The Story Behind That Picture: "Dr. Paul Wolff and the Leica"
By: Thorsten Overgaard. May 22, 2014. Edited September 16, 2020
Two very skilled photographers changed the public view of the Leica camera in the first years after it's invention. One was Henri Cartier-Bresson, the other was Dr. Paul Wolff
When I started catching interest for Dr. Paul Wolff, I searched for his signed photographic prints. I found his style very agreeable to mine, so I wanted a few prints to seal the relationship. His simple and effective way of communicating visually I find unique. But when I could only find postcards and posters on eBay, I started wondering: Why was a famous German photographer not more available?
Dr. Paul Wolff
The explanation made the urgency to find prints even greater: The negative archive of Dr. Paul Wolff burned in March 1944 when his house in Frankfurt, Germany was terribly bombed. Only prints of some of his works exist today, and then only as single archive silver prints in 23 x 16,5 cm (9 x 6.5 inch) as it was custom to make then (the print would be sent to the magazine, newspaper or book publisher who would return the print to the archive when they had reproduced it for print).
When Paul Wolff died in 1951, his wife Annette Wolff took over the archive, and she later sold the prints. I managed to find and buy six of them, and two others are on the WestLicht 100 Year Leica Auchtion on May 23, 2014. But more than 1,000 are owned by a gallery in Salzburg and will be used for a book and exhibiton in 2015-2018.
Dr. Paul Wolff in Palermo, Italy. Leica 35mm Elmar f/.6.3 with 10 ISO film, 1/8 second.
Norbert Bunge interview on Dr. Paul Wolff
I recently visited Norbert Bunge in Berlin. He runs the Gallery Argus Fotokunst in Berlin and showed me some of the few existing prints of Dr. Paul Wolff.
The beginning of Leica
It may be hard to comprehend today, but in 1924 when Leica made 31 prototypes of the first Leica (based on the Ur Leica that Oskar Barnack had built in 1913-1914) they sent them to photographers and scientists to get feedback. The general consensus was that it was a ridiculous small format and insufficient quality.
So more surprising that Ernst Leitz decided a year later, in 1925, to start formal production of the Leica. He was right. Not only did they sell out the first 1,000 cameras very quickly, but today the "Leica Format" or "Kleinbildfotografie" is simply known as "full frame" and is the defacto standard for 35mm photography.
The "Grandfather of 35mm Photography" was born.
Dr. Paul Wolff
For years Leica fought against this idea of their camera being for amateurs. Professional photographers used large format cameras, and some of them in the neighbour towns to Wetzlar made sure to let people know that! But two photographers adopted the Leica and changed the viewpoint by their serious work. The one was Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the other Dr. Paul Wolff.
One of the objections to the 35mm format was that one couldn't enlarge such "stamp-sized" negatives due to the grain in them. Dr. Paul Wolff improved the quality by suggesting that by developing the film longer (and exposing shorter), the grain in the film would be reduced.
In granmothers summer house, by Dr. Paul Wolff.
But the fact of the matter was that the large format negatives were never really enlarged. But the 35mm Leica Format prints were, and the 35mm diapositive color slides impressed people when they were shown on large projections. The enlarger for making darkroom prints, as well as the slide projector to project the images to a large screen were made by Leica as part of the concept, and so were the high quality lenses used.
I shall return to the story of all this, but it is important to understand that what Oskar Barnack and Leitz brought to the world in 1925 was as revolutionizing back then as when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in June 2007.
It changed everything.
Dr. Paul Wolff in Agfacolor which he experimented with as one of the first. Leica 90mm Elmar
f/6.3 at 1/60 seconds.
The beginning of Dr. Paul Wolff
It is said that Dr. Paul Wolff won a Leica camera (serial no 2000) at the Frankfurt Photography Exhibition in 1926. If it is the case, it is a good story and a lucky coincidence, because that camera really did a lot of good for Leica. Another take on the story is that Paul Wolff was one of the persons who got one of the 31 prototypes that Leica made in 1924.
Dr. Paul Wolff (1887-1951) was a prominent German photographer and one of the first to adopt the Leica. Whilst many of his photographs are published, a great deal of his archive burned in 1944 during World War II. He published 25-30 books with his photos from 1914 to 1950, amongst them the book "Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica" ("My experience with the Leica") 1934; there was an exhibiton of the same name the year before) and the "Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica farbig" (1944, "My experience with Leica Color Photography").
Photo by: Willi Klar, 1940.
