Carl Merkin: Back to the Source; Wetzlar, Solms and Beyond

This is the second guest post in a series from Carl Merkin, photographer and member of the Leica Historical Society. His first guest post discussed the Leica lens legacy.

The Leica Historical Society of America took the ultimate Leica trip for our most recent annual meeting last September … Germany!  We chose Wetzlar, the original location of the Ernst Leitz Company, as our home base for the week. We toured a number of historic sites in the area, had a wonderful cruise on the Moselle including a winery tour and spent a day at the Photokina show in Cologne, but the real highlights for me were the Leica Factory tour of the production facility at Solms and the day I spent at the Leica Akademie.

Arriving at the factory, the first treat was seeing what is called “the most expensive lens in the world,” a 1:5.6/1600mm APO-Telyt-R. Two were made, reportedly a special order from the Middle East, at just over $2,000,000 each and Leica made a third one to keep.

Across the lobby was the Stammbaum (family tree), a display which traces the evolution of the Leica, from the Leica 0 of 1924 to the present M7, MP and M9 cameras, with one of each model in each color it was produced in. The famous Stammbaum poster has been a favorite of collectors for some time and has been revised through the years, but here were the actual cameras before me.

At this point, a gentleman in white gloves appeared with a display box, which turned out to contain one of the three original Ur-Leica prototypes, hand-made by Oscar Barnack in 1913. It was such an awesome experience to be in the same room with that actual camera, that I had to make a conscious effort to keep my camera still enough to take a few pictures of this piece of history. Along with the Ur-Leica camera were several vintage prints from negatives that Oscar Barnack shot with it, including a photo of the Eisenmarkt, a market square quite near our hotel in Wetzlar. We had passed through the square earlier in the week and I decided to find the spot where the photo was taken, just to see what, if anything, had changed and to stand in the footsteps of Oskar Barnack. The buildings are almost unchanged as you can see in the photos above. The corner building has added window boxes and the vehicles certainly have changed, but otherwise it’s the same street corner 96 years later!

Leica Camera USA Vice President of Marketing, Christian Erhardt, then treated us to a few minutes with the M9 Titan, a concept camera which had just been introduced at the Photokina show. Designed by Walter de’Silva of Audi, it features several innovations including illuminated frame lines and a unique finger grip handle in place of the neck strap. The all titanium body design has been simplified and smoothed, but still maintains the basic lines of an M-camera. Some of the ideas incorporated into this limited edition and quite expensive experimental platform may well show up in Leicas of the future (M10 anyone?)

The rest of the tour took us through the production areas of the plant where, unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden. We got to see focusing mounts being laboriously turned back and forth by hand until they had that “Leica feel”. Lens elements were being polished by computer-controlled machines and by experienced hands in different steps of the process. The precision centering and assembly was explained in detail by Leica lens design chief Peter Karbe, the man who designed the new Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 lens. I saw technicians building M7 film cameras (despite the persistent internet chatter about Leica being out of the film camera business!) and watched final assembly and testing of M9 digital cameras.

At one inspection station, we were each given a lens element from a box of rejects which had not met Leica standards. That aspherical element will always be a treasured memento to me, just like the group photo above, taken by a Leica staff photographer with the Leica S-2. That’s me kneeling, second from the right, in the tan shirt. After the factory tour and a wonderful lunch in the Oscar Barnack Room, we were invited to choose from an array of Leica promotional literature in the lobby, including a bath-mat sized Leica S-2 camera brochure and we each left with a large tote bag full of goodies.

The factory tour was on the last day of our week in Germany and most attendees headed home the following morning, but about 20 of us chose to stay one more day to attend a special product training course on the application of the M System at the Leica Akademie at Solms. Conducted by Leica Akademie photographer and technical specialist Oliver Richter and Justin Stailey of Leica Camera USA, the course covered the capabilities and techniques of the Leica M System and a review of the current lenses, with an inspiring photo presentation. We were each presented with a Leica M9 and the lens of our choice to use for the day while Justin gave a comprehensive explanation of the menus and functions of the M9. We spent the afternoon at the Hessenpark Open Air Museum, a collection of vintage buildings from towns around the state of Hesse which were moved to Hessenpark to create a living example of the architecture, agriculture and crafts of past centuries. The village and museum they have created is one big photo-op and it was the perfect place to apply our new knowledge and test drive our loaner equipment. What a way to end an unforgettable week!

My special thanks to Christian Erhardt and Justin Stailey for sharing and enriching our experience!

-Carl Merkin

For more images from the Wetzlar trip, visit the Leica Historical Society Page on Facebook and the Event Images gallery on the LHSA website. To connect with Carl Merkin on Facebook, visit http://www.facebook.com/carl.merkin.photographs.