No self-respecting Leica owner has visited the town of Wetzlar, some 75km north of Frankfurt, without attempting to reproduce Oskar Barnack’s iconic photograph of the Eisenmarkt. He snapped the marketplace, including the ancient structure known as The Old Mint, with the Ur Leica and a 42mm fixed Mikro Summar lens in 1914. It is said to be the first photograph ever taken with a Leica, although this is unlikely. But it is certainly one of the best known images among Leica aficionados, and we can feel ourselves fortunate that not much has changed in the past 110 years. This is still clearly the same location.
Many readers of Macfilos will be very familiar with the story of the Ur Leica and the background to this first picture (at least, the first picture we know about). Even seasoned visitors cannot resist the temptation to reproduce the famous shot and then crop it to look as near as possible to the original. But I make no apologies for regurgitating something so familiar to many readers. Be patient, because there will be new readers who don’t know the story.
Fortunately, finding the spot where Oskar Barnack took this photograph is now foolproof. No need to guess (because you’d probably guess wrong).
The Oskar Barnack commemorative ‘plaque’
In 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of Barnack’s iconic snap, the mayor of Wetzlar inaugurated a commemorative person-hole (né manhole) cover which puts you right on the spot. No more excuses for being slightly off.
Dominating the scene before your lens is the fairy-tale 16th-century structure, Zur Alten Münze, named after the mint that previously occupied the site on the old “Iron Market”.
The opening photographs, above, show two shots side by side. On the left is Oskar Barnack’s original from the Ur Leica, on the right is my most recent attempt using the only camera I had with me, the Leica Q3 (or, as they say in those parts, the Ku-drei). The ku’s wider 28mm lens obviously offers a different perspective, although the overall impression is very similar.
For comparison, above is the full frame from the Q3, in colour for a change, which covers the wider area. The black-and-white shot below it, taken by our William Fagan five years ago, comes from a 35mm Summicron. William says he “tucked it in a bit” to try to make it more like the output from the 42mm Summar. For my Q3 shot, there was a great deal of tucking to be tucked.
Spot the difference
What is not immediately apparent from the latest Q3 shot is the result of 110 years of optical development. As Leica’s lens guru Peter Karbe never tires of telling us, the excellence of modern Leica lenses encourages cropping. Taking Peter’s advice, what can we see on the Old Mint house if we zoom in from my 2023 image? Quite a lot, as it happens.
While the left-hand side of the inscription somewhat difficult to decipher, the major part is easily recognised. It’s in 16th-century German, of course.
Zur alten Muntz ist dies Haus genannt / Gott behuts vor Fewer unt vor Brant AO MDLXXXXVIII
Zur alten Münze ist dies Haus genannt / Gott behüt’s vor Feuer und vor Brand AO 1599
And then, in English:
This house is called The Old Mint / God protect it from fire. AD 1599
Of course, with a longer lens or a shorter distance between lens and subject, reading the carved words presents no problem. If you really wanted a record of that carving, you would make other arrangements. But, for a 28mm lens at such a distance, this is a remarkable testimony to the optical excellence of the f/1.7 Summilux — a lens that has remained unmodified since it was introduced on the first Leica Q in 2015.
A must-take image for Oskar Barnack fans
Finally, the picture of Eisenmarkt and the Old Mint House, has become something of a Leica cliché. It’s probably equivalent to having your photograph taken in front of a red London telephone kiosk or the so-called Big Ben. Yet, there are far fewer pictures taken the other way around, looking up the Brodschirmstraße in the direction of the Wetzlar cathedral. I did an about-turn on the cast iron to bring you the view from Eisenmarkt…
The old town of Wetzlar is delightful, and well worth a visit, even without the enticing prospect of touring the factory and visiting a Leica camera store or two. You can choose from the impressive company owned Leica Store on Leitz Platz (which is a larger version of your local example) or the far more interesting and individual Leica Store Wetzlar Altstadt. This is owned by one of the world’s foremost authorities on vintage Leicas, Lars Netopil. Find him near to Eisenmarkt at No.4 Baugasse. Check the opening times, though, which are mostly in the afternoons, Monday to Friday.
Have you been to Wetzlar and did you take The Picture? Or are you planning a visit to the Leica Factory in the near future? Better find a 42mm lens…
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