In April 2015, Oliver Kaltner became the CEO of Leica Camera AG. In our interview he offers an appraisal of his time in Wetzlar, and talks about the challenges and opportunities for the company in times of change, smartphone cameras and digitisation. This interview was conducted by Inas Fayed & Frank Lohstöter, and first appeared on the LFI issue of February, 2016.
LFI: Mister Kaltner, it has been almost a year since you were appointed CEO of Leica Camera AG. What have your experiences been so far?
Oliver Kaltner: I am especially impressed with my global team, who embrace all of our new challenges with a vast amount of energy, passion and solidarity towards the Leica brand. We have a wonderful combination of fresh talent and formidable experience. Our staff have a highly contemporary outlook while maintaining a strong sense of the company’s history. Understanding tradition does not mean to stagnate in the past, but to carry a concept into the future and help shape it.
LFI: What did you set out to achieve in 2015, and what are your ambitions for 2016?
Kaltner: In 2015, we set in motion an extensive process of transformation, focusing primarily on the strategic change from a pure hardware company to a hardware, software and services enterprise. As well as adapting our internal procedures, product planning, structural processes and operation, we have also built up an exclusive digital team. So we have put in place a number of components we didn’t have in this form before, but which are imperative for this transformation to take place.
2016 is an enormously important year in the company’s history, as we can now put into action what we initiated in 2015. The message we must convey to the market is that we, as the seemingly smallest of camera manufacturers, are committed to pursuing a digital transformation. We are dedicated to achieving this while retaining a good balance between a respectful regard for tradition and a focused move towards globalisation and digitisation.
LFI: With the introduction of the S system a few years ago, Leica opened itself up to an entirely new customer base, branching out into other territories. Last year Leica presented the Q and the SL, two technologically advanced camera systems which once again appeal to a new customer base. Does this, too, represent a change in strategy?
Kaltner: It illustrates our dedication to continuously expand our product range whilst retaining our core values. Our focus continues to be on photography and all aspects of the experience that surrounds it.
At the same time, we continue to explore further: what opportunities may arise in a sharply declining compact camera market? This is less of a contradiction than it may seem, seeing as Leica have proved themselves capable of defining new categories.
LFI: Is this where the new Leica SL comes in?
Kaltner: Our aim is to provide solutions in all relevant product categories. However, a look at our camera portfolio revealed that there was a large gap between the S and the M – a technological gap, and to be perfectly honest, a relevance-gap as well.
As for the Leica M, we know that the M community is a very specific clientèle. So now we also have the SL. What is exciting about this product is that we have created a state-of-the-art, extremely high-performance system camera for the professional photographer, which at the same time represents an alluring option for the ambitious amateur.
LFI: So does the Leica Q bridge the gap between full-frame cameras and compacts with an APS-C sensor?
Kaltner: It is truly sensational how the Q has conquered its market and target group. It closes the gap between Leica’s T and M lines.
LFI: Up until now, the Leica brand has been strongly defined by the M. Where would you place the future cornerstones of the company’s brand awareness?
Kaltner: The Leica M continues to be the backbone and ambassador of our brand. It balances tradition and modernity, so to a certain extent it also acts as a beacon for other products.
On a global scale, the main question is that of digitisation. As for Leica’s approach to these questions, the M is a good example. In a time when everything revolved around colour photography, we released an M Monochrom. While everyone was talking about the size of displays, we omitted a monitor altogether. We made a conscious decision to reduce the M to its most essential functions. This was possible as we have other products in our portfolio to offer the full spectrum of digital functions including the Leica T and the Leica Q.
LFI: Due to the M, Leica have always held something of a unique position above the fray of market competition. Now, however, you are marching into battle with the S, the SL, the Q as well as the T. Can a medium-sized company like Leica succeed with this move?
Kaltner: That’s an excellent question. We generally receive a lot of respect from our competitors, for instance for the decades of consistent advancement of the Leica M. In this regard, nobody sees us as a direct competitor – and frankly, no other company offers anything comparable to the M.
Now we have taken a different approach with the Leica Q, the Leica SL and also with the Leica S. Interestingly, Leica Camera AG are currently the company that exudes the most optimism and reliability in the industry – something that is confirmed month after month by our results.
LFI: What are the implications of this for new product concepts?
