Fun fact: did you know that the German company that now brings us beautifully crafted and technically excellent cameras started out by making telescopes?
Trace the roots of Leica Camera AG and you’ll discover that it all started in 1849 with the Optical Institute founded by Carl Kellner in Wetzlar, Germany. Upon the death of Kellner, the business changed hands to his business partner, Friedrich Christian Belthle, who subsequently passed the workshop onto engineer Ernst Leitz in 1869 upon his own death. The company was renamed the Optical Institute of Ernst Leitz and was focused on producing high-quality microscopes with the addition of projectors and binoculars at the turn of the 19th century.
It wasn’t until 1914, three years after optical engineer Oskar Barnack joined the Ernst Leitz company, that the world’s first easily portable camera was invented. Originally known as Liliput—now commonly referred to as the Ur-Leica Prototype—the 35mm lens camera created by Barnack was put into production in 1925 and branded Leica; a portmanteau of ‘Leitz’ and ‘camera’.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the third construction stage of Leitz Park has finally been completed in Wetzlar. The global headquarters for Leica Camera AG has firmly returned to its roots.
Built on an entrenchment field purchased in 2007 by Dr Andreas Kaufmann (majority shareholder of Leica Camera AG), Leitz Park is the embodiment of Kaufmann’s vision to create a World of Leica and it includes a boutique 129-room Arcona Living Ernst Leitz Hotel; Café Leitz (best home-made desserts in Wetzlar); a contemporary office tower for Leica employees; production facilities of Leica’s sister company CW Sonderoptic (already famous for providing the Summilux-C lenses to film the movie Birdman that went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography); a new factory museum; and the Ernst Leitz Werkstätten (the workshop for the new ‘Made in Germany’ Leica watch that was launched in conjunction with this third stage of Leitz Park). As you can see, Leica is, once again, branching out from its original product offering.
Fresh from tucking into a doughy pretzel (when in Germany, do as the Germans do?), I speak to Karin Rehn- Kaufmann—art director of Leica, chief representative of Leica Galleries International and wife of Dr Kaufmann— about the Leica difference, what makes for a good picture and why Leitz Park is the new must-visit destination for photography enthusiasts. Pilgrims, your photo mecca awaits.
ESQ: So Karin, in your opinion, what makes for a good image?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: The first thing for me is the emotion. Because when you look at the picture, it has to strike you. This is very important for me. The second thing to consider is whether the picture has a story to tell. Something that is interesting—sometimes it is shocking, sometimes it is poetic. Of course, you have to consider the structure and composition of the photograph. I personally don’t like it when there is too much harmony; when everything is too structured and too perfect. Finally, the light and shadow is also very important because the word photography comes from γραφή (graphé) that means to draw; so it is all about light and shadow.
ESQ: On the spectrum between technical skill and creating an evocative image—that is, something quantitative versus something qualitative—where do you lie? Are you more on the qualitative side? Do you care less about the technical aspects of photography?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Yeah, that’s right. When I’m in the jury for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (LOBA), for example, and I see a picture that is highly photoshopped, it is of no interest to me. When you take a photo with a Leica, you are not just shooting. You are ‘looking’ with a Leica. Because you are the one who shoots. Not the camera.
ESQ: Do you think photographers today are ‘looking’ or just ‘shooting’?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: I think nowadays, less is more. Because when you look at photographers today, they are all overdone. They have so much to do because they have too many shots. And they have to select their images. They have to decide. They do the work on the image. Normally, in former days, they just send the film to the newspapers and they select it and they do the work on it. So, I would recommend photographers to shoot less but to shoot better. To have an idea in mind what you would like to shoot before they take the picture. Otherwise they tend to shoot hundreds of pictures and perhaps only one will be good.
ESQ: You mentioned that you’re a jury member for LOBA, which is a photography competition rooted in storytelling. Kind of the Oscars for photography, really. And it requires photographers to submit a series of images. Have you noticed a change in the type of submissions over the years?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Right, it’s 10 to 12 pictures telling one story. I would say yes. In former days we had more reportage photography. Nowadays, it’s more about storytelling in an artistic way—how the photographers see life or how they view special situations.
ESQ: Because LOBA is a series of 10 to 12 images, do you think that requirement benefits some cultures more than others? For example, how have Asian photographers faired at LOBA historically? Do you think they struggle with telling a good consistent story with the series of images compared to Western photographers? Have you noticed a difference in the way they tell their stories?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Maybe. I mean, you can have one picture that is really nice but telling a story in 10 to 12 pictures is absolutely more difficult because you have to take care of the entire layout. We have a lot of people coming from China this year. And they have a really special poetic view; sometimes it feels like Chinese calligraphy in the way they shoot
ESQ: What do you think separates Leica from other camera makers?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: The first thing is that we have a Leica family around the world. And I think you can feel this. At this opening of the Leitz Park here in Wetzlar, there are people from 41 countries. So this is really something amazing. Also, there is always a human touch to our production. A lot of things are still done with human hands.
