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There was a terrific article in the New York Times recently (3/22/10) about the U-2 spy plane, and how it’s still going strong after 50-plus years of service. Designed by Lockheed Corporation’s fabled ‘Skunk Works’ division and placed in service in 1956, the U-2 was our airborne spy-in-the-sky on the then-growing Soviet menace. While reading about how 32 out of the original 86 U-2s produced by the military are still in active service, I couldn’t help thinking about the Leica M3, a camera introduced 2 years earlier that like the U-2, still delivers the goods in a package that - at least on the surface - appears little changed over the course of 5 decades. But nothing could be further from the truth.
When the U-2 was originally conceived the goal was to create a supersonic aircraft capable of flying beyond the reach of existing defensive weapons while capturing high-resolution images of everything going on below. With a cruising altitude up to 70,000' (13 miles), the lone, spacesuit-clad pilot can observe the curvature of the earth while the plane's highly advanced reconnaissance cameras record the finest details of activities happening below at ground-level. Today, instead of snooping on the Soviet empire, U-2s are supplying valuable data to allied soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and other global hot-spots.
What I found particularly interesting was that despite the fact current U-2s are equipped with state-of-the-art digital imaging systems; they still rely heavily on the U-2's original film cameras, which are capable of taking high-resolution panoramic images of insurgent footpaths. Digital images captured by U-2s are often beamed down to ground troops so they can follow enemy troop movement in the surrounding mountain terrain in real-time. But some of the most valuable data often shows up after the film is processed and inspected on the ground.
And here's where Leica fits into the picture. The film-based Leica M7 and its digital counterpart, the Leica M9, greatly resemble the original Leica M3, which was introduced back in 1954. But neither camera contains parts that are interchangeable with their common ancestor. They might look the same, but in terms of refinements they are decades apart. So too the Lockheed U-2. It has the same profile, but in terms of technology, it has also changed dramatically since it was first placed into service. And as odd a pairing as they may be, both Leica and the U-2 offer the user the ability to shoot film or digital.
But what's fascinating about the legacies of the Leica M and the U-2 is that both were born in a time where automation was barely a presence when it came to flying aircraft and taking pictures. Like driving stick-shift, photography and flying aircraft at twice the speed of sound were hands-on, manual processes that demanded thought, skill, and intuition.
Even military experts agree that while unmanned, remote-controlled drones such as the Predator and Reaper save countless lives by preventing soldiers from passing in harm's way, nothing comes close to having a pair of trained eyes overseeing the action.
And it's the same human factor that has defined Leica M-series cameras over the years. Despite the 'improvements' made to the camera over the years, it remains one of the few, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cameras made today, not to mention one of the finest imaging tools you're ever likely to use, and that goes for film or digital.