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Walter Kluck, the Man who Saved the Leica M System
Old 08-19-2008   #1
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Walter Kluck, the Man who Saved the Leica M System

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:

Long live the Leica M!
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
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Old 08-19-2008   #2
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Thanks for a nice, uplifting tale, Steve! Having bought recently a copy of an M4-2, I'm kinda glad to have kept it... and mighty happy to have read this note!
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Old 08-19-2008   #3
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A very interesting article indeed, thanks for posting !
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Old 08-19-2008   #4
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Love the history. Thanks for the post.
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Old 08-20-2008   #5
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Why aren´t stories like that part of history classes in school?
Thanks for posting
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Old 08-20-2008   #6
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wow. one has to admire this success story. Thank you Mr. Kluck.
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Old 08-20-2008   #7
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Thanks for this, Stephen.

Cheers to Kluck and Mandler.

Roland.
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Old 08-20-2008   #8
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Nice story, Leitz sure has a lot of great stories. I like that about them, the history. Very neat.
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Old 08-20-2008   #9
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Very interesting and nice to know such story.

Thanks Stephen!
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Old 08-20-2008   #10
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the M4-2 is getting very legendary around here.
nice story about Walter Kluck.
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Old 10-14-2008   #11
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What an amazing story!!!!!!

It`s really too bad I didn`t know about this man in the 1990`s, while I lived less than an hour from him and his story, all of which would now be the most helpful to my postwar US Army/Leica research, this is also the FIRST time I`ve ever read of a ORGANIZED barter done by the US Forces in Germany and also the "Monté en Sarre" connection, just amazing

I wonder if there`s anyone else left from Leica who`s STILL living who can talk about those turbulent times of 1945 to 1950 at Leitz?

Tom
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Walter kluck, the man who saved the Leica M system
Old 12-31-2008   #12
Rui Morais de Sousa
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Walter kluck, the man who saved the Leica M system

I was one of the lucky ones who could buy a M4-2 in the seventies. It is still my "youngest" Leica M, and after all these years keeps on doing her job rather well and nicely. She went through a CLA recently, and I never fellt that I need to buy a newer one. Thank you Mr. Kluck!
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Old 12-31-2008   #13
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I have an M4-P that I really love. How is it related to the M4-2?

/T
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Old 12-31-2008   #14
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This is a very interesting and informative write-up on Leica history. Thanks.
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Old 04-16-2009   #15
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So what was the deal with him being 'admonished' by the Wetzlar folks for making 'unauthorized' cameras, such as the M4-2 half frame, as well as finishes that weren't 'official', such as the chrome M4-2? I have a silver M4-2 winder -- would this have been one of his 'unofficial' creations?
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Old 12-05-2009   #16
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Thanks a lot for the Article
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Old 06-04-2010   #17
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Most enjoyable read of Leica memorabilia, Thanks!
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Old 07-21-2010   #18
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Wow what a life.

It always amazes me how one special person can make such a difference to so many lives.
Passion and ambition are infectious and Walter must of had heaps to go around.

Godspeed Walter.
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Old 03-05-2011   #19
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I bought an M4-2 new in 1979. It has been around the world several times, on every continent, at sea, on mountains, in deserts - never failed once. It has been through two CLAs, and the black finish is dull and worn in places, but it keeps working perfectly. That is a heck of a camera.
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Old 05-26-2011   #20
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What a great moment in History! thank you for sharing this. i love M's, and this love is growing stronger every day.
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Old 10-09-2011   #21
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A good article but it leaves out the point that the M series was in trouble mainly because of the M5 and the CL. The M5 was unpopular and the CL was cannibalising sales rather than making new ones. Leica were unofficially making and selling the M4 alongside the M5 for those who really wouldn't have the latest model and it was all a bit of a mess.

I don't dispute that Walter Kluck saved the M system, but it wasn't just Japanese SLRs that were to blame for bringing it to the brink.
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Old 06-21-2013   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rogerzilla View Post
I don't dispute that Walter Kluck saved the M system, but it wasn't just Japanese SLRs that were to blame for bringing it to the brink.
To be historically "correct," Herr Kluck returned Leica and the M system to its roots, rather than saving it from the Japanese SLR invasion.

(Seems that the real enemy during the "Camera Cold War" were the Japanese, haha. )
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Old 06-21-2013   #23
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At the time, yes, the M5 and CL may have seemed like a bit of a blunder, but both are exceptional engineering pieces. The M5 did seem like too big a leap for most, but as time has passed, the M5 users continue to be emphatic about how excellent a camera it is.

