Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica M8: Tanning for 2,000 years and a much missed digital M 

Leica M8: Tanning for 2,000 years and a much missed digital M 

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  Cleaning the de-hairing machine
Cleaning the de-hairing machine

My first digital Leica camera was an M8 and one of the first projects I undertook with it was to photograph Baker’s tannery in Devon back in 2011 . That’s where I source the leather for Classic Cases. Those first images resulted in an audio slideshow for the BBC News web site and, so far, two exhibitions. 

  Mixing oak bark with water to produce the tanning liquor
Mixing oak bark with water to produce the tanning liquor

It’s the last oak-bark tannery in the UK and when I set up Classic Cases to produce hand-made leather cases for Leica cameras it was the first place I went to in my search for top-quality hides.

In the small town of Colyton in east Devon in England J & FJ Baker & Co Ltd have been producing top-quality leather for longer than anyone knows. The current owner, Andrew Parr, told me “there has been a tannery on this site since Roman times”. That’s around 2,000 years. 

  Selecting the skins
Selecting the skins

On my first visit I asked if I could look around and take a few photos and knew immediately that I wanted to do a project on the place. After discussing it with Andrew I spent five days at the tannery wandering around at will. At this point I had no commission but it was a personal project that I just knew I had to do. I had only recently bought the M8 and it was the obvious place and situation to give it a run. 

  Handling the selected skins
Handling the selected skins

My first twenty minutes looking around produced a couple of acceptable photos; one, in fact, remains one of my favourites from the whole shoot — ‘cleaning the de-hairing machine’. Yet looking at those first images was initially very disappointing. The colours were a mess, with a mix of daylight, tungsten and fluorescent light, often in the same photo, making any set of photos colour balanced was impossible. It was then I decided to switch to black and white, and, in doing so I instantly knew that not only would it solve the problem but it improved the photos. My return visits were all done with monochrome shooting in mind.

  Hand de-hairing where the machine has missed
Hand de-hairing where the machine has missed

My sadly long departed M8 was excellent for doing the job. Having recently re-visited the files and re-worked them in Lightroom 6, I am amazed at the quality. It wasn’t a full frame camera, the crop was x1.33 which had the effect of changing the focal length of M lenses — a 50mm became a 67mm on the M8, for instance. For the exhibition that first went up at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum a few years ago I had several images printed to 20” x 24”, even after cropping, and they look really good. Perhaps even more amazing is that the opening shot was printed to A0 — that’s 30” x 46” and the result is outstanding. For such an early digital camera I find that amazing. 

  Finished skins drying after being greased
Finished skins drying after being greased

I wandered around the tannery with the M8, first photographing the lime pits where the skins are placed to remove most of the hair. Monday morning’s selection process was next as the skins are graded and then moved on to the oak bark pits where the ‘chosen ones’ spend a year to complete the tanning process.

The last area is the finishing shed where the oils are added. Shooting only with available light to preserve the atmosphere, the M8 was a marvel. I’ve seen other people’s photos from the same tannery — clearly shot with DSLRs and fill-in flash — and it really doesn’t work. It’s the classic situation where after a while the people I was photographing just ignored me, very little sound from the camera, no flash and keeping quietly on the side lines, except when I wanted a close-up. If it were not for the fact that you can no longer get the screens replaced in an M8 I would seriously consider buying one as a ‘cheaper’ back-up to a full-frame M.

  Owner Andrew Parr selecting the finished hides
Owner Andrew Parr selecting the finished hides

The photos from my days in the tannery have been shown widely over the last few years, with an audio slideshow being produced for the BBC News Web site and an exhibition at the Royal Albert in Exeter. The same exhibition is now on show until March 4th at The Devon Guild in Bovey Tracey, south Devon. But for those, the majority reading this I suspect, who aren’t going to be able to get to the exhibition the audio slideshow is available on my own web site.

  Taking a break
Taking a break

I have been using the leather from Baker’s tannery since 2009 when I started Classic Cases. To complement the Leica cameras I make the cases for it is important for me to use the best quality leather I can find. It costs a bit more but there is pleasure in producing the final product which I don’t think you get any other way. 

  Moving hides between oak bark pits
Moving hides between oak bark pits

I sold the M8 some years ago when the M9 came along but there really is something in me that misses that camera, I know someone who still owns it and perhaps I need to give her a call.

Classic Cases for Leica Cameras

Macfilos review of the Classic Cases M10 half-case

All photos copyright Paul Glendell – no reproduction without permission

  Tools of the trade
Tools of the trade
  Warming feet on a very cold winter
Warming feet on a very cold winter’s day
  Owner Andrew Parr in his office
Owner Andrew Parr in his office
  Currying or greasing the hides
Currying or greasing the hides
  Lowering cow skins into the lime pits
Lowering cow skins into the lime pits

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Super pictures thank you, and likewise I miss my M8.2 as my subsequent M9 and MP 240 images have never seemed quite as sharp. My imagination? Maybe.

