In Focus: Camera that cliqued

04 March 2014 - 02:02 By Nick Compton, The Daily Telegraph
ON THE PROWL: Henri Cartier-Bresson used the Leica for his famed street photography
ON THE PROWL: Henri Cartier-Bresson used the Leica for his famed street photography

With the development of the Leica 100 years ago, photographers could take to the street and to the air.

The cameras were small, light and discreet and allowed photographers to all but disappear.

A young Henri Cartier-Bresson bought a Leica and a 50mm lens and started his life-long prowl, always using that same camera and lens combination, hitting the streets of Paris, then Eastern Europe and then Mexico and on to India and China. Robert Frank shot The Americans on a Leica. Robert Capa used the same camera. William Eggleston shoots with them still and owns more than 300 Leicas.

A century ago, Oskar Barnack, an optical engineer working at microscope maker Leitz Werke Wetzlar in Germany, revolutionised photography.

On the side, Barnack was a keen but sickly photographer who struggled with carting around the huge plate cameras of the time and wanted something more serious than the Box Brownie that was just appearing in the United States.

He spent years trying to develop a more portable but high-quality camera before coming up with the Ur-Leica, the first record of which appears in March 1914. The first 35mm camera, it used film usually associated with motion pictures.

It would be another 10 years after its first development before the launch of the Leica 1, a mass-produced 35mm camera.

It and its upgrades were soon adopted by enthusiasts and a new generation of photography professionals alike. Over the next century, through the introduction of its M series Rangefinder cameras, Leica became legendary and the most premium of premium brands.

The key to using these small 35mm negatives was the use of the high-quality lenses, which has been a Leica trademark.

The company has more than survived the shift to digital photography and the video function on the M 240 is developing a cult following.

But in some ways the cameras, ironically given their place in the history of street photography, are now as much a luxury good as a creative tool. Queen Elizabeth is apparently a keen Leica user. A one-off Leica M design by Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson was sold on auction last year for $1.8-million (R19.4-million).

These cameras are fetish objects, beautifully crafted and designed and increasingly "referenced" by other camera makers, especially Fuji.

Their design hasn't changed much in half a century and they belong to an era before Instagram and selfies. They suggest a certain seriousness - you can't point and shoot with a classic Leica, there is no auto-focus - and so they are beloved of Hollywood stars who want to suggest polymath creative urges. Brad Pitt shot Angelina Jolie for the cover of W magazine with his a few years ago.

In truth, you buy a camera not because of the lenses or the looks, as lovely as they are, but because of the legacy: Leica allowed photographers to capture something more essentially true, what Cartier-Bresson called the "decisive moment".