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ICONS: Leica M

Though we may be watch obsessed, borderline horological junkies, our fascination with all things mechanical does extend past watches. Here at Craft & Tailored, we’re particularly fond of documenting noteworthy moments and adventures in our lives, and what better way to do that than with a uniquely rewarding mechanical camera.

Just as many in the watch community have turned towards the back catalogs of the past for inspiration, so have photographers, as shooting 35 mm film through older cameras continues to experience a fervent resurgence. While your options are indeed many, it could be argued that no camera provides a user experience as meditative and precise as the Leica M – a notion supported by the extensive list of notable photographers who’ve shot the system in the past.

Jim Marshall (1936-2010) was the pre-eminent music photographer and journalist of the 20th century who used Leica M Cameras throughout his career.

Today, let’s explore the history of this legendary “piece of kit,” and discuss what exactly makes it so special.

To understand the M’s significance in photographic history, you first have to wrap your head around those that came before it, and the development of the Leica brand as a whole. With this in mind, what better place to start than in 1849, at the very beginning. It was during this now wildly important year that a mechanic by the name of Carl Kellner founded the Optisches Institut of Wetzlar, Germany, with the intention of manufacturing precise, high-quality microscopes. This intention would be soon be realized, as production numbers slowly grew, though Kellner would sadly not live to see his business reach its full potential. In 1855, tuberculosis would claim Kellner’s life at the most untimely, tender age of 29.

Despite Kellner’s passing, the future was still bright for the Optisches Institut. seeing as a comparably young and bright individual by the name of Ernst Leitz would soon enter the equation. Like Kellner, Leitz had a passion for all things mechanical, which would guide his decision to eventually leave school at the age of 15, and pursue internships in the Swiss watchmaking industry. His accomplishments would eventually lead him to join the Optisches Institut in 1864, where he’d soon become the managing director. Following this progress, the firm would be renamed the Ernst Leitz Optische Werke in 1869.

  •  Carl Kellner 1826–1855
  •  Ernst Leitz I (1843–1920)
  •  Oskar Barnack (1879-1936)

Though microscopes were in great demand, Leitz had other plans for his firm, which would be realized after Oskar Barnack began his tenure at the company which would soon become Leica. Being the innovator that Barnack was, he wished to incorporate Leitz’s knowhow and optical expertise into the related though a foreign field of photography, which he did with the prototype “Ur-Leica.” As you might be able to guess, the name Leica was derived through the combination of Leitz, and the word camera. While technically not the first camera to make use of 35 mm motion picture film, the Ur-Leica was far smaller than competing cameras of its era, urging Leitz to continue their efforts in this field. Such efforts would yield revised prototypes of the Ur-Leica, along with the release of the Leica A, and Leica I-III – which coincided with the development of world-renowned lenses.

Ur-Leica The Ur-Leica of 1914 represents a milestone in photographic history. It is the prototype for the first line of cameras that used film in the 24 x 36mm format

Given the drastically smaller form factor of Leitz and Barnack’s Leica cameras, photography was no longer the complex and demanding process it once was, sparking an all-new age of photography. Individuals with keen eyes could now keep a camera at their side, allowing them to document the world in a way that it had never been previously seen on film. Such individuals included now distinguished Magnum photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, who work with early Leica cameras are now regarded as some of the most impactful artistic expressions of the 20th century. This leads us to the camera we all know and love, the Leica Messsucher — meaning rangefinder — or more simply, M, which would finally see its release in 1954.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) French humanist photographer considered a master of candid photography, and an early user of 35 mm film who pioneered the genre of street photography

In an arguably puzzling manner, the M line began with the M3, which did away with the threaded mount of previous Leica’s in favor of a bayonet “M” mount. Like its predecessors, the M was still a precision rangefinder, though enhanced with slightly larger optical components, allowing for greater ease of use. As competition increased, the Leica M remained untouched, thanks again to its small form factor and wide range of impressive lens options.

Having said that, Leica consistently diversified the M line in the following years through the introduction of the M2, which incorporated different frame lines. (The founder and CEO of Craft + Tailored Cameron Barr personally shoots a vintage Leica M2 and we here at Craft + Tailored use a lot of the 35mm scanned film for our content, Yes we are that analog.)  and the M4, which refined the system’s film rewinding mechanism. These would, of course, be followed by the ugly duckling M5, M6, and M7 of later years, which incorporated light meters and more modern electronic components. The camera’s design, however, remained largely unchanged, which is undoubtedly the reason why the Leica M now enjoys its iconic reputation. Leica has even gone as far as carrying the instantly recognizable aesthetic over into their more recent digital M offerings, which could be mistaken as film bodies to the untrained eye.

"The Leica M design has remained largely unchanged, which is undoubtedly the reason why the Leica M now enjoys its iconic reputation"

To those not already invested into the world of the Leica, it can perhaps seem perplexing as to why M shooters are often watch collectors and car enthusiasts as well. Ultimately, a passion for the Leica M can be distilled down to an appreciation of fine mechanical instruments, in addition to careful craftsmanship, and flawless design. These are the same traits that we as collectors look for in vintage watches or automobiles of eras past, as they inspire us in the often mundane happenings of the day to day life. While Leica’s cameras are indeed accompanied by price tags comparable to that of desirable watches, their quality, and the quality of the images they produce cannot be stressed enough. It’s one of those scenarios where you really don’t know just how good they can be until you try one, which is why we’d surely recommend giving one a go.

Join us again soon for further exploration of the world of all things Leica, as we analyze important iterations and figures throughout the history of the M.

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