Zach Horton

Pentacon 6: The History of the Cold War in a Camera System

As a follow up to my last piece about visiting the legendary Ernemann building in Dresden, Germany, I want to reflect a bit on the professional, medium format camera ecology known as the Pentacon 6 (or more colloquially, “P6”). I refer to this as a “camera ecology” because a number of different companies (and individuals) have built cameras, lenses, or accessories for this system over the course of the past sixty years, to the extent that no one entity or ideology can lay claim to the system. What follows are some notes on the history of this development, which spanned the Cold War and was inextricably interwoven with its political, technical, economic, and ideological dynamics. Tracing the tangled history of this camera system, and its photographic affordances, will give us insight into the differential economic and ideological systems of communism and capitalism.

Photographers primarily interested in understanding the differences between P6 cameras and lenses may wish to consult my reference pages on P6 cameras and P6 lenses.


1. Wartime Rumblings


Early Exakta 66

Pre-war Exakta 66, in the Pentacon museum. Photo by Zach Horton.

As detailed in my previous post, Dresden became, in the first decades of the 20th century, the European epicenter of photographic innovation. Praktica and Exakta were two brands of extremely innovative 35mm camera systems that were sold the world over. In the late 1930s, Exakta decided to push the envelope even further and release two medium format cameras based upon their 35mm bestsellers. These cameras, both called “Exakta 66” (one a Twin Lens Reflex in vertical orientation and the other a supersized Exakta horiztonal SLR) were high-end cameras for professional users. They used rolls of 120 film and recorded images 6cm x 6cm in size (about four times larger than 35mm film). However, they didn’t have much time to catch on before Hitler began his invasions and forced German industry, including especially camera and lens makers, to convert to wartime production of militarized products. During the war, the German army was equipped with some of the best optical equipment in the world, a definite advantage given the absolute importance of reconnaissance in that conflict (and all conflicts). Only the American army was (barely) a match for the Germans in optical and recording technology, due entirely to the parallel wartime efforts of the giant Eastman Kodak Company in the US. Unhampered by enemy bombing raids on their factory complex, and with similar help from the government, and an even larger budget, Kodak produced some of the most impressive lenses and cameras that the world had ever seen… but that’s remains to be chronicled in a later post!

There is a persistent and intriguing legend about an innovative new Nazi camera prototype that appeared during the final years of the war. Like the pre-war Exakta 66s, it shot a 6×6 medium format image, but additionally had exchangeable film backs. This would allow different types of film (fast and slow, for example) to be used with the camera, without the necessity of finishing one roll before starting another. Which German company made this quite possibly apocryphal camera is unspecified. What happened to it at the end of the war? The German camera manufacturers were decimated by wartime bombings or dismantling by the post-war occupying forces, or both. It took a number of years for them to start up again, and this camera (if it existed) was never mass-produced by them. However, two almost identical 6×6 camera systems appeared at the end of the war: the Hasselblad 1600 in Sweden and the Kiev 88 in Soviet Ukraine. The Kiev was clearly a copy, and inferior in construction to the Hasselblad, but accepted identical lenses (the Hasselblad used lenses made by Kodak; the Kiev 88 used lenses made by the Arsenal factory in Ukraine). The Arsenal factory was built in Ukraine by the Soviets using captured plans and equipment from the Soviet zone of occupied Germany.

The planned Soviet economy required the production of a wide range of goods, from basic supplies to advanced camera and lens equipment. It is no surprise that with engineers overtaxed with this awesome task, many designs were copied from products in other countries. The many captured plans and tooling from Germany jump-started many of these new products. It is important to note, however, that Soviet engineers didn’t simply copy products part-for-part, but rather modified designs to fit their needs: often to make them simpler or cheaper to manufacture, removing features or options deemed unnecessary, and sometimes making designs more robust. The Kiev 88, for instance, used a different gearing system for its film backs and a modified shutter mechanism. The surprising outcome was this: the Hasselblad camera proved so unreliable in its shutter operation that Victor Hasselblad eventually gave up the mechanism and removed the focal plane shutter from his 6×6 system entirely. Most Hasselblad cameras to this day rely upon leaf shutters inside individual lenses rather than a single shutter inside the camera body. Meanwhile, the Kiev 88 proved finicky as well, but was deemed a success. When Hasselblad switched to leaf shutters, the Kiev 88 soldiered on with its focal plane (in body) shutter, ensuring that lenses could be manufactured much less expensively (not requiring complex design compromises to be engineered around leaf shutters, and avoiding the complexity of a shutter system in each lens). Here Soviet ideology led to the continued development of an inexpensive and easily extensible system while the premium Swedish brand, sold throughout capitalist countries to very rich clients, chose the best possible system from a technical standpoint, at the cost of extremely expensive lenses that required far more frequent and extensive maintenance. The pattern for high-end goods in Western Europe and the Soviet Bloc was now set: the West produced the best possible products, without much concern about development or manufacturing costs. These products could be purchased only by wealthy individuals. High-end Soviet gear, on the other hand, was produced with economics and extensibility in mind, and the result was that far more individuals could afford professional equipment.


2. State Consolidation and Rationalization


Pentacon Six camera.  Photo by Zach Horton.

Pentacon Six camera. Photo by Zach Horton.

After WWII, both the Dresden camera manufacturers and the Zeiss optical company in Jena ended up in the Soviet zone, which would soon become the DDR, or East Germany. Some members of these companies (some owners, some management, and some engineers) moved into West Germany in order to continue their enterprises under capitalism. Others stayed to rebuild their companies in their original locations, now under communist control. One such camera manufacturer, Kamera Werk Niedersedlitz, launched a brand new 6×6 camera system in 1956, called the Practisix. It was successful, but not wildly so.

During the next decade, East German industry was largely reorganized by the state. Many camera companies were combined into a single, more-efficient entity, “Pentacon VEB.” No longer competing with one another, they could concentrate on building a more consolidated line of products. This was a case where state control lead to a more streamlined manufacturing base and more focused products. Once these companies had fully merged into the new, titan-like Pentacon, the Praktisix was chosen as the flagship medium format camera system. It was upgraded and expanded with a host of new accessories. The latest version, now renamed the “Pentacon Six,” was released in 1966.

