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Does “Leica Photography” exist?

In the early 1920s Leica photography (Leitz for a short time even used the designation: “Leicagraphy”) was synonymous with miniature format photography. The Leica camera had no competition (until the announcement of the Zeiss Contax) and its compact size and fast handling allowed many a revolutionary photographer to select standpoints and viewpoints that departed from the conventional rules. It was possible now to record so-called dynamic scenes (life as it enrolled before the eyes of the observer). Leitz promoted this style of photography (persons (often scantily clad females) jumping in a river, children playing on a swing, portraits in dimly lit rooms, family scenes. There are a few scenes in the famous movie (Heimat) where family celebrations are fixed for history with a picture taken with a Leica. Others, notably Paul Wolff, promoted the excellent quality of the Leica lens and the film emulsion with pictures of exquisite quality to challenge the large format community.
In the thirties and fifties of the twentieth century photographers roamed the streets of New York and Paris to capture life as it exhibited itself in public space. Street photography and documentary photography became closely connected with the Leica camera. The rangefinder had its advantages compared to the slow focusing of the dark screens of the typical SLR and twin reflex, although many users of this type could produce pictures that were uncannily close to classic Leica pictures. Photographers did choose the 35 mm camera because it was the cheaper option, negative for negative.
So a handful of iconic photographers and their style set the rule for what Leica photography should be. The claim to be an art form settled the matter. Now every aspiring Leica photographer had to prove that s/he could produce pictures in the mould of the masters (Winogrand. Meyerowitz and so on).
The sobering truth is that today the Leica photographer is a photographer using a Leica camera. For a long time Leica photography was a life style and an attitude for realistic photography. Now photographers with a Leica emulate whatever is prominent in the arts scene.
There is a heavy dependance on engineering technique and optical quality. It is no coincidence that many Leica buyers argue that the choice for Leica has been inspired by the quality of the lenses. In the current time frame where fast autofocus rules and fast sequences (up to ten pictures/second) are the norm, the whole idea of waiting for the moment to freeze a dynamic moment in carefully composed construction is a bit out of order.
In social media the usual discussion about the composition of a picture is rather embarrassing: comments like “slightly more to the left” or “a bit more space at the bottom” or (technically) “a bit more highlights” or “more shadow details” indicate the level of the discourse. The basic truth is that the whole idea of artistic composition is a no-brainer when engaging in street photography: the chance factor plays too much a role.

In 1933 the exhibition “Die Kamera” was very popular. It was a display of what photographers (professional and amateur) could accomplish with the tools of the day. Paul Wolff (in his “Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica”1939) referred to this exhibition and used the standard of quality of the “better photograph” (das bessere Bild) to start a discussion about what the user of a Leica camera should strive for and even imitate. He divides the photographic community in two main groups: the professional photographer (Berufslichtbildner) and the amateur photographer. This second group is composed of amateurs who want to take his photography to a higher level and those who want to take pictures of important events for the sake of remembrance. (Erinnerungsbilder). (it is remarkable that Wolff and his companions hardly mention the woman-photographer who features prominently in the Kodak box photography of the 1890s). The main thrust of his book is the reasoning that the small format photography challenges the capabilities of amateur and professional photographer to the same extent. In this sense there is no major difference between both types of photographers. The important task for every small format photographer is to find a technical method that guarantees a perfect result. One should remember that Barnack’s ambition was the development of a new and very convenient amateur camera. The features of this compact camera allowed many artists to develop a new pictorial and surrealist style, the New Vision.
Wolff dedicated all his energy to the description of a method that combines fine grain with good sharpness and concludes that these basic ingredients have to be complemented by a fair dose of artistic craft, honed by studying masterful examples.
Most ideas and recommendations in the book are now obsolete or accepted as the desired standard. The focus on the motivated amateur as distinct from the snap-shooter (der Knipser) is even today of topical interest. There were a number of Leica users who achieved celebrity status as an artist. Many iconic pictures were made by the like of Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Lebeck, Shulthess, Eugene Smith, Eisenstaedt, Davidson, Eggleston, Winogrand, and Frank. These pictures are still the guiding light for many aspiring Leica photographers.
The art community has since the 1960s grasped photography as an art form and means of communication. There is now an abundant and diverse body of literature about photography as art and it seems that the only serious approach to photography is through one of several iconic art styles. As with the distinction between high and low art, there exists an almost impenetrable wall between art and snapshot photography , the latter looked at with disdain and hardly worth of mentioning by practitioners and theorists of high-brow art.
Even today the humble snap-shot, often out of sight in family albums, is hardly discussed. Without the Kodak innovation, around 1890, photography as we know it, would not have existed. Barnack’s amateur camera continued this tradition of easy capturing the fleeting events that surround us and we deem worthy of recording and remembering as it really was.
The theoretical distinction between artistic intention and mechanical reproduction is the dividing line
between pictorial art and the snapshot. Another distinction that conveys the same information might be the difference between photographic pictures as depictions (with all the philosophical load attached to this concept) and photographic pictures as aids for detection. The argument to use this distinction is a certain approach to photography. Photography can be interpreted as a technology, a process, a procedure and a social process and one can focus on the photograph as an art form, independent of the methods of production. In theoretical terminology it is the distinction between aesthetic value and epistemic value.

Leica photography can be looked at from many different perspectives. Before we can discuss the characteristics of taking photographs with a Leica and the special traits of a Leica photograph, it makes sense to look at the phenomenon of photography itself. There are more definitions and descriptions of what photography is or should be or might be and even has been than can be listed.
The technical definition of photography goes like this:
Photography is the science, art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film.”(Focal Encyclopedia, 1973)
Such a definition is not very enlightening because it restricts itself to a bare bones description of the physical processes that are involved in taking a picture.
Bourdieu (1965) takes a more interesting view: he looks at the photographic practice as a social phenomenon and the meaning of a photographic image within this context. He describes photography as a middle-brow art, not unlike the description of the photography of Cartier-Bresson as an artless art.

Leica photography is basically the activity of taking pictures with a Leica camera and even more specific with a Leica coupled rangefinder camera. The argument that using a specific photographic tool will have impact on the style, themes and genres of the photographs will be discussed later.