The Cult Of The Leica Camera

As the German brand turns 100, Simon Garfield uncovers how the company has stood the test of time against its mega-giant rivals. Which may in fact be due to its tiny, yet remarkably distinctive, little red dot

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From the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of Esquire's Big Black Book, available now.

The camera arrives in a thin, brown cardboard box. Inside the box is another box, also cardboard, but this time shiny silver with a small red dot on the side. One opens the top and the sides fall away in unison, like a Buster Keaton film set, only to reveal yet another box, this one black with hidden magnetic clasps. Open this and there is, of course, another box, grey and black this time, with that red dot again, and within this – finally – is a block of aluminium that has been polished by hand for 45 minutes (you can see a film of this on YouTube that's called "The Most Boring Ad Ever Made?" ). Inside this aluminium block is 100 years of German engineering, and when you hold it in your hands you may unaccountably feel, as I did with all that cardboard detritus happily discarded around me, that you are holding the weighty sum of human worth.

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Just a camera, of course. The lump of aluminium is called the Leica T, and it is an unusual thing. It's not just a new Leica camera, but a new Leica system. The system – much to the horror of those who picked up a Leica in the days when Henri Cartier-Bresson was dancing through the streets of Paris – is the first Leica designed and marketed for the iPhone generation, with a large touch-screen taking up almost the whole of its back and not very much else. Leica has been making mass-market digital cameras since 2005, which is the year the company came close to bankruptcy for failing to tackle the digital market earlier.

But the new T abandons itself to pixels as never before. With a bit of external design advice from Audi, Leica has jettisoned almost every visible element that the company once considered necessary to take photos: the chunky shutter speed and synchro dials; the rangefinder window and eyepiece; the distance indicator on the helical focus mount – long forgotten and so grandfatherly.

In their place is one slightly raised button for taking a photograph, and two gently recessed programmable dials, which may be completely bypassed by tapping on the screen. But within all this reductionist, modernist, shiny newness, Leica has retained one feature that sets it apart from all the Nikons and Canons and Rolleiflexes you can amass: its sheer, undentable, age-defying, spirit-lifting, grown-men-weeping desirability. Only those with steel hearts will be able to hold one and not reach for their credit card.

The cult of Leica takes many different forms, but it may be best defined by one anecdote. An absurd story you may safely try at home. A couple of years ago, a man on an online forum was pondering what really made Leica, Leica? Why was the brand so indestructible and perennially appealing? Why would normally sensible people pay much more for a Leica than another camera capable of achieving comparable results? One can argue endlessly about the quality of the lenses, and about the solidity of manufacture, but the forum guy believed there was another factor: the red dot logo. He took this theory onto the streets. He put a red paper sticker on his digital Panasonic Lumix (which uses Leica lenses, and is, give or take a bit of lens coating, practically a Leica without the badge), and started taking photos.

He felt bolder. He felt more able to edge himself into situations from which he previously would have shrunk. When he reviewed his pictures later, he found them to be better than those he had taken before. All of which doesn't say much for Leica cameras, but says rather a lot about their image. The tiny red dot enclosing the word "Leica" in flowery script is the smallest piece of successful branding in the history of photography. It may also be the most alluring piece of miniature branding in the history of luxury consumerism – some logos on watches are larger. Surprisingly, its presence on cameras is relatively new, and dates only from the mid-Eighties (for a decade before, the name within the dot read "Leitz", the name of the parent company). When I recently mentioned the forum guy's red dot story to Stefan Daniel, Leica's head of product development, he said, "Maybe we should just sell red dots."

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Leica platinum M6, 1989

There are, conceivably, other elements that also sell the cameras. Famous people have attached themselves to the brand since the age of modern celebrity began, and – with the exception of the Queen, who was given two M-series models during state visits – have usually done so without being given one for free. Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Miles Davis, George Gershwin, Che Guevara and George Bernard Shaw were all fans, while current users include Scarlett Johansson, Brad Pitt, David Bowie and Daniel Craig (and a recent Esquire photo shoot with the Arctic Monkeys was punctuated with deep Leica lens debates).

And then there are the real heroes: the professional photographers. One may begin with Henri Cartier-Bresson and not draw breath again until Sebastião Salgado, celebrating en route the genius that is – or was – Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Gisèle Freund, Bert Hardy, Ilse Bing, Mary Ellen Mark, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Catherine LeRoy, Thomas Hoepker and Vivian Maier, most of whom regarded their Leicas as an extension of their bodies. These are just the stellar names. Newer talents such as Craig Semetko, Thomas Ruff, Saga Sig and Sarah Lee are no less noble torchbearers.

Finally, there are the photographs themselves, many of them so deeply embedded in our cultural hinterland that they may be safely conjured in just three words, as Leica did in a recent advertising campaign: "Sailor Nurse Kiss"; "Spain Falling Soldier"; "Vietnam Napalm Girl".

