Camera - - CLASSICS -

The Rollei story is quite typ­i­cal of nearly all the ma­jor Euro­pean cam­era mak­ers – rep­u­ta­tions largely es­tab­lished be­tween the wars in the first half of the 20th cen­tury and mostly built on one very suc­cess­ful model con­cept, fol­lowed by years of com­pla­cency which left them ex­posed to the twin threats of the ram­pant post-WWII Ja­panese cam­era in­dus­try and the devel­op­ment of the mi­crochip. The in­evitable fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties sub­se­quently hob­bled any mean­ing­ful R&D, and then dig­i­tal imag­ing de­liv­ered the fi­nal blow.

Let’s face it, this would al­most cer­tainly have also been the Leica story, but for the in­ter­ven­tion of a well-fi­nanced en­thu­si­ast, and thank­fully for Leica, be­cause the fi­nal decade or so of the orig­i­nal Rollei op­er­a­tion – with a pass-thep­ar­cel pa­rade of own­ers – was painful to watch.

The Rollei name is still in use as the brand is now owned by Ham­burg-based RCP-Tech­nik GmbH & Co. KG which sells a range of badged con­sumer imag­ing prod­ucts in Europe (and, in­ci­den­tally, also holds the rights to the Rollei­flex brand). The last rem­nants of what could be traced di­rectly back to the orig­i­nal Franke & Hei­decke com­pany – which was first es­tab­lished in 1920 – fi­nally dis­ap­peared com­pletely in April 2015. Reinhold Hei­decke and Paul Franke were both young Ger­man engi­neers when they first met while work­ing for Voigtlän­der in 1909. Hei­decke de­vised what was es­sen­tially an ‘up­side-down’ twin lens re­flex (TLR) for use in the trenches of WW1, but it was never pro­duced and so, after the war, he worked on con­vert­ing it to civil­ian use. De­spite the grow­ing post-war de­mand for con­sumer cam­eras, Hei­decke still couldn’t in­ter­est any­body in build­ing his roll­film TLR so he de­cided to go it alone, with the fi­nanc­ing for the new com­pany com­ing from Paul Franke’s fam­ily. As it hap­pens, the first prod­uct from Franke & Hei­decke was a stereo cam­era, launched in 1921 and which used glass plates. A roll­film ver­sion ar­rived in 1923 and was called the Roll­film Hei­deck­eo­scop from which the name “Rollei” was first de­rived. Hei­decke’s TLR fi­nally went into pro­duc­tion in 1928 and, log­i­cally, was sim­ply called the Rollei­flex. It was avail­able with ei­ther an f3.8 or f4.5 75mm Zeiss Tes­sar tak­ing lens and ac­cepted 117 roll­film which was ad­vanced via a wind-on knob and gave six 6x6cm frames.

Sales started in 1929 and by the end of the year the com­pany had back or­ders for 8000 cam­eras, which was enough to con­vince the bank to loan the funds for a new fac­tory. This com­menced op­er­a­tions in 1932 by which time 28,000 orig­i­nal Rollei­flexes had been sold and the first cam­era to be made at the new fac­tory was the 4x4cm ‘baby’ Rollei­flex which used 127 film and had ei­ther an f2.5 or f3.8 60mm Tes­sar tak­ing lens.

How­ever, the most im­por­tant devel­op­ment in this year was the in­tro­duc­tion of the Mk.II 6x6cm Rollei­flex – now known as the orig­i­nal Stan­dard Rollei­flex 620 – which used 120 roll­film to give 12 ex­po­sures. This model also in­tro­duced a lever-type film win­der and had a 75mm f4.5 Tes­sar lens (while the 621 model used a 75mm f3.8 lens).

with a grow­ing num­ber of cheaper Tlrs start­ing to ar­rive on the mar­ket, in 1933 f&h coun­tered with the more af­ford­able rolle­icord which had a Zeiss 75mm f4.5 Tri­o­tar lens and was less than half the price of a rollei­flex. in 1937 the rollei­flex au­tomat was launched and this model pro­vided au­to­matic re­cock­ing of the shut­ter when the ex­posed frame was ad­vanced.

by 1938 300,000 rollei­flexes had been sold, and the 400,000 mile­stone was reached in 1940 al­though by then world war ii slowed prod­uct devel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion. The rollei fac­tory in braun­schweig was dam­aged by raf bomb­ing in 1944 and, at the end of the war, the town was oc­cu­pied by the bri­tish army. how­ever, cam­era pro­duc­tion was restarted on a small scale, with the en­tire output sold to the bri­tish min­istry of defence. in var­i­ous ver­sions, the rollei­flex au­tomat con­tin­ued in pro­duc­tion un­til 1954 and was fol­lowed by the ‘3.5 rollei­flexes’ (so named be­cause they all have an f3.5 tak­ing lens of one type or an­other). The sig­nif­i­cant mod­els were the 3.5e,

“the tlr staYed rollei­flex in vol­ume Pro­duc­tion for 50 Years, and then var­i­ous lim­ited runs kePt it alive for an­other three­and-a-half decades.”

which was the first rollei­flex with a built-in se­le­nium-type light­meter (in­tro­duced in 1956), and the 3.5f (1958) which pro­gressed to a cou­pled light­meter.