Meanwhile, after a rancorous trademark dispute between the original Zeiss company and a new one formed by defectors to West Germany, the the communist one was forced to change its name to Carl Zeiss Jena. They had designed and manufactured a few lenses for the Practisix from the beginning, and now refined their own line, eventually settling upon five outstanding lenses (covered in detail on my page devoted to P6 lenses). These lenses were world class optics, and did a lot to sell the camera system both within and without the Soviet bloc. The camera was inexpensive and had a full range of features, but was inherently finicky by design, and was easy to misuse or break. This would always be its limitation, and can be traced to a set of priorities similar to that of the Russians/Ukrainians: such equipment was meant “for the people,” not for the rich, and thus needed to be designed for easy mass production.

Even Che Guevara used a P6 (likely a Praktisix with leather sheath).

Even Che Guevara used a Pentacon (likely a Praktisix, with leather sheath).

Much of this equipment was top notch, due to extremely high quality engineering and manufacturing, but this design philosophy was certainly different from the West’s, which emphasized different tiered products, not for different use scenarios (amateur vs. professional, etc.), but for different income levels. Thus cameras made by Leica or Hasselblad, or lenses made by (the new) Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach could cost ten times as much as equivalent products made by Pentacon or Carl Zeiss Jena, but might be perhaps 20% less likely to fail, or have 10% higher performance (I base these numbers on my own experiences, which are corroborated by many other accounts, but are admittedly anecdotal). The capitalist system, including both wealthy customers and high-end manufacturing capabilities, thus produced the technically best products as well as the largest selection of products, but at completely disproportionate prices. Thus the average East German could afford much higher quality photography equipment than the average West European or American. The East German system was also much more efficient, with its rationalized products and streamlined internal structure.


3. Russian Pragmatism


The Pentacon Six system was extremely successful. It was affordable, easy to use, and produced results as good as anything made in Western Europe. While exported and highly marked up in the West, most of its sales were in the Eastern bloc. It is significant, then, that in 1971, when the Russian photography industry released a new medium format camera system, it was not copied from any Western design, but rather from the East German Pentacon Six! The Soviet version, called the Kiev 6C, used the same “supersized SLR” form factor, film type, frame, shutter, and P6 lens mount. The rest of its internal mechanisms and aesthetics were, however, redesigned. The camera become larger, heavier, more robust, and significantly uglier. It’s graceful lines were eliminated in favor of a simple to manufacture blocky shape mostly covered with synthetic leatherette and black paint (far more forgiving of manufacturing defects and rough handling). It is very clear that the Soviet designers were not at all concerned about aesthetics; this is probably the ugliest camera ever produced! However, it improved upon the Pentacon Six in a number of ways: it had a brighter and larger ground glass screen, was more reliable (with less of a frame-spacing issue) and less easy to break. If the East German camera is a precision device capable of taking the most technically demanding photographs but requiring careful, expert handling, the Russian camera is a cruder, simpler device that almost anyone can use without problems. It was produced under the same rationalized, centralized economic-political system, but reflected the Russian goals of even greater mass production and usability, while significantly sacrificing aesthetics and the sensuousness of the object. This camera is aggressively pragmatic.

Kiev 60 with Volna 3 lens.

Kiev 60 with Volna 3 lens. Photo by Zach Horton

The Kiev 6C was improved in 1980, and again in 1984, at which point it was renamed the Kiev 60. It was manufactured continuously at the Arsenal factory in Ukraine until 2009, when the entire factory shut down. This makes it the longest running camera model in P6 history: 25 years in its final form, 38 years in total. I’m quite certain that the Russians/Ukrainians got their return on investment with this model.

Because the giant Arsenal factory was run by the Russian state, no new partnerships had to be formed in order to generate lenses for the Kiev 6C. The factory simply developed a new lens mount based upon the East German lenses and released slightly modified versions of their Kiev 88 lenses. At the drop of a hat the vast engineering and manufacturing apparatus could be directed to churn out new product lines or variations upon them, without licensing agreements, capital raising, or market concerns. This system, then, is an example of Soviet industry responding to competition from Pentacon by producing an even cheaper and more practical system that was a drop-in replacement to their cameras and lenses (lenses from Germany and Ukraine were compatible with either camera system). Instead of engineering a complex system that navigated patent encumbrances and cost a fortune to produce, the Soviets simply retooled their existing strengths (the large line of Kiev 88 medium format lenses) to function with the P6 system, and then produced a camera cheap and rugged enough to serve the needs of a large number of people. In capitalist industry, such broad cross-compatibility is almost unheard of. Companies do everything possible, mechanically and legally, to prevent interoperability with competitive products. (For more information on Russian P6 lenses, see my P6 lens page.)

The Kiev 60 camera and Arsat lenses produced excellent results, but were mechanically clunkier than their East German or Western counterparts, with significantly less sophisticated finish. For example, focusing helicoids were rougher to the touch, machining marks were often visible, metal work was less precise, blemishes on surfaces were often visible, and painted numbers and text were less precise. This is often attributed to poor worker morale and worn equipment. There is no doubt much truth in this, but it also seems to me that these issues fall broadly under the category of “aesthetics” and were thus under-prioritized compared to cost of manufacture.


4. Western Innovation

Exakta 66 camera.  Photo by Zach Horton.

Exakta 66 camera. Photo by Zach Horton.


The P6 system, in its Zeiss Jena, Pentacon, and Kiev incarnations, were so successful in the Eastern Bloc, and popular in the West as well when they could be obtained, that by the 1980s, West German companies began to take note. Leica, Hasselblad, and (the Western) Zeiss were doing well in rich countries, and a reconstituted Exakta in West Germany, part of a conglomerate that also included high-end lens maker Schneider Kreuznach, wanted their own camera system. They decided to develop their own P6 camera and line of lenses, much as the Russians had done over a decade before. In the capitalist West, well-marketed, premium products aimed at rich consumers could be extremely profitable; however, there was significant cost and risk in developing products as complex as high-end photography ecosystems. In this case, Exakta realized that they could avoid raising too much capital for development costs if they simply imported the very inexpensive Pentacon 6 and enhanced it for a Western market. This is exactly what they did, purchasing thousands of bodies from the Pentacon factory in East Germany, then disassembling them and transferring their mechanical innards into a newly developed body. Based on high-end West German military binoculars, their innovative rubberized body and impressive styling made the camera a one-of-a-kind aesthetic object. As a nod to the well-known Exakta line of cameras, and the pre-war legacy of 6×6 camera development, they gave this camera system the old pre-war name: Exakta 66. This camera, its name signaled, would have continuity with Germany’s pre-communist past, skipping over the interim period and gesturing toward an innovative path forward, encoded into the camera’s futurist aesthetic. Ironically, of course, the camera was only made possible through the efficiency of communist mass production; Exakta’s innovations were quite impressive, but amounted to a new set of capitalist clothes on a communist body.

