It was just a small notice—one of those back-of-the-book items in the English language edition of Leica Fotografie—just a few lines of text in issue No. 3 of 1968: Leica Collectors International:
"This is a club for collectors of old Leica models and accessories. Further information from Gerald Arthur Leeson, Atlanta, Georgia"
This little announcement sparked a cautious correspondence among approximately two dozen people who decided to meet and talk with Gerald Leeson about his idea of a Leica collectors’ club. The caution resulted from unhappy recollections of an earlier organizational effort: Jim Forsyth’s ill-fated Barnack Leica League, to which a number had sent money for dues but had received in return only promises.
But Leeson was no seller of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he convinced his interested correspondents to gather in April 1969 at the Ohio State University where a professor, Al Clarke, had agreed to provide a room for the meeting, an agenda and a good place to have lunch.
The meeting was held; the correspondents met and were pleased to find others interested in the Leica and its story. From their host and others, some learned about the two kinds of Model B Leicas, rim-set and dial-set; others learned about the virtually unknown Model IIId. Most knew about camera ace Dr. Paul Wolff, but many did not know about Curt Emmermann and his pioneering Leica magazine, the forerunner of Leica Fotografie, the journal in which they had seen that little insert from Gerald Leeson.
As Clarke recalls, some of the attendees were reluctant to talk about their Leicas, perhaps fearing encroachment upon sacred personal territory, but many others eagerly exchanged information about what they liked, what they owned and how they got their Leicas. A dichotomy between those Leica fans who wanted to keep their collections and knowledge a secret and those who wanted to share them emerged rather quickly, and there would be other such differences later.
It’s been said that founder Leeson, encountering such polarized attitudes, became disenchanted and abandoned efforts to nurture the group he had brought into being. The facts behind his subsequent lack of participation are lost in the fog and flare of elapsed time and may never be known.
By 1971, the group had renamed itself The Leica Historical Society of America (for a time "The" was dropped), a title believed to be more inclusive, more euphonious and more likely to attract the attention of other similar groups being formed in other countries.
One person attending the first meetings and one who didn’t drop out of sight afterwards was James L. Lager, then a student at Ohio State. Lager became so intrigued by the Leica camera and its untold story that he has become an international authority on the Leica and its system, the author of four collectors’ guidebooks and the big, beautiful trilogy that he recently completed.
LHSA helped support research for these ventures with grants, and many of Jim’s illustrations resulted from collaborations with LHSA members.
LHSA annual meetings followed the initial LCI gathering in 1969, and the fledging group soon had offers of a wealth of Leica lore by speakers of documented photographic literacy and Leica learning.
Below is a list of high-quality speakers who have presented papers at LHSA annual meetings over the years, having been invited by longtime (and now retired) program director and impresario Rolf Fricke, one of LHSA’s charter members and one of North America’s premier Leica authorities.
- Dr. Ernst Leitz III, grandson of the founder, Ernst Leitz Optical Works, Wetzlar
- Walter Kluck, manager of Leitz subsidiary Saroptico and CEO Leitz Canada,
- Dr. Walter Mandler, designer of the Summicron and other Leica optics
- Dr. Lothar Koelsch, chief of camera and lens design, Leica Camera GmbH
- Dr. Werner Simon, CEO Leica Camera GmbH
- Peter Stackpole and Alfred Eisenstaedt, pioneer Leica photojournalists
- Dr. Rudolph Kingslake, dean, Institute of Optics, University of Rochester
- Leopold Godwosky, co-inventor (with Leopold Mannes) of Kodachrome color film
- Volkmar Wentzel, foreign correspondent and photographer, National Geographic Society
- Norman Goldberg, inventor of Leica motor drive and photography writer
- Don Goldberg, renowned Leica technologist
- Walter Heun and Walter Benser, Leica lecturers, teachers and authors
- James L. Lager, Leica systematist, author and illustrator
- Stanley Tamarkin, president, Tamarkin Photographica
- Julius Huisgen, photographer of famous Barnack photo as well as hundreds of Leica images published worldwide
In many cases, these and other outstanding Leica personalities brought before LHSA audiences by Fricke were secured with the support of Leitz and Leica’s American agency.
An eagerly awaited opportunity to let the collecting bug loose among members was, and still is, an important part of the annual get-together. In the early years the growing publication Viewfinder, a Gerald Leeson invention, carried listings of equipment wanted and for sale, and these listings grew in number so quickly that it became necessary to start a separate publication.
In 1973, the first issues of the new publication were called the Leicalog, but by 1977 the name had been changed to the Leica Catalog to clarify and describe more fully its function, although a rather enigmatic editorial in a 1977 Viewfinder gives the impression that the name change was at the behest of the U.S. Leitz distributor.
Leica Catalog’s founding editor was Dr. Farrell (Spike) Stiegler, who put out an 8 1/2-in. x 11-in. booklet; later it was downsized to cut mailing costs, and that size remains today. After 1990 when Dr. Stiegler relinquished editorship, the catalog was updated and refined by Bill Gordon with the help of Terry Sheehy, our U.K. correspondent. Bill turned over a very professional catalog to Dr. Ed Schwartzreich in 1997. Aside from its mission as a members’ mart, the Leica Catalog allows members to follow trends in the availability of Leica collectibles and to chart the changes (not always upward) in prices.