ESQ: There is an amazing love for Leica worldwide. Including many of the world’s top photographers…
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Yes, we also have amazing ambassadors. We don’t pay anybody. If they love Leica, we support them with cameras, but not with money. We give them a chance at our 19 Leica galleries to be exhibited. We have the LFI Magazine to publish their work and, sometimes, we also support them with a special photography project. But it all circles back to that human touch, emotion and, of course, the quality. And we also emphasise education. We have academies providing different courses to photography lovers worldwide.
ESQ: Leica has collaborated with Huawei for three years now. Is it possible to take a beautiful picture with a camera phone compared to a Leica camera?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: You mean the same quality? No. Of course you can make wonderful pictures, but when you compare the smartphone to a Leica camera, there is a big difference. You notice the difference when you print out the picture—the smartphone picture doesn’t have that feeling of depth. It’s more flat.
ESQ: But if people are printing photos less, is there a need to buy an actual camera? Because now everyone takes pictures just on their phones and they share it online. How do you combat that?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: We always say: ‘a picture is not a picture until it is printed out; otherwise it is just data’.
ESQ: (Laughs) Do you encourage your children to print their photos?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: I have three kids and they all produce photo books or calendars each year. They also have in their apartments one special wall for their Leica images. I think this is the new way; they don’t just look at their pictures on their screens, but they create something out of them. And this is not only my kids. So I feel that young people are coming back to the printed image. It is more interesting to have a book, something you really look at, because when you want to look at a trip from, I don’t know, 10 years ago, you won’t do it on the laptop. You will take out your book and you will turn the pages and relive the memories.
ESQ: There’s something about enjoying the moment when you print out the picture as well.
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Yes. Exactly.
ESQ: Because when it is online, you just scroll past it. You’ve enjoyed it for less than a second and it’s gone.
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: And you forget it. Also when you have a printed picture, you take it in more. Like attending an exhibition. You may step closer to the image or decide to walk further away, but you are really considering the image. That’s why I hate exhibitions presented only on the screen; sometimes I want to look longer at a picture, but the screen has changed the picture to the next image.
ESQ: The Kaufmann family has been part of the Leica story for 14 years now. And now with the completion of Leitz Park, this world of Leica that you and your husband, Dr Andreas Kaufmann, have envisioned has finally come to life. Do you see this venue almost like a camera mecca for Leica lovers?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Definitely. But it is not just for Leica lovers, it is for everyone. So everyone who is interested in pictures, in culture, in telling stories, in history. We also have a huge Leica academy here to teach photography.
ESQ: Leitz Park really has it all. As you mentioned, there is an academy, but there is also a hotel, gallery, cinema, museum, even a café and restaurant. It’s a place that might become a bit of a pilgrimage for photo lovers, I feel. What is your favourite part of the park?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: I really like the fountain with the nature and trees.
ESQ: That is surprising because I thought you’d say the gallery given your curatorial role at Leica. But it is interesting that you said nature, where you can have that quiet repose. It speaks a lot to your character.
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: (Laughs) Of course I like my gallery as well. But this gallery is more like an entrance hall. It is the entrance hall of the headquarters. So it is between an entrance hall and gallery. We will always have pictures there, but it is not really a gallery, if you know what I mean? It’s just showing pictures of what we have at Leica headquarters.
ESQ: Talking about pictures, you have the Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography exhibition now on show here at Leitz Park. What would you like people to take away from the exhibition? I know you didn’t curate it, but having seen the pictures yourself, what message would you like people to leave with?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: To leave with a lot of emotions about different countries and different stories. The whole exhibition is full of stories. And not only of stories from Leica, of course. They are deeply human stories; stories of the whole development of photography from the last 100 years. I think it shows how our priorities as a society have changed. It’s a story of the world.
ESQ: And the story’s not finished, of course.
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Of course, it’ll go on (laughs).
ESQ: What do you think is next for Leica? The completion of Leitz Park is such a milestone, but with innovation at the core of the company, what’s on the horizon?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: So we are a camera producer and we come from camera producing, but we also want to become a lifestyle brand. One part of this is the launch of the Leica watch, but in addition to that, we also have to think more about camera accessories—including accessories for ladies. Because Leica has been very focused on men.
ESQ: What accessories would you like to see for ladies? What’s missing?
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: A wonderful bag for your camera.
ESQ: That’s right. A bag that is both functional and beautiful. Currently they are all backpacks, but they are not so aesthetically driven.
KARIN REHN-KAUFMANN: Precisely. Also, a beautiful soft pouch for the camera to place inside your own handbag. We are working on different options now. But this is one thing that we will definitely do; expanding the offering for women as well as men. Stay tuned. Leica is stretching its wings.
For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.