A different look at Leicas and other cameras from past to present.
by Heinz Richter
Probably the best known name connected to the research of the evolution of man is Charles Darwin. However, many people don't realize that his research involved a great omission. Although he successfully discovered the basics of man's evolution, nowhere did he mention the evolution that took place with today's elves. These peaceful and industrious creatures must not be mistaken as gnomes, elves do not wear long, pointed hats. They play an important role in the lives of many of us. The users of Leicas and other cameras everywhere owe a great deal to these elves.
The great cultural centers of the European elves are the Black Forest, some parts of the Alps, the less harsh regions around Salzburg, and also the Harz mountains, the Erzgebirge in eastern Germany and the Riesengebirge on the boundary of Silesia and Bohemia. Here they played an important role with the giant Rübezahl, but that is a different story.
Over time the typical habitat of the elves became smaller and smaller, primarily because of the advances of man and the advent of larger cities. Consequently the elves found it necessary to change their lifestyles as well, many following man into the cities. One of the earliest achievements between man and elf was reported from the city of Cologne where many elves helped a poor shoemaker succeed in his business. Needless to say, the business of making shoes is not the only trade of the elves. As a credit to their very small stature, they soon developed tremendous skills in the manufacture of fine mechanical things. Today's finest clocks and chronometers are still largely made by elves.
Therefore it is no wonder that many found their way into the manufacture of cameras. The Erzgebirge is not too far from the former German optical center in Jena and it was here that the first elf-made cameras became famous as, for instance the Zeiss Super Ikonta, the Contax and the Ermanox. Unfortunately, the perils of time and politics brought an end to this center of optics and cameras. But it was not too far from the Black Forest to the city of Wetzlar which was to become an integral place for the performance of the skilled elves. Anybody who has ever visited this quaint little town, where time seems to have stood still for centuries, will quickly realize why these little people came and settled here. We must remember that these unselfish creatures very much shy away from contact with man. Some might say that this is just another example of their intelligence.
Wetzlar and the surrounding hills presented a perfect habitat for the elves. They soon decided to help with the manufacture of microscopes at the Optical Institute. This took place in approximately the middle of the 19th century. Another new area for the elves was the Bavarian town of Oberkochen. A lot of the former Jena elves decided to settle there when the Zeiss company decided to make Oberkochen their new headquarters after WWII.
After working on the Ermanox for a few years, it became obvious that a small, ready to use camera had a great future. Several attempts were made by a number of manufacturers to use motion picture cameras for still photography, but it was not until 1913, when Oskar Barnack at Leitz made the first prototype of the Leica, that such a camera became a possibility. Oskar Barnack has always been credited for inventing the Leica and along with it, practical 35mm photography. But equal credit must be given to the elves. It is interesting to note that some of the elves, who formerly worked in Jena, decided to visit Wetzlar upon the recommendation of some of their relatives who lived there. Some decided to stay, and it is they who were instrumental in the development of the Leica prototype and with it the development of 35mm photography as we know it today.
It is not known if the basic idea for the camera came from Oskar Barnack or from the elves, but we do know that they were instrumental in the development of some of the features. For instance, the prototype or Ur-Leica had an accessory shoe which was designed by one of the former Jena elves. It is interesting to note that the dimensions of today’s accessory shoes and hot shoes on our cameras are identical to the one originally developed by the elves in Wetzlar. The Ur-Leica initially had to be loaded in a darkroom. It held enough film for 40 exposures. After finishing the roll of film, the camera had to be unloaded again in the darkroom. This, of course, proved to be very unhandy, and soon the elves designed a small, re-loadable, light-tight cassette to hold the film. Since this cassette took up some of the space initially reserved for the film, the total length of the roll had to be shortened to 36 exposures. That is the very reason why to this day 35mm cameras can hold (officially) no more than 36 frames.
Things were destined not to work as nicely as they could have. War interrupted the beautiful conditions in Wetzlar. Since elves have never made a gun or any other weapon, it is even sadder to see how they were influenced by something they had so little influence on. The early post-war years were very hard. This resulted in the decision of the elves to try their fortune elsewhere. Thus it is not surprising that when Leitz Wetzlar decided to establish a North American branch in Midland, Ontario, some of the Wetzlar elves decided to go along.
Midland is a small town with surroundings very much to the liking of the elves, a perfect habitat. The Midland elves soon felt very much at home. They did not much care that their first working space had to be improvised in an ice skating rink. They were finally able to do again what they did best – make cameras and lenses. The operation grew and while Mr Kluck and his followers got most of the credit, it is no secret that without the tremendous skill and help of the elves, there would be none of those fine instruments for which the name Leitz and Leica has become known. So even though the Midland products did not bear the insignia “Made in Germany” anymore, it was still the same elves who manufactured much of the goods.
