My hometown, Friedrichshafen, is best known for the Zeppelins, but its rich industrial history also includes a camera maker. This was brought to mind when I discovered an Arette camera in a flea market sale in Berlin, of all places. And I set off on a fascinating journey.
“Das Aka” was a common expression during my school years in Friedrichshafen. The 60,000-population town on the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance) was regarded as a place on the lake where you could spend an enjoyable evening. A characteristic building there saw little use, but the local canoeing club had its boathouse there. Many of us did not even know what Aka meant.
AkA Friedrichshafen? Even many locals don’t know
I was aware that the building was once the site of camera production cameras because my father, who was a local, had told me. And because we both sometimes went to a camera repairman, Herr Stetter, who once trained at AkA. This was considered to be a proof of fine craftsmanship.
AkA cameras, however, did not spark my interest at the time. In my younger years, I was a convinced SLR user. Cheap fixed-lens cameras, probably even without an exposure meter, seemed to be something utterly old-fashioned. If a point-and-shoot camera was to be considered, only a modern model with autofocus, winder, and suchlike came within my orbit. Cult status was assigned to the Rollei 35 or a few other cameras. The Aka was nothing to raise interest, period.
AkA? akw? One company, different names
In this article, you may read about AkA, akw, or AkA/akw. This seems confusing, but it isn’t. The company was originally called AkA (Apparate- und Kamerabau Friedrichshafen, upper and lower case in their typography) but changed its name to akw (Apparate- und Kamerawerk Friedrichshafen, abbreviation written by the company itself in lower case) in 1957. So, some cameras of this manufacturer bear the brand AkA and others akw. When the article refers to AkA/akw, the – continuously from 1947 until 1963 existing – company is meant. “Das Aka” finally denominates the premises where the company was located.
From the Bodensee to Berlin and back
All this has changed with my growing interest in the history of photographic technology. And then, I was at Foto Meyer, my favourite supplier during my Berlin years. And a camera from my hometown was there, 800kms away from its birthplace, in the flea-market-styled bargain corner of the second-hand items. Its name was Arette, and the “akw” logo rang a bell. I somehow knew that akw was the later name of the Aka company. €29 and a camera were exchanged, and I decided to take the Arette home, across the country, to the Bodensee (Lake Constance). I loaded it with a Fuji C200 film, which was still cheap when I bought it, and put it into the fridge.
How the Aka Friedrichshafen project took shape
The idea emerged that I could write about this almost forgotten chapter of local history for the Friedrichshafen local section of my newspaper, the SÜDKURIER. While I had no luck with finding people who worked in the small factory (not surprising, it closed for good as early as 1963; the workers must be in their nineties now), I found, via his (German only, sorry) website, Marin Köhler, probably the most notable living expert on the Friedrichshafen-made cameras. He has always lived in town, and although we had never met (we are about the same age), talking to him immediately felt familiar. So, we met at the Aka area on a rainy Sunday morning.
What luck that there is a Martin Köhler with all his knowledge
Martin knows all about the Aka and akw history; here comes the short version:
Aka, he told me, once stood for Apparate- und Kamerabau. A company that abbreviates itself AkA and, after modest beginnings in the Black Forest, moved to Friedrichshafen in 1949 to build cameras for the recovering country with the well-trained staff of the destroyed industrial town. This resulted in remarkable products that deserve a place in any technology museum. Akarelle, Akarette, and Akarex are some of the names of these cameras.
Without Eugen and Max Armbruster, AkA Friedrichshafen would never have existed
Two brothers were at the centre of this exciting chapter in Friedrichshafen’s economic history. Max and Eugen Armbruster, one a rather skilful merchant, the other a talented engineer. “One had the knowledge, the other had the money,” is how Martin Kohler sums it up. During a visit to the Bodensee, according to the expert, Eugen mentioned that he needed space for a production plant.
AkA finds a home – in a spot with a gloomy history
In an early and non-bureaucratic act of the town administration, the young company got a building in a premium location: the former Luftwaffe school on a stretch of shore known as the Seemooser Horn was initially in a miserable condition, but the will to build up the premises was great. AkA soon achieved success: The well-designed, easy-to-use cameras for the inexpensive 35mm film material quickly acquired a good reputation.
