“I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson purchased his first Leica in 1931, launching a lifelong obsession with a device that would allow him to capture “the decisive moment.” Compact, quiet and discrete, the Leica gave photographers the freedom to get up-close-and-personal with their subjects, revolutionizing photojournalism and artistic photography alike.
It was at the turn of the 20th-century, in a small optics factory in Weitzler, Germany, where the idea for the first Leica was conceived. Oskar Barnack, the Leitz factory’s development manager, wanted to “move away from the traditional, heavy plate cameras” to a smaller 35mm model. Using cinema film, he reduced the negative format with the idea to enlarge the photographs later in the process. In 1914, Barnack introduced the “Ur-Leica,” one of the world’s first small format, handheld cameras.
Presented to the public in 1925 at the Spring Trade Fair in Leipzig (the camera’s production had been interrupted by the war), the Leica I progressed into the Leica II in 1932. The legendary rangefinder M-series was introduced in 1954, including the M3 model with an integrated viewfinder.
The Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Nick Ut was holding a Leica M2 when he snapped one of the most iconic war photographs of all time in 1972. “Napalm Girl” shows nine-year-old Phan Thj Kim Phuc running naked with mouth agape, arms outstretched, toward the camera after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
What Ut, along with Bresson, and numerous other legendary photographers – René Burri, Steve McCurry, Elliott Erwitt, Albert Korda, Sebastiao Salgado, Barbara Klem and Robert Capa to name a few – appreciated about the Leica was its lightweight portability, ease of use and performance in the field. From its beginnings, the camera was handcrafted with quality materials, such as brass for the top deck and bass plate, and high-tensile magnesium alloy for the chassis. In total, a Leica undergoes more than 30 production processes and 60 quality control checks before leaving the factory.
The standard lens alone is made up of roughly 100 individual parts, while the compact lenses, employing premium glass formulations and perfected manufacturing processes, are renowned for exceptional contrast, remarkable resolution and highly detailed images. The very definition of a sharp shooter.
The camera’s optical performance, combined with the vision of the eyes behind the viewfinder, produced some of the 20th-century’s most powerful images – Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and Albert Korda’s famous shot of Che Guevera among them. The Leica was also key in the development of street photography or life reportage, allowing photographers of the genre to “trap” life, according to Mr. Bresson. He said of his reliable companion, which he carried throughout his career until retirement, “You can do anything with the Leica.”
The Leica Manufacturing Process