A globe emerges from the mist of a German morning. Discreetly, a small red disc sits in the middle of Europe. We are at the very heart of photography, at the epicenter of a brand that has imprinted its five letters on the history of the medium: L-E-I-C-A.
To visit the Leitz Park is to realize the impact the German brand has had. Its story is romantic, tragic, almost too perfect… The Phoenix of photography, Leica has risen from the ashes and now registers record growth rates, even though the company had been on the brink of collapse just a few years ago.
Leitz Park 3, which houses a museum, a hotel, a store, exhibition rooms, as well as some of the production facilities, is a testament to this rebirth. Inaugurated in June 2018, with a budget of 60 million euros, this 27,000-square-meter city of photography in miniature, where the buildings are shaped like a lens or a view camera, has become Leica’s showcase.
Blind was able to visit the archives and the factory, and discover how much of the family history is still alive in Wetzlar, a community of 50,000 just north of Frankfurt. Welcome to Leica Welt.
A visit to Leica’s birthplace is a reminder of how the German brand shaped photography. All you need to do is to step into the brand new, highly informative museum, which covers the brand’s beginnings and the early days of photography in general.
Before there was Leica, there was Leitz, named after Ernst Leitz, who took over the management of the Wetzlar Optics Institute in 1849, which at that time specialized in optical systems and microscopes. The Leica—a contraction of Leitz Camera—is the brainchild of an engineer at the factory, Oskar Barnack. He used the company’s technology to design a camera body that would be much more practical than the bulky view cameras. In 1914, the proto-Leica sparked a real revolution. But it was not until 1924, and the end of World War I, that the small format camera began to be mass-produced.
It is also to Oskar Barnack that we owe the 24×36 format based on the 35mm used in the film industry. Why 36 stops? The story goes that this was the length of Barnack’s outstretched arms when he unspooled a roll of film. The museum displays iconic camera bodies, such as Leica Zero – a model which brought 14 million euros at an auction last June -, Leitz Phone 1, the smartphone made at Leica; and the timeless, iconic M series.
A photographic pilgrimage
For Leica lovers, walking these halls is like taking a pilgrimage. The archives are a real treasure trove. One of the representatives opens the doors to brand-new rooms where pieces of history are preserved in a long aisle of rolling shelving.
One chest drawer reveals the blueprints of the 1923 model. Our guide’s gloved hands reach into a black box and pull out emblematic devices from foam-lined compartments. There is something wonderful about this solemn act of unboxing.
They are all there: from the classics to the most unique, like this refined Leica M model, co-designed by Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer. You can also find derived items, advertising posters, Leica enlargers, and astonishing designs such as a Kalashnikov camera, where “shooting” takes on its full meaning since the camera body is a gun… We also discover the handwritten registers logging serial numbers going back to the very first Leica, put on the market in 1925.
As you leave the archives, the story follows you, as it runs along a long wall in the reception room, with 36 photos exhibited in lighted frames that retrace the company’s 100 years: the iconic portrait of Che Guevara taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda; the Napalm girl by Nick Ut, June 1972; the soldier killed during the Spanish Civil War captured by Robert Capa; the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag in Berlin on May 2, 1945, shot by Evgeny Khaldei…
All these images remind us of the extent to which Leica made the emergence of photojournalism possible as early as 1920, and sustained the greats, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Jane-Evelyn Atwood…
Quotes from these great ambassadors of photography dot the walls of the hotel. “The eye should learn to listen before it looks,” Robert Frank reminds you upon waking. “Reality is to photography as melody is to music,” adds Ralph Gibson. “The Leica is a sketchbook, a psychoanalyst’s couch, a machine gun, a big, hot kiss, an electromagnet, a memory, the mirror of memory,” pitches in Cartier-Bresson.
Leica, the cameras of freedom
At Leica Welt, you carry your camera the way you might wear a suit of armor. To own a Leica is to become part of a big family. Leaving the Leitz Park and heading back to Wetzlar town center, one discovers that the city is also closely linked to the red disc, which had celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014.
The historic factory still stands like a church in the middle of the village. Along the narrow streets, you make your way to the exact spot where the very first Leica photo was taken in 1914, namely the almost unchanged market square.
