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Leica: The story behind the world's coolest camera brand

Words by Rob Chilton

What began as a microscope company in Germany almost 150 years ago is today a hipster camera brand with a flagship store in The Dubai Mall. EDGAR trawled the archives of Leica to see how the company has developed

Staring at the beautifully-made cameras inside the pristine Leica store in The Dubai Mall, it’s hard to believe that this cool German brand was helped on its way by bacteria. Back in 1884 Robert Koch’s discovery of tuberculosis and Friedrich Löffler’s exploration of diphtheria meant microscopes were in demand.

Twenty years earlier Ernst Leitz had come to Wetzlar in Germany to work in Friedrich Belthle’s Optical Institute that made microscopes. After the death of his boss Belthle, Leitz took over and in 1869 renamed the company Ernst Leitz Optical Works.

Ernst Leitz senior founded the company in 1869

In the last two decades of the 19th century, around the boom time of research into infectious diseases, Leitz became the largest manufacturer of microscopes in the world, churning out 4,000 pieces a year. By 1912, his output had soared to nearly 12,000. The out of date monocular microscope was replaced in 1913 by Leitz’s binocular microscope we recognise today.

Around this time, Leitz and his team started experimenting with making portable cameras. Inventor and photographer Oskar Barnack led the way with the 35mm Ur-Leica in 1913. When Leitz died in 1920 his son Ernest Leitz II took over the business and expanded production in the camera division. Wondering what to call his new department, Leitz took the first three letters of his surname and the first two of the word ‘camera’ to create the word Leica.

The 35mm Ur-Leica from 1913

Fast forward to 2018 and Leica opened its first store in the Middle East with a devoted fan in Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council, who has often posted his collection of Leica cameras on his Instagram feed.

Still handmade in Germany, the complete Leica collection is in store, from high-tech professional models to compact cameras. The camera that epitomises the Leica DNA, however, is the digital M10, which has evolved over many decades and now sells for around AED 27,000, with lenses ranging from AED 7,000 to AED 47,000. Famous fans of the Leica M over the years include Queen Elizabeth II, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Pablo Picasso, Daniel Craig, Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando.

Cameras can be customised in coloured leather

Leica cameras have been in the hands of photographers at some of the most pivotal moments in history. Iconic images such as the kiss on V-J Day in Times Square from World War II by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl in the Vietnam War, and Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier from 1936 were all taken with a Leica. Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the originator of street photography, favoured a Leica. More recently, White House photographer Pete Souza used a Leica to capture President Barack Obama and his team nervously clustered in the Situation Room as they watched the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011.

Leica cameras in production

As with any technical hobby, the accessories are all part of the fun. Sitting on shelves in the boutique are camera bags from New York brand Ona and German company Oberwerth that are so beautiful you’ll want one even if you don’t own a camera. Coloured camera straps, meanwhile, come from Greek design brand Rock n Roll and include a version in the colours of the UAE flag. You can even buy a Leica t-shirt.

Cameras can be customised in many ways to suit the fussiest photographers. Select chrome or black buttons and features; engrave your signature onto the camera; or choose from lizard, crocodile, ostrich and snake leather in a variety of colours to wrap around the body of your camera. You can remove the red Leica logo if you wish, but that feels like sacrilege to us.

The M10 in silver is a Leica stalwart

Three 60-minute tutorials are free to customers who buy a Leica and, once you’ve nailed that killer image, you can upload it to the Leica UAE site and the store will blow it up and print it onto paper or canvas and deliver it to your door in two days. The store will host photography exhibitions from professional Leica snappers.

Oskar Barnack at work

Should you drop by the store, ask for a demo and be sure to listen carefully to the sound of a Leica camera taking a picture. It’s a wonderfully precise and mechanical noise that differs from camera to camera because all Leicas are handmade, which means the turning of a screw by a technician alters the sound inside.

Having heard that nostalgic Leica click, every time you use your camera phone afterwards and hear its electronic sound effect, a little piece of you may die.

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