We talk to Karin Rehn-Kaufmann, art director and chief representative of Leica Galleries International about the camera brand’s heritage, the role of Leica Galleries and the secret to taking a great photograph
Have you always been interested in photography?
I properly became interested when I opened the first Leica Gallery in Salzburg, 10 years ago. When we took over Leica in 2004 there were already a few galleries and I thought perhaps we could open more to work on this very important cultural aspect of Leica. So, in 2008 I opened my own gallery in Salzburg to have the experience of working as a gallerist: that was my real entry point into photography.
There are now 19 Leica Galleries around the world. What is their role?
For a start, it’s not easy for photographers nowadays as magazines like Paris Match and National Geographic don’t give many long-term projects to photographers anymore. The second aspect is that we really try to give photographers the opportunity to show their work and tell their stories. For us, as a camera producer, it’s important to take care of the history and culture of photography as well as the quality.
What are Leica’s core values?
Das Wesentliche, which translates as ‘the essential’, is a core value. The brand is often called Leica - Das Wesentliche, and, for us, the essential is not the camera, it’s not the pixel, it’s not the data – it’s the picture.
The camera is an instrument. It’s not the camera that shoots the picture, it’s you: you decide. When photographers use Leica, and especially the M system, they learn to see better, to focus, to take their time. I think that today, less is more.
In your opinion, what’s the secret to taking a great photograph?
Take your time: you are the one taking the picture, not the camera.
Also, of course, it is very important for me that a photograph is not excessively photoshopped: anyone can use photoshop. Being authentic with your camera is essential. There are many aspects to what makes a good picture: I’m interested in seeing a story and seeing something that touches you.
Leica is over 100 years old and its cameras have captured some key moments in history. Why do you think the brand has been so successful and had such a lasting impact?
The brand started at a time when all photographers had to carry really heavy equipment. Oskar Barnack reinvented photography – he was ill, he had asthma and therefore he started to think about the need to have a small camera. He wasn’t able to climb up mountains carrying all this heavy stuff with him, so he created a smaller version.
At that time we had, of course, a greater presence than we have today – which was even greater still before the 1960s – every photographer wanted to have a Leica. I have one picture from Paris Match in the 1960s and there are 25 or 30 photographers in the picture and only three are not wearing a Leica around their neck.
In a way Leica created the history of photography thanks to a tool that was used to shoot so many icons. We created the possibility of doing reportage and we are therefore also responsible for this history.
How significant are Leica’s German roots?
We are the only camera manufacturer that is still able to produce in Europe – no one else can. We produce partly in Germany and partly in Porto.
You’ve been on the jury of the Leica Oskar Barnack Awards for the past 10 years. Why was the competition created and what makes it different from other photography competitions?
The competition was established in 2008 to take care of photographers, to give them a chance, because we feel responsible for culture. The award is open to everyone: sometimes people think it’s just for Leica photographers, but it’s open to all. Ultimately, it’s the picture that counts.
Similarly, in the Leica Galleries, our focus is 80% on Leica photographers but the other 20% is open to anyone. When I see a really good series that I love, I give it a try. And, of course, I love it when those photographers then decide to become part of the Leica family.
We live in an era saturated with imagery. What do you perceive the role of the photograph to be and do you think this role will evolve?
Nowadays almost everyone is a photographer: almost everyone uses smartphones to shoot pictures. So, for us it’s also a case of feeling responsible for the quality of smartphone photography, which is why we collaborated with Huawei – to give people on that level the possibility to start with good photography. But this tool ends somewhere, so that means you can go on to learn more with a Leica camera.
Getting involved in education is vital because nowadays photography is increasingly the most important tool in communication worldwide.
We also say that a picture is only a picture once it’s printed out - the rest is data.
When we use Instagram and Snapchat you look at the image once and then it’s gone, but you need to take your time to look at the actual picture. I have three grown-up kids and I think it’s really interesting that each one has a wall in their apartment to put polaroid images and they create a photobook each year – they don’t look at images on their laptop that much. I did some analogue workshops and they were fully booked immediately because people want to be nearer to this medium.
It’s therefore good to have Leica Galleries for the printed picture, not the data.
Do you have a favourite Leica model?
I like the Q camera a lot. I do take pictures and I have to experience Leica cameras, but my problem is that I have to look at so many pictures for work, so I often don’t want to look at my own. However, using a camera taught me how to look at things. I once did an experiment for a week: I lay on my bed every night and thought about which image still stayed in my mind from the day. It’s interesting, because there were not many, and then I had to ask myself why that one particular picture stood out. You look at so many pictures in a day, and so many pass by.
Do you have a favourite genre of photography?
No, for me the emotional part, the storytelling, the structure, the light, the shadow are the most important aspects. For example, I’m not so involved in experimental photography because I very seldom feel something when looking at those type of images.
I was recently looking at William Klein and René Burri, as well as photographers such as Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier Bresson – it amazes me how they could take incredible pictures without all the technical support we have now. And this, in my opinion, is something that is really important for us to look at, to see how photography changes.