Arghhh, Heathrow at 6 am, not glamorous or clever. However I was off to visit The World of Leica at Leitz-Park in Wetzlar, an hour outside Frankfurt, which made it all worthwhile. Before we get into the wonders of the trip, let me reassure you that this latest architectural marvel is nowhere near as naff as it sounds, in fact, it is somewhat of a shrine for photographers both old and new, whether they shoot Leicas or not.
Leitz-Park was opened in 2014 and weirdly enough it is exactly as I imagined it would be. Clearly the architect was a photography fan and had the vision to execute something minimalistic, high tech, modern and welcoming, conveying all the excitement and passion that the venerable history of Leica elicits. The architects Gruber + Kleine-Kraneburg in Frankfurt are well known for their use of sharp, clean lines and modern materials to fashion stark and imposing constructions. The four main Leica buildings resemble cameras dropped on a light grey slate with the Leica red dot the only drop of colour adorning this tableau. Oh and the shape of the windows is based on 35 mm film sprocket holes.
There is the new boutique Ernst Leitz Hotel, the archive, museum, film department - that rents out lenses for blockbuster movies, Leica shop and a photo studio with its own car entrance. Not to mention the enormous cement globe in the middle of the roundabout as you enter, that bears the red dot on the map where the park is situated. It’s a bit like dying and waking up in photographers’ paradise, minus the scantily clad models of course.
The only naff thing about the trip was probably me wandering around with the Leica CL and snapping different snippets of the architecture, well rude not to really, it was all so photogenic, perfect mid grey tones and surgical lines everywhere. Though for reasons of secrecy I was not allowed to photograph inside the factory where they make the cameras and lenses. Leica produce all their lenses to very exacting standards, with numerous quality controls, rejecting anything that is not perfect. This where your money goes when you buy a Leica.
Leica lenses are still made by hand, using machines to grind them down to the right form and then refining and polishing in stages until they are ready to be assembled. Watching each piece of glass be placed in a machine, inspected and then polished again was fascinating. The glass is ground down with successively softer water, until it is just pure water used to finish the end result. The lenses are blacked on the side, to retain the contrast of the light coming in and each is hand lacquered with the serial number. The process is very expensive as each lens takes between 12 minutes for a spherical lens and an hour to make for an aspherical lens (no distortion) and costs between 300 to 600 Euros for each piece of glass. A camera lens contains many individual pieces of glass to draw as much light as possible and then focus it on to the film plane. Their aspherical lenses are finished to 0.1 microns, which is beyond industry standard.
Leica adhere to the belief that the camera is the tool to create great images and not the end result, which will devastate some photographers who believe the equipment is more important. Of course Leica is right, it’s all about enabling the artist to capture the very best image which is why they maintain the traditions of craftmanship and quality that makes them a little more expensive, but adored by a large community of photographers.
Oskar Barnack at Leica came up with the first 35 mm film camera by moving the film from the traditional vertical cinema format to horizontal in 1914 so a larger portion of the film would be exposed in each frame. This new landscape and portrait camera was the Leica I and only 31 were first produced. This camera was also aimed at convincing newspapers that they could afford to add images to their print runs, enlarging images from the negative was a cost effective way of producing images that were previously one shot - straight to print.
Leica still make analog or film cameras, not many - but these sales are actually rising as a new generation is rediscovering film. Leica also has a factory in Portugal which makes parts of the cameras, but everything is assembled and quality tested in Wetzler.
I lunched that day at the Weinwirtschaft Arcona Restaurant in the Living Ernst Leitz Hotel, which takes longer to say than to dine on three courses. It’s kind of a deli/cafe/buffet restaurant with very good food and a pleasant relaxed atmosphere. The chocolate mousse is worth the visit alone.
The Living Ernst Leitz Hotel goes for a minimalist arty boutique decor, relying on a palette of greys, warm tones and splashes of Leica red such as the sofas in the lobby. My room was comfortable with a large tv and walk in shower. My only niggle would be the addition of a bath robe as the towels provided were a little too sparse and could have been larger. The bar on the ground floor is appealing and very convivial with an interesting selection of whiskies where I spent a fun evening with Leica’s official photographer, who is great company. It was bustling with photographers and executives even on a Tuesday evening in the middle of winter, proof of how popular the park is.
