When I was in elementary school, my father worked at the Sariyar Dam construction project. It was in the middle of nowhere and I got to spend a little time one summer there and my sister and I stayed in Istanbul with my grandmother as we attended school. I remember a few things from the limited time I spent in Sariyar company housing with nary a thing other than a dozen or so houses. I was amazed to see a strip of tape on spools passing through a gap and playing music, like magic! That was my first encounter with a tape recorder/player. I also remember that it was VERY hot, and it was outright stupid to walk barefoot with a couple of other kids some distance, but I did it! Then, I remember one of my father’s friends, Valentin who showed us how he made prints in a darkroom while he sipped vodka. I was mesmerized and hooked.
My father bought a Leica camera, probably from Valentin which looked like a jewel to me. But, I was not allowed to play with it for a long time. And, when I was old enough to do that, I found it frustrating to load film from the bottom. It jammed more often than not, and because we bought hand-loaded film, we did not get good results from the camera. Perhaps there was also something wrong with it, who knows.
Much later, when I was in high school, and later in college, I made numerous attempts to use the Leica still without much success. Probably in my second year in college, my friend Mehmet and I visited a friend in a small village in Thrace. He was fulfilling his military obligation by serving as an elementary school teacher in the tiny village of Doganca. Before the visit, I borrowed a Voigtlander camera from my uncle and took my first bunch of photographs that received very strong comments and encouragements from the famil and friends. The year was probably 1962 or 1963 and I believe we visited Doganca once more. I submitted the best frames, about 6-8 to a competition held by one of the newspapers in Turkey, Cumhuriyet. Although I recall having received some mention, I never received the negatives back!
Encouraged by the outcome of my photographic experiments, I convinced my parents that I needed to buy a reliable camera and with some help, I got a Flexaret twin-lens reflex camera which I used for quite a few years and still own in operating condition. The missing piece was a lightmeter and I traded in the Leica for a light-meter at a camera store in the Sirkeci district. I was off to the wonderful world of photography and used the Felexaret TLR and the Yashica light-meter for some years. But, the Flexaret and the Leica parted ways, and I would regret that decision years later and look for ways to get my hands on a similar Leica. I took the Flexaret to Doganca later on.
About a couple of months ago my friend Dennis mentioned that when his wife Chris’ father passed away he left an old Leica and he was wondering what to do with it. I suggested having it serviced and sell it on eBay, but after some looking around he found that like most film cameras even a Leica lost value. I offered to buy it from him to have it serviced and keep. A few weeks later he and Chris came to pick us up to go out to eat and he brought the Leica and told me that they decided to give it to me as a gift! It was in reasonably good condition with some shutter speeds obviously off, but I was delighted.
Yesterday, I took the Leica and visited Youxin Ye who worked on Leicas for a couple of friends. He specializes in Leica film camera service and nothing else. I had called and set up an appointment for around 1:30 PM and my friend Jim joined me for the 50-minute ride to Canton, MA. We arrived a little early as Ye was working on a fire-damaged Leica M3. Their living room floor was covered with piles of boxes coming in or going out, filled with some Leica equipment. Working on a kitchen table covered with tools and supplies, Ye and his wife greeted us with a warm welcome and showed us the seats at the table.
His stained hands, with no sign of shake, moved to pick up the tiniest screw or any other part with confidence and precision coming from having done the same thing for twenty years, quite possibly at the same table. As he finished working on the M3, he passed it to his wife to put a new leather cover on it. As he took the lens off my new Leica, she was carefully dressing up the M3 which would look practically brand new after she was finished with it.
Ye disassembled the lens, put the main parts on a plastic lid, and passed them to his wife for cleaning. Then, he started removing tiny screws, parts, knobs, etc., and in short order, the Leica shed its “outerwear” that appeared to be of a unibody design. The table in front of him was covered with the parts from the camera while his wife very carefully brushed the lens threads and other parts with some kind of cleaning liquid which we later learned to be break cleaner for cars.
A former accountant for Liberty Mutual, he got interested in learning Leica service and repair to bring back to life a camera his father owned. He said it took him about a week to take that first camera apart. I shared the story of my father’s Leica, and we chatted on a variety of subjects as we waited and watched the husband and wife service the 1938 Leica IIIa. It was in a good shape but started looking even better with some deep cleaning. After the cleaning, Ye started putting the parts together as if playing a video in reverse with equally precise and confident moves.
After a while, Ye stopped and declared it was time for a break and showed us the stairs going to the basement. There, he pointed to the shelves filled with various kinds of refreshments from water to power drinks. He lit a cigarette and checked his e-mail while Jim and I viewed various curiosity items, like the full skin and taxidermied head of a Bengal tiger! He said he bought it on eBay before it got regulated. As we came upstairs, the mailman stopped his truck in front of the house and Ye’s wife went out to deliver some packages and brought back a bunch. Ye started opening a pair of longish boxes taped together and Jim asked what was in them. “Knives,” he said, “Buck knives” and opening one of the box he pulled out a rather large hunting knife, another thing he collected. Later he added, he also collected watches like Hamilton, but was wearing a Citizen I believe.
He told us that he serviced and repaired Leica cameras for many well-known camera stores and could hardly keep up with the work. The boxes on the floor were piled depending on whether they were from dealers and camera stores or from individuals. After playing with the pair of knives, it was time to finish my Leica. He fiddled with various adjustments, put the camera up to his eye while pushing on the little lever inside to make sure that the rangefinder segments were lined up. Then, using an electronic gizmo on the table he tested the shutter speeds and declared all to be well within the tolerances.
He put the lens on its mount, then had to take it apart to reverse a ring. After all was said and done, the Leica was all in one piece and he kept winding and releasing the shutter, click, click, clll-liiick, … the sweet sound of a film rangefinder shutter! I paid him for his service and we headed back home. The diverging roads between the Flexaret and the Leica converged again. Thank you, Chris and Dennis, for a very fine and meaningful gift you gave me. Thank you, Ye, for bringing it back to fully functional state.
If you have a Leica in need of service, sooner or later it will end up in Ye’s hands which he uses like a precision instrument. You are far better off driving to visit the Ye residence with your camera and watch him work his magic. Visit his website for contact information and be prepared to spend about 3-4 hours there. But, look at those boxes and think how long you may wait if you ship your Leica to him!
Below are the photographs I took during the repair session and earlier today and I am happy to share them with you with the permission of the Leica master himself!