Schneider Kreuznach Curtagon 60mm lens.  Photo by Zach Horton.

Schneider Curtagon 60mm lens. Photo by Zach Horton.

Schneider Kreuznach, however, designed a set of world-class lenses for this system. As I detail on my P6 lens page, these are some of the best lenses ever made for any medium format system: optically, mechanically, and aesthetically they set new standards for quality and inventiveness. Exakta also released a large number of matching accessories and high-tech components (e.g., a fully coupled metering prism), significantly expanding the system ecology into territory unexplored by either East Germany or Russia/Ukraine. In the West, a camera of the people had been transformed into a niche, almost fetishistic product, where accessorization, aesthetics, and ability to function as a status symbol were at least as important as central function. Accordingly, Exakta sold this camera and its lenses at Hasselblad-level prices, which were only affordable by very successful photographic professionals or extremely wealthy amateurs.

The Exakta 66 system was so expensive that very few people could afford it, despite its amazing lenses and slick aesthetics. In a bid to lower costs for an entry-level system, Exakta decided to use the same tactics for the “normal” lens as they had for the camera body: they purchased large quantities of the optical components of Carl Zeiss Jena’s 80mm lens, then re-housed them in Schneider lens barrels, rebranding them in the process. Even today, thirty years later, these lenses sell on Ebay for approximately six times the price of their optically identical CZJ brethren. This demonstrates what the Exakta 66 designers knew very well: in a capitalist economy, branding and aesthetics drive sales more than functionality, and perceived value is inversely proportional to availability and price. This is diametrically opposed to the logic that drove East German and Russian design of P6 components. The capitalist entries are somewhat more advanced in terms of aesthetics, maximum possible quality, and customizability, but are accessible to only a tiny percentage of the population.


5. Post-Soviet Capitalism


When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Germany faced the difficult task of reintegrating two different political, economic, and aesthetic regimes. A state organization was set up to privatize East German companies and sell them to capitalists from West Germany or elsewhere. Of course, this meant evaluating such companies based upon their profitability in the marketplace. In other words, German industry was reorganized according to the logics of West Germany. In this sense it wasn’t a reunification or negotiation, but rather more like the sale of one half of the country to the other. The massive Pentacon VEB was split up into several smaller companies. Its camera making department was sold to (Western) Exakta and Rollei, where it was drastically downsized and continued for some time making components for the Exakta 66 and other camera systems. Most of the company was simply liquidated. The West German photographic companies that were doing the purchasing were all in the business of selling luxury goods, and had no use for companies geared to produce high-quality components on a mass scale (this was a market that Japanese companies aggressively sought during the 1980s).

Carl Zeiss Jena was similarly broken up. One cluster of the company continued to make the Exakta 66 80mm lenses. Most of the company was sold to its breakaway West German Zeiss, which promptly liquidated all of its camera lens manufacturing operations. Instead, the East German division of Zeiss was renamed Jenoptik and continued to make high-end medical equipment (digital camera sensors and optics). In other words, all of these components were converted into niche production clusters. Its central capability, the mass production of high-end camera equipment affordable by a large percentage of the population, was eliminated entirely. As the system was absorbed into West German capitalism, the differential that enabled the West to appropriate the East’s mass products cheaply disappeared, and Germany turned to much poorer countries to do their manufacturing. With these changed circumstances, Exakta lost its ace in the hole. They continued to produce the Exakta 66 system for a number of years, but sales trickled to a standstill, and they stopped selling the system in 2000.

After the collapse of the Soviet economy and government, the Arsenal factory became an asset of newly independent Ukraine. Engineering and production continued much as before. In Ukraine’s hybrid economy (capitalistic but with a great deal of central government control, as in Russia and China today) the expertise and manufacturing capability of the Arsenal facility were significant assets. They continued to produce their cameras and lenses inexpensively and sell them on the world market until 2009. During the 1990s, however, they responded to market changes with product changes, releasing new lenses (of very high quality) and discontinuing many older lines.

Kiev 88CM with CZJ Flektagon 50mm lens.  Photo by Zach Horton.

Kiev 88CM with CZJ Flektagon 50mm lens. Photo by Zach Horton.

In Kiev, a number of former employees of the Arsenal factory began opening their own businesses, refurbishing, upgrading, and repairing Arsenal’s products. The two largest operators were Hartblei and Arax (the latter is still in business today). They began creating significantly modified versions of official Arsenal cameras. Two of these improvements included making a version of the Kiev 88 compatible with Hasselblad film backs and giving the Kiev 88 a P6 mount. Thus in the 1990s, an entirely new P6 camera was introduced to the market, capable of taking the Russian, East German, or West German lenses, as well as multiple film backs. In this case, capitalism drove the production of new market niches for the system, attractive to a small but significant number of users.

This led to changes at the Arsenal factory. In 1999, the Kiev 88 line was officially changed to the Kiev 88CM, which had a factory P6 mount. All Arsat lenses were now manufactured with a P6 mount. These are certainly changes brought about through competition in a global market. Even after the demise of the Arsenal factory, Arax is thriving as a company offering upgrades to Kiev 60s and Kiev 88s as well as specialized versions of P6 cameras and lenses and newly produced accessories.

With the rise of the new artisanal culture, driven by open source development, 3D printing, and crowdfunding, the P6 system continues to have an afterlife. In 2014 an individual optics enthusiast designed and released a new, specialty lens for the system, based on the nineteenth century petzval formula, which produces distortions that are becoming more and more desirable by amateur photographers in the digital age. I have myself produced a few 3D printed components for the P6 system, including a custom lens hood that mates with Schneider P6 lenses.


