A Brief History of Photography – Part 13: The Early Story of Leica, Short Version

Leica_LogoLeica. The word alone conjures images of exquisite mechanical craftsmanship, unsurpassed optics, and the epitome of photographic quality; it is bathed in a near mystic aura in the photographic world. The almost fanatical obsession of Leica-philes for all things Leica is matched perhaps by only the extreme loyalty of Harley-Davidson lovers to that motorcycle brand. The story of how Leica reached this lofty position has been minutely dissected before by numerous more qualified devotees of the mark than this writer, so it is perhaps a bit audacious to attempt to give an abridged account of the Leica story. At the risk of riling the faithful, what follows is the early story of Leica, the short version.

The Leica story begins in 1849 with mathematician Carl Kellner forming the Optisches Institut, or Optical Institute, in Wetzlar, Germany to manufacture microscopes. When Kellner died of tuberculosis in 1855, his widow took leadership of the company, and brought in Ernst Leitz (1843-1920) as a partner in the firm in 1865. In 1869, Leitz assumed full control of the company, with a name change to Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, or Ernst Leitz GmbH – three generations of the Leitz family would come to lead the firm for the next 100 years. By 1887, Leitz had established its reputation for high quality optical instruments; this experience in precision machinery and optics would prove extremely beneficial in their future endeavors in photography.

Figure x: Ernst Leitz I, (1843-1920)
Figure 1: Ernst Leitz I, (1843-1920)

In 1905, a young man named Oskar Barnak (1879-1936) was working at Leitz’s rival, Carl Zeiss, where he evidenced great potential as an optical engineer, precision mechanic, and industrial designer. In addition to his work at the optics firm, he was an avid amateur photographer interested in landscape photography in the local forests. As such, he was heavily invested in the higher end equipment of the day, namely large format cameras, film holders, tripods, and the other associated accessories required. Unfortunately, Barnak was a chronic asthma sufferer, and found great difficulty in hauling this large bulk and weight of photographic equipment in the field. While Kodak and others offered relatively small and light cameras, such as the roll-film Brownies, these cameras offered relatively unsophisticated optical performance and little control in image-making with their fixed focus and aperture, and single shutter speed. As a result, Barnak was actively looking at developing a small, easily transported camera that provided more control and high quality images. Barnak saw great potential in the 35mm sprocketed film in use in the fledgling motion picture industry. He began envisioning the then novel idea of an optical enlarger to print large pictures from small negatives, described as his “small negatives-large images” concept.

Oskar Barnak (1879-1936)
Figure 2: Oskar Barnak (1879-1936)

In 1911, Barnak was lured away from Carl Zeiss to join Leitz, to lead its microscope research as head of the construction department. Ernst Leitz knew of Barnak’s interest in a small precision camera, and encouraged his independent work on it without committing the firm to the endeavor. At this same time, another Leitz employee, Emil Mechau, was working on a new movie film projector to eliminate image flicker, so Barnak designed and built an aluminum 35mm movie camera to create test films in support of this project. In the course of making these test films, Barnak faced the same problem of all motion picture producers at the time, namely, deciding on the correct exposure and development for the film. To preclude ruining an entire roll of film through incorrect development time, he created a small simple camera that used short strips of 35mm film to take single frame images alongside the motion camera. These short strips would then be developed to ensure the correct exposure/development without risking the entire roll of movie film. Barnak saw that this test strip camera produced good images, and this encouraged him to pursue use of 35mm film for his small precision camera concept.

