A mo­men­tous de­ci­sion made by one man in 1924 changed the course of his­tory for both Leica and pho­tog­ra­phy.


“I have de­cided... we shall risk it.”

THE DATE WAS JUNE 1924, and these words were spo­ken by Ernst Leitz II, who was mak­ing the mo­men­tous de­ci­sion to com­mit his suc­cess­ful Ger­man op­tics company to the pro­duc­tion of some­thing com­pletely new and com­pletely un­proven… a com­pact, but very high-qual­ity 35mm for­mat film cam­era.

The cam­era was the cre­ation of Oskar Bar­nack, a bril­liant op­ti­cal engi­neer and in­ven­tor who had joined Leitz’s company back in 1911 and had been work­ing on the project since 1913. A keen hiker and am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, Bar­nack suf­fered from chronic asthma which re­duced his ca­pac­ity to carry big and heavy cam­eras on his treks. This spurred him to start de­sign­ing a more com­pact cam­era that would still de­liver high qual­ity im­ages, some­thing that had been largely mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive up un­til now.

Bar­nack’s idea was to use a film cre­ated from two 18x24 mm cine frames to give an im­age area of 24x36mm and so re­duce the amount of en­large­ment re­quired to make high qual­ity prints. Un­like in a movie cam­era though, the film ran through Bar­nack’s de­sign hor­i­zon­tally, and the plan was to use the of­f­cuts of 35mm cine film. A big­ger chal­lenge was to de­sign a com­pact lens with a large enough imag­ing cir­cle and suf­fi­cient res­o­lu­tion. For­tu­itously, there was an­other very tal­ented op­ti­cal engi­neer work­ing at Leitz called Max Berek, and his con­tri­bu­tion to the Leica cam­era project is of­ten over­looked, but with­out his work on a suit­able lens – sub­se­quently de­scribed as “a stroke of ge­nius” – the out­come might have been very dif­fer­ent.

Bar­nack’s two pro­to­types – built in early 1914 and in­ter­nally af­fec­tion­ately called the Liliputs – used a lens orig­i­nally de­signed for mi­cro­scope pho­tog­ra­phy and there was even ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with a Zeiss Tes­sar cine lens. Prior to mov­ing to Leitz, Bar­nack had worked at Zeiss where he had seen a pro­to­type 35mm cam­era called the Min­i­graph which was made in Aus­tria and used a Zeiss lens. The Min­i­graph recorded 18x24mm still frames on 35mm cine film (and was sub­se­quently only pro­duced in very small num­bers), but it no doubt val­i­dated Bar­nack’s thoughts about how to ob­tain suf­fi­cient print qual­ity from small neg­a­tives.

The Fi­nal De­ci­sion

Af­ter his fa­ther died in 1920, Ernst Leitz II took over the run­ning of the fam­ily company and be­gan to take more of an in­ter­est in Bar­nack’s cam­era, pri­mar­ily be­cause di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion was the key to sur­vival in the chal­leng­ing eco­nomic cli­mate of the time. Not all his se­nior man­agers agreed though, partly be­cause it would cost a lot to tool up for pro­duc­tion and partly be­cause the un­proven ‘minia­ture for­mat’ was con­sid­ered too much of a risk, par­tic­u­larly to the company’s fine rep­u­ta­tion. Nev­er­the­less, in 1923, a pre­pro­duc­tion run of 25 ex­am­ples was com­mis­sioned (now known as the ‘Null serie’ or O series), pri­mar­ily to con­vince the doubters, but the eval­u­a­tions from se­lected pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers yielded mixed re­views. Even­tu­ally a spe­cial meet­ing had to be called to re­solve the mat­ter and, af­ter four hours of de­bate, the two sides were still dead­locked so Ernst Leitz II

was forced to make the fi­nal de­ci­sion. As he de­cided to turn Leitz into a cam­era maker, he could not pos­si­bly have en­vis­aged the far-reach­ing ef­fects of what was then a very coura­geous move.

The first few hun­dred se­rial pro­duc­tion cam­eras were fit­ted with a Max Berek-de­signed, five-el­e­ment 50mm f3.5 lens called the “El­max”. It was the first lens ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the nec­es­sary qual­ity – par­tic­u­larly cor­ner-to-cor­ner sharp­ness – for mak­ing big en­large­ments from a 24x36 mm neg­a­tive and, of course, es­tab­lished the con­ven­tion of the 50mm fo­cal length be­ing the ‘stan­dard’ for 35mm pho­tog­ra­phy. Later mod­els switched to a four-el­e­ment 50mm f3.5 El­mar lens and, for the record, a very early eval­u­a­tion series were fit­ted with a four-el­e­ment 50mm f3.5 Anas­tig­mat lens.

