VICTOR HASSELBLAD 1906-1978
- If you know photography, you know the Hasselblad camera. But do you know Hasselblad, the man? His life and ancestry are rich. Even the origin of the name “Hasselblad” has an interesting story. According to Hasselblad, an ancestor in the early 1600s needed a “good name” to wed the daughter of a wealthy man. An agreement was made that the first object seen after a certain point in the road would be the given name. Supposedly, the first object was a leaf falling from a hazel tree. Thus, we have hassel (hazel) and blad (leaf). However, the events and success of the family that the world now knows began on May 15, 1841.
Hasselblad’s great-grandfather, Fritz Victor, opened his own business in Gothenburg, Sweden on May 15, 1841, which he named F.W. Hasselblad & Co. After retiring in 1871, Fritz’s son, Arvid Viktor, took over. A very intelligent businessman, he made the store famous when he began importing “heat-insulated bottles,” which later became known as thermos bottles. After purchasing a camera in 1885, Arvid created a small photography department in the store. It is said this was the first company to bring photography to the Swedish public. Because of the success related to photography, the company manufactured albums, catalogues, and provided photography instruction. This success led to a “sister store” named Hasselblad Fotografiska AB. Karl Erik, Victor’s father, later took over, and it seemed almost inevitable that Victor Hasselblad would find a similar success.
Victor had a difficult home life. After his parents divorced, his father remarried and the upbringing was strict. He became shy and would often take long hikes in the country. During these hikes he would watch and sketch birds. Because of his developing interest in birds, Victor did well in his biology and botany classes. However, he did not finish Swedish schools. Instead, he traveled to places such as France, Germany and the United States from 1923-1925. During his visits he worked in camera factories, processing labs and camera retail stores. This experience created an interest in photography, and established an excellent foundation of knowledge for the future inventor.
Upon his return to Sweden, Hasselblad worked at the family store. He also wrote and illustrated articles for nature and photographic publications during a short period. Several years later, the summation of texts and images were combined for the book Flyttfagelstrak (Migratory Bird Passages). With growing tension between him and his father, Victor decided to open his own business. Victor Foto opened in 1937. The store specialized in photography equipment and film processing. Thanks to the family business instinct, combined with Hasselblad’s business experience and the incredible support of his wife Erna, whom he married in 1933, the store was a success.
Essentially, photography was a tool in which Hasselblad could document birds. The 8×10.5cm Graflex was the first camera he used. He made beautiful images, but ideally needed something smaller and quicker. The 35mm Leica was the answer. Although Hasselblad used this camera for many years, he was always searching for the perfect camera. Oddly, it was the onset of World War II that proved to be the opportunity Hasselblad needed to begin building his own cameras.
Though Sweden maintained neutrality, the country was forced to shoot down a Luftwaffe plane when it entered their air space. The plane had a surveillance camera. In need of this type of equipment, the Royal Swedish Air Force contacted Victor Hasselblad and asked if he could duplicate the camera. “No,” he said, “I cannot make one like that, but I can make one better.” He was then ordered to do so. In central Gothenburg, he rented a shed and began to look for his employees.
Hasselblad’s first crew consisted of auto mechanic Gustaf Tranefors and Tranefors’ brother Ake. Ake remained on Victor’s workforce for forty years. The first camera built by this crew was the HK7, which had a 7x9cm format and used 80mm film. One of the featured items of the camera was the interchangeable lenses. Between 1940 and 1943 approximately 240 HK7 models were produced. The second Hasselblad camera produced was the Ska4. Characteristics of today’s Hasselblad appeared on the Ska4. It had the square format and the interchangeable backs. Other war cameras produced by Hasselblad and his crew were the 18x24cm-survey cameras for the Air Force and the ground camera for the Army. Hasselblad also produced automatic processing machines, per the request of the Swedish government. These machines were needed to quickly process film used by aerial photographers. Hasselblad’s company also made gears for the SAAB, slide projectors and clocks. He inherited the family business after his father died in 1942. Because the company was largely dependent on imports, Hasselblad had to borrow money to keep the family business operating. After the war, the family business resumed with great success and Victor could finally concentrate on making a “civilian camera”.
The years and experience leading up to the “civilian camera” played a vital role in what Hasselblad would produce. His needs for recording birds were diverse. Over the years, Victor had used many cameras, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. The Graflex provided a large negative, but was heavy and unwieldy. The Leica was a beautiful precision instrument, but Victor missed the big negative. The Rolleiflex had the required reflex viewfinder, and the 6x6cm format was a good compromise, but the Rollei lacked interchangeable lenses and a sufficiently high top shutter speed for photographing fast-moving objects (such as birds in flight). After noting these specifics and laying out a basic design, Hasselblad offered a 5,000 kronor prize (one year’s pay) to the person or persons who could design and create the “ideal” camera. In 1948 the Hasselblad 1600F was introduced in the United States. The New York Herald-Tribune wrote “the Swedish camera seems to have almost everything that a photographer could want in a camera that measures less than four inches square and is a little over six inches long with a magazine and standard 80mm lens attached. It’s the perfect camera.” As with all cameras, there were many models following the successful first. Hence, the widely and wildly loved Hasselblad.
The camera was so widely and wildly loved, NASA used the Hasselblad in space. Since it was the ideal earth camera, why could it not be the ideal space camera? It was both. In fact, it was the only camera used in the space program for many years. On October 3, 1962, the first Hasselblad camera was taken into space. The photographs taken by astronaut Walter M. Schirra while orbiting the earth astonished the world. A special department was established at the Hasselblad factory in Gothenburg to carry out further development on the space cameras, utilizing Hasselblad’s own ideas and experience.
The Hasselblad 500C is considered the “space pioneer”. Views of the earth never previously witnessed by the world were now recorded on film. Hasselblad’s name would certainly never be forgotten now. Houston Control overheard an intercom conversation between astronaut Edward White and one of his colleagues saying, “come closer so I can get a shot of you with the Hasselblad.” During the final Gemini flights in 1966, the Hasselblad Super Wide C (the ultra wide-angle camera) was the choice camera. Of course, it worked beautifully. It produced brilliantly sharp images. An interesting event occurred during one of the space walks, which makes this particular camera famous. Astronaut Michael Collins dropped his Super Wide C, and although he made several attempts to save it, it floated out of reach to became an “earth satellite”. Some experts say it “plunged to its destruction about three years later.” Hasselblad cameras also accompanied astronauts on Apollo Flights. The Hasselblad 500EL/70 Data Camera with Reseau Plate made an important debut when it became the first still camera on the moon. It was the camera hanging from Neil Armstrong’s neck when he became the first man to walk on the moon.
Dr. Hasselblad’s cameras have been in demand by professional photographers and advanced amateurs throughout the world. The demand continues today. A replica of the first camera on the moon is currently on display in IPHF’s Permanent Collection Gallery in Oklahoma City. Victor Hasselblad was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1980 in recognition for his important contributions to the science and art of photography.
By Lori Oden For IPHF