Kaltner: There is currently a lot of movement within the market, and Leica are suddenly receiving attention not just as a premium flagship brand but as a direct competitor. As I said to begin with, what is vital right now is to adapt to the rapidly changing market conditions, while simultaneously maintaining an appropriate balance.
LFI: The Leica Q has proved very successful. Can you already say something about its established customer base?
Kaltner: The Leica Q has indeed received an unparalleled reception. Around 40 percent of Q owners are new to Leica. This is a significantly high figure. Clearly we have managed to convey that the Q is an extremely high-performance camera that you can also master as a non-professional.
LFI: Will you continue to move forward with the Q platform by expanding the system, or will the camera always serve as a bridge product?
Kaltner: That’s a legitimate question, but I’ll have to apply my personal rule of ‘no hints about the presents before Christmas Day’. Aside from this, in the competitive market environment it is quite simply better to keep your cards close to your chest.
At the moment, the current generation of the Leica Q faces the challenge of meeting global demand, which is several times higher than the volumes we are able to deliver.
LFI: What about the M? Would you say the system has reached its zenith?
Kaltner: You can see my bemused smile. The Leica M has a unique past and will have an equally unique future. We are not only proud of this line, but are committed to it in everything that we do. In terms of future product developments, we are looking at some very exciting questions. What is the right level of digitisation for the Leica M? Or do we go the other way and ask: does its future lie in purism?
The great thing about our M customers is that they are very good at communicating with us about which developments they would like to see. As long as there’s Leica, there will always be a Leica M!
LFI: You have mentioned that the camera market is currently very turbulent, and that entry-level cameras in particular are under considerable pressure from smartphones. How does this affect Leica? Do the D-Lux, the V-Lux and the X family of compacts already represent the answer, or are Leica in the process of moving away from this category?
Kaltner: When I visited Photokina 2014 during my first month with Leica, I found that many were bemoaning the downfall of the digital compact camera. At the same time, I encountered very few up-to-date opinions on the modern smartphone – it was as though the critics had entirely disregarded the developments in the field of smartphones for the past five years.
The gradual disappearance of the compact camera market seems inevitable, as the category will be absorbed by smartphones. However, I foresee one small exception, and that is Leica. We will continue to keep a very close eye on the market. Yes, it is changing very rapidly, and in five years it will once more look entirely different.
LFI: What exactly does this mean for Leica as a company?
Kaltner: Our mantra at Leica is to concentrate on the essential. And the essential element of photography is the image. As long as we keep this focus, we will always deliver products that appeal. Will there be a reshuffle in the product categories? Yes! Will we see mergers of different products? Absolutely! Is it my wish that the camera will be a part of this world of mobile devices with tablets, phablets and smartphones? No doubt! Therefore I must aim to find technological solutions that best integrate the camera into the WLAN environment. Here, Leica may be at an advantage as we do not rely on mass production, while companies who have had years of enormous market shares in the compact camera sector may find themselves left with production facilities they will not be able to utilise in the future.
LFI: Where do you see the company in ten years’ time?
Kaltner: The company’s transformation from hardware-only to a supplier of hardware, software and services shows that we want to find new solutions without giving up our extensive expertise in engineering. It is this expertise that makes us interesting to global partners who are far bigger than us, but lack our know-how.
What I can tell you with complete certainty is that even in ten years’ time there will still be cameras made by Leica – along with other innovative products.
LFI: What role will video play in Leica’s future? The S, the SL and the Q all have very attractive video functions.
Kaltner: That’s another key question to be answered: does video pose a threat to photography, or are they indeed two sides of the same coin? The truth is that today, photography in fact has two strands – one is the still picture, the other is video. Young artists and users mix up stills and videos in a very harmonious way.
The Leica SL features 4K video recording, but we will definitely not participate in a reckless chase to break records. For us at Leica it is about assembling a technological package that enables the user to create the best possible image in the best possible manner. With the CW Sonderoptics Cine lens range, we are also involved in the field of cinematic film. Our position in this area is very strong, and we are well-equipped to define and maintain it.
LFI: In October 2015, Leica held a Celebration of Photography in Wetzlar. The event marked the launch of the SL system, but its primary focus was photography itself. Why is this attention to the image so important to Leica?
