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ shenanigans that you might have escaped from the West to avoid is actually being played here at a much higher level in many ways. It had been that way here for many decades with the smaller elite but with the rising middle class of the new millennium and their new money, petite bourgeois bank accounts swelling out of control, there’s now an increasingly large number of people who feel the need to loudly shout and display to others just how far removed from the agrarian proletariat they have become. It’s no longer exclusively the reserve of the Sino-Thais either; it’s been a bigger change across the board. It always used to be a Rolex at the peak of Mount Aspiration in Thailand. Now that brand is merely the entry point to the climb, with Pateks abound on the skinny wrists of the Thai soccer moms parking their 300% import dutied Benzes at the mall.


For the guys in this social class, the narrow selection of imported grey paperwork motorcycles of the late 90’s simply wouldn’t have been enough. The local market bike laws changed and so did their incomes. Now, a whole slew of new monied young to middle aged Thai blokes have to at least a Ducati. So much so that the richer guys no longer want to be seen dead on one unless it’s a limited edition high end affair. They even have Ducati dealerships now in large cities in the Northeast; you know… where the poor people live! It simply won’t do. One well-known young Thai celebrity hunk recently complained to me about how ‘very low’ Ducatis have now become.  It’s hard to know what to say and what face to pull here sometimes, it really is.


Once the trophy wife, minor wife, house plus condo, Benz and unmentionably expensive ‘wrist game’ has been sorted, other toys come onto the radar. A camera is needed but not for really taking pictures, more as ‘neck game’ to go with the watch. The fact that it also can be used for taking ‘snaps’ of their spoilt, poorly behaved children is merely a bonus of course as nearly all of its owners photos are typically shot on his iPhone anyway right?  Without really giving full attention to actually learning photography too seriously, the questions soon arise: ‘Which is the most expensive?” and “Which is the most hi-so brand?”…maximum obvious brand recognition and luxury status are the main objectives in the first instance. One need not make any attempt to learn the craft as long as one has the keywords to the most expensive items off-by-heart in case the need arises to actually talk about the camera with one’s peers, not that it matters as they are usually in the same gang of course. Perhaps Leica is like the Rolex of cameras. Great brand history, previously popular for decades because it was genuinely perhaps the best tool for the job and purpose back in an all-analogue world. Its reliability and fit and finish became the stuff of legends until gradually it became mechanically obsolete, existing now as an expensive anachronism that has long since been superseded in the eyes of any sane, rational person. The legend then helps form the ultimate high end, boutique branding that the other brands would kill for but just can’t quite catch up to, at least not within the same niche. Then come the amusing statements about how ‘A Summicron isn’t fast enough or good enough” somehow? Typically the people in question couldn’t shoot to save their lives but the root of the problem is always that they haven’t got the very best kit, it couldn’t possibly be related to a lack of skill, ability or just simply putting the time in and doing the work now could it? They don’t care anyway, most expensive = best and most face gained. Sure, there are people in Thailand with M’s who can shoot amazingly and make stunning work. Trouble is, you don’t often ever meet them as most of the red dot guys here seem to be the South East Asian equivalent of  ‘rich dentists with a Leica’ demographic that is often mentioned in North American circles.  


Yes, I’m hating and ranting but it stops here…..why? Because in some way, I am ashamed to admit that I am probably one of them, at least in part. I love to covet a Leica M, I love the gestalt, I adore the feeling of it in my hands and the way it handles and looks…none of this has that much to do with the results that actually come out of the bloody thing. There’s a fetishism that’s hard to ignore, it’s palpable, and quite hard to resist if you are that way inclined. There’s also very little else quite like it. For post-war Aryan assembled mechanical heft and optical brilliance, the only other thing which equals (and surpasses) ownership of an all brass era Leica M is perhaps my Rolleiflexes (till death us do part). There’s really not any other camera that I could even begin to compare to an M. It’s hard to pin it down to one specific criteria, rather it’s a case of being greater than the sum of its equal parts. I also do kind of like ‘being in the gang’ with one even though it’s full of dilettantes and posers of every stripe. Hell, perhaps I really am one of them. My only genuinely fair argument in support of my owning one is that I am a ninety-nine percent film shooter and I like public, street and candid sort of work with some forays into photojournalistic style work. For the well practiced in this area, and to those who do so on film, the Leica M is perhaps the best tool ever made for the job. I will offer some concession to any small film SLR like an old Olympus or Nikon with a small, fast prime for being quite possibly nearly as good but I still think an M just pips them to the post for such work.  This is my only genuine justification that really holds water. Sure, I could wax lyrical about resale value and ‘as good as money in the bank’, ‘best way to use the Leica glass I’m already invested in’ etc. but deep down inside I ‘fess up to the fact that I just plain like the swanky feel that I get from one. I admit they just feel great hanging from your neck or shoulder, it’s a really great feeling. It somehow even completes my outfit for the day, and I know this (but wouldn’t actually say it aloud!) I get it, I really do…they are actually cool.


Let me continue my weak attempt at justifying why I’m not a hipster and everybody else is: Wanting one for shooting film is actually a reasonable defence to take against the heinous photo legal charge of ‘posing with an M in a built up area’. At least it separates the wheat from the chaff in this category as the vast majority of Leica M local owners you’ll find here in Thailand are firmly in the digital camp. You know they tell you to never say never? Well, I’m saying never because I will NEVER buy a digital Leica, the idea makes me laugh. Don’t get me wrong, digital cameras are great but German cameras get two things right and they typically always have, mechanics and optics. Pay huge money to a German brand for outdated electronics in a product that will be obsolete in a few years anyway? No thanks, that’s why we have the Japanese brands. I mean everything about the electronics, screens and software of the various digital Leica M’s I’ve tried so far only serve to confirm this assertion. They just leave me cold. And to pony up that sort of serious coin for something that definitely isn’t going to be handed down as an heirloom but simply end up as a very expensive paperweight, sheer madness to my mind. I would probably go with Fuji if I needed something like that, not quite a rangefinder but close enough and great glass for good prices.


I think that owning a Leica M in Thailand these days is really just a way for people to flaunt wealth and have some fun with their money buying a new toy here and there. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just so amazing to see what Leica M cameras were and what they once meant versus where they are now. I doubt it’s much different elsewhere in the world in all honesty but with Thailand having experienced an explosion of the new money crowd in this millennium , there’s just more of them around to see I guess. Funny story: There’s a well-off Thai man here in Bangkok known in certain camera buying circles who collects ONLY digital M’s, starting with the M.8 through to the present day. A worse use of funds I have never heard in all my life. It’s not just madness to my mind either, he’s the source of much confusion and bewilderment to quite a few within the trade here also. Still, like Ms.Crow sang ‘if it makes you happy…it can’t be that bad”, good luck to him. In fact, good luck to all of us red dot toting wannabes in the Land of Smiles.  I’m not a hipster, I’m not a hipster (repeat to fade).