The quiet revolutionary design classic

It is a simply-styled, silent camera that has produced some of photography’s most memorable images. Jonathan Glancey writes in praise of the Leica.

Richard Nixon doubted its authenticity, but then as the US president who stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam by the USAF that Christmas to levels unknown since the late stages of WWII, he would, wouldn’t he? Armed with nothing more than a Leica M2 35mm rangefinder camera, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer with AP (Associated Press), had caught what is perhaps the most poignant and disturbing image of the terrible nineteen year war that tore South East Asia apart.

The photograph was published around the world on 12 June 1972. It showed a naked, nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc - her skin scorched by Napalm - running for her life with fellow villagers. “Napalm Girl” is said to have helped put an end to the Vietnam War soon afterwards. It was not a fake. Nick Ut even helped Kim to safety – an author, she is alive, well, married and a mother of two in Canada today – before rushing to an AP darkroom and printing negative number seven from the roll of 35mm film wound tightly inside his bombproof Leica. 

Many of the world’s great photojournalists have used Leica’s evergreen range of 35mm rangefinder cameras for their most memorable work, among them Robert Doisneau – who can forget his 1950 shot of two young Parisian lovers kissing in front of the Hotel de Ville? – Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rene Burri, Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt and Sebastiao Salgado. And, of course, there was that image of Che Guevara – the Heroic Guerilla – which Alberto Korda said he took with a Leica M2, and which has been reproduced on millions of t-shirts, posters and coffee mugs ever since.

Brass tacks

Compact, crafted, solid – all brass and manganese alloy – silent and reliable, the Leica rangefinder camera that made its debut in 1932 remains one of the best-loved of all cameras by photographers in tumultuous times and challenging locations. Here is a camera that, because of its size, discreet looks and superb lens can be relied on to capture publishable images at the most demanding moments, especially when the click of a shutter release, let alone a blaze of flash light or even the glow from a digital phone camera, could spell the arrest, deportation or even death of the photographer. The fact that Leica’s M-range (M is for Messsucher or rangefinder) has a spare, old-fashioned look means that it is often considered quaint and quirky – hardly the type of camera a war reporter or a celebrity-hunting paparazzo would choose.

But they do, and have done so ever since the quietly revolutionary camera designed by Oskar Barnack for the Leitz Optische Werke of Wetzlar, Germany, went on general sale in 1925. Barnack had produced the first of his new generation cameras in 1914; World War I and its disastrous effect on the German economy held production back. The lightweight, hand-held camera used 35mm cinema film; a custom-made lens ensured that prints from those small negatives could be blown up to a large scale. Barnack thought of his Leica as a camera that would be used for landscape and mountain photography. It was, but, with its compact dimensions and unrivalled performance, it quickly became a favourite of journalists.  

Production line

Not surprisingly, copies of the Leica were soon in production in other parts of the world, notably the Soviet Union, where the FED camera produced in the Ukraine was to follow the fortunes of its German source. In 1941, the Germans destroyed the FED factory; towards the end of World War II, the Red Army plundered the Leica factory allowing FED to re-tool and to begin manufacturing a new generation of Leica lookalikes from 1946; production ended in 1990. Today, these cameras – Pablo Picasso preferred a FED to a Leica – can be bought in good condition for less than $150, a fraction of the cost of a  German-made Leica.

Barnack’s camera has mutated slowly over the decades into Leica’s current M-range, including the M7 that uses traditional 35mm film and the M9, a digital version; the lenses of analogue and digital cameras are interchangeable and, from a distance, they look much of a muchness. Their simple styling means they will never appeal to those in need of ostentation, status symbols or bling: an M-series Leica is a refined tool, not a design statement. As Leica itself says: “Classics are works that are immune to the passing whims of the present. They are never rewritten, but re-interpreted on the basis of a changed world.”  And, yet, as the world changes – and sometimes  dramatically so, in front of photographers’ eyes – the M-series Leica carries on superficially heedless of new fads, fashions, faces and wars.

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