Hasselblad – A personal reflection by Dr. David Mitchell

In this guest article, Dr. David Mitchell talks about his passion for Hasselblad and shares his personal reflection on how the brand has shaped his photography.

Every once in a while a piece of design transcends normal boundaries and becomes iconic for being, well, iconic. For us camera geeks there is plenty to chose from over the past century or so – the Barnack Leica, the Nikon F etc. Sometimes special things come from unusual circumstances or places you might not expect – Gothenburg for example.

I like the Swedes – they are polite, knowledgeable, balance tradition and modernity and have a real flair for design that is tempered with functionality somewhat more than their Scandinavian neighbours..
Giants of industrial design might not be the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Sweden – but if you get beyond a rather popular musical foursome then it is there a plenty – cars obviously and maybe even furniture but for our purposes of course that means cameras.

Rewind a little……

A chance encounter between Arvid Hasselblad (son of founder Fritz) and one George Eastman esq. of Eastman Kodak whilst on honeymoon led to Hasselblad becoming the Swedish distributor for Eastman Kodak products. It is not recorded how Mrs Arvid Hasselblad felt about this interruption to her post nuptial celebration but I guess she knew what she was getting into.

Arvid’s son Karl (the third generation of the family) was smart enough to dispatch his 18 year old son Victor to centres of manufacture and photographic innovation, including Dresden and Rochester in New York, where he spent several years gaining valuable insights before returning to the family firm – except after going to head to head with his dad he bailed out to start his own shop and lab in Gothenburg in 1937 – ouch.
He did however take control of Hasselblad on his father’s death who were still distributers of photo equipment and also manufacturers of watches, clocks and other precision engineering as a result of the second world war.

Victor Hasselblad with Graflex, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Importance of design

Victor understood the importance of design in retailing high quality products to discerning customers, and worked with industrial designer Sixten Sason who was to design products for Saab, Electrolux and Husqvarna.
There is a photo of a 20yr old Victor wielding (and I mean wielding) a monster Graflex Field camera as he photographed wildlife – you can almost hear the wheels turning in his mind – as a natural history lover and photographer portability was not the strong point of the Graflex – what he really needed was big negs in a compact body.    

HK-7

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

Hasselblad HK-7, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

The 1941 HK-7 shown here for the Swedish Airforce has a distinctly familiar look to it – it is fairly easy to see the DNA of the later 500 in its design. The functionality of the design is clear to see, with the lens mounted on a very boxy body complete with two utilitarian handles and a finder that looks more like a gun sight. 1

Hasselblad HK-7, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad HK-7, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad HK-7, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

1600F

The 1600F was released in 1948 and went through two phases,  but faltered because the focal plane shutters were not always reliable. The 1953 1000F was a big step forward in reliability and had good reviews but still with a focal plane shutter. 2

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

1600F system, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad 1600F, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad 1600F, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Super Wide Angle

The 1954 Supreme Wide Angle (we now know it as the Super Wide Angle) was developed as a niche product but was a success in itself, bringing together the Zeiss Biogon and the Hasselblad body to create something special and created the magic formula – top notch lenses from Zeiss with a shutter built into the lens on the front, and well designed and engineered Hasselblad on the back end.

1954-1959 Supreme Wide Angle, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

1959-1979 Super Wide C SWC, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

1979-1988 SWC M 1982, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

500C

1957 saw the launch of the camera most synonymous with the Brand – the Hasselblad 500C. This camera had a lifespan of some sixty years which is a remarkable achievement – small incremental improvements responding to demands of the marketplace and designed in modularity of components started to build a solid following amongst photographers but it was hard work to break through with a premium product.

Victor Hasselblad with the 500, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

dark model, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Wood model, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Early prototypes of the 500C – later to become known as the V system, nodded strongly to their roots – the 500C followed the same form as the HK-7 – lens, body and interchangeable film back. The aluminium body of the 500 body was hand fettled prior to build and the German Zeiss lenses worked seamlessly from both a technical viewpoint and an aesthetic one.
The chrome edges of the camera body against the black leatherette, the matt chrome lenses and the sleek finder looked more like a spaceship than a camera – it looked like it was flying even at a standstill. An engineer at NASA thought so to – as a Hasselblad user he thought it was ideal for space missions.

