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Roger Hicks -- Author of The Rangefinder Book

Roger Hicks is a well known photographic writer, author of The Rangefinder Book, over three dozen other photographic books, and a frequent contributor to Shutterbug and Amateur Photographer. Unusually in today's photographic world, most of his camera reviews are film cameras, especially rangefinders. See www.rogerandfrances.com for further background (Frances is his wife Frances Schultz, acknowledged darkroom addict and fellow Shutterbug contributor) .


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Some thoughts on American cameras
Old 03-15-2011   #1
Roger Hicks
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Some thoughts on American cameras

...including rangefinders. From the end of the current Short Schrift on the front page of my web-site, http://www.rogerandfrances.com/ Alpa was bought by a Swiss couple (Thomas and Ursula) who wanted to revive a noble Swiss camera brand. They succeeded. Why is there no-one in the USA to do the same with Graflex?

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R.
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Old 03-15-2011   #2
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For the same reason nobody in Germany will re-use the Mentor brand. Graflex was barely visible to Joe Average, and hence not a brand with a public reputation comparable to Alpa. Besides, Alpa was not revived as a 35mm SLR, but they bought the name rights for their medium format studio camera series. Nobody in the US seems to have a product for which he'd want to purchase the name rights to Graflex.
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Old 03-15-2011   #3
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For the same reason nobody in Germany will re-use the Mentor brand. Graflex was barely visible to Joe Average, and hence not a brand with a public reputation comparable to Alpa. Besides, Alpa was not revived as a 35mm SLR, but they bought the name rights for their medium format studio camera series. Nobody in the US seems to have a product for which he'd want to purchase the name rights to Graflex.
Ooooh.... Speed Graphic? One of the greatest names of all time? A LOT better known than Alpa.

Besides, Thomas and Ursula bought the name with the intention of making a new camera: the Alpa 12 wasn't waiting in the wings, but arrived long after they'd bought the name.

Incredibly, they had considered Egli-Vincent instead of Alpa: Thomas actually rode on the back of an Egli-Vincent piloted by Fritz Egli. They wanted to revive a great Swiss name, purely to showcase Swiss engineering. Neither is a photographer, a motorcyclist or an engineer: just Swiss. And both are incredibly nice people, who have been taken somewhat by surprise by the success of their cameras.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 03-15-2011   #4
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Ooooh.... Speed Graphic? One of the greatest names of all time? A LOT better known than Alpa.
Among amateurs or consumers? Maybe as a pre war press camera, but nobody will know they actually made cameras past the forties. Even Linhof or Sinar (which are still in business, and rank higher than Graflex in the reputation score) are almost entirely unknown if we look beyond older professionals and the odd few large format enthusiasts...
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Old 03-15-2011   #5
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Egli Vincent is all very well, but they would have been buying engines from Australia...
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Old 03-15-2011   #6
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A hand held 4x5 probably wouldn't compete well, but a TLR or 35mm might. I know they sold them, I don't know for sure if they made them or just branded them from someone else.
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Old 03-15-2011   #7
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Singer, the sewing machine company, bought Graflex and one of those "divestment" bankers broke it up and sold the bits to once was a great American company. Greed won. Of course Graflex was at the end of the line anyway, the Graflex XL, no offense to anyone, was a hideous camera (in my opinion) and they had adopted entirely too much plastic into their designs.

Personally I think American camera design was the best in the world, from a practical engineering and manufacturing standpoint. An ACME shutter is inexpensively made from bent metal parts, like a cheap alarm clock, but it works reliably for years without service. A German Compur is beautifully made from milled parts but requires regular maintenance. After the war, McArthur and the American planners basically "gave" the Japanese our camera industry as a way to get the Japanese economy going....
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Old 03-15-2011   #8
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Quote:
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Singer, the sewing machine company, bought Graflex and one of those "divestment" bankers broke it up and sold the bits to once was a great American company. Greed won. Of course Graflex was at the end of the line anyway, the Graflex XL, no offense to anyone, was a hideous camera (in my opinion) and they had adopted entirely too much plastic into their designs.

Personally I think American camera design was the best in the world, from a practical engineering and manufacturing standpoint. An ACME shutter is inexpensively made from bent metal parts, like a cheap alarm clock, but it works reliably for years without service. A German Compur is beautifully made from milled parts but requires regular maintenance. After the war, McArthur and the American planners basically "gave" the Japanese our camera industry as a way to get the Japanese economy going....
There is certainly an American design ethos that has to be admired, a rugged simplicity that we lost back in the 19 century ... that sounds critical but it isn't
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Old 03-15-2011   #9
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Quote:
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Frank Version Two View Post
An ACME shutter is inexpensively made from bent metal parts, like a cheap alarm clock, but it works reliably for years without service.
There is certainly an American design ethos that has to be admired, a rugged simplicity that we lost back in the 19 century ... that sounds critical but it isn't
Kind of like a good Zorki?
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Old 03-15-2011   #10
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Kind of like a good Zorki?
Yep, but a Zorki that works
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Old 03-21-2011   #11
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There is certainly an American design ethos that has to be admired, a rugged simplicity that we lost back in the 19 century ... that sounds critical but it isn't
When I think of American design why does the image of an Edsel appear in my thought bubble?

