The Benser Letter & the Coming of the SLR Avalanche

Oct 27, 2016  By Bill Rosauer

Several months ago, I received Georg Mann’s magnum opus on the Leicaflex camera. This is an incredible 525 page volume on the history and development of the Leicaflex camera, with which Herr Mann was intimately involved with during his career at Leitz. The book is profusely illustrated, with a very attractive and innovative layout. It does a thorough job of documenting the story of the Leicaflex through the Standard, SL, SL2 and the still-born SL3 to the R3, with design drawings, design concept models and prototypes through finished production models. There are only two criticisms to be made; the text is only in German and you had to have been a member of Leica Historica to have received one! There is a wealth of information contained in its pages, with many documents never seen before, and we are presenting one of those previously unknown documents here.

Now, nearly sixty years later, this letter dated December 21, 1957 from Walther Benser to Gunther Leitz, warns of the coming SLR avalanche onto the photo market. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we know that the SLR camera has reigned supreme in 35mm photography ever since the introduction of the Nikon F in 1959. I was astonished when I first read this letter and realized that Benser’s vision was so clear back in those early days of the SLR camera. Keep in mind that the M3 had been introduced only three years earlier in the fall of 1954, and the IIIg was new to the market in 1957. Benser reports in his letter that the IIIg “barely moves” and the M3 moves “only with difficulty”, according to complaints of slow Leica sales from the small and medium size dealers Benser was in contact with in Germany. Indeed, Mann’s book also presents a letter dated November 3, 1953, from the large Leica dealer (Grosshandler) Hans Bauer reporting to Leitz on the excellent sales of the Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex cameras in their stores in Germany. Benser does not feel price is the issue, because as he points out there should be many potential Leica buyers in this group. Bear in mind that at the time the Benser letter was written, Germany was in the midst of the Wirtschaftswunder (the German economic miracle) of the late fifties – early sixties. Dealers are reporting to him that the number of Contaflex cameras sold is “huge”, and Benser feels that among these buyers, there are many who can certainly afford an even more expensive product of this kind from Leica.  Benser also came into regular contact with the potential customer base as well while “on the road” with his Leica slide lectures in Europe, the US and Asia. I am certain that he fielded many questions from the eager attendees about the revolutionary SLR cameras just coming onto the market. This is at odds with the accepted story that the M3 was unchallenged in 35mm photography until the coming of the Nikon F.

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