Victor Hasselblad, courtesy of Sven Gillsäter

NASA

Things changed dramatically in the 1960’s when Hasselblad got the kind of promotional lift marketeers would today pay millions for – it does not come much bigger than space after all – but ironically Hasselblad did not know their cameras were being used until 1965.
NASA’s use of Hasselblad product also drove innovation over time and both benefitted from the relationship.
The subsequent financial success meant the firm sold the photographic distribution business to Kodak and concentrated on their own camera business.

Hasselblad HEC, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad-HDC, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad ELS, courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Hasselblad Cameras were used to capture some of the most iconic photographs ever taken, a pivotal point in the history of the species as it landed on the moon and looked back at the earth in a way never before seen or imagined.
More than half a billion people watched the moon landing around the globe and for a brief moment anything seemed possible. These guys were pilots – not photographers but they took some fairly breathtaking shots – many of which are now online. 4

Earth rise, 1969 using an 80mm Planar lens, image courtesy of NASA

Neil Armstong’s footprint on the lunar surface, 1969, image courtesy of NASA

Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong, 1969, image courtesy of NASA

Neil Armstrong saluting, 1969, image courtesy of NASA

Arrived

My mum was three months pregnant with me as Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon. I arrived in January 1970 as the world was still buzzing from this remarkable achievement and a certain camera manufacturer in Sweden was basking in the afterglow (excuse the pun) of Apollo 11. They were used to make some of the most iconic photos we love – from Hendrix 5 to Marilyn Monroe. 6

As I grew up I used my dad’s SLR’s and became enthralled with the ability to freeze time and space and to process the world around me which as a teenager did not always make a lot of sense. I loved the sound of the shutter and naturally I looked at the work of famous photographers – mostly in bookshops or library books.
It was there that I saw the work of Ansel Adams and in particular Moon and Half Dome 7, taken in 1960 with some strange and exotic sounding camera – Hasselblad didn’t sound Japanese and thats where the good cameras were made – right?
It stuck in my head and became a bit of an object of desire over the years – I was 50 in January so decided it was time – I have been returning to film in the past few years and the size of those negs, the square format combined with that camera………

Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams, 1960, courtesy of Ansel Adams Publishing Trust

A personal reflection

I have a 1970 500C (M)  where (M) means it was a transitional example from one model to the next. It is one of the later models but happens to be the same age as me.
It has the stock 80mm lens and I purposefully sought out the matt chromed lens because that is just the look – remember  matt metal finishes on hi fi separates ? – feels just the same – it is space 1999 for those of us of a particular generation

So it is a thing of beauty in my eyes but so often all design and no functionality is a disappointment – not here. So by 1970 Hasselblad had to have had their #### together right ? It feels like it.
It fits in my left hand and my fingers can reach the focus ring as my right hand both supports the camera and my index finger wraps around the front to the release.
When you look at it it looks out of place – but its not – it is in just the right spot because someone has sat with a block of wood – made a body shape – and carefully thought about these things. I handle it carefully because its precious and I look after my stuff but it certainly does not feel fragile.

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

Hasselblad is immune to midges on Skye, 2020

It wont let you do things in the wrong order – that causes a bit of panic to start with when you think the camera is jammed and I think it will take around five years for me to remember to take the bloody dark slide out before looking into the viewfinder – this is now a moment of personal comedy – you gotta laugh.. and that viewfinder……..I remember sitting at the kitchen table and popping open the viewfinder after unpacking it – I was genuinely startled at what I saw in there – there is a three dimensional quality to it that is hard to describe – even my cynical tech savvy kids think its pretty cool.

