Interview with Roland Wolff,Vice President of Marketing for Leica USA at the Art Basel Miami 2013 Leica Lounge---Miami Street Photography Festival, 2013 by  Gary Dean Mercer Clark (GDMC)

Note:  Leica was the ONLY manufacturer present at the Miami Street Photography Festival in Miami,Fl.  Leica provided a VIP lounge, Educational Tent, Extensive Product Displays, Knowledgeable staff and local dealers onsite. (Here are excerpts from the 30 minute interview with USA Leica Marketing VP Roland Wolff).

GDMC:  Welcome to Miami.  Can you give me your first impressions of Leica's involvement with the Miami Street Photography Festival during Art Basel here in the Wynwood Art District?   

Roland: I just relocated from Miami up to New England recently, so I know Wynwood better than most people here, because I lived here, not in Wynwood, but there are several galleries here, there are photo studios we used to work with that we did events. You could call it [ Wynwood] crazy without offending anybody as this used to be a district that you would feel quite uncomfortable coming into, you would not feel safe.

GDMC: Yes, you wouldn’t want to get caught here after certain hours.

Roland:  Absolutely not..every photo studio was fenced off with barbed wire, it was indeed not safe around here.  When you now see what’s going on out here, how many street cafes,bars,design stores, work spaces, galleries have opened here in the last two or three years and its a very colorful interesting neighborhood, when we were talking to the Miami Street Photography Festival about the right location, I actually felt that Wynwood had an interesting mix, Rougher Parts…

GDMC:  With a little bit of edge as we would say…

Roland:  If you go a couple of blocks, one way you can find maybe a burned out car, but then you go two blocks the other way, you are in a very nice urban environment with a restaurant

at the corner.

GDMC:  This district lends itself to street photography because there are so much interesting artwork on buildings everywhere you walk..seems to me that this would be a paradise for street photography and there are so many interesting characters to photograph here..

Roland: Absolutely, especially during art basel.  You don’t see this on an every day basis during the week, so it feels different now, its never been like this, I don’t know this Wynwood.

GDMC: Its certainly made a shift in a positive direction.

Roland:  Unbelievable.

GDMC:  Recently  Leica purchased the Sinar corporation.  Would you care to comment about this purchase and how it is going to be incorporated into Leica brand?  What are Leica’s future plans regarding Sinar?

Roland:  I’ll be honest that I have very little knowledge of what the master plan is behind the purchase or acquisition of Sinar, but it has been a company that we had our eye on for awhile, I think its about three or 4 years ago where we almost acquired them and then the deal fell through  last minute. Its a company whoever you talk to here, me personally, I learned photography on a Sinar P2---its a phenomenal company that made precision photographic instruments..When I was a young kid in a photo studio, still life photography and the owner would only swear by using the best equipment.  So Sinar with Rodenstock lenses at the time to him was the absolute best.

GDMC: Rodenstock lenses have always had a good reputation…

Roland:  We make really good lenses too, but Rodenstock lenses are also good, so its something that was probably in my blood, I do love the company, I think that in the large format world,they stand for very much the same that Leica stands for. So the business that they do is complimentary to what we do, we obviously with the introduction of the S system  are moving up not in terms of quality, but in terms of performance into the pro segments and its a bit of speculation on my part, I could see synergies between our high end S system, the technology that goes into the development of sensors,processors and  then maybe technology that is being used on the sinar camera and Sinar back, but thats future dreams.  Sinar at this point in time is very very lean, a small company with very little turn over, so its not going to have an immediate impact on our bottom line but I think it gives us another way of developing products using our core competencies and technology that we have developed to take it even a step further.

GDMC:   Lets talk about the Leica S System---a medium format camera in a DSLR form, not a boxy film based system adapted to take digi backs.  What is different about the S System that makes it stand out against the competiion?

Leica S System

Roland: I think the key to the S system and where we may have an edge over some of the other systems out there as it was a new system that we were able to develop from scratch. Ground up.   Completely new.  We could say ,lets optimize-- Lets go out there, talk to the  photographers, Lets ask them what they want and thats what we did. We did a market study with some of the leading studios, some of the leading photographers, did confidential interviews with them  where they gave us their opinions about what was lacking in that market segment, however I will say of course a lot of of studios and photographers are very heavily invested into certain products, so it certainly is one thing to give us advice on the product that we should make and we made that product, but then for some photographers to switch their entire workflow equipment to actively start using the S system takes a little bit more.   We are slowly changing that situation as the S system has been very well received.

GDMC:  Lets talk about the price.  The S body can be purchased for around $23,000 and a 70mm normal lens for around $6000.00.  Seems to me like a competitive price point for a system that is going used in a studio environment on a daily basis, when we talk about economies of scale, talking about the quality of lenses….

