Colour and Collaboration
The Agfa story begins in 1867 in Rummelsburger See, on the outskirts of Berlin, when chemists Paul Mendelssohn Bartoldy and Carl Alexander von Martius founded the Gesellschaft Für Anilin-Fabrikation mbH. For the next 120 years, this expertise cast the die for Agfa’s successes and failures: aniline is a base ingredient in dyes, explosives, plastics, and photographic chemicals.
Following the purchase and merger of Dr. Jordan’s chemical factory in Treptow in 1872 the suffix ‘Aktien-‘ (Shared) was added in 1873 – foreshadowing future collaborations, and giving rise to the acronym AGFA: less accurate than the full AGFAF – but shorter, typographically prettier, and less evocative of the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Over time, AGFA became Agfa. Mindfulness of Agfa’s 19th Century decision to drop the F of ‘Fabrikation’ and its willingness to switch cases will help us identify lenses made decades later.
Meanwhile, in 1890, across the border in Antwerp, Lieven Gevaert established a workshop for the production of calcium photographic paper. From disparate backgrounds, in different countries, both companies were destined to become increasingly influential in the burgeoning field of colour film, processing and printing, and in 1964 merged to form Agfa-Gevaert.
However, almost forty years prior to the merger, the Agfa brand had become synonymous with the production of innovative cameras and lenses: from 1927, Agfa made a successful two-pronged attack on the then-disconnected European and American markets: contracting production and sales in the States to New-York based Ansco.
Commercially, Agfa-Gevaert’s ‘Golden Years’ are considered to be the diversified 1960s-1980s, but Agfa’s industry-leading days in the photography sector were probably earlier: in particular, the 1950s generated a glut of zeitgeist-capturing products that remain desirable today. However, it would be remiss to skip over the 1940s that established Agfa as a force in German production and built the foundation to create these exciting products. Although a prosperous decade, Agfa’s global reputation was tarnished by deep collaboration with the Nazi regime. Agfa’s services – chemical and optical – were in demand: the company was involved in the production of Zyklon B gas used to exterminate undesirables in the concentration camps, and in return Agfa made free use of skilled prisoners in their factories. After World War II, Allied powers charged with hobbling the strength of German industry made it a priority to break up the IG Farben combine of which Agfa was a key part.
Agfa’s company history, photographic dyes and paper, and cameras and taking lenses are well documented elsewhere, but the story of Agfa’s enlarger, projector, and industrial optics is less well known – an omission we here attempt to redress.
Agfa Serial Numbers
The range is diverse and hard to rationalise, but probably linked by serial numbers with A-G prefixes to the Color-Solagon range designating industrial lenses or flagging optimisation for unusual magnification ratios. Colostars are seen in focal lengths from 38-150mm – mostly Colostar U or Colostar N. The 150mm is simply labeled Colostar. The peculiar focal lengths and presence of fixed aperture models suggests that some were designed for specific use-cases. Agfa Colorstar U and N lenses always have the exact focal length hand-written on the rear.
Hans-Martin Brandt notes that the 3.5x optimised Colostar N 75mm f4.5 was fitted to Agfa’s Colormator N-Series for rollhead printers (manufactured from 1959 until the late 1980s) and Variograd Photographic Belt Copying Machines (manufactured from 1957-1987). It’s likely that Colostars were fitted to laboratory imaging systems such as the Agfa Labomator, too – but Colostars were never offered by Agfa to the public market, and only found their way onto other imaging platforms after retirement – most notably digital cameras, where they make fine macro lenses at their intended working distance.
Most manufacturers use serial numbers to track and display production batches or vintage. If you find a Schneider lens with the number 14,000,0001 you can be confident it was the fourteen-million-and-first the company made. It’s a helpful system. It works for everyone.
But not Agfa. Agfa serial numbers prior to – and (differently) after – their 1964 merger with Gevaert are more like the Enigma code – rendered intelligible only by a top-secret unscrambler. Agfa didn’t want lenses to be identifiable by the enemy with regard to their name, rank or serial number. There is a pattern, but it’s not alphabetical, chronological or (perhaps even) numerically sequenced, as you’ll note from the samples collected below.
Agfa’s enlarger lenses – Magnolars excepted – are differentiated by four-digit numbers as opposed to the five-digit numbers that identified their camera bodies taking lenses of the 1940-1964 period, which also have a letter-prefix that doesn’t appear to correlate to a year. Among ‘Delta’ lenses, the letter is used with some consistency to identify product types: for instance, we only see F#### serials on Colostar-N lenses, G#### serials on Colostar-U lenses, and more often than not V-for Varioscop or Vergrößerung on enlarger-specific lenses like Solinars and Magnolars of all ages. However, at focal lengths below 75 mm, Colostar-N and Colorstar-U serials revert to four significant digits with a zero prefix (eg 01299) – apart from the N 77 mm. And apart from the N 42mm, which has an M.prefix (see above). And apart from the N 38 mm, which has a six-digit serial despite never being mass produced, with serials only seen below 000100.
We await information from the unlocking of the Agfa archives held at FoMu in Belgium that may cast light on the hitherto unpublished logic of this system, but thus far Agfa’s intention to keep their serials schtum has been successful and it’s not possible to date an Agfa enlarger lens precisely. In the meantime, if you own or have found a lens outside the range of serials here presented, please let us know.
These articles covers a number of subject areas that haven’t previously been well documented. Along with the deep memory of the Wayback Machine and the even deeper memories of the collecting and creative communities of the Photrio and mflenses forums, we would also like to thank:
- FoMU – FotoMuseum in Antwerpen, Belgium.
- Hartmut Thiele, in general.
- Bernhard (deramateurphotograph.de) who uses and displays many under-appreciated lenses on his fascinating blog.
- Flickr users Hans Kerensky and Khanfoto, as well as 情事針寸II and Tarzán de los Gnomos for fleshing out the numbers list, and helping on some discoveries.