You will find many of these great photographs in a long rectangular backlit display case at a place called Leitz Park, on the outskirts of Wetzlar, a small town about an hour's drive from Frankfurt in south-west Germany. Unlike the rest of Wetzlar, which has its roots in the eighth century and is predominantly made from timber and brick, Leitz Park is mostly steel, concrete and glass, part of it in the shape of a grooved-rim lens. The site has been Leica's gleaming new headquarters since February 2014, and is a 15-minute drive away from its former home in Solms. It incorporates a factory, museum, exhibition space, cafe and, of course, shop where you may try to resist buying a Leica-insulated mug, a Leica umbrella, a USB stick that slots into a rubber key ring shaped like a Leica, and many T-shirts. The insulated mug, I imagine, does not keep your coffee much hotter than one you'd find in Starbucks for a third of the price, and the costly umbrella works pretty much like they all do. But cheapness has never been part of the Leica vocabulary. When it comes to the rather more desirable items in the store – not just cameras but monoculars, binoculars and gun scopes – the price has long since ceased to be a prime factor. If you want one badly enough, you will forego food to pay for one.

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The most affordable pocket digitals go for £500, the T-System starter pack (the body and one lens) costs around £2,700, and after that, when you start meddling with the professional range M-System and S-System, and you sort out not just your lenses and your filters but also your handgrip loop and your fancy carrying strap, you may not get much change from £20,000.

But as you watch cameras being coated and calibrated and caressed by patient, hair-netted, squinting men and women from behind glass on the Wetzlar factory tour, you may consider this to be the best money you will ever spend. Short of each product being fondly kissed by Heidi Klum as it leaves the factory, it is hard to imagine a creation of metal and glass having a more loving or purposeful start to its life. (And the word "factory" just seems plain wrong here: workshop is more like it. Every new camera body is assembled here, even though most of the lenses are now made under license in Japan.)

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During the few days I visited Wetzlar, Leica was celebrating not only the new building, but the centenary of its birth. Between 1913 and 1914, an asthmatic amateur photographer named Oskar Barnack was getting tired of lugging a tripod and heavy glass plates around his local German forest. He had began his career as an optics engineer at Zeiss, and, not long after he moved to rivals Leitz to specialise in precision microscopes, he wondered about using 35mm movie-film negative in a camera he could put in his pocket (rather than one of those bellow types where every plate had to be removed after a single use). The story goes – and who would be so glum as to dispute it? – that the number of frames on his first roll of film (36, the industry standard) arose from the length of Barnack's outstretched arms, the maximum number in one unspooled strip. The small metal prototype he constructed, which employed a lens previously milled for microscopy, was principally used by Barnack to take photos of his children and the Wetzlar streets (tourists now come to snap from the same spot where he took a picture of a large-timbered building, which still stands today). But the most important early photos were taken in 1914 by Barnack's boss Ernst Leitz II, who took Barnack's second prototype on a trip to New York and on his return pronounced it worthy of "keeping an eye on".

The camera's name was initially "Lilliput", and then "Leca" for LEitz CAmera, before settling on Leica. The First World War intervened, and the first production models only appeared in 1924. They were not an instant success: purists dismissed them as toys, and struggled to grasp the novel concept of producing a big picture from a small negative (Leitz also made enlargement apparatus). By the end of the Twenties, though, the camera's worth had been re-evaluated, and early adopters praised its portability and ease of use. The timing was perfect, and its emergence coincided with a boom in new aesthetic and practical possibilities in a rapidly changing world. Politicised artists such as André Breton and Alexander Rodchenko adored the potential of the "fixed explosive" that Leica offered – the freezing of motion in a world of revolution – while documentary photo-reportage was suddenly in huge demand from news magazines (Life magazine was about to enter its heyday and Picture Post would soon follow). And then a prince of photography put his "eye of the century" to the viewfinder, and the world through his lens appeared a little more focused. Henri Cartier-Bresson got his first Leica in 1932, and immediately saw it as a weapon. He had been big-game hunting in Africa and, using a vocabulary that has been part of the photographers' lexicon ever since (loading, shooting, capturing), compared the Leica to his gun. His targets were usually ordinary Parisians, and no one has ever taken a more inspirational portfolio of images (his only competitor in this field is Robert Frank, whose pictures for his 1958 book The Americans were also shot on a Leica).

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After the war, much of which he spent as a prisoner of the Nazis, Cartier-Bresson adopted a gentler and less confrontational approach, now comparing his talent to archery – an elegant swoop from a greater distance. He became the medium's first superstar, and by the time he co-founded the Magnum photo agency with Robert Capa and others in 1947, his work was already hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It wasn't long before pictures of Cartier-Bresson with his Leica pressed to his eye or strapped to his wrist became desirable in themselves.

One of these images, taken in the Sixties by Turkish photographer Ara Güler, showing him sipping tea with one hand and holding his Leica M3 in the other, sold for £8,235 at the auction directly following the opening of the new Leica headquarters. This was £1,500 more than a famous photo taken by Cartier-Bresson himself (the man in a mid-air leap over a puddle behind Gare Saint-Lazare); a feat that again tells us something about the power of Leica iconography. The four-hour sale held many such wonders: the bidding for a small wooden shop display stand with a Leica logo reached £4,650; an advertising poster went for £8,235; Elliott Erwitt's Magnum press card signed by Robert Capa reached £20,900. And then there were the cameras, topping out at £465,000 for an early motorised model from 1941, which was capable of taking 250 photos on a single roll of film (the camera of choice taken by crews on German Luftwaffe bombing raids, which goes some way to explaining its rarity).

