Lars Netopil is one of the world’s leading Leica experts, as well as a highly respected Leica trader and collector. His third publication “Museum Leica” presents over 600 large-size color images of essential exhibits from the Leica Camera inventory – from the UR-Leica to the red anodised Leica M. As part of the new phase of expansion at the Leitz Park in Wetzlar, we caught up with Lars to talk about his work with the Leica archive, the challenges he faced in compiling such an encyclopaedic publication and his personal take on the last 100 years of Leica history.
When did you first discover your love for Leica Camera? How did it all begin?
Back when I was confirmed, it was normal to receive rather generous gifts of money from grandparents, godparents, neighbors etc. At the age of 14 I was already a keen photographer, shooting with my father’s Agfa camera. The plan was to buy a decent camera and, perhaps because of their regional importance, it was to be a Leica. At that time, the Leitz company employed several thousand workers and everyone here in the area around Wetzlar knew of THE Leica camera. A fellow pupil from school once had a Leica with him, which his father had borrowed as an employee of the company. Looking back, I think that was what sparked my passion.
Your new photo book Museum Leica presents a collection of hundreds of treasures from over 100 years of camera history. Could you tell us about how the book came about?
Since 1999 I have been working on and off as a consultant for Leica Camera, in particular, for historical purposes. Before the completion of the second phase of Leitz Park, I was involved in the collection of objects for the Leica Family Tree. The Leica Family Tree has been a classic feature of the Leica Factory since 1963, yet the technical evolution of the Leica System is shown via various series models. No factory museum lives only from the models produced in series. The rare gems are the “salt in the soup” and during the relocation of the museum and archive to the second phase of Leitz Park, I was already keen to store and secure these objects separately. At the moment the relocation is underway to the third phase of Leitz Park. Here, the conditions are fantastic, not only in terms of the exhibition space itself but also for the storage and ordering of the objects, which are not currently being displayed. With the move in mind, the sorting and packing of the exhibits alone required a long period of preparation. In the meantime I helped assist with the photographing of the exhibits, turning them from side to side in front of the background. When we were finally finished, standing in front of several large steel cabinets full of all the highlights of the collection, I spontaneously said to Günter Osterloh, “I’d like to publish that!”
The book contains over 600 large format images of the essential exhibits from the collection of the new Leica Factory Museum. How did you approach this photographic challenge?
As you know, I am also involved in the trade of rare Leica collector’s items. Over the last few years, in terms of presentation, we have noticed two things: the first being that there is a clear trend towards print. A client that spends all day looking at a computer screen would prefer to spend the evening sitting and looking at high-quality printed images, rather than another screen. The second is that high-quality photography is vital. However, due to the fact that we (and also the museum) are concerned with historical objects, in my eyes, there is a fundamental difference to the photos of new, modern products as presented to potential customers by the manufacturer: The old equipment carries its own, specific signs of aging and use. Just as you would when presenting an antique, it’s exactly these signs that you want to show in any presentation of the object. Product photography at Leica is, to a certain extent, neutral and subject to a lot of additional work in postproduction. Advertising in the automobile industry has almost gone as far as to replace photography directly with digital renderings of the products. Nevertheless, historical products have to be shown in an emotional way. I often compare our exhibits with the subjects of still-life oil paintings – in this way a photographer quickly understands how I think.
In 2003 many of the exhibits from the Leica collection were sold. How did it come to this?
This was down to financial concerns. At this point in time, Leica Camera was very close to going under. Whether the sale of parts of the collection was actually necessary, I can’t say. The fact is that Leica Camera survived this difficult period.
In recent years, however, Leica has acquired several collections, including the extensive collection of Rolf Fricke. Can you tell us more about this?
I wouldn’t say that it was a lot but some acquisitions have taken place, yes. The most important of these was, without doubt, the Leica collection of Rolf Fricke. Rolf Fricke met Günther Leitz as a student in Midland, at the location of the Canadian Leitz factory founded by Günther Leitz. The personal friendship grew into a fascination for the Leitz family and their company, as well as their products. Following his studies, Rolf Fricke spent his entire working life at Kodak in Rochester and in his capacity there, he was often involved with Leitz in Wetzlar. Fricke ranks as one of the pioneers in the field of collecting historical Leica cameras and was a founding member of the LHSA (Leica Historical Society of America) in 1968, as well as the German Leica Historica e.V. in 1975. He built up a solid network for the acquisition of his collectibles here in Wetzlar and in Midland, which included former leading employees of the Leitz company after they had retired. By doing so he was able to compile, over years and decades, the most important Leica collection of all. I am glad that these pieces have made their way here some time ago and that the museum’s collection today is fitting of the Leica company, with all its history and tradition.
