Camera Geekery: Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta II by John Kossik
John Kossik has been a contributor to the site for a few years now, so it is always nice to hear what he is up to. This time John has been busy bringing another classic camera to life. Here is his story of the Zeiss Ikonta.
I belong to a camera club here in the Seattle area, Puget Sound Photographic Collectors Society.
Periodically they purchase from estate sales collections of cameras and related equipment and then have sales to their members. The wonderful items present on the shelves at these sales in one of the member’s garage/barn is truly amazing, to those of us that still value mechanical craftsmanship.
There I found this Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta II or 533/16 which I purchased for if I remember $75 to $100. The shutter worked, especially at the higher speeds, the focusing mechanism was stiff but working and the viewfinder was usable, but barely due to clouding. There was no question that I was going to purchase some Zeiss folders at this sale as a number were there, but this one caught my eye as it was one of the first of its kind that had a light meter, though the selenium had long since been exhausted.
The decision to purchase this specific camera was monumental indeed because of its history I would soon become engrossed in.
Though similar to the Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta B (532/16) that I purchased a number of years ago and rebuilt, collimating the lens on this model is something of a test of patience, this 533/16 was different in that it had a light meter. Though I have rebuilt a Ikonta B, Ikonta C, Agfa B2 Speedex (Link here), and Voigtlander Bessa F/6.3 (Link here) prior, I thought the light meter as well as the very cloudy viewfinder might be too much for me to handle. Especially since the rest of the camera looked in such good shape.
I decided I needed the services of a true craftsman. For this I contacted Henry Scherer of Zeiss Ikon Contax Camera Repair (www.zeisscamera.com).
As I found out this was one of the best and only places in the world to send such a mechanical device, and in my opinion Henry is a craftsman in a class all his own.
Henry only does full restorations as any craftsman would do and it short his work is impeccable. Not only did he clean and restore the mechanical elements of the camera and repaired the selenium light meter, as he noted would now be “good for another 50 years,” but also repaired the viewfinder and prism as it was clouded by the cement used at the time made out of a “natural tree sap called Canada Balsam.”
The pictures here show the camera with its integral light meter returned to the condition as it left the production facility. More on that later. You can also see the sharpness of this lens, I am told very sharp for its time, in the accompanying sample image.
What’s the special? Chicken of course! But this is not where this story ends, it is actually only where it begins as the story of its origins provide a tremendous window into history.
First a little about the detail of how these Zeiss cameras were made. To access the prism the top of the camera must be removed. In Henry’s words:
“In order to take the top off of your camera it’s necessary to remove some leather that covers the joints. The leather used on the super is ultra thin super high quality leather that cannot be found today. The only way to remove it without damage is to soak it in a special solvent for about an hour.
When the finest leather is tanned the process involves treating the leather with a special trade secret fish oil. I’ve found only one solvent that will dissolve the shellac based glue used to attach the leather but not solvate and remove the special oil Zeiss used to tan its leather. Due to the press of environmental regulations its manufacture was discontinued about 20 years ago.
Fortunately I was able to purchase a lifetime stock before it all disappeared. Some people try acetone, heat, water, lamp oil, gasoline and every other thing only to find they’ve ruined the leather because once that special tanning oil is gone the leather is ruined and cannot be brought back.
The one thing many people never learn is that every part in every Zeiss camera is designed to the highest possible degree and every part is made of materials so fine there is no way to duplicate them today. It is impossible to buy leather, even from the oldest and best leather tanner on Earth (Hewett and Sons in Scotland), that is nearly as good as the leather Zeiss used on every Super it ever made. Even the finest leather thinners in England could not shave the finest leather that money can buy to the same thinness as was put onto your Super.”
Pre-War – Post War
So we know that Henry knows his stuff, but he also knows the history of this company and its craftsmen that is sustained in this device. Upon my shipment of this camera to Henry and his initial examination of it, this is where the story gets interesting, a story that goes far beyond that of a high quality mechanical device, a story that is quite simply the story of a people in crisis. In Henry’s initial words when he had a chance to look at the camera:
“Your camera is a pre-war body with a post-war shutter and coated lens assembly on it. The serial number of the lens is very early. This appears to me to be a factory job. Germany was still in very bad condition economically and people at the Zeiss factories were still hungry and living in the basements of bombed out buildings at the time this camera was made. It doesn’t surprise me that a good spare pre-war body would be used to make a camera that could be sold for dollars to buy food for Zeiss workers and their families. This camera is an extremely rare thing.”
According to Henry the serial number on the lens was one of the earliest he had ever seen for a post-war model. Even though early he also noted the sharpness of the lens, though considering its historical significance the sharpness of the images it can capture are secondary. But there is more to what this camera has “seen” and the craftsman’s hands that it passed through on its journey. From a subsequent email:
“There was a huge and very severe famine in Germany after the war that killed about 3 million Germans. Because of this camera production was a top priority. Many early post war production cameras were sold to occupation servicemen for dollars or in exchange for valuable items that could be sold on the black market. Many early post war cameras were brought home by servicemen.
The original dead photocell in your camera is from the 1930’s. Your camera was made out of a pre-war body and a very early post war lens was put onto it. At the time your camera was made the workers at the Oberkocken factory where the lens was made were living in trailers. It was a very primitive time at Zeiss then.”
One can now start day-dreaming of these workers assembling this and other cameras of its type in those difficult times just after the war.
The self-timer lock button and the prism were defective on this camera, both of which Henry expertly fixed with the help of some modern epoxy. In his explanations to me of the technical details of these small fixes he adds some more details of camera and the history of incalculable value it brings down to us.
“Your camera is an immediate post-war camera made out of a pre-war body and a post war lens and the lens is coated by wartime coating technology. I have no doubt that both the defective self-timer lever assembly and the defective prism were in the camera when it was assembled, probably in early to middle 1946. I’ve seen a lot of these immediate post-war cameras and they all have defects that made them not eligible for sale at the time they were made.”
“I’m sure what happened is the Zeiss factory employees, seeing the war was going badly and knowing bad ones were certain to come, took the precaution of emptying the factories of everything that could be used to produce income in the post war period and I’m sure that by that time most of what could be picked up was defective goods. I’m certain your camera was one of these desperation cameras. It was also certainly taken by a Zeiss employee from the Jena works in the Soviet occupied Jena factory where it was made to the newly established Oberkocken factory in the U.S. Occupied Zone.
I’m sure it would be a fascinating story it could tell if only it could talk.”
Is there really anything else that can be added?
The only thing I can do is to keep capturing life’s important monuments with this camera in order to honor the memory of those who desperately assembled it and probably sold it to an American serviceman so that they could try to rebuild their lives.
Mill Creek WA
Thank you, John. Another wonderful resurrection story. It sounds like you picked up a very important historical camera there.
John has been a regular contributor to the site over the years. You can read more of his articles here.