Even at the cathedral, the Catholic and Protestant communities share the organ, which was renovated thanks to donations from the Leitz family. “The people of Wetzlar are very attached to the history of Leica,” says a cab driver. “My father worked for Leica, my first wife worked for Leica, and I met my second wife through Leica,” adds Ibe, one of the guides.
The company had also survived the great upheavals of the twentieth century, and its role during World War II is often overlooked. While the Nazi army made use of Leica’s optical technology, Ernst Leitz II, the company’s boss at the time, used the brand’s already worldwide reputation to evacuate German Jews threatened by the regime. It was a London historian, Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith, who only recently revealed this commitment.
The way in which the threatened people were evacuated is incredible. Ernst Leitz II hired them from within the company and then sent them supposedly to work at his New York factory. He gave each of these employees a Leica. The camera itself was already worth a small fortune. Once in New York, these freedom cameras could be used as a means of subsistence by refugees.
Ernst Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, also played an important role. She was arrested by the Gestapo for facilitating the escape of Jews to Switzerland. Her portrait hangs discreetly in one of the rooms of the Leitz family home, now a welcome center.
A two-million-dollar lens
While Leica has always been held in high esteem by amateur and professional photographers alike, this is due to the quality finish of the products, their sturdiness, and the camera’s quasi-artisanal mechanism, as well as lifelong customer service. This philosophy brings it close to some of the most prestigious watchmakers.
Today, the final phase of production and quality control is carried out in Wetzlar, employing nearly 700. Leica has a total of 1,800 workers worldwide and has had a second assembly plant in Portugal since 1972.
The halls of the Wetzlar factory are like a laboratory. Every objective lens goes through a myriad steps to ensure surgical precision. For example, a Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH objective contains nine lenses, including an aspherical one. The assembly of an M9 takes 4.5 hours on average, and a Leica M7 contains 1,500 parts.
It is also in Wetzlar that prototypes of future cameras are built. It is forbidden to take pictures in those parts of the workshop. Leica jealously guards its manufacturing secrets. The “Manufaktur” is also responsible for custom orders for Leica M cameras (M stands for Messsucher, rangefinder), where the wildest wishes get fulfilled.
Michel Ellert, former head of Leica France, has a few anecdotes on hand, such as camera bodies set with diamonds or plated with gold… One of the most astonishing orders came from Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani of Qatar. A photo enthusiast, the prince complained that he could not get close enough to his falcons in flight, falconry being the national sport. “He arrived at Leitz Park by helicopter and requesting to be unaccompanied on the site,” Ellert recalls.
The prince then had the Leica APO-Telyt-R 1:5.6/1600mm lens custom made. Close to a missile launcher in size, it turns out to be the most expensive lens in the world: worth over 2 million dollars. And the device to hold this outsized objective? “The prince had a tripod custom fitted onto the back of a pickup truck to be able to take pictures of falcons in action.”
M6 makes a comeback
Although the Leica group is now posting record sales, rising from 145.6 million euros in 2007 to 400 million ten years later, the shift to digital had once threatened to bring the brand’s demise. In 2004, Leica was close to bankruptcy. So much so that Hermès, the company’s main shareholder at the time (between 2000 and 2006), withdrew in favor of Andreas Kaufmann, a rich Austrian heir.
Kaufmann put Leica back on track with digital technologies and fully integrated the brand into the luxury sector. “If you don’t have a Leica by the time you’re fifty, you’ve missed out on life,” we might say today about this Rolex of photography.
Flagship Leicas—the Q2, SL, and M models—have not flinched in the face of the Covid crisis. On the contrary, the company has registered growth that is difficult to explain even internally. The reissue last October of the emblematic M6 model, with its 5,000-dollar body, is a proof of the brand’s top form.
“Since 1984, M6 has taken countless iconic photos. … Analog photography, in contrast to the avalanche of digital images, enjoys great popularity. So it made sense for us to relaunch the production of Leica M6, one of the most popular of its kind,” says Stefan Daniel, Executive Vice President of Technology and Operations.
By resuming the production of M6, Leica is showing its full confidence and embracing its heritage even as it is keeping up with the times, with its recent announcement of the launch of the Leitz Phone 2, Leica’s cell phone currently available exclusively in Japan.