Roland:  Can’t disagree with you there.. We are educating on multiple levels and multiple fronts. We are making appointments with the photographers in their studio, we are talking to the rental houses, helping the rental houses, working with assistants, digital techs and we are working with colleges where we are very active in education.

GDMC: Makes sense to put the S system into the hands of the next generation of photographers in colleges…that makes total sense.

Roland: Thats why we put the S System into their classes. The interesting thing is that in a professional environment it’s obviously also about the workflow and there’s very established solutions out there and the software solution that we work with is Lightroom by Adobe which has improved dramatically in the last few years and we see it as an advantage for us.

GDMC: I really wish all of the manufacturers would follow Leica’s lead and use the DNG format as most professional photo editing programs play well with DNG raw files--Am I correct in understanding that Leica is using the DNG standard for its raw files, not some proprietary raw format?  

Roland: In all of our cameras for the raw file we use the DNG.

GDMC:  How would you describe a Leica in one sentence?  What makes it so special? There is a misconception that Leica is a brand only purchased by rich guys and snobs and at the same time a total lack of understanding of the cost of hand making a product versus high volume mass production.  So how would you describe a Leica to those naysayers trying to peg Leica as some elitist camera brand?  

Roland:  Its a little bit more difficult to explain what a Leica is in one sentence, but its interesting that we did an event with Rolls Royce and I saw some parallels between a Leica and a Rolls Royce, how the make their product, how they have specialist, one person who paints the interior of the car, like we have more than one person that paints the numbers and lettering that you see on the camera is painted on by hand.  When people come to the factory in Germany they see how the product in made, the clean rooms, white coats. They put every little piece of the camera together by hand with the greatest precision...Everyone that leaves the factory says “ Now I understand”  We have videos that show how the camera is made as well  but here is another aspect of it---we know that our camera is not for everyone. We consider it a tool--not a luxury. We are trying to make the best tool possible.  We don’t want it to be perceived as a luxury.   Yes we do have people that buy Leica because they can afford it, they see it as an investment.

If you look at the photographers that were here that shoot with Leica, Bruce Gilden, Alex Web and Maggie Stebber ,Constantine Manos, they use Leica and go where it hurts, there is nothing snobbish about any of them. They use the Leica to tell stories and are extremely socially engaged. They have a story to tell and they feel that the Leica is the best tool for them to tell that visual story.

GDMC:  The big camera manufacturers have paid professional photographers endorsers, hacks or pitch men pushing their cameras.  How is Leica different?  I was told that Leica features great photographers and photography but none of the featured photographers are paid to endorse Leica cameras.

Roland: We don’t do endorsements. We share a common mission with our photographers. We help them talk about their work which they are passionate about. We support projects that are genuinely what Leica stands for, like the Miami Street Photography festival-- it was obvious--their intention is 100 percent in line with what we are trying to promote but we don’t do sponsorships in the US, we don’t do sponsorships because we get so many requests.  If we have a photographer that goes on assignment and they have such an interesting project and they might need an extra body for a couple of weeks, we try to work on that kind of level to support the photographer but in return we ask that they share and talk about what they do, Can we do an interview with you, Show some of your work, the Leica blog, Do a lecture for us, Can we do an exhibition project, do a book signing?---this approach in turn helps both of us.  We have very direct feedback from our photographers and are a small company which allows us to have a close relationship with photographers shooting with Leica cameras.

GDMC:  Why should someone  buy a Leica body when they can cut corners, save thousands by purchasing a  Sony Alpha A7 or other brand, get a mount adaptor and use their existing Leica glass? Will they get the same results?

Roland:  This goes back to your earlier question of what is Leica is about.  I don’t mean this in any shape or form to dismiss other camera manufacturers but we always strive to do the best and thats not the market that Canon, Sony and Nikon is in. It doesn’t make sense for them as they are obvious more of a mass market product.  We always strive to do the very best in this segment and that comes at a price. We cut no corners.

GDMC:  Imitation is the greatest form of flattery..right?

Roland:  Yes. So actually whenever we have products coming out that were trying to copy us--it has helped us. It hasn’t hurt us because Its has opened the market and people may have entered into a market that before they didn’t consider.  What happens is that when you put a Leica lens on another camera--I have not done this so I can not say that this is going to happen when you put it on a Sony, Fuji  or any of the others but in past experience when you put that lens on a camera that was made to work with that lens versus a camera that was made to work with other lenses, its not going to be the same results. The sensor on the Leica body is designed specifically to work with Leica lenses with special micro lens offsets on sensor that is optimized  to work with Leica and lenses made since 1956.

GDMC: So the readers thinking about picking up a Sony A7 or other body, using a Leica mount adaptor and Leica lens are not going to get the same results as shooting with a Leica body and sensor specifically designed for Leica glass?

Roland: Again I haven’t tested this but with past experience with other products that was the result.  People will try this---and it will be interesting to see what results they get.  

GDMC: Thank you for your time and interview.

Roland: Thank you.