Martin Kohler can confirm this from several perspectives. Not only has he been researching the AkA company for many years — later, they renamed it Apparate- und Kamerawerk, AKW or in the logo, akw — he also collects its products. There are probably only a few people in the world who can even approach his level of Aka expertise. And he confirms, after having disassembled, examined and repaired countless cameras made in Friedrichshafen himself: “They were really great pieces of equipment.”
Time plays against AkA Friedrichshafen, the small company
And yet, time was against the intriguing company from Friedrichshafen, which was also making a good name for itself as an exemplary employer. Technologically, AkA/akw could no longer keep up with the big names in the German optical industry — Zeiss, Braun, Voigtländer, Leica. Although the cameras from the Bodensee had some ingenious technical solutions to offer, they were no longer competitive by the late 1950s.
On the horizon, there was already competition from Japan. Japanese manufacturers preferred to use cheaper electronics instead of elaborate mechanics and were initially able to produce at cheap labour costs. In fact, the Japanese managed to almost completely wipe out an industry in Germany that was once so proud but had, with the years, become cumbersome. It was the collapse of the German photographic industry.
Two brothers quarrel, and the company enters a death spiral
But the fact that no cameras have left the Friedrichshafen works since around 1963 also has to do with a quarrel among brothers, Marin Kohler told me. He was once able to talk to many former AkA/akw employees; today, these contemporary witnesses have fallen silent. The research indicated that Eugen Armbruster, the designer, would have liked to enter into a promising partnership with a US company, but his brother Max, the businessman, did not want any foreign capital in the company. It was the beginning of the end.
The last years were rather inglorious. There was no innovation. The mail-order company, Foto Quelle, wanted cheap cameras. akw made the deal, but production was soon unprofitable. In 1960, the company went into insolvency. A rescue firm tried once more with all the existing parts, but in 1963, the company closed down permanently.
At the end of AkA Friedrichshafen a very unusual product emerged
In an ironic twist of fate, the company on its last legs produced a camera that today is one of the rarest post-war cameras from Germany and fetches high collector’s prices: The Wilca by Swedish designer Erik Wilkenson became the last contract manufacturing order for the once proud AkA team.
But now to the products. A complete overview of the AkA/akw cameras, which were also often available with different lenses and shutters, would go beyond the scope of this article. And Martin Kohler has already done an impressive job on his website. I will concentrate on a few important cameras and have some examples of how the pictures look that can still be taken with them today.
It all starts with the Akarette in 1947
The first series worth mentioning is the Akarette. Initially, with the economical film format 24x32mm, the designers soon improved it to a camera for pictures in the “Leica format”. The lenses were interchangeable; some models had several viewfinders for different focal lengths. Apart from the 50mm and a few 45mm standard lenses, various 35mm, 75mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses are known.
Customers could buy an attachable rangefinder as well as many other accessories. The list of camera models is somewhat confusing, and the number of cameras manufactured can only be estimated, but it could have been tens of thousands by 1957 (all in all, AkA/akw produced just over 100,000 cameras between 1947 and 1963).
After a trademark issue with Agfa, which gave its cameras the well-known “-ette” nomenclature, the Friedrichshafen manufacturer Aka changed Akarette to Akarelle. A big series shared the same body, but the individual models received different features. The prices varied considerably between under 100 D-Mark and almost 200 depending on the lens and the presence of a rangefinder or an exposure meter. Keep in mind that a worker’s hourly wage was between 1.60 and two Deutschmark back then.
The Arette A: A modest entry into the world of AkA Friedrichshafen
The camera I found in Berlin was an Arette A, a late model from about 1959. It has a huge 100-per-cent viewfinder and an Isco Göttingen 45/2.8 lens. The latter was the cheaper alternative to the Schneider Kreuznach lenses. The viewfinder is not perfectly bright any more, but it is nice to use all the same with its frame lines and parallax marks. The user will have to guesstimate the distance and the exposure (if you don’t use a separate meter).
The Pronto leaf shutter manages B, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125 and 1/250. This appears to be rather limited today — but with the slow films from the days back then, it was probably enough. In practical use, I noticed that the times were not perfectly adjusted, but the outcome was not that bad on the benign Fuji film.
The films were processed by MeinFilmLab, an excellent lab in Germany, where I send all my colour negative rolls now. Jörg Bergs, the owner, is a real enthusiast and deserves all our support!
With the Arette A on and around Lake Constance — sharpness and resolution are respectable. The film transport needs repair. Photographed on Fujifilm C200.
