GERMANY - JULY 04: Reproduction made by the German camera manufacturer Leitz. Oskar Barnack (1879-1936) developed this, the prototype for the first small commercial Leica camera between 1912 and 1914, whilst he was head of the experimental department at Leitz. The camera was fitted with a helical focusing lens in a collapsible mount and a focal plane shutter of the roller blind type. Although Leitz had never produced cameras for the general market they had a considerable reputation for producing high quality optical instruments. The revolutionary Leica was eventually launched on the market in 1925. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Celebrating 100 years of the Leica

January 28, 2013 | By Sarah McDonald | Archive, Photojournalism

Hulton Archive celebrates the 75th anniversary of Picture Post magazine in October 2013 and in this monthly series, we’re taking a look at some of the key players who helped create the magazine’s lasting reputation as a leader of 20th Century photojournalism.

First up is a piece of kit which, by co-incidence, also has a big birthday in 2013. The legendary Leica camera was conceived 100 years ago by German optical engineer Oskar Barnack. His prototype – dubbed the Ur-Leica – was the world’s first 35mm film camera, although the outbreak of World War I meant it was another 12 years before the first practical model – the Leica I — rolled off the production lines to change the course of photography.

Compact, lightweight, able to shoot in low light with faster shutter speeds and able to take up to 40 successive shots without reloading, the Leica became an indispensable “extension of the hand,” giving photographers undreamed-of flexibility following the limitations of traditional, heavy, plate cameras. Across continental Europe, particularly in Germany, emerging photojournalists –  together with innovative editors experimenting with photographic layouts and design — pioneered a new visual language via pictorial magazines.

As WWII approached, these pioneers left Germany for Paris, New York and London spreading the use of the camera as they went. Robert Doisneau, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Ilse Bing “Queen of the Leica” were all early converts.  Since then, many classic shots, such as Albert Korda’s iconic image of Che Guevara and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day Kiss , have been captured on the Leica and today vintage models break auction records.

In 1938, photographers Kurt Hutton, Tim Gidal and Felix Man, who left Nazi Germany to settle in England, were re-united with fellow émigré, the pictorial magazine editor Stefan Lorant, on a new British venture: Picture Post.

The magazine, presenting its stories through photo-essay style layouts made possible by small-format camera technology, was unlike anything else on the newsstands. Whilst British press photographers ridiculed the foreign “toy cameras,” the public embraced the bold, picture-led design, taking the magazine to their hearts.

The oft repeated myth that Picture Post’s proportions mimicked the 35mm negative’s 2:3 aspect ratio is untrue. However, as in all great periods of creativity, the invention of the Leica was one of several vital elements that came together at the right time and place to create the Picture Post legend…

Editor’s note: Sarah McDonald is a Curator of Editorial Imagery for Getty Images, based at the Hulton Archive. Next month she’ll focus on the mercurial “godfather of photojournalism,” Picture Post’s founding editor, Stefan Lorant.

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