For a very short period during World War II, the Carl Zeiss Optical Factory at Jena built Sonnar lenses in the M39 lens mount used by their biggest competitors, Ernst Leitz Cameras in Wetzlar. During WW2 trade with Nazi Germany was either restricted or forbidden in most countries. The German government, needing foreign currency for the ongoing war effort, appointed the president of Carl Zeiss to coordinate export of German products, probably because of Zeiss’s established contacts with foreign companies.
Carl Zeiss-made Contax foreign sales, along with Leitz’s, had plummeted during the war. However, German military organizations were commissioning Leica cameras to be used by military photographers and German journalists assigned to the Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and the Wehrmacht. To ensure ongoing Zeiss production, the president of the Carl Zeiss Jena plant ordered that Leicas should be fitted with Carl Zeiss lenses. And so Carl Zeiss in Jena retrofitted several Contax mount lenses for the Leica Thread Mount: a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f2.0, a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f1.5, a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 85mm f2.0 and a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 135mm f4.0. All were produced and sold, although in quantities limited by the contingencies of war, until the end of WW2.
By the end of the war, the Russians had overrun Jena and appropriated the Zeiss manufacturing plant there. The Soviets ran it under their auspices for some time, continuing to produce Zeiss optics under the Carl Zeiss Jena brand, including the M39 LTM Sonnars. The company that remained, “Carl Zeiss Jena,” was not a “fake” company bearing the name of Carl Zeiss; it was the same company in the same factories where all the pre-WWII lenses were made. The company name remained “Carl Zeiss”, and the location of the company remained marked on the lens as the wartime lenses had been.
The Soviets subsequently dismantled the factory and transplanted it to Charkov in Ukraine. They took with them to Charkov Zeiss designs, machines, stock, and workers forced to relocate to Charkov, where the Zeiss factories were reconstituted by the Russians as restitution for the German’s destruction of the Charkov FED plant during the German invasion of the Ukraine. They left, as a legacy, an unknown quantity of Carl Zeiss Jena lenses in M39 mount. These Zeiss Sonnar lenses are the progenitors of the the Jupiter-3 (50mm f1.5), Jupiter-8 (50mm f2.0), the Jupiter-11 (135mm f4.0) and the Jupiter-9 (85mm f2.0), which would be built to the same design, and often with the same machinery, as the Zeiss optics built in Jena. The Russians even adapted the Contax-mount Biogon 35mm f2.8 to their Jupiter-12 35mm f2.8 in LTM.
The legitimacy of M39 LTM Leica Mount Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnars are often called into question by web “experts.” The problem is that much of the factory records were plundered or lost during the Soviet occupation, offering fertile ground for all sorts of whacky “Red Scare” theories about the Russians “faking” CZJ lenses. Contrary to what is usually claimed, almost all the M39 lenses that have come onto the modern market are genuine and can be established as such with some critical examination (see below). What seems to confuse collectors is this: many of the CZJ Sonnars are post WW2 Russian Army Of Occupation lenses, which are only different in build date from their WW2 German build counterparts. However, the internal components are the same as the 1941 to 1943 assembled lenses, and they were assembled with Zeiss machinery and know-how. All Jena factory made WW2 CZJ M39 lenses made during the war had “ears” just as their Contax counterparts did (remember, these were retrofitted Contax lenses), while the post-war Russian-made LTM lenses were produced with Jena factory optics, machines and parts, often don’t have “ears”, but are still legitimate “Carl Zeiss Jena” lenses.
Another thing which confuses collectors is that, even before the partition of Germany, there were three organizations with the name of Zeiss. Carl Zeiss Optical, established by Carl Zeiss; after Carl Zeiss’s death sole ownership passed on to his partner Ernse Abbe, who established Carl Zeiss Stiftung which would acquire Carl Zeiss Optical as one of its core divisions. Carl Zeiss Stiftung grew and diversified, in 1926 acquiring four camera manufacturers, merging them to form Zeiss Ikon, its photographic equipment division, based in Dresden. Zeiss Ikon bought lenses from Carl Zeiss Optical for its cameras but Carl Zeiss Optical was free to supply its lenses and other products to other camera makers too. Given all of the above, confusion and misunderstanding seem to trail vintage Zeiss optics at every turn.
