The New York Times
AUFBAU - February 20, 2003
A Focused Life
In Memory of Paul Klingenstein, Pioneer of the Postwar Photography Industry
By Stephen Hess
In his 1967 best-selling book, "Our Crowd," Stephen Bimingham chronicled the extraordinary accomplishments and disproportionate achievements of the great German-Jewish families of New York. Paul Klingenstein, who died at his Longboat Key winter home on January 5, 2003, is not mentioned. But he surely would have been, had he and his family, like those described in Birmingham’s book, enjoyed a hundred-year head start on the promise and opportunities of life in America. This is so not only because of the notable achievements of Paul’s own life, but also because, like them, he brought with him the basic philosophy of Pflicht und Arbeit–duty and work–that was the key to his success. But Paul–usually called "PK" by colleagues and employees–had no fortune upon which to build and no footsteps to follow. Each imprint was his own.
Paul turned 18 on January 1, 1933, in the small village of Westheim (now part of the not-much-larger city of Hammelburg, near the banks of the River Saale). Four weeks later, Hitler came to power. Paul’s father was a cattle dealer in the village of approximately 450 people, among them ten Jewish families. He was considered "the richest man in town," according to Paul’s younger brother Max, who adds that, for this tiny dot on the German map, that really wasn’t saying much. Nevertheless, a formal family photo taken in their Westheim garden on the occasion of the grandfather’s 80th birthday in 1927 shows a prosperous family group in Yontif finery.
Paul had finished his schooling at the Gymnasium with honors and had passed the dreaded Abitur. He wanted to become a physician– Herr Doktor Paul Klingenstein–but it was not to be. With the Nazis in power, the hatred of Jews emanated from beer halls, newspapers, newly invented radios and the brown-shirted street thugs of Hitler’s Germany. For Paul, the door to any career, let alone entrance to a German medical school, was slammed shut. He recognized the threat early and realistically.
Unlike the other members of his family, Paul saw America as his only opportunity. Max, five years his junior, was still in school. Their parents, Jacob and Cilly, were not yet prepared to leave it all: the farm, their home, the community, their friends. And although life for Jews in German cities would soon become untenable, the farm, providing as it did most of the necessities of daily life, offered protection for a while. But there was no reason for Paul to stay, and so in 1934, at age 19, he boarded the "Albert Ballin" in Hamburg and sailed for New York. He had $30 with him, a few possessions, and the beloved Voigtlander camera he had received as a bar mitzvah gift.
Although next to medicine Paul’s other deep passion was photography, he arrived during the Depression when one took what work was available for whatever pay was offered. What was available was a job at $15 a week as a stock boy at Brand and Oppenheimer, a textile company known for giving jobs to refugees. While running errands to the company’s customers, Paul would pocket the five-cent bus or subway fare and walk the 30-odd blocks to his garment-district destinations. A nickel was a nickel and he wanted to save as much as possible in order to join the Manhattan Camera Club. There he hoped to pursue his passion, develop his skills and perhaps create opportunities for himself.
Meanwhile, with the situation in Germany becoming more impossible for Jews with each passing month, the fate of his family was a constant concern. His brother, Max, waited until he was 16–the age that would permit him to work in America–to leave. When he arrived in 1936, he landed a job as a stock manager with Nedick’s, the once ubiquitous New York hot dog and orange juice stand.
Through a friend at the Manhattan Camera Club, Paul finally found a job working in the darkroom at a downtown film processing laboratory. And to hone his skills and to make much needed extra cash, Paul seized every opportunity to freelance as a photographer at weddings and bar mitzvahs. When time permitted he nourished his artistic ambitions by photographing on his own and having the satisfaction of seeing his work published in the New York Post and other publications.
Paul’s skill and diligence did not go unnoticed. In 1938, the local Leica camera sales representative recommended Paul to the owners of United Camera, a major New York photographic retailer. He was hired to work behind the counter as a camera salesman and started to "learn the business."
