Either you are a serious collector or you aren’t. It is really like that,” explains Ferzaan Engineer, who knows a thing or two about the subject. He has collected more than 35 Leica cameras, carefully preserved and displayed in his tasteful home in Bengaluru.
A beautiful piece of engineering, the Leica camera has achieved iconic stature and can lay claim to have shot some of the most famous images of this generation. Engineer collects only mechanical Leicas, manufactured between 1925 and 1970, as close to mint condition as possible. “I either collect at the highest level or I don’t collect,” he says.
Originally from Ahmedabad, Engineer holds a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences. After a teaching stint in the United States, Engineer headed a research center in Ahmedabad. He served as the CEO of Quintiles India, during which time he moved to Bengaluru. Four years ago, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and co-founded Medwell Ventures, which provides home healthcare services under the Nightingales brand. Just over two years ago, he started planning a chain of oncology hospitals called Cytecare Hospitals, aiming to redefine the way cancer is treated in India. The first hospital commenced operations in November 2016.
For as long as he can remember, Engineer was always interested in collecting things, even as a schoolboy. “My mother used to collect old furniture,” he says. His hobby took on a serious note when he started collecting old phonograph records — LPs — from the 1950s and ’60s. Engineer, 54, started focussing only on the brand new first issues of that period, and today has over 1000 LPs. This was followed by Leica cameras, old furniture and art.
So what piqued his interest in Leicas? Engineer was always interested in photography, having dabbled in some amateur black and white work. Mechanical objects always intrigued him, additionally. “The Leica camera is an icon of the art deco period, easily the most beautiful mechanical thing, the best of its genre, like a Bentley or a Patek Philippe,” says Engineer. “It encompasses the post-Great War period, the Second World War and beyond, capturing some of the most iconic images of the time. Names like Henri Cartier-Bresson are synonymous with Leica”. Engineer’s tryst with Leica cameras began on an inauspicious note. “I bought my first camera from a shop in the United States in 1990, when I was a university professor, and promptly dropped it,” recalls Engineer with a chuckle. “I felt very angry with myself.”
The first ever prototype of the 35mm camera was created by Oskar Barnack in March 1914 in Germany: the Ur-Leica, which went on to redefine photography. An improved version of Barnack’s camera, named Leica, went into production and the general public got their first glimpse of this piece of machinery that would redefine the very art of taking pictures at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925. Images shot by Leica cameras have become some of the most prominent photos of our age, documenting history like few images have: the brutality of napalm attacks, shot by Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut in 1972, Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara, taken with a Leica M2, during a memorial service, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of a sailor kissing a nurse at Times Square in celebration of the end of the Second World War, taken with a Leica IIIa rangefinder camera. “Images captured through Leica lenses have a romance to them,” explains Engineer. “They are known for their greys, their subtleties.”
As I admire the cameras, neatly arranged on a shelf, Engineer carefully picks up camera after camera, explaining their history and how he acquired them. Most of Engineer’s Leicas have been procured at auctions. Today, most Leica collecting has been consolidated into two large auction houses: Tamarkin in the United States and WestLicht in Austria, which is also home to the Leica Shop.
One of Engineer’s most treasured Leicas is the Reporter. Leica started manufacturing this camera in the 1930s and as the name suggests, it was used extensively by the press. Why? This modification of a classic 35 mm Leica camera was designed to shoot 250 exposures at a time, rather than dividing the stock film into individual cassettes that you had to reload. With the whole stock film in, it was very handy for the reporters to shoot many images at a time. In all, 983 such cameras were produced, and here are only a few hundred in existence today. “Many such cameras were lost to World War II, as they were fitted to military aircraft or damaged due to professional use. Mine is in mint condition and has never been refurbished, which is very rare,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice. Engineer also has all the original accessories, the leather case that he found 15 years later at another auction and the accessory for cutting film. What he doesn’t have is the original box and the motor drive, which he says would now be nearly impossible to find.
Another full set in his possession is the Leica C from 1931. This was the first interchangeable lens camera in the Leica world, where you didn’t have to match the lens to the camera. Engineer possesses the complete set in mint condition: all the original lenses and boxes, the instruction manual from the correct year, three leather cases, the works. The cost? A whopping € 15,000. “I don’t think a better set exists,” he says confidently. ” He also has a Leica camera from 1954 fitted with a rare stereo lens called the Stemar. He has the projector, rare filters and all the original correspondence between the buyer and the shop. And that’s not all. Engineer also has the Holy Grail of Leica collecting: a Leica M2 from 1958, in black paint, fitted with a new Leicavit MP and lenses to match. Engineer ensures he takes good care of his valuable collection, from lubricating the parts every five years or so, to exercising the shutters.
“Some collectors are completists,” he says. “They have to have every known variation of a given model. You may only aspire to that, as sometimes even the Leica museum may not have all the variants. I only buy things that are in mint condition, unless of course, they are the rarest of rare.” So what’s next on the agenda for him? “I want to bid on a lot of literature,” he says. “I have already registered to bid on the first brochure for a Leica camera, published when the word Leica hadn’t yet been coined. I want to buy it and frame it.”