Background & Origins
The saga of the Retina cameras began with August Nagel, a German camera designer who entered his trade in the early 1900s, offering small cameras like the Piccolette (left) in the 1920s. The continuation of his Retina designs would be Kodak products into the early 1970s. Photos are of my collection unless otherwise noted.
By WWI August Nagel had established his own company, Contessa Kamera-werke, and after the war he was successful enough to expand while others were failing, and bought Nettle Kamera-werke. In 1926, he merged Contessa-Nettle with three other firms to form Zeiss-Ikon, which soon became a dominate player in the intentional camera market.
After only two years, Nagel left Zeiss-Ikon in 1928 to form another company, Dr Nagel-Werke. It is said that he was frustrated by working in a large company without autonomy in designing and production of the projects he wanted to pursue. Among his early cameras were medium-format folding plate cameras like the Recomar (right), but he recognized the advantages of roll-firm and of small formats like the Leica 35mm, which was gaining popularity.
Nagel’s first approach was to offer small cameras, but with significantly larger negatives than on 35mm film. He designed several cameras to work with the Kodak 127 film: the Vollenda 48 of 1929 and the Pupille of 1930 (left). Both had collapsible lenses, the Vollenda was a compact folder and the Pupille had a helical-collapsible lens system. These, and his other models were moderately successful cameras, but the Depression was taking a toll on his company.
In late 1931, Kodak negotiated a purchase where Nagel would retain much autonomy, but produce cameras in Germany under the Kodak brand. Many of his designs including the Vollenda 48 (right) , continued a Kodaks. But Kodak also wanted to compete with Leica and Contax in the fine 35mm market. At the time, 35mm cine film was hand rolled into proprietary cartridges in a darkroom, but could then be loaded into cameras in the light, and without the need for paper-backing. The perforations on the cine film allowed the camera to mechanically align the frames, and without the paper backing, more shots could could fit on a roll of film.
In 1934 Nagel came up with two products: one was the 135 Film Cartridge which allowed for factory packaged cartridges which would work in both the Leica (left) and Contax cameras, and the other was the Kodak Retina camera, which was designed to work with this cartridge.
The first model was the Retina Nr. 117 camera, a folding 35mm design, though slightly larger than several of his designs for 127 film. For the next several years, Nagel would improve the Retina series, with new iterations in the Model 1 series of viewfinder cameras. In 1936 the Model II series was launched with a coupled rangefinder on the Nr. 122 camera. In 1954 metering was added with the Model III cameras. By the end of the 1950s, the Retina name was extensively used on non-folding cameras, including simple viewfinders, rangefinders, and a line of single lens reflex cameras.
Retina Nr. 117 – 1934
The first Retina was the Nr. 117 of 1934. At the time the emphasis in 35mm cameras was to be as small as possible, but offer exceptional lenses and stiff frames to create sharp images on the small negatives. It was easier to get sharp photos on large format cameras, so the precision of the lenses was less critical. Leica pioneered the concept of a very high quality lens on a camera using 35mm cine film with the image perpendicular to the cine-convention allowing a significantly larger image, and they used collapsible lenses to reduce the size of the camera. However, as the image to the right shows, the folded Retina offered a smaller footprint than the collapsed Leica Standard, and the lens was protected.
While the Retina was smaller than both the Leica and the even larger Contax cameras, it was not smaller than other folding formats. The Retina Nr. 117 is shown here with the Vollenda 48 a previous Nagel/Kodak design from 1929. Though smaller the Vollenda created a significantly larger negative on 127 size film.
The Nr. 117 and most Retinas in the future would use Schneider Kreuznach lenses, in this case a Xenar 5cm f/3.5 a 4-element Tessar type lens made in Germany. The Xenar was also used on other high end cameras like Rolleiflex and Rolleicord models. While not a top-end lens, the Xenar was competitive with the base lenses for Contax and Leica, Tessar and Elmar respectively, and likely better than most lenses on other small folding cameras. But with both Leica and Contax, buyers could upgrade the the lens choice, and substitute wide angle and longer-distance lenses, as well as faster lenses for low light applications. Retina users had one lens only.
Retina II – Nr. 142 – 1937
Retinette – Type 017 – 1951
This was the fourth version of the Retinette, and the second post war model. I was essentially the same camera as the Retina Nr. 13 but with a economy lens and shutter combination.
Retina IIc – Type 020 – 1954
The IIc was a similar to the Ib (above) with a coupled rangefinder and interchangeable front elements, allowing the camera to have 35mm, 50mm, and 80mm lens lengths.
Retina IIIc – Type 021 – 1954
The IIIc was the top of the line Retina for 1954 adding metering to the features of the IIc