100 Years Ago

So obviously I’m kind of into photography (a friend used to say I’m obsessed, but now I’ve gotten him into it, too). I love photography. I love reading about it. I love doing it. I love thinking about it. Every aspect of making a photo, from conception to capture to constitution.

People who follow this blog also know that I’m a fan of Leica. My favourite camera to use is my M3: completely analogue and mechanical. It has no light meter, no auto-focus or auto-exposure or auto-anything. I love it because the photos I create with it are an expression of exactly myself.

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This year, the Leica turned 100. To celebrate, Leica has created numerous celebratory products and this advertisement.

OK, fine, you watch it. And you probably think something like “jeez this company has its head up its own ass”, and you’re not wrong. But so does Apple, a company I suspect the majority of readers of this blog would defend. (I’m far from the first to make the Leica/Apple comparison.)

Like Apple, Leica has a history that involves near-bankruptcy. They made a very bad decision with the M5 (firing Steve Jobs), languished for a few years (hiring Gil Amelio), and resurrected itself by returning to its roots with the M4-2 (hiring Steve Jobs back). It’s folklore in the photography community, as is the comeback of Apple in the developer community.

So we’ve established that Leica has a history, but does it have significance? I mean, Apple revolutionized the personal computer – really, it invented the platform. What did Leica do?

The ad holds the key: Leica didn’t invent photography, but it did invent photography. What the hell does that mean? Well, let me tell you a story.

It’s the early twentieth century. There is a company in Germany that manufactures microscopes. The head of its R&D department loves to take walks in the forest, and wants to take photos on those walks. But he can’t. Oskar Barnack has asthma and the only cameras that existed were large, heavy contraptions that one had to carry around. He couldn’t do that without getting an asthma attack.

So he did something marvellous: he invented a new camera. One that could fit into a pocket. Unlike the existing cameras of the time, this one didn’t take photos on 4x5” (or larger) negatives. It used motion picture film, perforated on the edges, to capture images. 35mm photography had just been invented.

The ridiculously small negatives were not welcomed by the existing photographic community, who insisted they were too small to be of value. But a few years later, the first Leica was commercially available for sale, sparking an entire industry into existence.

When the advertisement above says that the Leica took the camera out of the studio and put it into real life, it’s not an exaggeration. It was the goal and motive of the first 35mm camera.

That invention – that little camera created so an asthmatic man could take photos on walks in the forest – it didn’t just change the course of photography, it changed the course of humanity.

So yeah, the ad is kind of pretentious, but Leica is also deserving of the gravitas it implies. Whether or not Leica is a camera worth continuing to use today is another topic, but no one can deny the monumental impact that the company has had on photography, and on humanity.


Posted on October 9, 2014