The images are cultural cornerstones, reproduced ad infinitum and proudly displayed as badges of spiritual affinity: a solitary James Dean hunched against the rain in Times Square (Dennis Stock, 1955); a head shot of Che Guevera taken at a funeral (Alberto Korda, 1960) that has become a symbol for anti-establishmentarianism the world over; a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack (Nick Ut, 1972). These history-making moments and others were captured with a Leica camera, exactly as its inventor Oskar Barnack intended when he introduced the world’s first 35mm camera in the small German town of Wetzlar in 1914.
Although Barnack, then 35 years old and developing microscopes for Ernst Leitz, tested his creation on a non-moving object, a cathedral, he knew its portability compared to the boxy contraptions at the time would allow users to spontaneously snap events as they unfold – as he proved in 1920 by capturing a knee-deep flood in his town.
The camera’s use of film, instead of glass plates, and small size, easily fitting in the hand and into the pocket, helped with spontaneous, stealth shots and a new genre of photography was born. Photojournalism and street photography would produce searing, epoch-defining images rarely seen in today’s visuals-bloated environment.
The smartphone camera has democratised an art. As of July 1, there are 34.7 billion photos shared on Instagram, with an average of 52 million uploaded daily. Yet, with the proliferation of digital photography, how many images are strikingly memorable? And how many will hold their pixels once extracted from the small screen?
THE SCRUTINY TEST
It’s a question for Karin Rehn-Kaufmann, art director of Leica Galleries International and a permanent member of the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (Loba) jury: “Only when an image is printed can you recognise the quality of the picture and the camera. That’s why Leica has 18 galleries and ongoing exhibitions worldwide. We stand for the printed image.”
At the launch of Loba 2017 in Berlin on Sept 13, 140 photos from 10 finalists and two winners were printed, mounted and framed for guests to peruse before they headed to the award ceremony at the nearby Saint Elisabeth church.
Considered one of the most prestigious photo competitions in the world, along with the World Press Photo contest, the 38-year-old Oskar Barnack prize recognises photographers who capture and express the relationship between man and his environment.
Winners have included industry luminaries such as Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado for his haunting black-and-white images of famine in Ethiopia (1985) and clean-up of sabotaged oil wells in Kuwait (1992); and Italian Gianni Berengo Gardin for his visual documentary of gypsies living in Florence (1995).
This year, Loba received 2,700 entries from 104 countries around the world, from amateurs to award-winning photographers and photojournalists, Leica wielders and non-, in the stipulated form of 10- to 12-image portfolios. Enough photos to tell a story, in other words.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
The winning series – chosen from finalists among whom had reported on the empty desolation of radiation-tinged Fukushima in Nothing To See Here and the armed struggle of the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey in War Of A Forgotten Nation – encapsulates a style that slices through the slick prettiness of today’s prevailing images.
In Slash And Burn, Terje Abusdal seared some of his photographs with a creme brulee torch, scanned the results and submitted them as part of his portfolio for judgment.
The effect is a physical representation of his subject’s cultural essence. Once upon a time, the Forest Finns of Norway, now a recognised ethnic minority, survived by burning down sections of the forest to make way for agriculture. Amid photos of wintry woods, fur-wrapped rural inhabitants, gray days and smoke, the torched images add components of fiery light like a sleight of hand.
Says Abusdal of his audacious technique: “The idea was to put the Forest Finn physically in the photograph. They have a shamanic understanding of nature where everything has a soul and can be communicated with. I wanted to put this magic in the series, to create Narnia, a magical world.”
Loba jury member Douglas So, founder and director of the F11 Foto Museum in Hong Kong, says that in addition to tradition and mystique, origins and belonging, the collection of photos “manifests beauty and depth in a poetic sense”. “Every time I looked at it, there was more to be discovered and appreciated.”
Kaufmann has seen a shift in the types of photographs being submitted for competition. “Seven or eight years ago, there were a lot more reportage – Aids, troubles around the world,” she says. Now, she adds, because photographers rarely get commissioned work from magazines due to a slowdown in the industry, they need another showcase. Thus, increasingly, entries cross the boundaries between reportage and art.
“This year’s winner looks at some special people living in a special place in Norway, so this is reportage; but look at it, the series looks like an art piece,” says Kaufmann.
“Will this be the new way of journalism, perhaps? You are more personally involved, so it’s not just what you see from the outside; you put more of your soul, your artistic sense into the work.”
For Norwegian Abusdal, the photos came out of his graduation project for the Danish School of Journalism. Asked about his manipulation of images vis-a-vis adherence to what he actually observed, he says: “As long as I’m honest about the storytelling, I can use whatever effect I want. I can see how accuracy is important in world events, but this is a timeless story.
“I don’t think I am forging history; I am trying to visualise the past. There’s a difference.” To him, photos like his Slash And Burn series serve a purpose beyond examining the cultural history of the Forest Finns. “These days, you get overwhelmed by the amount of images on the Internet and social media. That’s why it’s nice to come across a body of work that has a story behind it. We are missing stories. Stories need to come back.”
Leica returns to its roots.
Before Leica was regarded as a niche luxury product, it made its name as the essential equipment of renowned photojournalists and street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Still, the German company almost shared Kodak’s fate when Japanese giants Canon and Nikon introduced easy- to-use digital cameras in 2003.
Leica’s launch of the digital M8 in 2006 saved the brand. This year, it is expected to earn 70 million euros (S$112 million), according to a Reuters report. It is currently developing its headquarters Leitz Park in Wetzlar, Germany, into a go-to destination for anything Leica. Here’s a look.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
In 2014, 100 years after Oskar Barnack invented the 35mm, Leica moved its headquarters from Solms to the nearby town of Wetzlar, where Barnack made history. The super modern, clinical building faces green pastures and cows.
ON A ROLL
The building is designed to resemble the film spools of an analogue camera.
HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE?
Leitz Park offers photography workshops, a vast and varied museum, the Leica archives, exhibitions, and a Leica store.
STAY FOR THE NIGHT
Visitors almost doubled annually since Leitz Park opened, from 14,800 in 2014, to 25,300 in 2016. To make a trek to this sleepy town (a 45-minute drive from Frankfurt) worthwhile, Leica will open a 129-room hotel next year, designed to incorporate various facets of photography.