Remember: ‘Seeing’ is not about cameras.
Tony Kubiak, a fine photographer I once knew told me “It doesn’t matter if you didn’t capture it, just so long as you saw it”. The “it” in question at the time was an image I was telling him about; one which I had failed to capture.
Anyone involved in the practice of street photography – a subject notoriously difficult to precisely describe as the phrase means many things to many people – will tell you It’s important to carry a camera with you at all times.
Some would argue the camera which really changed the way we approached street work is the camera in our mobile phones. And, I suppose, working on the old cliche of “the best camera for the job is one you have with you at the time” as we have our phones with us most of the time it follows that could be the case.
Of course, the quality of the image from modern phones (written in 2016) is astounding which adds to the veracity of that argument; but, for me, the shift first took place back in the early -1910’s with the production of the Ur-Leica , the first of the 35mm cameras capable of being carried at all times yet still providing excellent results. Yes, there were small cameras prior to the production of the Leica Ur, the Vest Pocket Kodak for example, but image quality was relatively poor; it was a camera for the amateur.
After these first three Ur-Leica’s; yes only 3 were made, the imminence of the first world war in 1914 delayed development of Leica 35mm cameras. It wasn’t until 1925 we see a much-improved version of the clumsy 1913 Ur-Leica model, the Leica 1.*
The camera functioned in much the same way film cameras functioned from thence forward. Leica’s 35mm cameras set the standard. With the addition of an attached rangefinder to the early models which measured distance, and thus improved focus (built into later models) we saw what looked like The Modern Camera. A design which simply evolved over the ensuing years into what we see today.
The Leica was pocket sized. It was small. Yes, even by today’s standards, it was small and beautifully engineered. Being made of brass it was durable. The optics were outstanding.
For the age in which it was created it answered the requirements: it was portable; silent; it was fully adjustable; it had swappable lenses; it was easily focused and wonderfully engineered. It was the perfect tool for street photographers.
Right from the beginning, on the first few pages of its first edition in October 1938, the revolutionary Picture Post makes clear it’s using the 35mm format Leica when choosing to publish a “how was it done” piece picturing a modern operating theatre. You can see the be-gowned photographer using his Leica in the image above.
Of course, some photographers continued with large format cameras. WeeGee – on the left here- for example, real name Arthur Usher Fellig (1899-1968), was famous for using a large format 4X5 Speed Graphic camera and a large flash.
But the die was cast. 35mm for reportage, street, and photojournalistic work was to become the norm. Lugging a large plate camera and the film plates around was just not practical, nor was it unobtrusive. And there is the key. Most street photographers chose to be as unobtrusive as possible. 35mm sized cameras provide that level of invisibility.
Leica with its small size, portability and the excellent performance of the body and, in particular, the lenses, opened new doors for street photographers. In so doing Leica changed the way photographers worked in the streets.
Back to the question. Did one camera change street photography? Well, I hope I’ve shown that it did.
*Development had started after 1918 when Oskar Barnack had joined with Ernest Leitz. Pictures were made in the early 20’s with this format