Christer Strömholm

Editorial A Brief History of Leica

© Christer Strömholm

“Shooting with a Leica is like a long tender kiss, like firing an automatic pistol,
like an hour on the analyst’s couch.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

─── by Edward Clay, September 20, 2022
  • Hailed as the best camera brand and pioneer of the Magnum aesthetic, Leica is one of the most prestigious names in photography, a camera responsible for some of the most memorable images in collective memory. The first 35mm camera was a Leica, and its invention was a game-changer for a flourishing artistic and journalistic medium.

    photo of a Leica Prototype 1923
    Leica Prototype 1923 © Alliance/ Westlicht

    In the early 1900s cameras were still bulky and difficult to carry around. Annoyed by the lengths a photographer had to take to get their shot, Ernst Leitz, a German optical engineer who ran an institute that produced microscopes, was convinced that a smaller portable camera could be manufactured with his lenses.

    Determined to change things, Leitz instigated the Leica prototype in 1914 and later handed over the reins of production to Oskar Barnack, a fellow optician, and photographer.

    black white portrait of Oskar Barnack - Leica
    Oskar Barnack at his workplace, 1934 © Julius Huisgen

    As Oscar Barnack worked on the camera, he fitted it with a Leitz anastigmat 50mm 3.5 lens. The fully-functional prototype was called UR-leica- a still camera for 35mm perforated film.

    The birth of UR-leica signified a leap in the world of photography as Barnack’s invention was small enough to use handheld, creating a camera compact enough to take anywhere. By 1925, the prototype had been perfected and the Leica I was ready for worldwide release.

    Portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson with his Leica in 1957 by Jane Bown
    © Jane Bown
    black and white photo of man jumping by Henri Cartier-Bresson
    Man Jumping over a Puddle, France, 1932 © Henri Cartier-Bresson
    black and white photo of V-J Day kiss in Times Square, New York, 1945 by Alfred Eisenstaedt
    V-J Day kiss in Times Square, New York, 1945 © Alfred Eisenstaedt

    Whilst the Leica I was a 35mm fixed-lens camera, Barnack wanted to develop the original further, granting photographers the flexibility to shoot in all manner of conditions. By developing a rangefinder camera body with detachable and interchangeable lenses, the Leica II was born.

    Professional photographers soon realised that the Leica offered them the freedom to shoot dynamically, in extraordinarily high quality. The portability of the camera is said to have sparked the growth in photojournalism in the 20th century. 

    Photo of The Terror of War, Vietnam, 1972 © Nick Út
    The Terror of War, Vietnam, 1972 © Nick Út
    black and white photo of a girl with Leica, 1934 by Alexander Rodchenko
    Girl with Leica, 1934 © Alexander Rodchenko
    black and white portrait of Muhammad Ali, 1966 by Thomas Hoepker
    Muhammad Ali, 1966 © Thomas Hoepker

    As cameras became more compact, new frontiers became more accessible, and photographers were granted new perspectives on their assigned news stories.

    From Robert Capa’s falling soldier, the man jumping the puddle by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the kissing couple in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt – these historic images make Leica a true icon. Enabling the artist to break free from the studio and discover what was on the street, the mobilisation of photographers has been a revolution in itself, and the Leica an instrument of upheaval.

    color photo of Horse Pool and House by Luis Barragan, Mexico, 1976 © René Burri
    Horse Pool and House by Luis Barragan, Mexico, 1976 © René Burri
    color photo of Man with bandage, Vancouver, Canada 1968 by Fred Herzog
    Man with bandage, Vancouver, Canada 1968 © Fred Herzog
    color photo of Havana, Cuba, 1993 by Alex Webb
    Havana, Cuba, 1993 © Alex Webb


    We should be grateful to the little red circle for the hundreds of legendary photos that have defined and written 20th-century history, as well as remember other words of wisdom from Cartier-Bresson, perhaps Leica’s most iconic photographer :

    “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”


    All images © their respective owners