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Oskar Barnack

Designer and inventor Oskar Barnack was born on November 1, 1879 in Linow, Mark Brandenburg, Germany. Soon after his birth, his family relocated to Berlin, which is where he received his formal education and graduated from a local technical school. Mr. Barnack was constantly experimenting with new ideas and in 1912 designed a metal motion picture camera, which was in stark contrast to the wooden-constructed models that were being sold at the time. He also built the prototype for an early stereoscopic camera.

As an employee of Leitz, a German optical equipment manufacturer, Mr. Barnack continued his experiments with various camera designs, and sought to create a handheld 35mm camera he could take on mountaineering expeditions. Using offcut film from movie studios, he was able to produce smaller negatives than other conventional cameras. Its 24 x 36 frame was considered tiny for this period, and required top quality lenses and precision manufacturing to function efficiently. Photographers, however, were unconvinced that 35mm was a viable choice. World War I interrupted Mr. Barnack's camera experiments as Leitz joined other German industries in supporting the war effort.

Germany did not produce its first compact camera until 1924. The Ermanox used 60mm film and featured a large-aperture lens which allowed for effective indoor photography. Encouraged by the success of the Ermanox, Mr. Barnack worked on a design for the Leica, which was even more compact and user friendly. Leitz placed 1,000 Leica cameras into production in 1925, and the camera soon became the favorite of photojournalists because of its quality and portability.

Mr. Barnack's creativity was frequently sidelined by illness. Suffering from bronchial asthma since childhood, Mr. Barnack was often bedridden, and therefore, many of his latter camera design ideas did not reach fruition. However, the Leica was an impressive legacy, and became the standard for all small cameras that followed. Mr. Barnack caught a cold in the summer of 1935, which was exacerbated by his asthma and anemia. In early January 1936, he roused from his bed briefly to celebrate his 25th anniversary with Leitz. Within a few days, the weakened designer contracted pneumonia, and Oskar Barnack died at his home in Bad Nauheim, Germany in the early morning hours of January 16, 1936. However, the Leica camera remained alive and well for many more years. The camera’s original design continued being produced until 1960. Since then, newer Leica models have maintained pace with ever-changing technology, and have remained prized cameras among photojournalists and amateurs alike.


Ref.:
2006 Camera Lenses: From Box Camera to Digital (Bellingham, WA: The Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers), p. 175.

2004 Eyewitness Photography (New York: DK Publishing, Inc.), p. 21.

1977 Leica Manual: The Complete Book of 35 mm Photography (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan & Morgan), p. 22.

2005 Photography (New York: DK Publishing, Inc.), p. 92.

1975 Popular Photography, Vol. LXXVII (New York: CBS Magazines), p. 86.

2010 The Visual Dictionary of Photography (Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA), p. 38.



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