As the situation in Germany became increasingly ominous, Paul and Max prepared to bring their parents to America by renting a small apartment at 161st Street off Riverside Drive. The parents arrived in 1938. Cilly Klingenstein was reduced to doing piecework for a glove maker, while Jacob found no work at all.
Paul’s growing presence in the pre-war photo retail trade in New York led to an introduction to Lou Moss, owner of the well-known Peerless Camera Store near Grand Central Station, in 1939. Paul joined Peerless as a salesman, but was soon promoted to buyer for the store. It was the start of a business relationship with Lou Moss and Moss’s brother-in-law, Ben Berkey (owner of a large consumer photo-finishing laboratory), that would span some 40 years.
With war inevitable, Paul predicted that photographic merchandise for consumers would surely dry up. He set out to invest every available purchasing dollar in inventory that would be warehoused and ready when needed. He also expanded Peerless’ display and inventory of used cameras and accessories.
Following the outbreak of war, Paul attempted to enlist, seeking to join the U.S. Signal Corps which dealt with all photographic operations for the Army. The military, however, declared him "4F," after detecting the severe hearing loss in his right ear, the result of a mistreated middle ear infection. He returned to civilian life and to the Peerless Camera Stores.
For the balance of the war, the retail camera business survived like any other non-military business, by making do as best it could. Paul concentrated on selling what could be obtained and made the most of the used camera business. At one point he was able to purchase a supply of lamp sockets for photo studio lights. He brought the parts and other components home for his father to assemble, providing the defeated man some needed work and purpose.
VJ Day came on August 14, 1945, and with it Paul, who had always had his mind on work and duty, began to think of marriage and a family. A family VJ day photo shows two couples celebrating the moment. Paul’s future wife, Selma, is seen smiling beside him in the photo but, ironically, her date was the other man! Not one to dodge a challenge, Paul figured out how to convince her that he–a somewhat awkward man with a heavy German accent–would be a better choice. They married in February 1947.
With the support of Lou Moss and Ben Berkey, Paul set up Kling Photo in order to manufacture an advanced professional camera for Peerless. Named the Meridian, it was to be an amalgam of the standard press camera of the day, the Speed Graphic, and the much more sophisticated (but unavailable) German Linhof Technika. Paul sketched out the camera, applied some engineering and contracted with a Lafayette Street precision machine shop to produce 1000 cameras. Eventually 2000 were manufactured and sold. Although in production for only a short time, Paul’s Meridian "B" is regarded as a classic today.
But Paul had still bigger goals and, in 1948, he tried to convince his partners Moss and Berkey to reconnect with the once-famous German camera industry just emerging from the rubble. He made a pioneering trip overseas to evaluate the situation but returned home disappointed. It was still too early then, but in 1951 Paul left his position as vice-president at Peerless, maintained his financial partnership with Lou Moss and Ben Berkey, and reorganized Kling Photo as an importer and distributor of mostly German photographic equipment.
Working from a small office at 235 Fourth Avenue and using camera shipping crates for desks to save precious capital, Paul eventually obtained exclusive U.S distribution rights for Linhof professional cameras and tripods, the then-well known Balda amateur cameras, and the respected Kilar telephoto lenses, as well as Ominica leather camera bags.
In later years, Paul added Rodenstock lenses, Gossen exposure meters, Minox "spy" cameras and many other prestigious product lines. The crown jewel, and his personal pride, was exclusive U.S. distribution of the German-made Arriflex motion picture cameras. Arriflex was set up as a subsidiary under the Kling and Berkey umbrella, and a Hollywood branch office was added to serve its demanding movie industry clientele. Arriflex, still the standard of professional cinematography, later became an independent company, though it retained the financial backing and active participation of "PK."
