Late Great Engineers: Oskar Barnack - 20th century image maker

5 min read

He developed one of the landmark technologies of the 20th century, while inventing a product brand that would become a household name the world over. And yet we know so little about the German engineer Oskar Barnack, the man behind the legendary Leica 35mm film camera. Written by Nick Smith

It was the shot that was seen all around the world – the raising of the flag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag in Berlin. One of the most recognisable reportage photographs taken during the Second World War, this image has become a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and of the end of the war itself. The date: 2nd May 1945. The photographer: Yevgeny Khaldei. The camera: Leica III rangefinder. The inventor: Oskar Barnack.

Oskar Barnack
Oskar Barnack at his desk at the Leitz Company in 1933. Image: Leica

Although just one of thousands of images that defined the history of the 20th century, this shot stands out because it shows simply how far camera technology had come in such a short space of time. During the First World War, photography had been a process that was far closer to fine art than cutting edge news reporting, a stately affair in which huge tripod-mounted plate cameras sought to freeze a world of static subjects, stage lighting and stylised studio backdrops. But by the mid-20th century, the pocket-sized Leica 35mm film rangefinder camera had introduced a spontaneity to visual journalism that allowed photographers the freedom to invent vivid new genres, from the frontline of conflict to the fashion catwalk.

None of this could have happened without the innovations of an obscure and largely forgotten German engineer. Indeed, so little is known of Oskar Barnack that there has never been a full-length biography dedicated to his life. Few of his words are recorded for posterity, and yet, one simple line in his workshop journal was to herald a sea-change in the world of image making: “Lilliput camera for cine-film completed.” If the old adage that you should judge a person by his works remains true, then history will hold Barnack in high esteem.

Lilliput camera for cine-film completed

Oskar Barnack (1879 - 1936)

Oskar Barnack was born into a working-class background on 1st November 1879 in the village of Lynow, 40km south of Berlin, the city to which his family would relocate while young Oskar was three years old. He attended school at Giesendorf, where today a small street – ‘Barnackufer’ – bears his name, along with the explanatory note ‘Konstrukeur der Leica’. By the time he was 14 he was an apprentice precision mechanic and, after qualifying as a master began work at the turn of the 20th century in the microscope development department at German scientific instrument manufacturer Carl Zeiss in the mediaeval town of Jena. In 1911 he moved to the Optische Werke Ernst Leitz in Wetzlar to become master mechanic at the microscope department’s experimental workshop. According to Dr Knut Kühn-Leitz, former managing director of Ernst Leitz GmbH, “in those days the Leitz factory was the world’s largest manufacturer of microscopes,” and the company’s CEO, Ernst Leitz II was a man who could recognise talent. Barnack was brought in despite the fact that he had notified his potential employers that he suffered from a chronic lung ailment requiring regular medical treatment. Undeterred, Leitz gave him the job, telling Barnack “not to worry.”

Alongside his official projects, during these early years at Leitz Barnack also constructed a cine-camera for taking moving images, and as a keen amateur photographer he’d frequently make trips around Wetzlar. But the weight of the equipment, combined with his lung problems made these excursions difficult for Barnack, prompting the master mechanic to further develop his ‘Lilliput’ camera, known today as the Ur-Leica, a small machine for testing cinematographic film stock and early prototype of the Leica 35mm camera. (The brand name is a compound abbreviation, made up of the first three letters of ‘Leitz’ and the first two of ‘camera’.) This new compact design impressed Ernst Leitz who, while admitting “here is still much to be done,” saw the potential for a stills film camera that, in the words of Kühn-Leitz, “made it possible to take pictures of life as it happens.”

Oskar Barnack
The first ever shot on a Leica, a street scene of Eisenmarkt in Wetzlar, 1913

Barnack’s progress was to be hindered by the outbreak of the Great War, with further development of the Leica set aside. During the war Barnack transferred his attention to working on optical devices for military applications and it wasn’t until 1920 that the 35mm photographic stills camera got the green light from the Leitz management. With Germany in deep economic recession, and Ernst Leitz determined to protect the livelihoods of as many of his employees as he could, the management team was called together, a meeting at which he declared: “My decision is final: we will take the risk.” The ‘risk’ was the commitment to the manufacture of a new kind of camera that would change the course of photography and the way we see the world. It was a bold move but – born of the traditional engineering virtues of quality, robustness and reliability – the camera went bravely ahead, its advertising centring on the benefits of it being small, lightweight and “always ready to take the next picture.”


Barnack’s camera was launched before a dubious and cynical trade press that had a field day, with one reviewer dismissing it as ‘a toy’. And yet, such was the demand  for this new breed of camera that it soon became the industry standard, with its original film aspect ratio of 3:2 established as a fixture that is still widespread on today’s digital cameras. As with so many technology breakthroughs, Barnack’s came from a simple idea, which was to make big pictures from small negatives. But his vision of creating professional quality enlargements in the dark room required the parallel technological development of a specific lens – existing Leitz and competing Zeiss lenses were either too large for the camera or would not cover the 24mm x 36mm frame – which is where optical pioneer Max Berek enters the picture.

While Barnack is indisputably the inventor of the Leica, it is was the interaction of the technical genius of Barnack and Berek that ultimately produced the apex product on which the company’s success is founded. Before long, Berek’s genre-defining 50mm lens – that was to evolve into the iconic Leica Elmar lens series – was a key component of the camera’s configuration. By the time the Leica II was in production, many familiar features, such as ‘range-finding’ focusing, had been integrated. As the camera became more sophisticated, faster shutter speeds became a vital asset (effectively banishing the cumbersome tripod from news photography for ever) and interchangeable lenses were introduced. This meant that photography could finally detach itself from the studio: in doing so the 35mm format ushered in an entirely new style of reportage outdoor photography with which Leica’s name is closely associated. By 1933, Leitz had sold 100,000 units.

Oskar Barnack
The Leica III F. Image: Leica

Although Barnack is remembered today for his engineering achievements, according to photographic historian Michael Koetzle, it’s important to keep in mind that these technical innovations have their origins in Barnack’s experiences as an accomplished photographer in his own right. Barnack routinely investigated and tested the possibilities of his new compact design by taking countless photographs in a variety of genres: portrait, landscape, reportage and even aerial photography from a Zeppelin airship. Perhaps the most famous of Barnack’s images is the first frame ever shot on a Leica, a resolutely unremarkable street scene of Eisenmarkt in Wetzlar, 1913.

Koetzle says that while Barnack worked on creating miniature photographic hardware suitable for flexible emulsion-coated plastic film, photographs continued to be made on glass plates taken on heavy, complicated wooden cameras that were, “not exactly handy to carry around, which made photography, above all, a rather slow and laborious task.” Early Leica-adopting amateurs were soon eclipsed by legends of the professional world, including Erich Salomon and Robert Capa. “A new generation of photojournalists, artists and young photographers with innovative ideas influenced by the Bauhaus movement and the avantgarde,” ran with this exciting new technology, says Koetzle, while “older photographers stuck to their traditional cameras. The youth of that period..embraced the Leica with open arms and made it their own.”

Barnack did not live long enough to witness the full impact his camera would have on the world. He died in 1936 of pneumonia. While his headstone reads ‘schöpfer der Leica’ (creator of the Leica’), perhaps an even more significant legacy is that the great Henri Cartier-Bresson used only one camera for almost his entire career: a Leica M3 rangefinder. The French photographer loved his Leica to the point that he saw it as, “a way of life.”

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