When I decided to have my ageing IIIc and 50mm Summitar restored my first thought was a trip to see MalcolmTaylor. I had read about his work and his world-wide reputation, but I didn’t realise what a fascinating story he had to tell during my visit.
In conversation with Malcolm Taylor
By Philip Gray
Was working at Hove Cameras the start of your Leica career?
My career really started on the day I bought an old Leica IIIb I had seen in a Dollands shop window, but unfortunately it soon developed a fault. At the time I was working in a drawing office as an architectural technician and it cost me twice my weekly wage of 25 shillings to have it put right. When the fault developed again after a few months there was only one thing to do – I bought a copy of Jedrzej Lipinski’s book on Miniature and Precision Cameras, then dismantled and re-assembled the camera … and it worked.
I gradually took on further restoration projects, including work on some of John Newton’s extensive collection, and also established a working relationship with Leica through the supply of spare parts.
When Leica decided to stop servicing screw-mount cameras in the late 1960s a number of UK companies, including Hove Cameras, were approached to take on the work. Derek Grossmark, who owned Hove Cameras, decided to take on the work and invited me move to Brighton and set up a service workshop for them. He acquired all the necessary Leica tools, test equipment, lathe and drill press, and also sent me to London for further training one day each week.
A few years later I was visiting Wetzlar with a group from the then Leica Historical Society. Much to my surprise I met Dr. Leitz during the trip and he asked me if I would consider doing some work for him. He unlocked a cabinet containing all the cameras in the Leica family tree for me handle, including the Ur Leica. When he asked me what I thought about them I suggested it would be nice to have them in working order. He agreed, and eventually that is exactly what I did for him.
What projects did you undertake for Dr Ernst Leitz?
The first restoration was of Oskar Barnack’s 1913 cine camera, which Leica shipped from Wetzlar to the workshop at Hove Cameras in the mid 1970s. I did all the work in my own time, but with a great deal of support and encouragement from Derek Grossmark. The camera was in a very poor state having been damaged in a fire bomb raid during the war, and it had also suffered considerable water damage – added to which many of the parts were missing. Even removing case screws from the aluminium body was difficult as many of them disintegrated and had to be remade to match the original, then fitted into holes that needed to be rethreaded.
The camera had been fitted with a Kino Tessar lens, designed specifically for use in the 18mm x 24mm cine format. Because of considerable heat and water damage I had to remove and completely overhaul the optical cell, which included re-polishing and re-cementing the elements. I was then able to fit it into a 50 mm Summilux focusing mount and use that on a CL body for testing.
There were no drawings to work from and all I had was two photographs to study. The wooden film magazine had been destroyed in the fire so I had a replacement made based on the photographic evidence. The hand crank was missing which meant some ‘artistic licence’ was needed to create a new one.
After at least six months careful restoration, matching Barnack’s original design ideas as closely as possible, I had a fully working camera which I was able to take onto Brighton beach for testing. I still remember turning the crank and listening to a working drive mechanism – it sounded as smooth as an old hand-cranked Singer sewing machine!
When did you start work on the Ur Leica restoration?
When the cine camera restoration was completed I decided to take it back to Wetzlar, and also asked Leitz in Luton to arrange for me to have further training there. While I was at Wetzlar I worked on Barnack’s first 35mm still camera, the Ur Leica, and also on the third prototype. Other work had also been carried out and returned prior to my Wetzlar visit. The only outstanding project was to make a stereo replica which was sent on later.
The first stage of work on the Ur Leica was to look on the lens which to my surprise, and that of Dr Wangorsch, was a 42.5mm, f4.5. It was a wide field Summar (a 6-element variant of the original Zeiss Planar) that had been designed by Carl Metz. The wide field nature of this lens may explain why later photographers have been unable to recreate the exact perspective of Barnack’s original Wetzlar photographs, assuming the Ur Leica had a 50mm lens.
