The following was written by Rolf Fricke, noted Photographic and Leica Historian. His many accomplishments include his achievement as one of the founders of LHSA , the Leica Historical Society of America. Copyright 1997 Rolf Fricke, all rights reserved. He writes of Walter Kluck:
A tribute to Walter Kluck, 1922-1996
Oskar Barnack invented the Leica camera in 1914. Ernst Leitz II marketed it in 1925. Ludwig Leitz and Willi Stein updated it with the Leica M3 in 1954. Walter Kluck saved the Leica M line from extinction in 1976. It is because of Walter Kluck that the M-Leica is alive and well today.
M-series rangefinder Leicas flourished until the seventies, when Japanese single-lens-reflex cameras reached a dominant level of popularity among photographers, thus reducing the demand for rangefinder cameras. Lower quantities and rising manufacturing costs made production of rangefinder Leicas uneconomical in the historical town of Wetzlar, Germany, the traditional home of the Leica. This led to the painful decision to discontinue Leica rangefinder cameras, retaining only the new line of Leicaflex cameras. The end of Leica M camera production in Wetzlar would, in turn, trigger the cessation of Leica M lens production in Midland.
That decision was about to be implemented when Walter Kluck, the enterprising president of Ernst Leitz Canada Limited, vigorously campaigned for the transfer of Leica M4 camera production to Canada. Leica M lens production accounted for a major portion of Leitz Canada’s business, and its cancellation would mean serious difficulties for that company. The manufacture of other optical products (like military and specialty optics) was still too small to absorb the cancellation of Leica M lenses.
Besides, Kluck was totally loyal to Leitz, and he firmly believed in the Leica M system. He was also deeply concerned with protecting the jobs in the Midland plant, so he did what only a courageous manager would dare to do in such a situation - he forged ahead.
Leitz Canada already had ample experience in assembling Leica cameras from imported parts and Kluck had a unique talent for estimating costs with remarkable accuracy. He could pick up a prototype lens, examine it, ask a few questions and then estimate the cost of producing it, which usually turned out to be very close to the value carefully computed by professional cost analysts.
Kluck’s research indicated that labor costs were sufficiently lower in Canada to justify moving Leica M camera production to Canada. But Leitz Wetzlar management, well known for its conservative attitude, was skeptical and suggested a precaution: they would approve if Kluck could prove that he could sell at least 4000 such cameras per year. Thereupon the personable and persuasive Mr. Kluck embarked on a fast tour of selected photo dealers in Canada, USA, Germany, Switzerland and Japan (Japan was a great supporter!) to ask them how many Canadian-made Leica M4 cameras they would buy at the anticipated new price. To his delighted surprise, more than 9000 cameras were ordered -- and permission was granted to transfer Leica M4 production tools to Canada.
The result was the Canadian-made Leica M4-2, introduced in 1976. Basically similar to the classic German-made Leica M4, it had the new features of a hot shoe for convenient flash synchronization and the capability of accepting a motor winder.
It was followed in 1980 by the Leica M4-P, now with brightline frames for six (instead of four) focal lengths in the viewfinder (two at a time) that were activated automatically when the respective lens was attached to the camera.
In the meantime, Canadian manufacturing costs had gradually escalated and the Dollar/Mark exchange rate had become less favorable, so that the next model, which was developed with the strong support of Walter Kluck in the expectation of producing it in Canada, ended up being manufactured back in Germany. That new model, the Leica M6, was introduced in 1984 and it still flourishes today, after 14 years with various internal improvements and interesting cosmetic variations (black chrome, silver chrome, titanium, gold, platinum, even a diamond-studded version for the Sultan of oil-rich Brunei). It is a great credit of the vision and perseverance of Walter Kluck that the M-line of Leica cameras is so successful today. As a result, a respectable portion of today’s business of Leica Camera AG of Germany and a good number of its jobs owe their existence to Walter Kluck.
But who was Walter Kluck? In reviewing Mr. Kluck’s background, it stands out that he was a dynamic man who enjoyed a remarkably eventful life, who had an innate ability to conquer adversity and who devoted a generous amount of his time and expertise to community projects in his adopted country of Canada.
