Paul Wolff. “Pioneer of the small-format camera”

It is said that Dr. Paul Wolff won a Leica camera (serial no 2000) at the Frankfurt Photography Exhibition in 1926. If it is the case, it is a good story and a lucky coincidence, because that camera really did a lot of good for Leica. Another take on the story is that Paul Wolff was one of the persons who got one of the 31 prototypes that Leica made in 1924.
Dr. Paul Wolff (1887-1951) was a prominent German photographer and one of the first to adopt the Leica. Whilst many of his photographs are published, a great deal of his archive burned in 1944 during World War II. He published 25-30 books with his photos from 1914 to 1950, amongst them the book “Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica” (“My experience with the Leica”) 1934; there was an exhibiton of the same name the year before) and the “Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica farbig” (1944, “My experience with Leica Color Photography”).
Dr. Paul Wolff started working with film and photography in Frankfurt in 1919 after he left Strasbourg (he was originally a medical doctor but was not allowed to practice after the war) and established himself as a highly succesful photographer. He partnered with the younger Alfred Tritschler in 1927, and by 1936 they had 20 photographers working in the company “Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler” in Frankfurt.
It is not really known if he was paid to use the Leica camera, but he did sell images to Leica and enjoyed personal attention from both Ernst Leitz II and Oskar Barnack. They quickly realized what a gift he was to Leica in convincing the market that small format was the future. He would get new lenses prior to their official release, which he recieved with excitement and used so that Leica had images for the advertisment when the new lenses were released.
In 1933 Leitz ordered Dr. Paul Wolff to photograph for the exhibition “Die Kamera” with 40 x 60 cm prints made with the Leica. It was highly succesful when it toured in 1935, it proved that those impossible large prints made from a small negative – were in fact possible and looked great! The exhibition was traveling and accompanied by a slideshow presented by Walther Benser. Soon after Dr. Paul Wolff delivered images for the Leica world tour – the slideshows that hundreds of thousands would attend.n 1934 Dr. Paul Wolff published his first Leica book, “Meine Erfahrungen Mit Der Leica” (“My Experiences with the Leica”). In 1936 he photographed the Olympics which also became a book with Leica images, and in 1940 he published “Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica farbig” (“My Experiences with the Leica Color”).In his book “My Life with The Leica” Walther Benser recalls the period where he would assist Dr. Paul Wolff. Benser was a Leica employee who had gone through the full technical training in Wetzlar and later spent many years traveling with the Leica Slide Show. He recalls:

“Dr. Paul Wolff had skills which I found myself envying. Without any optical aid from the Leica viewfinder in the new (Telyt) reflex housing, he could dissect the surroundings with his naked eye in the search for a suitable subject and position. He invariably picked out the perfect spot for taking the picture with the focal length he had already selected”.

“He was a master at keeping his photographic intentions undetected for as long as possible. He never carried the camera in front of his body in the usual manner but kept it, suspended on its strap, hidden behind his back with his right hand. This had become second nature to such an extent that he kept his right hand behind his back even when he was not holding a camera”.What had been called “Barnack’s Apparatus” in and around Wetzlar before the official introduction to the market in 1925, was ten years later known by the people as “the minicam”. By 1935 six competitiors had followed up with similar cameras, but the Leica pocket camera, the minicam, had become one of the best known precision cameras in the world and had profoundly affected the entire field of photography and newspaper illustration.In 1935 Dr. Paul Wolff participated with 28 of his Leica prints in an exhibition of “minicam” photos in the Rockefeller Center in New York where more than 5,000 minicam enthusiasts crowded to see the prints from 28 photographers. Apart from that the Leica exhibition of large 60 x 80 cm prints toured several cities in the US that year.

His photographs were also part of the Leica Slide Show that toured Germany and later USA and the rest of Europe. It was before television, so usually thousands or more would gather in a large hall to see the slide show and be blown away by the large projections made from tiny film pieces!The combination of Dr. Paul Wolff with the small Leica and the new technology of small negative and large print was a goldmine of new possibilities to Dr. Paul Wolff – and a goldmine for Leica.

Dr. Paul Wolff was experimenting, exploring and documenting a new medium. Not only did Dr. Paul Wolff explore the equipment to the fullest – lenses, the film and the possibilities of a camera you could carry in the pocket and use unseen. He also wrote books about the Leica that earned both him and Leica fame outside Germany.

Dr. Paul Wolff

Dr. Paul Wolff

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