Late last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a pilgrimage to one of the holy sites of photography: Leitz Park in Wetzlar. The recently-opened complex is home to state-of-the-art production facilities for Leica Camera, in addition to three other related companies: Leica’s cine-focused sister company CW Sonderoptic, parts manufacturers (and Leica suppliers) Weller Feinwerktechnik and Viaoptic.
Wetzlar is a city imbued with history, but its last 150 years is of most interest to photographers. Along with Oberkochen and Jena, Wetzlar is one Germany’s centres of optical engineering. Over the past century, the city was home to names such as Minox, Leidolf, Hensoldt and, of course, Leitz, manufacturer of Leica (a contraction of Leitz Camera).
It was in Wetzlar’s Eisenmarkt that Oskar Barnack captured the very first image with his prototype camera, now known as the Ur-Leica. This nondescript single frame captured with the experimental device signalled a new era for photography. The very first Leica brought both portability and quality to photography that had been hitherto lacking.
Leitz was a dominant force in photographics for the first half of the twentieth century, synonymous with ruggedness, quality and the intrepid photojournalist. But in the face of declining sales and financial difficulties, Leitz left Wetzlar in 1988, relocating to the nearby town of Solms.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Leica survived several restructures and near-death experiences to produce a slew of successful products, starting with the Leica M9. The Solms factory was bursting at the seams. A reinvigorated Leica Camera AG returned to its home town with a purpose-built state-of-the-art factory precinct.
I visited Leica’s factory in Solms in 2009. That facility looked like a temporary music festival toilet block compared to the cutting-edge facility at Leitz Park. A striking piece of architecture, it is part-showroom, part-gallery, part-factory, all class.
Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a sleek, open space with exhibitions and displays, the mother of all Leica Shops and, naturally, a café. International sales manager Falk Friedrich was kind enough to show me around the facility, providing context to Leica’s impressive history.
2014 was an important year for Leica, celebrating 100 years of Leica photography and 60 years of Leica M. Two exhibitions in the wonderful new space highlighted Leica’s incomparable contribution as unofficial photographic record-keeper of the twentieth century.
Magic Moments - 60 Years Leica M dominated the largest wall. Hung in a lively salon fashion, the exhibition celebrated top-tier Leica M photographs and photographers from the past six decades.
The other, 36 aus 100, shows 36 iconic photographs captured with Leica cameras over the last century. From some of the earliest frames of the Ur-Leica to Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J Day, it is a collection of images both iconic and lesser known, all of which convey the Leica gestalt.
One of the key attractions for Leicaphiles is the collection of rare and unusual cameras. Some are owned by Leica themselves, others are on loan from collectors. Although I’d consider myself pretty well-informed in the Leica world, Falk surprised me with some interesting tidbits, such as how sport optics (spotting scopes and binoculars) helped keep the company financially viable during the dark years of the mid-1990s to 2000s.
Amid the rarities, a showcase highlights Leica’s milestone products, from the Ur-Leica (a replica is on display, the original reportedly remains locked away in a vault) to the S2. While some milestone products, like the Leica S1, were not big sellers, they helped the company overcome technical hurdles and lay the groundwork for today’s successes.
The factory area is where the magic happens. Visitors get a window (literally) into each stage of production, from glass polishing to lens and camera assembly, with an interactive digital interface informing visitors of the various processes. At the time of my visit, the Leica M Edition “Leica 60” camera was on the production line. Very nice!
In this area sits the Leica family tree. Greatly expanded from its Solms rendition, the new family tree features one of almost every camera and lens Leica has ever made. Beginning with the Ur-Leica, the Null-Serie, all the way through to the latest M, X, T & S series cameras, there is a formidable logic and thought to the progression of each Leica model.
While little has changed cosmetically with the M series, new product lines like the sleek Leica T take the best of technology and rethink what is possible. Leica is sometimes criticised for being outmoded, but the T and S series cameras in particular show this is not the case. In fact, these cameras demonstrate a modern design sense completely lacking in many other camera manufacturers.
There is a care and precision evident at Leica that simply doesn’t exist in other companies. While it’s easy to mock Leica for being “too expensive” or “irrelevant”, their products are sublimely designed and built. Their optics are second to none and their cameras and user interfaces actually put the photographer at the centre of the experience. Where mainstream camera manufacturers layer their cameras with a zillion buttons, touch-screens and sub-sub-sub menus, Leica eschews this idiocy with simple and practical design.
I also noticed a distinct pride on the part of Leica’s employees, many of whom have been at the company for decades. Some, like product manager Stefan Daniel, have reached the pinnacle of the company after beginning their careers there as teenage apprentices. Leica is a shining example of German Mittelstand enterprises, small-to-medium businesses that account for 70% of employment in the entire country. These small, innovative companies are the heart of the German economy, something other countries could well learn from..
As with all tours, I finished up exiting through the gift shop; however this shop was unlike any other I had visited. The Leica Store Wetzlar offers lenses, Vespas, T-Shirts, books and, naturally, the entire Leica camera range. There is simply nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
And with that, I bade farewell to Falk, who gifted me a Leica T body shell, the same type that is polished by hand for 45 minutes in the world’s most boring ad. I left the warm, glowing warming glow of Leitz Park and stepped out into a grey Hessian day - a little more inspired than when I arrived.
A big thank you to Falk Friedrich for taking the time out to show me around and to Leica Australia for helping organise the tour.