The following story has some parts that might feel a bit strange to some, and yet will feel completely familiar to others. I guess that’s how stories go. When reading it, some will dislike me for some of the facts, while others will be able to relate and feel that what happened was not exactly easy. The story is true. And it has something to do with my cameras; with my M Leicas.
I have been shooting with Leica cameras for about 15 years now. I own a few of them (some might think, too many). They are wonderful little machines, all special in their own way. They are almost friends, or maybe even family? Some of the ones I own are true classics, while others are maybe not very well known, but still very special to me personally.
What some of the best Leicas do is to make one a better photographer by revealing how bad of a photographer one really is. Especially the M rangefinder cameras are known for that kind of painful revelation. They offer advantages over many other systems, but they are also pretty merciless and unforgiving to the person who does not know how to deal with them. They are about as easy and as fun to operate as a classic racing car in a race filled with next year’s SUVs.
I shoot with both, film and digital M rangefinders. The first digital M I bought was a Leica M9, in black paint. I later upgraded it to a Leica M9-P. It was a special factory conversion that removed the Leica Logo from the front of the camera and made it overall much tougher, from harder glass to thicker paint to grippier leatherette. (These cameras can take a bit of a beating, so while these upgrades make little sense to non-Leica shooters, they made perfect sense to me.) The other digital Leica M I eventually bought was a “Monochrom”. While other digital cameras see the world through a color filter, this camera abandons that red, green and blue cover and looks at everything in pure black and white. Photographs coming out of that camera have a very special quality. Imagine if you were the was a small group of people who would not wear sunglasses in a world where everyone wears them. Unexpected experiences are bound to happen, and they do. There is a certain legendary magic to Leica cameras. And the M Monochrom is special camera among special cameras.
Leica Lenses are actually what many admire even more than the cameras themselves. And one of the most adored lenses among those is the legendary “Noctilux” one of the few lenses in the world that can somehow see light where even the human eye fails to see it. The Noctilux is a heavy piece of equipment, but it can create images that are usually not easy to achieve in any other way, and also often go beyond anything that was expected at the time when the shutter was pressed. The Noctilux I purchased a few years ago is one of the most recent f0.95/50 models. (Yes, the maximum aperture is 0.95) Many Leica Lenses are a bit like gems, with specially manufactured exotic glass that is then polished into often unusual geometries. The noctilux has several of those special lenses and some of the special glass. There are lenses that are almost as good and cost a fraction of the Noctilux price tag. But they also come with some surprises that are not exactly desirable. I tried the alternatives. The Noctilux is really something else.
Many of the rare Leica lenses tend to increase in value over time. They are thus objects of speculation. Leica also helps that process by increasing the retail price of some of the very special lenses. Few understand why anybody would spend exorbitant amounts of money on equipment that then tries to be as unobtrusive and stealthy as possible. But those who know, know why. This story explains it a bit more as well, I hope.
So why the long introduction to the very special cameras and lens? Because this story is about me losing them all and what happened after that loss. At some point in July I knew that my many travels would finally slow down for the rest of the year. And so for the first time in half a decade I would be able to have my cameras properly serviced by Leica. I don’t exactly abuse my equipment, but it turns out that all the radiation during travel and the shifts in humidity as I moved between not just time zones but climate zones, were all a serious test for the equipment.
My digital cameras had quite a few hot pixels at this point, one of them even some other challenges. And the Noctilux developed some sort of internal impurity that did not seem to disturb the photographic qualities too much, but was still noticeable upon inspection of the lens.
I contacted Leica to prepare them for the equipment that would be coming their way. The company is not small, but the service is always completely personal. My familiar service partner had moved into retirement, but the new service manager was also really understanding and friendly. She sent me a set of documents that allowed me to just securely package the camera equipment and leave it for the UPS shipping. It took me a few days to get the cameras packed and ready. I knew that it was time to have them serviced, but I shoot pretty much every day, so it felt like a very big thing to pack my two camera friends and the big lens into a little box and then seal it. Eventually the box was ready, and the labels were all attached.
I left the package for the UPS man, and even paid a bit extra to ensure a pickup. In the morning, the package was scanned by the UPS man, and the box was on its way to Leica in New Jersey.
In the afternoon my doorbell rang and it was UPS asking to pick up my package.
But it had been picked up in the morning.
