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ORC - The Wish List

Hasselblad 500 C

The Hasselblad’s distinctive modular design

British photographer Gered Mankowitz only ever used a Hasselblad and captured this of the most iconic image of Jimi Hendrix (Courtesy Gered Mankowitz/Hasselblad)

If you have a modern automatic ‘point and shoot’ camera that can make you feel like a great photographer, even with your eyes closed, or you’re addicted to the instant gratification that only a iphone XI can deliver; then you’ll hate the Hasselblad.

There’s nothing easy, convenient or automatic about this iconic camera. It’s manual, with a capital M. It has the ergonomics of a house brick, and the bewildering characteristics of a vintage Bentley with centre throttle pedal: brake hard, get it wrong, and instead accelerate towards disaster; pan one way or the other, and your subject goes another. As for ‘setting up’ the shot, the Hasselblad has a ritual that rivals the pre-flight checks on a Sopwith Camel.

Even professionals admit it can take weeks to master it. Maybe the clue is in the name.

And yet…

This is the camera that recorded the Beatles as they crossed Abbey Road; captured Faye Dunaway’s ‘come down’ on her morning-after-night-before Oscar win; propelled Jimi Hendrix from guitarist to rock god and (best of all) captured the greatest moment in the history of mankind, as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle onto the lunar landscape.

The most famous photograph of all time. Neil Armstrong’s shot of fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Courtesy NASA/Neil Armstrong)

In fact it was only after NASA came calling that the Hasselblad name went global. Until then it was the relatively little known, but much respected innovation of Swedish designer Dr. Victor Hasselblad, who had developed a 6cm x 6cm medium format, single lens reflex (SLR) camera as far back as 1948.

It was the first modular camera, with detachable lenses, film backs, mirror and viewfinder providing professional photographers with maximum versatility.

But the real breakthrough came in 1957 with the introduction of the 500C, which relocated the shutter from the camera body to the lens, making the system more reliable and enabling flash sync at speeds of up to 1/500-second. This was just one reason the Hasselblad 500C quickly became the camera of choice among professionals and fashion photographers in particular.

David Hemmings
David Hemmings in the ’60s cult classic Blow Up

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Antonioni’s cult thriller Blow Up, set in London’s swinging sixties, in which the photographer (played by David Hemmings), is clearly modelled on the young David Bailey. Faced with a frenetic workload there is a famous scene where, Nikon in hand, he straddles Russian model Veruschka, as she writhes on the floor and he tries to get that impossible shot. This may be cinema’s version of reality but it is from behind his Hasselblad that he really exudes period cool as he directs the most stylish and convincing fashion shoot of the film.

Many of the technical innovations that marked its evolution were not at the behest of the fashion world, however, but at the request of NASA and it was modified version of the 500C that astronaut Walter Schirra took with him on the Mercury rocket in 1962, making the Hasselblad the first camera in space.

Thereafter the Hasselblad accompanied every space mission from Gemini, through Apollo to the Space Shuttle. Which is ironic given the dexterity required to handle a Hasselblad, even without the added complications of zero gravity.

Famous fans of the ‘Hassy’: Brad Pitt (photo courtesy Esquire Magazine) and David Bowie

Balancing the camera body in one hand (left) while cranking on the film frames or changing lenses with the right is rather like trying to solve a rubik’s cube wearing oven gloves. As for changing film this requires the insertion of an aluminium slide into the film magazine, as the magazine is unclipped, and the reverse procedure as a new one is added. Only then do you get to take a light reading, set the exposure time and adjust the aperture, before finally looking down into the view finder, to compose, focus and fire.

Using a tripod is the easier option.

The camera consists of a body made from a single block of alloy, a lens, a film back, a folding viewfinder (or optional prism finder), and a film crank, each of which is interchangeable with almost every Hasselblad 500-series camera produced from 1957 through to 2006, when the last Hasselblad 500-series camera finally came off the hand-assembly line.

David BowieThe Hasselblad 503CWD, was produced to commemorate the 100th birthday of Victor Hasselblad. Only 500 units were made and it was sold with a CFV digital back (16MP) so owners could swap the camera’s digital back for a film back any time they felt like going old school.

Of the particularly desirable classic 500Cs (with the alloy lenses) 76,700 bodies were produced between 1957 and 1970, and twelve of these are still on the moon. Most will have had hard professional lives, but some will have had little use at all.

As with cars, ‘matching numbers’ (camera body and back) is important to investment values. But this is not essential to the enjoyment of the camera… nor is the ability to actually take photographs with it.

I know someone with a 1960s vintage Hasselblad 500C which been sitting on his desk for a decade, and he just looks at it. Occasionally a photographer friend will call by and the owner will hand him the Hasselblad, like he’s loaning the keys to his Lamborghini.

And rather like a Miura , aesthetically the 500C has no rival. Had Bauhaus designed a camera it would have been the Hasselblad. There is not a superfluous line, or detail. It is sophisticated on the inside, and simple on the outside.

It is a machine for taking photos.

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