Masters at WorkEditor - 8th August 2016
2016 sees the iconic photographic brand Hasselblad reach its 75th anniversary. Never seemingly satisfied, Hasselblad have worked tirelessly to retain their reputation as a manufacturer of excellence, developing some of the most iconic photographic tools in history. Here, Hungry Eye Editor Simon Skinner looks at the history of the Hasselblad family; the building blocks of the company as we know it today, and talks to some prolific Hasselblad users along the way
The Early Years
The story of Hasselblad reads almost as the history of photography itself. In the port city of Gothenburg, Sweden in 1841, the Hasselblad family established its first trading company, F.W. Hasselblad & Co. The location, Gothenburg, with its proximity to the European continent and its historic trade connections with Britain, Holland, Denmark, Germany, and a host of other countries, proved to be ideal for an international import-export firm and they soon became one of Sweden’s most successful businesses. It was soon after this time that they began importing supplies and products relating to the newly burgeoning field of photography.
So with beginnings as distributors and resellers in the photographic realm, it was left to Arvid Viktor Hasselblad, the son of F.W. Hasselblad & Co founder, and amateur photographer, to drive the company’s specialist division of the business. He is reported to have commented, “I certainly don’t think that we will earn much money from this, but at least it will allow me to take pictures for free.”
This perceived nonchalance was fleeting though. Viktor was a man with a drive to grow the division and these have been qualities which have seen the company far outstrip any early expectations; leading the way with beautifully crafted cameras and incredible optics, Hasselblad have defined medium format photography for 75 years.
It’s a little known fact, and some explanation to the future successes of the Hasselblad business, that Arvid Viktor met George Eastman whilst on honeymoon in England. George was just a short time away from launching the Eastman Kodak Company, patenting his first film in 1884, subsequently changing the name [to the Eastman Kodak Company] and making photography an accessible hobby to the average consumer. The two formed a business partnership, which was based on a simple handshake and that lasted for the best part of 80 years. In 1888, just four years after George Eastman’s patent, Hasselblad began importing Kodak products as sole Swedish distributor. The increase in popularity of photography and technical advances led to a rapid increase in demand for products. The photographic division of the company grew so rapidly that in 1908 the family formed a separate firm to deal with the increased business, Fotografiska AB. A national network of retail outlets and labs quickly followed.
Victor Hasselblad & the Birth of Hasselblad Cameras
Even with the early successes of the distribution business and with the family having reaped huge rewards from photography, it wasn’t until the passing of a couple of generations and the arrival of Victor Hasselblad, that the business of making excellent cameras really happened.
Victor was born in 1906 and became a precocious young man with a passion for photography and a determination to improve upon the photographic equipment available at the time. In fact, Victor’s notebooks from his teenage years contained suggestions for various improvements for camera kit.
At the age of 18, Victor moved to Dresden, Germany to learn more about the camera industry and optics manufacturing from the ground up but he spent the next few years learning his lessons in the real world, not in the classroom. He roamed the globe, spending this period of his life as an apprentice in the camera industry. First in Germany and France, then in the United States, working in camera and film factories, developing labs, camera shops – anywhere that would provide insight and understanding into the world of photography or knowledge of how cameras and lenses were made.
During his travels, Victor became friends with his family’s business partner, George Eastman and the elder businessman took the protégé under his wing at the company’s headquarters and in his home in Rochester, New York. This friendship was to prove most helpful in the years to come. Through Eastman, Victor gained access to brilliant photographers and technicians alike.
Returning to Europe to work in the family business didn’t go too well for Victor. A family conflict and disagreement with his father ensued and it wasn’t very long before Victor left to form his own company. In 1937 Victor Hasselblad opened a photo shop, aptly named ‘Victor Foto’, in central Gothenburg. The shop was complete with a photo lab and was his first independent step in business. Through his travels, industry knowledge and mentors such as George Eastman, Victor had a talent for business and marketing and the shop proved to be a success.
1939 brought the outbreak of war and the German invasions of Denmark and Norway followed. By the early 1940s, Europe was fully immersed in the Second World War. The German invasion of the surrounding Scandinavian countries prompted the total mobilisation of the relatively unprepared Swedish military. The nation hurried to equip and prepare itself.
In the spring of 1940 the Swedish government approached Victor Hasselblad, asking him if he could produce a camera identical to one recovered from a fallen German surveillance plane. Victor responded: “No, but I can make one that’s better.”
