Wetzlar is renowned as the birthplace of German optics and is where Leica was founded in 1914, the company having originated in the 1840s as a specialist in microscopes. With so much history, Wetzlar and the nearby Leica headquarters at the new Leitz-Park are well worth a visit for lovers of photography
With its quiet cobbled streets, pastel-hued timbered houses and location on the banks of the River Lahn, Wetzlar could easily be the setting of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. An hour’s drive from Frankfurt, this small German town is not, however, renowned only for its picturesque qualities. It is famous as the home of photography manufacturer Leica. High above the town sits a factory with a Leica sign overlooking the valley, a presence that is a constant reminder of the brand’s influence on the area ‒ even though Leica recently relocated the main part of its production to a newly built base just up the road.
The new factory belongs to Leica’s Leitz-Park, which officially opened to the public in 2018. With a main building that has been designed to resemble a film roll, this sleek complex is a hub for all things Leica; besides the factory, it is also home to a café, the Arcona Living Ernst Leitz hotel, a gallery, a shop and more. Rather than just being a manufacturing site, it was devised as a destination for Leica enthusiasts. Here you can see changing exhibitions, take a guided tour, book an appointment with customer care services and peep into the factory before heading down to Wetzlar to capture a shot at the famous spot where Leica inventor Oskar Barnack took the first picture with the Ur-Leica.
When we arrive at Leitz-Park at around 2pm, activity at the factory has already started to wind down for the day and the stark space is almost deserted except for a few stragglers in white lab coats ‒ here, as at many German companies, staff member start the day early. This vast space is where most of the brand’s glass elements are made, and Leica’s DNA in optics is very much in evidence. Workers are trained to man every station in the lens-making process, with stations being rotated weekly so that they don’t burn out. Most steps in the production process are automated but, ultimately, the final decision remains a human one in order to ensure perfection. At the cosmetic process stage, for example, we witness workers carefully scrutinising lenses with a monocular, taking off tiny bits of glass by hand. This scrupulous approach is entrenched in the entire process, so much so that many of the tools are specific to Leica, to avoid competitors knowing what the brand is working on. The rigorousness has earned the brand its highly-respected status, resulting in other companies calling on Leica’s expertise for special projects. The recent collaboration with Huawei on phone cameras is case in point. ‘It’s an engineering collaboration, not a production collaboration,’ explains Michael Röder, senior manager global corporate communications at Leica.
Leica has always provided much work in the area; today around 300 people here specialise in manufacturing, working across optics and assembly, and that figure does not take into account those working in marketing and sales. The Leitz-Park project was a way to celebrate the ties between Leica and its hometown. ‘Leica is what is it is, because the people in the area supported the company. The gallery was created to give something back.’ says Röder.
Aside from being a gesture of goodwill, Leitz-Park presents a chance for Leica to consolidate its headquarters and simultaneously project its vision to the world. Despite being a key player in photography, Leica has a modest view of its own role, as highlighted by Röder. ‘We just provide the tools to create the output that everyone sees,’ he remarks. The end product is what matters most, and Leitz-Park is very much built on this premise, with culture being a central element of these new headquarters. Standing in front of some of the most famous pictures to have been taken on a Leica, on display in the gallery, Röder says ‘we hold the image itself in high regard’. Indeed, the gallery in Wetzlar joins a long list of other Leica galleries worldwide which are dedicated to photography, rather than the camera itself, with exhibitions featuring the works of famous Leica photographers and emerging new names. The company is keen to continue with this kind of cultural engagement and recently opened a museum at Leitz-Park; the summer exhibition there will feature photographer Paul Wolff. The museum sits in the same building as the Leica archives, a fascinating collection of technical manuals, historical books, press clippings and more, that is accessible to collectors, journalists and researchers.
More than a century after Leica was founded in Wetzlar, its cameras continue to be used by some of the world’s most highly regarded photographers, be it for documentary or fashion photography. Leica has carefully built its status as a manufacturer of first-rate photography equipment paired with a strong cultural agenda. The Leitz-Park project is the culmination of the brand’s efforts to bridge the gap between manufacturing and the art of photography. Here, more than anywhere, it is very much in evidence that Leica is a made-in-Germany heritage brand. It has managed to keep pace with the most innovative of tech giants without losing sight of its legacy, craftsmanship and deep-rooted ties to the charming town of Wetzlar.