If there was a momentary bit of friction with Leitz/Leica over the Leicalog name, such a situation has been far from typical in the co-existence between LHSA and the Leica’s marketer. A smooth relationship was facilitated due to early efforts by Emil G. Keller, vice-president of sales at Leitz New York.
After his retirement, Keller received partial sponsorship from the society and prepared a memoir of his career with Leitz, which began while Oskar Barnack, Leica’s inventor, was still active. Keller grew up in Wetzlar, Leica’s home city, and his recollections appeared as Viewfinder chapters, which were later published by the author as a two-volume set, one of several volunteer editors of the quarterly since its beginning in the late 1960s.
Others who have spent several-year stints as Viewfinder editor are Jim Lager, Fred Sternenberg, Randol Hooper and Roy Moss—the latter three enlisted for return engagements. Some people just can’t seem to get enough of a good thing! (Bill Rosauer is current editor of Viewfinder.)
The Viewfinder has told the Leica story in various ways, from letters to the editor to papers by authors who have been personally involved in the design and marketing of the Leica and its system of lenses and accessories.
The late Walter Kluck wrote of establishing two out-of-country manufacturing facilities for Leitz—one in St. Ingbert, Saar, just after World War II, and a better-known one in Midland, Ontario, Canada.
In Viewfinder articles, Dr. Walter Mandler related his experiences in using early electronic computers for the design of Leica lenses such as the Summicron. And an article by Norman Saupp`e told the story of his family’s successful efforts to establish the Leica in California and the West through consistently skillful, enthusiastic marketing.
Thirty years, LHSA’s age in 1998, is symbolized in this illustration. It is the span of years between the Model A shown and the M2; similarly, the various Leica publications bear dates some 30 years apart.
The Leitz house magazine Objektiv, foreground, and catalog depict pivotal events in the company’s history: the death of Gunther Leitz, a circumstance which robbed the firm of a family member who would have been able to continue in a management role into a more distant future; and, of lesser gravity but of significance for U.S. operations, was the move of offices from Manhattan, which transformed Leitz New York into Leitz Rockleigh. Both events occurred in 1969, the year of LHSA’s initial meeting.
Dr. Randol Hooper during his first editorial tenure ran a valuable and detailed series covering Canon and Nikon lenses that could be used with the Leica, and recently Dick Gilcreast has written informatively of his pleasure in using Leicas, both vintage and modern, for professional assignments. Gilcreast’s articles follow a theme of using Leicas pioneered in the Viewfinder by Will Wright, whose interest in Leica matters, both common and arcane, seems boundless.
Probably the most personal and widest ranging Viewfinder memoir by an American Leica fan was one by Dr. Wayne Hull prepared when he was president of LHSA in 1972–73, published in Viewfinder Vol.8, No.5, 1975. Hull was a Leica user when he went to medical school in the 1920s and he continued to use Leicas until his death in 1994. His is a remarkable narrative full of affection for the ingenuity of design that the Leica reflects and the precision of its manufacture.
Professor Alfred C. Clarke shared his knowledge of Barnack’s camera before it was named Leica, with his description and musings about one of the inventor’s own prototype Leicas, No. 105, and the object of great significance in the history of technology—a pre-Leica that Clarke had in his own collection.
Enlarging the general public’s knowledge of the Leica in its many ramifications, while having fun at the same time, has been a legacy of the LHSA to future scholars of 20th century photography. Leica societies in other countries, and their journals, also fulfill this goal, and LHSA’s Viewfinder takes pride of placing among them—it rarely, if ever, has been surpassed as a Leica enthusiast’s publication.
Viewfinder has been described as the glue that holds LHSA together, but the society’s viability also is attributed to several currents of Leica enthusiasm found in its membership. While the center of interest is unquestionably the Leica and its system, members’ attitudes about the Leica is multifaceted. There are those—not a majority by any means—to whom Leica means collecting and only collecting. Their dearest wish would be a 100-page Leica Catalog every single week.
Such a concentrated outlook is balanced by the user enthusiasts who take pains to have their Leicas loaded and present at all times and in all places, even on the most trivial errands. Their reward for this loyalty is an impressive output of photographs, often shared with other members through the Viewfinder or via the Leica Image Presentation at annual meetings.
Then there are those who love to read (and write) about the days when the Leica was as trendy an object as any of today’s digital wonders. Such members tend to avoid serious conversations with their polar opposites, the LHSA-ers who keep up with, and seek to own, the latest products bearing the Leica name.
Some members are image esthetes who enjoy and pursue vintage photographs by Leica masters such as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Peter Stackpole, Hans Saebens or Paul Wolff. In addition there are the classifiers, collectors of serial numbers, who revel in the discovery of yet another tiny variation. “A rivet here, a knurling there, in preferably some shadowy Leitz product,” as Al Clarke might say. It truly takes all kinds.
Throughout the society’s history, however, the true binding force shines through: the volunteer officers and workers who give their time—and more—to keep the LHSA healthy and solvent, actions for which they by no means have received due credit. Their names and responsibilities are available for all to see in every past and present issue of the Viewfinder and Leica Catalog. They merit the thanks and appreciation of all friends and members of this interesting and now 30-year-old organization: the Leica Historical Society of America.
The author would like to acknowledge the efforts and material provided by LHSA founding father Dr. Al Clarke in the preparation of this article.
(Article from Viewfinder Volume 31, Number 3, Third Quarter 1998, pages 12–14.)