As you may have noticed, we are big Leica fans here at Dodge & Burn. Next year, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the camera that started it all: the Ur-Leica. We decided to pay tribute to this historic camera with a new tee we've called "The Original".

This design features a hand drawn illustration of the camera as well as a detailed call-out of the accessory viewfinder.


These illustrations are set within the context of an original essay we wrote outlining the history of this camera and it's creator Oskar Barnack. The overall composition is designed to look like an encyclopedia entry.  

Here is a transcription of the essay (including footnotes):

Ur-Leica (i.e. original Leica [1]) is the name posthumously given to a prototype 35 mm camera made by Oskar Barnack [2] in 1914 [3]. It's revolutionary design made it the first successful small-format, compact camera. It formed the basis of 20th century camera design, ushered in the Golden Age of photojournalism and generally expanded the range of photographic possibilities.

Two unrelated factors gave Barnack the impetus to design the Ur-Leica. First was an asthmatic condition that made it too difficult for him to carry a heavy view-camera, especially on alpine walks during which he enjoyed taking landscape photographs. Barnack desired a small precision camera that could travel easily. The second factor was his fortuitous discovery that enlargements from very small negatives could make high quality images. Barnack came by this realization while developing an exposure-testing camera for motion pictures. Thus, the solution to Barnack’s need for a compact camera capable of sharp photographs was embodied in the Ur-Leica.

The Ur-Leica introduced many features that became standard in camera design and would be scarcely, if at all, improved upon. For example, Barnack’s design perfected the use of 35mm film for still-photography. While the Ur-Leica was not the first camera to use kino film or 35mm cinema film, Barnack oriented his camera horizontally to facilitate a wider image, doubling the size of the exposure from the cinematic 18x24 mm to 24x36 mm. The Ur-Leica also combined film advance and shutter cocking into a unified mechanism, eliminating the risk of double exposures. Another lasting feature first introduced with the Ur-Leica was the accessory shoe Barnack built onto the camera to hold the external viewfinder. One hundred years later, cameras are still equipped with nearly identical accessory shoes.

The legacy of the Ur-Leica is not only technological; it is also artistic. Its artistic legacy can be appreciated by considering the many important photographers who used Leica cameras. Indeed, some photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson became inextricably linked to their Leica. Cartier-Bresson saw his Leica as an extension of his eye. Other prominent Leica users who have changed the art of photography include Alfred Einstaedt, Andre Kertesz, Ben Shahn, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Horst Faas, Nan Goldin and Sebasto Salgado.


[1] Leica is a portmaneau word combining Leitz and Camera. Although the roots of Leica extend back to 1849, it was Ernst Leitz I (1843-1920) who grew the company through improved operations and increased marketing efforts. His son Ernst Leitz II (1870-1956) apprenticed at the company as a teenager and assumed its leadership in 1920 at the death of his father. Faced with lagging sales in a depressed post-war German economy, Ernst Leitz II put a small 35mm camera into production in 1924 and introduced it the following year at the Spring Trade Fair in Leipzig. It was marketed as a “Leica” and was a success.

[2] Oskar Barnack (1879-1936) was a German optical engineer who joined Leica in 1911. He is considered the father of 35mm photography. Barnack had originally proposed the 35mm camera concept when he worked at Zeiss. The idea was rejected. Of his role in developing the Ur-Leica Barnack recounted that “by blithely ignoring the conventional, and by hardly using any of the criteria which were being considered essential to good photographic cameras until then, this novel type of camera came into being.”

[3] 1914 was an eventful year. Charlie Chaplin made his film debut in Making a Living. Babe Ruth made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox. Sir Ernest Shackelton begins his attempt to cross the Antarctic on the Endurance. The Panama Canal was officially opened. Gandhi returns to India from South Africa to lead the Indian independence movement. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated, sparking World War I.