Michael Karam gets up close and personal with Leica and finds out just what all the fuss is about with the legendary camera marque[/caption]
What do the picture of the blazing Hindenberg airship; that Che Guevara photo and the terrible “Napalm girl” image taken during the Vietnam War have in common? They were all taken with a Leica.
Leica, the gold standard of photographic equipment and the ground zero of the 35mm camera, the prototype of which was invented by the engineer Oskar Barnak in 1914, one year before Leica was founded by Ernst Leitz and 11 years before it would appear for sale as the Leica 1 and changed how we took pictures.
Up until that point, photography was all about men – probably always men – wearing a black cloak over their heads, standing behind a wooden box, holding a flash and demanding their subjects to hold it for 20 seconds.
“Photography was a very static pastime,” explains Jason Heward, Leica’s UK managing director, “but Barnack took a strip of vertical cine film and made a camera into which that strip was fed horizontally and could create a 35mm image, which is still the basic benchmark even in digital.”
Crucially, the new camera was also portable. It meant you could go to where the action was. “The Hindenberg was recorded on a Leica camera,” says Heward, sitting in the company’s offices just off Berkley Square. “The other photographers with their wooden boxes and cowls had taken their pic and had all packed up but one had the new Leica, so for him ‘packing up’ was putting it in his pocket. He just pulled it out and took the image.”
From then on, events could be recorded as they happened. It was the invention of photojournalism. Leica became the go-to camera for photojournalists, including arguably the most famous snapper of them all, Henri Cartier Bresson, and the source of many of the iconic press images of the 20th century.”
Today, Leica is a euro 400 million company. It is at the forefront of the renewed interest in film photography, but it is making sure it remains relevant with an eye-catching partnership with the Chinese mobile phone company Huawei. There are also luxury product collaborations with Hermes, Dupont and Master & Dynamics, to create pens lighters, headphones and bags and watches. Heward acknowledges these collaborations have helped consolidate Leica’s reputation as a forward thinking company.
“There’s something special about this brand,” Jason enthuses. Everyone wants to work with us. We’re over 100 years old but we’re still fresh and modern and because we’re not mass we can come up with some fairly left of field ideas. For example, we make a digital camera that doesn’t have a screen so you are back to the feeling and discipline of film. It’s very purist. We also make a black and white only camera. We couldn’t do this stuff if we were a mass manufacturer.”
But it was never always thus. The company has had its ups and downs, not entirely knowing how to come to terms with the full force of the digital age. “There a time when things looked a bit shaky? We were slow to embrace technology and even ten to 15 years ago we were reluctant to move to digital and it could have been very different but when Andreas Kaufmann bought the company in 2004, he knew what needed to be done. We went digital and we haven’t looked back.”
But ironically the buzz on Leica Street is the rekindled love affair with film, similar to the way audiophiles have gone back to vinyl. There is a real resurgence in film photography at the moment and the price of pre-owned film Leica’s have risen in the last year by over 50%. “People want the purity, and like the warmth one gets with vinyl, there is a similar feeling about something shot on film that you don’t get on digital,” Jason explains.
But surely it must be hard to go back to film when using a digital camera, one can take a gazillion photos; choose the one you want and dump the rest? With film you had 36 or even 24 images and that was that? “If you think about it, when you had a film camera, when you went out with your 36 images, you knew you had a limited number of photos you could take and so you would be very careful about what you shot and it became something a bit more precious,” says Jason. “You would think a bit more about the composition and you’d put a lot more into it. Film made you better photographer. Let’s face it, digital can make people a bit lazy.”
But it’s still an overwhelmingly digital world and Leica has ensured it remains relevant in today’s almost irresistible smart phone culture. “If we did resist it, it would’ve been exit stage left,” admits Jason, who explains that one of the ways Leica has muscled its way into everyday life was its 2016 collaboration with the Chinese firm Huawei to create the P9 smartphone, which touted its innovative dual-lens camera as one of its selling points. “We created the first mobile phone camera that can create depth of field,” says Jason.
The M may be the classic Leica camera, beloved of the purists but the current must-have model is the Q. Launched in 2015, the Q is essentially a point and shoot camera but with the ability to go manual if the desire takes you. “People wanted a compact camera that was at the premium end of the market, something that would shoot at full frame with the quality of a system camera,” Jason explains. “Up until the launch of the Q there had never been a compact camera that delivered that kind of quality.”
Leica lent me a Q to take on my travels to Beirut and the Outer Hebrides. It’s incredibly accessible, but it’s also very complex machine and much the same with most quality cameras, you can go to manual and control the creativity so it gives you the best of both modes. Essentially, it’s a professional’s tool that functions really well on auto. You get that beautiful Leica image that before the Q you had to go to the totally manual the M system, to achieve. And then there are the lenses, arguably the best in the world. Indeed, Leica lens that were made 50 or 60 years ago are still sourced all over the world by collectors. Quite simply they can create the most amazing image quality that a modern lens just can’t deliver. The lenses that were made for the original M model that was launched in 1955 can still be used on today’s camera.
Is there a Leica out there that the Leica Museum in Wetzlar, Germany would like to get its hands on? Jason says there are a few secretive collectors out there who have some pre-production lenses that few people have yet seen. “There’s an only surviving model of a Leica Luxus II camera is gold-plated and encased in lizard skin, that last one of only four made. It sold for well over £1M but its whereabouts remains unknown.”
But at the end of the day, it is really all about the image. Leica is passionate about sponsoring photography awards, working with the very best photographers and showcasing their work at the nine Leica galleries around the world. As Jason points out “the image really is the most important thing. Photography shapes culture and being part of that makes it is a huge honour.”