From 1912-1913, Barnak developed and built a metal-bodied prototype small camera that employed 35mm film. It featured a retractable lens, and a focal plane shutter with spring-tension-controlled selectable shutter speeds. This prototype “original Leica”, or Ur-Leica, possessed several characteristics that set standards for future cameras. (Leica from “LEI-tz” and “CA-mera”)

Figure 2:  The original Leica, the Ur-Leica, 1914
Figure 3: The original Leica, the Ur-Leica, 1914

Motion picture cameras transported 35mm film vertically, and employed a horizontally oriented, or landscape, 18x24mm image frame. The 4:3 aspect ratio of this frame for motion pictures, standardized by Thomas Edison, probably evolved from the approximate 4:3 aspect ratio of daguerreotype full plates. Barnak recognized the need for a bigger negative for his new camera, and incorporated a horizontal film transport system in the Ur-Leica. He maintained the landscape orientation of the frame by doubling the frame size from 18x24mm to 24x36mm. This created the 3:2 aspect ratio and negative size that became the industry standard for 35mm still photography, and defines what we today call “full-frame” format in digital cameras.

Other features introduced in the Ur-Leica included a combined film advance and shutter cocking mechanism, which eliminated unintentional double exposures, and the accessory shoe, to hold the external viewfinder. The basic design of the accessory shoe has survived dimensionally unchanged to the modern day, evolving along the way to incorporate hot shoe functionality for electronic flash, etc. The camera was originally designed to hold a length of film incorporating 40 frames, but the film had to be loaded and unloaded in the dark. To address this limitation, Barnak then developed a reloadable film cassette that could be loaded and unloaded from the camera in broad daylight. The size of the cassette dictated that the film length be reduced to 36 frames per roll, the standard seen in 35mm film cassettes today. (Leica legend has it that the real reason for the 36 exposure roll length came from the length of film Barnak could hold in his outstretched arms – feel free to believe the version you prefer!)

Barnak exercised the prototype as his personal walk-about and landscape camera, as he originally intended, and Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956) used the Ur-Leica to record his visit to New York in 1914. The onset of World War I saw Leitz manufacturing redirected in support of the war effort, and no further progress was made on the 35mm camera concept until after the war.

Figure x:  Ur-Leica image, Wetzlar Eisenmarkt, by Oskar Barnak, 1913
Figure 4: Ur-Leica image, Wetzlar Eisenmarkt, by Oskar Barnak, 1913
Figure x: Ur-Leica image, New York City, by Ernst Leitz II, 1914
Figure 5: Ur-Leica image, New York City, by Ernst Leitz II, 1914

In 1920, Ernst Leitz died and his son, Ernst Leitz II, took control of the company. Barnak resumed development of the 35mm camera, and in 1923, Leitz manufactured a run of pre-production cameras for test and evaluation. These cameras, reported to number between 25 and 31 units, came to be known as the Leica 0, or “Null” series, and met mixed reviews. Many photographers derided the small film size offered, and dismissed them as little more than toys. Against the advice of his shareholders, Leitz put his faith in Barnak’s vision and ordered a commercial production run of the Leica I, or Leica A, in 1924. The camera made its public debut in 1925 at the Leipzig Spring Fair trade show, and sold 1000 units the first year; Leitz introduced a 35mm projector for slides and film strips in 1926, and its first auto-focus photo enlarger in 1933. By 1935, the camera and enlarger division of the company was the most profitable section of the optics firm, and Leica had established itself as the undisputed standard bearer for photographic excellence and quality.

Figure x:  Leica I, debuted in 1925
Figure 6: Leica I, debuted in 1925

The Leica I offered shutter speeds from 1/20 to 1/500 second, an eye-level viewfinder, and featured a 50mm f3.5 non-interchangeable lens that was developed by Barnak’s Leitz colleague, Professor Max Berek (1886-1949). Both Barnak and Berek had early recognized the need for exemplary lens performance to wring every bit of resolution from the 35mm negative, and they together came to choose the 50mm focal length as the optimum for the 24x36mm format. Berek is the oft-unheralded hero who initially developed the designs, the manufacturing processes, and the high standards for lenses that have become the hallmark of Leica; even today, for right or wrong, Leica lenses are the standard by which all others are judged.

