Leica Cameras derive their name from a shortening of “Leitz Camera”. While on the staff at the Leitz Wetzlar Factory in 1911, Oskar Barnack set out to create a portable camera. The Wetzlar works dated back to 1849, founded by Carl Kellner, a mathematician and optician, for the purpose of developing lenses and microscopes.
Barnack had begun his career as an engineer at Carl Zeiss lens manufactory at Jena. He actually conceived of the Leica camera design as early as 1905, but for many years the design existed only in his brain. He made a 1914 photo with his ur-Leica, a compact predecessor with a retracting brass lens, that chronicled the coming of World War I. The picture depicts a German soldier posting an early mobilization order from Kaiser Wilhelm.
The result of his work formed the basis for the 35mm camera. Together with the highly-acclaimed lenses developed by Max Berek, the Ernst Leitz Company, located in the small German town of Solms (near Frankfurt), was able to bring the new Leica Camera to the commercial market in the form of the Leica I at a trade show at Leipzig.
When the Leica I was introduced, photographers were accustomed to lugging around suitcase-sized photography paraphernalia. The cameras enclosed used 13 inch by 16 inch plates, rather than the present-day 35mm film on rolls.
Because these portable cameras were so small and lightweight by current standards, Leica cameras were at first perceived as toys for a lady’s purse. That first impression was soon dispelled when the public came to appreciate the stunning images the camera produced and their extreme durability.
Carl Wolff, who bought the company in 1926, is largely credited with expanding the fame of the Leica brand. Leica was also famous for high-quality binoculars, dating back to 1907. Leica camera sales totalled 90,000 by 1932, and a million by 1961.
These rugged cameras were witness to two world wars, often from both sides of the conflict. Not only the Americans, but also the Russians, were fond of the Leica in World War II. The Soviets viewed the Leica as a guilty pleasure, despite its capitalist “fascist” origins. Ironically, many of The Leica family were Jews.
Russian Aleksandr Rodchenko, also a sulptor and a painter, shot many memorable pictures, including the 1934 “Girl with a Leica”. Fellow Russian, Ilya Ehrenburg, created a series of 1930’s images that depict the raw underbelly of France between the World Wars.
In the 1930’s, French painter Henri Cartier-Bresson migrated his art to photography. The means of his transformation was the Leica camera. His often candid black and white photos are among the finest in the illustrious Leica legacy.
The famous Times Square kiss on V-J Day was shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt on a Leica.
Photographers the world over have praised various Leica Cameras, such as the Leica I, Leica M3, Leica M3, and later the Leicaflex SL (its first SLR camera). Enthusiasts have made the brand a cult favorite, to the extent that a Leica Number 107 test market model from 1923 sold in 2007 for a world record price of nearly a half million dollars US.
Lawrence R. Bell is Editor for The Antiques Bible (http://antiques-bible.com). The Antiques Bible is an illustrated glossary of antique terms with helpful links to related resources.