a par­al­lel line of rollei­flex 2.8 mod­els com­menced in 1949 with the 2.8a Type 1, which had an 80mm f2.8 Tes­sar lens and was hur­ried into pro­duc­tion pri­mar­ily to com­plete with the has­sel­blad 1600f un­veiled a year ear­lier. The mil­lionth rollei­flex Tlr was sold in 1956. from 1958 to 1976 rollei mar­keted the T-se­ries cam­eras, which were ‘econ­omy’ ver­sions of the 3.5 fit­ted with a 75mm f3.5 Tes­sar lens. when mamiya un­veiled its 6x6cm Tlr with in­ter­change­able lenses, f&h first of­fered the Tele rollei­flex (1959) with a Zeiss 135mm f4.0 son­nar lens and then the wide-an­gle rollei­flex (1961) fit­ted with a Zeiss 55mm f4.0 distagon lens. how­ever, nei­ther model was pro­duced in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers.

in the end, the rollei­flex Tlr in one ver­sion or an­other stayed in vol­ume pro­duc­tion for 50 years, and then var­i­ous lim­ited runs kept it alive for an­other three­and-a-half decades. as far as we can tell, the very last model was the fX-n, launched at Pho­tok­ina 2012 and then es­sen­tially built to or­der by dhw fo­totech­nik (which, in­ci­den­tally, also made its 80mm f2.8 s-apogon Pla­nar hfT lenses).

dhw was founded in 2009 and was the last of a long line of own­ers who tried to re­vive pres­tige cam­era mar­que un­der the rollei and rollei­flex ban­ners. be­fore it was franke & hei­decke gmbh, fein­mechanik und op­tik, formed in 2004 by the neph­ews of the orig­i­nal founders. There was a time un­der sam­sung’s own­er­ship (1995-99), var­i­ous man­age­ment buy­outs and at least two in­vest­ment com­pa­nies tried to make it work too. how­ever, with too many eggs in the in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing medium for­mat pho­tog­ra­phy bas­ket, the po­ten­tial for any prof­itabil­ity was just too small… or, in­deed, non-ex­is­tent.

while the ‘old’ rollei un­doubt­edly basked in the glory of its Tlrs for too long, there were plenty of at­tempts at di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 1960s and 70s with the sl66 and slX 6x6cm slrs, the rollei 35 35mm sub-com­pact, 16mm ‘spy’ cam­eras, a line of slide projectors and the sl35 se­ries of 35mm

SLRs. Rollei even ven­tured into the snap­shooter mar­ket with 126 and 110 cam­eras, but with few of th­ese projects ac­tu­ally mak­ing any money – and the mount­ing debt from a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment in a new man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in Sin­ga­pore – the com­pany was forced to file for bank­ruptcy in 1981. Per­haps a little too much di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion. In most of th­ese new ar­eas, Rollei had sim­ply been be­hind the times, but the SLX (1974) was a pi­o­neer­ing de­sign, be­ing the world’s first al­l­elec­tronic medium for­mat cam­era and well ahead of its time. After the com­pany re­struc­tured in the early 1980s, it re­turned to what it knew best – medium for­mat pho­tog­ra­phy – and the SLX was the ba­sis for a new gen­er­a­tion of ad­vanced 6x6cm SLRs called the Rollei­flex 6000 se­ries which was launched in 1984. The 6006 had in­ter­change­able film magazines with in­ge­nious built-in dark­slides, a mo­torised film trans­port and TTL me­ter­ing with ei­ther man­ual or shut­ter-pri­or­ity auto ex­po­sure con­trol. Sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ments added a full set of ‘PASM’ ex­po­sure modes, a choice of me­ter­ing pat­terns (in­clud­ing multi-spot), TTL flash me­ter­ing, faster con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing and, fi­nally with the 6008AF in 2002, aut­o­fo­cus­ing. For a long time, the 6000 se­ries Rollei­flexes were ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion – even from the Ja­panese – but lim­ited re­sources meant they were never ef­fec­tively mar­keted and didn’t do nearly as well as they should have.

The 6008AF was later es­sen­tially repack­aged in a new body by DHW Fo­totech­nik as the Rollei­flex Hy6 (2012) for dig­i­tal cap­ture backs, but again fi­nan­cial trou­bles stunted the project. Much great po­ten­tial for Rollei ended this way, in­clud­ing back in the early 1980s, the Rollei­flex SL2000F, which was de­signed to bring medium for­mat cam­era mod­u­lar­ity – in­clud­ing in­ter­change­able film magazines – to the 35mm world. It was an­other great idea that failed to fly through lack of fund­ing… imag­ine if this sys­tem had lived long enough to in­clude a full-35mm for­mat dig­i­tal cap­ture back.

So, even if the lat­ter part of the Rollei/Rollei­flex story is pep­pered with ‘what ifs’, noth­ing can de­tract from what be­came one of the most im­por­tant cam­eras of the 20th cen­tury, rank­ing along­side Leica’s 35mm rangefind­ers in hav­ing a pro­found in­flu­ence on pho­tog­ra­phy.

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