One of my favourite things is changing the film – seriously – and you do that quite a bit with 120 film as some of you will know.
The design and engineering of the film back is wonderful – from the lock to remove the film carrier to the spring retainer that holds the spools in place with a cam action from one side to the other it is a joy to use – the little lock also serves to catch the film against the exposure plate and it all slides back into place with a satisfying clunk.
Good design is discreet and intuitive – if it feels like it should do something then well designed things often do – it’s Mac vs PC for me….

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

Walk in the woods during lockdown, Portra 120

Nothing with Hasselblad on it seems cheap except for some of those dodgy 80’s ‘soft porn’ filters perhaps but you just have to suck it up. I recently bought the spirit level accessory – for some reason I seem to hold the camera crooked.. I cannot repeat how much I paid for a little bubble but I unwrapped it and it slid onto it’s holder on the camera – which is also the Hasselblad nameplate – and it is bloody marvellous.
Back to the hifi again but it feels like the first time you pressed soft eject on your dad’s tape deck – it is slick and gives you joy to the point you show others both camera and bubble and get them to work it out – for those who appreciate such things it always gets an ‘aaaaah’

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

Derelict Farmhouse

Is it perfect ? No – the strap lugs are in the wrong place and are a real faff – as are the straps – so I made my own out of soft tanned leather like they used to use for the Hasselblad lens cases – have a look if you have never seen one – it seems appropriate and I can hang the camera in the small of my back when I am walking around… so I can live with that small failing.
The nemesis of 500 users is getting the lens off the camera and out of sync with the body – It has not happened to me yet but I guess it is inevitable.

It is very close to being perfect for me – as a functional piece of equipment and something that gives pleasure in using it it is the best camera I have ever owned. I have quite a lot of cameras but a snob I am not – I love my funky little Zorkis and Feds. I have loved Nikons since my teens and I think the teeny tiny OM1n and a 50mm lens is right up there.. They all have things they do well and things that make you stop and think ‘what the hell were they thinking?’
Russian cameras are generally designed to take your eye out using the film advance lever or at best leave a dent in your forehead as you try to see something to focus on through the fog of the viewfinder – my lovely Nikon F2’s are glorious but give you a sore back they are so heavy and I have a half dozen rangefinders that I like the aesthetic of but just cannot be friends with.

Hasselblad - A personal reflection

Glacial erratic on Skye

I have not talked about the images we take together but I like them – a lot.. we have a way to go before we have cemented our relationship and I can feel like I have some kind of mastery over it but that is part of the appeal – I picked up a friends new Sony SLR last week and it is a beautiful thing until I looked into the viewfinder and saw people overlain with digital information showing exposure peaks – it was hideous and I cannot be bothered with tech that would take you ten years to get your head around and where the viewfinder could induce nausea…

So – my eternal gratitude to Arvid, Karl and mostly Victor for creating something special and unique……….- me and thousands of others appreciate it – it is a very special camera from a special company – hey – how many Leica’s have been to the moon ?

Dr David Mitchell

November 2020

Twitter @dsm888

Flickr : https://www.flickr.com/photos/lesleyanddavidandbenanddaniel/

References

1 www.hasselblad.com. Retrieved Nov 22nd 2020

2 www.hasselblad.com. Retrieved Nov 22nd 2020

3 Photography Equipment and Techniques : A Survey of NASA Developments, Albert J Derr, NASA SP-5099, 2001

4 Recently digitised and made available by NASA – https://www.flickr.com/photos/projectapolloarchive/albums

5 Hendrix by photographer Gered Mankowitz

6 Marilyn Monroe by photographer Douglas Kirland 1961

7 Taken on the afternoon of December 28, 1960 with a Hasselblad  and 250mm Zeiss Sonnar lens, mirror raised, 120 Panatomic-X and an orange filter. Adams recorded the exposure was 1/4 sec at f/11. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Hasselblad loaned Adams equipment for feedback and he used Hasselblad a great deal in later years.

Thank you to Dr. David Mitchell for sharing his passionate relationship with a beautiful Swede. If you love you camera and want to share it with us, drop us a line.

Please comment and share your thoughts.

JCH