Ivor Matanle traces the history of a range of folding 35mm cameras made in Germany
THE KODAK Retina, the world’s first folding 35mm camera, had been an icon of what was then called miniature photography throughout the latter part of the 1930s. The Second World War proved only to be a brief interruption to the supply of these much admired folding precision cameras to most of the world. However, as with all other relatively expensive cameras, UK import controls made new Retinas more or less unavailable in Britain during the late 1940s and early ’50s. This limited the extent to which the ‘a’ models of the early 1950s became known and loved by British photographers. Only during the late 1950s and early ’60s, when a substantial number became available second-hand, along with the ‘b’, ‘B’, c’ and ‘C Retinas of the later 1950s, did the Retina la and lla become fully appreciated.
In the early 1960s, many Retina enthusiasts sought the more complex later models, as many collectors and users still do. Most traditionally minded Retina lovers preferred the ‘a’ models. They were, in practice, much-refined developments of the pre-war cameras, with lever wind, self-cocking shutters and coated lenses. They provided all that the earlier cameras had offered, but with greater reliability and improved optical performance. For many enthusiasts, including me, the la and lla became the Retinas of choice.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Retina cameras were manufactured in the former Nagel camera factory in Stuttgart, Germany, bought by Kodak during December 1931, after which Dr Nagel ran the business and developed the new 35mm range for Kodak. His first Retina, launched in 1934, was the black and nickel Type 117, now rare and valuable if in near-mint edition, but surprisingly available in its more typical well-worn condition. Fitted with a 50mm f/3.5 Schneider Xenar with a Compur or Compur Rapid shutter, it had a rewind-release clutch in the centre of the film-wind knob and a separate film-advance release knob next to the knob, which are important distinguishing features. A succession of further non-rangefmder Retina models, each with its own Type number, followed through the ’30s.
In 1936, the launch of the Retina II, the first Retina with a coupled range-finder, introduced model numbers to the range. Consequently, the third version of the original non-rangefmder Retina, also launched in 1936, became known as the Retina I Type 119. This camera, still black, introduced the ‘stepped’ top-plate.
The Retina II was a major advance in terms of versatility on the Retina I, especially in those days of comparatively insensitive or slow films, which made wide-aperture lenses extremely useful. Although available with э 50mm f/3.5 Ektar four-element lens, it was more often sold with an f/2.8 Schneider Xenon or a 50mm f/2 Xenon.
The various versions of the Retina II were extremely compact, if a little heavy for their size, and could easily be carried in a coat pocket.
Dr Nagel died in 1943 and the Kodak AG factory in Stuttgart was bombed by the Allies in 1944, so it was a much-changed and hastily rebuilt Kodak AG that started manufacturing the Retina I again in November 1945. The 1945 Retina I Type 010 was essentially the same as the Type 148 of 1939-41, although there are tiny differences, which are important to collectors.
However, it was, for the first time in a Retina, offered with the option of a coated lens — a 50mm f/3.5 Xenar. Despite that, most were sold with uncoated lenses from a considerable range of options, including the Xenar, Ektar, Kodak Anastigmat and Rodenstock Ysar. The Type 010, which still had the stepped top-plate, lasted until 1949, when it was replaced by the Retina Type 013, the first non-rangefinder Retina with a top-plate that was the same height either side of the viewfinder. This version was eguipped with flash synchronisation.
The coupled-rangefinder Retina cameras reappeared in 1946 as the Retina II Type Oil, which was similar to the pre-war Type 150, but always marked ‘Retina II’, All postwar Retina II cameras have f/2 lenses, the great majority Schneider Retina-Xenons, Some were fitted with the Rodenstock f/2 Retma-Heligon and some sold in the USA were fitted with 50mm f/2 Ektars. In 1949, the Retina II Type 011 sprouted a film-type reminder dial under the rewind knob and a new semi-circular focusing knob, later to become familiar on the la and lla cameras. This model, christened the Retina II Type 014, was synchronised for flash and lasted until 1951.
That year, 1951, was a landmark year for Retina enthusiasts, introducing the la and lla, Types 015 and 016 respectively. That is the accepted ‘official’ version the story. However, Ken Rockwell in the USA says on his website (www.kenrockwelfcom/kodak/retina-la.htm) that he has a December 949 issue of Modem Photography in which the Retina la is advertised both new and second-hand, which does not tie in with the accepted ore. I know that there was з pre-war version of the Retina II Type 150 (with knob wind) engraved on the top’Retina lla’, but I have never encountered an equivalent non-rangefinder anomaly.
As compact as the original Retina I and II, the la and lla had a neat, smooth and effective lever-wind, which both cocked the shutter and wound the film, thereby making them substantially faster to use. Both models had camera-strap eyelets, making it possible to hang the camera around the neck without using a case.
For the first five months of production, both the la and the lla were equipped with a flash-synchronised Compur Rapid shutter, but from the end of 1951 they had the XM synchronised Synchro Compur, providing switchable synchronisation for bulbs (M) or electronic flash (X) The lla cameras illustrated here, one with a 50mm f/2 Xenon (page 63) and the other with an f/2 Heligon lens (page 64), both have Synchro Compur shutters.
The la was supplied fitted with any of three different lenses: a 50mm f/3.5 coated Retina-Xenar, a 50mm f/2.8 Retina-Xenar, or a 50mm f/3.5 Ektar The Ektar-equipped version is quite scarce in the UK — Bryan Whitworth’s example on page 64 will be sold on 21 November at Special Auction Services in Newbury, Berkshire. The lla was usually fitted with a beautiful factory-coated f/2 Retina-Xenon lens, but some had an f/2 Rodenstock Retina-Heligon. These are scarce, are sought after by collectors and cost as much as £50-5100 more than the £95 or so that a decent, but not mint, Xenon-equipped lla will cost retail.
The la and lla were marketed only until 1954. Both types are now fairly common, although (surprisingly) the lla with Xenon is easier to find on eBay than a la, particularly if you want one that looks nice.
Kodak marketed a considerable number of accessories for the la and lla, to which was notably added the rare non-Kodak ч Synchrometer This converted non-rangefinder I and la cameras to coupled-range-finder specification. The Kodak accessory range included a nice dose-up range-finder with matched ‘N’ lenses (Nl, Nil, Nlll) In a fitted leather case, a black plastic 32mm push-on lens hood for either la or lla, and a range of unusually thin filters that enabled the camera door to be closed when a filter was in place. There was also a metal frame viewfinder for just the 50mm lens.
HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?
I recently bought a decent butfai-from-mint la with f/3.5 Xenar (in my experience a better lens in use than the f/2.8 Xenar) from the Real Camera Company in Manchester for £30, but apart from that can only quote recent eBay sales as guidance-expect prices from retailers to be rather higher.
Judging from recent eBay auction sales, my view is that a fait price for a fully operational lla with Xenon/Synchro Compur is about £75. Ask really searching questions before you buy. A typical price for a la with f/2.8 Xenar/ Synchro Compur Is about £25. A first-version la with Compur Rapid in nice condition would cost more because of rarity, as will (in the UK)