Which exhibits from the archive do you consider the most important?
Well, without doubt, the UR-Leica is the central, essential and, at the same time, most important exhibit in the collection and by such a distance that I’m not sure it really makes sense to mention any further pieces at this juncture.
The archive – as the central, organizatorial body for the exhibits – comprises not only an extensive collection of equipment but also innumerable documents, prints and photographs. There are even numerous such documents from the time of Oskar Barnack himself. These are, of course, of no less importance than the equipment itself.
The book also shows some of the most rarely seen cameras and lenses from the last 100 years of Leica history. Can you tell us more about these rather less well-known exhibits?
Everything that was never manufactured as a series (for the most wildly differing reasons) makes the company’s archive and the collection of the factory museum what it is. Even the UR-Leica was a one-of-a-kind. Supposedly there was a second made, yet it hasn’t surfaced to this day. Even as early as the very beginning of Leica’s history, we find ourselves in the realm of prototypes and this is a fascinating field. All the prototypes made during the development phase, as long as they are preserved, give a fantastic insight into how a product comes to life. You can see what the designer or the engineer was thinking. Of course, then there are also all the prototypes that never made it into full production. There are some truly exciting exhibits that fall into this category. Other equipment that also wasn’t produced for general sale includes all those cameras and lenses, which were made for the military. War is without doubt one of the most horrifying things imaginable. Considered from an abstract standpoint, military equipment requires a special kind of quality and robustness. With this in mind, it is often a positive thing for a manufacturer to have their products chosen by a military body. Thankfully only the very fewest pieces of military equipment produced by Leitz and Leica were ever actually put into service in active war zones. The application of photography for military purposes requires a certain amount of special technical features, which deviate from the serial products and give some of these pieces of equipment their very special appearance. For example, (see below) there’s an M underwater casing with a special fixed lens made for direct contact between the front lens and the water. This piece was produced for the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s.
Will visitors be able to see all of the exhibits from your book during the Leitz Park III opening on June 15th?
The new Leica Museum space will not simply display photographic equipment. The exhibition “Augen Auf!” – running from the opening onwards – is a fantastic example of an extremely successful show covering Leica’s history through photographic images. With this in mind, the book “Museum Leica” is a kind of preview of what visitors can expect to see at the Leitz Park over the coming years. My idea for this publication is to promote the Leitz Park as a whole, as well as the Old Town of Wetzlar with the Baugasse and Eisenmarkt, globally as a travel destination. “Museum Leica” will therefore also be available in Leica Stores worldwide.
How would you summarize the last 100 years of Leica history?
It’s been an unimaginable success story. Photography has been THE medium for art during the 20th Century. The invention of the Leica camera has played a monumental role in this. Leica has always been popular and has even become somewhat of a fashion label in recent years. On the other hand, the fascination for their products, the magic that has touched us all and their customers, has evolved not simply from the fact that someone wrote “Leica” on one of the cameras, but that this revolutionary invention of 1914 has been perfected over the decades that followed. In almost all of the past 100 years, Leica has produced the best camera of its time. Over time, one can see, for example, how a very expensive, mechanically complex clock will become inaccurate, when compared to an inexpensive, electronic radio clock. In spite of this, people buy it because they are fascinated by the craftsmanship. Apart from the highest levels of craftsmanship, customers also expect Leica to provide the best images and for this they are prepared to spend accordingly large sums of money.
How do you foresee the next 100 years for Leica?
The question is rather, how do we imagine the next hundred years at all? In trying to answer this question, one can assume that pictorial documentation of reality will always remain a vital necessity – just as the extent to which the presentation of these images will become universally virtual. The defining factor for the survival of Leica as a company will be their ability not only to take part in the decisive developments of the future but also, ideally, to initiate these developments themselves. Of course, in doing so they must not forget their core strength – “Leica takes the best picture possible”. For example, thanks to the collaboration between Leica and Huawei, a previously unimaginable picture quality is now possible within the segment of smartphone photography. On the other hand, it would be an unthinkable loss, if one day those, who fail to understand the origins of Leica’s vast appeal, should find their way into the executive positions at Leica, and for economic reasons remove an article such as the Leica M-System from the product range.
The new Factory Museum at Leitz Park – including items from the Rolf Fricke Collection
by Lars Netopil
-672 pages with over 600 large size colour images
-Photographs by Wolfgang Sauer, Graphic- Design by David Pitzer
-Text fully bi-lingual (english/german)
-In 36 chapters the author describes the essential exhibits from the inventory of the new Leica Factory Museum – from the UR-Leica to the red anodised Leica M
-21×30 cm, 2 sub-volumes in one slipcase, hardcover in cloth with dust-jacket
EUR 179,– per copy