Leica Turns 100

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As the world's original mobile camera celebrates its centenary, top Guardian photographers send their birthday messages to the little black box that changed their world.

Henri Cartier-Bresson with his trusty Leica in 1957. Photograph: Jane Bown

Eamonn McCabe

Now that we all carry cameraphones in our pockets, it's hard to imagine that the biggest breakthrough in photography actually happened back in 1914 – when Oskar Barnack invented the Leica.

Suddenly, photographers could throw away their heavy tripods and exploding flashguns, and step out of their studios to walk the streets and take photographs with this new mobile camera.

Barnack, a German optical engineer who specialised in microscope research, was also a keen amateur photographer, but his health was poor and he couldn't carry the heavy cameras of the time. He quickly turned his prototype Ur-Leica into a lasting success. By 1932, there were 90,000 cameras. By 1961, a million cameras were in use.

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1970-1973 [From Chromes] Photograph: courtesy of The Eggleston Artistic Trust. This image is currently on show at Tate Modern

Anyone who is anyone in photography has used the "miniature miracle", as it was known at the time – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Capa, Magnum's great war photographer. More recently, Sebastião Selgado used his Leica to shoot an extraordinary series of images of Brazilian gold mines. William Eggleston, known for his large-scale colour-saturated prints of everyday life, is an obsessive collector: he has more than 300 Leicas and has shot most of his negatives, now numbering some 1.5m, on them. He keeps them all in customised leather cases. How does he ever choose which one to use?

Bruce Davidson, another Magnum photographer, has always used Leica cameras: "For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it's small, it's relatively light, it's quiet and unobtrusive and they don't look like cameras," he said in an interview on Leica's blog. "For example, right now I'm thinking about doing something where I want to walk around the streets. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet, and that means Leica."

People who own them swear by them. Some have their Leicas locked up in bank vaults and many watch the value of their cameras soar as photographers become disillusioned with digital photography.

Milestones in their development include the rangefinder cameras like the legendary Leica M3 (in 1954) and the M6 (in 1984), a Fleet Street favourite. At the same time, Leica lenses were beginning to be known as some of the sharpest lenses around and Leica binoculars were also wowing the world.

The R-System, an SLR camera that many Leica M users never came around to, kicked off in 1976 with the Leica R3 – their first electronic camera. In the late 1980s, they introduced their first point-and-shoot model first digital camera, the Leica Digilux.

Leica has become photography's badge of style – though not everyone knows how to use them properly. As Mr Holve, a camera blogger, told the New York Times, Leica aficionados can be divided into two groups: shooters and carriers. "Carrying a Leica around can be a little like driving a Bentley," Mr Holve said. "Just because you can afford it, doesn't mean you're a good driver."

Rudolf Nureyev, 1981 Photograph: Denis Thorpe for the Guardian

Denis Thorpe

My firm favourite is the M2. It's so quiet, so beautiful and the rangefinder is so precise. I have traded many cameras over the years, but I would never give up my M2. If I was sent to a desert island I would take it with me – provided I could get some film and paper.

I could never afford a black Leica, so I bought a silver one and covered it in black tape. Nobody could see it, and nobody could hear when I took pictures. I took the Nureyev photograph on it, one of my favourites.

Sean Smith

I used the Leica M series for everything, from the late 80s up to the early 2000s, when everyone working for news media had to ditch film. At that time, Leica were not making a suitable digital camera. Its future looked set to be as an exquisite accessory for the mega-rich (it was owned by Hermès for a while), among them the Queen, who is a longtime owner – and doubtless has an exceptional archive of the "upstairs-downstairs" life of grand houses.

In the last few years, at last, Leica have made up for lost time. With the new M Type 240, it has produced a camera that could be as revolutionary for documentary video as its first camera was for still photography.

What makes the new Leica so special is that the rangefinder gives the intimacy of a small camera, but you also get its legendary lenses. I think a new kind of journalistic video will be able to take a very large step forward thanks to the M type 240, and the new video function on this camera could be as important as those early Leicas.

I'm not sure how the traditional telegram of congratulations will be delivered to Leica on its 100th birthday – but it's not far to Leica's Mayfair offices from the Mall.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian and features ROSEGALLERY artists William Eggleston and Bruce Davidson. To view the article in it's original context, click here.