Thursday, March 28, 2013


It is not often that we have a chance to rewrite history.  This is one of those instances where it is possible to do so, not by some revisionist scheme, but with new facts, previously unknown.  What I am referring to is the history of the Ur-Leica.  A lot of what we know about the camera is actually false.  I have written about this topic on several occasions on this blog, and I, like so many, have been misled by the published findings of others.

We do know the account of the events that led to the development of the initial prototype of the Leica, the Ur-Leica.  I stand by my assertion that this camera was not the exposure testing device that Barnack made (see: HOW THE LEICA CAME TO BE  
It is with the many accounts of what happened after the development of the Ur-Leica that a lot of misinformation has been brought forth.

In spite of all the published information about a second Ur-Leica, there is and always has been only one example.  The account given by Gianni Rogliatti for instance, that claims that the original Ur-Leica was given by Oscar Barnack to Ernst Leitz II, and that he used a second version for himself is inaccurate.  Also inaccurate is Rogliatti’s claim that this camera had been in the possession of the Deutsches Museum in Munich and was later returned to Oskar Barnack’s son Konrad, who supposedly later sold the camera to a collector in the US.

Leica Prototype or Ur-Leica

It is correct that Konrad Barnack did have a Leica camera that was at the Deutsches Museum for a while, and it is correct that this camera was later sold by him to a collector, but this camera was one of the preproduction, Null Serie (0-series) models made by Leitz prior to the decision to manufacture and market the Leica.  This camera was the 0-series camera #105.

Rolf Fricke, one of the foremost experts of the Leica and cofounder of LHSA, the Leica Historical Society of America, now called the International Leica Society, wrote the following:

The camera that was at the Deutsches Museum was not an Ur-Leica!!!  It was 0-Series (or Null-Serie) camera No.105, which Konrad Barnack requested back from that museum and subsequently sold to Jim Forsyth of Florida. Many years later, Prof. Al Clarke of Columbus, OH and I bought out that collector, and Al kept No.105, which he later sold to another prominent collector, and Al also kept the large format camera that Oskar Barnack had used during his hikes in the woods, and which he found cumbersome and which motivated him to work on a smaller, handier camera, which led to the Ur-Leica. There is no solid proof whatsoever that there ever was a second Ur-Leica. References to a second Ur-Leica are always couched in the words "alleged", or "said to be", and this eventually creeps into the stories of superficial historians! The camera that Ernst Leitz took along on his visit to New York was the original and only Ur-Leica!

Over the years Rolf has had a rather personal connection to Leica, much beyond anyone outside of the company.  He explains that he bought his first Leica, a used model IIIc on February 21, 1949. In Rio De Janeiro, where he grew up.

 I still have that camera and the instruction booklet in Portuguese, the camera is still functional!
Next I very naively went to the local Leitz representative, where a kind elderly gentleman (Paul Louis Toinndorf) explained to me that the distributor does not handle retail matters, which are the responsibility of the dealers, but he invited me in anyway and patiently demonstrated to me what one can do with a Leica, like using a wide-angle lens, a long focus lens, a close-up attachment, etc, none of which I could even remotely afford.
He even very graciously offered to lend me such accessories, all of which endeared the man and his firm to me. Much, much later I learned that he had completed his apprenticeship at Leitz in the Hausertorwerk building, the very building where Oskar Barnack had his office, and he had met that legendary man in person! That warm treatment endeared the camera to me and created a loyalty that led to further acquaintances, all the way to the Leitz brothers and sister themselves, and even repeated stays at the Leitz villa Haus Friedwart.