Impressions from Munich. All scans in this article are minimally processed, with no cropping. Fujifilm C200
You have to estimate the distance, and the lens of the Arette A also has some play. Not for precision fanatics. Fujifilm C200.
The Arette ID, fully featured with rangefinder and exposure meter
The top model of the Arette series was the model ID (later name: DN). This one sports a selenium exposure meter made by Gossen – remarkably precise even 60-something years after production. And it has a rangefinder with a clearly visible patch. The viewfinder is small, and the area within the frame lines is even smaller (one wonders if they planned a model with a 35mm lens), but the Arette ID is fun to use. It features a beautiful Schneider Kreuznach 50/2.8 lens. The fastest speed of the Prontor SVS shutter is 1/300.
One remarkable feature is that you read exposure values from the meter and transfer them. Aperture and speed rings couple once you have set your EV, and the two parameters will change in relation to each other — similar to the exposure control in Hasselblad 500 Series lenses. On the go, users learn the laws of exposure. The Arette ID that I worked with was in a far better state than the model A. And despite the inferior film material I used, the outcome was better. If you want such a camera, expect to spend roughly €100, depending on the condition.
In the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. I would actually have to have the film transport repaired at the ID as well. Photographed on Kodak Ultramax 400
Munich, again. Note also the differences between the pictures above from the Arette A. Of course, focusing is easier with the rangefinder of the ID. But it doesn’t protect you from camera shake either. Kodax Ultramax 400.
On the Akarex, you change the lens with the whole rangefinder
The Akarex III is a different kettle of fish. This is one of the strangest interchangeable-lens rangefinder cameras you can imagine! The rangefinder and the lens are one unit and you exchange them together. The user attaches all this with a kind of plug-in connection with a locking screw ring. This provides the obvious advantage that adjusting is much easier, and you need no frame lines for different focal lengths in the viewfinder.
On the other hand, the whole thing is bulky. The principle did not catch on, and the interchangeable lenses for the Akarex in particular — there were 35s and 90s, for example — are hard to find. The pictures from the Akarex do not have an outstanding reputation. The specimen I have here, unlike the Arette ID, is not in top condition but rather dilapidated. Maybe it will get a chance in the following months; then, I’ll be happy to report here. Good examples cost 200 euros and more.
Would the planned super camera from Friedrichshafen have made even Leica nervous?
Finally, I want to mention the failed “Super” project. The company, by this time named akw, wanted to issue a kind of über-Akarelle with rangefinder, exposure metering, interchangeable lenses and a fast leaf shutter. This would have been serious competition for the Leica with its textile shutter, allowing only 1/50 for flash photography and no exposure metering at all.
However, after Eugen Armbruster had left the company, there was obviously no one to bring this camera to a production level. Only prototypes with limited function were made and presented at photokina. To offer anything, they finally released the Super as a fixed-lens camera with limited functionality (but a clever solution for exposure control with a kind of mechanical program algorithm that controlled both speed and aperture).
A few more cameras were made — an interesting stereo camera and finally the Wilca mentioned above. After 1963, the AkA and akw cameras became dinosaurs, and fancy electronic gear from Japan started to flood the market. At least the name AkA survived for the building. Today, it houses the renowned Zeppelin University and a sports bar for students and the public, aptly named AKA. Maybe Martin Kohler or someone else will succeed in putting a commemorative plaque on the building. It is indeed reminiscent of the cameras that originated from here on the beautiful shores of the Bodensee and, more importantly, of the people who worked here with great knowledge and dedication.
Aka Friedrichshafen — local history of a special kind
And for me? I brought my AkA home, so to speak – and learned a bit about these cameras and my hometown. Perhaps you will come across an Akarette, Akarelle, Akarex or the like. Now you know where it was made. And you know that these seemingly unspectacular cameras are pretty good and deserve to be remembered. Next time I visit Friedrichshafen, I will take the Arette again and show it more of its (and my) hometown.
Do you also have a long-deceased camera manufacturer near where you are living? Or even an active one? Does camera or lens production play a role in your local or family history? Any brand that, like Aka/akw, deserves to be remembered? A personal surprise with a flea market find that turned out to be a pretty good camera? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section!
Read about another long-lost brand, the Ilford Witness, that could have put the Lancashire town of Bolton on the photography map in the same way as Leica did with Wetzlar:
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