This was the moment when I thought something strange might have happened. But I checked the UPS website and the package had been scanned in. It was apparently on its way. I checked the website again a few hours later, and the package was still scanned in. Then again a few hours after that, and the status had not been updated.
Two days later I had my serious concerns about the whereabouts of the equipment. I called UPS to find out more, but it turned out that because I had not actually issued the shipping documents for the package, I was not going to receive much more information than what was available to anyone who knew the tracking number. The person on the other end told me to call Leica to check if they maybe had received the package, even though the UPS site had no apparent update on the parcel.
I called Leica first thing on the following Monday, and no package had been delivered. Something must have happened to the box.
It was lost.
LEICA M9-P Serial No. 3904606, LEICA M Monochrom Serial No. 4343750 and LEICA NOCTILUX-M 1:0,95/50mm ASPH. Serial No. 4117802 were lost. My equipment was lost.
One can have all kinds of theories about what might have happened here. None of the theories look very nice. And no matter what the possibilities could be, I still suddenly had no proper digital equipment I could shoot with. And that best lens was also now gone. I felt absolutely horrible.
I took a bus to visit some pawn shops in downtown Brooklyn. There I actually saw a lot of interesting camera equipment, and priced nicely. But my cameras were not there. I registered the cameras with stolen goods databases. And I also registered one of them with the stolen camera website that specializes in tracking activity of equipment by checking EXIF data of uploaded pictures. If anybody were to start using the cameras, and were to upload the images to Flickr, or many other sites, then their images would show up, I would be able to maybe track them down? Also, if any pawn shop were to check the serial numbers against the stolen goods databases, they would discover my messages. But frankly, that ship might have already sailed. If anybody had indeed stolen the cameras, they would have likely moved through some system very, very quickly. But maybe not. Maybe they could resurface after years?
The cameras had been on their way to be serviced. So Leica also made a special note in their database to make sure the cameras would be flagged, had anybody attempted to have them serviced. But all of this obviously did not replace the loss.
UPS started an investigation. Some part of that routine eight-day investigation seemed to be a call to me, with questions about my name, and the approximate value of the equipment. I assume that a lot of what happens when things get lost with UPS is probably much less honest than the shipping I attempted here.
I spoke with a few people about my loss, of course. And the opinions were pretty varied. And it was not a lot of support on average. Most of those I spoke with would just ask me if my equipment had been insured. No insurance would obviously cover the loss as it had occurred. A lady who often seems to spend some of her time near the front desk of the building pointed out that in the week when I shipped the package, the regular UPS man was on vacation. The man on that day was a substitute.
The doorman in my building offered to show me the recording of the package being picked up. I watched it. It was easy to find the moment. The pickup was time stamped around 10:30AM. The package was clearly visible in the video. My little box was moved a bit before it was picked up, as someone was vacuuming the area, but eventually it left the building with the UPS man. Then the actual scan happened off camera. A few minutes later the UPS man ran through the door again in to bring back some additional envelope. He embraced someone working at the building, then left.
The additional theory could be here, that the package had been left unattended for just a few minutes outside of the building, and that that was enough for it to disappear. I spoke with the man who seemed to know the UPS man. And he explained that almost every move of these guys was recorded. Even the times when the truck engine was on or off was noted. The UPS man is just a tiny element of a large logistic machine called UPS. Oh, and they also never traveled alone. There were usually two UPS people covering a shift. One would stay at the truck, while the other would deliver and pick up.
The lady who pointed out the irregularity in the delivery and pick up, apparently told the “regular” UPS man what had happened. And his response allegedly was that this felt like a very odd occurrence, as a camera had also disappeared when that same substitute worked his route a year earlier. Oh, the theories one could build from all that information. So tempting to imagine a wild something.
I pictured the UPS man I saw in the video as an obsessive camera collector. I saw him sitting in a small room with shelves upon shelves stacked with camera equipment. He was adminiring them while wearing his brown uniform. Perhaps now and then he would take one of them into his hands and shoot a picture of a blue bird that happened to land near his window.
I imagined a semingly casual passer by pick up the small but relatively heavy package and just walk on with it, maybe simply pushing a stroller. Then, once around the corner, the person would walk faster and faster, eventually running into some sort of fog that suddenly covered the entire neighborhood.
