Zeiss Ikon is the most storied camera maker in modern history, having products for nearly every photographic segment, as well as film and enlargers. It probably was one of the greatest camera makers in the history of photography, although certainly others would reserve that title for Canon, Nikon or Leica.
It deserves its own page to explain its rich history, which was both all encompassing and chaotic.
Two books have been written about Zeiss Ikon, and a link to them is at the bottom of this page.
The early part of the 20th century saw the flourishing of photography across Europe, and there were numerous camera makers. Many of them were in Germany. In 1926, four of them merged under the auspices of optical company Carl Zeiss to form Zeiss Ikon.
Those companies were:
- Contessa-Nettel (Stuttgart)
- Ernemann (Dresden)
- ICA (Dresden)
- C.P. Goerz (Berlin)
Many of these companies had grown or been formed by mergers, so this wasn’t a unique occurrence.
The merger occurred just before the Wall Street crash, but trouble had been brewing in Germany years before that. The end of World War I didn’t result in a return to prosperity in Germany. In fact, it was the opposite, because the country was severely penalized for its role in the Great War. Combine with a global depression, it created all of the conditions for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the start of World War II.
CARL ZEISS VS. ZEISS IKON
Although “Zeiss” is the name common to both, there is a difference.
- Carl Zeiss produced lenses but not cameras (except in rare instances)
- Zeiss Ikon produced cameras but made no lenses.
Zeiss Ikon operated under the auspices of Carl Zeiss. In modern terms, we would say that Zeiss Ikon operated as a unit or subsidiary of Carl Zeiss. It’s more complex than that, but in simple terms, that’s a good way to put it.
The goal of Zeiss Ikon was to provide a market destination for Carl Zeiss lenses, but it also was seen as “just another customer” to Carl Zeiss and often stood at the back of the line for the Zeiss lenses.
While the flagship 35mm Contax and Contarex cameras were fitted with premium Planar and Biogon lenses, its lesser models never saw anything better than a Tessar. That includes the Contaflex, Super Ikonta and Ikoflex twin-lens reflex cameras – which were still being produced when Planars were available.
Those lenses were reserved for other customers, such as Hasselblad and Franke & Heidecke (maker of the Rolleiflex), and it’s likely that those companies paid a premium price.
However, to complicate this discussion, Zeiss Ikon was allowed to source lenses from other producers for triplets, as well as instances in which Carl Zeiss was unable to meet demand. That’s why you’ll see Schneider-Kreuznach lenses on some Zeiss Ikon cameras.
Just as a reminder, Carl Zeiss is the lens maker, and Zeiss Ikon is the camera maker.
A CAMERA FOR EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER
Unlike other camera makers, Zeiss Ikon was a full-service company. It sold cameras to amateurs and professional photographers. It had box cameras, folding cameras, press cameras, single-lens reflex, twin-lens reflex, viewfinder, rangefinder and movie cameras. No other company had the depth and breadth of products. It also had a line of roll film, light meters, filters and other accessories, as well as photographic enlargers.
While other cameras might have had products in one or two markets, none had the Zeiss Ikon catalog. Ironically, this marketplace proliferation likely led to the demise of Zeiss Ikon.
The end of World War II and the division of Germany into the Western and Soviet zones created two Zeiss Ikon companies for a short time. Eventually, it was settled in the court, and Zeiss Ikon of the West was able to continue with its name, while Zeiss Ikon of the East was forced to rebrand and became Pentacon.
However, Carl Zeiss AG (West Germany) and Carl Zeiss Jena (East Germany) continued to exist until the unification of Germany in the late 1990s, when Carl Zeiss AG reunified with its Jena counterpart. Quick note: Carl Zeiss Jena produced the Werra line of cameras, which have its own unique story.
Meanwhile, Zeiss Ikon produced great cameras – three folding 35mm cameras: Ikonta/Contina, Contina II and Contessa. Alongside this, folding medium format cameras returned with the Ikonta and Super Ikonta range, plus the Ikoflex twin-lens reflex models.
Around that time was the arrival of the Contax IIa, a rethinking of its top-of-the-line 35mm rangefinder. Soon, the Contaflex SLR entered the lineup followed by the professional level (and massive) Contarex.
In between was a succession of other cameras, the Ikonette, lesser-quality Continas and the absorption of Voigtlander that produced Voigtlander-branded models alongside Zeiss Ikon-branded counterparts. Some were excellent, while others were forgettable.
The folding medium format camera saw some lesser models in the Nettar line.
By the 1970s, Zeiss Ikon collapsed under its own weight of trying to serve far too many market segments with far too many products. The greatest name in photography passed from the scene and is mostly forgotten today.
- Zeiss Ikon Cameras 1925-39, D.B. Tubbs, Hove Collector Books
- Zeiss Ikon Compendium, Marc James Small and Charles Barringer, Hove Collector Books
- Article on the Carl Zeiss website, “A compendium of the history of ZEISS cameras,” 2014