Sometimes you should listen to the voices in your head and sometimes you shouldn’t. Do not run with scissors in traffic. Do not befriend Nigerian royalty. Do not shave your head and climb that bell-tower. But if the voices are telling you to hang onto a particular lens, that someday you’ll figure out what it’s good for, and that someday you’ll figure out how to use it correctly, then listen. 

The Voigtlander 15mm ƒ/4.5 Super-Heliar on a Leica M6TTL, © Andrew Tonn

My voices kept telling me not to sell my Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar V1. When I bought it I was doing a lot of work with medical NGOs. I had already bought a Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 for my F3 to photograph surgeries in small operating theatres (after finding my 28mm wasn’t wide enough). I wanted a wide-angle lens to use on my Leica M6ttl and thought that if 20mm was good then 15mm would be even better. I was wrong. It was usually too wide, too slow, and the 20mm on an SLR was, in fact, the right tool for the job. I continued to carry the 15mm and even bought a Leica MDa (which has no built-in viewfinder) to use it on, and very occasionally, I would get a worthwhile photo. The lens is tiny and weighs almost nothing. It really is one of the rare items you can slip in a bag or pocket and actually not notice.

Cigarette dealer, Mumbai Central, Mumbai, India. Leica M9 Monochrome, Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar. © Andrew Tonn
A small shrine is placed at the foot of a banyan tree, Lower Parel, Mumbai, India. Leica M-P 240, Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar. Andrew Tonn

All in all, however, most of the images from the lens were not stunning. The view through the hot shoe mounted accessory finder was always interesting but the pictures themselves were usually a little underexposed and somehow lacking. Some of this, no doubt, was user error as well as a lack of appropriate subject matter. For most things you just don’t need a lens that wide.

It is also possessed of what I will call quirks rather than flaws, as they are inherent to its nature. The lens is not rangefinder coupled and so must be scale focused and then framed through the aforementioned accessory finder. Since it is a slow lens even at its widest aperture, and so very wide, this rarely results in out-of-focus images but it does make everything a bit of a gamble. On the plus side, out on the street in bright light, you can pretty much stop down, zone focus it for all but the closest pictures and simply snap away. This is particularly true when used on a digital Leica (or M7) in aperture priority exposure mode. It is only f/4.5 wide open so this is not a lens for low light work. Finally, given its design, the lens produces severe color shifts on the edges of color images taken with a digital camera (there are no such problems using color film). There is a new version of this lens, designed to be used on digital cameras. The images from it look terrific but it is a much, much larger lens and, well, this article is not about it.

I had this lens for many years. If I was taking a Leica I would usually put it in my bag because it was so small, because very occasionally I needed something really wide, because I didn’t have any other wide-angle lenses for a Leica (and I didn’t always take a Nikon on every trip), and because every so often all the elements would come together and produce an image no other lens could make. I didn’t also sell it because that’s something I rarely ever do and because the voices told me to wait, that eventually all would be revealed. Then I went to India.

Temple, Darbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. Leica M9 Monochrome, Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar. © Andrew Tonn

There is no way to describe the streets of Mumbai that will properly do them justice. The Maximum City is home to somewhere around 25 million people. This is roughly the same as Mexico City but that grand metropolis is spread over a vast plain. Much of Mumbai is on a peninsula, and a manmade one at that. The sheer level of detail and activity everywhere is overwhelming (visually, physically, audibly, mentally, spiritually, environmentally, and in pretty much every other way you can imagine, gentle reader). But after a while details emerge from the chaos and then particular scenes. One that really struck me was the ubiquitous Banyan trees. These trees provide shade for people, for businesses, and for roadside temples. The Buddha is said to have received enlightenment meditating beneath one. Their roots hang in the open air and they have an air to them I find both inviting and sometimes sinister. The banyan is a species of fig with a non-edible fruit. The trees grow and envelop other trees, find root in any crack or crevice. They are alternately known as a, “strangler fig,” and they hold many places in Hindu and Buddhist religion and mythology. The trees themselves are fascinating and in the city their roots and trunks hold shrines, trash, and people’s belongings. Sometimes they are painted, often with figures of Ganesh, their roots taking the form of his trunk and body. The small temples that form around them sometimes, over years, decades, and centuries become large temples and under every one some drama is being played out. To capture these scenes on the crowded streets of Mumbai required a very wide lens indeed.

The Gateway of India, Colaba, Mumbai, India. Leica M9 Monochrome, Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar. © Andrew Tonn

I envisioned the pictures from the beginning in black and white and shot some with the M-P 240. Converting them to black and white solved the color-shift issues but, even converted to black and white, I wasn’t terribly happy with them. Then I got my M9 Monochrome and finally found what I was looking for. The images taken with the Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super-Heliar on the unique monochrome CCD sensor of that camera shine. They are full of crisp lines, mysterious shadow, luminous details. The images I took of banyan trees — and everything else — were, finally, exactly as I imagined images from that lens should look. I envisioned a whole series of black and whites, The Banyans of Bombay… And… then the sensor went bad in such a way as to render the camera unusable.

I had taken it on a few photo walks, to Elephanta Island, and to Kathmandu. I had fallen in love with the camera, with its images, and in particular, with the images taken with the 15mm Voigtlander.

Maybe someday I’ll be in a place with banyans again. The better part of a year after sending the monochrome in for repairs they finally say it will soon be back in my hands. But I’m no longer in Mumbai and there are no banyans where I am now. I’ll have to find another combination of location and subject and maybe I never will. Maybe the images I did get on the Subcontinent with the monochrome and 15mm are it, what I was waiting for all those years. But the voices still whisper to hang on, to keep looking, that eventually all will be revealed. FP

Photos by Andrew Tonn ©

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