Visiting the Leica factory with the M6TTL in hand
"The first 10,000 images are the worst"— Helmut Newton
A website is like a vegetable patch: It needs to be taken tended carefully. From time to time plucking weeds, pruning…. otherwise at some point you will fail to see what is actually being grown.
This article represented the 100th blog post on my new Messsucherwelt website. That's a lot of text, some perhaps gibberish. It’s also many, many photos, and not all to my taste today. But I stand by it. I also do not claim infallibility. As for the weed-plucking, I do not touch the posts. They stand or fall on their merits as they were originally published.
It is perhaps fitting that this centenary article deals with a visit to Wetzlar. On the Thursday before Easter I was free and it had been only the day before that I decided to use the time for a visit to the Leitz Park. A hastily sent mail, whether it was still possible to participate in a guided tour, was answered positively after half an hour.
After the 300km drive I finally reached the big new roundabout in front of the factory entrance. In the middle is an oversized globe, on which Germany is marked with the Leica logo. Foolishly, such huge globes always remind me of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, where he juggles with the thing. But I suppose Leica does not seek world domination…. yet. Later I learned that Dr. Kaufmann has donated the roundabout to the city of Wetzlar. Perhaps he was able to acquire the premises on the cheap. This was once a military training area. Mr. Elbert, who later led the factory tour, told me that it was still there in the early 90s although very muddy by then.
The negative globe association flared up only very briefly, because when entering the area the impression is very positive. It is very spacious, with plenty of room for parking. Bright stones, green areas, a fountain and seating make it look like a Roman forum. The main building is architecturally remarkable: The façade is reminiscent of a film strip. The lower, huge glass panes, which weigh around 1.8 tonnes per unit, are the largest curved triple glazing units ever made. The floor plan corresponds to a lens on one side and binoculars on the other.
Of course I had a camera with me. But instead of showing up with the current flagship, the M10, I preferred to use the M6 TTL with 35mm Summilux, "authentically" loaded with Kodak Tri-X to document the visit.
When you enter, you are immediately in the huge, bright entrance hall, which is primarily reminiscent of a modern gallery. And indeed there are different, constantly changing exhibitions of photographers in separate locations in the hall. The only non-changing exhibition is the "36 out of 100". The 36 iconic photos from a hundred years by famous Leica photographers are lined up on one wall. The light in the gallery area is controlled by special glass in the roof so that, regardless of the weather, sharp shadows are prevented when viewing the images.
At the back, there are "milestones of product development" in pillared display cases. Oh yes, I hear the Leica critics giggling again. Showcases, haha, that's the right place for a Leica. But we know what to think of such comments. The other day I read a commentary by Patrick "Paddy" Ludolph, in which a Sony friend calculated how much cheaper and greater is an A7 with f/1.4 Zeiss optics than an M9 with Summilux. There is no better way to compare apples with pears.
The north side of the foyer is enhanced by a glass artwork by Alfons Alt mounted on the triple panes.
Just around the corner, the gallery turns into an exhibition shaped by state-of-the-art museum techniques. You can get an interactive glimpse of the company's history and manufacturing processes and practically all the Leica models ever produced are exhibited.
Large windows give a direct insight into the production area; the employees working there take the curious glances of the visitors with stoic calm. I wondered if they would get a zoo allowance. It was not busy on the last day before Easter and I suppose many were already on vacation.
I had an hour to look at it all, then my guided tour began. Fortunately we were a very small group of only five people, a circumstance that made it possible for Mr. Elbert, our guide, to lead us directly through the production (instead of walking around the outside and only looking through glass panes).
He works as a process engineer in lens grinding, where we spent a particularly long time, but it was also extremely interesting. By the way, the fact that the Leica tours are made by employees who are really involved in the production, in my opinion, adds to the wealth of information and the overall impression of dedication to the marque. You can also feel the enthusiasm and honest pride in the craftsmanship that comes with the products. It resonates more authentically than any marketing gibberish.
It was impressive to take a look at the lens manufacturing process. The fine sanding machines use a grinding emulsion that is held in a magnetic field and must remain in constant motion. A week earlier, the power had failed throughout Wetzlar (an excavator had cut the mains cable). Since it took more than ten minutes to restore power, the grinding paste was stuck in all the machines and needed to be replaced. It took hours for the production to restart, plus damages of several thousand euros, just because of the expensive grinding paste. Shit happens…
The manufacturing tolerance of the lenses is one micron, which is the lowest variation for optical lenses in the world. In boxes next to the machines were the rejected lenses and we were allowed to take something in memory of the visit. In front of me on the desk now is a fat Noctilux front element, which henceforth serves as a paperweight. It looks perfect to me and I have no idea why it was rejected.
But we went through all areas of production. It was interesting that our guide first had to satisfy himself that there were no prototypes lying around somewhere. He had anyway asked us not to take pictures, and of course we respected that.
Apparently, photography had once been allowed but the pictures of passive-looking employees (especially in the lens-grinding area where they are there only to monitor systems) sometimes led to irreverent Facebook comments about employees standing around and no wonder the lenses are so expensive.
In the rangefinder camera assembly area, I found a comment from our guide amusing. He almost apologised for the analogue models, “which are still in demand in China and Japan”. Presumably he had forgotten for a moment that I was hefting an M6. But maybe I got the wrong impression.
On the roof of the "Lens" is a viewing terrace, from which one can overlook the entire company premises, and there is still a lot going on. The Leitz Park is growing continuously and this also symbolises Leica's position on the world market. While the "big ones" make only losses, Leica seems to be doing something right. In the summer, a new part of the site will be opened with a degree of fanfare.
After the tour, I stayed back for a while. I had missed the food in the Casino works restaurant, but I could have gone to Café Leitz. Only I was not hungry at all. I preferred to "browse" the Leica store, but abstained from any temptation to open my wallet.
Once again I saw a Leica SL with the 24-90mm lens in the metal and knew again why I like the little M so much. That thing is a monster, and with the rocket-launcher of a lens on its slab face it can never even attempt to appear inconspicuous. But before any furious comments come from SL friends (as I received when I translated Mike's article): If I were a professional, the SL would be my first choice! Fast autofocus, great lenses, two card slots and more. Covering an event with such a combination leaves nothing to chance, at least on the technical side. [Mike's article on the SL in English]
And was the visit worthwhile? Absolutely, and my sincere thanks are due to Mr Elbert who fielded all our questions and even went beyond the call of duty. Barely had I arrived home when I received an email from him, attaching a recent Financial Times article about lens production which he had mentioned. He had personally escorted the FT columnist on his fact-finding mission.
But even without such an exemplary guide, the Leitz Park is worth a detour when you're in the area. The exhibition and the "museum area" are outstanding and alone make the trip worthwhile.
The article appeared originally in Messsucherwelt.com. Translated from the German by Mike Evans