The Leica museum next door is fascinating with prints from various Leica photographers exhibited on both the ground and first floor. Plus many instantly recognisable photographs that have become global icons in themselves, taken by Leica aficionados over the last 100 years. The full history of Leica is laid out in camera models too, so you admire the evolution of the different series and the almost seamless move into digital. One of the many things Leica did brilliantly was to maintain the quality and design of their digital cameras in keeping with their old film cameras.
The Leica archive opposite is a treasure trove of Leica memorabilia, old ad campaigns, posters and some of the original cameras, all immaculate stored and categorised. I held one Leica (the Leica I) that was exactly a hundred years old though they made me give it back when they spotted the lump in my jacket. There is good news for collectors as they not only maintain their own history with such precision but they also offer to repair and restore any classic Leica model, however old it is, which as they are all collector’s items is well worth doing. Leica is also launching a new series of exhibitions in April or May 2019, spread out over the two galleries, under the curator Reiner Packeiser, which if my brief conversation with him is any indication should be ground breaking.
Leica has a camera system to suit everyone if not all pockets, though the SOFORT instant cameras are very affordable. The Q series is wonderful with its full frame sensor and of course my favourite is the S series, which is their medium format offering that handles like a dream and takes quite superb images. It is amazing to hold, perfectly balanced and satisfying solid whilst the lenses are out of this world. The Leica CL is a very good first Leica, easy to carry and takes great street shots as well as portraits and landscapes. They are about to launch the S3 which will shoot video too, that’s the one I lust after. Leica also do limited editions which are a must for camera collectors, and unlike many other digital cameras will not lose their value quicker than you can say “update”. The M series can be made bespoke too as you can pick the top plate in brass, the body in coloured leather and have it engraved, all available with an online configurator.
The immediate connection between a camera and the world is the lens, this is the conduit for light and Leica are widely regarded as producing the finest glass lenses in the world. It is this globally acknowledged expertise that spurred Huawei to consult Leica for their latest smart phone lenses and Leica also recently announced their partnership with Panasonic and Sigma on the new L-Mount that will see these three companies producing interchangeable lenses.
The Leica Leitz Park is photographic heaven, especially for those photographers who grew up on film, a 3 dimensional architectural evocation of a period in history where photographs as prints were revered as artworks, as well as moments shared, like the tangible artworks exhibited in the museum. A must see for all Leica fans and those that wish to experience the heights of photography throughout the last hundred or so years. As mentioned earlier it was exactly as I imagined it to be and it is rare and heart warming when reality lives up to our dreams.
The Leitz-Park complex is open all year round and offers visitors inspirational exhibitions of exceptional photography, unique insights into the factory and the history of the company, guided tours, photography workshops and much more.
If you wish to further explore the area surrounding the Leica factory I highly recommend the Heyligenstaedt restaurant nearby in Gießen, the food is exquisite. I had a huge octopus with legs a foot long and two inches wide, exceptionally soft and succulent, pretty much the best octopus I’ve ever had and in Germany no less. The main course of goose was tender, rich and perfectly cooked with a delicious dark sweet sauce and the accompanying local white wine was excellent. The decor was art gallery style with exposed brick walls and the service was attentive and friendly.
They also have a jolly Christmas market in the nearby hamlet of Wetzlar, with chalets offering all sorts of Christmas gifts surrounded by traditional German architecture. There’s even an ice rink right in front of the gothic church, to complete this picture postcard scene. Frankfurt is only 45 minutes away too and they have a massive Christmas market with a tremendous selection of decent gifts with simply enormous Christmas trees everywhere. There are numerous food and wine stalls with gluvine or hot chocolate, including giant pretzels covered in chocolate. The stalls sell hats, scarves (this was doing brisk business), trinkets, jewellery, wooden toys, pastries, bratwurst, sauerkraut, gloves, xmas decorations, heart shaped “Kiss Mich” ginger bread and impressive ginger bread houses with witches.
These markets are rich in colourful landscapes and people, so perfect to capture on your new Leica.
All images above shot on the Leica CL.