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.