Classic Cameras: Photographing Floyd Bennett Field with the Leica M3

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My father was an aviation buff. As a teenager in Coney Island, in the mid-1930s, he would often ride his bike to Floyd Bennett Field, a nearby naval base where he befriended many of the aircraft mechanics, while also learning a thing or two about fixing aircraft engines.

During WWII, he served as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier, followed by a career as a mechanic in the New York City Fire Department. All of our family cars had Chrysler Hemi’s under the hood and I’m fairly certain I was the only kid on the block whose father could make fighter planes, fire engines, and fin-tipped Chrysler 300s perform as advertised.

This article originally appeared a little more than a year ago. Having it reposted this year for Father’s Day is particularly poignant for me, because the day before Father’s Day—June 17, 2017—is the day I will have outlived my father’s lifetime. Thirty-one years down the line I still miss him and cherish the time we spent together. Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Love ya! —AW

Here are three pictures taken in 1936, at Floyd Bennett Field—that’s 80 years ago. The 16-year-old in the picture is my father, Milton Weitz.

Growing up in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, my father would often take me to his old stomping grounds to watch all sorts of prop and jet-powered aircraft practice takeoffs and landings, and we never missed the open house they held on Memorial Day weekend. When I think back, these are among my most cherished childhood memories.

Dedicated on May 23, 1931, and named after the Navy pilot who flew Commander Richard E. Byrd over the North Pole a few years earlier, Floyd Bennett Field was created by covering 33 small islands in Jamaica Bay with about 16 feet of landfill. On opening day, a flotilla of 600 military aircraft lead by Charles Lindbergh and Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan flew over the base.

Grumman S-2 Tracker, the first Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft built for the US NavyAllan Weitz

One of the first airfields in the country with paved runways, Floyd Bennett Field was also New York City’s first municipal airport, before being upstaged, in 1939, by Municipal Airport #2, now known as LaGuardia Airport, which was closer and more accessible to Manhattan. By the time WWII rolled around, Floyd Bennett Field had become a Naval Air Station.

In 1954, Floyd Bennett Field was running full-tilt as an active military base when Leica introduced the M3—considered by many to be the quintessential rangefinder camera. The camera went through a number of improvements during its production run, many of which carry through to Leica’s latest film and digital rangefinders.

Also known as the "Angel of Deliverance," this is one of the few remaining Boeing C-97 Stratofreighters used during the Berlin Airlift, following WWII.

The original 35mm Leica camera—the first successful camera designed to shoot 35mm motion picture film, made its debut in 1925, followed by a series of models ending with the Leica IIIg. The new M3 featured a bayonet lens mount, which was quicker and more secure than the screw mount lenses used on earlier Leicas. The M3 also had a combined viewfinder/rangefinder with bright frame lines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses, split-image focusing, and parallax correction.

Wider and longer lenses could be used, but required the use of shoe-mounted viewfinders—affectionately known as “goggles”—or a Leica Visoflex reflex housing for accurate focus and compositional control with lenses wider than 50mm or longer than 135mm.

Hangar B, the home of HARP, the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project

In the Field with the Leica M3

The moment you lift a Leica to your eye, you know that you’re using a very special tool. The M3 is a hefty work of technical art, executed in brass, steel, and other metal alloys, and covered in black vulcanite on the front, back, and sides. The original black vulcanite covering on the camera used for this feature was replaced at some time in a lovely mint green vulcanite. To each his own.

If you’ve only used cameras with optical or electronic viewfinders, rangefinder cameras can prove to be challenging at first, but given time you soon understand why so many shooters swear by a rangefinder’s accuracy (yours truly included).

Leica M3 with 35mm/f2.0 Summicron ASPH, 90mm/f4.0 Elmar-C, and...
Shutter-speed dial and film advance with shutter release
Viewfinder and film rewind knob

Unlike the tunnel-like views you get with reflex finders, LCDs, and electronic finders, rangefinders allow you to see beyond the frame lines. They allow you to see people and objects about to enter the frame that you wouldn’t see in the finder of a DSLR. Seeing beyond the frame lines also gives you an opportunity to fine tune the composition based on the surroundings, which is really difficult to do through reflex viewing systems.

