Last month marked 70 years since the creation of East Germany.
The postwar partition of Germany – the West and East separated thanks to the Cold War – had a huge effect on the German camera industry. Many of the camera and lens producers that had helped build pre-war Germany’s reputation of excellence suddenly found themselves on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The Soviet Union’s camera industry was the most prominent of the Warsaw Pact nations, but East Germany’s wasn’t far behind. The likes of Pentacon, Exakta and KW produced millions of cameras, some of them designed to take on the best of the Japanese and West German camera makers.
For many photographers, the distinctive no-frills SLRs of the Praktica range were a cheap and cheerful introduction to film photography – just enough camera to let you take properly exposed pics, and nothing more. But the East German camera industry was much more ambitious than this.
Here, Kosmo Foto looks at 10 noteworthy cameras from the former DDR.
Exakta Varex VX (1951)
Name a famous camera from a classic Hollywood movie. For many it’ll be the camera Jimmy Stewart uses with such plot-driving expertise in the classic 1954 ‘Rear Window’. But it’s not a Leica, a Contax or even a Nikon; the camera Stewart’s world-weary photographer came from behind the Iron Curtain.
There was nothing drab and utilitarian about the Exakta Varex VX. A testament to good old-fashioned German over-engineering, it bristles with all manner of knobs and levers – if you’re a lover of clean, uncluttered cameras this will likely have you coming out in hives.
The Varex VX was released in 1951 by Ihagee Kamerawerk Steenbergen & Co, which continued in the footsteps of the Kine Exakta, the world’s first 35mm SLR which had been unveiled in 1936. The Varex VX split shutter speeds into fast and slow, with two shutter speeds to choose them. The fastest shutter speed was 1/1000th, which was not to be sniffed at in the mid-1950s.
The Varex VX was a proper system SLR, a luxurious design intended to compete with the very best the West had to offer, despite its somewhat old-school design.
Praktina FX (1953)
It wasn’t the Japanese or even the West Germans who came out with the first SLR designed for professionals (most of whom were shooting on medium format or on 35mm rangefinders). No, it was East Germany.
It was released in 1953 by Kamera-Werke Niedersedlitz (KW) – not by Praktica-maker Pentacon, despite what its name might suggest. Designed by Siegfried Bohm, the Praktina FX eschewed the complications of the Ihagee Exaktas and instead took cues from the first of the Praktica cameras which had been released in 1949.
The Praktina FX ditched the screw mount in favour of bayonet lenses, just like the Exakta. It became the first SLR in the world to offer a motordrive (the first example of which was spring driven and could churn through 20 frames). Quite apart from being one of the most beautiful cameras to come out of the DDR, the Praktina FX is a true pioneer.
Penti series (1958)
One, as they say, for the ladies. Communism gave the sternest of Karl Marx frowns towards the notion of luxury – officially at least. But what if they could make money from the capitalists penchant for glittering gadgets?
Enter the Penti. Originally released in the late 1950s as the Welta Orix, production was moved in the 1960s to VEB Zeiss Ikon. The Penti looked less like a camera than a clutch purse, just the thing for taking shots on the streets of Portafino and San Tropez. The Penti came with an ingenious film loading system that made it impossible not to wind on the next frame – a long button popped out the side of the camera after a shot was taken, and pushing it back in set it for the next frame.
It also used an East German version of the Agfa Rapid System, transferring film from one cassette to the other frame by frame. It was hugely popular, with the Penti II featuring a meter for added ease of use. Expect to see one somewhere in the next retro fashion shoot you come across.
Praktica IV (1959)
The shape of Prakticas to come… kind of. The Praktica IV was the last camera to be produced by the Kamera-Werkstatten company before it merged with Pentacon.
Launched in 1959, this M42-mount SLR was based on the earlier Praktica FX. Instead of the FX’s waist level finder, the IV featured a distinctive humped pentaprism. It managed to look curiously appealing, an Art Deco Frankenstein’s Monster.
Compared to the later no-frills Prakticas, the IV had some curious quirks, such as its double-disc rewind handle and non-standard shutter speeds. But it paved the way for three decades of M42-mount SLRs bearing the Praktica name – millions upon millions of cameras.
Werra series (1959)
Few camera designs are a s clean as the Werra. It’s almost as if there was a directive from the Volkskammer that the camera should be as free or extraneous knobs, buttons and levers as possible – or else.
The Werra was a 35mm viewfinder camera made by the Carl Zeiss Jena plant in Dresden. CZJ normally made lenses, not camera, but their chunky Werra is nonetheless a design classic. The camera’s top plate is completely bare apart from the shutter button. If you want to cock the shutter and advance the film – simply twist the lens. Reverse the lens’s cap and – hey presto – you have a lens shade.
Most of the stuff you’d usually expect to see crowded on the top plate sits on the underside of the Werra. The top barren apart from the recessed shutter button.
Werras were made throughout the 1960s, eventually adding a lightmeter to create the Werramatic.
A curious, but still very useable camera.
