Book Review: Ninety Nine Years: A commemoration to the Leica camera that brought us the past century's most iconic photos

Posted by Dylan Lustrin

Anyone who has taken a photography class, fancies themselves to be even an amateur photographer, or simply has an appreciation for photography's representational properties surely has their photographic idols. Maybe that idol is Barbara Morgan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Douglas Duncan, or Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Or perhaps one feels an aesthetic attraction to a certain iconic image: Elliott Erwitt's artfully crooked 1950 image showing two side-by-side water fountains labeled "white" and "colored;" Alberto Korda's 1960 shot of an intent-looking Che Guevara - the same image reproduced on countless t-shirts and even the Cuban three peso banknote; or Thomas Hoepker's moving 2001 snapshot of five friends relaxing by an idyllic Brooklyn waterfront as thick smoke rises from the World Trade Center towers behind them. Although creating seemingly dissimilar works, these artists all had a commonality - they captured their photographs with Leica cameras. The instantly recognizable Leica design has come to conjure a specific element of admiration and connote quality in equipment and the resulting image.

The company's rich history is documented in the new book 99 Years Leica. As expected from a firm whose main focus is the creation of visual pleasure, the book's packaging is eye-catching yet far from ostentatious. The 300-page coffee table book-sized volume comes slipped into a thick matte black protective cover with a small square-shaped cutout in the middle meant to reveal, but not give away, the book's cover. Reading "Ninety-Nine Years" (stylized over four lines as "NINE / TYNI / NEYE / ARS") in glossy black letters against a flat white background, there is little possibility of mistaking 99 Years' purpose as a celebration of a legendary company's legacy and future on the occasion of its 99th anniversary.

In 1914, optical engineer Oskar Barnack created the Ur-Leica in Wetzlar, Germany. This camera featured an all-metal body, a retractable lens, and used 35mm film - all features engineered to save space and weight in a time where heavy and largely unmovable cameras were the norm. By 1924, Leica had developed the small format Leica I. Upon its introduction and release in 1925, the camera was an instant hit, selling over 70,000 units between 1925 and 1930 and securing the company's place within the annals of photography.

Flipping through the pages of 99 Years Leica, it is difficult not to stop and do something of a double take at the strikingly-colored images, bold statements (in both content and typeface), dynamic page layouts, and compelling tales of photographers, their works, and Leica's development as a company. One such eye-catching two-page spread features a photo of the Eiffel tower taken from the bottom up and rendered in a tie dye-esque mixture of green, brown, blue, and white. Overlaid on the image in broad grey text is the witty statement "PARIS IS A BITCH (sometimes)." The text opposite this image speaks fondly of Paris and its ability to inspire the work of noted Leica users such as Henri Cartier-Breson and Brassa??.

I must admit, I was skeptical of this book at first. Although being a long-time Leica fan, I could not help but wonder if I was simply looking at a glorified advertisement. Despite that, I also could not help but be completely captivated by this book and emerge from the last page with a rekindled love for what are arguably the best cameras currently made. 

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