When the E. Leitz Company introduced the first practical 35mm camera in 1925, it was an instant world-wide sensation. The Leitz Camera — Leica –, paved the way for a completely new way of creating photographs. At that time the Carl Zeiss Foundation of Jena, Germany, was already a well-established company with almost 50 years of optical history behind it. It had begun producing camera lenses in 1890, but was not able to respond to the success of the Leica by offering a comparable product. To do so, Zeiss acquired four small camera manufacturers and merged them into the Zeiss Ikon AG, based in Dresden and Stuttgart. Even so, it took several more years to develop and produce a match for the meanwhile dominant Leica camera. This was the Contax, Zeiss Ikon’s top of the line rangefinder camera, presented in 1932.
The first Contax did not manage to fully live up to its ambitions. It was a very sophisticated and also complex little device and soon became known to suffer from a lack of reliability, especially due to its complicated shutter. Hubert Nerwin, Zeiss Ikon’s camera designer par-extraordinaire, picked up the pieces from the first unreliable Contax designs, and re-designed it to one of most famous and desirable 35mm cameras ever to have been produced; the Contax II. In 1936 it was brought to market with many revolutionary improvements, such as a combined viewfinder and rangefinder. In terms of features, it beat the comparatively primitive Leica hands down. Not resting on its success, Zeiss immediately started working on the next generation, the Contax III. But another ambitious project was already lined up beyond it — the Contaflex twin-lens reflex camera (TLR).
The second world war saw the cities of Jena and Dresden become the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. The production facilities were damaged and everything salvageable was relocated to Kiev in the Ukranian province, to provide the Soviet Arsenal conglomerate with the means to construct a world class camera called the Kiev, initially entirely from leftover parts from Germany. Prior to the handover to the Soviets, the withdrawing US Army had recognised the significance of Zeiss and facilitated the relocation of over 100 key personnel, management and engineers to West sectors. This chapter alone is a fascinating period of Contax history and many papers and books have been published trying to establish on what exactly happened under the Russians’ control and what cameras where built at what location.
Like Germany itself, Carl Zeiss was now divided into East and West. In the West, Zeiss continued working on improving the classic II and III series rangefinder cameras, whereas in the Soviet sector work concentrated on developing the single-lens reflex. In 1949, at the Leipzig Spring Fair, an industrial showcase, Zeiss Dresden (East) released the Contax S (for Spiegelreflex [reflex mirror]. Due to increasing disputes around the Zeiss trademarks, which occupied German courts for 15 years, Zeiss Dresden renamed their cameras to Pentacon, derived from the combined words PENTAprism CONtax). It was the one of first 35mm SLR film cameras featuring a pentaprism allowing direct viewing from behind without a reversed image.
The era of the rangefinder camera started drawing to a close and the SLR’s rise began. Carl Zeiss (West) released their first SLR in 1953, the Contaflex. Unlike its pre-war TLR namesake, it was a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) it featured a leaf shutter and but unlike the TLR only at a later stage was it equipped with a built-in (selenium) exposure meter. The follow-on model was called the Contarex and showed German engineering at its best: the world’s first exposure meter-coupled, focal plane shutter camera; it even sported interchangeable film backs. Despite its sophistication, the Contarex and its follow-on models were not commercially successful. While it was superbly crafted and packed with innovation, it was an engineer’s camera, which is to say ugly and heavy. Its selenium metering cell in front of the pentaprism gave it the name Cyclops or Bullseye. Production of the renowned Contax rangefinders IIa and IIIa (the a distinguishing them from the pre-war models) was ceased in 1961.
Meanwhile Japan had risen from its own ashes and started the onslaught that would leave the German camera industry practically wiped out (except for, ironically, the more and more archaic seeming Leica M). The Japanese practical design and not least pricing of cameras like the Nikon F simply could not be matched. Nonetheless, Zeiss continued to deliver in its cameras many world firsts that are taken for granted in today’s cameras: electronic auto-exposure, attachable motor drive and the technical feat of an electronically driven and vertically travelling shutter (a shorter travel distance means that shorter shutter speeds became possible). Undoubtedly SLR cameras would not be the same today if it wasn’t for the continuous innovation by Zeiss in their Contax cameras. The economic perspective was different, however. Zeiss simply could not continue to produce cameras in Germany alone, facing the fierce Japanese competition.
The key strategy was to find a strategic partner in Japan. Initially talks were held with Pentax, but efforts abandoned. The Pentax K is one remaining legacy of this attempted co-operation. In 1973 the alliance between Zeiss and Yashica commenced, a partnership that would hold for over 30 years. Yashica was founded in 1949 in Nagano prefecture and made a name for itself by producing high-quality 35mm and TLR cameras. The Yashica Electro 35 was a very popular rangefinder, said to have sold over 5 million units, and the Yashicamat a very reputable TLR. Yashica’s expertise in building electronic cameras paired with Zeiss’ excellence in producing optics seemed a promising formula for success.
Perhaps it was the experience of the cyclops that prompted the addition of another ally: the F. Alexander Porsche Group. Industrial design was still in its infancy as a concept or product development consideration, yet Zeiss and Yashica must have recognised its importance and potential. Porsche Design were a pioneer in ergonomics and consulted on appearance and human interface design. The fruits of this collaboration were introduced at Photokina 1974 — the Contax RTS SLR. The RTS (Real Time System) once more introduced a fireworks of innovation: a wholly electronic camera with aperture priority and manual exposure modes, optional five frame per second motor drive with intervolometer (selectable frame per second rate), 5-flash-per-second electronic flash capability and two frame per second winder. The totally stepless electronic shutter had a maximum speed of 1/2000s. Exposure compensation was found for the first time on any camera. The traditional maze of mechanical levers, rods, cams and gears, common to most shutter release systems had now completely given way to electronics and electro-magnetics. All timings in the body were now governed electronically; the follow-on RTS II had adopted quartz to ensure precision timing. A slew of other models targeted at different types of photographers followed and Yashica also continued to manufacture cameras under their own brand, which shared the Contax mount (C/Y mount) so that lenses were interchangeable between them. Zeiss concentrated on producing their fine SLR lenses.
Read in Part 2 about how ceramic kitches knives from Kyoto helped Contax to remain on the cutting edge, tackling the challenges of auto-focus and the looming age of digital…