by Sean Cranor
Last month, my wife Diana and I, were very honored to have been two of the small group of persons, from the USA, to receive an invitation to partake in the Leitz Park Inauguration. We accepted, without question and planned our trip for this last week. We arrived a couple of days early, to help deal with the jet lag, so we would be sure to not miss any of the excitement of this event.
After flying into Frankfurt, we headed in the direction of Wetzlar, to the neighboring town of Giessen. Giessen is the capital of Hesse, which is a state in Germany, and home to about 75,000 people and a prominent university of the sciences. There were enough VIP’s in for the event, that all of the hotels in Wetzlar were completely full, as were several other neighboring cities. Giessen is a destination for shopping in the area and has a wonderful city center, which is closed to most motor vehicles.
After dropping off the luggage, we headed out for food and beverage. We found a small and pleasant café, so I took advantage of my first opportunity to order the local beer and relax after about 18 hours of travel from Rancho Mirage to Giessen.
After heading back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep, we headed back out to find another café for a late dinner. We relaxed for a couple of hours, watched the light change and headed back for some more rest.
The next day started very late, which was fine. This was our last buffer day before being introduced to Leica’s new home in Wetzlar. We were looking for a little less casual evening and scouted out a dinner destination, which was only about a mile away. Walking to dinner that evening, we noticed that many of the bridges and underpasses were painted to the extent that it seems that the city encouraged the various artworks and statements.
Also passed near the University campus and saw a few of Germany’s ubiquitous beer gardens.
Our destination was Heyligenstaedt, a local boutique hotel and restaurant, with a great menu. It was a pleasant evening, so we took advantage of the weather and dined alfresco.
Dinner was as good as we could have hoped for. If we have occasion to stay in Giessen again, Heyligenstaedt will be our go to spot.
The next morning, we were met at our hotel, by one of our Southern California Leica sales representatives, Eberhard Kuehne, who was also out for the event. Ebi was born and raised in the area and had a car for the week. He offered to chauffeur us around for the day, which was exceedingly kind and generous, but that is Ebi’s way and he and his wife are well loved by all.
Upon arrival, I think any person who visits for the first time, just stands on the property and marvels at the architectural planning and design that went into this project as we did. Not wanting to miss anything, we headed right in to check out the interior spaces a bit before our program started. The interior mirrors the exterior drama, in a way that is very fitting of the Leica brand and showcases the company and its ideals in an exceptional way. Even though we arrived early, the reception area started filling up quickly.
We were all assigned into our groups and given our visitor badges, which were lifelike cardboard cutouts of various Leica products, which hung around our necks like their real counterparts. Our group was designated by silver X2’s, trimmed in blue leather. Somehow, I forgot to return mine at the end of the visit, so I’ll have to remember to mail it back when I get home;).
Right on time, Steffen Keil, addressed the crowd and primed us all for what we were
about to experience.
While we were all organizing, I turned around and found Peter Karbe standing next to me. Peter is Leica’s optical designer superstar. I was surprised to see him, so none of my burning optical questions or new lens requests came to mind. I just congratulated him on his fine designs, which have inspired myself and many other photographers who marvel at his work.
Our first stop was the 10 x 10 photography exhibition. 10×10 pairs contemporary photographers with photographic masters of the past. Leica chose ten contemporary photographers to pair against the great masters, represented in the Leica 100 year exhibit, to produce ten images each. More about the 10 x 10 exhibition may be found on the Leica web page.
Next was the 36 from 100 exhibit. We were shown the work by curators of the project. These images are all instantly recognizable, iconic Leica photographs, from the past 100 years. All images were made with Leica cameras and represent a great cross section of photographic history. Photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Gliden, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Nick Ut and Ernst Leitz himself.
