Home Cameras/Lenses Leica My First Leica: The M6 records a lost China before the turn...

My First Leica: The M6 records a lost China before the turn of the millennium


My first Leica was an M6, and it became my constant companion during many visits to China in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. At the time, I was a pilot for Boeing, and I enjoyed many opportunities to record daily life in a China which was fast changing.

Wandering the Beijing hutongs

The perfect camera for my first visits to China

I was drawn to the compactness and quality of the Leica M6, which is perfectly suited for travel and street photography. I started with a 50 mm Summilux M (second version with the extendable lens hood) and a 90 mm Elmarit M. Eventually, in the mid-90s, I bought the newly-introduced 35 mm Summilux M f/1.4 ASPH, a revolutionary lens at the time. During later trips, I used a D-Lux 2 and, eventually, an M8.

The back corner of the Forbidden City

Pre-modern China

China was just emerging from a primitive state. Pre-modern China turned out to be a great place to shoot. Everywhere I wandered, there were many fascinating people and fascinating old buildings and streets. Over the course of the years, I spent time in Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and, of course, Hong Kong — before and after the handover.

Fishing for dinner, Beijing canal
Fishing for dinner, Beijing canal

I really had no restrictions on where I went with my M6 in hand, although I avoided official-looking government buildings. There were some challenges, not the least of which was the air pollution, which limited visibility to a mile or less in most cities and resulted in a nasty cough whenever I returned home. I do, however, recall that the older hotels in smaller cities, such as Chengdu, sported mattresses that were as hard as concrete.

Outdoor workshop, Chengdu
Outdoor workshop, Chengdu

Fast film for low light

The images in this article convey a sense of what it was like to visit China at the time. Primarily, I used TMX 100 and TMX 400. ISO 400 film was essential in most places because of the constant, relatively dark overcast conditions, even during daylight hours. Bright sun was unusual.

Relaxing in the sun, Beijing
Relaxing in the sun, Beijing
On the street in Chengdu
On the street in Chengdu
Card game, Chengdu riverside park
Card game, Chengdu riverside park
Riverside, Chengdu
Riverside, Chengdu
Hanging out,  Chengdu
Hanging out in Chengdu
Cormorant fishing, Chengdu.  The birds had a ring on their necks to prevent swallowing.
Cormorant fishing, Chengdu. The birds had a ring on their necks to prevent swallowing

A visit to China with a Moonwalker

Perhaps my most memorable trip took place in 1995 when I had the task of flying the first Boeing 777 to China. We flew from Seattle via Seoul, landing first at the main Beijing airport. After demonstrating the airplane to Air China pilots over several days, we flew the machine to Guangzhou for demonstrations there.

Rear Admiral Alan Shepard in the pilot’s seat

To our delight, the astronaut Rear Admiral Alan Shepard joined us for the flight and our stay in Guangzhou and then on to Hong Kong. We could not resist putting him in the pilot’s seat for part of the trip. Needless to say, in the evening we got to know him better and hear of his space experiences, including his time on the moon, where he actually hit a golf ball. Admiral Shepard was thrilled to sit in the 777 cockpit. Despite the difficult lighting conditions, this colour image above nicely captures his time in the captain’s seat:

After each visit to China, it was always refreshing to exit via Hong Kong, with its photogenic harbour and relatively cleaner air

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  1. Guten Tag Uwe Jansch, in diesem Artikel geht es um die Leica M6, die mit der Leica Fotos App ja nichts zu tun hat. Möglicherweise wird Macfilos über die App an anderer Stelle einmal berichten. Für viele Nutzer von digitalen Leica-Kameras scheint sie aber keine allzu große Bedeutung zu besitzen. Grüße Jörg-Peter

    (Translation: This article is about the M6 which has obviously nothing to do with the Leica Fotos app. Maybe we will report on the app later. For many users of digital Leica cameras, the app seems to be not crucial however.)

  2. Hi thank you für die Leica Q3 Reklame.
    es is überhaupt nicht überraschend dass sich keiner traut über die schoddlige Leica Fotos app zu berichten.

    (Translation: Hi thank you for the Leica Q3 advertisement.
    It is not at all surprising that nobody dares to report about the shoddy Leica photos app.)

