Leica May Whisper Luxury, But It Screams Art and Photography

Walking into Leica’s new flagship store in New York City immediately evokes a sense of luxury, and yet, the space still feels welcoming. It’s a tricky line to toe, but somehow the shop and gallery pulls it off. It’s a dichotomy Leica marries as a brand overall, as well. The company is known for its bespoke camera lineup which largely eschews the plastic bodies outfitted with numerous dials and buttons for its minimalist metal casings: Premium cameras with premium price tags to match. But Leica is just as much about art and community. A look at the camera company’s social media pages will offer more thoughtful photographs rather than it will carefully curated product shots. The images are the highlight while the cameras used to get the shots are relegated to the background, often mentioned only in the captions. This allows anyone to scroll through Leica’s Instagram pages, focusing on photography as an art form rather than feeling out of place if they aren’t familiar with the specific products. The same is true, Leica hopes, for its new space in Chelsea. As much as each detail whispers luxury, it screams photography.
When people walk in, the front desk highlights the Sofort 2, Leica’s digital instant camera hybrid and easily its most accessible offering from a price and skill standpoint. Moving further, the “selling salon” shows off the real gems. The cameras that, with a lens or two and some accessories, could match the price of some cars. There’s also a shelf dedicated to pre-owned gear, something Leica US President Mike Giannattasio tells PetaPixel is part of Leica’s goal to increase the brand’s accessibility and tacitly serving as a reminder of the products’ longevity. So too is the alcove where repairs can be completed on site. A glass display case sports a shock of red at the edges, a nod to Leica’s famous red dot logo. Inside are historical pieces, a vintage camera and paper ephemera. It reminds those who walk through that Leica has stood the test of time. Walk further and there are binoculars and $10,000 Leica watches. But it’s a soft sell. The cameras and the accessories and the watches are there, but whoever walks in can take it or leave it. The point of the store, somewhat ironically, isn’t to sell to customers at all. Instead, Leica invites people to the back, where it hosts a gallery. The first exhibit, which opened Thursday showcases the work of late photographer Elliot Erwitt. Immediately to the right of the front door, the Photo of the Year, one of Erwitt’s, is on display. It’s a curious image of a person on a stoop joined by two bulldogs. One is to the side of the subject, but the other is right on the person’s lap, creating an optical illusion as if the dog makes up the head and torso. It’s whimsical but grounded, providing a recognizable slice of life.
On the second floor of the Leica store is the “library.” That’s not a misnomer either. While some community spaces offer books, they can frequently feel more like set decorations rather than an actual invitation to pick them up and read. But in Leica’s library, people are encouraged to sit at a table and take in the books, whether they’re a green photographer eager to learn more about the craft or want to delve into a photobook of a titan in the field like Diane Arbus. While people can’t take the books out, it operates more like a reference section in a traditional library, there for public use but only on-premises. Still, the fact that people don’t have to buy anything and can simply explore what the location has to offer is a rarity. One section is filled with books dedicated to Erwitt, a selection meant to turn over as the gallery’s exhibit downstairs rotates work from different artists. On a shelf rests a gray bulldog, a nod to Leica’s Photo of the Year and another sign that every detail in the shop has been carefully selected. That includes the selection of Erwitt himself as the first photographer to be highlighted in the gallery. “Elliot, even though wasn’t a native New Yorker, spent so many years of his life in New York. And if you look at his greatest work, it’s in New York. And so we would say having, and I think that if you think about New York as a city, having a person who’s from LA that was born someplace else and finds home and comfort in a city as New York, how could we not do Elliot?” Giannattasio explains.
Beyond the cameras and the photographs on display, Leica’s new flagship store might showcase the city of New York even more. Rather than the utilitarian black, the store has a far lighter brick facade in keeping with the history of the building. Original wood beams line the ceiling. Sun pours in through the skylights. “We normally don’t work in this color palette, this monochromatic color palette that is warm and inviting like the city of New York but very different than [other Leica stores],” Giannattasio shares. Giannattasio references Andy Warhol’s Factory as a source of inspiration. “In New York with 1970s, during the era of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, he had a space that he created for I would say the creators, the artists, the photographers, the real thinkers, and he called it the factory,” Giannattasio told PetaPixel. “And that was sort of my inspiration for this kind of space that I wanted to find a freestanding space and I wanted to find a space in an area of the city that was a neighborhood, but that had some real historical relevance. And that’s how we chose meatpacking as our home.” This is how Leica makes a luxury space that is more inclusive than exclusive. Altogether, Giannattasio points out, the gallery library and bar take up far more square footage than the selling salon. It is a store that isn’t intent on making a sale — which is, of course, the ultimate sell. Leica’s ethos, infused in each corner of the new flagship location, creates a community. And that community, in turn, makes the most loyal and dedicated customers. It makes someone more likely to scrimp together savings for a Leica rather than opt for a cheaper model from another camera company. It makes people willing to buy not only a camera and some lenses but also an official case, keychains, or a special soft-release button that can double as cufflinks. Or a $10,000 watch.
Regardless of the reasoning, Leica is creating a space to foster a community of photographers with its new location. One that is meant to highlight art and the artists who make it, whether they are professionals or hobbyists coming into the library or taking a workshop. “This,” Giannattasio says, “is a place that’s open for everyone.” Image credits: Leica

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