6. Conclusion


Exakta 66 camera and Arsat 30mm lens.  Photo by Zach Horton.

Exakta 66 camera and Arsat 30mm lens. Photo by Zach Horton.

Both the Russian/Ukrainian Kiev P6 components and the West German P6 components reveal the best and worst of their respective political-economic-ideological systems. The capitalist portion of the ecosystem pushes further into more niches, but typically only at the top of the food chain. It is maximally innovative, fighting against the biggest and most aggressive competitors for a slice of the market. However, many of these innovations principally aim at incremental improvements, marginally useful gadgetry, and aesthetic improvements. These impressive efforts certainly come at the expense of accessibility for a larger portion of the population. Of course, capitalism can produce cheap goods for lower income consumers as well, but only if labor is outsourced to factories able to mass produce goods at significantly lower costs. The Exakta 66 system clearly demonstrates this, with core components coming from the Pentacon factory. Most strikingly, the re-badged 80mm Biometar lens was made desirable though its fancy Exakta 66 livery, but made affordable through the appropriation of East German labor and manufacturing methods. The greatest technical achievement of the system, the specialty lenses produced by Schneider, were then and continue to be more expensive than 99% of the population can afford.

On the other hand, the Russian components of the P6 system suffer from quality control problems. They are significantly less attractive and less versatile. All of these components improved in design over time, but competing options were almost nonexistent. There is only one option, the optimized one, given the logics of mass production and maximum affordability, and core functionality. As a result, the Russian system is an excellent value: it can do 85% of what the West German system can accomplish at 1/10 the price. At the same time, it dictates how it can be used: its constraints cannot be easily overcome. Its core functionality is excellent, but the quality of its construction and finish are unreliable. Given alternatives it is not the most desirable P6 system, even if it is the most accessible one.

In this context, the East German P6 components strike an interesting balance. They are aesthetically pleasing and involve many more options and accessories—their use cases are extended significantly, at the cost of a slightly higher price and some finicky behaviors. They cost about 1/6 of their West German counterparts. These characteristics are shared by the characteristics of the DDR’s manufacturing sector more generally: significant attention paid to aesthetics, design, and quality, within an overall systemic push for mass accessibility. However, this system could not exist within a capitalist milieu. The reunification of Germany eliminated any possibility of its continuance.

Today, then, the rich 60-year legacy of the P6 ecology is enjoyed and admired by many photographers and collectors, but its actualized dream of high-end equipment accessible to a majority of the population has no current analog.



Photo by Zach Horton. Taken with Pentacon Six and CZJ Biometar 80mm lens.

Further resources on this site:  P6 camera comparison, P6 lens discussion

A Pilgrimage to Pentacon

Last summer, when academic business took me to Dresden, Germany, I found myself with an opportunity that perhaps only someone fascinated by the history of photography can fully appreciate. With one extra afternoon to spare, and torrential rain hammering the city from above, I set out on foot to find the famous Ernemann building, once the vital center of Europe’s camera industry.

Pentacon Logo.

Pentacon Logo.

While the French and British were early innovators in photography, by the end of the nineteenth century the fulcrum of the photographic industry had shifted to two poles: Germany and the United States. The U.S. industry giants consisted of Eastman Kodak (consumer cameras and film), Bausch and Lomb (lenses), Wollensak (lenses), and Folmer Graflex (professional cameras). Germany’s counterparts included Leica (cameras and lenses), Zeiss (lenses), AGFA (chemicals and film), and in Dresden, ICA and Henrich Ernemann. Beginning with cinema projectors and later branching into still cameras, Ernemann’s company grew steadily. In 1907 it introduced the first Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, which would later become the company’s specialty.

A factory worker assembles and Exakta camera.

A factory worker assembles and Exakta camera.

In 1923 Ernemann built the most advanced factory in Dresden to house his growing camera and lens business. A unique building that included an enormous factory floor level, the Ernemann building continued vertically as well, with each floor a bit smaller than the last, culminating in an observation tower (more on that later). This design was unique for a factory, and was either the result of Ernemann’s aesthetics or his unique vision: the building would serve a dual function as a factory and as a symbol of photographic innovation that would survey and plot out the future landscape of the region’s industry. After hours of trudging in the rain, I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of the unique observation tower atop the Ernemann building. I hastily made my way toward it, and eventually it appeared before me, in full.

The Ernemann building in 2014.

The Ernemann building in 2014.

By the time the new factory was running at full capacity, Ernemann had become the largest camera manufacturer in Germany. In 1926 he merged with ICA, Goerz, and Contessa-Nettel. The new company, based in Dresden and run out of the Ernemann building, was called Zeiss Ikon. It was now the largest camera manufacturer in Europe, if not the world (Eastman Kodak was perhaps larger still by this point; I’m not sure). This company produced many innovative cameras in 35mm and medium format, including the Contax line of rangefinders (and later SLRs). After WWII, Dresden ended up in the Soviet zone of influence, which eventually became the DDR, East Germany. Remarkably, the Ernemann building, which is located a ways away from the city center, survived the allied bombing of Dresden with nary a scratch.

Heavy consolidation ensued after the war, with Zeiss Ikon absorbing several other Dresden camera manufacturers, including Praktica and Ihagee, maker of the Exakta line of SLRs. The Exaktas in particular are some of the finest cameras ever built. Where the American cameras tended to be inexpensive (the Kodak Brownie series, for example) or simple, heavy, and extremely strong (Graflex), these German cameras tended to be small, intricate, and complex. This level of engineering is incredibly impressive. The Exakta cameras in particular represent, for me, the pinnacle of 35mm camera engineering, with a set of features unrivaled by any small camera system before or since.

Exakta Varex- front

Zach’s Exakta, with Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/2.0 lens.