Kaltner: Because that really is what it’s all about. It’s a mistake to believe that the hype surrounding technological features makes a product more attractive. Leica have always maintained that the company stands for the medium of photography. Our Celebration of Photography in 2015, attended by 800 guests from 34 nations, was a new and very fitting event that emphasised the nature of what we do: our entire thinking revolves around photography and the image itself. This is at the core of everything we do.
LFI: Does this mindset reflect a return to traditional Leica values, or is it perhaps a conscious statement in today’s world of visual and media overload?
Kaltner: It is not so much a return to old values, but rather an affirmation of the existing Leica culture. More than anything, it represents the end of the debate about the relevance of an image. I take the view that every image holds some kind of relevance for the person who took it. And if it’s an image I took because I needed it for my Facebook account, well, then it has a relevance that is perhaps going to last no more than 30 seconds.
It was very revealing to see how many young people visited our anniversary exhibition Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography throughout the past year. I actually watched them photograph the exhibited prints with their smartphones so they could share this moment with others on social media – and I thought that was fantastic.
LFI: People’s desire for the genuine and sustainable also manifests itself in the Leica Galleries. Why is it so important to Leica to offer a physical space for photography beyond the vast virtual realm, and to safeguard this concept?
Kaltner: Because only a real physical space gives you the chance to have a genuinely individual, emotional experience whilst in the presence of others. Also, we are dedicated to providing a platform for the work of both established as well as young and as yet unknown artists. We will continue to open more Leica Galleries around the world, because we believe in the concrete experience of photography as well as the immediate interaction.
LFI: Which locations do you envision for further galleries?
Kaltner: In addition to the thirteen existing Leica Galleries, I could imagine venues in the Benelux countries. Amsterdam would be a fantastic place for a Leica Gallery. Brussels, a very lively and international city, would also be a possibility. And then there are of course the Scandinavian countries with cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo.
LFI: The Leica Oskar Barnack Award invests in the contemporary photography scene, including talented young newcomers. Why are Leica so committed to this cause?
Kaltner: Because it is our future. I believe in the future of photography, so it naturally follows that I should invest in the future of those who are passionate and committed to the medium. And that’s our young artists. Leica is commonly associated with established and legendary photographers. Obviously that’s a wonderful thing and offers many advantages. But it is equally important to support the next generation of artists, which is exactly what the Leica Oskar Barnack Award is designed to do.
The Leica Oskar Barnack Award offers young photographers a fantastic platform with a very large audience. We have also increased the prize money, because we are aware that the one thing young photographers need most – apart from their camera equipment – is secured financing for their next project. The Leica Oskar Barnack Award is among the most long-standing and tradition-steeped photography competitions in the industry, and I firmly believe that in ten years’ time we will be seeing the work of photographers that have come out of this competition.
LFI: The Leica Oskar Barnack Award is open to submissions shot with any type and any brand of camera. After all, not everyone can afford a Leica as they start out as a photographer. Is it fair to say that the competition is Leica’s way of supporting the young photography scene?
Kaltner: If a brand occupies a leading position, they also have to do it justice. Though I think that as a company, there is still more that we can do. I’m talking about a price-point that would be attractive and achievable for photography students. I believe that a brand with a rich history such as Leica should also represent a piece of achievable vision.
LFI: This vision exists because of Leica’s association with so many iconic photographers who continue to inspire even the younger generations to this day. Is that why it is so important to Leica in particular to span a bridge across the eras, from the Hall of Fame to the Leica Oskar Barnack Award and its Newcomer Award?
Kaltner: Naturally, our inspiring and deeply fascinating history is an incredible foundation. The innovative products in our portfolio are based on the core values of that heritage. In the same vein, we must span a bridge between different eras of photography – from the Hall of Fame Award, which honours the medium’s great masters, to the Leica Oskar Barnack Award which is designed to support both established professional photographers as well as ambitious newcomers.
In today’s world we are inundated, even overwhelmed, with an almost ceaseless flood of images. In my view this actually intensifies the significance and the emotional impact of a specific picture that has managed to sharpen our perception, and to become imprinted into our collective consciousness. Why is it that certain pictures have that effect? Because they capture a moment that provoked further events; because often they can convey more insight and understanding than any socio-political debate could ever accomplish. And that is the wonder of photography.
This interview was conducted by Inas Fayed & Frank Lohstöter, and first appeared on the LFI issue of February, 2016.