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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.