On the first se­rial pro­duc­tion cam­eras the lens was fixed and the ear­li­est ex­am­ples were called the Leca (de­rived from the first two let­ters each of Leitz and cam­era), but this was quickly changed to Leica to avoid con­fu­sion with a French-made cam­era called the L’Éca.

Ini­tially sales were slow, but Leitz had shrewdly kept the first pro­duc­tion run small (less than 1000 units) so when de­mand be­gan to grow, it quickly out­stripped sup­ply, which is al­ways a clever mar­ket­ing ploy. From here on pro­duc­tion was dou­bling ev­ery year and, by 1936, a to­tal of 200,000 Le­icas had been sold, prov­ing that Oskar Bar­nack’s be­lief in op­ti­cal and me­chan­i­cal pre­ci­sion had been right. Un­for­tu­nately, his on-go­ing health prob­lems even­tu­ally got the bet­ter of him and he died, of pneu­mo­nia, at the start of the same year, aged only 56.

Long Lived

The orig­i­nal cam­era is now known as the Leica I (A), and it was con­tin­u­ally re­fined dur­ing its long life­span, with the big­gest change be­ing the switch to in­ter­change­able lenses in 1930 with the model now called the I (C) which had a 39-mil­lime­tres­di­am­e­ter screwthread mount. Ini­tially, lenses and bod­ies had to be in­di­vid­u­ally matched, but from 1931 on­wards, the film-toflange dis­tance was stan­dard­ised at 28.8 mil­lime­tres.

De­spite the ar­rival of later mod­els, in­clud­ing the all-new M series, the last vari­ants of the Model I re­mained in pro­duc­tion un­til 1960, an in­di­ca­tion of just how ad­vanced it was for the early 1930s.

The Leica II ap­peared in 1932 and of­fered the con­ve­nience of a built-in and cou­pled rangefinder which had taken Bar­nack five years to de­velop so it pro­vided the re­quired de­gree of pre­ci­sion but was also com­pact enough not to com­pro­mise the cam­era’s small size. He called it “au­to­matic fo­cus­ing”. The Leica III was launched in 1933 and of­fered a range of slower shut­ter speeds down to one sec­ond. The IIIa vari­ant from 1934 also ex­tended the faster speed range up to 1/1000 sec­ond and has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the last Leica cam­era de­sign for which Bar­nack was fully re­spon­si­ble be­fore his un­timely death two years later.

Also in 1934, an in­ter­est­ing ver­sion of the III, called the 250FF, was launched. It ac­cepted a bulk film cas­sette which con­tained ten me­tres of film – enough for 250 ex­po­sures – and was de­signed for press pho­tog­ra­phers to min­imise the need for film changes when shoot­ing a big story. How­ever, the ex­tra size worked against it and the 250FF wasn’t a great suc­cess.

De­vel­op­ment of the III con­tin­ued though the b, c, f and g vari­ants; the last again sur­viv­ing be­yond Leica’s de­vel­op­ment of the M3 which rep­re­sented a whole new re-imag­in­ing of the 35mm rangefinder cam­era. Launched in 1954, de­vel­op­ment of the M3 be­gan just af­ter WW2 and it was the brain­child of Ernst Leitz II’s son, Lud­wig who, along with chief engi­neer Wil­helm ‘Willi’ Stein,

de­signed (and patented) one of its key fea­tures – an in­te­grated viewfinder and cou­pled rangefinder which also in­cor­po­rated the pro­jec­tion of im­age area frames for dif­fer­ent lens fo­cal lengths with au­to­matic par­al­lax cor­rec­tion. On the M3, these were for the 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses; and this cam­era’s model num­ber was de­rived from the word mess­sucher (yes, there are three esses) which is Ger­man for “rangefinder” and “3” as in the three lens frames. Ad­di­tion­ally, the M3 in­tro­duced numer­ous other con­ve­niences in­clud­ing a bay­o­net lens mount, a sin­gle dial for both fast and slow shut­ter speeds, and faster film ad­vance via a ‘rapid wind’ lever, ini­tially dou­ble-stroke, but sin­gle-stroke from 1958. The con­fig­u­ra­tion in­tro­duced with the M3 has gone on to de­fine the 35mm rangefinder cam­era, and the key el­e­ments – most notably the com­bined viewfinder/ rangefinder – have been re­tained by Leica even in its sub­se­quent dig­i­tal mod­els. Con­se­quently, with its em­pha­sis on pre­ci­sion en­gi­neer­ing and high-per­for­mance op­tics, the M line has also come to de­fine Leica even if it’s now only one of many cam­era sys­tems (and other prod­ucts) in the company’s port­fo­lio. The 35mm line con­tin­ues with the MP and M-A, and there are var­i­ous dig­i­tal Ms – the lat­est be­ing the M10 – with this plat­form also a favourite for lim­ited edi­tions. Back From The Brink Leica with­out an M cam­era is un­think­able now, but it nearly hap­pened in the mid-1970s when the company was un­der the con­trol of Wild-Heer­brugg and it looked like the 35mm SLR rep­re­sented the way ahead. The M5 had been a com­mer­cial fail­ure and the new own­ers weren’t pre­pared to fund two 35mm cam­era sys­tems, but they had dif­fer­ent ideas at Leitz Canada which had been mak­ing M lenses since the 1950s.

