Sunday, March 11, 2012


Many Leica owners are familiar with the Ur-Leica.  We have seen it on pictures numerous times and many people know that it is generally considered the forerunner of all 35mm photography.  What is not generally known is the fact that there was a second prototype, which Barnack made.  This is the one he used for himself.  He gave the first one to Ernst Leitz II.  It was the first of Barnack’s cameras to reach the United States, accompanying its owner on a voyage in the spring of 1914.  Leitz photographed during the trip on the ship 'Das Vaterland' (the Fatherland) and in the streets of Manhattan; but he also took advantage of the trip to file patents on the new camera and the first US patent was granted in that year.  The history of this camera is quite interesting.  The subject has been well researched by Leica historian Gianni Rogliatti, who gave the following account:

This second prototype, identical to the Ur Leica and built presumably at the same time, was the one used by Barnack and remained in the hands of his family when he died.  For some unknown reason it was given into the custody of the Deutsches Museum in Munich during World War II.  After the war the camera was returned to the son of Oscar Barnack who was living in Munich and operating a grocery store.  Barnack’s son later sold the camera and it was resold at an auction.  All of this happened several years ago and Barnack’s son subsequently died causing every trace of the camera to be lost.

Rogliatti went on to say that, far from being lost, the second prototype now seems to reside, unannounced, in an unidentified collection.

The Ur Leica

Barnack himself demonstrated an eye for the picturesque, but with the Leica in hand he also showed considerable  skill as a photoreporter.  His pictures of the mobilization for World War I represent some of the first spontaneous photo reportage in history.  He also photographed during the Wetzlar flood in 1920.  In 1914, when Count von Zeppelin landed one of his dirigibles in nearby Giessen, Barnack immediately set out to see it and after some talk convinced the Count to take him up on one of the voyages.  In so doing he made the first ever aerial photo with a 35 mm camera.

Wetzlar Eisenmarkt
Photograph by Oskar Barnck 1913

Wetzlar Cathedral
Photograph by Oskar Barnack

Mobilization for WWI
Photograph by Oskar Barnack 1914

Wetzlar Flood
Photograph by Oskar Barnack 1920

First Areal Photograph with a 35mm camera
Photograph by Oskar Barnack 1914

The outbreak of World War I ended development of “Barnack’s camera,” as it was called.  Barnack stayed in Wetzlar during the war; the German forces refused him because his health was so poor.  Very little is known about the plant’s activities during the war years, but it is safe to assume that it was occupied with military contracts.

Though he was unable to continue work on the camera, Barnack photographed with the prototype throughout the war years.  When food began to run short he used photographs for barter, photographing farmers and farm buildings in return for eggs and butter.

By the end of the war Barnack was very much in need of a vacation.  Ernst Leitz, aware that his friend’s health was failing, invited him along on a trip to the Black Forest.  The camera accompanied them, of course.  The trip provided a photographic opportunity that has left us a large stock of negatives from that earliest Leica, including a number of pictures of Leitz and of Barnack himself.

Ernst Leitz I
Photograph by Oskar Barnack

Ernst Leitz and Oscar Barnack vacationing in the Black Forest

After the war, Barnack made a third prototype, incorporating a number of improvements and changes.  The shutter was still not the self-capping type, yet Barnack had left off the small lens covering disk, thinking it sufficient to press the lens against the chest during film winding to avoid accidental exposure.  The photograph of the third prototype shows that Barnack made definite changes.  In its overall appearance, the camera is in between the Ur-Leica and the pre-production series from 1923. 

Leica Prototype 3

Leica Preproduction Model from 1923

The 30 or 31 preproduction models were given to a number of professional photographers for evaluation.  Even though the opinions were mixed, Ernst Leitz II made the fateful decision “Barnacks Kamera wird gebaut” (Barnack’s camera will be built).  The production on the Leica began in 1924 and the new camera was officially introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925.

Postscript 4-07-2013

This article was written, based on the published information regarding the development of the Leica.  Further research has shown that this generally accepted and published information contains several mistakes.  These are pointed out and corrected in the following article:


For more on the Ur-Leica go to


For more pictures of and by Oskar Barnack go to:



1 comment:

  1. The Leica and cameras and photography in general certainly offer a lot of topics for discussion. But we must not forget the ultimate purpose of why we have cameras; to take pictures. For that reason I would like to start a weekly (or possibly daily) gallery of photographs. But I don’t want this to be a showcase for just my own work; to the contrary, I would like to encourage everyone to submit photographs for display on this blog. The copyright to the photographs will remain with the photographer and no pictures will ever be used for any other purpose unless permission is given by the copyright holder.
    No registration for this site is necessary. Just email any of the photographs to either of my email addresses at: or

    If possible, please include the make and model of the camera (any camera, not just Leica) and any other information you deem important.

    It is my hope that this may become one of the most sought after topics of this blog.

    Thank you,

    Heinz Richter