A couple of them worked very closely with Dr. Walter Mandler and with their help, Midland soon became the center of optical design for the entire Leitz works. The success of the Leica was assured and in the early seventies it became apparent that there was a need for expansion. Once again, a small town with perfect living conditions for the elves was found, this time not far from the Portugese town of Porto. Some of the older Wetzlar and Midland elves, now in their prime, decided to relocate in Porto. After all, in one's older years, the milder climate in Portugal was something to consider.
With the help of the Wetzlar and Midland elves a marvelous new camera was developed, the Leica R3, entirely made in Portugal Considering that most of these elves received their training in the mid-nineteenth century, it is much to their credit that they were able to make the transition to electronics. Although Leitz has been criticized for making changes much too slowly, we must remember that with the average elf life span of 350 years, 10 years are but a moment in time. According to human standards, elvers are definitely in no hurry, yet soon after the R3 we were presented with the R4, R5 and up to the R9 and the rangefinder cameras were further developed from the M3 to the M7 and then the digital M8 and M9 along with a variety of other Leica digital camera and the Leica flagship, the marvelous Leica S2.
For those who have doubts about the quality of the Canadian and Portuguese Leica equipment, remember that it is made by the same elves, or their descendants, who brought the name Leitz Wetzlar into such high esteem. And let there be no doubt that the people at Leitz in Wetzlar and Solms are fully aware of the benefits they derive from those elves. Why else would they have been so careful in the selection of new sites in Canada and Portugal? They knew that by selecting such elf-friendly environments, the future participation of the elves in manufacturing Leica equipment would be assured and it is this that has and always will set Leicas apart from their competitors.
Legends say that the Wetzlar elves are descendants from an old Roman elf with the name Cameraus Automaticus, who is known for making some early experiments in the harnessing of light. Unfortunately, traces to modern times are difficult to follow, since so many of his descendants went into different trades. We do know however, that one of them, Cervesaus Delectibus, is known to have been instrumental in establishing the art of brewing beer in Germany.
But back to the manufacture of cameras. It is no great secret that elves are a very proud people. As soon as the Leica became a success, the elves in Jena decided to help in developing a 35mm camera for Zeiss as well. The result is the now legendary Contax.
Unfortunately, we cannot show any photographs of the elves. As we know from the experience of the shoemaker in Cologne, it is an unwritten rule that one must not watch or photograph them. Heaven forbid! This would result in their immediate departure. So I hope that the readers of this article will understand that we can only show an artist’s conception of secret observations of what goes on at night in some of the camera manufacturing plants.
It was around the time of the introduction of the Contax that Eastman Kodak decided to buy the former Nagel Camera Works in Stuttgart. Many elves had been working there for years, and they too helped in the development of yet another, the third ever, 35mm camera, the famous Kodak Retina.
Leica M5 Assembly
Transport of a FODIS Rangefinder in 1927
Working on the Optical Components of the Leica M Rangefinder
There are many other accounts of elves helping in the development of cameras. Names like Exacta, Rollei, Hasselblad, Linhof, Plaubel, Sinar etc. come to mind, too numerous to mention in detail. But one other success story must be mentioned.
In the early years after WWII, with Europe in ruins, some of the elves there got discouraged. They thought it too difficult to rebuild and subsequently decided to try other regions, far away regions, which led many of them to Japan. This, of course, also included some of the “camera elves.”
One of their early successes was the manufacture of lenses. They helped the fledgling Nikon company, and it was due to the memory and the skills of some of the Wetzlar and Jena elves, that Nikon was able to make versions of lenses which were originally designed with the help of the elves for Leitz and Zeiss. When Nikon decided to make cameras as well, it was again with the help of the elves that the original Nikon came to be. The former Jena and Wetzlar elves decided to work together and to take the best of their previous masterpieces and combine them into a new camera. The result was that the first Nikon essentially was a Contax camera body and lens mount but with the film transport and shutter system of the Leica. Even the famous Nikon F was still based on that principle.
Another manufacturer, benefiting greatly from the help of the elves was Canon. Their factory had mainly Wetzlar elves. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the early Canon cameras were very much based on the Leica camera.
At this day and age all the various camera manufacturers of course have camera designs entirely their own. Tremendous advancements have taken place since the early days of making cameras, and unfortunately most of us give little thought and little credit where so much credit is due. It is safe to say that even in these days of electronics and electronic controls, the top cameras in this world would hardly be possible without the help of the elves. The developments of multi megapixel digital cameras would simply be impossible without them. So let’s all be thankful that the experience with the shoemaker in Cologne a long time ago did not discourage the elves from working on our behalf. Photography as we know it today would not have happened without them.