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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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Last edited by Roger Hicks : 03-15-2011 at 01:17.
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Old 03-15-2011   #2
sevo
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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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Quote:
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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:
Originally Posted by Brian Sweeney View Post
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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