The Legend of Leica
The art of snapshot photography – capturing a moment as it happens in still image – is more prevalent now than ever before. Today, we’re all photographers. The blur between everyday people, fashion photographers and photo journalists ever deepens, as we capture our #OOTD (outfit of the day) and share it on social media or our blog, or as we snap real time images of major global events which are later picked by the BBCs and CNNs of the world to help tell the story of what occurred.
But, did you know that every time you snap a photo on your digital camera or smartphone you become part of a legend dating back over 100 years?
Unless you’re a professional photographer or collector of rare and valuable cameras, the brand Leica may not be a name you’re familiar with, but it is responsible for photography as we know it and continue to evolve it today. Leica pioneered ‘snapshot’ photography, allowing the world to conveniently capture thousands of moments and emotions as they happen in high quality.
Up until the early 1900s, cameras were hefty wooden boxes featuring glass plates. There was nothing on the market that offered photographers the quality and clarity of the moving images used in cinema in a portable and accessible style.
Photo journalism didn’t exist, at least not in the way we know it today, as candid reportage moments of action could not be documented with ease. Any photo subject would have been alerted to a photojournalist’s presence by their hefty equipment and tripod – that’s if they were able to set it up in time before the action moved on.
But that was all about to change; in Germany, unbeknownst to the world, one man was standing at the precipice of a new era in camera invention, innovating with cinematic film, the very best lenses and the idea of simplicity. He would change photography forever, taking quality imagery out of the studio and into the hands of the everyday person and creating the world’s most popular photography format.
Leica started out in the business of inventing microscope lenses for scientific research, then known as Leitz after its founder, Ernst Leitz, the man who founded it. By 1925 it had created the first widely used 35mm camera and a storming success, changing the face of photography forever – how?
In 1911 Leitz hired one Oscar Barnack who rose through the ranks to lead the research and development division. It is said that Barnack had a personal penchant for photography, but his acute asthma limited his hobby as he did not have the physical capacity to carry around the large plate camera and its glass plates.
Setting out to reduce the load, he experimented with trying to squeeze more than one image onto each glass plate. This didn’t work and was detrimental to the final image, as printing in those days meant that the quality of the image was determined by the size of the negative, so reducing the original image size resulted in poor quality in the end.
It just so happened that the company we now know as Leica was working on a project that involved improving movie projectors so that they wouldn’t flutter the 35mm celluloid roll film as it passed through and cause a bumpy viewing experience for the cinema audience. Barack started to experiment with this film, investigating how it could be brought to a handheld camera that was compact and advanced enough to handle it.
There were some cameras trying to use 35mm film around this time, but Barnack and Leica were the inventors that made this format truly viable in the every day. It certainly helped that the company’s background was in high precision lenses, as the resulting snapshots on the small film would require an enlarger to print them and that in turn would need the original images to be captured in extreme sharpness.
The first UR-Leica prototype that was produced in 1913, a year before the start of World War I, featured a superior lens capable of capturing images in extreme detail. The mass market Leica I that was eventually introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925, after the end of World War I, also featured a lens of extreme precision – a mark of Leica excellence that still holds true today.
The Leica I camera was a roaring success. As with all innovations, flattery took the form of imitation, with brands and nations across the world setting out to emulate the winning formula of the Leica camera – the very best lenses to produce contrast, resolution and beautiful pictorial rendition mixed with a focus on the essential, creating a sleek, stylish and sturdy device. The cameras all used the same 35mm film and thus the 35mm was cemented as the standard negative size in still photography, one of the most popular film formats ever for high-end cameras, used by professional photographers and photojournalists for the next century until this very day.
With the birth of the Leica camera and the devices it inspired, a new style of snapshot photography took off. Hundreds, thousands, millions of moments have since been documented on film as they happen, with the camera becoming an extension of the eye of the photographer wishing to capture the emotion they see before them; fear, pain, joy, misery, losing, winning etc.
The Leica was responsible for the ease at which photographers could capture images of people on the move – inspiring the street photography style still prevalent today. Noted photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Bruce Gilden, Bruce Davidson, IngeMorath, Martine Franck, Sebastião Salgado, Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Mark Cohen and Ralph Gibson all used Leica cameras.
Just think of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 shot of the sailor kissing the woman in New York – that moment captured in time forever, was captured on a Leica. But nowhere was Leica’s innovation more revolutionary than within photojournalism. With the new 35mm Leica-style cameras, journalists could have their camera in their pocket at all times, easily accessible and allowing them to snap the action in the moment rather than something formal and set up; it allowed them to tell a story in a new way.
This in turn spawned a new style of journalism in itself, with the launch of magazines like the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Berlin), Vu (France), Life (USA), Look (USA), Picture Post (London), and newspapers such as The Daily Mirror (London) and The New York Daily News, all putting the picture at the eye of the narrative in a way that had never been done before.The portrait of Che Guevara, Queen Elizabeth of England at the Paris Opera, Thomas Hoepker’s Muhammad Ali punch shot and most of the world’s most iconic photos were captured on Leicas – and those that weren’t were captured because of Leica.
As the instigator of the photography era as we know it, and arguably responsible for our obsession with capturing and seeing the world in its realest sense, Leica cameras are understandably loved by the greats of the industry and indeed the world. It is rumored The Queen of England uses a Leica.
With cameras, lenses, accessories and sales literature now part of photographic history, they have become collectibles among aficionados and antique hunters, with early models reaching an astounding price at auction and a rare 1923 Leica device selling for US$2.8 million.
Clearly we owe a lot to Leica, but you couldn’t be criticized for wondering where a brand like Leica fits within the digital age.Innovation was a fundamental part of Leica’s initial success and remains a key pillar of Leica’s brand values and business strategy today. Just this year, Leica and Huawei have set a new benchmark in smartphone camera technology with the dual-lens Huawei P9 – the first smartphone collaboration with Leica, and a sleek product line that seems destined to reinvent photography.
So, the next time you take out your pocket camera or smartphone to capture a moment, you now know how this possibility came to be and the legend of Leica that inspired the technology you hold in your hands today.