Lisl Steiner inside Westlicht Schauplatz für Fotografie, Vienna (Austria) on November 19th, 2016, day of her 89 birthday, walking beside the picture of Jimmy Carter that she got thirty-nine years before.
September 7th, 1977. Almost eight months after taking the oath of office, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, is at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C, about to speak to the press the day he signs the new Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty promising to give control of the canal to the Panamanians by the year 2000.
Sol Linowitz and Charles L. Schulze (top economic adviser to Jimmy Carter) have unwearidly been negotiating this agreement with the Panama President Omar Torrijos for a lot of months.
The expectation is huge, because 6 percent of world trade passes through this inter-oceanic waterway at the time.
The place is overcrowded with photojournalists from different newspapers, magazines and picture agencies, along with cameramen from a number of TV channels.
Jimmy Carter is next to the microphone installed for the occasion and getting ready to deliver a speech.
He´s momentarily engrossed in thoughts and trying to concentrate on the words and subjects he´s going to deal with.
Lisl Steiner, a photojournalist working for Life magazine and Keystone Press Agency is at a distance of around 4 meters from Jimmy Carter.
The president is surrounded by some security members and perhaps she will not have new opportunities to photograph him from such a near distance.
Lisl Steiner´s Leica M5 top panel (including from left to right the automatic frame counter, the shutter speed selector ring with the shutter release button just on it, the rapid transport lever, the accessory shoe with X flash contact, the film plane indicator mark, the ASA/DIN film scale speeds, and the illumination window for internal meter readout) and upper front area (including also from left to right the small RF window under the first three letters of the word Leica, the illumination window for bright-line frames and the 0.72x magnification VF window). It was the first rangefinder camera with TTL metering.
She is holding a Leica M5 rangefinder camera with viewfinder bright-line frames for 35, 50, 90 and 135 mm lenses, loaded with
Leitz Canada Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 serial number 2287014 with scalloped focusing ring used by Lisl Steiner to get the picture of Jimmy Carter wih a Leica M5 rangefinder camera. This exceedingly short and compact tele lens would be also used by her many years later, from early XXI Century, with a Leica M7 (partially seen in the image) likewise with VF 0.72x magnification.
Leitz Canada Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 lens (manufactured between 1964 and 1974), designed by Walter Mandler and featuring 5 elements in 5 groups, with a diaphragm of ten blades and a close focus of 1 meter.
Her almost twenty years experience as a photojournalist since she began her career in late fifties makes her grasp that this is the defining instant.
© Lisl Steiner/Keystone Pictures
She chooses a horizontal framing to get the face of the U.S president filling a significant percentage of the picture and presses the shutter release button of her Leica M5 rangefinder camera, capturing Jimmy Carter in introspection, with a perfect timing, shooting at f/5.6, taking advantage of the abundant available sun light and getting great image quality thanks to the compactness and low weight (345 g) of the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 and its optimization to easily and fastly attain perfect focus shooting handheld and obtain sharper pictures than the previous 5 elements in 3 groups Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8 (made between 1959 and 1974, sporting a weight of 335 g, prone to flare, featuring a 12 blade diaphragm and rendering a worse bokeh).
To begin with, a 90 mm lens can be difficult to focus on a rangefinder camera and focusing has to be carefully done, because the rectangle showing the frame lines that correspond to this focal length in a 0.72x magnification VF like the one featured by the Leica M5 (in which the 35 and 135 mm frames appear as a pair) is somewhat tiny.
Therefore, bearing in mind that the effective base length becomes longer on increasing the image magnification and the RF base size, a better choice to get the most accurate feasible focus would have been the Leica M3 with its 0.92x magnification viewfinder and a RF base length of 68.5 mm (effective one of 63 mm).
Detail of Lisl Steiner´s Leica M5 front area with the RF small window, the illumination window for brigh-line frames and the large window of the 0.72x magnification VF. This camera features an excellent TTL spot metering with an 8 mm circular CDS cell.
But the Leica M5 0.72x VF magnification and its RF base length of 68.5 mm (effective one of 49.32 mm) in symbiosis with the pretty small size, light weight, short length and very long throw of the Tele-Elmarit-M 90 mm f/2.8, prove to be an efficent combination for shooting hand and wrist and getting precise focus.
In addition, this lens exhibits an impressive balance of optical aberrations masterfully conceived to simultaneously achieve outstanding sharpness and a great smooth bokeh with beautiful soft edged round blur circles, avoiding distracting backgrounds and highlighting the main subjects in focus), something which speaks volumes for Walter Mandler´s insight on designing his lenses, because the Leica M rangefinder system excels on focusing 28, 35 and 50 mm lenses, while on using longer lenses (75 mm, 90 mm and 135 mm) or shorter ones (24 mm and 21 mm) you need preferably cameras boasting 0.85x/0.92x VF magnifications or 0.58x magnifications respectively.
Anyway, the eye of the photographer, her experience and gift for seeing the picture, her sense of anticipation, the image impact, that it says something and to be at the adequate place at the right moment, approaching as much as possible, are the key factors, along with two further sides often explained by Bruce Gilden: controlling the space as a part of the game and to get strong emotional content.
Lisl Steiner sitting at the lounge of the Kaiserin Elisabeth Hotel in Vienna with a 30 x 40 cm copy on photographic paper of the President of the United States Jimmy Carter she made on September 7th, 1977 at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C.
Golden Medal of the Österreich Photographische Gesellschaft (PhG), top award of the Austrian Photographic Society bestowed to Lisl Steiner in 2015.
Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Fidel Castro photographed by Lisl Steiner in New York in September of 1960
Martin Luther King Funeral April 9, 1968: Lisl Steiner in Action