Love your Leica (and I do)

LEICA: WITNESS TO A CENTURY by Alessandro Pasi, published in 2003 in Italy; English translation 2004.

Bookcase 8, shelf 3, book 17

Finally the dice select an illustrated book. I’m amazed it’s taken so long considering the huge number of illustrated books – art, history, natural history, practical titles – which I own. This is the first representative from the rather bloated photography section, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

It’s also a relatively recent contribution to my library, doubtless owing to the fact that I only bought The Camera of my Dreams (a Leica M6) in 2000 – and, of course, it wasn’t published until 2003. But my purchase probably made me more receptive.

So what is it about Leicas that makes them, I’m almost certain, the only brand of camera to have a book like this – one spanning a century, commercially produced, not a marketing tool – devoted to them?

It has to come down to the sheer quality of the lenses and the cameras, plus the fact that they are quick and almost silent to use which has made them the camera of choice for many, many, many great photographers. And of course you only have to buy a Leica to take shots worthy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Or Robert Capa. Or Mary Ellen Mark. Or Sebastiao Salgado. Or Elliott Erwitt (or any other Magnum photographers). 

Think of any great photograph of the last century, and the odds are that it was probably taken on a Leica. Marc Riboud’s photograph of a protesting girl holding up a flower against the guns of some US Soldiers? A Leica. Doisneau’s famous street scene? You guessed it.

Leicas were used to record the Spanish Civil War (think Robert Capa’s controvertial Death of a Rebublican Soldier), WW2 (on both sides – Leni Reifenstahl used one, as did Nazi propagandists), the fall of Berlin and the liberation of the concentration camps.

They were used to document everything from the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the plight of refugees in the former Yugoslavia to the development of the civil rights movement and a French family enjoying a Sunday picnic. And guess which camera Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (aka Korda) used to take his portrait of Che Guevara, immortalised on many a T-shirt and student wall?

Many of the most memorable images are included in this book, and there are some which may prove unfamiliar; as an Italian title, it does have a predilection for Italian photographers, but this is no distraction. In fact, it’s a plus – for me, anyway – because it brought me some unknown work among all those truly iconic shots. I actually bought the book because of a shot that was reproduced in the Guardian. 

It’s of two men in a cafe and is by Vanni Calanca , and beautifully illustrates the use of the Leica in ambient light…

But this book is more than just a collection of photographs, even though that would be good enough. It’s a history of the brand, if you like. There’s even a model ‘family tree’ and individual cameras are described (for all the techy photo nerds out there, of which there are many), with their changing functions highlighted. And the whole book is divided into historical phases from the earliest days of Ernst Leitz’s factory in Wetzlar through to the start of the twenty-first century.

All the photographic icons are set in their historical context, and wherever possible technical data is included. Korda’s Che was taken, for example, on an M2 with a 90mm telephoto lens. The shot was originally horizontal, but Korda realised that the vertical image had more impact, and was – essentially – just a better photograph.

One thing is missing from this book: the ‘Leica Freedom Train’.

Gradually, systematically, Ernst Leitz II (the head of the company in the 1930s) began moving lots of Jewish colleagues and friends out of Nazi Germany  after Hitler came to power, under the guise of sending them to work in overseas offices. After Kristallnacht these activities increased, but they had to stop in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and borders were closed. How did they manage to get away with this? Well, Leica was an internationally recognised brand which reflected well on Germany and that gave them some immunity, plus they were producing optical equipment for the army. Nazi Germany also needed funds, and Leicas continued to be in demand all over the world.

Despite being a jewel in the crown of the Reich, members of the family and staff were caught helping Jews and imprisoned – bribes, on one occasion, securing a release. The Leitz family wanted no publicity for their efforts after the war, though Elsie Kuhn-Leitz (EL II’s daughter, who also got into trouble attempting to improve conditions for slave labourers) was recognised for her work, and it is only recently – after the death of the last member of the family – that the whole business has been fully understood.

I must admit that the Leni Reifenstahl / propaganda photographs for Signal thing had made me feel vaguely uneasy about owning my Leica – probably daft, but there you go – but I’m glad I can be (even more) proud of it now. It really is a masterpiece, advance of digital or not, and this book reflects that.

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