I recently wrote about the possibility that I came across a picture of what might be the second Ur-Leica.  It is a picture of a camera that obviously is of the same design as the known Ur-Leica, but it is outwardly different.  I obtained this picture from the Deutsches Museum in Munich.  I contacted the museum to shed some more light on this issue.  I corresponded with Frau Dr. Cornelia Kemp, curator for photo and film at the museum.  She wrote about the camera that used to be owned by Konrad Barnack:

Picture of the Ur-Leica from the Deutsches Museum in Munich

Bei der Leica handelt es sich nicht um die Ur-Leica, sondern um die Nr. 105 aus der Nullserie, die ab 1923 hergestellt wurde. Sie gehörte aber nie dem Museum, sondern war ihm von Oskar Barnacks Sohn Conrad von 1939-45 leihweise  zur Verfügung gestellt.

(The Leica is not the Ur-Leica, but the No. 105 from the pilot series (0-series) that was produced from 1923. It never belonged to the museum, it was given on loan by Oskar Barnack's son Conrad from 1939-45)

Leica 0-Series Camera with optical viewfinder

Leica 0-Series Camera with folding viewfinder

Dr. Kemp went on to explain the picture the museum had sent to me:

Am 30. 9. 1940 bat der Museumskonservator Theodor Konzelmann Conrad Barnack um Bildmaterial für einen Vortrag.  Unter dem übersandten und am 30. 10. 1940 zurückerstatteten Bildmaterial befand sich auch ein Leica Dia welches die Ur-Leica darstellt.  Ganz offensichtlich versäumte das Museum nicht , von dem Dia eine Kopie zu ziehen.

(On 9. 30. 1940 Theodor Konzelmann, the curator of the museum, asked Conrad Barnack for some photographic material for a lecture. Among the material sent on 10. 30. 1940 was also a Leica slide of the Ur-Leica. Obviously the museum did not miss out on making a copy of the slide)

This, however, does not explain the differences between the camera on the picture from the Deutsches Museum and the known Ur-Leica that is in possession of Leica Camera AG.  Considering that the picture was taken in 1940 or even earlier, it stands to reason that the differences, which are mostly cosmetic, occurred during the time after the picture was taken, especially if one considers that until relatively recently, the camera was handled quite often in a rather cavalier manner. 

Rolf Fricke made the following comment:

The one and only Ur-Leica (by definition, it would not be an 'Ur-Leica' if there was more than one!) traveled around for quite a bit after the Museum picture was taken in 1940. For example, the former Leitz CEO Alfred Loew brought it to Rochester, NY in conjunction with a presentation he gave at a Photo History Symposium at George Eastman House way back in the 1970s, for which I organized the program. He left the camera with me for a week while he went to Washington, DC on business and retrieved it on his way back.  Nowadays that camera is highly insured and it is treated with significantly greater caution and security.

I can certainly confirm the relatively careless treatment of the camera from personal experience because I had the opportunity to handle the camera on two occasions during annual meetings of the Leica Historical Society.  Once it had been brought by Rolf Fricke and another time by Dr. Wangorsch, then the curator of the Leica Museum in Wetzlar. 

We do know of the existence of another prototype of the Leica, the so-called third prototype.  It is a camera visibly different from the Ur Leica and it is always shown without a lens.  However, there is what should be considered a third prototype which is relatively unknown.

So called Prototype 3

This camera is thoroughly described in the Book “Barnacks Erste Leica” (Barnack’s First Leica), written by Dr. Günter Kisselbach.  I did get permission from Dr. Kisselbach to use some of the pictures from the book.   Since I have not yet been able to obtain this book, I am using a description by Rolf Fricke:

There is a large, very well-illustrated book by the very personable Dr. Günter Kisselbach, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor in Wetzlar, who is the younger son of Theo Kisselbach, the erstwhile director of the original "Leica Schule".  Guenther's older brother Wolfgang Kisselbach is the overall manager of the construction of the brand new purpose-built factory buildings and museum in Leitz Park in Wetzlar.
The book is entitled "BARNACKS ERSTE LEICA" (= Barnack's first Leica"), and it features a camera in great detail that is very similar to the 0-series camera with the same optical finder, except that it is all brass with brown leather covering and has a different flat dial between the viewfinder and the rewind knob for setting the slit width (in mm) of the focal plane shutter. Evidently Kisselbach the father kept that camera when he retired and Kisselbach the younger inherited it, and he thoroughly studied it and had it disassembled and adapted for picture taking by expert repairman Ottmar Michaeli (who was one of my speakers at one of the LHSA Annual Meetings!), all of which is beautifully illustrated in the aforementioned book.
By "First Leica", Günter Kisselbach means Barnack's first practical camera (still not named 'Leica'!) after the Ur-Leica. On page 187 of that outstanding book there is a photo of "Prototyp Nr.3" in what is left of the Leica museum, which was plundered for sales when the company was about to go bankrupt. That camera has no lens mount, a folding, recessed open frame viewfinder frame on top and an exposure counter on the front of the camera. There is no rewind knob, and the accessory shoe is located where that knob would be.

Barnacks Handmuster (Sample)

Top of 0-Series Leica for comparison

Since this camera is so very close to the 0-series cameras, one must assume that the so-called prototype Nr. 3 was made prior to it and I feel it is not wrong to refer to it as the second (not third) prototype.  However, since no date for this camera has ever been established, this is simply conjecture on my part.  What I can say with certainty at this point is that only one Ur-Leica was made by Oskar Barnack and that two other prototypes exist from the time prior to the 0-series cameras.

If by chance I dig up any other interesting facts about the history of the Leica, I will report about it here.  

For more information on Barnacks Handmuster (Sample) camera go to:


  1. Reader SABEARS writes:

    Nice research. News like this are not a surprise to me: there were and there are still many errors in the first publications on the Leitz history. I knew the opinion of Rolf Fricke.
    Often the word of mouth has caused the spread of urban legends. This lasts until serious historians, involved in a multidisciplinary way to search, want to know more.
    For ex. it's impossible to reconstruct some background without studying the historical context. I think that there is still much to discover.
    Thank you to share and good luck for the next research.


    P.S.:I will go too in the near future for research purposes In Germany. I will also go to the Leitz, so, if you meet someone strange, lost in thought, you know who is ...

  2. Great post. It makes me wonder how notable Leica historians like Rogliatti, for instance, could have been so wrong.

    1. We should not be too critical of earlier Leica historians. Their findings were based on the material available at the time. Many of the finer details regarding the development of the Leica did not come into light until later.

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  5. Reader Tomei writes:

    I have been spending a lot of time just trying to be as correct as possible regarding the history of cameras. One big problem is the fact that off-the-cuff, unsubstantiated and erroneous comments on any forum will often turn up in searches for years and gain veracity with time. And there is a strange lack of critical review when something turns up on a Google search which results in the errors being repeated on and on. I was corrected (and rightly so) regarding a statement I made on my site regarding Franz Kochman. Peer review simply will never exist across the internet so it is important to correct errors as quickly as they are discovered.

    David Tomei
    L David Tomei
    Genazzano, Roma

    1. Unfortunately some of the errors regarding the Leica occurred long before the internet came into existence. They have been circulated and accepted as facts and it takes a great effort to set the record straight. That is especially the case when highly regarded historians are the source of such errors.

  6. Reader Theseus12 writes:

    Great information! Thank you so much for all your research.

  7. I too want to thank you for the research you did on this project. It appears that we will never know the complete Leica story, but thanks to your efforts and those of the people mentioned in your article, we have come a giant step closer.

    1. Thank you very much. Something that has always fascinated me are prototype and pre-production models. On my trip to Solms this summer I am hoping to dig up more on this subject at the Leica museum. Hopefully it will be enough for an article.

  8. In the article it says that many of the items in the Leica Museum were sold when the company was in danger of going bankrupt a few years ago. Is there anything left in the museum?

  9. Yes, not all of the items were sold. In addition, Leica has been buying back many of the items for the museum.

  10. Fascinating and enlightening article, Heinz. Thanks for publishing.