Here’s my Exakta Varex II. This remarkable camera features two ranges of shutter speeds, allowing for exposures from 1/1000 of a second down to 12 seconds! I haven’t seen any other mechanical camera best that. It also features a removable prism, allowing the user to mount a waist level finder instead. This feature is extremely rare on 35mm cameras; it usually appears only on professional medium format cameras. Instead of an integrated takeup spool, the Exakta takes a removable spool that can be replaced by a standard 35mm cassette. This means that it is possible to shoot film without needing to rewind into the original cassette (which of course you can still do as well). In this configuration the film is wound into a new cassette as you advance each frame. The real advantage to this system lies in the ability to shoot partial rolls of film. A small knife inside the camera allows you to slice the film at any point, leaving you with two partial rolls: one already shot and spooled into a cassette, ready to be removed and processed, and one ready to be re-strung onto a new cassette or spool.  It also implemented an automatic aperture, built into the system lenses, not the camera: pressing a shutter button on the lens would close down to the selected aperture, then trigger the camera body’s shutter.  Somehow this all works perfectly and is housed in a beautiful camera body. This is one of my favorite 35mm cameras. It is truly a thing of engineering beauty.

Exakta Varex- inside

Inside of Zach’s Exakta Varex, with custom takeup spool and internal guillotine are visible.

In the 1950s, all of the East German brands were consolidated into VEB Pentacon, headquartered and manufactured in the Ernemann building. The new company’s logo was derived from the profile of the building itself. Due to licensing battles with West German companies, the brand “Zeiss Ikon” was eliminated and replaced with “Pentacon.” The Exakta and Practika brands were retained. The famed Zeiss, now renamed “Zeiss Jena” to differentiate it from the new, West German “Zeiss” (one would think that the original company would be allowed to retain its name and the new offshoot would have to create a new one, but this is Cold War politics we’re talking about here, and legally the deck was stacked in favor of the West). During this period, a new line of Pentacon medium format cameras was released: the Pentacon Six. This was the 35mm Exakta’s big brother. I’ll cover this in a future post.

Zach's Exakta, top, with waist level finder.

Zach’s Exakta, top, with waist level finder.

Pentacon was flying high in the 1950s and ’60s, making great cameras (paired with Zeiss Jena lenses) and selling them all over the world. By the 1970s, however, both American and German camera manufacturing was being routed by Japanese companies who were at the forefront of photographic innovation. As camera systems became increasingly electronic, the German manufacturers lost their edge.

Workers engineer and assemble Pentacon and Exakta cameras.

Workers engineer and assemble Pentacon and Exakta cameras.

Spiral staircase to top of Ernemann tower.

By 1990, it was pretty much over. German reunification signaled the demise of Pentacon. Parts were bought by Joseph Schneider and others, and some cameras were still manufactured, but this move signaled the end of German camera dominance.  The lens manufacturers had come out on top with their luxury engineering (Leitz, Zeiss, Schneider), and a few camera systems followed this trend (the Exakta 66, Leicas), but by and large the camera industry had moved to Japan.

The Ernemann building still exists, however, and has been converted into a joint science and technology museum and camera museum. All of the cameras produced in Dresden during its rein as the camera capital are on display here, as well as great material documenting the manufacturing that took place at this factory.

Heinrich Ernemann’s tower still stands. Though his original elevator is no longer functional, the determined pilgrim can climb many flights of stairs, up into the circular tower. The reward was a 360 degree view of Dresden. Almost a hundred years after it was built, this observation deck stands as the tribute to the unifying vision of Ernemann, and the sixty-year dominance of Dresden as the world’s camera engineering and manufacturing capital.

View of Dresden from Ernemann tower.

View of Dresden from Ernemann tower.

Media Archaeology: Olympus Pen F System

Pen FT with F. Zuiko 38mm f/1.8 lens, next to 35mm film cartridge for scale. Photograph by Zach Horton.

As the first post in an eventual series on old and innovative photographic ecosystems, I thought that I’d write about my favorite small camera. I promised in my inaugural post for this site that “convergence” would mean a convergence of many of my own interests and obsessions, and one of those includes a kind of media archaeology of photographic equipment. As will perhaps become more clear in later posts, one of the things that fascinates me about the technical aspects of photography is systematicity: how many components from the diverse worlds of optics, fine-tuned mechanics, chemistry, microelectronics, stabilization, and clockwork shutter mechanisms have to combine to control the transmission of light into an image in some persisting substratum.

Rome, Italy. Photographed with a Pen FT and 38mm lens on Ilford Delta 100 film by Zach Horton.

For that reason, we will be working our way up to the most versatile possible large format cameras, which are veritable technological ecosystems unto themselves. To begin with, however, I’m going to start small.

There are many sources for the history of the Pen series online, (this is my favorite) so I won’t spend much time there. Basically, camera designer Yoshihisa Maitani was the mastermind behind this series, which is extremely elegant in both aesthetics and function. The first couple of models were simple but tiny and elegant rangefinders. They were so successful, that Olympus handed Maitani a nearly impossible mandate: make a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) model of the Pen, with interchangeable lenses, keeping the same svelte body! SLRs tend to be significantly larger than rangefinders, as they require a large and complex mirror mechanism and pentaprism to direct the lens image to a viewfinder when not exposing an image (rangefinders use a simple viewing lens or window instead, making camera bodies smaller and lighter, but introducing potential focusing and composition [parallax] issues, and more restricted lens design). An SLR the size of a small rangefinder would be a coup indeed… and Maitani pulled it off! The Pen F model, released in 1963, unleashed the full versatility of an SLR, incorporating full manual controls and interchangeable lenses.

Pen FT, back.  Photograph by Zach Horton.

Pen FT, back. Photograph by Zach Horton.

Maitani made several innovations in order to realize this remarkable machine. The first was shared by the entire Pen line: he designed the camera to shoot a half-frame 35mm image. Thus the camera utilizes regular 35mm film, but exposes a frame only half the usual size, in a vertical orientation. This allows up to 72 images to be exposed on a standard “36 frame” roll! The film is fed through the camera horizontally, but the camera takes vertical images. This takes a bit of getting used to: in the camera’s horizontal position (the natural way to hold it), it takes a vertical image, and in a vertical orientation, it takes a horizontal image.

Garden in Rochester, New York. Photographed with a Pen FT and a 38mm lens on Kodak Ektar 100 film by Zach Horton.

Maitani’s second great innovation was to design a shutter and mirror based upon a rotating mechanism rather than a flip-up mirror and prism. Apparently, this took years of engineering to perfect. The result, however, was a svelte camera that looks every bit like a rangefinder, but is actually an SLR.

