The Leica camera was not the first 35mm camera but it was the first to be a commercial success. The camera was designed by Oscar Barnack and, after a series of prototypes, the Leica I was introduced in 1925. It quickly achieved a reputation for the reliability of its mechanics and quality of its lenses, which continues today. The Leitz company, based in Wetzlar, initiated a process of continual innovation, from interchangeable lenses to a vast range of accessories that allowed the camera to be used for everything from copying and macro work to photographing wild life on long focus lenses. Each new model built on the previous, but the company always ensured backwards compatibility ensuring that nothing was obsolete.
The onset of war in 1939 saw both sides make use of the camera during the war. The British requisitioned Leica cameras and lenses to take advantage of their superior quality; in Germany the company was contracted to the German military, although it also established a surreptitious network to spirit Jewish workers to safe countries.
In 1954 the Leitz company introduced the Leica M3 which was the first significant departure from Barnack’s original design. A new body shape and size, and quick-fitting bayonet-mounting lenses further enhanced the Leica’s reputation and it was adopted by a new generation of photojournalists in the wars of South East Asia.
The single lens reflex Leicaflex of 1964 and its successors was intended to compete with the dominant Japanese SLR camera, but the Leica’s cost, and surprisingly clunky design meant that the M-series remained the preferred camera for the serious photographer and Leica aficionado.
Leica embraced digital photography seriously with the Leica M8 in 2006. It recognised that the classic M design was what the market wanted and the reflex Leica (including digital models was discontinued) allowing the Leica M series to, rightly, dominate the Leica company’s production.
The introduction of the Leica heralded a new type of photographer: the photojournalist, who made use of the camera’s small size, with an ability to work unobtrusively in low-light or fast-moving conditions with previously difficult subjects. During the Second World War and then during the 1950s and 1960s in the Korea and Vietnam conflicts the Leica was used to produce some of the greatest photographs of the century. Leica users such as Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Nick Ut, André Kertész, Andreas Feininger, Aleksander Rodchenko, Leni Reifenstahl, Robert Doisneau, Bert Hardy, George Rodger, Thomas Hoepker and, of course, the great Henri Cartier-Bresson were amongst the many photographers who used the Leica to create some of the world’s best known images.
Today, the Leica continues to appeal to the photojournalist, the professional and to the amateur and the Leica company, now back in its home town of Wetzlar continues to innovate and introduce new products, while retaining the original ethos of Ernst Leitz.
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