Film cameras are back. Let’s look at Voigtlander

I’ve always been an optics junkie, and the years haven’t dampened my enthusiasm, especially for German optics. Nothing lets you gather as much information as your sense of sight, and anything you can use to improve that sense certainly seems worth pursuing.

And what do we really know about history before the advent of photography in 1826? What was Shakespeare really like? And Christopher Columbus? Dinosaurs ? Without photographs, we don’t really know, do we?

So, on to the topic of today’s column – a giant of German optics, if a bit forgotten today: Voigtlander.

In the 1960s, most Voigtlanders included a full-grain leather case and elegant packaging.

It turns out that Voigtlander was not even launched in Germany but rather in Austria. Born in Leipzig in 1732, Johann Voigtlander was a talented luthier who began his career in Vienna. At the age of 30, his skills caught the attention of the Habsburg Monarchy, where he was granted special dispensation to set up his own workshop.

He is credited with a number of early inventions, including an assortment of gauges, measuring devices, and high-precision machinery. At the time of his death in 1797, the Voigtlander society was a significant concern with interests that stretched across the Habsburg Empire.

It turned out that the Voigtlander clan was filled with capable entrepreneurs and the business continued to thrive as a family business throughout the first half of the 19th century. His big breakthrough came around 1840 with Peter Voigtlander (Johann’s grandson) at the helm. Peter was among the first to recognize the potential of photography and steered the company in that direction. Under his leadership, the company’s tradition of innovation continued with the introduction of the first portrait lens, the all-metal daguerreotype camera and the plate camera.

The classic Voigtlander 35mm SLR was a precision instrument that used neither plastic nor composite.

With Austria in turmoil a decade later, Voigtlander moved to Germany and over the next century became a major power in photography. Inventions and innovations continued, including all sorts of lenses and accessories still in use today.

In 1898 the company changed its name to Voigtlander & Sohn AG Twenty-five years later the company was acquired by photochemical giant Schering AG and production increased significantly. In 1956 the Carl Zeiss Foundation purchased Voigtlander, later selling it to others. Hard times eventually followed and today the Voigtlander name is licensed to the Japanese company Cosina.

These days, Voigtlander lenses and cameras have seen a resurgence as many photography purists return to film rather than digital imaging. There are over a dozen different Voigtlander lenses still available, mostly for standard 35mm SLR cameras, as well as almost as many camera models. As with most things made in Germany before and after the war, their quality is top notch. Even better, the digital and phone camera revolution has driven the prices of high-end film cameras down to peanut levels. The film is readily available online, as are the places to develop it. If you’re looking for a new hobby or just enjoy holding a high-precision instrument, you can hardly do better than Voigtlander.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiquities column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].

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