The Leica camera is the same outsider today that it was at the beginning of its existence more than 100 years ago, when German engineer Oskar Barnack created the prototype for what he called the Liliput in 1914. Film exposure was in its infancy then and only a few customers could afford a camera.
Today the Leica – short for “Leitz Camera” – is exotic again. A new exhibit at the C/O gallery Berlin called “Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography,” is a highlight of the early fall exhibition season in Germany’s capital.
The only thing the photographs have in common is that they were all taken with a Leica. But in effect, they form a comprehensive history of photography as a mass medium. Photography has struggled against the advent of television and downsizing in the magazine world, evolving into a more subjective, auteur-driven genre.
Without the Leica, which fits easily in a jacket pocket, the transformation of the visible world into arresting images would be inconceivable. The Leica made it possible to photograph things with limited lighting – as the photographer Erich Salomon so masterfully accomplished at a time when diplomats still sat together at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s wearing tails and starched collars. The small camera also allowed for an unbroken series of photos to be shot, one after the other until the 36 images on the roll were exposed, and as such was at the forefront of contemporary photography.
The glossy magazines from Munich or Berlin, then in the 1930s the Parisian “Vu,” featured the complex layout spreads from the likes of Walter Bosshard, the first professional photographer to work with Leica.
The comprehensive C/O Berlin exhibit, which runs through November 1, presents these magazines in showcases. Unlike in the early plate photography, 35 mm film was perfect for reproduction and therefore mass-media dissemination.
An important section is dedicated to the propaganda films of World War II. The magazine “Signal,” which was published in up to 20 languages, printed impressive color images from the photographers of the “Propaganda Company” (PK). Numerous names from the post-war Federal Republic of Germany are featured, including the work of war reporters Hanns Hubmann or Hilmar Pabel.
After the war, black-and-white photography experienced its second bloom in the form of “humanist photography,” for which the French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau are famous. Their themes were everyday life, people on the street, shots that were more random. That culminated in the “Family of Man,” exhibition from the MoMa in New York in 1955, which toured the world.
Spanish photography from the era of dictator Franco is one of the highlights of this exhibition of 400 pictures. The harsh Spanish light with its sharp shadows cannot be shown off better than with the assembled collection of snapshots in black and white in the exhibit.
The Leica epoch faced new challenges with the arrival of color photography. Arguably, the color photographs are not as striking as the conventional black and white ones. Photographers such as William Eggleston or Joel Meyerowitz stand out largely because they have an eye for color contrasts and dissonance. The abstraction achieved with black and white film is lost with the sensual fullness of the color image.
Rudi Meisel, who was born in 1949 and was a co-founder of the agency “Visum,” is one of those who held on to the Leica for his quiet observances. The exhibition dedicates a space to him on the top floor, showing his images taken in East and West Germany between 1977 and 1987, and conveying a strong sense of the divided Germany. The photos also showed the connections between the two sides behind the physical and political divisions. Mr. Meisel called his depiction of the parallel worlds simply “Countrymen.”
Video: The Leica exhibition was showing in Hamburg before coming to Berlin.
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel daily newspaper. To contact the author: email@example.com