Pentacon Pentina series (1961)
Pentacon became best-known for its Praktica family of SLRs, but they made some more unconventional 35mm cameras too. One of the more interesting is the Pentina, a huge leaf-shutter SLR made in the 1960s.
The Pentina series comes from a period when Soviet and East German camera makers made serious attempts to make their offerings as sophisticated as their Western rivals. Design was at their heart.
The Pentina cameras are big, but the design is remarkably clean. Almost all the controls – other than the uncoupled lightmeter – are located on the bottom of the camera. Rather than having a fixed lens, Pentacon made a range of decent lenses, from a 30/3.5 to a 135/4.
The sophisticated design might have been the Pentina’s Achilles Heel, as leaf shutter mechanisms are much more complicated than traditional SLRs. But it’s undoubtedly one of the most physically impressive cameras from behind the Iron Curtain.
Pentacon Six (1966)
For most medium format shooters behind the Iron Curtain, the Lubitel range of TLRs was about as sophisticated as things got. But Pentacon designed a range of 120 SLRs intended to compete with the very best of Western cameras.
The Pentacon Six was developed from the very similar Praktisix, a heavyweight SLR of chrome and leather, built around a range of Carl Zeiss Jena lenses that were nothing less than superb. The Praktisix had almost everything: stunning lenses, good looks, SLR ease of use… and some design quirks that could cause endless frustration. The Praktisix’s small, dim viewfinder won it few friends, as did its tendency to overlap frames.
Various Praktisix models were produced until 1966, when the camera was thoroughly redesigned – with a better film transport system for starters – and became the Pentacon Six. The waist-level and prism finders were joined by a TTL metering prism, making the Pentacon Six a definite step up from the Praktisix range. No Hasselblad levels of reliability here, but a classic of mid-century design nonetheless.
Pentacon Super (1966)
Anything Exakta did, Pentacon wanted to do too. The East German giant had plans to build a system SLR of the highest quality – a kind of Communist answer to the Nikon F.
The Pentacon Super was developed from a prototype called the Praktina N, Pentacon’s attempt to match the increasingly sophisticated SLRs coming out of Japan. The resulting camera – called the Pentacon Super – was unveiled in Leipzig in 1966, featuring a hybrid metal/rubberised cloth shutter that went from 1s to 1/2000 and a huge array of accessories, including a reporter-friendly bulk film magazine that could handle 17m (56ft) of film and looked like something that should have been hanging off an anti-aircraft gun. The Super’s range of lenses which had special pins which allowed open aperture metering. Most Supers shipped with the highly regarded Pancolar 55/1.4
Just two problems. Pentacon had just released the unreliable Nova range of SLRs, tarnishing their promising name, and the camera proved extremely expensive to produce. In the end, fewer than 5,000 of these stylish SLRs were made.
Praktica L (1969)
The Praktica series was already massively popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the last Sixties thanks to the likes of the Praktica IV and the Nova series of SLRs. More than 250,000 Nova-series LSRs were made, but the family seen as something of a failure, partly due to its horizontal travelling cloth shutter. Pentacon decided to try something different.
In 1969, the first in a new family of SLRs was unveiled – the Praktica L. Instead of a cloth shutter, the new camera sported a vertical shutter. It was a beginning of a huge family of SLRs and be in production for 20 years, the last of which was the Praktica MTL 50.
Sporting the M42 lens mount (like the Praktica IV and the Nova) the L series introduced the classic Praktica SLR look – a chrome body with a generous strip of leather, and usually supplied with a none-too-shabby Carl Zeiss Jena lens. The L paved the way for various families of Prakticas – the LTL, PLC, the VLC, the EE and the MTL, for starters – that would inspire and encourage generations of amateur photographers.
Praktica VLC/2/3 (1975)
The system camera that wasn’t quite a system camera. The VLC was one of Pentacon’s most quietly stylish SLRs, a chrome body offset with black plastic and vinyl.
The Praktica VLC actually began life as another camera, built by Pentacon for another manufacturer entirely. Exakta – whose cameras still evoked the Art Deco era, even as late as the 1970s – decided to build a new camera that had much more in common with the boxy Praktica SLRs than it did the rounded, graceful Exaktas. No surprise, given it was conceived by Pentacon’s designer Ralph Noacke. This camera was the Exakta RTL 1000.
The VLC, first released in limited quantities in 1975, was essentially the RTL 1000 rebuilt as a Praktica L series SLR. The differences, however, were notable; the VLC had electrical contacts which transmitted the information from certain lenses to the camera body to allow full-aperture metering. You could also change viewfinders too – along with a black viewfinder prism was a waist-level finder and one with a magnifying finder for macro work.
The VLC was built in much larger quantities as the VLC 2 (with a more comfortable plastic-tipped rewind crank) and the VLC 3, with a quieter shutter and metering diodes in the viewfinder. Pair these camera with any of the Pentacon Electric family of lenses and you have a fantastic no-frills SLR.
Have you used any of these cameras? What other East German models do you have in your collection? Let us know in the comments below.