The Pen F was able to overcome the traditional limitations of an SLR by eliminating the bulky prism and mirror assembly, thus allowing the lenses to sit closer to the body (i.e., they have a shallower focal plane distance), and keeping both the body and lenses very small by specifying a half-frame format (which requires a smaller image circle, roughly equivalent to today’s common “APS-C” or “crop frame” digital sensors). The lenses for this camera are incredibly tiny and, well… cute, as well as extremely high quality. The Pen F was a high-end camera system.

Bamboo sculpture. Pen FT, 38mm lens, Kodak Tmax 100 film. By Zach Horton.

The biggest limitation of the Pen F when it was released was the reduced negative size of its images. Cramming the full amount of information on only half the surface area made for some grainy images on 1960s film stocks. As 35mm film became ubiquitous and cheap later in the decade, the economy of this camera seemed less valuable than sheer image quality in the form of a full-frame negative. Eventually, Maitani’s follow up camera system, the legendary Olympus OM-1, proved so popular that Olympus phased out the Pen SLR system by the end of the ’60s.

And now, for the lovers of obsolete technological assemblages that learn to do new things (I’ll have far more to say on this in the future), a small twist: the primary disadvantage of the Pen F system in the 1960s, its reduced resolution, has been mitigated considerable in the twenty-first century. In a mostly digital world, film costs have skyrocketed, while its aesthetic and tactile qualities have never been more valued. Film grain technology was improving in the 1960s, but peaked in the 1990s for silver-based black and white emulsions as well as positive emulsions, and in the 2000s for color negative emulsions. The result is that current film stocks such as Fuji’s Velvia, Ilford’s Delta series, and Kodak’s Ektar, Tmax, and Portra lines, are extremely fine grained (due to the “T-grain” technologies used in their construction), and can easily produce gorgeous images on a half-frame format. (In standard developers using standard methods, there can still be a decent amount of grain, but not distracting amounts. Special developers and techniques can further reduce the grain, but this is outside of my interest.)

Horse in the Carpathian mountains, Transylvannia, Romania. Photographed with a Pen FT and 38mm lens on Ilford Delta 100 film by Zach Horton.

At the same time, given the expense of these gorgeous film stocks, all of those extra frames afforded by the half-frame Pen are quite welcome (far more so than in the 1960s, when film was a mass commodity), especially for street or travel photography, for which this camera is uniquely suited. So, for those who like to shoot “on-the-go,” and prefer film, this is a beautiful camera system. I have used it for a couple of stints of travel and have loved the experience as well as the results.

The Kodak factory in Rochester New York, still producing film in 2014.  Photographed on a Pen FT with 38mm lens on Kodak Ektar 100 film by Zach Horton.

Kodak factory in Rochester New York, 2014.  By Zach Horton.

This is one of the most pleasurable cameras I have ever used. It is a joy to hold in the hand, to have such a small lens and camera that can nevertheless do the full compliment of manual photography: manual shutter (in a fun dial on the front of the camera), manual aperture (in uniformly excellent manual aperture rings), depth of field preview, remote release, and timed release. The shutter button is a unique rectangle that sits flush with the top of the camera. The subtle snap that the circular mirror and shutter make when you take a photo is always satisfying.

Bran castle- front lantern

Entrance to Bran Castle, Vlad the Impaler’s old Transylvanian home, in 2014. Photograph by Zach Horton.

A camera of this size does come with a couple of downsides, however. The viewfinder is small and rather dim (a problem exacerbated on the FT model, which diverts some of the light to its built-in, but rarely useful light meter). It is a bit harder to focus as a result, though this is somewhat compensated by the increased depth of field of the smaller format. The top shutter speed is 500, rather than the more usual 1000. The FT model improved upon the original F by making it far easier to load film, changing the advance lever to a single-stroke design, and adding a built-in light meter. The first two improvements are very welcome, but the light meter, at least after all of these years, hasn’t held up well: it is often broken or wildly inaccurate, and requires the outlawed 625 mercury battery, or a sophisticated adapter. And even when it works perfectly, it is a pain in the ass: it reads out not actual f-stops, but only a proprietary numbering system that the user must then dial in on the lens’s aperture ring (the ring on each lens can be reversed to display either f-stops or these numbers). This is slow, confusing, and won’t work with third-party lenses. Most people (including myself) simply use an external meter, or, because this camera is best outdoors, simply estimate the proper f-stop using the “sunny 16” rule.

The Olympus Zuiko 38mm 1.8 is an excellent standard lens. I use it 90% of the time. I can also recommend both the 25mm f/4 and the 100mm f/3.5, both of which are fairly readily available and round out a great kit. Many more exotic lenses exist, but fetch very high prices on the secondhand market, and thus represent great value to the collector, but less so for users like myself. Adapters were made by Olympus at the time for lenses from most other systems. A current Chinese company makes high quality adapters for a few common lens systems today (Canon EOS, Nikon, etc.). I have a Canon EOS adapter that works beautifully, and allows me to round out my kit with the excellent, very small Takumar 55mm 1.8 (M42, with an adapter to EOS), which makes a great portrait length on the Pen. These adapters are expensive, but much less so than many native Pen lenses!

Pen with EOS adapter and FL 55mm f/1.2 lens (custom machined to EF mount).  Photograph by Zach Horton.

Pen FT with Canon EF lens adapter and Canon

Overall, this little camera is a marvel of design and engineering and an immense pleasure to use. Perhaps most interestingly, if paradoxically, its time has perhaps finally arrived.

Swerve’s Futures

It’s hard to believe, but after nearly five years of work, we have completed the first academically produced, nonprofit, science fiction epic: Swerve. This cinematic exploration of nanotechnology, virtuality, ecology, corporate-industrial patriarchy, and the relationship between data, the body, and the environment is over three and a half hours long, divided into ten chapters. Each functions as part of the larger narrative and as a thematic whole. This surreal, cyberpunk, Deleuzean, feminist, philosophical science fiction film would never have been possible to make in a commercial system. To accomplish this, over 150 people worked in one capacity or another on this mammoth project, which has been housed in the English Department at UCSB from 2010 to the present.

Why did we make such an unconventional film, and how?

