Many beautiful things have difficult births or origins beset with strife. Ireland’s great artistic blossoming occurred after famine. America’s great technological growth followed on the heels of multiple wars. Throughout the history of mainland Europe, the greatest periods of artistic and scientific advancement followed strife or natural disasters. Because, for humanity, challenge is a necessary catalyst for creation. And, excepting the 1964 Ford Mustang, creations of true beauty take time, revision, hours, and great and prolonged thought.
Form, shape, and feel are classic words used throughout the last half century to describe cameras and their use. A modern, and I argue better word, is interface. Interface grabs all the older concepts and bundles them into a nice, tidy package. For the last half century, camera reviewers have gotten a lot right about describing how to use a camera. What they consistently fail to do, even what the nice little bundle of concepts in the word interface fails to do, is move beyond a description of the way that a photographer uses a camera to discuss the way that a photographer connects with their camera.
Rose | Bronica S2a | Nikon Nikkor 25cm f/4 | Rollei Digibase Color Negative 200
No one word better conveys all the myriad aspects of that concept than connection. A connection is an easy concept to understand. A connection, sure, is plugging a lamp into a wall. But it’s more. We feel a connection when we look across the bar at someone and our eye contact lasts a little longer than might be expected. We make a connection with a firm handshake and a greeting. We build, strengthen, and maintain our connections when we invest our time, thoughts, and emotions. Connections, true and honest and real connections, the kind that last years or decades, have difficult origins beset with happenstance, conflict, and challenges. A true connection is a thing of great beauty and value, whether it is with a person, a wild animal, or a camera.
On January 17, 1952, Zenzaburo Yoshino began the design of a lifelong dream, construction of an amazing and innovative camera. Seven years later, in 1959, the first Bronica met the world. Seven years. Long enough to go through college and graduate school. Almost twice as long as the average time that people today stay at an employer. Entire stock market cycles can occur in seven years. A child can progress from birth to the completion of second grade in seven years. Think about your life over the last seven years, where you were seven years ago, who you were seven years ago, and ask what in your life is recognizable today from then. Through that lens, a seven-year design cycle on a vision, a dream, an unproven product from a company that had previously made nothing more complicated than a cigarette lighter, becomes a rare and beautiful venture, likely beset with challenges, strife, and hardship. Nothing like that could happen in the camera world today.
Creek | Bronica S2a | Nikon Nikkor 25cm f/4 | CineStill 800T
From that seven years of design and engineering, Bronica created one of the most beautifully designed cameras ever put into mass production. From where I sit, I am unaware of a more attractive 6X6 camera. The Bronica, like many of the gorgeous mid-to-late fifties designs from Japan, channeled both the classical elements of traditional Japanese design while embracing the best parts of contemporary Western design.
In one of my favorite personal essays, Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” Tanizaki writes “There are those who hold that to quibble over matters of taste in the basic necessities of life is an extravagance, that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like.”
Insects in Light | Bronica S2a | Zenzanon 80mm f/2.4 | Fuji Velvia 50
I say let us be extravagant. Let us quibble over matters of taste in camera design. The Bronica S and C cameras have clean, flowing lines that simultaneously channel and improve on both art deco and mid-century modern aesthetics. Those design aesthetics are filtered through the eye of one of the last generations who could have heard stories from people who lived before Japan opened itself to the West. I would argue that in the same way that nostalgia influences the designs of modern cars, camera, buildings, and clothes, a nostalgia for a simpler time in Japan, for a more traditional Japanese design aesthetic, had to influence the Bronica’s design.
The Bronica arose from mid-century Japan, a time when Japan was coming of its own on the international stage and transitioning from the classic Japan of modern folklore to the Japan that we would recognize today. Against that backdrop, while other Japanese camera makers were busy cloning German cameras, Zenzaburo Yoshino was designing his own.
Soft Focus Grasses after Fire | Bronica S2a | Zenzanon 80mm f/2.4 | Ilford Delta 3200
Tanizaki later in the same paragraph I’ve already read from, goes on to ask of the Japanese people, “Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form…” I say, suppose, for instance, that a camera aficionado took it upon himself to design a camera from scratch using design and engineering principles clearly Japanese in origin. Would not that camera take a different form, with sensibilities that tastefully and thoughtfully incorporate components in places and with clean lines that facilitate use and hide the vulgarity of obviousness that thoughtless design embraces? Would not that much more Japanese design have looked outwardly elegant and simple, yet be and operated in a manner second nature to the photographer?
The S2A’s user interface is refined to simplify and streamline every operation. The lens mount and mirror are engineered to make the camera as small as possible for the film format. The engineering goes to great lengths to keep the camera body thin and to allow the camera to nest well in almost anyone’s hands.
Three Reeds | Bronica S2a | Nikkor 105mm f/3.5 Leaf Shutter | Ilford Delta 3200
Beautiful design divides people. Beautiful design creates camps of those who love and those who hate, often with little middle ground. There are large swathes of people who hate the S2A, write it off as derivative of Hasselblad and with a dimmer focusing screen. And there are those photographers who have picked up an S2A, felt a connection, and realized that a camera is more than a light-proof box with some round glass slapped on the front. I’ll paraphrase one of my friends, a devout Hasselblad man, from a few months ago. “If I had come across the Bronica at the same time as the Hasselblad instead of just now, I would be a Bronica user.” And the reason for that is simple: with Bronica, the camera’s connection with the photographer is primary and dictates the camera’s construction. With other similar systems, the camera’s engineering and placement of gears and cams dictates the camera’s construction.
The S2A was designed to allow as many potential uses for as many people as possible, to gift the photographer with the ability to create beyond the typical bounds of camera design. Truly, the Bronica S2A is not the sum of thoughtfulness, features, and design that defined its origin. No, the S2A is made more substantial, more complete, by the creativity and ingenuity which a connection with this camera inspires and encourages in the photographer.
House on Hill | Bronica S2a | Nikon Nikkor 25cm f/4 | Fuji Velvia 50