Tim Vanderweert, author of the Leicaphilia.com blog, left us last week. I couldn’t let Tim’s passing go without comment: like many people, I owe him a lot.
About a decade ago, just after the death of my father (I am sure these events were linked), I started taking photographs and photography more seriously. More intentionally, at least. Some mysterious path led me to film and Leica rangefinder cameras. The first time I held a Leica rangefinder was in a second-hand shop on the boulevard Beaumarchais, and that camera is still the camera I have with me almost every day. But what was going on? Like we do today I searched the internet to understand, and soon enough I came across Leicaphilia.
A revelation! Leicaphilia was easily the most lucid, funny and opinionated website about film, Leica cameras and photography on the internet. The mysterious site administrator was well aware of all the contradictions of using such cameras today. A relief: most photography web-sites take themselves much too seriously. Soon after (January 2016), I wrote an email to Leicaphilia and sent through an article that I though might fit into the Leicaphilia ethos. I was surprised and happy when I received an almost immediate response from the admin (whom I learned was called Tim V) telling me that he’d be happy to run my article in a few weeks.
When I learned later that year that Tim was coming to Paris, I invited him to visit our institute and to come for espresso in my office. In person, Tim turned out to be like you’d expect from reading Leicaphila: immensely knowledgable, opinionated and cultured. But also very generous and encouraging. I showed him around where I work, and we visited the old Observatory buildings. We even got into the normally-closed museum of astronomical instruments after I told the observatory staff that Tim was a visiting specialist of rare optical instruments (which is true!).
Tim met my colleagues and at the end we had espressos once again this time on the IAP terrace. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. When I told him about my film-developing technique, he arranged for a pack of Diafine developer to be hand-delivered to my office by relatives who were visiting Paris. They came for coffee too, and coincidentally it was a day that we had birthday cake in the office. A big party ! It was a revelation seeing what my rolls of Tri-X looked like in Diafine. In emails since then, Tim promised to keep my in Diafine indefinitely.
Over the next years, I followed Leicaphilia closely. There was no place on the internet you could find such abstruse, challenging and funny content. Tim was trying to work out what all this stuff meant, where photography was going, or not, and it was great to follow along on his journey. Then there were the excellent take-downs of crooks and charlatans like that time he found the mugshots and police records of a couple of scammers who were selling ”black paint” Leica cameras. I was amazed he was able to write so much given that many of the articles seemed to be so deeply researched and knowledgable. Somewhere in there, Tim activated commenting on the site, and those comments were a revelation: it turned out that there was a community of civilised, intelligent people following the site who could have a meaningful conversation without descending into polemic and outrage; very uncommon on today’s internet.
A few times, Leicaphilia went dark or offline: Once Tim was (perhaps) hacked by Scientologist friends of Thorsten O. (frequently a subject of ridicule on Leicaphilia). But often the silences were simply Tim’s centres of interests changing. They made us all realise how much we valued Leicaphilia and how eagerly we awaited Tim’s next idiosyncratic update.
But then, around two years ago after a longer pause, Tim announced he had cancer. I was shocked. It sounded hopeless but after surgery and treatment he recovered and in summer 2021 we met once again in Paris. First at a cafe in the Marais, and then for a meal at our small Parisian apartment. Tim and his wife came as well as two exchange students that they had been hosting at their house. It was a lovely evening. Tim was in great form. He had brought copies of his books for me and we would have talked late into the night if the evening hadn’t been cut short by the results of a faulty COVID test.
For most of the next 12 months, the only update on Leicaphilia was a brief message announcing that Tim was selling his digital Leica. I expected that Tim had been once again zooming around the back roads of North Carolina on his motorcycle. So I was unprepared for the message from Tim in August 2022 telling me that his cancer had returned and this time it didn’t look like there would be an easy escape. I remember around five years ago when I told him I was being treated for a ”minor” cancer (which is now thankfully under control). Tim mentioned that if something like that ever happened to him, he would be frightened. But talking to him after he sent me that message, he seemed more annoyed than frightened. Annoyed that this would happen to him now.
Readers of Leicaphilia know the rest of the story: Tim confounded the doctors by not dying then and there, but living for another four months. And during those four months Leicaphilia was a torrent of posts, often several every day. There was much new material, together with old posts that had been on the shelves. All of them in Tim’s trenchant funny style. He gave so much of the little energy he had left to us, the readers of Leicaphila. He was generous in other ways too: I travelled to the other side of Paris and picked up almost a hundred metres of film that Tim had sent to me via a friend who had been to Tim’s premature ”going-away-party’;.
Leicaphilia was inspirational. In person, Tim was an exceptional character. You don’t meet so many people like Tim in a lifetime. Returning to my apartment the evening after the day Tim died, I found a parcel waiting for me. It was a packet of Diafine that Tim had sent me only a few days before his death. Hail and farewell, Tim, and thanks!