The original concept for this project was hatched by Lindsay Thomas and myself during our second quarter of graduate school, in Alan Liu’s “Literature +” seminar. Alan challenged us to build innovative collaborative projects, and we hatched the idea of a science fiction film that would be collaboratively produced by students at the University out of content generated by the academic humanities. Instead of the endless reproduction of tropes for their own sake exhibited by commercial media, and instead of academic media that merely responds to cultural production “out there,” we thought that it would be interesting to scramble the codes, to bring some commercial tropes into contact (or collision) with academic theory produced by the humanities, with the challenge of making our own fictional, speculative product. We thought that the genre of cyberpunk was ripe for such an exercise.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

As literary fiction, cyberpunk rose to prominence in the 1980s along with the first wave of home computers, exploring electronically networked culture, navigating an infoscape or datascape that seemed the inevitable future heralded by ubiquitous computing. What new identities, dangers, and possibilities would emerge within this new world of digital virtuality? After William Gibson’s visionary cyberpunk trilogy in the 1980s, the 1990s saw the proliferation of flashy, virtual-reality-driven versions of cyberpunk in both literature and film. The alterity of cyberspace (a concept invented by Gibson in his 1983 novel Neuromancer) was becoming tamed, literalized, and linearized (using the terminology of philosopher’s Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, reterritorialized) as the digital gamescape. Indeed, this subgenre finally reached its cinematic apotheosis with the Matrix Trilogy, which thematically and aesthetically combined the video game with live action. The convergence was complete: the genre was exhausted.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

And that’s why we chose it. As a genre that was about visualizing the new spaces that could arise out of ubiquitous, networked computing, it had been caught and perhaps exceeded by Facebook. Cyberspace was no longer alien territory. It was everywhere. That is the starting point for Swerve. Virtual technologies have become so ubiquitous that they are no longer visible. The interesting question is no longer how to visualize datascapes but rather, how to visualize non-datascapes? Not a historical space before digital technology, but a future space that exceeds itself. This means both a return to the visionary qualities of 1980s cyberpunk, which sought to imagine a completely alterior space, as well thinking about potential paths forward, ways to take back the agency of systems subject to technocratic logics of ubiquitous surveillance, forced upgrade cycles, the gamification of labor, and the commercialization of behavioral data. Swerve takes on both of these tasks, narrativizing the process of disengaging from invisible technologies of virtualization into the shockingly new space where technology is visible, tangible, and embodied, as well as considering the potential for new spaces that are ineluctably virtual and actual at the same time. One of the ways to explore this paradox emerged later in the form of the character Charlie, who fuses an enthusiasm for technologies of virtualization (especially simulation) with the notion of virtuality developed by French philosopher Henri Bergson—that is, the virtual as an atemporal space of pure potentiality that is concentrated to a single point of becoming by the mind. (Charlie is also an homage to Afrofuturism, a celebratory movement in the 1970s to the 1990s that explored African identity in the context of high-tech, cosmic science fiction motifs.)

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

One of Swerve‘s primary mechanisms for collaboration and visionary exploration of potentials is combinatoric. Different characters embody different philosophical stances toward technology, identity, virtuality, and ecology. The ten chapters of this long film allow various combinations to clash or coalesce into different material-symbolic-philosophical assemblages, each of which charts potential futures.

The raw content for these philosophies, theories, and fictional experiments came from discussions in graduate seminars around related topics at UCSB. Participants in those seminars fed their thoughts into forums, which were then accessed by a team of world builders who synthesized this rich academic work into narratives, characters, and a fictional world. Others wrote script segments, poetic fragments, etc. Over multiple years, I worked all of this material together into a coherent script. While this long-term unfolding remained true to the original plot outline, segments were only written in cycles of six months or so, allowing the script to emerge as segments were filmed. The filmmaking process thus mirrored the feedback loop between the virtual and actual worlds that is depicted within the film. The process itself is documented in the form of its ideal circuit diagram here.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

Because Swerve is about a sense of expanded ecology—an ecology of the “natural” world combined with an ecology of the virtual—many people from the “world builders” to location hunters to the cast had to work together to produce a milieu that functioned as a complex, ecological whole. We filmed over a three year period around Santa Barbara, Ventura, Ojai, Los Angeles, and the incredible Sedgwick Reserve, once Edie Sedgewick’s family’s ranch, and now operated as a research reserve by the University of California. More than one member of the cast or crew lost themselves, seduced by this hypnotic landscape that may be from the past, or may be from the future.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

I brought my own aesthetic to the project, my love of analog film stock (used to portray the virtual world in the film, in jerky, unstabilized 8mm), my background as an independent film director, and many of my friends who work in the film industry. Our all-volunteer cast and crew was formed from the ranks of incredibly talented professionals, alongside passionate students learning the ropes. Many of these latter have gone on to work in film or other creative industries. Several undergraduate students on the crew started when they were freshmen, worked throughout their college years, and graduated before the film was completed! I have never worked with a more passionate, gracious, brilliant, and giving group of people. I cannot thank you all enough for your incredible work.

I hope that Swerve demonstrates that when enough people contribute enough passion, time, and energy to a project, it is possible to make something that would never happen in a commercial system. The point here was not to make something using alternative means of funding (“independent” filmmaking), but to make something that absolutely cannot make a profit, that must live and die by its own rules and perverse desires. I hope that it will live on for a very long time, enjoyed by science fiction fans, casual viewers, academic theorists, and whoever else is willing to embark on this strange journey. Further, I hope this film will be used in classrooms. It is meant to be not only a film, but a creative ecosystem of ideas, a form of pedagogy, and the jumping off point of new speculative imaginings.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

The film is free and always will be. It can be streamed, downloaded, remixed, re-authored… We provide the disc images and cover art to produce your own DVD or Blu Ray set, and hope you do so. (The film is so long that it spans three discs.) If you are reading this blog, Swerve should probably be on your shelf!

Swerve was made on a miniscule budget, provided by a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation in New York, a starter grant from UCSB, a very modest IndieGoGo campaign, and a number of direct donations from beautiful souls when the going got rough. Still, this 3.5 hour film cost about as much as shooting only three days on an average ultra-low-budget independent feature. That was only possible due to the incredible dedication and generosity of this cast and crew. Many faculty members at UCSB worked on or helped to facilitate this project. I’d like to give a special shout out to Doug Bradley, who served as production designer and general engineering genius, and Alan Liu, who has supported this project all of these years, and even donated a chunk of his own research funds to purchase the Avid system upon which it was edited. (And which is serving us still, as I edit a streamlined theatrical version meant for screening in one sitting.)