But along with things like Danelectro guitars modern peer review has put some designs from the fifties and sixties into the 'so bad its good' category. The Edsel can now hold its badge high at shows for over-restored cars. And that is what would happen with a modern resurrection of Graflex. A once proud name that made appaling cameras at the end of its life reintegrated into society as a must have niche brand. All sins would be forgotten and the glory days would be revived. I honestly believe that with a little viral marketing (and thats all it would take) Graflex could have a solid future based on the complimentary approach people have to camera 'collecting' . So if you have a Leica, a Rollieflex, a '56 Strat, and a (tasteful) Rolex the next hit would be Graflex. All it needs is somebody to do it.....Roger.

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Old 03-21-2011   #12
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Some small companies like Razzle and Polaroidconversions seem to making a viable niche out of hand held 4x5, 120/220 and Polaroid bodies and interchangeable backs based on Polaroid 250-generation folders. If they can do it, why not Graflex? Graflex has at least the retro cool factor of the old Polaroids. Look at the success of Lomo marketing. I would have imagined that Graflex has at least the same potential as that.
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Old 03-21-2011   #13
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Does someone already own the rights to the Graflex name in photo circles? I have at home a 28-200 zoom lens with the Graflex name on it in Minolta MC mount (but it looks like a 1980s style design). I doubt its from the original company and a google search didn't bring up much info on the lens at all.

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Old 03-21-2011   #14
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Nice piece, Roger, I'm enjoying your "short schrifts."

By the way, like it or not, a regular online column of brief text pieces is, by definition, what a blog is. Face it, sir: you're a blogger.
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Old 03-21-2011   #15
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Yep, but a Zorki that works

Whether a Zorki 'works' or not depends entirely on what it's actually being used for ... surely.
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Old 03-21-2011   #16
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Singer Graflex ended the Graphic series in around 1970, and sold the tooling to Toyo/Horseman, who continued making derived cameras under their own brands (so the brand obviously did not change hands then, not even for large format products). In any case, Singer Graflex did not entirely get out of photography - they still distributed the Graflex Norita 66 until 1976, and must have continued producing projectors past that, as some were still listed in a German mid-eighties catalogue of AV products.
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Old 03-21-2011   #17
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American movies from the fifties and sixties were always highlighted for me if there was a scene with press photographers ... and their Graflex cameras.

I never really bought the apple pie that those movies always seemed to be selling me ... but I did get a Crown Gaphic eventually.
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Old 03-21-2011   #18
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Classic American camera- Polaroid.

Maybe the last American Made SLR made in large quantities, the Polaroid SLR680. The SLR690 is a good recreation, was produced by Polaroid Japan. I have one of each.

On the Graphics- they just keep working. I gave away 2 of them, traded a third.
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Old 03-21-2011   #19
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Not to hijack the thread, but as one who literally cut his teeth on a 4X5 back in the 40s, I would contend that the best-of-the-breed was the aluminum body Busch Pressman.

This was one solid camera, and as weather resistant as you could make.

It did however, lack the focal plane shutter that made the Graflex/Graphic family such a favorite among sports photogs.
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Old 03-21-2011   #20
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SLR680. Revived, or at least refurbished, by the impossible project.

Or perhaps not.

http://shop.the-impossible-project.c.../ca_slr680_kit

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Old 03-21-2011   #21
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I think there's a general perception of Swiss (and also German) workmanship standing for precision which may not be equally strong in regards to American workmanship. Of course it's a cliché and there's no reason why an American camera shouldn't be just as good a Swiss one but clichés are important when it comes to brands. Remember that the company name is not just "ALPA", it's "ALPA of Switzerland" and also it's not just "Arca", it's "Arca Swiss". In comparison, I don't know if "Graflex" would inspire the same confidence in the minds of people who will pay top dollar for a precision camera.
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Old 03-21-2011   #22
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Quote:
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Classic American camera- Polaroid.

Maybe the last American Made SLR made in large quantities, the Polaroid SLR680. The SLR690 is a good recreation, was produced by Polaroid Japan. I have one of each.

