- Words by Mr Henry Farrar-Hockley
Is the Instagramification of photography killing off the conventional camera? The shoot, edit and share convenience of smartphones is undoubtedly leaving its mark - the total number of compact cameras sold last year was down 40% from 2012, while WhatsApp users now wirelessly share 600 million photos per day. But at the top end of the camera market demand is still high, and you won't find a more premium manufacturer than Germany's Leica.
Leica cameras, which are coming soon to MR PORTER, are the antithesis of disposable photography and the apotheosis of covetable gadgetry. Their overall design has changed very little in 60 years, simply because they work so well. It's not just their reassuring heft, or the enjoyment of manually aligning the two images in the viewfinder to ensure perfect focus. You simply get a palpable sense of uncompromising precision when you pick one up. In an era when megapixels are erroneously valued as the measure of a camera's image quality, Leica prefers to focus on the quality of its lenses - and no one makes better glass.
This stubborn approach to camera design has only enhanced Leica's popularity. Its premium cameras are handmade in relatively small batches, and fans consider ownership of one of its flagship M cameras akin to investing in a Patek Philippe watch. Consequently, collaborations with the likes of Hermès tend to inspire buying frenzies. In 2010 a titanium-clad edition of the Leica M9 dreamt up by Audi designer Mr Walter de Silva allegedly sold out on its first day - probable when you consider there were just 500 made; not so when you consider they cost £19,800 each.
Mr Barnack pictured in his office at the Ernst Leitz Werke, Wetzlar, date unknown
Leica's prominence in photography began a century ago in 1914, when German optical engineer Mr Oskar Barnack developed a prototype alternative to the cumbersome plate cameras of the day. Little is known about Mr Barnack, who had been poached from Carl Zeiss in 1911 to head up the construction department at Leica, which was then known as Ernst Leitz and a leading producer of microscopes. Mr Barnack suffered from chronic asthma and thus hated having to carry the heavy tripods, boxes and flashguns necessary to operate plate cameras.
The prototype camera he built was called the Ur-Leica (Leica being a contraction of "Leitz" and "camera"). He repurposed the 35mm film stock commonly used in the movie industry and used it for a pocketable still-camera design that required only natural light to function. Photos could suddenly be taken anywhere and by anyone. The compact 35mm camera as we know it today was born.
Mr Barnack's penchant for innovation didn't end there. He created the 36-exposure film roll (36 frames being the farthest he could feasibly stretch his arms apart, according to Leica lore) and introduced a screw-mount system to Leica that allowed different lenses to be attached to the same camera. It was these features, coupled with the rangefinder system - a mechanism displayed in the viewfinder that allows the photographer to easily frame a subject, measure its distance and thus focus more accurately - that led Mr Henri Cartier-Bresson to famously describe his Leica as "the extension of my eye". In 1934 Mr Barnack also masterminded the Leica 250, a model dubbed the "Reporter" due to its 10m, 250-exposure film roll, although in doing so he arguably laid the foundations for the advent of the paparazzi.
The new Leica Camera AG facilities at Leitz Park Wetzlar, Germany, February 2014
The iconic design we now associate with Leica emerged in the 1950s with the revolutionary M3 camera (the "M" stands for meßucher, the German term for a combined rangefinder and viewfinder). Using a new bayonet lens mount together with a bright, high-magnification viewfinder and a rapid-wind lever for advancing the film, it sold a record 220,000 units in 12 years. The M-System still exists, and its roll call of owners speaks volumes - Messrs Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Man Ray, Helmut Newton, Robert Frank and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg all swore by theirs.
Naturally the company wasn't the first to market on every occasion: the digital camera was invented by Mr Steven Sasson at Eastman Kodak in 1975 (some 23 years before Leica brought out its first digital model). And the first camera to be used on the moon? A modified Hasselblad 500EL toted by Mr Neil Armstrong.
Despite this, Leica's iconic status is such that its cameras consistently fetch the highest prices at auction. A gold-plated 1932 Leica Luxus II was sold in Hong Kong last November for $620,000, while Sir Jonathan Ive and Mr Marc Newson's one-off Leica M design for PRODUCT(RED) was snapped up at Sotheby's in the same month for $1.8m. The record for any camera going under the hammer is a 1923 Leica O-Series, which fetched a handsome $2.79m in Vienna in 2012.
Today Leica's premium hardware is still handmade at its factory in Solms (although production is relocating back to Wetzlar at the end of May) and, fittingly for the year it is celebrating 100 years of photography, the brand is about to set another benchmark with the introduction of its Leica T compact camera system. Simply put, it's the best-looking compact system you'll lay eyes on. The result of a creative partnership with Audi Design, the camera body is milled from a single piece of aluminium to afford it the reassuring durability of its heftier forebears - not to mention a pleasingly tactile finish. A range of lenses has been designed to complement the camera's 16MP APS-C sensor and, because the T also features an integrated Wi-Fi module, you can sync your handiwork directly to your smartphone. Focus your attention on this and nine other exemplary Leica designs in our slideshow, above.