Illegitimate CZJ lenses do very infrequently pop up for sale, usually by sellers in the former Eastern Bloc. These are Contax lenses hacked into Russian Jupiter lens mounts, being sold as original Carl Zeiss Jena M39 Sonnars. Or they’re Jupiter-3s with the front lens ring removed and replaced with a fake Carl Zeiss Jena lens ring. Those are the fakes. But it seems to me that there is no practical incentive to try and turn an old Jupiter 3 into a CZJ. The effort and expense of machining a CZJ front ring and replacing it in a early 50’s era Jupiter 3 doesn’t match what little extra money the CZJ would bring over a Jupiter 3 sold as such. So, the bottom line is this: if you’re lucky enough to have found one along the way, your CZJ Sonnar is probably genuine, irrespective of the irrational claims of some self-appointed experts who see fakes everywhere.
If you know what you’re looking for, it’s not difficult to spot a fake. The first step in determining whether its a fake Zeiss lens converted from a KIEV is to look on the lens’ focusing ring. Russian lenses use metric screws while Zeiss used non-metric screws. Additionally, the Zeiss ring has one short and one longer screw; converted KIEV lenses have equal length screws; the Kievs will typically have a big “M” for the focusing scales while real CZJ’s will have a small “m”; and the “T” engraving on the front shield, which should be red, will often be white on the fakes. *
In his book Non-Leitz Leica Thread-Mount Lenses, Marc James Small states: “For the most part, [the wartime] lenses have serial numbers in the 2,6xx,xxx to 2,8xx,xxx range, are ‘T’-coated & marked, & all are inscribed ‘Carl Zeiss Jena.'” The 276 series was the last true wartime series, 279 and up were produced in the Jena plant after the Russians had completely taken over Zeiss plants and production. Thus, my copy, #2,866,450, the one shown in the photos, would have been produced in the Russian run Jena plant post-war using Zeiss optical glass, parts, labor and know-how.
I bought my copy from a guy who was selling camera equipment he had inherited from his father years earlier. It was dirty and unused for probably 30 years before he put it up for sale on Ebay, from Ohio, with some really cheesy photos and a description that clearly indicated he had no idea what it was. In talking to him afterwards, he told me his dad had brought it back with a camera from Germany during the occupation, but that’s about all he knew. The lens, bearing all the marks of being legit, cleaned up nice. I had it disassembled and the tech said it had the internal markings consistent with an original.
Older lenses like the CZJ Sonnar weren’t designed with the same tolerances as today’s computer designed and robotically manufactured optics. They don’t have the same materials and were subject to more impurities. They age and discolour. They often have a single coating rather than being multicoated like modern lenses. The Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar is a cool lens, both as a collectible and as a user, obviously very vintage in character – not very contrasty, not super sharp wide-open but better and better as it’s stopped down. Wide open it has a beautiful soft character with a creamy rendition of out of focus areas, nothing like the clinically harsh and contrasty look of modern Zeiss optics built by Cosina. The photos below are good examples of its character.
I find it a great lens to use on my M8, a way to build some imperfection into a digital image. Or, better yet, pair it with some Double XX pushed a few stops and developed in D76: perfect.
Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar. Photos by Andrew Fishkin.
* I’m definitely not an expert, so please take what I’m saying here with a healthy dose of skepticism; I’m essentially repeating common wisdom with respect to telling the real from a fake. If you have better information, and if some of mine is wrong, please feel free to set me right.
Before and After
One of the pleasures of buying old Leicas is that, if you ask, sometimes you’ll get the backstory from the seller about the camera you’re buying. Usually it’ll be regarding an old beater that’s been in a box in the closet for some time, often since the death of the original owner. The seller – a son, daughter, or heir – knows little to nothing about cameras but knows, in some sense, that dad’s old Leica is probably still worth enough to sell it on Ebay.