On the Graphics- they just keep working. I gave away 2 of them, traded a third.
i can vouch that one of them & it's 127/4.7 Ektar is still going strong. i've also rebuilt a nearly destroyed Crown from 1962 into a working field camera.

if one were to be built with the same simplicity and strength, i'd think there would be a small niche for a Graflex rebirth. That said, it would need to be a second business for someone who could do it for love and for the tax write off.

Perhaps a recreation of the Century Graphic with roll holders and a digital back that looks and acts something like the cut sheet holder of old but with a memory card rather than a 2x3 sheet? Real red leather bellows & a bit more movements up front, say like the Super Speed's? That might find a few customers but it would probably not be economically viable.
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Old 03-21-2011   #23
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What would be the market? What would they sell and to whom?
  1. The DSLR market is already really crowded: Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Pentax
  2. The high end for product/fashion is really crowded: Leica, Nikon, Canon,
  3. The film market is crowded with a vast used market, Cosina, and Leica.
  4. The mirrorless market has: Sony, Olympus, Fuji, and Sigma
  5. Point and shoot cameras will die faster than film. (People who used P&S cameras now just use their iPhones)
  6. Panoramic camera market has Horizon, Noblex, Widelux, Linhoff, Fuji
  7. Technical camera market has Horseman and Linhoff
  8. Instant camera market has Polaroid
  9. The crappy camera market is dominated by Lomo
The large market already has a ton of players who have economies of scale to produce low-cost cameras. Some of the niche markets (like technical cameras) are so small, that there isn't any room for a new entry.

On another note, a company brought back Argus. I doubt they are made in the US.
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Old 03-21-2011   #24
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Some of the niche markets (like technical cameras) are so small, that there isn't any room for a new entry.
While I agree with most of what you're saying I think this is a bit of an overstatement. If you ask the current players in a niche like technical cameras they will no doubt tell you that there isn't any room for a new entry. But of course there is if you manage to take market share away from other players. A small market also means that the number of people you have convince of your product is considerably smaller. If you manage to get 10 prospective ALPA or Arca buyers to buy your products instead, you've already generated an income of at least $100'000 (how much of that is actual profit will, of course, depend on manufacturing costs and overhead).
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Old 03-21-2011   #25
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An American company buying the name of a product to have it produced in Asia, and be at a woeful marketing disadvantage compared to the giants of the industry? Sounds like good business sense to leave that to someone else.

Besides, we still have these guys.

http://www.vivitar.com/
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Digital Rapid Rollex
Old 03-21-2011   #26
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Digital Rapid Rollex

Quote:
Originally Posted by wlewisiii View Post
i can vouch that one of them & it's 127/4.7 Ektar is still going strong. i've also rebuilt a nearly destroyed Crown from 1962 into a working field camera.

if one were to be built with the same simplicity and strength, i'd think there would be a small niche for a Graflex rebirth. That said, it would need to be a second business for someone who could do it for love and for the tax write off.

Perhaps a recreation of the Century Graphic with roll holders and a digital back that looks and acts something like the cut sheet holder of old but with a memory card rather than a 2x3 sheet? Real red leather bellows & a bit more movements up front, say like the Super Speed's? That might find a few customers but it would probably not be economically viable.
Right.

It's the 6x9 slide in digital back I would like to see. I've a Century to fit it.

yours
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Old 03-21-2011   #27
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Right.

It's the 6x9 slide in digital back I would like to see. I've a Century to fit it.
I hope you also have a century to wait for it
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Old 03-21-2011   #28
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I'll take the Ansco Automatic Reflex thanks.

And from a design perspective, how about a recreation of the Raymond Loewy designed Anscomatic?
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Old 03-21-2011   #29
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Maybe someone should revive... Kodak.
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Old 03-25-2011   #30
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There are tons of Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic (lacks FP shutter) cameras out there to be had for a pittance, most of them in operable condition. I'm not sure even the Chinese could make a replica of equal quality that would cost as little.
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Old 03-25-2011   #31
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Look on eBay for the interesting "Gaoersi" brand. Of course it is Chinese. These replace the bellows with a cast aluminum, rigid housing like a Fuji 617. Limited movements. A viewfinder and handles, like a press camera, ground-glass peeping not encouraged. Costs more than a used Graflex, but might be cool for those shooting people press-style with 4x5 (or 8x10).
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Old 03-25-2011   #32
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An ACME shutter is inexpensively made from bent metal parts, like a cheap alarm clock, but it works reliably for years without service. A German Compur is beautifully made from milled parts but requires regular maintenance.
I concur, I remember thinking that it's odd that I've seen more Japanese/German shutters freeze, gunked up or broken than those in old, dirty, cheap Kodak folders.

Also reminds me of the big Wollensak shutter on my 8x10 B&J. It is dirty as heck, but it works and have single-action (trigger cocks the shutter and release it) to boot. The same can be said on my Seneca 5x7 lens/shutter combination.



