I’m completely besotted with early Leica cameras, as you can tell from the header image (1952 Leica 1f red dial with SBOOI 5cm viewfinder and FOKOS rangefinder). There is a watch-like precision, a combination of delicacy and solidity, about them which gives them a character and beauty that no other camera, or any other consumer product for that matter, can match. They are mostly made of plated or enamelled brass (with an alloy body) and the quality of the finish and operation comes from years of manufacturing precision optical instruments prior to the introduction of the camera in 1925. The story of how the Leica was invented is well known, but worth repeating. A brilliant engineer, Oskar Barnack, working for Ernst Leitz in Wetzlar, Germany at the beginning of the last century, designed a miniature camera using 35mm wide cine film, rather than the larger Kodak films, or glass plates, that were common at the time. A stroke of genius was to combine it with superb optics so that the small negatives could be enlarged to the same size and quality as the much larger glass plates. The Leitz head of optical design, Professor Max Berek, developed a 50mm lens for the camera which was so good it was used for the next thirty years (the Elmar lens). WW1 interrupted design on the Leica (LEItz CAmera) and it was launched in 1925 at the Leipzig Spring Fair to great acclaim.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact this first modern camera had at the time, as the shape and configuration are so familiar now. Tens of thousands were sold in the first few years of production. Several outstanding photographers started using the Leica and their work quickly dispelled any ‘toy’ like image such a small instrument might have had among professional photographers. A golden age of creative photography and photo-journalism began with the likes of Alexander Rodchenko, Andre Kertesz, Paul Wolff, Arvid Gutschow, Ilse Bing, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The first cameras had a fixed 50mm lens which could not be removed, but in 1930 screw fixed lenses were introduced with the Model C and the Leica became the first ‘System’ camera. In a very short time several lenses of different focal lengths were available as well as a multitude of accessories, some of which could be attached to the camera by another Barnack invention, the slide-in accessory shoe on top of the body, still a part of many digital cameras today (Model C below – with a selection of lenses and a FOFER rangefinder in the accessory shoe).
As early as 1933 the accessories catalogue ran to nearly 100 pages! Most of these often tiny devices had an exquisite functional quality about them. No product designer was involved, only Barnack, Berek, or Ernst Leitz, and so their appearance is simply a result of the finest possible optical and mechanical engineering – a perfect example of Form following Function.
This is the first of a series of posts devoted to these miniature masterpieces.
The viewfinder in the standard camera is a ‘reverse Galilean’ type with an angle of view suited to the 50mm lens (this focal length was chosen because it approximated to what the eye sees) and so for a wide-angle or telephoto lens another viewfinder would be used. The first ‘Universal’ type (ie for lenses of different focal lengths) introduced in 1931 and generally known as a Torpedo Finder, and by Leitz as the ‘Small Universal Viewfinder’, had etched lines on the glass lens so that you could estimate the different fields of view for each focal length. There was only a single prism which made the image the right way up, but it was reversed left to right. They came in a variety of types (same exterior) to suit different lens combinations (Leitz catalogue/telegraphic codes*: VISOR, VISIL, VISET, and others).
Leica 1 Model C with 9cm* (uncoupled) f4 Elmar
A great portrait by A Skurikhin taken in 1933 of Alexander Rodchenko looking through a torpedo finder (with a FOFER rangefinder clipped into the accessory shoe) on a Leica 1 Model C with 135mm* Elmar lens (or possibly a Hektor although it was only introduced in 1933). This is the same combination as the image above. Rodchenko bought his first Leica, a 1A in late 1928, and was using this Model C a few years later to photograph Stalin’s notorious White Sea Canal project. There is a photograph of him in 1936 with both cameras around his neck. The same year he bought a Leica III.
*cm and mm seem to vary on early lenses and in the first catalogues
The second version introduced in 1933, the Large Universal Viewfinder (or VIDOM), had an adjustable black mask which could alter the actual opening you looked through by rotating the ribbed ring at the front (the rear ring rotated the mask for using the camera vertically). So for the wide angle lens it was fully opened up giving you a wide view, and for the different telephotos it was gradually reduced in size approximating to what you would see on the negative. For the longest telephoto (135mm marked on the lens but shown as 13,5 on the viewfinder), you squinted through a tiny opening. The image was still reversed however. The VIDOM also had a clever cam operated parallax adjustment which altered the angle of the viewfinder depending on the distance you were from the object being photographed. Look at the exquisite details on this tiny device. This is the earliest version in nickel and black enamel, which is the one I like best. Later ones were partly or all chromed.
On the left is the brilliant but now sadly forgotten Paul Wolff with a later chrome version of the VIDOM. With his books and photographs Wolff was probably the photographer who did the most to promote the Leica and 35mm film photography in its early days. His 1937 book ‘Arbeit’ (Work) is a masterpiece of industrial imagery (it could be criticised as Nazi propaganda like the films of Leni Riefenstahl, but there is no apparent glorification in these images, just an aesthetic appreciation of work). On the right is Yevgeny Khaldei, the Russian photographer who produced some of the outstanding images of WW2, including the raising of the red flag over the Reichstag, and the Nuremburg trials. His Leicas also have chrome VIDOMs attached.
The third and final version was introduced in 1939, code name VIOOH, and incorporated another prism which enabled the correct image to be shown. It was produced, almost unchanged, for 25 years, only ending production in 1964. This is a 1954 Leica IIIf Vorlauf (with self timer) with a 9cm Elmar lens, FIKUS adjustable lens hood, and VIOOH on top, one of the most beautiful combinations of materials, finishes, and precision components ever assembled in a consumer product. Steve Jobs was apparently inspired by these Leicas when the iPhone 4 was being designed. Not much of a comparison though!
Probably the most celebrated Leica with a VIOOH is the one above right belonging to Alfred Eisenstaedt, one of the greatest of photo-journalists. His best known image is the snatched shot of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, New York on VJ Day 1945. All of his work is outstanding from early photographs of Goebbels before and after realising that Eisenstaedt was Jewish, to images of Hiroshima, and the best ever portraits of Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe.
This series IIIa VJ Day Leica was sold in 2013 for 114,000 euros. He used the same camera for one of his last photo-essays, of the Clintons, in 1993! If you don’t know of him have a look on Google images or the Life photo archive, hosted by Google and Getty Images:
A link to this famous camera and photographer (and one of the best photography blogs):
Eisenstaedt Leica photograph from Westlicht Photographica Auction, the best regular auction site for all things Leica, especially rare and unusual ones:
The photographer and Leica enthusiast Thorsten Overgaard has an interesting post about Paul Wolff:
For really good images and descriptions of these viewfinders:
For an excellent technical description of various types of viewfinder:
Other Opinionated Designer posts on Leica:
The ‘bible’ for accessory aficionados is ‘Leica, An Illustrated History, Volume III – Accessories’ by James Lager (1998 ISBN 0-9636973-3-1)