Meanwhile, German troops were poised just across the Norwegian border. German surveillance planes violated Swedish air space and several went down on Swedish soil. Most of the airplanes and their equipment were destroyed. One of them however, surrendered a fully functioning German aerial surveillance camera. This was a piece of equipment that the Swedish military were keen to replicate. By this time, Victor Hasselblad was in his thirties and had gained quite a reputation for himself as a camera expert. He had published several articles on photography and technical issues and, of course, his family’s name was on the most successful photo supply chain in the country. It was no surprise that the Swedish military would turn to Victor for help.
It was in the spring of 1940 that the Swedish government approached a then thirty-four year old Victor Hasselblad, asking him if he could produce a camera identical to the one recovered from the German surveillance plane. It has since been written that Victor responded: “No, but I can make one that’s better”.
That April, Victor built a workshop in a basic shed with the simple plan to build cameras. The shed was based in an automobile workshop in central Gothenburg, close by to a junkyard; a site that proved to be a handy resource and supplied Victor with a host of much needed raw materials. During the evenings and with the help of a talented mechanic from the automobile workshop [and his brother] Hasselblad began the lengthy process of reverse engineering the captured German camera and designing what would become the first Hasselblad camera, the HK 7.
Roll forward a few short months and the company, originally named Ross Incorporated, moved into a small factory facility complete with a team of twenty workers and later in 1941, the business moved again, beginning serial production of the handheld HK 7. The camera format was 7x9cm and used 80mm film with two interchangeable lenses, the first a Zeiss Biotessar and the second either a Meyer Tele-Megor or a Schneider Tele-Xenar.
Shortly after this and still within 1941, the Air Force placed a new order for a new camera with Victor and his team. This camera was to have a larger negative format and required a fixed mounting for the aircraft. The military was extremely happy with both the HK 7 and its successor, the SKa4, which had several unique features. Features, including interchangeable film magazines, which would prove vital for post-war production of Hasselblad´s cameras.
The following year, in 1942, Victor managed to purchase the majority of the shares in the family company, F.W. Hasselblad, after the death of his father, Karl Erik Hasselblad. Military camera production carried on with vigour with Hasselblad delivering a total of 342 cameras between 1941- 45, although Victor saw the military cameras as simply the first step towards the development of camera products for a consumer market. What he had in mind was a new type of camera; a high-quality, portable camera and a camera that would fit in the user’s hand.
Cameras for People
Once the war ended and, after a vast amount of research and development including the production of sensitive watch and clock works, Victor turned his full attention to the task of producing his new consumer camera. It was on October 6, 1948 that Victor introduced the world to the first Hasselblad produced consumer camera, the Hasselblad 1600F. The 1600F was a single-lens, mirror reflex, 6×6 camera with film magazines, interchangeable Kodak lenses and viewfinders and was unveiled at a press conference in NYC. However, there were flaws. Although the first cameras were beautiful, technological marvels, their advanced mechanics were extremely delicate. The watchmakers at Victor’s plant were experts at making precision parts, but not used to producing mechanics that could stand up to the strain a handheld camera needed to endure. Improvement led to further improvement at the factory, and eventually, the design developments led to a new camera, something Victor and his uncompromising standards were proud of, the new 1000F.
The 1000F boasted a host of refined and improved features and a brand-new series of six lenses. The success of the designs and cameras, and the money they generated, helped Victor’s company to expand. Development continued, new designs were invented and with every step, Victor took advantage of his large network of contacts and his own experience as a photographer, incorporating the input and advice he had received.
The 500C had lenses with central leaf shutters and flash synch on all shutter speeds and even today defines Hasselblad with what photographers refer to as the V series of cameras.
In 1957 Hasselblad followed the success of his first cameras with a new revolutionary product, the Hasselblad 500C. This camera had lenses with central leaf shutters and flash synch on all shutter speeds and even today defines Hasselblad with what photographers refer to as the V series of cameras.
The Hasselblad SWA , the wide angle Hasselblad SWC , and the motor operated Hasselblad 500 EL  formed the base of the Hasselblad system for many years to come. The basic philosophy behind the system, its versatility, modularity and reliability, has proved to be the blueprint for the Hasselblad product line from then until now with the Hasselblad name becoming synonymous with the pinnacle in camera reliability and image quality.
It’s quite possible that there are no images in the history of photography more famous or influential than those taken in space using Hasselblad cameras.
Hasselblad in Space
Many people are aware of Hasselblad by perhaps their crowning achievement of having their specially modified cameras travelling into space. The reputation of the Hasselblad brand was surely a contributing factor when a young NASA astronaut took the first Hasselblad into space in 1962. This journey was the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial collaboration with the world’s largest space agency, and in 1969 the story continued with Apollo 11, with the first images of man on the moon [and of earth from the moon] which were captured by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr with a Hasselblad 500EL/70. It’s quite possible that there are no images in the history of photography more famous or influential than those taken in space with these Hasselblads. The cameras recorded iconic and historic images of man’s exploration of space in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. It also changed things for the camera brand as everyone then knew Hasselblad.