Leitz Canada’s newly-ap­pointed CEO, Walter Kluck, made an im­pas­sioned plea to have the cam­era tool­ing shipped across the At­lantic. It was even­tu­ally agreed that if he could guar­an­tee or­ders of at least 4000 units per year, he could set up to build the M4. A con­sum­mate sales­man, Kluck se­cured or­ders for 9000 units from around the world and, sub­se­quently, the Cana­dian fac­tory pro­duced the M4.2 and the M4-P mod­els un­til the early 1980s by which time, back in Ger­many, the his­tor­i­cal value and fu­ture po­ten­tial of the M series was once again be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated. Since then, Leica has had to tread a very fine line be­tween tra­di­tion and tech­nol­ogy with the M series, not the least with the tran­si­tion into dig­i­tal cap­ture. A key strat­egy has been to cre­ate new cam­era lines which also em­body the Leica ethos, but are less re­stricted by the M rangefinder her­itage. This has al­lowed de­vel­op­ment of the dig­i­tal Ms to be more se­lec­tive and more in keep­ing with Oskar Bar­nack’s in­ten­tion of “blithely ig­nor­ing the con­ven­tional”.

Only this way is an M line model like the cur­rent M-D pos­si­ble – a dig­i­tal cam­era with­out an LCD mon­i­tor screen (and hence no menus at all) so the only ad­just­ments are for fo­cus, aper­ture, shut­ter speed and ISO; and you have to wait un­til the im­age is ‘pro­cessed’ to see the re­sult… just like when shoot­ing film. Nowhere does the past and present in pho­tog­ra­phy in­ter­face quite so purely or cleanly. Just as well there are the mirrorless SL, TL2 or CL sys­tems for those who like their Leica cam­eras a lit­tle more pro­gres­sive.

Yet Leica can never leave its past be­hind en­tirely, be­cause it’s so closely in­ter­wo­ven with the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy, per­haps more so than any other cam­era maker. The orig­i­nal cam­era’s com­pact di­men­sions, com­bined with its com­par­a­tive ease of use and ex­cep­tional qual­ity, brought a new tech­ni­cal free­dom to pho­tog­ra­phy which rev­o­lu­tionised prac­tices such as re­portage and doc­u­men­tary work. It also de­liv­ered new cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties de­rived from its un­ob­tru­sive­ness, con­ve­nience and ver­sa­til­ity, which al­lowed greater spon­tane­ity and re­spon­sive­ness on the part of the pho­tog­ra­pher. The later mod­els sim­ply built on this and then the M3 took it all a whole lot fur­ther

by be­ing even quicker and more ef­fi­cient in its op­er­a­tions. Few other cam­eras have had quite such an im­pact on how pho­tographs are seen and recorded, and there’s no doubt Leica greatly con­trib­uted to the suc­cess and pop­u­lar­ity of the 35mm film for­mat.

A string of leg­endary names in pho­tog­ra­phy adopted Leica cam­eras, among them Al­fred Eisen­staedt, Robert Capa, An­dré Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bres­son, Robert Frank, Wil­liam Klein, Werner Bischof, W. Eu­gene Smith and Ernst Haas. As a re­sult of their ef­forts, the Leica rangefinder cam­era is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with much of the vis­ual doc­u­men­ta­tion of world events since the early 1930s through to the end of the 20th cen­tury. It’s a rich his­tory, but one which on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions threat­ened to be­come a mill­stone around the company’s neck. Yet Leica has sur­vived to cel­e­brate its 100th an­niver­sary in 2014, and looks to be thriv­ing un­der the cur­rent man­age­ment which sees that his­tory as mak­ing an in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the “brand ac­count”. With the stated in­ten­tion of only adding to this ac­count, it would seem Leica is al­ready suf­fi­ciently enough ‘in credit’ to now be fully in charge of its fu­ture.