But maybe something had happened in some warehouse? Perhaps the package was still sitting somewhere in some innocent dusty corner in New Jersey. Or perhaps it had actually fallen off the truck and was now getting rained on somewhere on an interstate meridian. (My old iPhone4 is actually still in the middle of the Autobahn near the Frankfurt airport. I had left it on the roof of a car that then sped back to town. I had to erase the device remotely. In the end it was all for the better. I ended up with a new Phone.)
But the drama was not very good or healthy. I felt incredibly lost and rather helpless. All the theories were useless when UPS came back with the outcome of their investigation. My package was indeed lost, and because I was officially neither the sender nor the recipient of the package, that was all the information they would give to me.
After a few days that then turned into weeks, my despair pushed me to get in touch with Leica. And I got in touch with them more and more often. The person who was responsible for the service really tried to help me, but this was obviously not a simple and quick matter for them or for anyone involved. I grew more and more upset.
After what felt like months, I finally decided to write a letter to the senior Leica management, the CEO, the main share holder, the senior people. (I have to admit that I would have probably never had the courage to write an email like that. It was the encouragement of two friends, who independently of each other kept pushing me to just voice my honest opinion about the situation to people who would also care.) And so I composed an email about the meaning of the Leica brand promise and what the whole incident felt like to me, a true ambassador of the brand.
I looked at the “Focus on the Essential” claim of the brand and tried to understand how it could apply to what things felt like to me. UPS was the literal and proverbial messenger in the situation. To them the two parties involved in the transaction were Leica and Leica. And so it looked as if I did not matter.
But what meaning remains to the claim “Essential” if I, as a customer was not meant as at least part of that? I was despearte and felt disappointed.
I think it was the CMO that reacted about ten minutes after I had sent the email. He ensured me that Leica was not just a brand that delivers excellent product, but that the service needs to be and is on the level of the best luxury brands in the world. I am paraphrasing here, but his response was quick, calm, efficient and good. After another five minutes or so, a separate email went to the global head of service at Leica, he was asked to help with the matter as quickly as possible. It was a weekend, I think.
It was maybe just four days later that I received an email from my friendly service person at Leica, asking if I could check who had signed for the package she had sent to me a day earlier. I was not at home at that time. I checked with the front desk as soon as I returned to the building, but the package someone had signed for was not there. After a few minutes of worry the package did actually show up. It had been signed for, just not yet entered into the system of the building.
In the package was a brand new Leica M Monochrom. It was all complete with packaging and everything. Everything. The other box in the package was a factory fresh Leica Noctilux lens. All perfectly cradled in its shiny black wooden box. The production date of the camera and the Lens was just days before. So it looks like Leica must have pulled these pieces of equipment off their production line just for me? Impressive.
My Leica M9-P arrived a day later. My original camera was a custom conversion from an M9. And Leica has not been manufacturing the M9 for some time now. So a used body M9 body was sourced somewhere in the world and then converted to be exactly like my lost camera. The only difference was the Serial number (the camera I now have is technically older) and the number of actuations the shutter of the camera had gone through. My original camera had the shutter pressed over 160 thousand times. The camera Leica had found for me had the shutter used about 15 thousand times. So it was in my book a pretty much new camera. I entered the information of the M9 into the stolen camera site, and found that the Leica had been used in France at some point in its previous life.
So this is where the story ends for now. It is a story that looks pretty amazing for Leica, and actually maybe even too good to be shared. I was an ambassador for the Leica idea since the first time I got a roll of film back from my first Minilux.
I now love my Leicas and the Leica brand even more. Yes, the cameras are really not cheap. But they are not cheap cameras. They are beautiful machines designed with love. And the equipment looks maybe a bit old fashioned to the untrained observer. But it actually does seem to have some very profound values attached to it still.
At all times I was dealing with caring people who were connected to some pretty excellent cameras and the universe that they had enabled. After this experience it feels like I want to do something to support the idea of Leica. There are so many ways to do that, of course. Writing this little note is one of them, and buying more of the equipment is obviously another. But in the end, the best way to support Leica is to throw oneself against the universe with the camera in hand, and to do what these excellent cameras and lenses were made for: Create more and more visual records.
And Focus on the Essential.
Many thanks to all the people at Leica who made the happy ending of this story possible. And also a huge thanks to all those not at Leica, who did not give up on me. Apologies for my worries and doubts. And to those who were telling me that all was lost and that Leica would not come through? There are many, many more pictures ahead. Maybe a few pretty good ones among them.