Featured in
Issue 17

A Century Of Pictures

One hundred years of the Leica camera

BY Ulf Erdmann Ziegler in Profiles | 14 NOV 14

Will McBride, Flaschenspiele im Strandbad Wannsee, 1958

The word ‘photography’ has survived, that much we know. The cognoscenti and eggheads are still debating, however, whether the 19th-century term is applicable in the digital age or whether its use is now based on a misunderstanding. Technically it is possible to use today’s lens and memory cards to recreate what photo­graphy once meant (a truly miniature camera obscura producing a fixed image) back when it was ‘analogue’ but wasn’t labelled as such since differentiation wasn’t yet necessary.

One can only imagine what the Leica camera’s reputation would be today if the Leitz company in Wetzlar, Germany, which primarily made microscopes until 1920, had started production on Oskar Barnack’s personal prototype right away in 1914: an immense archive of private World War I photography, shot from the trenches.

Instead, the exquisitely quiet camera with a reserve of 36 pictures per celluloid roll arrived on the market years later, in 1925, giving it a solid footing in public use before the dawn of the Nazis. Those wanting a feel for early Leica photography should examine the pictures taken by Erich Consemüller, a student at the Bauhaus Dessau who in 1926 was entrusted with documenting the school’s workshops and their products. The commission also resulted in pictures of young people on a balcony, shot from below, and casual snapshots of students and teachers on the building’s roof.

Curiously, Barnack intended the small camera as an exposure metre for film studios, a tool to create stills made purely for economic reasons. Since the negative could be developed right away, studios could select the correct aperture without wasting film and shooting time. That’s why the Leica’s 35mm negatives, part of what was called the ‘small negative, large picture’ concept, are the same format as the film commonly used in the silent movie era. It’s also why the flexible film’s edges are perforated top and bottom.

Even into the 1960s, the 35mm negatives were too grainy for magazines to print. The potential of the compact, versatile camera was first recognized, put to work and celebrated by amateurs. When a positive was needed from a negative, the lens could even be screwed into the Leitz enlarger, the Focomat. Success demanded savviness and a degree of gut instinct. Barnack was asthmatic and took his prototype with him when he went hiking in the woods. Compared to other models, the Leica was small, lightweight and exact.

The Leica’s biggest strength, however, was its ability to capture a certain (or uncertain) social atmosphere – everything from the face of a lover to the view from the hotel window. The bar, the street, the bed, the swing, the elevator, the train compartment: figures at middle distance, cut off, animated. Dogs and cats. Henri Cartier-Bresson choreographed human metaphors; Robert Frank portrayed ‘Americans’ (The Americans, 1958) as groping actors in a material world, making visible their drive towards automation. Those who succeeded with a Leica camera were masters of a format – be it side- or lengthways – that needed filling, the picture’s subject locked into a ratio of either 2:3 or 3:2. The loyalty to the Leica format created a consistency and dependability that could be branded. That’s why Frank’s collection remains the archetype of the genre: somewhere between book and film.

The small negatives and the interchangeable lenses would later inspire SLR cameras. Heavy Nikons and Canons eventually became the photographers’ weapons of choice for reporters in politics, sports and war – the paparazzi would slap on a 500mm telephoto zoom. These in turn moulded the aesthetic of journalism and its unsettling immediacy, providing the soundtrack to press conferences on television.

There was a time when there were still secrets, unexplored islands and unmapped genes. One should imagine a Leica photographer as slender and quick, sometimes a figure and then only a shadow, male or female. A piece of the physical world is whisked into the shadowy chambers of the camera with a whisper of the shutter’s click, a secret that traverses the dream world of the dark room only to reappear quite suddenly as a supernatural landscape on photographic paper. Some photographers used these qualities to create intimacy in encounters; others shot from the hip, guesstimating distance and lighting. For them it wasn’t about secrecy, but about not disturbing the observations they intended to transport. Those fluent in Leica were safely incognito: Evelyn Richter, the incorruptible archivist in dirt-grey East Germany, or William Eggleston, swathed in the twilighting decadence of the American South.

The observable craft of photo­graphy, the shimmer of precision in the lens, the requisite fine motor skills, were part of the game at a time when expertise still inspired reverence. The Leica generated a soft authority, thoroughly flattering. In front of the lens, one was part of a narration.

The Leica isn’t from this world and at some point the world of the Leica faded from view. One hundred years after Barnack invented the medium, only its historiography remains (which the current exhibition at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography, currently attempts to illustrate). The biggest change since Leica is the most obvious one: digital cameras can display images immediately. That’s why no one believes there’s anything left to discover; anything can be shared. Can or should or must be. If this is the generally intended goal, then its opposite – pure empiricism – is perceived with suspicion. The recent and very large shift in photo­graphy is a social one in which millions of laypeople (that’s what they used to be called) disseminate ‘selfies’ but become paranoid when someone deliberately points a lens at them. An animistic and primeval fear has been resurrected in our relentlessly communicating society: someone will take my picture and leave nothing behind.

So it is possible, somehow, that ‘photography’ still exists. The Leitz company saved itself at the last moment by crossing over to digital, which is notoriously all about optical glass. Though the company still exists, Leica photography – part sketch and concept, magic and journal entry – no longer does. The above elements weren’t exclusive to Leica photography since Leicas inspired ranks of range-finder cameras which can do and have everything, except for the built-in mirror, of course. Instead, with the digital takeover we lost a way of looking at the world, an all-encompassing practice that shaped at least three generations of photographers around the globe.
Translated by Yana Vierboom

Ulf Erdmann Ziegler is a writer who lives in Frankfurt am Main. His books include Magische Allianzen. Foto­grafie und Kunst (Magical Alliances: Photography and Art, 1996) and Die Welt als Ganzes. Deutsche Fotografie nach 1989 (The World as One: German Photography After 1989, 2000). His novel Und jetzt du, Orlando! (Over to you, Orlando!, 2014) is published by Suhrkamp.