1935 Leica Ad
Figure 7: Early Leica Advertisement, 1935


The Leica I was focused via zone, or scale focusing; one guessed or directly measured the distance to the subject and set that distance on a scale on the lens. An accessory rangefinder could also be fitted to the accessory shoe to determine focus distance. In 1930 the Leica Standard, or Leica C, added interchangeable lenses to the Leica I, employing a 39mm threaded mount (M39), also known as Leica Thread Mount (LTM). With the broad popularity of the Leica, the LTM mount would itself become a near global standard for lens mounts, even for other manufacturers’ products.

Henri Cartier-Bresson with Leica, by George Hoyningen-Huene, 1933
Figure 8: Henri Cartier-Bresson with Leica, by George Hoyningen-Huene, 1933

A major leap forward was made in 1932 with the Leica II, which incorporated an integral and lens-coupled rangefinder to the design. Integral in that it was not an add-on accessory, but a built-in feature, and coupled in that the process of focusing the rangefinder simultaneously focused the lens to the correct distance. (The camera featured two adjacent viewfinders, one a magnifying rangefinder for focusing, and the other for composing the image). Leica had now established a camera configuration that offered unprecedented flexibility to the photographer in the field, and that could now serve as a solid foundation for incremental improvement for the next 30 years.

Figure x:  Leica II, introduced in 1932
Figure 9: Leica II, introduced in 1932

In fact, without diminishing the singular qualities of any of the subsequent LTM models, up through the Leica IIIg model in 1957 the differences offered over the Leica II consisted primarily of expansions in the shutter speed range, improved viewfinders, the addition of self-timers, and provisions for flash photography. That being said, Leica was now the camera to beat, and numerous companies around the world tried to emulate, if not blatantly copy, the technologies exhibited by the Leica cameras. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, as part of war reparations Leica’s patents were made public, and copies of the Leica designs proliferated. The Russian FED and Zorki cameras, the early Nikon and Canon rangefinders, the Niccas and Yashicas, etc., were all derivatives or copies of the Leica screw mount rangefinders, but rarely was the manufacturing quality of the original Leicas matched.

Figure x: Death of a Loyalist Soldier, by Robert Capa, 1936
Figure 10: Death of a Loyalist Soldier, by Robert Capa, 1936

All that changed again when Leitz introduced the Leica M3 in 1954. The M3 raised the bar in design esthetics, user ergonomics, machining precision, and introduced two breakout features. The first was the new interchangeable M lens mount, a quarter-turn bayonet mount in lieu of the LTM screw mount. The second was the combining of the rangefinder and viewfinder windows; no longer did the photographer need to focus through one viewer and then switch to another to compose the picture.   The camera now allowed a photographer to more easily keep his eye to the viewfinder and capture an image at the “decisive moment.” Further discussion of this magnificent camera alone, let alone its descendants, is beyond this story’s scope. Google it and you will learn more than you thought possible! Figure x: Leica M3, introduced in 1954

Figure 11: Leica M3, introduced in 1954

Leica has continued to grow its mystique and reputation through the evolution of the M line of cameras, and now with their digital and medium frame cameras. Throughout its history, Leica has always commanded a premium price for its top tier products, yet their exemplary quality has elicited unflagging loyalty from their adherents.

Figure x: James Dean on Times Square, by Dennis Stock, 1955
Figure 12: James Dean on Times Square, by Dennis Stock, 1955

There is so much more that could be said about the history of Leica and its products, of the contributions of Oskar Barnak, Max Berek, the Leitz family, and of the countless gifted photographers who have shared with us their visions of our world through a Leica lens and camera. They and their contributions have better shaped the world of photography as we know it today.

Fig x: V-J Day, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945
Fig 13: V-J Day, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945


Next Time: Photography B.A. (Before Ansel)

This is the thirteenth installment of an ongoing series on the history and development of the art of photography. It is inspired by the History of Photography class previously taught by Professor Jeff Curto in the College of DuPage Photography Program. While not a slavish copy of his work, I freely admit to following Curtos general course outline and sharing many of the perspectives he has developed. I would encourage anyone with a greater interest in this subject to follow his course online via video podcasts, at http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com.



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