100 years of Leica photography

The prototype of the famous compact camera Leica I was produced in 1914 – an exhibition for its anniversary

A young man with a determined gaze, tousled beard and black beret: this is the world’s picture of the revolutionary Che Guevara. The image can be seen in the millions, especially on posters and T-shirts. The picture, probably the most frequently reproduced portrait of Guevara, was taken by the photographer Alberto Korda: at a memorial service in Havana in 1960, he succeeded in making the snapshot of his life – with a Leica M2, a compact camera produced by the firm of Ernst Leitz Wetzlar, later Leica Camera AG.

Some decades before, in March 1914, the first functional prototype of a camera for 35 mm unexposed perforated film was born. The German precision engineer Oskar Barnack constructed the device, which, unlike heavyweight conventional cameras, fit into everyone’s pocket. Thanks to its fast shutter speed, it could also take spontaneous snaps from every angle. Because of the delay caused by the First World War, the Leica I compact camera could be presented to the public only in 1925 – with a welcome response, for it made photographing affordable. Professionals and amateurs alike could now experiment with the Leica I and its many subsequent models.

Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa

The exhibition Eyes Wide Open – 100 Years of Leica Photography documents the various facets of compact camera photography. Some 550 photographs by more than 140 artists recapitulate its history. But the development of the camera is not viewed in isolation. The exhibition is about a visual revolution triggered by a technical innovation. How has the compact camera, the view through the Leica viewfinder, changed our perception of the world? On display are works by internationally-known Leica photographers such as Alexander Rodtschenko, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. Among the pictures shown are icons such as the joyous kiss at the victory parade in Times Square, New York, in 1945, taken by the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, but the exhibition also includes less well-known photographs.

Eyes Wide Open – 100 Years of Leica Photography, until 11 January 2015 in the Hamburg Deichtorhallen, and then in Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna and Munich