“This is beyond the doubt, the most precise thing, and one of the most beautiful we’ve ever made. Glass on the front and back, and steel around the sides. It’s like a beautiful old Leica camera.”
On 7 June 2010, Steve Jobs took to the stage at San Francisco’s WWDC conference to show the world a new Apple product. Among the usual Jobsian hyperbole and showmanship, he had found time to pay homage to another technology brand – a rarity for a man who was laser-focused on his own company and often dismissive of others.
The product being launched was the iPhone 4, a huge leap forward for Apple’s smartphone range from an engineering perspective. Stainless steel superseded plastic, the iPhone 3’s curves were replaced by well-proportioned flat surfaces on all sides, and chemically hardened glass covered the front and rear surfaces. Small wonder Jobs was comparing what he hoped would be a timeless product to something that had already established itself as one: the Leica M camera.
From its headquarters in the small German city of Wetzlar, Leica has been designing and building the M series for almost 70 years. Throughout that time, its precisely engineered and desirable rangefinder cameras have had a totemic effect on popular culture. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of candid photography, shot every single one of his images on a Leica M3, the Queen was pictured with an M3 in 1958 and even James Bond uses one in the novel Goldfinger. What’s the appeal? Of course, Leica Ms deliver superb photographs in the hands of a skilled user, but there’s far more to their enduring luster than that.
Each camera is handmade in Germany rather than assembled en masse in Asia, which means they carry an air of exclusivity that’s rarely seen in tech. The most recent Leica M11 sold out on the day it was launched, while resale values are sky-high for older models too; you’ll still pay upwards of £1,000 for 1954’s Leica M3 from and over £3,500 for a second-hand, 2017-released M10. Just as the likes of Rolex, Porsche and Apple have become bywords for both luxury and quality, there are cameras and then there is the Leica M. This is the story of how a legend has endured for generations.
“I remember seeing all of my skateboarding photography heroes carrying them, documenting life around them using the M.”