Dr. Paul Wolff started working with film and photography in Frankfurt in 1919 after he left Strasbourg (he was originally a medical doctor but was not allowed to practice after the war) and established himself as a highly succesful photographer. He partnered with the younger Alfred Tritschler in 1927, and by 1936 they had 20 photographers working in the company "Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler" in Frankfurt.
Paris 1937 by Paul Wolff. Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (25 May to 25 November 1937).
It is not really known if he was paid to use the Leica camera, but he did sell images to Leica and enjoyed personal attention from both Ernst Leitz II and Oskar Barnack. They quickly realized what a gift he was to Leica in convincing the market that small format was the future. He would get new lenses prior to their official release, which he recieved with excitement and used so that Leica had images for the advertisment when the new lenses were released.
"Frau mit Kerze", 1931 by Dr. Paul Wolff. From the exhibition catalog "Paul Wolff Fotografien der 20er und 30er Jahre" from Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum Aachen (March - June 2003).
In 1933 Leitz ordered Dr. Paul Wolff to photograph for the exhibition "Die Kamera" with 40 x 60 cm prints made with the Leica. It was highly succesful when it toured in 1935, it proved that those impossible large prints made from a small negative - were in fact possible and looked great! The exhibition was traveling and accompanied by a slideshow presented by Walther Benser. Soon after Dr. Paul Wolff delivered images for the Leica world tour - the slideshows that hundreds of thousands would attend.
Dr. Paul Wolff photographed for Adam Opel, AG for many years, as well as for Audi. This is a photo from the rare limited book "Opel im Sport 1934" that has 61 photos by Dr. Paul Wolff in it.
In 1934 Dr. Paul Wolff published his first Leica book, "Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica" ("My Experiences with the Leica"). In 1936 he photographed the Olympics which also became a book with Leica images, and in 1940 he published "Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica farbig" ("My Experiences with the Leica Color").
Car advertisment. Dr. Paul Wolff.
A skilled eye
In his book "My Life with The Leica" Walther Benser recalls the period where he would assist Dr. Paul Wolff. Benser was a Leica employee who had gone through the full technical training in Wetzlar and later spent many years traveling with the Leica Slide Show. He recalls:
"Dr. Paul Wolff had skills which I found myself envying. Without any optical aid from the Leica viewfinder in the new (Telyt) reflex housing, he could dissect the surroundings with his naked eye in the search for a suitable subject and position. He invariably picked out the perfect spot for taking the picture with the focal length he had already selected".
"He was a master at keeping his photographic intentions undetected for as long as possible. He never carried the camera in front of his body in the usual manner but kept it, suspended on its strap, hidden behind his back with his right hand. This had become second nature to such an extent that he kept his right hand behind his back even when he was not holding a camera".
The cocktail bar on the Bremen Europa Hamburg-American Line Columbus Express Steamship Cruise, 1936.
What had been called "Barnack's Apparatus" in and around Wetzlar before the official introduction to the market in 1925, was ten years later known by the people as "the minicam". By 1935 six competitiors had followed up with similar cameras, but the Leica pocket camera, the minicam, had become one of the best known precision cameras in the world and had profoundly affected the entire field of photography and newspaper illustration.
Dr. Paul Wolff from the book "Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica" (1939).
In 1935 Dr. Paul Wolff participated with 28 of his Leica prints in an exhibition of "minicam" photos in the Rockefeller Center in New York where more than 5,000 minicam enthusiasts crowded to see the prints from 28 photographers. Apart from that the Leica exhibition of large 60 x 80 cm prints toured several cities in the US that year.
His photographs were also part of the Leica Slide Show that toured Germany and later USA and the rest of Europe. It was before television, so usually thousands or more would gather in a large hall to see the slide show and be blown away by the large projections made from tiny film pieces!
"Barnack's camera," "Barnacks apperatus", or the Ur-Leica as it is called, built by Oskar Barnack in 1912-1913. Other prototypes were made after this one, and finally a limited run of 31 Leica O Series in 1923 to test the waters. It was first really introduced to the market as Leica A at the 1925 spring fair in Leipzig, and then they sold 1,000 the first year.
The LZ 129 Hindenburg Zeppelin by Paul Wolff (1935-1936). This image is now on display at the Leica Camera AG gallery and museum in Wetzlar.
||The 1936 cover of TIME with Adolf Hitler by Dr. Paul Wolff.
The Hitler Photo
Hitler is said to have been a great admirer of Dr. Paul Wolff, though the admiration was not mutual. A photograph of Adolf Hitler by Dr. Paul Wolff did make the cover of TIME in 1936 though. That was when Hitler was still promoting a three-step plan to ensure "peace & freedom" in Germany by building an army.