Following was the Milestones exhibit. This is a mini museum to feature milestones of Leica’s achievement over the last 100 years. These include the UR camera, the first camera to use 35mm film, the 1a, which was the first production camera, the Leica II, which featured a built in rangefinder and interchangeable lens, the Leica M3, the Leicaflex SL, the M6, the S1, which was the first digital camera from Leica, the R8, the M8, the S2 and the X1, which was the first compact digital camera made in Germany
In this area, there is also a timeline of binoculars and sport optics and many other various Leitz items that predated their handheld cameras. I honestly had planned to return after the tour and spend more time here. If you are into the history of Leica’s optical past, you could spend hours in this area alone.
On now to the factory tour as we have to maintain our schedule and not delay other groups! You can walk down part of the production line and view various stages of work, up close and personal, but separated by glass of course. These technicians have nerves of steel with so many people looking over their shoulders so intently. They maintain their concentration at turning out their processes to perfection. Here at this station, you can see a skilled technician applying edge paint to individual elements by hand. This edge coating prevents light from being refracted off of the edge of the glass and deteriorating image quality. It has been asked why this is done by hand and not by machine. Leica attests that they have more control in this process by hand than they can have by machine. Since they do not settle for anything less than the best, it is still done by hand today.
At this station, we see an technician assembling a lens. This is not completed as an assembly line. Each lens is completed one at a time, by the same technician, for complete precision and control. Here, an S lens is being assembled. I think Leica should find a way for the technician so be able to somehow sign the lens as an artist signs a painting or have a small plaque or engraving as do sports car manufacturers with their hand built engines.
Moving on down, we can see the production for the M 240. The serial number for the camera is established first and logged into the computer. The entire production process is now tracked by that number. I also learned that the sensors are individually shimmed for each camera here and that the smallest shims are seven times thinner than a sheet of paper.
Looking out over the area here, you can get an idea of the size of the clean room in which the assembly process take place. Each circular and rectangular shape in the ceiling is a filtration system to filter dust out. The room has negative pressure to keep dust from coming in. This is all perfect for giving birth to the new cameras and lenses that we all love.
One of the final stations is concealed by what appears to be ionized glass. The glass is opaque until you input your email address on the panel adjacent to the window. Once you input the info, the glass becomes transparent for a mere 30 seconds. Here we could see leather being applied to the new silver X-Vario and to colored binoculars.
If all of this was not enough, the factory museum is also housed in this hallway and there are some serious treasures here! I planned to come back after the tour to study here, but I did get a couple of snapshots of a snapshot Elmar, with lens shade and a Leica 1a Luxus!
After visiting here, we were able to cut through the factory floor to see where they were grinding and polishing aspheric lenses. We met the director of production and learned how complex the procedure is to finish an aspheric Noctilux element. The process takes 2.5 days per element to complete. In the grinding process, a computer holographic reference is used to insure that the shape is perfect. Leica calculates their perfection down to a couple hundred nanometers! You really see here why this lens costs what it does. No photography was permitted in this area, so you will have to visit the factory for yourself for a closer look.
The last stop in our tour was customer service. There is a display case there which shows several items exploded for viewing as well as a great display of the different sensors employed by Leica.
Here, there is a fabulous staircase, which ascends to the various management offices. You could visit Leitz Park just to make photographs of the architecture. I think that it would be completely justified.
Here is a shot of the main building, with a small piece of the Café Leitz showing on the right. The real shot here is from behind the fountain, where you have an unobstructed view of the main building with great geometric contrast in the foreground. There were just too many people on the grounds this week to take time to make any serious images of the building and grounds. I will certainly plan for this on my next visit.
Another great architectural feature here is the hallway, which extends on the perimeter of the building. Many rooms exit to this area, where you have a near unobstructed and quite pleasant view of the countryside of Wetzlar. You can see the shades partially lowered on the windows here. In an effort to be as green as possible, all shades are computerized to raise and lower by the time of the day and position of the sun. I should not have been surprised, as the building has been designed with the same careful eye to detail as the cameras themselves.
Another great touch is that the Leica logo is etched into the surface of most, if not all, of the glass doors in the building. Nicely done!
