Barnack's smile (2007)




About hundred yeass ago two fully unrelated innovations were created: the birth of the consumer and the concept of the Leica camera.Around 1910 Barnack (then an employee with Zeiss) thought about a totally new type of  photographic apparatus, utilizing rolls of movie-film to capture a series of pictures  without reloading and with a minimum of complexity (the camera body  should be small, compact and intuitive to handle).That design (and all subsequent camera models) was engineered within the mechanical tradition of the watchmaker and the craft of microscope construction. The precision engineered miniature camera had its own culture and industry. Development cycles were long, because the intricate nature of the mechanical components required a lengthy period of design and construction. And the mainly manual assembly labor force had to be trained to become proficient in the new assembly details.And, to be honest, no one needed a new camera every year. Cameras were designed and constructed for at least a decade of use and deployment. The photographic problems to be tackled were well known and any photographer learned to master the necessary tasks.Indeed, excellence could be defined as recognition of one’s own limitations in order to overcome them.  In  that same time slot in history, the consumer society was forcefully implemented by American firms like Ford, Gilette and others. Strange as it may now seem, the ’consumer’ as an economical and cultural entity did not exist before 1900. People bought goods and services of course, but the whole concept of the mass market was not yet invented.Both inventions have had an enormous impact on our culture and society. The small toy of the Leica has evolved in the current hype of DSLR’s, the stages being the coupled rangefinder, the single lens reflex, the automated pocket camera, the AF SLR and the Auto-all DSLR with integrated digital capture  system.The photo camera industry has for a long period of time followed the business model of the instrument maker industry: you focus on real needs and you introduce new models only when significant improvements can be realized. In the past a new camera model appeared once in a decade or twice in a decade. And camera models were carefully designed for different market segments. We had the Hasselblad for serious editorial and fashion photography, the Nikon F for high quality documentary and illustration work, the Canon F1 for the more scientific kind of photography, the Pentax for reportage coverage and the Leica M for the high profile artistic snapshot. The photographer made a choice and knew the limits of every camera type.The consumer electronic industry and the camera industry have merged into a new domain of digital image recording and the classical values do no longer apply.The product cycle has been shortened and now every 18 months or even very six months a new or improved model is being introduced. The consumer now wants every feature of every camera model to be incorporated in the camera model of his choice.