Wonderful Things: Leica M2 camera

In a rather unassuming cabinet on the ground floor, sits a humble piece of equipment that changed the way we see the world.

In 1972 the Leica M2 35mm camera was used by photojournalist Nick Ut to shoot his momentous, Pulitzer prize-winning picture of the disrobed nine year old girl Kim Phuc running toward the camera, away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack . This iconic image has become synonymous with the war in Vietnam.

Children running from napalm attack, Vietnam 1972

Children running from napalm attack, Vietnam 1972

The manufacturer of this camera, Leitz, originally produced microscopes and scientific optics. The M2 was a more affordable camera than its predecessor, the Leica M3, and had provisions for a wider angled lens, making it possible for photographers like Nick Ut to record defining moments in history.


The Leica M2 camera changed the way we see the world

The Leica M2 camera changed the way we see the world


This little piece of technology tells a huge story:  it allowed people to witness the barbarous nature of human conflict. The Vietnam War was in fact the first war to be televised and documented in real time.

Science and technology were at the helm of society at the time of the Vietnam War (mid-fifties to mid-seventies), with advents like the silicon chip, the microprocessor, the artificial heart and of course, the space race. In one fell swoop this object demonstrates two faces of science and technology. The negative side is the use of napalm, a chemical designed to cause maximum destruction and fear. The positive, of course, is the camera itself, developed by humankind to better understand the world around itself.

Bonus: the same kind of camera also captured one of the most reproduced images in history. .. that famous photo of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, so often seen on t shirts, bags and walls for the past 50 years!

Today it is easy for any of us to report on the world around us. With mobile phone cameras and social networks at our fingertips, we can quickly capture an instant in time and communicate it to the rest of the world. But is anyone listening?

  • Have you ever taken a photo that changed people’s minds?

The Leica M2 camera is in the Making the Modern World gallery, on the ground floor.

-James Carmody

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