Walter Gerhard Kluck was born in Berlin on 24 August 1922. He attended high school there and he studied precision mechanics and radio communication at that city’s Gauss Engineering College. Before completing his education, he was drafted and served as an instructor for broadcast communications and navigation at a German air force base in Lyon in occupied France. Eventually, that base and all its planes were destroyed by an allied air raid. Walter Kluck survived unharmed and was transferred to an infantry division near Danzig (now Gdansk) on the eastern front. There he suffered a shrapnel wound in the neck and after a harrowing voyage by sea and land he was assigned to a hospital in Berlin for treatment. That hospital sent him to another hospital for x-rays and when he returned, his original hospital had been largely destroyed, with many casualties from yet another bombing raid. During that stay in Berlin, he had an emotional reunion with his parents, who had been informed that he was missing in action. Kluck was sent back to the eastern front and he saw action in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The final days of the war found his unit making a dash for the American lines. He became a prisoner of war in an American camp, where he worked his way up as an interpreter, driver and switchboard operator. He was released in good standing in August 1945, given some food and clothing and he was even driven to Fechenheim near Frankfurt. With his innate luck, after only one day - the only day in his life that he was ever unemployed, as he proudly claimed - he found a job there as an interpreter for the American administrators of the I.G. Farben Cassella works.
In early 1946 he met Lilli, his wife-to-be, at a dance. She herself had seen grim service as a German army nurse on the Russian front and she had worked as a prisoner of war in a Russian military hospital. They were married in April 1950.
Work at the Cassella plant became rather boring and Kluck was lucky once again in finding a new job late in 1946, this time at the Frankfurt Barter Center, one of several such centers set up by the occupation forces to counteract the black market and to facilitate the exchange of any type of goods, including badly needed food and clothing. Anybody could bring in anything of value, have it appraised in terms of “barter units” that were comparable to or better than black market rates, and which could then be used to acquire whatever was needed.
This was the key turning point in Walter Kluck’s professional life, because Günther Leitz, one of the three Leitz brothers who managed the family-owned firm of Ernst Leitz GmbH Wetzlar, came in one day in 1947 with some Leica equipment, looking to barter it for a refrigerator and other items. Kluck happened to be the contact, and Mr. Leitz was so impressed with the versatile young man that he hired him to work at Leitz Wetzlar. He must have made a good impression, because only one year later, in 1948, he was entrusted with setting up Saroptico, a small Leitz manufacturing plant in the Saar territory, then under French administration, where he remained until 1952. This plant assembled and updated screwmount Leica cameras (“Monté en Sarre”) and it produced Leitz table tripods, ball-and-socket heads and Saron projection lenses for Bolex projectors.
The cold war was in progress in 1951, and Leitz management, faced with the worrisome possibility that the Soviets could be at their doorstep in half an hour, began looking for a site for a subsidiary in another country. Canada was chosen, and Walter Kluck’s linguistic talents once again were extremely useful when he was asked to serve on the team that eventually selected Midland from among three qualifying locations. Construction of the Ernst Leitz Canada Limited plant began in 1952, and Walter Kluck moved there with his family, along with a small group of experienced Leitz optical and mechanical craftsmen. He served as sales manager and assistant to Günther Leitz, who was the first president of that facility. Later on Walter Kluck was appointed Vice President and member of the board of management. In January 1975 he was named general manager and in the summer of 1975 he was designated president (i.e. CEO) of the Canadian Leitz subsidiary. Kluck’s ability to grasp technical matters and his extrovert personality were ideally suited for the task of generating business for the factory, and government, defense, commercial orders grew at a very healthy rate. There was a period when Leitz Canada, thanks to an extraordinarily competent design team developed and produced more different Leica lenses, both M and R, than Leitz Wetzlar! Kluck officially retired in 1980, but he was back in the office virtually every day as a consultant for many more years, during which he “retired” several more times....
Walter Kluck was also a very active member of the Midland community, serving on the boards of Midland hospital, the high school, the town planning committee, and the YMCA, of which he was vice president. He was also a member of the Midland Chamber of Commerce, and he actively supported the Wye Marsh Wildlife Center (an ecological preserve) and the Huronia Museum.
The Leica Historical Society of America was privileged to enjoy lively and very informative historical presentations by Mr. Kluck at its annual meetings in Louisville, Kentucky in 1976 and in Columbus, Ohio in 1993.
The company has changed ownership several times and today it is thriving under the name Elcan Optical Technologies Limited, a Division of Raytheon. It was Walter Kluck who had coined the trademark “ELCAN” around 1960 (from Ernst Leitz Canada
), which is also the brand name of its extensive line of specialized lenses, and that name now preserves the heritage of that vigorous enterprise.
Walter Kluck, an enterprising and resourceful man and an outstanding member of his company and of the community in his adopted country, passed away on 26 November 1996 at the age of 74 after a short illness while vacationing in Seminole, Florida.
By Rolf Fricke, with special thanks to Mrs. Lilli Kluck, Dr. Walter Mandler, Henry Weimer, Ludwig Schaus, Ernst Pausch