The photos by Dr. Paul Wolff of Hitler, as well as many other photos used in TIME, were curiously enough distributed by Black Star, which is a photographic and literary agency formed in New York in December 1935 by three German Jews who fled the Nazi regime (Kurt Safranski, Kurt Kornfeld, and Ernest Mayer) and became an important cornerstone in the building of TIME magazine.
Dr. Paul Wolff with Leica 50mm Summar f/2.5, 10 ISO, 1/20 second. From the book "Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica" (1939).
"Pioneer of the small-format camera"
The combination of Dr. Paul Wolff with the small Leica and the new technology of small negative and large print was a goldmine of new possibilities to Dr. Paul Wolff - and a goldmine for Leica.
Dr. Paul Wolff was experimenting, exploring and documenting a new medium. Not only did Dr. Paul Wolff explore the equipment to the fullest - lenses, the film and the possibilities of a camera you could carry in the pocket and use unseen. He also wrote books about the Leica that earned both him and Leica fame outside Germany.
When people complain about noise at 6400 ISO these days, consider how Dr. Paul Wolff worked with 10 ISO film and f/3.5 lenses in 1936. And ejoyed it! For example this photo with a 20 minute exposure:
Leica 35mm Elmar f/3.5, 10 ISO at 20 minutes! From the book "Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica" (1939). Using a Leica Noctilux f/0.95 and a Leica M Monochrom at 3200 ISO the exposure had to be 2 seconds today.
Frankfurt Railway Station by Dr. Paul Wolff, 1926. This one was on auction at the WestLicht 100 Year Leica Auction in Wetzlar, May 23, 2014. Starting price €2,000, sold for € 2,400.
Dr. Paul Wolff print "The View" (Berlin 1928) on auction at the WestLicht 100 Year Leica Auction in Wetzlar, May 23, 2014. Starting price €1,800, sold for €3,600.
Dr. Paul Wolff
Dr. Paul Wolff books
The books Dr. Paul Wolff wrote on using the Leica camera are available on eBay and elsewhere. Some are only in German, but several exist in English as well.
For a rather complete list of books that Paul Wolff has contributed to, as well as the ones where he in fact wrote and illustrated, read this extensive book list by Ed Schwartzreich (2005).
Dr. Paul Wolff, Leica 50mm Summar f/3.0, 10 ISO, 1/4 second. From the book "Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica" (1939).
Dr. Paul Wolff Solo Exhibitions
Leica Gallery Nuremberg - October 5, 2020
Hessen im Fokus - Fotografie gestern und heute - 28 Sep–3 Nov 2006 - Vertretung des Landes Hessen
Hüttenmomente - Im Rahmen der Ausstellung Ferrodrom - Paul Wolff - 25 Apr – 1 Nov 2004 - Völklinger Hütte
Bella Italia - Vintage Fotografien 1931-1934 - Paul Wolff - 6 Aug – 12 Sep 2004 - Galerie argus fotokunst
Fotografien der 20er und 30er Jahre - Paul Wolff - 29 Mar – 22 Jun 2003 - Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum
"Memory exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr. Paul Wolff," 1980 -Leica Gallery in Wetzla
Photo exhibition in the city archives Frankfurt "Frankfurt as it was", 1980
"My experience with the Leica" - black and white enlargements, July 1935 (USA)
"My experience with the Leica" - black and white enlargements, July 1933 (Germany)
Dr. Paul Wolff at the Getty
The J. Paul Getty Museum's collection of Dr. Paul Wolf original prints consist of more than 200 that can be seen at this page when not on display.
Dr. Paul Wolff original prints
As much of the archive burned, few prints are available. Most are unsigned prints made for magazine and books, and often with notes on the back of them how to crop, for which magazine, etc. I bought a handfull in 2013, and I told Andreas Kaufmann (the owner of Leica) that they should do an exhibition and book ... to which Andreas Kaufmann answered that he had alredy bought most of what was available, somewhat 1,000 prints.
Dr. Paul Wolff. 1/20 second
Fake Dr. Paul Wolff prints
I should warn against fake prints on eBay from FINEPHOTO in Tampa, Florida. What they sell for $50 - $100 per "artist approved print" with a "printed certificate" are cutouts from books. So one is served better by buying one of the books for less than $50 than paying $50-$100 per page!
That said, original unsigned prints by Dr. Paul Wolff are in the range of $1,500.
Dr. Paul Wolff.
See my Leica Lens Compendium for more info on the lenses used by Dr. Paul Wolff.