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.
1. Wartime Rumblings
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
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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.
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.