Tales from the Wiki: The Detroit-Dresden Praktica Connection

One great thing about Camera-wiki.org is learning weird bits of history about significant camera-makers, and the people behind them.

Not long ago, I stumbled onto a rather amazing story in the wiki Kamera Werkstätten article. It’s the strange tale of how a Detroit businessman named Charles Noble ended up moving to Dresden, and leading the company best known today for making Praktica cameras.

The short version is that Charles was a German-born christian, who had anglicized his name on moving to the US. He revived a failing Detroit-area photofinishing business that had employed his wife, and built it into a thriving company.

Kamera Werkstätten co-founders Paul Guthe and Benno Thorsch both wished to flee Germany as the Nazi party gained power in the 1930s. In around 1938, Thorsch reached an agreement with Noble that they would swap their two companies. Noble then moved his family to Dresden—although just as the storm clouds of WWII were gathering.

KW Pilot Super, by Rick Soloway

1939 KW Pilot Super, by Rick Soloway

Noble and his son John launched the innovative Praktiflex 35mm SLR in 1939—starting a venerable lineage of “Prakti” -prefixed camera models that would continue until 2001’s Praktica BX20S.

But the stormy political seas of the era would not be kind to the Nobles. After Dresden ended WWII in the communist eastern zone of Germany, both Nobles were arrested, and ultimately John vanished into a Siberian gulag. Over the postwar decades, several  now-nationalized East German photographic companies (including KW) were merged into the state photographic business VEB Pentacon, and KW’s camera lineage continued there.

In 1955 John Noble was finally released. But it was only in 1990, with the re-integration of eastern & western Germany that the 67-year-old John was able to recover ownership the WWII-era Noble factory that had been nationalized. The new Kamera Werk Dresden launched the Noblex line of swiveling-lens panorama cameras, named in tribute to Charles Noble who had died in 1983. Despite a late-1990s company bankruptcy (leading to an employee buyout), Noblex cameras are still made today.

The story for Benno Thorsch turned out a little easier. By 1944 he was in sunny California, founding Studio City Camera Exchange—a local landmark that remained a family business until its closing, circa 2006.

I’d like to thank T. Rand Collins, MD, for his excellent blog post which lays out much of this KW and Noble family history. And of course, I’d like to thank all the wiki editors who contributed to the KW history article.

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