The auction was called "100 Years of Leica", but anniversaries can be slippery things. Oskar Barnack first began building his prototype in 1913 and last year – perhaps in nervous acknowledgement that they might be missing the boat – Leica produced a stunning pictorial called Ninety-Nine Years. This truly was Leica porn: almost 300 pages of close-ups of cameras and ephemera combined with historical adverts, quotes from photographers and fetishes (women with Leica tattoos, Leicas with grenade fragments from war zones, fake Leicas from the Far East). The biggest emphasis in the book was on the classic M series, which for the last 60 years has been the cornerstone of Leica's philosophy. This is the system with everything: the ecstatic soft "kiss" of its shutter compared to the ker-klunk of its rivals; its combined rangefinder and viewfinder focusing window; the perfect calibration of dials. This is the classic picture of a camera one sees whenever a retro image is needed for cool notebooks or an iPhone case. In looks and mechanics it remains iconic, even after going digital almost a decade ago.

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But it's just a camera, of course. As may already have become clear, a Leica convert frequently checks their usual critical faculties at the door, leaving only rhapsodies. Apart from the price and the occasional niggle about a lens that for a while perceived black as purple, complaining about Leica would be like complaining about the qualities of a beautiful sunset – only the foolish claim they're not as good as they used to be. One thing Leica does particularly well these days is its relationship with its photographers (the stores offer not just coffee and ambience, but also training programmes, some of them without charge). At the Wetzlar festivities, photographers were canapéd out, and it was hard not to feel loved (the more we were loved, the more we felt like spending in the shop, of course). But some were even more loved than others. There was Nick Ut, full name Hu`ynh Công Út, incongruously grinning next to the photograph that won him a Pulitzer and made his career, of those kids running screaming after an aerial napalm attack in Vietnam. (For the record, Ut, an Associated Press staffer, put down his camera shortly afterwards and took the photo's naked girl, Kim Phúc, to a field hospital. He now lives in LA, Phúc in Toronto, and the two remain friends.)

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The Leicaflex, 1964

Elliott Erwitt, best known for his portraits of dogs and that smiling, kissing Californian couple in a wing mirror in 1955, was also at Wetzlar – a little more stately as he approached his 86th birthday. When I took a portrait of him with a digital Leica X2, I could see he wasn't impressed. He had founded his reputation on film, loved film, and now saw absolutely no reason to switch. He also reiterated his preference for monochrome. "I prefer black-and-white photos for aesthetic reasons," he said once. "Colour describes. Black-and-white interprets." There were many less famous souls, the semi-professionals with their weary lens talk (why the aspheric Noctilux 1.2/50mm trumps the Summilux 1.4/35mm, and don't even get me started on the Schneider Super-Angulon 21mm). And then there were the fanboys and girls, happy just to be part of it, something nice around their necks and still rather smitten.

One of these was Elizabeth Roberts, the editor of Black+White, a photography magazine that celebrates images from all brands. Roberts clearly has a favourite. "The first time I used an M9, I knew I had to buy one, whatever the cost," she told me. "Eventually, after borrowing the money, I bought one secondhand. Sometimes it sits on the table and I just look at it. It's a thing of beauty. But it is the results that I love the most – images that have the quality and look of film, and that Leica 'glow' to them (it is true). I don't think a Leica is right for everyone but, for me, it's perfect. It suits my personality – I love well-made things that last forever. I don't see myself ever buying another camera." But she feels less secure about the branding. "I don't like showing off that I have an expensive camera when I'm not a top photographer, so I put a little bit of gaffer tape over the red dot. Don't tell Leica."

The beauty of the machine, the craftsmanship on display and concealed, the red dot. Leica cameras have never just been about simply taking photographs, in the same way that Ducati has never just been about getting from A to B. Looking through a Leica (or now, with the T-System and its digital forebears, at a flat-glass screen), you look differently, you see more, you're forever hunting. The company has endured for 100 years because it still produces a camera that works not just for the assured professional, but for the unsteady composure of you and me. It's as true now as it was in 1948, when a man named Max Berek, who was responsible for the very first Leica lenses, proclaimed that the product "almost unavoidably leads to astounding results in the hands of laymen unfamiliar with the principles of photography."

It's only a trick of the light, but you may also feel it's a trick of the soul. And beyond that lies sheer joy, the feeling of holding something you know will enhance a life. When I first extracted my Leica T from its puzzle of boxes, and before pressing the shutter, I did one thing that I couldn't control. I looked at it with awe, considered its elegance in my hands, and just laughed with pleasure. 

uk.leica-camera.com

From the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of Esquire's Big Black Book, on newssstands now

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