Reinhold Heidecke always wanted to be an ophthalmologist, but his family didn’t have the money for a university education. He left school in 1895, at the age of 14, to become an apprentice mechanic, and later got a job at optical company Voigtländer.
Heidecke’s fascination with lenses never left him, and after World War I, he is alleged to have had the idea of developing a camera that functioned a bit like a periscope. He figured it would be safer for photographers sheltering from enemy fire.
Along with another former Voigtländer employee, Paul Franke, the pair formed camera company Franke & Heidecke in 1920. Their first camera, the Heidoscop, was a pretty close knockoff of Voigtländer’s Stereflektoskop, a stereo camera with a reflex viewfinder.
The Rolleiflex was the culmination of three years’ development. Eleven prototypes were built between 1927 and 1928, followed by a dozen production samples. The original Rolleiflex was finally released in January 1929. Its compact form and metal casing made it much lighter than earlier wooden twin-lens reflex cameras (TLRs). It could shoot six 6 x 6-centimetre frames on a roll of 117 film, which was advanced by the knob on the side. Since there was no frame counter, it was up to the photographer to remember whether or not they’d taken a picture.
Photographers had the choice of two lenses, either a f/4.5 or f/3.8 Zeiss Tessar; the former was widely used, as it was much cheaper.
A popular follow-up model introduced in 1937, the Rolleiflex Automat, added a mechanical wind mechanism which tensioned the shutter, spaced the exposures and started the frame counter automatically.
Since it allowed photographers to look away from their target while covertly composing and focussing a shot, it was particularly favoured for street photography. Diane Arbus and Vivan Maier shot with Rolleiflexes, while other famous fans included Robert Capa, Walker Evans and fashion photography greats Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.