A New Era
After significant dealings by Victor, including the sale of his distribution and retail business, Hasselblad Fotografiska AB to Kodak and the sale of Victor Hasselblad AB to Swedish investment company, Säfveån AB; Victor Hasselblad passed away in 1978 at the age of 72.
Fast-forward a number of years and after numerous business dealings, which saw ownership of the brand move from one company to another, in 2002 Hasselblad took another giant step and released the H1 camera. The new camera system formed the foundation of the H system as we know it today. This camera was a departure in many ways. It was electronic and built for the new digital world that was rapidly changing everything photographic. Also, It didn’t operate with a square format, instead a 6×4.5 (known more commonly nowadays as 645).
The Hasselblad Digital Back
In 1985 VHAB (Victor Hasselblad AB), still at the forefront of camera development, had established the subsidiary, Hasselblad Electronic Imaging AB, for the development, production, and marketing of digital imaging systems and systems for digital transmission of images. This organisation was one of the first with a dedicated approach to the new digital photography market, which paid dividends much further along when Hasselblad announced the CFV Digital back; essentially offering digital compatibility to every V system Hasselblad camera since 1957.
The CFV-50c entered the fray in 2014 using the first ever medium format CMOS sensor, unlocking digital possibilities and capabilities to V system users the world over. The new Digital back offered users digital lens corrections, guaranteeing the optimum in performance at a level unavailable with the equivalent, scanned film images.
The CFV-50c subsequently transformed virtually all Hasselblad V System Cameras from the 500C onwards into high performance digital cameras. Only the 202, 203, and 205 needed slight modification, after which, they too were compatible. Designed with simplicity of operation in mind, the digital back required no cables at all for connection, which was a first of its kind upon launch.
Hasselblad: The Future
Since the development and subsequent evolution of the H series, Hasselblad have, as with many camera brands, fought to maintain their presence and profile in the market to hold their position as the premium camera brand, producing such marvels as the H5D and the H5D 50c cameras through until November 2014, when Perry Oosling was invited by the board to join as company CEO.
In conversation with Hungry Eye Editor, Simon Skinner, Perry explained a number of fundamental developments that transpired with the sole intention to take the Hasselblad business and the camera technology to the next level. He described these developments as being: “A brand that’s built from our own core DNA, our optical quality and iconic design, the living history and Swedish craftsmanship.”
Since Perry’s arrival, these changes have manifested themselves in a number of significant ways, including a radical centralisation of people and skills to Gothenburg in early 2015. These skills and people have been expanded along with directing all efforts and available money into research and development, followed by a three year strategic business plan devised by the newly appointed and extended management team, financed in part by newly appointed minority investor in the shape of DJI.
So the future of Hasselblad is looking extremely bright. An iconic brand with quality and craftmanship at its core, it seems that any road may that we can expect to see from here will include products that reflect Victor’s own intent to encapsulate imaging perfection.
With the clear saturation of the DSLR market, many serious photographers looking to trade up and other brands threatening to join the medium format fray; we could be looking at the brand leading the pack and coming into its own once more.
A renowned Hasselblad user and owner of possibly the greatest rock & roll photography archive on the planet, Gered spoke with Hungry Eye, way back in Vol.2, Issue 1. An edition that saw one of his iconic shots of Jimi Hendrix gracing the cover, along with the story behind it
“I’d left school at just fifteen and then served an apprenticeship with Tom Blau at Camera Press in London. They handed me a Rolleiflex, which was the first medium format camera I’d ever worked with. Soon after that I got myself a Hasselblad. My father had a small life insurance policy, which he had taken out when I was born. He gave this to me and encouraged me to buy my first Hasselblad. I’ve used Hasselblad cameras from that day to this.
With regards to the Hendrix shots, they all happened rather quickly. Although I’d briefly met Jimi shortly after he arrived in London at the end of 1966, he didn’t come to my studio until February in 1967. He had tremendous power and charisma and took to the fashions of the day like a duck to water. He was charming, modest, quiet and funny and a joy to work with, allowing me that wonderful moment of access which makes for a great portrait. The second session a few weeks later was primarily to get fresh shots with the band as they had had their hair permed to give them an ‘afro’ look…!
I have been involved in digital post-production since the very early 1990’s. Postproduction on my advertising work at that time took place at a retouching studio I’d set up above my studio. I found it was a way, during that recession which had changed the advertising world, to extend my commercial life in advertising for a few years by learning postproduction and offering it as a service. During that time I was approached by a German company who were going to release four albums of Jimi Hendrix’s music.