Still from Swerve.

The “swerve” of the film’s title refers to Roman poet Lucretius’ concept of clinamen, the fundamental nature of chance, or non-determinism, that enables single atoms to change course, setting into motion radical systemwide effects, escaping the homogeneity of matter. The swerve irrupts and determines the present, and is the hope (or fear) of difference, of the new. (The title of the film is not derived from Stephen Greenblatt’s book, titled The Swerve, which shares Swerve’s derivation from Lucretius, but was subsequent to it.)

Making this film has been a strange and wonderful journey for many of us, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who made it a (virtual and actual) reality. So much for history. What, I wonder, will be Swerve‘s futures?



All chapters can be viewed and downloaded from the main swerve site:

This site also contains a “theory wiki” with ties to the film, behind the scenes photos, and a complete cast, crew, and participant list.

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Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.



8mm still from Swerve, by Zach Horton

The door, simultaneously barrier and threshold, invites us to approach, awakens our desire to pass through, to enter (or to exit), but bears the power of refusal. The brute inertia of the door, its solidity of both material form and cultural decree, can give pause to even the most tenacious of trespassers.

A room without a door, the most horrific vision Poe could conjure up, appears again and again in his speculative architecture, from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to that improvisatory room in “A Cask of Amontillado.” The most diabolic deed is surely to wall someone in, when no provision is made for a door. Perhaps of his literary brethren, only Kafka would disagree. Worse by far, he might say, is to have too many doors, leading to too many corridors, an overdetermination of possible passages that ensures that you never reach your destination. One always dies between two doors.

Poe, haunted by those doorless rooms, died outside.

Rome- Forum- copper doors- Temple of Romulus- 1700 years old

1700 year old copper doors in the Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum. Photograph by Zach Horton.

Most doors are meant to keep others out. As such they are signs (VERBOTEN), but they are also sorting devices (UNLESS…). Do you know the keeper of the house? Do you know the password? Do you know the combination? If so, the door will let you pass, and you will become sorted across that threshold. Rules and sorting. The nineteenth century made much of this mechanism: Maxwell’s demon, on one hand, was a thought experiment that posited a small creature who opened or closed a small door between two chambers whenever a molecule of a certain type approached. With only passive doorkeeping, claimed James Clerk Maxwell, the demon could build up potential energy in the form of difference. This was the opposite of entropy, of homogeneity. Was it therefore possible to cheat death, the universe’s heath death, the eventual state of maximum homogeneity that would leave no energy differential to do any useful work?

Dresden- ELREMA 1959 accounting computer

1959 ELREMA Computer, East German. Photograph by Zach Horton.


The second sorting machine of the nineteenth sentry, invented by Charles Babbage, went further: by representing numbers with mechanical cogs on wheels, those numbers could, through complex sorting—transfer from one mechanism to another—be manipulated in theoretically unlimited ways. The universal, programmable computer had come into being. The threshold it mediated was between the material and the symbolic. The latter could be manipulated in theoretically limitless ways; the challenge then became encoding, or the representation of the material within homologous data structures. Later computer engineers, and particularly Alan Turing, realized that the simpler the logical structure, the more universal the machine, in both representation and manipulation. The universal binary computer was born (with Konrad Zuse), using only two characters to represent any arbitrarily large structure. Best of all, it could be materially instantiated by something far simpler than Babbage’s complex machinery: the any electromagnetic switch, vacuum tube, or transistor. Each of these serves the function of a logic gate. One input, two possible outputs: 0 or 1, on or off, in or out. At the heart of the computer, and everything the computer generates, is a humble door.

Of course, not all doors are meant to be opened. Some are there to remind you that none shall pass, or that the pleasure, even necessity, of exit is but an illusion.

Rome- doorway

Chalk door in Rome. Photograph by Zach Horton.


Other doors may be obliging, but serve to obscure the other side. Who will be brave enough to exit the known for the unknown? Contestants of Let’s Make a Deal had to ask this question of themselves. More lucratively, so do cat-burglars. I simply wonder who is behind each of those cold doors in the hotel hallway.

As I finish my Ph.D. and enter the academic job market, I’m thinking a lot about doors. That which they conceal, the thresholds they guard, and whether or not they lock behind you.

I discovered my favorite door by accident one day in Rome. Having thrown away my map, determined to wander aimlessly, I ended up on a narrow, unremarkable street with a solid wall lining one side. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, I noticed, with a start, that the wall had sprouted a head. It was made of the same red clay and jutted outward defiantly. A wall that refused to remain flat. I followed its gaze and discovered a second head, and then an ear, an eye, and a nose. I walked on, dumbfounded at the community of body parts embedded within this wall. Finally, I came to the door. And here, amidst this anthropomorphic wall, the door framed a question: what or who was behind this wall?

Rome- Artists house 6- doorway

Door to residence in Rome, Italy. Photograph by Zach Horton.

I considered ringing the off-kilter doorbell or intercom. I stood for nearly a half hour studying the clues provided by this threshhold. Finally, I turned and began to walk away.

A rusty creak rang out behind me. I spun just in time to witness the door opening by just a crack. A young Italian woman slipped out, carrying a handful of laundry. The door closed again, before I could make out any detail within. She walked in my direction.

“How is it,” I managed to ask in a blunt English that she might or might not understand, “that you came to live behind that door?”

She stopped, regarding me quizzically. “My father,” she finally said by way of explanation, “is an artist.” She smiled and continued away on her errand.

Why was it that this encounter affected me so sharply? Was it the incongruous presence of a human where there should only have been a silent door, waiting through the ages? Was it that the granting of my wish, to have experienced the inside behind this door, was accomplished only through a shift of modality, from the material to the symbolic? I had nothing but the word “artist,” a signifer, to show for my adventurous curiosity and humble patience. (This is, after all, within the purview of the door’s alchemical magic.) Or was it, quite simply, that in my phenomenological egocentrism I had forgotten that other great function of the door? To open, not to allow entry, but to facilitate an emergence?

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