Thursday, May 14, 2015


 When Ernst Leitz II decided on the production of the Ur-Leica

More than 100 years ago, in March of 1914, Oskar Barnack completed the prototype model of the Leica.  But the First World War interrupted any further development for several years.  91 years ago Ernst Leitz II decided on the production of the camera.  A biography of the Wetzlar company for the first time illuminates the challenges Ernst Leitz had to master before the Leica revolutionized the world of photography.

"Es wird riskiert" 
"Es wird riskiert" (we will risk it)

"Ich entscheide hiermit: Es wird riskiert" (I herewith decide: We’ll risk it).  With these words Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956) ended a long and controversial debate with his closest associates about the introduction of a “small film camera.”  It was the most significant business decision of his life.  His “Yes” to the series production of the Leica and thus to the development of a new photography system should determine the photo-technical and photo-chemical industry over three quarters of a century. At the 90-year return of this groundbreaking decision Knut Kühn-Leitz published a new biography of his grandfather.

101 years ago the First World War broke out. This was the reason why the Leica could only be produced with a 10-year delay.  Oskar Barnack had been working with the support of Ernst Leitz on the construction of his "Liliput kamera” with cinema film" and completed the development of the first version of his "small film camera" in March 1914.  During the war and post-war years, the amateur photographer, however, had other tasks to attend to.  Not until 1920 did Ernst Leitz decided on the further development of the camera as well as the calculation of a high-performance lens by Max Berek.

 <p>Ab dem 20, Mai im Buchhandel erhältlich: die neue Biografie über Ernst Leitz II.</p>
The new biography of Ernst Leitz II

Ernst Leitz had early recognized a trend to a small, light and handy camera. It was clear to the world famous microscope producer that it was not done with the camera alone, that a still camera for the perforated film had to have a very precise mechanism and superior optical performance, and that in addition the development of a completely new system for the recording format 24x36 mm was necessary: high-quality equipment to enlarge the postage stamp size negative onto photo paper as well as for the projection of transparencies.

But what use was such a precise camera with the accompanying photographic system if the company lacked possibility to distribute the camera to amateur photographers. In addition, the recording material, perforated motion picture film, was initially far from being able to establish the real possibilities of the camera and lens. The photographic industry also had no interest in replacing the flourishing business of contact prints from plates or roll film by a new enhancement technique for the 35mm film format.

Even more serious was that the plan of Ernst Leitz, to open a new market for photography, coincided with a period in which all financial assets of the German people had been destroyed by the hyperinflation and subsequent currency reform. The target group of discerning amateurs did not have the financial resources to purchase an expensive camera like the Leica.

Particularly because of the social responsibilities to his employees, Ernst Leitz decided to make the high investment into a new manufacturing program.

"This is an opportunity to bring our workers through a hard time"

The entire project was often seen as a "Ride Across Lake Constance" (a foolish undertaking). But Ernst Leitz said: "There is the possibility to help our workers with this little camera - if it delivers what it promises - to obtain work in the years of the depression and through the coming hard times."

This quote emphasizes his social conscience. He was a man who stood up for other people. With his courage and great personal risk to himself and his family he also helped many Jews to escape the persecutions of the Nazis and to start a new life outside of Germany. The fate of these refugees are important historical documents and they were included in this book.

The extensive literature about the Leica so far lacked a detailed look at the major economic risks to which Ernst Leitz exposed himself with the entry in a completely new market. This gap was closed in this biography. Abundantly illustrated, various technical writers describe, how the Leica with its interchangeable lenses soon after its launch conquered new fields for small-format photography and eventually became an icon of the 20th century photography.

The new biography of Ernst Leitz is not only intended for Leica owners and photographers, but also for a wider audience: It impressively demonstrates what entrepreneurial daring in times of crisis and civil courage under a dictatorship are able to accomplish. 

Ernst Leitz "Ich entscheide hiermit: Es wird riskiert!"
Published by Knut Kühn-Leitz.
290 pages
ISBN 978-3-86852-941-8,
29, 95 Euro.

Heel Verlag GmbH
Pottscheidt 1
53639 Königswinter

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