Leitz Focomat IIc: The Tiger Tank of Enlargers


This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

It’s now been almost a quarter-century since I regularly worked in the traditional darkroom, and I admit I haven’t kept up with…developments. (It was also customary in the old days to apologize for the pun whenever one used any form of the verb “develop” when talking about film processing or enlarging.)

However it has just come to my attention that a company named Kienzle either built, or is still building, a replica Leitz Focomat IIc enlarger, the Kienzle A69S. The website looks like one from the 1990s—small, inadequate pictures and crude design. It doesn’t make much of the design of the enlarger, which is said to be patterned exactly on the Focomat IIc.

Not to indulge in stereotypes, but if Germany has a reputation for building over-specified, over-engineered, overbuilt mechanical devices to the point of excess, then the Leitz Focomat IIc must be the most German device of any kind that Germans ever made. Maybe next to the Mercedes-Benz 540K and, say, the Tiger tank.

Tiger tank-2

A German-built product only slightly less sturdy and durable than a Leitz Focomat IIc. (Tiger I from the collection of the Tank Museum, Bovington Camp, Dorset, UK. Photo by Simon Q.)

What an enlarger that was. I owned one for three days—I snapped it up on sight from Oak Park Camera because I was helpless to do otherwise, and only came to my senses after I realized it took up two-thirds of the free space in my tiny converted powder-room darkroom. It also took up two-thirds of my cash reserves at the time.

It wasn’t actually the best enlarger I ever used. The reason is something that is little-known any more—different kinds of enlarger light sources had very different kinds of “character” which needed to be factored in to your technique. The Focomat IIc was one of the outlier embodiments of this. Compared to my usual enlarger, prints made from the same negative looked for all the world like they had been taken with a different kind of film!

It wasn’t just the commonly known “cold light head” versus “condenser” enlarger, and the difference was not only contrast. The cold light head was basically a miniature, folded fluorescent tube. There were full and partial condenser arrangements, partial diffusion condensers which paired a large frosted light bulb with condensers, LED light sources, dichroic-style light-mixing boxes, point-source enlargers (which I only ever heard of one photographer using successfully for artwork, although that one was Brett Weston)—even one, the ill-fated SaltHill (which torpedoed the business of my friend and colleague Joe Saltzer) that used a fabric of woven fiber-optic strands. The light source for that one was not even in the enlarger head.

The Focomat IIc was close to a true collimated source, with oversized, superbly made condensers. The flat bottom of the lower one came right into contact with the negative carrier, meaning that the enlarger was merciless about showing grain in the negative as well as flaws and dust on the negative. I wouldn’t like to be stuck with a Focomat IIc as my only enlarger, even if it was working flawlessly; however, the one I briefly owned had a tiny scratch on the bottom of the lower condenser, right in the middle, a spot which had to be included even in 35mm enlargements. Since the enlarger was no longer made by that time and the condenser couldn’t be replaced, the tiny scratch effectively ruined the whole enlarger, which seemed fantastical—talk about an Achilles’ heel!

Soon after, Leitz abandoned medium-format enlargers and created the then-modern V35 in 1979. The V35 was 35mm-only, autofocus, and used a crude but effective light-mixing box for illumination. Autofocus only worked with the supplied 40mm lens, which, fortunately, was a good one, one of the only lenses I ever tested for 35mm enlarging of less than 50mm focal length that was any good. For optical enlarging, “use a 50mm lens or longer for 35mm” is as close as it gets to a Universal rule. Since Leicas were 35mm cameras, it made sense for the V35 to be 35mm-only. The V35 came along after Leica’s prices started heading toward the stratosphere, though, so I never owned one. But I heard good things from owners, as long as they could accept its lack of flexibility.

I can geek out over cameras as cunning, clever, and cool little devices that are pleasing in and of themselves and that elicit pride of ownership. But I could never extend that kind of fond pride to enlargers. (Although I do admit I have a brand new in the box enlarger still slumbering in my basement, as venerated as the mummified remains of a pharaoh. I need to sell that.) And I don’t attach sentimental value to them. Ralph Gibson owns and uses Robert Frank’s old enlarger, and that’s pretty cool. But to me they were always just tools. My technique with enlargers was outstanding; not a brag, just a fact. But I just needed them to do what I needed them to do.

However, if there is ever a “Museum of Cool Stuff,” a pristine Focomat IIc ought to be prominently displayed therein. Not the best enlarger ever built, but the best-built enlarger ever built. That thing was over the top, and a marvel.

Mike

Original contents copyright 2024 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Ken Bennett: “I was an AP stringer for a while early in my career, and there were two Leica Fotomats in the darkroom. Loved using those things, though I wasn’t experienced enough to really understand how good they were.

Mike replies: They might not have been Focomat IIc’s. The Focomat I was far more common and ubiquitous. The Focomat IIc was always rare. Here is a link to a photo of a IIc next to a Ic. As you can see, very different!

Ken replies to Mike: “Thanks for the comment reply, Mike. The ones we used were white and boxy; I think they were V35 models. Like this.”

Mike: Ah, that makes sense.

The reason for the mechanical AF was so you didn’t get caught in that back-and-forth between refocusing and resizing (refocusing changes the projected image size; then you have to readjust the size; then you have to refocus again; and so on). It was really designed for newsroom darkrooms, or wherever speed was of the essence. Not something that amateurs, enthusiasts, artists or hobbyists really need.

     

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