by Paul Gates, Ducey, France
Many of the great French optical manufacturing houses such as Darlot,
Hermagis, Boyer and Krauss had their roots in the nineteenth century,
or even earlier. Angenieux was an exception.
Pierre Angenieux, was born in July 1907 at St. Heand in the Loire Region,
did not establish his optical company until 1935, and so may be considered
a relative, if subsequently very successful, newcomer to lens manufacture.
Although enjoying satisfactory levels of business from an early period,
the name Angenieux really came to international prominence from 1950 on,
following the introduction that year of the Angenieux type R. I. Retrofocus.
This was a reversed telephoto design whose effective focal length was
less than its backfocus (the distance between the rear lens element and
the image plane). This allowed for the first time, the design of wide-angle
lenses for single-lens reflex cameras, where the clearance necessary to
allow free movement of the mirror prevents the use of conventional wide-angle
lenses of short back focus. The now generic term retrofocus’ was
originally an Angenieux trade name for this particular lens. It had a
maximum aperture of f2.5 and an effective focal length of 35mm –
not very wide by today’s standards, but a real breakthrough in its
time for the SLR user. Not only did Pierre Angenieux see his trade name
for his lens pass into common usage as a generic term for all SLR wide
angles, but he also witnessed his pioneering design forming the basis
for all subsequent development of the type by many manufacturers. Such
is often the lot of those ahead of their time!
|Optical layout of two fine prime long-focus Angenieux lenses|
The company did, however, enjoy several years of international commercial
success with this product, and the Angenieux R. I. Can be found with fittings
for Alpa, Exakta, Leica, Rectaflex and Contax D/Praktica M42. It was manufactured
In 1953 a 28mm f3.5 version of the Retrofocus was introduced, followed
in 1957 by a 24mm f3.5; these later introductions were also issued in
most of the aforementioned fittings. Throughout this period, Angenieux
also developed a series of Retrofocus wide-angle lenses for 8mm and 6mm
|Basic layout of R.I./Retrofocus W/A lens of 1950|
From 1957 onwards, Pierre Angenieux directed his design and development
efforts mainly in the direction of zoom lenses. Although not the pioneer
in this field, his products won considerable acclaim in the movie and
T. V. camera lens markets. They were perceived as top-of-range optics
(and priced accordingly!) and were often offered as standard on the best
equipment of the day. Although late in introducing a zoom design for 35mm
still cameras, when Pierre Angenieux did so, he did it in style, producing
in 1968 an f2.8, 45-90mm zoom lens of extremely high optical quality for
no less than E. Leitz of Wetzlar! A major achievement by a non-Leitz,
|Full-page ad from July 1950 ¹Photo Revue’ promoting the
Kodak 620 Special, which shows the Angenieux lens but does not mention
it in the body copy. In view of the prestige of Angenieux optics,
an additional marketing opportunity may have been missed.
Aside from the exotica of retrofocus and zoom lenses, he also produced
prime lenses which, if not such ground-breaking items as zooms and retros,
nevertheless represented the highest standards of design and engineering.
The company also routinely produced a variety of bread and butter’
three and four element triplets which were fitted to a large number of
French made cameras as well as to certain models imported from Germany,
Canada and the U. S. A. during the decade following world War II. At that
time, the high import duties imposed on photographic goods entering France
induced Kodak to set up manufacturing facilities in that country.
Initially, they bought lenses from both Angenieux and SOM Berthiot,
but following an agreement between the former company and Kodak, Angenieux
became sole supplier for a number of years. Angenieux lenses may thus
be found fitted to a range of the more popular middle-price Kodak cameras
of that period that included the 620 rollfilm models as well as 35’s
such as Retinettes and Pony 35’s. These lenses, often mounted in
French made ATOS shutters, were usually of the three element type of f6.3
f4.5 and f3.5 maximum aperture, although some four element f3.5 designs
were offered for the top models. The earlier folding-body Kodak Retinettes
were finished with the f4.5 versions, whilst the latter rigid body models
featured the faster f3.5 lens.
Angenieux lenses faded from the general photographic market in the 1970’s
as the company responded to Japanese competition by concentrating on the
more specialised (and less cost-sensitive) military, medical and space-program
markets, where it won considerable distinction.
|The Kodak Pony Flash of 1953 was, like the 6x9cm, folding models,
manufactured entirely in France at Kodak’s own facility. It
featured an Angenieux 45mm f3.5 ‘Kodak Anastigmat’
1982 was to witness an unexpected and splendid late flowering of the
marque with the introduction of firstly a 35-70mm f2.5-f3.3 zoom lens,
then a 70-210mm f3.5, followed by a magnificent 180mm f2.3 prime lens,
all available in Leica R fitting. Finally, there appeared an AF 28-70mm
f2.6, which remains to date the only French-made autofocus still-camera
lens. All this late series of lenses were state-of-the-art in both optical
design and mount engineering, featuring polycarbonate barrels and in the
case of the 180mm f3.5, internal focussing derived from zoom lens practice
which ensured a constant barrel length regardless of focus setting. Sadly,
European production and marketing costs meant that all these lenses had
to be priced far higher than the competition. Moreover, the brand name
now meant little to younger photographers. Manufacture ceased within a
short time and the collector will have to search hard for examples today.
Anything which may have interested you in the foregoing is largely
L’Objectif Photographique. R. Andreani, Publications Photo
‘Histoire des appareils francais’ B. Vial, Maeght Editeur
‘A History of the photographic lens’, R. Kingslake,
‘Photo-Cine Review’, July 1953
‘Photo-Cinema’, Dec 1961
If an example of an Angenieux lens appeals to you, by far the easiest
and most economical solution is to seek out one of the French-made of
French assembled Kodak popular cameras of the 1950’s of 1960’s.
For something more exotic – and for rather more money – try
the specialist collector dealers (no names mentioned!) or the camera fairs.
Should you happen to be an Alpa, Contax D, Praktica, Leica, Exacta or
Rectaflex owner, you may even find an Angenieux lens fitting you can use.
Not only would you enjoy a lens which, if clean, will yield results comparable
to many of today’s new offerings; you would also be helping maintain
a small piece of European history.