Bar­nack’s fa­mous test shot of the Eisen­markt in the his­toric Ger­man town of Wet­zlar, taken with his pro­to­type cam­era in early 1914.

Af­ter he moved to the Leitz company from Zeiss, Oskar Bar­nack be­gan work on a com­pact cam­era that would still be ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing high-qual­ity neg­a­tives. This is one of the two orig­i­nal pro­to­types he hand-built over late 1913 and early 1914 (the other has been lost), and is now known as the Ur-Leica.

The same scene pho­tographed in June 2018 with a Leica Q. Apart from the cars, not much has changed in the in­ter­ven­ing 104 years. The plaque in the fore­ground marks the ex­act spot on which Bar­nack stood to take his his­toric pic­ture.

A keen am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher and cin­e­matog­ra­pher since his youth, Oskar Bar­nack (1879-1936) also suf­fered from chronic asthma which lim­ited his ca­pac­ity to carry big and heavy cam­eras when trekking. This was one im­pe­tus for the de­vel­op­ment of the first Leica cam­era.

An­other fa­mous test shot taken by Bar­nack on his ‘Liliput’ cam­era (the nick­name for his pro­to­types), de­pict­ing a flooded street in the alt­stadt (Old Town) dis­trict of Wet­zlar af­ter the River Lahn broke its banks in Jan­uary 1920. The series of im­ages he took is now con­sid­ered to be the first photo-doc­u­men­tary work shot with a 35mm cam­era.

A spe­cial ver­sion of the Leica III was the 250FF from 1934 which ac­cepted a bulk film cas­sette con­tain­ing ten me­tres of film, en­abling 250 ex­po­sures be­fore it needed to be changed.

Af­ter a short trial series with a 50mm f3.5 Anas­tig­mat lens (per­haps as few as 100 ex­am­ples), the Leica was launched with a fixed, five-el­e­ment 50mm f3.5 “El­max” lens (named af­ter its de­signer, and de­rived from E Leitz and Max). This model is now known as the Leica I (A).

Of­ten over­looked in the story of Leica’s first 35mm cam­era, with­out the ge­nius of lens de­signer Max Berek (18861949) the op­ti­cal per­for­mance would not have been as ex­cel­lent as it was right from the start. In those days the myr­iad of cal­cu­la­tions were done man­u­ally.

In­tro­duced in 1932, the Leica II was fit­ted with a cou­pled rangefinder de­signed by Oskar Bar­nack and which he called “au­to­matic fo­cus­ing”. The lens was now a four-el­e­ment 50mm f3.5 El­mar also de­signed by Max Berek. The viewfinder was separate from the rangefinder.

It’s rarely ap­pre­ci­ated just how long the Leica I stayed in pro­duc­tion. The last-of-the-line I (G) was built be­tween 1957 and 1960 so was still around long af­ter the M3 was in­tro­duced. It was pri­mar­ily de­signed for sci­en­tific work (hence the ab­sence of both a viewfinder and a rangefinder).

In 1930, the Leica I (C) in­tro­duced in­ter­change­able lenses with the 39 mm screwthread mount. Ini­tially lenses had to be matched to in­di­vid­ual bod­ies, but from 1931 on, Leica in­tro­duced a stan­dard­ised film-to-flange dis­tance.

Per­haps even more sig­nif­i­cant than the Leica I was the M3, launched in 1954 and which rep­re­sented the 35mm rangefinder cam­era re-imag­ined with numer­ous con­ve­niences in­clud­ing a com­bined viewfinder and rangefinder, rapid-wind film ad­vance and, of course, the fa­mous M bay­o­net lens mount.

Leica ini­tially strug­gled with the tran­si­tion to dig­i­tal imag­ing, be­fore opt­ing for a dig­i­tal ver­sion of the leg­endary M. While the M8 (2006) was con­tro­ver­sial at the time – mainly be­cause of the ‘APS-C’ size sen­sor – it’s nonethe­less a very sig­nif­i­cant cam­era in Leica’s his­tory.Ev­ery­thing got back on track with the M9 (2009) which was the first dig­i­tal M with a full-35mm sen­sor – made by Ko­dak – and is des­tined to be a an­other clas­sic in the fu­ture.

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