As with restoring the cine camera, as I worked on the Ur Leica I gradually began to understand more about the thinking behind Barnack’s work. I saw some of the problems he had, and the mistakes he made, and how he managed to overcome them.
There has been speculation over the exact date of the Ur Leica, but when Rolfe Fricke, from the Leica Historical Society of America, translated a set of Barnack’s papers some years ago he came across a receipt for the camera that had been issued by Leitz in January, 1914: Barnack must have been making the camera in 1913.
Other people were experimenting with the idea of a 35mm still camera before Barnack. Still photographs taken by Robert Paul, on 35mm cine film, had even been published in London by 1896. But Barnack had produced a design that was set for a long future and I believe the elegant but simple method of film advance and shutter tensioning he created was the key to the success of the Leica.
A detailed report following a British Intelligence Wetzlar factory inspection, in 1946, noted that it took 33 hours to assemble each Leica IIIc body. If a full restoration project has to start with a disassembly of the camera, followed by an analysis of any problems, it must take considerably longer today.
Yes, and that 33 hours was on an organised production line system and with different people trained to work at each stage. I can strip down a typical Leica in just 20 minutes or so, but of course it takes me far longer to put it all back together! Each job can have different problems to solve, so the time it takes for a full restoration is simply the time required.
Key components on earlier cameras, particularly their shutter drives, are often distorted or broken and need to be repaired: sometimes I have to make the replacement parts. I have even had to learn how to re-silver mirrors and re-coat lenses. It reminds me of something Derek Grossmark said when I worked at Hove: ‘A problem is something looking for a solution.’
To ‘clean, lubricate and adjust’ seems far too simplistic a description of the work involved in a complex camera body restoration, let alone work the lens.
I have always worked by completely stripping down a camera to its component parts, which is the way Leitz taught me. That way I can find the problems and sort them out, then check carefully at each stage of re-building. Work on the very early cameras often involves making new parts such as replacement gear wheels. It reminds me of something Stuart Bell once told me; ‘You should be able to make any part for a Leica – how do you think they started?’
In addition to the Leitz restorations you must have undertaken other particularly challenging projects.
A few years ago I was sent a 1925 Anastigmat Leica for complete restoration. At some time it had been painted over with baked on crackle-finish black enamel. It was agreed that I should remove the enamel to see what was beneath. After three years of extremely careful work most of the original Leica finish and engraving was revealed. With the other problems sorted out I ended up with an original Anastigmat Leica in working order.
Leica 250s, from the FF through to the GG versions with motor drive, have usually been worked hard and can be particularly challenging restoration projects. I usually need to overcome problems such as distorted top and base plates, stripped threads and winding assembly and gear faults by making replacements to return the cameras to a fully working condition.
Do you foresee a continuing enthusiasm for Leica film cameras?
Yes. Plenty of screw-mount cameras are still in use today and there is still considerable enthusiasm for all the M series models. The fact that Leica are still producing film cameras surely bodes well. I also think digital and film cameras complement each other well, with the latest lenses being used on older film cameras as well as older lenses on the latest digital bodies. I use an M (240) for lens checking and testing.
I have met many DSLR users who decided to switch to the M9 or M (240) simply because of their simplicity – and the next time I met them they have also decided to buy an M6 or M7 in order to use film as well. There is surely something to be said for the anticipation of waiting to see the prints from a film camera: how many digital camera users only ever view their images on the rear screen?
And what about your favourite Leica?
That has to be an early M3 as it is one of the most satisfying cameras to work on. Replace the brake drum, check the winder operation, recalibrate the shutter and rangefinder and completing the rest of the service should produce a reliable camera for many years to come thanks to Barnack’s original design philosophy.
… and thanks to Malcolm Taylor’s expertise my IIIc and lens are now working perfectly, and in regular use again.
Copyright © Philip Grey. Images copyright © of their respective owners, Malcolm Taylor, Wilf James, Leitz.
First published in The Leica Society Magazine, February 2016
Our thanks to Philip Grey for the opportunity to publish this article.