Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fed-Leica conspiracy theory

Leica is the most celebrated brand name in the history of photography, known for both the quality (and incredible expensiveness) of its products, and its long and distinguished history of technical development. The Fed cameras are a series of cameras manufactured in the Soviet Union from 1934 until the mid-1990s, named for a commune commemorating Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (one of the most evil people who ever lived). It is commonplace to describe the lowly Fed cameras as 'copies' of Leicas (even 'Leica rip off' is used).

As part of my ongoing efforts to document the world's conspiracy theories, the theory that the early '30s Leica designs were actually based on Soviet designs (which themselves were developed perhaps with German input from the Leica factory), all for reasons connected with Germany's need to engage in industrial development prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles, the covert close relationship between the Germans and the Soviets, and some good old-fashioned industrial espionage going both ways (I have removed the links in the original; my emphasis in red):
"The Fed 1 camera may not have been a Leica copy at all but a Soviet home grown design based on the earlier Pioneer and FAG cameras. Oskar Barnack Leica may have been a product of industrial espionage and that the design was in fact pioneered at the VOOMP secret experimental factory in Leningrad in the early part of the 20th century. It is known that this VOOMP secret research establishment produced a Pioneer I camera very similar to the Leica I in 1932 and went on to produce the Pioneer II camera in 1933 which was very similar to the the Leica II. There is also evidence to suggest that Germany in the 1920's and 30's developed and used Soviet industry and expertise to get around the restrictions imposed on them by the outcome of World War 1. Against this sort of confusing industrial history and if you throw in the fact that Fed 2 with its improved shutter and ergonomic layout appeared in prototype form in 1939 long before Leica came up with anything similar. Then it all begins to make sense, the early Leica I, II are in fact just clones of Soviet produced cameras.

We can trace the origins of this German-Soviet co-operation back to April 16th, 1922 with the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo, an agreement made in the Italian town of Rapallo between Germany's Weimar Republic and Bolshevist Russia, under which each renounced all territorial and financial claims against the other following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and World War I. The two governments also agreed to normalize their diplomatic relations and to co-operate in a spirit of mutual goodwill in meeting the economic needs of both countries.

If you look at the German governments situation in the 1920's in more detail you can see that out of desperation they tried to circumnavigate some of the hundreds of articles of the 1919 Peace Treaty of Versailles. This was to some degree achieved by co-operating secretly with other military powers. These include China German Co-operation and Relations, Japanese-German Co-operation and German-Soviet co-operation. One of the major goals of the Versailles Treaty was to suppress or hinder development of technical equipment that could be used for military purposes. Obviously a small compact cameras like the FED 1 would have significant military applications as in aerial photography or on the battlefield in the form of the Fotosniper. The peace treaty had stripped Germany of an Air Force, Navy and most of its Army. This soon led to the birth of widely used glider clubs training a nucleus of clandestine air force pilots. These pilots had to be trained at some point on real powered aircraft which took place at secret locations in the Soviet Union. Also in World War 1, every air force already had aerial surveillance units, however the equipment most likely would have been much too bulky for use in the new single seater's and delicate to fly gliding planes. It is interesting to note that the Germans were also the first to use Gliders in Warfare, most famously during the assault of the Eben Emael fortress on the 10th May 1940 in DFS 230 Gliders - More German Gliding history at Wikipedia Link.

A camera like the FED 1 which could be operated single handed most of the time and with interchangeable high-res lenses would have been an ideal photo reconnaissance tool. If produced in Germany in the early 1920's, a sophisticated camera like the Leica would have been singled out under the treaty and banned by the authorities. Another interesting point about the origins of the Leica name is that Military leaders like code names. There were code names in USSR-Germany military co-operation. Germans were referred to as "friends". Other names were "Tomka" or "Tomko" for the project in chemical weapons, "Kama" for tank school and many more... So "Leica" could be a code name of the project in aerial optics. Later on in the 1930's some of the treaty articles were lifted and others ignored by the German government. This all fits in nicely with the Leica and Fed being mass produced in the early 1930's. As a result of the "Treaty of Rapallo" the Soviet Union allowed Germany to use there facilities and territory to develop military hardware and train pilots and given the overall situation of these times it casts some doubt on the official Leica story. There was a final twist to all this with the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow in 1939."

"The Secret VOOMP experimental research establishment had been working on the Pioneer camera design for years finally coming public on its existence when they realized that through industrial espionage that the very similar Leica was about to go into production in Germany. Also the industrial espionage of the period did not just go in one direction. It looks as if the Soviets obtained technical information from Zeiss on lens designs. The lens used in the FED 1 is apparently based on the Zeiss Tessar and not the Leitz Elmar design - see below for more on this. If you look at the claimed inventor of the Leica Oscar Barnack in detail you will find that the Leica design was not so revolutionary as we are led to believe. The Barnack UR camera existed in 1912-13 can be seen as insignificant by the fact it was just a glorified exposure meter with an odd set of shutter speeds (20th-40th second) aimed at testing strips of cine film for his movie camera. The FED 1 slow shutter speeds of 20th, 30th 40th, 60th 100th 200th and 500th had more to do with slow film speeds of the period than from those used on this exposure meter. Even the lens originally fitted to the UR camera was a 50mm Zeiss Kino Tessar and not a Leitz product, this was to be identical to that used on the movie camera. The camera size was not the same as the later Leica or Fed 1 and most significantly is that other cameras very similar in concept existed during this early period. One in particular was the Vest Pocket Kodak as it was the same shape and even smaller. It was used to take many a photograph in the First World War trenches. The first full scale 35mm production camera was not a Leica but the Homeos of 1913. This being a very sophisticated stereo camera of smallish size with two Tessar lenses produced by Jules Richard.

Barnack considered his camera redundant when it first went on sale in the mid 1920's . We can only speculate why he felt this way but it was probably because he knew it was a copy of a Soviet camera design and maybe he could not come to terms with that fact so put the project down. There was nothing new in the variable slit cloth rubberized focal plane shutter, only in the fact it was self capping as you advanced the film. Also miniature 35mm camera had existed since around 1900 but not as part of a sophisticated system camera with military uses. If you look at the Leica III of 1935 and its slow speeds and the IIIa with its 1000th second shutter speed of 1938 and it is often overlooked that FED may have refused to be beaten to the post again by German industrial espionage and revealed the FED S and V in 1938-39. Also the FED 2 with its improved shutter appeared the very same year as the Leica IIIa. This new shutter was revolutionary as it could be set regardless of the shutter state being cocked or uncocked. From 1939 the Soviet camera industry held a significant lead in technological terms on rangefinder design right up to the introduction of the far more advanced Leica M series camera range in 1954."

The Leica-philes - one of the world's great cults - would have conniptions over this kind of revisionism. Nevertheless, it is odd that the Soviets consistently appeared to be ahead of Leica in technological development until the revolutionary Leica M of 1954. Obviously, this kind of thinking has much wider ramifications than the history of two old cameras.
blog comments powered by Disqus