  3. Dear Bill, sorry for not getting round to commenting earlier. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. The images are documents of the past now, and they transport in a wonderful way how things can change and how fast this can happen. In so far, the Cormorant Fisher is the best among all the excellent images. Sharing your images and thoughts are huge gift to the Macfilos readers and the team who runs the blog. I do hope for more! Jörg-Peter

  4. Superb images . History who would have thought about China today . My Leica M6 from its first frames inspired me to shoot Americas Cup at Freemantle 1987 . The M6 got stolen with a 21 and 50 mm lens in 2004 , i still have an M4P .

  5. Wonderful pictures. You have a good eye from capturing scenic (Forbidden City) to detail (card game). Looking forward to what you show next.

  6. Thanks Ed, there is nothing more rewarding than good street shots!. Too bad I was in China on business, otherwise I would have had more shooting opportunities!

  7. These are wonderful Bill – great article too.
    We didn’t start going to China until about 10 years ago, but we’ve been many times, and if you go off the beaten track then things haven’t changed that much.
    My son Simeon has lived there for 10 years, and has been posting some images on instagram, recent ones of excursions into the countryside (he speaks Mandarin). If anyone is interested they’re worth a look (he’s a fine phographer)


    here is an article I wrote about the original Leica Monochrom:


    (cormorant fishing has become a tourist attraction!)

    All the best

    • Thanks Jono, greatly appreciated! I recall seeing your excellent monochrom article. China was (and likely still is) a great place to shoot people, especially off the beaten track. Wish I had the monochrom back in the 80’s!

  8. Thank you Bill. Beautiful people pictures that’s remind me of those of someone you probably met — Leica photographer Leonid Bergoltsev. The link there to HCB is present in both yours and his photos.

    Leonid did a whole book on China with another photographer, unfortunately only in Russian and now largely unavailable.

    Julie and I had published a book on more general photos from Leonid, including again Chinese ones that echo yours.

  9. With images like yours you hardly need any words. A picture is worth a thousand words. I agree with William the “cormorant fisher” is a gem. What is in the pipeline? Perhaps though that is between you and our editor and we will wait in anticipation.

    • Chris, I took a number of images earlier than the Leica shots with a Hasselblad, all in black and white. Not as good for street shooting as the Leica but still got some good ones.

  10. Bill, superb photos. IMHO some of the best, if not the best, to ever appear on Macfilos.
    I travelled to many countries for work over 40 years, usually with a Leica, but now regret not taking many more photos in the places I visited. What I did not appreciate at the time was that the world was changing so much. I took photos but it’s the ones I did not take that I now regret.

    You were wise enough to appreciate that you were seeing a fast disappearing China. Why I did not appreciate the same about Hong Kong, KL, and Singapore in particular when I visited them for the first time in the early 1970’s I do not know.

    Hopefully you have many more photos in your files. Let’s see them, please.

  11. What an amazing article and photos to start the weekend. Your B&W images are simply jawdropping. If I had to pick a favoutite that would be the old man relaxing in the sun. Thanks for sharing and enjoy the weekend

  12. To sum up: Wow!!

    I would guess there are any number of other pilots who had your opportunities, but didn’t make use of them — to record history. And what impresses me is that you’ve recorded history at ground level — the small people few would bother noticing.


  13. Great to see you posting an article here, Bill. Those photos of China would be difficult to replicate today and it is the same everywhere in the world as ‘international culture’ takes hold. Your photo of the cormorant fisher is a gem. Even within my own little country, there were scenes you could have found 30 or 40 years ago that are no longer available today. That is why it is very important to preserve such images in an organised way. Your M6 will be as good today as the day you bought it.

    Most of the photos I have taken this year have been with my M6 which I acquired 12 years ago for a third of its current value. I even brought it back to Wetzlar in June and used it to take photos of the Leitz family home. It may get another outing to Wetzlar in October. With a good lens such as a 35 Summicron or a 50 Summilux there is nothing more that one could want. Claus recently had an article here about the new M6, but as I was travelling I did not get around to posting on that. I tried Stefan Daniels’ copy of the new M6 in Dublin last year, but apart from the little dot between the arrows there was nothing else new that would justify purchase for me.

    The important things are the photos and your pictures from the ‘old’ M6 are all top class, but a lot of that is down to the photographer, of course.



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