Kling Photo flourished under Paul’s driving energy. At the same time, Ben Berkey’s photofinishing operations and retail stores grew with the post-war and post-Korea economy and an explosion in amateur picture taking. Eventually, Berkey Photo went public and incorporated Kling Photo. Paul exchanged his Kling Photo ownership for shares in the public company and became president of its new marketing arm. What had been Kling Photo was now the Berkey Marketing Companies, relocated to a large distribution and manufacturing building in Woodside, NY. "BMC," as it was known in the business, expanded rapidly and, in 1961, purchased the Simmon Brothers business, manufacturers of the then world-famous Simmon-Omega enlargers.
However, there were huge changes looming for the U.S. camera industry. Although German precision cameras such as Leica and Contax were considered the "gold standard," American photojournalists and combat photographers needing equipment during the Korean War bought the Nikon and and Canon cameras sold in Japanese camera stores. They found the cameras to be good and the lenses even better.
In Philadelphia, Henry Froehlich, who also had sought refuge in America from Nazi Germany, was convinced of that future and was building U.S. distribution for the Japanese manufacturer of Konica cameras. When Paul approached Henry about joining forces, these two businessmen and fellow refugees developed an immediate respect for each other. Froehlich merged his business with the Berkey Marketing operation and became Paul’s second-in-command, replacing him many years later upon Paul’s retirement. The team was a "natural" with Paul’s "comfort zone" at the time clearly in German photo products and business dealings, while Henry was skilled and adept at the nuances of Far East business and negotiations.
In the ‘70s, convinced that trade breeds reconciliation, understanding and peace, Paul and Henry established contact with Mashpriborintorg, the Soviet agency that controlled camera manufacturing in the USSR. The Russian cameras were "rough," but they were inexpensive and worked well. Paul renamed the Russian Zenit cameras "Cosmorex," alluding to Russia’s newfound space prowess. Russian technicians were brought over to service the cameras and occasional visits from the F.B.I. were clear reminders that this venture was slightly ahead of its time! Ultimately, the quality of the cameras, even at low prices, did not meet the demands of American buyers, but the genuinely warm relations between the two trading partners that developed proved to be the enduring success of that venture.
Although Paul and Ben Berkey remained friends, their business philosophies began to diverge over the years. When Berkey ended up filing a lawsuit against Kodak, Paul felt deeply embarrassed. He had longstanding friendships with many Kodak executives and great respect for the company. Unable to change Berkey Photo’s direction, he resigned in protest from the Board of Directors and, in 1976, retired–or so he thought!
Paul’s children were grown. His son Jim had become the physician he himself had once wanted to be. He and Selma greatly expanded their philanthropic work, both in Israel and in their winter home in Longboat Key, making contributions to both Jewish and interfaith causes. Yet, Paul wanted to keep his fingers in the photo business.
In the meantime, Henry Froehlich and a new partner, Jan Lederman, had founded FroehlichFotoVideo, following the failure of Berkey Photo. Their new business offered a turnkey system to camera stores, permitting retailers to transfer their customers’ old 8mm home movies to VHS video cassettes. The concept was innovative and successful, but the business model had a finite life because of rapidly evolving technologies and a self-depleting customer base. But then Henry was approached by a Japanese camera maker to re-organize its struggling U.S. operation.
He and Jan immediately approached Paul to help fund this new business and, hopefully, join them as an active partner. Well into his 70’s by then, but restless and still capable of the golden touch, Paul relished the challenge. The three men established the Mamiya America Corporation, named for the manufacturer’s camera brand. The business quickly became the envy of the U.S. photo equipment distribution business.
In later years, with the Mamiya operation hugely successful, Paul became the business’s éminence grise. He and Selma focused on their community involvement. In addition to establishing the Klingenstein Chair in Judaic Studies at the New College of Florida in Sarasota, they worked on interfaith projects in partnership with the Roman Catholic diocese of Venice, Florida and were principal contributors to the construction of their new temple.
Paul’s funeral in Scarsdale and a later memorial service in Longboat Key were attended by hundreds who knew and admired him. Among the mourners were many who in some measure or other owed their start or success to Paul Klingenstein. They came to say goodbye to a remarkable man.
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