I’ve always been an optics junkie, and the years haven’t softened my enthusiasm, especially for German optics. Nothing allows you to gather as much information as your sense of sight, and anything you can use to enhance that sense certainly seems worth pursuing.
And what do we really know about history prior to the advent of photography in 1826? What did Shakespeare actually look like? How about Christopher Columbus? The dinosaurs? Without photographs, we don’t really know, do we?
So, let’s get to the subject of today’s column — a giant of German optics, if somewhat forgotten today: Voigtlander.
As it happens, Voigtlander wasn’t even started in Germany but rather Austria. Born in Leipzig in 1732, Johann Voigtlander was a gifted instrument maker who began his career in Vienna. By the age of 30, his skills had come to the attention of the Habsburg monarchy, where he was granted special dispensation to set up his own workshop.
He is credited with a number of early inventions, including an assortment of high-precision gauges, measuring devices and machines. By the time of his death in 1797, the Voigtlander company was a substantial concern with interests that stretched throughout the Habsburg empire.
It turned out that the Voigtlander clan was filled with capable entrepreneurs, and the company continued to thrive as a family business throughout the first half of the 19th century. Its big break came around 1840 with Peter Voigtlander (grandson of Johann) at the helm. Peter was among the first to recognize the potential of photography and steered the firm in that direction. Under his tutelage, the company’s tradition of innovation continued with the introduction of the first portrait lens, all-metal daguerreotype camera and the photographic plate camera.
With Austria in turmoil a decade later, Voigtlander relocated to Germany and over the next century become a major powerhouse in the field of photography. Inventions and innovations continued, including all manner of lenses and accessories still in use today.
In 1898, the company changed its name to Voigtlander & Sohn A.G. Twenty-five years later, the firm was acquired by photochemical giant Schering A.G. and production expanded dramatically. In 1956, the Carl Zeiss Foundation purchased Voigtlander, later selling it to others. Hard times eventually followed, and today the Voigtlander name is licensed by the Japanese firm Cosina.
These days, Voigtlander lenses and cameras have seen a resurgence as many photography purists are returning to film rather than digital imagery. There are more than a dozen different Voigtlander lenses still available, most for standard 35mm SLR cameras, plus nearly as many camera models. As with most things made in Germany before and after the war, their quality is first-rate. Better yet, the digital and phone camera revolution has knocked prices of premium film cameras down to the peanut level. Film is readily available online as are places to get it developed. If you’re looking for a new hobby or just appreciate holding a high-precision instrument, you can hardly do better than Voigtlander.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he’s the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected].