This is the second installment of a two part series that describes unique objects held within the collection of George Eastman House. This section reviews cameras of the 20th Century. All images are shot by Barbara Galasso and used with the permission of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY.
It was a simple idea, a small reliable pocket camera to take on hikes and photograph the beautiful landscapes encountered. This is what Oskar Barnack had intended to design and produce in the early 20th Century. During this time the most common camera size was 5×7, which usually required a tripod and a variety of other equipment, not the ideal camera to take out on a hike. In 1913 when Barnack was working in the experimental department of microscope maker Ernst Leitz Optical Works,he began to design and hand build several prototypes of a small precision camera that produced 24 x 36mm images on left over pieces of 35mm motion picture stock.
The camera is the O-Series Leica, serial number 109; it is one of three known examples with the original Newton viewfinder. The resulting cameras changed the way a photographer could capture unique moments. It allowed for the highest quality photographs to be taken in the easiest, least obtrusive way. Before long photographers such as Alfred Eisenstadt and Henri Cartier-Bresson were using Leicas to capture such iconic scenes of street life in Paris and V-J Day kisses in Times Square.
This camera was the first in a long line of small, reliable cameras that allowed photographers unprecedented freedom to photograph what they wanted, when they wanted. This camera paved the way for future generations of cameras with names such as Contax, Canon and Nikon. This camera and its compact format helped develop a new type of photographer and photograph, giving it a place in camera history.