  2. What a marvellous project – and a well timed post, as far as I’m concerned. The M8 was (and still is) my first digital camera. With its smaller sensor and framelines that sometimes deceive, I’ve been thinking of trading mine in. Perhaps it’s time to think again, since my M8 isn’t showing any signs of wear and tear.

  3. These are great pictures Paul, very atmospheric.

    I really liked my M8 too, but I was frustrated by the crop factor which wouldn’t worry me now.

    I wonder if the larger pixels make for sharper pictures? There is a difference between the Leica T and the CL, that difference can be processed away in a raw editor, but the M8 looks good straight out of the camera.

    Another possible factor is the difference between CCD and CMOS chips, a contemporary of the M8 was the Digilux 2, another CCD camera with just 5MP, some people still have a high regard for it.

    I still think that film is king but whether one could take similar pictures in that tannery with an M4 and thrice pushed HP5+ and Diafine, is a moot point? I would doubt whether any seasoned photographer would try it, but the modern "hipster" film user might.

  4. Thank you to everyone for the comments so far, yes Stephen the photos do have a film like quality I think and it could be the difference between the CCD and CMOS sensors. However it could be because the M8 didn’t have the IR ( I think it was ) filter over the sensor which resulted in all the faf with free lens filters when it first came out. I don’t think I was shooting with any lens filters at the time. So that too could influence the look.

    I am not really a techie person I am really only interested in the light I find when I am taking the photos and move around for the light as much as the composition. It does get a bit difficult at times because sometimes the best composition doesn’t work with the available light, and visa versa of course. In the end it was because of the crop factor and the lenses I had that I changed to the M9, which also permits even greater cropping. The M8 really was a very good camera at the time I think and still is. If I had one now and black and white was my main way of shooting I would definitely keep it Richard.

  5. Fascinating photographic documentary for which the B&W is comletely right. Given all that has happened since by way of development, it is intriguing how much affection for the M8 is still around. Your article shows why!

  6. Great Photos, Paul. The black and white treatment works very well. So this is where the leather for the two cases for my M240 and M10 came from. It is wonderful to hear that there has been a tannery in this location since Roman times. Tradition is something that is not as valued as it used to be, although Leica fans have every reason to appreciate tradition. I have been very pleased with my Classic cases and I did a short appreciation of the one for my M10 here http://macfilos.com/photo/2017/10/23/classic-case-of-scotch-quality-cover-for-leicas-m10?rq=Classic%20Case

    William

  7. Hello William, Yes Bakers tannery is where the leather for your cases came from. I have only ever used their leather. When I lived in Devon they were local to me and I think the best I could get. Even though I am now in Scotland I still get my leather from Bakers, I don’t visit so often now though! I also very much like Andrew Parrs ethics, he employs all local workers and the leather almost always comes from cattle in Devon. It makes so much sense. Andrew also cares very much about the whole business. As you can see in the photos he is very much a hands on boss.

    If anyone reading this wants to see the audio slideshow I made for the BBC News and missed the link in the text above here is a link again to my photography site https://www.glendell.co.uk/albums/LenZo/videos-slideshows

  8. Oh boy, wonderful images and article, Paul.

    The number of times in the last two years I’ve resolved to getting an M8 for its beautiful monochrome look and (relative) affordability and then backed out again due to the risk of an expensive nonrepairable paperweight……lol.

    The IR issue and the CCD Kodak sensor absolutely produce a unique outcome imo.

    It remains a camera of genuine interest to me and your article reinforces that.

    Lovely work.

  9. Paul thank you for a superb photo essay with the help of the classic M8..I have one in reserve and have been using it on occasions this winter. It is well made, has had a replacement LCD screen and feels like it could go on longer than me. I really enjoy using it and have been reprocessing pictures from 2009 onwards with remarkable results. Improved processing and operating skills help.

    I share your love of available light and eschew the use of flash. Very rarely use it nowadays. You choice of mono was spot on. A superb medium for such an historic process/.

  10. The light and your treatment in the first shot is absolutely fabulous. I too miss my M8 and think that it is still the best B&W digital camera short of a Monochrome. Perhaps it’s time to look for another M8.

  11. Thank you to everyone for all the positive comments. I have been a professional photographer for over thirty years and a camera case maker for around nine. The tannery story is photographically one of best stories I have done and it is really appreciated that other enjoy seeing the photos and see in them what I did when I was at the tannery. A special thanks to Andrew for buying one of my cases.

  12. Wow! It is rare to see a set of images on a subject that all are so compelling. I particularly love the ‘taking a break’ and the ‘warming the feet’ images. Thanks for sharing – I have returned to savour these beautifully captured and rendered photographs multiple times – what more can I say!

  13. Thank you very much for your very kind comments Brian. I have a lot of images of the tannery but only select a very few to put on show and I always try to make each image different from any others. This results in many good photos never being seen but stops the ones I do show from becoming repetitive and makes the whole set much more interesting I think.

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