An alternate-universe M7 that had been engineered to carry over the M5's genius in an M6 chassis would have been literally the perfect camera. Well, while we're dreaming (maybe just me?) also if it had M4 levels of build quality. It would consist of classic film-M body dimensions, include the front-overhang-style shutter speed wheel, viewable in the viewfinder window, along with a needle-style exposure meter readout (I wonder if they could figure out a way to do that without the pop-up arm that makes it difficult to mount some lenses?), and 3 lugs for possible vertical hanging carry. It would be perfect -- an ergonomic masterpiece.
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Old 03-23-2016   #24
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bump

Where is the statue of Walter Kluck at Fotopark?
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Old 03-24-2016   #25
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Interesting article, fascinating history!
..
One of the very few articles that one can find on Andreas Kaufmann, an Austrian businessman who had bought Leica in, I believe 2004, had saved it from bankruptcy and late but still successfully led it into the digital area: http://***********.com/content/leica...ising-ashesNow this seems hardly known, maybe some time in the future there will be similar articles about him too.
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Old 03-24-2016   #26
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I would like to add; that Kluck had a very innovative lens designer working for him to in Midland; as Dr. Walter Mandler's name came to the for front far ahead of those in Germany. I personally met him in Crooks Leica store were I live in Fort William at that time, now part of Thunder Bay. We saw new stuff coming in all the time with regular visits from their salesman.
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Old 03-24-2016   #27
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And to add more; in 1972 the Midland plant produced the KE7 Military Model before the other model in 1976. They were very innovative
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Old 03-24-2016   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kuuan View Post
Interesting article, fascinating history!
..
One of the very few articles that one can find on Andreas Kaufmann, an Austrian businessman who had bought Leica in, I believe 2004, had saved it from bankruptcy and late but still successfully led it into the digital area: http://***********.com/content/leica...x-rising-ashes Now this seems hardly known, maybe some time in the future there will be similar articles about him too.
Is there any way that you can tell us what that link should be?
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Old 03-24-2016   #29
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I wish this website had white background with black fonts. Beautiful articles like this one would be so much easier to read.
my eyes hurt, great article, thanks for sharing!
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Old 03-24-2016   #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ernstk View Post
Is there any way that you can tell us what that link should be?
http:// la vida leica . com/content/leica-phoenix-rising-ashes
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Old 03-24-2016   #31
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right DanskDynamit, of course without the spaces
a few more articles: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bc23b48a-e...#axzz43pH3329w ( ft seems to make him into a 'south German', however Mr. Kaufmann is son of one of the richest and most discreetly rich Austrian families from Salzburg, studied literature, protested against Atomic power - before a popular vote banned it in Austria - had long hair and was co-founder of the green party )
http://www.fdtimes.com/2015/02/09/an...mera-chairman/
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Old 09-07-2016   #32
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Max Jenkins View Post
I bought an M4-2 new in 1979. It has been around the world several times, on every continent, at sea, on mountains, in deserts - never failed once. It has been through two CLAs, and the black finish is dull and worn in places, but it keeps working perfectly. That is a heck of a camera.
Isn't there brass under there. So does it brass?
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Old 09-07-2016   #33
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Isn't there brass under there. So does it brass?
Black chrome -> nickel -> brass. So worn black chrome looks initially grey because of the underlying nickel layer.
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Old 09-08-2016   #34
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That was a good read and not just because of the Leica-related details.
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Old 09-08-2016   #36
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A very nice article......an inspiration to say the least
Love the post WWII information, as I too have great interest in post war Germany and Japan having lived there not long after.
Always marvel at how Nippon Kogaku and Leitz survived those times.
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Old 09-21-2016   #37
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That plant in Midland is still going strong. It is called Elcan (a take off on Leica Canada). They are a high level optics company. Full name is Raytheon ELCAN Optical Technologies. Located on Leitz Rd. The history lives!!
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Old 09-22-2016   #38
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Thanks for the story!!

I think using "ELCAN" for the high-end specialized lenses was a stroke of genius. In that way Leitz tells the message that the lenses made in Canada are as good as a lens made in Germany and that you can be proud of having a "Made in Canada" Leitz lens just as well as if you have a German Leitz lens.
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Old 4 Weeks Ago   #39
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Love to read historic success stories like this. It makes my new M4-2 that arrived a couple of days ago seem even more special now ��
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Old 4 Weeks Ago   #40
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One can't find a historical perspective on any other photography venue.

I very much enjoyed reading this interesting chapter of camera history.
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