They called me and said that they wanted four colour images for the CD covers. I was about to reject the project, by saying that I hadn’t shot any colour images, when I realised that it might be possible for me to ‘paint’ my black & white images to add colour using my newly found postproduction skills. So I told them that I could do it and I created four new images, in colour, with new backgrounds and these were the images I offered them. They absolutely loved them and from that moment on, I started re-creating images from my archive using postproduction techniques and that was really my early digital experience.
My commercial career remained based in analogue photography. I didn’t really get involved in commercial, digital image creation. I had dropped out of that side of the business before it became sort of compulsory: I was shooting film right through to my final commercial sessions. I would always scan everything, work up varying amounts of postproduction and supply digital results but I actually always shot on film using Hasselblad products.”
Having partly honed his craft using Hasselblad cameras, namely the 500CM, Tom had subsequently worked with all manner of products before making the switch back to the brand as an ongoing professional choice. Having subsequently acted as Global Brand Ambassador for the hugely exciting and innovative H6D cameras, Tom explained his reasons for falling in love with the H5D 50c in Hungry Eye Volume 2, Issue 4
“My last year’s output has been dominated by a mighty new Hasselblad H5D 50, and now replaced by the 50c, a CMOS sensor that is, frankly, quite astounding and has taken medium format to where it should be: a studio camera you can use anywhere. While the massive files enable the luxury of cropping and all that obvious stuff, for me the real excitement is in the way the images feel. Every camera and every lens ever produced has, of course, its own inherent quality and feel, whether you happen to like it or not, and the Hasselblad 50c captures a richness I’ve not experienced with any other camera I have ever touched. How you make ones and zeroes equal this I do not know, but I’m bloody glad these Swedes do because it now means, in the studio, on location, flash light, daylight or no light, I can shoot without compromise, or without needing to fall back to my DSLR kit, which, until now, has never been all that far away.
The areas in which I work are notorious for people with no time, or whose time is worth very large sums of money and, frankly, neither time nor money are to be trifled with. It was in the after-shoot glow of one of these moments that I knew I had to make the leap and buy the kit. I’d completely nailed a shoot with the fastest runner of all time, out of all the people ever to walk the planet, in perfect conditions with plenty of time, but on the same DSLR that I’d seen young starters and amateurs using. While there’s your team and lighting, lenses, process and retouch still to add to the mix, it did strike me as being a bit crap and not exactly fulfilling to have achieved less than an image’s full potential by scrimping on the very thing at the heart of my chosen medium. To actively produce imagery that’s less exciting made this akin to a slight failure, or just a mild success.
While it’s been the largest capital expenditure of my career, the choice to purchase was made simple, I needed to apply this quality and feel to everything I shoot, [and not just when a budget allowed] in order to separate my work from everyone else in this new digital democracy, which, in fairness, has made a fantastic job of putting image-making equipment in the hands of all people.
The 50C represents where I hoped I might be by now, and while I doubt it’ll be my workhorse for the next 25 years like the old school 500CMs, it will produce career-defining imagery on demand, in all conditions, right now. And quality always prevails.”
The work of commercial and automotive car photographer Tim Wallace is often described as dramatic and conceptual. It is well regarded and received both by commercial clients and within the advertising industry itself and has lead to the International Commercial Advertising Photographer of the Year and UK Motor Industry Car Photographer of the Year awards. A Hasselblad user since before his teens, Tim explains what Hasselblad means to him
“In many ways Hasselblad sits at the core of my business, it is my weapon of mass creativity.
I’ve been shooting on Hasselblad since I was 12 years old, starting with the epic Hasselblad SWC, which I still have and still shoot on even today for my own personal work.
Today within my competitive field of commercial photography client demands are high and having the right equipment is essential. I only really care about three things, reliability, quality of output, and my lenses. I have worked with my current digital bodies professionally for 10 years, such as the current H5, in temperatures between –15c and +48c without a single failure and that is a very important aspect of making the choice to stay on the Hasselblad platform as I often need to shoot in very difficult conditions on locations around the world.
Knowing that I can totally rely on my equipment delivering what I need is crucial on a big campaign shoot. I recently shot the new prototype for Peugeot in their studio at the Peugeot design centre in Paris, ready for launch at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The shoot lasted 4 days with temperatures reaching 48c in the studio as we had a heat wave in Paris at the same time. The camera performed flawlessly and its knowing that I can have that confidence in the equipment which means that I can focus on being creative and getting the campaign shot. Sure, over the years I have been asked to try other platforms but for me, personally I will continue to use what I am most comfortable with. I also would say that I could not let go of my lenses, the Hasselblad lenses and the quality of those optically play a key part in that decision too.”