Everyone alive must know the Leica. They know its enthralling tale from a tradition of microscopes, fine German microscopes, 50,000 of them by the late-1880s, and how that tradition through Oscar Barnack led to the apex of fine German cameras. From there the Leica reformed the practice of photography, putting 35mm on the map. That began in 1925.
The “miniature” school of photography developed from those first Leicas (and their greatest flatterers as the market developed), reforming everyone’s expectations and standards for “candid” and “real-life,” and “photojournalistic” pictures on film.
The optical tradition of Ernst Leitz flowed into collapsible lenses of those early Leicas, making a whole you could easily pocket—pants pocket, that is. But the influence of the Leica upon photography, as art and business, is a foundation of the industry as we know it. Everyone remembers these events—they require no retelling. Unlike the Alamo or the Maine, no one could forget E. Leitz and Co. Right?
The Extraordinary Aura
In mechanical cameras you can savor the workmanship at every step—how it feels to turn the focus, to align the rangefinder, to press the shutter release, to hear the click, to advance the film for the next exposure. Each was a separate sensual entity in cameras like Leicas.
And all in the act of taking a picture with the best optics made. You could then stroke its back, warm leather-covered and smooth satin chrome, on its return to your pants pocket. To this day, Leica describes (on its German website, under “Leica Mythology”) the “extraordinary aura that can evoke feelings and emotions” in the user.
I certainly fell for it. The first camera I actually went out and paid for, back when I had my first apartment, was a Leica IIIf. I got it for sixty-five bucks in a Sixth Avenue pawn shop on. I took it out shooting as a regular thing, until the day a burglar took it out himself.
Most of the world was then migrating to SLRs, me along with it. Back when I had my first loft, I used a Nikkormat on the construction of the World Trade Center, three blocks away. Who could forget how the Japanese camera rose, and the German camera declined?
Psst. Times Change
The first Leicaflex in 1964 was a step in the right direction, although Leica’s aura by then surrounded its M-series rangefinder models. SLRs generally became the standard resource for the “real” photographer, substantially because SLR viewing makes the most of interchangeable lenses. The Leica M series had introduced interchangeable bayonet-mount lenses (interchangeable lenses had been screw-mount till then), but they took-off with SLRs where you could see depth-of-field precisely The cultivated customer who bought an SLR became a subscriber, to new and better lenses, thence flash and dodads as they evolved—not the first time in marketing history, but SLRs provided the largest lens systems to hit photography’s streets.
And the systems really worked, as photographers continued to prove. As interchangeable telephoto lenses drew them in closer, they beat the rangefinder cameras, the Leicas included, at their own game—the art of candid photography. There were those who argued, with considerable merit, that rangefinder cameras remained more candid, being generally smaller and usually much quieter, and that their viewfinders were brighter to look through than camera lenses. But the SLR was in vogue. Leica’s first “R” series, the R3, premiered in 1976.
So it would not be correct to say that serious photography abandoned Leica cameras, as they remained spectacular performers. They were still deliciously constructed. People who appreciated that aura, could afford to pay for that aura, became Leica’s top customers. If they were ever typecast, it was as doctors and dentists.
And it’s perfectly fine to be a doctor or dentist. Both must take pictures in the course of their practice, and require a vast system of accessories and excellence of manufacture. And having refined their skills in the course of photographing bumps and molars, such doctors and dentists took fine snapshots as well, to say nothing of artistic compositions, no small number of them winning photo contests put on by the magazines.
But all the same, it was SLRs the big picture agencies and newspapers worldwide were buying for their staffers. Nikon and Canon owned that market.
Then came the digicam.
There was little apparent reason in 1991 for Leitz to be impressed by the digital threat. What drew people to Leicas, their heart-stirring aura, does not apply to an electronic camera whose mechanism is mostly circuits.
Besides, look at that first digital camera. Everyone remembers that day, fifteen years ago when it came out. A top-of-the-line Nikon with some parts removed, and new parts added, including a CCD of just over a megapixel output. Its resolution was okay, but the picture was too small to used in your average daily newspaper. For that you’d pay twenty to thirty grand? Even more than a Leica? You call that a big bad wolf?