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Simple, small, silent: A celebratory history of the Leica camera

A new book explores the history of the first truly portable camera

We have asthma, curiously enough, to thank for the Leica. In 1905, a German engineer named Oskar Barnack was photographing outdoors, and found his breathing came hard as he struggled to haul his wooden camera, leather case and six double plate-holders up a hill. It was then, he later recalled, that “an idea came to me. Couldn’t this be done differently?”

By 1913, Barnack had constructed the prototype of the first truly portable camera. Using movie film, it was light, quiet, and could be reloaded without being returned to the shop. It was the first camera truly to set the photographer free.

Such an idiosyncratic conception seems appropriate: the Leica went on, as the tool of Cartier-Bresson and Kertész, Freund and Salgado, to record some of the century’s most idiosyncratic visions. The images it made, and the times in which it made them, soon became as much a part of the Leica’s story as its constant technical development. In truth, so many interests converge around a cult object of this stature that Alessandro Pasi’s Leica: witness to a century seems likely to alienate most readers at least some of the time. Only a true technical aficionado could be enthralled by the relative merits of the 50mm Sonnar f/1.5 and 180mm f/2.8 lenses, or the nuanced evolution of the Leica’s strap lugs. But such readers are clearly part of this book’s readership, and to them whether or not Riefenstahl was a Nazi might seem a similarly superfluous distraction. It is to Mr Pasi’s credit to have written a text that keeps everyone engaged by moving swiftly and connectively between technical descriptions, artistic results, and the contexts in which they were achieved.

Mr Pasi’s conviction is that Barnack’s reinvention of the camera redefined the way people in the 20th century looked at the world. This claim is amiably enthusiastic, and, to a point, true. It might have been usefully qualified, perhaps, by mention of photographers who eschewed the Leica, yet bore “witness to a century” in undeniably iconic ways (Brassaï, for example, or Bill Brandt). Yet, although Mr Pasi somewhat hyperbolises the Leica’s artistic dominance, he remains admirably level-headed assessing its technical strengths. He notes with knowledge and detachment the ways it was at times bested, and influenced in turn, by its competitors. What Mr Pasi never loses sight of is the particular vision that many photographers felt the Leica alone could offer, and he seeks to understand the design features that enabled it: simplicity, smallness, silence, and rejection, in most models, of the single lens reflex mechanism that breaks the continuity of of the photographer’s gaze.

Leica is a celebration, rather than a scholarly study, of this superlative photographic tool. Its layout and copious illustration invite browsing and poring rather than end-to-end reading, appealing to many kinds of interest without delving in depth into any of them. It belongs on the coffee-table of anyone with a love of photography and its history. It will preach to the converted, of course; but the converted will love it.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Simple, small, silent'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 155 February 2005