All of this fun has made us quite thirsty, so we headed out of the main building to Café Leitz for some German refreshment. Again, stunning design carried out with beautiful materials.
Most of the images in the post were made with the new Leica T. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am really driven towards using this system. It is a marriage of wonderful lens design (Thank you Peter!), a great sensor and beautiful design and construction. I am really starting to learn the camera well and am continually impressed with the image quality. By the time of this post, we will have received the first shipment of these cameras, so a lucky few will be able to experience what I have, with this camera over the last few weeks. That said, I did have to break out my Monochrom and make a few images here.
This was such a wonderful trip. Diana and I had so many opportunities to meet new Leica people, both from Wetzlar and from various dealers and distributors worldwide. We met this nice gentleman who saw my camera and wanted to get some close up shots of it to take home.
After this, I just had to get back into the main building and spend some time in the store and to preview the items for the Leica 100 Auction. Here is the new Leica watch by Valbray. I am not sure how many of these will be produced, but if I get my hands on an extra one, I think that I will need to work that into my wardrobe.
Here are a couple of items to commemorate Leitz Park. A silver Monochrom and an S with red covering. There is also an X-Vario in silver, covered in red leather. I missed a good photo of that one. The room was too crowded to get a clear view.
Not everything new and cool at Leica is going to take financial consideration. There new key chains were one of many Leica branded items that will be eventually available in the stores and boutiques. If Leica makes it, we will have it so stay tuned.
Here is the big product debut, which is also one of the most desirable pieces being offered at the Leica 100 Auction. This is the M 100 Year set, with a silver Monochrom, a silver analog camera, the new 28mm1.4 Summilux, a 35mm1.4 Summilux and a 50mm1.4 Summilux, all manufactured in stainless steel and housed in a Rimova case. This is set #1, which sold for about $150,000 Euros. Now there are only 99 units left in the edition.
It was getting late in the day, but I did manage to catch Nick Ut, snapping a photo of a friend next to one of his most iconic images, which is featured in the 36 from 100 exhibit. Nick is one of the nicest fellows that you will ever meet in addition to being an infamous photographer, sharing space on the wall with Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
On my way out, I was able to capture a nice view of the reception area, framing the beautiful countryside. Notice that those blinds have risen now that the sun has moved.
Now off to the BBQ party with some of our new friends and friends yet to be made. We all make quite a lively group and had a lot of fun and camaraderie that night. Thank you Dr. Kaufmann for the wonderful evening!
That was a late night, compounding with our jet lag, so we did not make it back to the factory the next day as I had wished. I have to save the museum and milestones exhibits for our next trip. The auction was over the top as anticipated by my review of the catalog. Every piece was museum quality, both in rarity and in condition. The only thing that we added to our collection here were nice memories.
Diana and I are off to the Jubilee Celebration at Rittal Arena, in Wetzlar, somewhat rested and ready!
Yes, this was a red carpet event, by invitation only. Thankfully, I was alert enough to have not left mine in my other camera bag in the hotel.
I managed to catch Diana on the carpet for a split second.
Again, we arrived early, but the reception area quickly filled up shoulder to shoulder in many places. I do not know the total attendance, but it was difficult to find our old friends here, so we made some new ones.
Dr. Andreas Kaufmann give his speech about the 100 years of Leica, 90 years of camera production and 60 years of the Leica M system. Also introduced and presented in the program is the El Systema project, with the Simon Bolivar String Quartet, the photographers who participated in the 10×10 exhibition and a preview of the Oskar Barnak award winners and their work. The ceremony was followed by a gracious dinner and more camaraderie.
It was wonderful to see the beautiful Leitz Park and their upgraded manufacturing capabilities, the new products and the focus on imagery and what can be accomplished with a Leica. All in all, I think that our take home was all of the friends that we made from Germany, Switzerland, Spain, France, The Netherlands and Brazil. It is great to be connected with such a committed and passionate group of individuals as we continually meet in our longstanding association with Leica.