For anyone who owns a Leica, the name Oskar Barnack should ring a bell. Not only was he instrumental in the camera giant's success, he was also one of the first photographers to do reportage photography with the first 35 mm Leica cameras. He was a designer, mechanic, visionary, and most definitely an artist. Using his many talents and an intricate understanding of mechanics, the first Ur-Leicas were born.
Ur-Leicas are the results of Barnack's many experiments — they were the first iterations of the Leica cameras that we see and know today. The 'Ur' name is a Leica code and a German prefix which means 'primitive and original.' It's a fitting way to describe a camera that started the strong legacy of Leica cameras.
Being the first and original Leica cameras, these Ur-Leicas weren't intended for to be sold in the market. Rather, they were used for testing different applications that would later be used on other Leica models. As a matter of fact, only three Ur-Leicas were made are unique in configuration and design, with the first Ur model having only a fixed shutter speed while the third model had several shutter speeds that can be compared to other production ready Leicas.
However, Leica did cater to the market that had a demand for Ur-Leica cameras. They created Ur replicas in the 1970s, those that made it to the market were easily picked up by ardent and eager collectors. No wonder they sold quickly, they're dearly collectible or "grail" cameras after all.
One of the first Ur-Leicas (1913) can be found at the Leitz Museum in Wetzlar — a testament to its historical value and build quality. You can only imagine the craftsmanship and design poured into that camera for it to last that long in its intended state.
Oskar Barnack's invention was a magnificent piece made of metal and glass. The Ur-Leica had a collapsible lens, a focal plane shutter, and a lens cap that's fixed to the body and was swung across to accommodate exposures. It was also the first camera to feature coupled film winding, and shutter cocking that prevents double exposures. Not only is it amazing to see that such detail was put into the design of a camera that was made more than a hundred years ago, it's also fascinating how much Leica cameras have evolved.