I recently picked up a IIIg with collapsible Summicron and 135mm Steinheil Munchen Culminar. From the pictures and the description buying the camera was a 50/50 proposition – it might be functional, it might not. The optics might be clear and trouble free, they might be fogged, full of fungus and worthless. Considering the potential risks, I threw in a last minute lowball bid and won.
Imagine my surprise when I received the camera and found it to be in exceptional condition: bright viewfinder, contrasty rangefinder, almost unmarked chrome body, shutter speeds fully functional to 1 second. Other than the vulcanite having dried and flaked off, the body itself almost looked new. The Summicron was immaculate: almost no marks on it, beautiful front coatings, no haze and almost no dust. It just needed a good cleaning. The Steinheil was full of fungus and went directly to the bin. No loss. Wasn’t interested in the lens to begin with.
I emailed the seller to thank him for the camera, told him I would keep it and use it with pleasure and asked him what he knew of its providence. He replied:
I’m glad to know you will take great care of my dad’s camera. He used it a lot when we went to the beach and mostly on vacations to the Caribbean, Hawaii, California, Puerto Rico, Europe, etc. That camera has literally been around the whole world as my parents were people who loved to travel. I mostly remember him setting up the focus, aperture and fiddling around for the longest time with it when taking a picture of my mom and me. My mom would get so mad because we would literally be standing and posing for 5 minutes waiting for him to get the perfect clear shot while listening to his portable radio play the theme song to Dr. Zhivago, the only song he liked to listen too!
Sadly, my dad suffered a major stroke in 1982, and never recovered from it. He passed away in 1984. So now that I think about it, the last time the camera was ever used was probably 1980 or ’81 when I graduated from H.S. When we went on local trips, they always used my mom’s cheesy Kodak. Only at the beach for some reason he liked to use that Leica.
So as I mentioned, it sat in a box on the shelf all these years. It never got wet, (outside of light rain which I believe is where the staining came from inside the carrying case). It was never abused.The black plastic outside of the camera must have become brittle while it was sitting around on the shelf. The broken pieces were lying inside the case as if they literally fell off as it was sitting. One or two small sections broke away as I was handling and inspecting it. I have never operated that camera a single time as my father wouldn’t let me touch it! My mother never knew how to work it. So I literally know nothing about it. I don’t know what battery power’s it and had no clue how to load the film. I was even afraid to clean it as I didn’t know how sensitive it is. I assume the black plastic on the camera can be replaced and if so you will have a mint 1950s or older camera in great condition. I wish you all the luck with it.
I love stories like this. Clearly, this camera meant something to his father, and it’s nice to know I can give it a second life and respect it in the same way his dad did. I looked up the serial number and found it had been made in the year of my birth, a further happy coincidence.
I’ve since sent of to Cameraleather.com for a tan griptac covering. Morgan sent it to me within the week and I recovered the camera with a minimum of fuss. This one is a keeper.
Prior to 1976 ‘serious’ photographers shot black and white. William Eggleston changed that. On the 25th May 1976, courtesy of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the accompanying book, ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’, color photography arrived as a serious photographic medium. The subject is a rather laconic view of fly-over America, subject and era lending itself perfectly to the Kodachrome aesthetic. Eggleston had pioneered the photographic trope of the banal as interesting, the ordinary as revelatory. While this idea, played out as it has subsequently been, now might seem trite, it was revolutionary in 1976.
The MMA reprinted the book in facsimile in 2002 along with an essay from photography critic John Szarkowski.
Eggleston is a Leica gearhead. He owns over 300 leicas. This is a picture of a a handbuilt case he uses to store and transport some of them. This particular case holds 13 different Leica cameras and a couple of old Canon rangefinders for good measure. The case itself is a leather briefcase that Eggleston retrofitted with wood panels.
Eggleston is particular about the earlier Leica thread mount bodies. In addition to standard issue models, his collection includes rare limited-edition and custom-painted bodies. He claims he uses all of them. Eggleston admits his gear fixation “has grown into something of an obsession.”
Ironically, the photograph above was shot by Eggleston using a Fuji X-Pro1.