Timeless images and lenses – A conversation with Ken Narula
During the 43rd Leitz Photographica Auction, on November 24 and 25 in Vienna, extremely rare and coveted items will once again come under the hammer.
Among them will be two Leica M2 Black Paint belonging to a very exceptional collection – or, better said, belonging to a very exceptional collector:
The London and Bangkok-based businessman, Ken Narula, owns one of the most comprehensive collections of Leica M lenses in the world.
He manages the fortunes of several companies at once, and, at the same time, not only manages to take pictures with his museum-worthy collection, but also draws the strength to be such a successful entrepreneur, from his passion for photography.
Ken Narula's black and white pictures are a tribute to the old masters of Leica street photography. They are timeless and invite the viewer to discover the story behind the images
Two lenses – as extaordinary as they are different – from Ken Narula's collection: the red Apo-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 and the Summicron-M 35mm f/2 with a wonderful patina
For many years he wished to remain anonymous, and not present his collection and his photographs to the general public; now, however, he has decided to share the fruits of his fervour.
Steidl has just brought out a double-volume publication, Iris & Lens, with empathic and timeless black and white photographs in one, and perfect portraits of his lenses in the other.
Ken Narula draws strength and inspiration from photography for his professional life. He manages the fortunes of a number of companies in London and Bangkok
We spoke with Narula, but first would like to present which of his items are to go under the hammer in Vienna.
The two black-lacquered Leica M2s, with the consecutive serial numbers 948857 and 948858, are from a coveted early series of cameras with button rewind and without self-timer. They have an attractive patina and, according to the Leica Archive control book, were both delivered on August 24, 1959.
Each camera comes with a matching, rare and also black-lacquered lens: a Summicron 5cm f/2 with brass mount no. 1587561, and a Summicron 35mm f/2 with brass mount no. 1654919.
On offer also, a first edition of the double-volume publication, Iris & Lens, signed by Ken Narula, Dr Andreas Kaufmann and Gerhard Steidl.
Ken Narula, you have one of the largest collections of Leica cameras and lenses in the world. Why Leica specifically?
It actually didn’t start off with Leica. Initially – at the turn of the century – I tried every camera and lens I could get my hands on, in the hope of finding the perfect set-up. But I found that the size and weight of the photographic equipment grew exponentially, the closer I approached perfection – while the images themselves lost their character. They became sharper and sharper, but had no emotion. Leica fascinated me for two main reasons. Firstly, Leica cameras retain their compact form even for the highest quality models, and images taken with a Leica always seem to have a unique look and feel.
Do you have an idea of how many Leica cameras and lenses you own?
I have a rough idea, but not a precise one because, in addition to cameras and lenses, Leica has produced countless fascinating accessory parts and prototypes. It is my aim to catalogue all this soon, for an exhibition or a private museum for historical purposes.
How did you come to acquire these treasures? Auctions, chance finds at a photo market, or household clearances?
Most of the rare pieces I have are the result of my curiosity coupled with a lack of patience. I would learn about something I hadn’t yet tried, and would then track it down wherever it was in the world. Sometimes it would be at a remote store or with a private owner. Often enough I’d jump on the next flight to try and obtain it.
Your pieces don't just sit behind glass, you use them to photograph. What is the appeal to working with these old lenses, and which cameras do you use them on?
As a collector, I’m not and never have been a hoarder: I’m happy to share the items I don’t use enough – even the ones I value deeply – with the next loving owner. I try to photograph with most of the pieces, even the rare ones, to be able to share the results. In terms of vintage lenses, it’s all about image character and lens design. While new lenses get perfect scores in every review, I found they often lacked life – they’re big and heavy and produce results that are all similar. I use vintage lenses mostly with various film Ms, and always travel with the latest digital M.
Is there a camera or a lens you do not yet own, and which you would like to take pictures with?
I’ve been experimenting with almost everything for decades, so not at this point. But publishing my latest book Iris & Lens: 50 Leica lenses to collect and photograph with Steidl this year and visiting many galleries, I’ve been learning much about many great photographers of the past, and I can already feel my curiosity cooking.
You're a very successful businessman. How do you find the time and quiet to capture such impressive photographs?
The opposite to this question is actually true: business is always 24/7, so photography is actually not a break from it but the fuel that inspires many parts of business – whether it’s a new way of looking at things, a new inspiration, or a clear and focused vision.
Photos: Ken Narula from the Series Iris & Lens / Leitz Photographica Auction
Text: Tobias F. Habura-Stern / LFI Leica Fotografie International