Blog post, Cameras
Comments 13

Did one camera change street photography?

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.*


Leica being used in 1938 by Picture Post Image ©Picture Post.

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.


WeeGee. © By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

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  



    • v70pdb says

      Contax began to make a 35mm camera shortly afterwards. The Contax 1 was their answer to Leica’s camera. I have one. It’s slightly larger and heavier. It had problems with shutters breaking. Mine is broken for example. It was considered superior in some ways to the Leica. To my m ind the controls are a little clumsy. Nevertheless, Leica had gained an early lead and had traction in the market.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thought provoking piece Peter. It leaves me wondering what the history of photography would be like if Doisneau, HCB and Kertesz hadn’t had their Leicas. I’ve no doubt they would have made their impact with other cameras but, would we still have the same great legacy of humanist photography had they used less nimble equipment? I suspect not. Best from Kovalam, John.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. v70pdb says

    Thanks John. And just imagine lugging a large plate camera with you on your travels, together with glass plates and developing equipment. We’ve come a long way.

    BTW.Looks like we are heading for Karnataka and then up to Dharamshala for our final trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The early Leica pictures represent a view of the world created by the elite, wealthy, professional and usually educated. The real freedom of photography came with the box Brownie and the participation of the masses, only then did we enjoy photography by the people for the people rather than the views of privileged class tourists in the name of journalism.

    The democracy and ethos of SP relies on accessibility, the Lieca brand has never and will never represent the masses, it was arguably the tool of choice for propaganda creation by the few of the many !

    Liked by 1 person

    • v70pdb says

      I don’t think I equated “street Photography” (SP) with popular photography. Though as I said SP is notoriously difficult to accurately describe.

      I’ll give you that the early Leica’s were pricey – and continue to be so – and therefore ruled out this type of photography for Joe public. But surely it’s only recently with the advent of the ever cheaper digitial ‘cost per image’ that the man in the street has become involved in SP – in a big way at least?

      And you could argue it was the 35mm mirrorless Leica that started this moved towards many exposures, easy of use and portability. Box Brownies were clunky, big, with few exposures and not very good lenses. So I think my argument holds. (Forgetting the affluence of the user angle of course.) Box Brownies were not influential in SP. They were instrumental in popular photography and in making family snaps. And there’s nout wrong with that.But it’s a horses for courses thing.


    • Although I wouldn’t have said no to a black paint M2 with black paint Leicavit,one sold at Sotheby’s recently for £ 380.000,I have a Fuji X much cheaper and I have never got fed up with it (like I usually do) 🙂


    • v70pdb says

      Thanks, for your comment but sorry, this isn’t a site which talks about present day cameras and lenses or discusses which is best.


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