“The Lilliput camera is ready.” With these words, Oskar Barnack, a precision engineer employed with the optics company Leitz, ushered in a new era of photography by developing a tool that would shape the cultural history of the twentieth century. The camera Barnack referred to was a small, toy-like prototype camera, the Ur-Leica, which would later evolve into the legendary Leica I, the first of a long series of highly successful portable field cameras that used the 35 mm film format. Barnack’s motto: small negative, big picture. Coupled with the high-performance lenses Leitz was known for producing, the diminutive size of the film negative and the compact camera body provided the perfect combination of features for the spontaneous style of street photography embraced by a new generation of photographers.
The rest, they say, is history. After the success of the original Leica models, the company went on to develop the iconic Leica M series of rangefinders that are still widely used today. Along with Leica’s growth came changes in its corporate structure and the decision to relocate its headquarters from Wetzlar to the nearby town of Solms in 1986. By then, some of Leica’s production had also moved offshore to Portugal and Canada. The following decades would be challenging times for the company with its transition to digital camera technology overshadowed by the overwhelming speed to market and success enjoyed by Japanese rivals.
After what many consider to be a slow, if not clumsy, foray into digital camera production, Leica has since reemerged as a design and technology leader with the commercial and critical success of its Digital M camera range and mid- and entry-level mirrorless camera lineup. To mark the 1ooth year of the Leica camera, the company returned to where it all began in Wetzlar, a move prompted both by the practical requirement for larger space and the symbolic need to reclaim and reinvent its legacy. The new Leitz Park in the city center provides more than just expanded floor space for production; it is, in the words of Leica Camera AG Chairman and CEO Alfred Schopf, “the visual expression of the brand where friends and customers can see Leica’s history and camera production first hand.”
The Leitz Park
The building complex and central plaza in Wetzlar was designed from the very onset to be a destination for Leica customers and enthusiasts. Apart from housing the new corporate headquarters and a state-of-the-art camera and lens production facility, the Leitz Park hosts a gallery, museum, and the global flagship Leica Store. Unlike the company’s factory in Solms, visitors are now given the chance to tour the manufacturing plant and immerse themselves in Leica’s culture of photography. As Schopf explains, “The Leitz Park celebrates the Leica myth with photography exhibitions, the experiential world of Leica, and a glimpse of the manufacturing process.”
Described as the visual expression of the Leica brand, the new building was designed to reflect the quality and identity of Leica products. The most visible structures are the round buildings visitors pass through to enter the world of Leica. The spherical shapes mimic those of Leica’s iconic lenses and binoculars. Like a photographer’s light box and loupe, the curved glass panels, concave walls, and spherical structures dominate the architectural language and form a transparent and sky-lit environment that openly welcomes visitors and employees to the compound.
The gallery space
The first thing that greets visitors entering the main building is an open-plan space, housing a temporary exhibition of photographs in tune with seasonal events. For the inaugural of the Leitz Park last May, Leica mounted the 10X10 exhibit, featuring 100 photographs to celebrate the centenary of the brand. Leica approached 10 young contemporary photographers and matched each one with 10 legendary Leica photographers to produce a new set of images inspired by the past. Further into the hall is Leica’s permanent gallery of iconic photographs from legendary photographers such as Henri-Cartier Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Alexander Rodchenko, and Robert Capa. Arranged along the curved backlit wall of the gallery are 36 images chosen to commemorate the jubilee year of Leica (36 also symbolizes the number of images possible in a single roll of 35 mm film). Each one is an iconic work of art and journalism, photos that have shaped the cultural and political history of the twentieth century.
The camera museum
Next to the permanent gallery of iconic photographs are the cameras with which these images were taken. Housed in glass are some of the most important Leica camera models ever produced, including the prototype of the original Leica created by Oskar Barnack in 1914. The exhibit captures the various milestones of the 100-year history of the brand with cameras representing both the analog and digital eras.
The optics manufacturing and camera production workshop
Private guided tours inside the Leica workshop are offered to VIP clients and friends of the brand, but even walk-in visitors can catch a glimpse of the state-of-the-art camera manufacturing facility through large picture windows purpose-built for curious guests. Interactive touch screens provide additional information about the manufacturing process while tour guides help visitors appreciate the meticulous handcraftsmanship that still goes into the making of every Leica camera that leaves the facility.
The aspherical lens production facility
Open only to VIP guests is the production area where Leica’s high performance aspherical glass lenses are made. Leica employs a combination of cutting edge technology and old-fashioned handcraftsmanship to produce its top-of-the-line lenses: a combination of mechanical and computerized machinery is used for grinding the glass and shaping the lens. The blacking of the rims with paint, to prevent stray light, and the coating of the lens are still done entirely by the human hand.
The Leica Store
At the end of the tour is the Leica Store where visitors can handle and test the full range of current models on sale. Apart from the latest equipment, the store also stocks accessories, memorabilia, publications, and photographs for sale. The section for merchandise, however, is only a small part of the total store experience. Says Boris Bender, Leica Camera AG brand development manager, “The real objective of the store is for people to meet and talk about photography.” To achieve this, the store set aside generous space with a well-stocked library of photography titles and a coffee counter where enthusiasts and professionals can come together and learn from each other. The store also houses the Leica Academy, where a fully equipped studio serves as a teaching space where amateurs and professionals alike can hone their skills in photography.
Photographs by David Celdran
This piece originally came out in Issue 16 2014 of Vault.
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