To illustrate this story, I used a chrome, 1960-vintage, single-stroke Leica M3 body with two lenses—a recent vintage Summicron-M 35m/f2 ASPH and an Elmar-C 90mm/f4 that dates back to the early 1970s. As for the film, I shot Tri-X rated at ISO 320.

Detail, “New York City Air Ferry Base,” where aircraft were delivered and prepped for use overseas during WWII

It would be easy to drop a thousand words describing the image quality of Ernst Leitz optics. Suffice it to say, with few exceptions they are all first class, and are handmade to the same strict standards as Leica cameras.

Although I am admittedly spoiled by modern ultra wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses, being limited to a pair of fixed focal length lenses—a moderate wide-angle and equally moderate fixed telephoto—proved far less traumatic to my creative senses than I had anticipated.

Hangars 3 and 4

There were more than a few occasions where I wished I had a longer telephoto reach but, nevertheless, I was able to capture pictures that mimic the visual dynamics of lenses with fields of view wider than 35mm by playing off the vanishing points of the grooves and cracks in the runways and tarmacs.

When using the 90mm lens, I was able to take full advantage of the M3’s rangefinder system for focusing and composing my photographs. This wasn’t the case with the 35mm lens, however. I was able to focus using the camera’s rangefinder, but because the field of view of a 35mm lens is wider than the 50mm limit of the M3’s frame lines, I needed a 35mm viewfinder to compose pictures with that lens. My solution for framing these pictures was my Olympus VF-1 viewfinder, which has a field of view similar to that of a 35mm lens.

End of runway blast wall

Working with a camera that’s thoroughly mechanical is purifying—like driving stick. You are completely in control. There’s no meter. You get the correct exposure with a handheld meter or by using the “Sunny 16” rule. If the picture comes out—it’s because you did everything right!

The original M3s required a double stroke of the film advance to cock the shutter. Later models are single stroke, which allow you to advance the film in a single or a series of shorter strokes. Other improvements made over the years include switching from German shutter speeds to standard shutter speeds, an updated film-loading system, and the addition of a frame line preview lever.

The original Main Terminal, now known as the Ryan Visitor Center

About 225,000 M3s were manufactured before production ended, in 1966. Interestingly, in terms of this story, that was the same year Floyd Bennett Field was decommissioned as a Naval Air Station.

Floyd Bennett Field has since gone through the hands of the Coast Guard, the New York Police Department, and FEMA, with a majority of the land now under the watch of the US Park Service. Much of it is accessible, while other parts are off-limits for safety reasons.

Some visitors use their cars to paint “rubber donuts” and figure–eights across some of the more remote corners of the runways.

Most of the original hangars perpendicular to Flatbush Avenue are still standing in various stages of restoration. The Administration Building, which served as the main terminal and flight tower since the field opened, has been meticulously restored, unlike much of the rest of the base. Most of the concrete runways are still intact, which is remarkable considering portions of them were poured more than eighty years ago.

Today, concerts and music events are staged in and around the hangars north of the main building, and being a federal park, the runways and surrounding coastline are open to bike riders, hikers, and fishing. There’s even a runway reserved for some of the neatest remote control aircraft you’re likely to see. Need a place to practice flying your new drone? Look no farther!

Sunrise bouncing off windows of the Flight Tower and Main Terminal at Floyd Bennett Field

Hangar B, on the east end of the base, is the home of HARP—the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project, where preservationists restore many of the aircraft that formerly crisscrossed the skies over the base. Open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, there are about 20 aircraft on display in varying stages of restoration.

One last detail—if you plan on going to Floyd Bennett Field, take spare batteries and ample memory, because there are lots of photo ops. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around.

You may frequently find a pre-owned Leica, lenses, or other vintage gems in the B&H Used Department. To find out more about the Used Department and some of the retro gear that is often available there, read the explora article, The B&H Used Department: Cool Retro Chic.

To learn more about Leica cameras and the company founder, Ernst Leitz, and his life-saving activities during World War II, listen to this B&H podcast:

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