I think that's one of the most handsome TLR around.
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Old 03-25-2011   #33
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Revive a noble brand? I don't think that would be the goal in itself.

Gowland does it's own thing today, though not a camera for the Luigi case set, I'm afraid.

Oddly enough, Apple (heirs of Edsel design) could be a company to push into cameras - and integrate them to new/better purposes. It's just chips and tin. It fits into their market well.

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Old 03-25-2011   #34
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I think that's one of the most handsome TLR around.
I agree, and have owned a perfect example of it. But the sub-cheapo Wollensak shutter is truly underwhelming.
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Old 03-25-2011   #35
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It would be pointless to attempt to revive Graflex; there are enough good originals left to satisfy the market for that type of camera. They built them too well, and 60-year old examples work as good as new. Of course the market moved away from them- photojournalists had gone to 35mm (Nikon F) and 120 (Rollei) by the 1960s. The Hasselblad and Mamiya RB67 killed the Graflex SLRs by, well, just working better and being more flexible. The Graphic View was supplanted by any number of European and Japanese monorail cameras. Their 35mm and twin-lens cameras were just cheap, and the XL failed in the marketplace. What's left? Graflex was the best of its time, much as the American Locomotive Co., where my grandfather worked, made the best steam engines. AlCo's long gone, too. I say use your Graflex cameras, take care of them, and they'll outlive you.
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Old 03-25-2011   #36
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Yep, but a Zorki that works
Shouldn't that be called a Worki?
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Old 03-25-2011   #37
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The greatest American camera maker ever nowadays makes it money off of "licensing its digital technology" instead of film. Eg. the sensor in the Leica M9!

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110326/...patent_dispute

As for Singer sewing machines and the handing over of the American camera industry to the Japanese in order to help them rebuild after WW2 here is a nicely brassed early post war Consew (Made in Japan) copy of an industrial Singer. It is still running perfect to this very day! They gave away the sewing machine industry too!

PS How many of you own McIntosh hi fi equipment? haha


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Old 03-25-2011   #38
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In response to Roger's OP


The Graflex camera – history

The iconic Speed Graphic is associated with an era of press photography through the 1930s to 60s. ..While many other large format cameras were in use at this time, it is the images of early Graflex, Century Graphic, Pacemaker Speed Graphic, Combat Graphic and Super Speed Graphic which captured public imagination. Arguably, the most famous photograph ever made in the 20th Century with a Graflex is the late Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's World War II image of United States Marines raising the Stars and Stripes flag on Mount Suribachi in 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima. It won a Pulitzer Prize for its author and inspired a national war-bond poster, a postage stamp and a bronze statue in Washington D.C.

A partnership between William F. Folmer and William E. Schwing made in 1887, was responsible for the long line of cameras which became an American photographic institution. Incorporated in 1890 as the Folmer & Schwing Manufacturing Co., the firm began making cameras in 1897. In 1905 the company was bought by George Eastman of Rochester and by 1917 was a division of Eastman Kodak. The company underwent more name changes before becoming Graflex Inc., in 1945. From 1956 until 1968 Graflex was owned by General Precision Equipment Corp and afterwards by the Singer Corporation.
The flood of small format Japanese cameras imported into the U.S.A. in the 1950s and 1960s gradually eroded the company's customer base and by 1973 Graflex had ceased large format press and field camera production. The last American produced 4" X 5" camera carried the name Super Speed Graphic. It was built with an all metal body and fitted with a coupled rangefinder, Graflex shutter, revolving universal back, double extension bellows and all directional movements on the front standard.

But the Speed Graphic story did not end then. In 1982, all the dies, designs and patents for the camera were purchased by the Sakai Special Camera Mfg Co Ltd of Osaka, Japan, makers of the Toyo range of field and studio cameras. The company put the camera back into production as the Toyo Super Graphic and fitted it with a National made Toyo Graphic Autolight 56E with an extra long handle. The Camera was imported to the UK by photographic distributors George Elliot & Son.

URL: http://graflex.ajaxnetphoto.com/
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Old 03-25-2011   #39
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I suppose you could wonder about Russian cars in the same vein....the Italians gave it a try -probably more for the political reasons of the time and so did Chevrolet -eek... In the end, nobody wants to buy them.
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Old 03-26-2011   #40
Roger Hicks
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Roger Hicks is offline
Join Date: Apr 2005
Location: Aquitaine
Posts: 21,821
I wasn't talking about bringing back any existing camera, but rather about makkng a great new camera under an old name, just as Alpa did with the 12. I completely agree that there is no point in reviving anything Graflex made in the past, but I like the idea of making a great NEW American camera -- a design no-one has seen before, just as Alpa did -- under the old name, as a celebration of top-flight American engineering.

Cheers,

R.
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