Hasselblad history

The Hasselblad name has been linked with cameras almost since the early days of photography itself. First merely selling, then producing the tools through which vision is captured. And our tradition of designing cameras with photographers in mind, for superior image quality, for reliability and versatility, goes back more than half a century. And the story behind our cameras is almost as fascinating as the cameras themselves.

Over a century and a half ago, in 1841, in the port city of Gothenburg in western Sweden, the Hasselblad family established its first trading company, F.W. Hasselblad & Co. The location of Gothenburg, with its proximity to the European continent and its historic trade connections with Britain, Holland, Denmark, Germany, and a host of other countries, was ideal for an international import-export firm. F.W. Hasselblad & Co soon became one of Sweden’s most prosperous commerce houses. They also began importing supplies and products for the newly burgeoning field of photography.

When Arvid Viktor Hasselblad, son of the company’s founder and an avid amateur photographer, established a photographic division within the company, he is reported to have commented, “I certainly don’t think that we will earn much money on this, but at least it will allow us to take pictures for free.”

Arvid Viktor was soon proved wrong about the area’s potential profitability, and the photographic department became a major part of F.W. Hasselblad & Co. Little did he know where his first tentative steps into camera and film import would eventually lead.

Have camera, will travel

While on his honeymoon in England, Arvid Viktor met George Eastman, the man who would soon found the Kodak Company and make photography accessible to the average consumer. The two men formed a business partnership, based on a simple handshake, that would last for almost 80 years. In 1888, Hasselblad began importing Eastman’s products as the sole Swedish distributor. The increasing popularity of photography and accompanying technical advances in the field led to increased demand for photographic products, a demand that the Hasselblad company was more than happy to meet. The photographic division of the company grew so rapidly that in 1908, the family formed a separate firm to deal with the increased business. This firm, Hasselblad’s Fotografiska AB, was the exclusive Swedish distributor for what was now Eastman Kodak products.

Developing labs and a nation-wide network of retail outlets were established. The collaboration, founded on trust and honor between two men, proved to be an extremely successful one.

Karl Erik Hasselblad, grandson of the company’s founder, realized how much the family had benefited from photography –  and acted accordingly. Karl Erik’s son Victor, born in 1906, was raised to be the natural heir to the family business. A shy and sensitive child with two sisters and a younger brother, Victor enjoyed country walks and developed an interest in bird watching that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Victor grew into a precocious teenager with a passion for photography, an interest he had inherited from his grandfather, and a determination to improve upon existing equipment.

During this time, he kept meticulous records of his findings and his notebooks from the period already contained suggestions for camera improvements. In what may seem like a curious move to us now, Karl Erik removed his son from school at the age of 18, cutting short the boy’s studies and sending him off to Dresden, Germany to learn the camera industry and optics manufacturing from the ground up.

This was probably a godsend to young Victor. The youth was often up early in the morning, heading out into the countryside to bird watch before school. He was frequently caught dozing through his classes, having already exhausted himself earlier in the day. An alternative form of education was perhaps just the ticket.

Victor spent the next few years pursuing the education his father thought appropriate, learning his lessons in the real world, not the classroom. Young Victor 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 produced. Victor’s father wanted him to gain a broad-based education and education that would serve him well when running the family business. The world was to function as Victor’s personal research and development lab.

And in a way, it did just that. When not in the plants or shops learning the business and production side of the camera industry, Victor was out in the surrounding countryside, patiently waiting to capture the local birds and other wildlife with his camera. The photographic experience – and patience – he gained during those hours in the woods would prove invaluable.

Equally invaluable was his exposure to the business side of the camera industry. The Hasselblad family’s standing and contacts gave young Victor unique access to the international community and to one of the world’s leading business minds. Victor became friends with his family’s business partner, George Eastman. Eastman, one of the world’s most visionary and successful entrepreneurs and founder of the Kodak Company, perfected roll film and was one of the most important figures in the world of photography.

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. Victor eventually returned to Sweden and the family business, but a life-long love affair with the young country across the Atlantic had just begun.

Once back in Europe, Victor continued his travels; first in Holland, then France and Morocco, tracking and photographing rare birds. He took part in a major photo exhibition in Gothenburg in 1928, and in 1934, he met and married then 19 year old Erna Nathhorst. In 1935, Victor published a book entitled ‘Migratory Bird Passages’, which contained a great number of photos of birds in flight, a rarity at the time.

Victor’s return to work in the family firm had not been a great success and was troubled by family conflict and disagreement with his father. It was only a matter of time before Victor left to form his own company. In 1937, Victor Hasselblad opened his own photo shop, aptly named ‘Victor Foto’, in central Gothenburg. The shop was complete with a photo lab and was his first business step independent of his family. Victor had a talent for business and marketing, and both the shop, and its newly-wed owner, were a success.

The year 1939 brought the outbreak of war and the German invasions of Denmark and Norway followed. By the early 1940s, Europe was fully enmeshed in the Second World War. The German invasion of the surrounding Scandinavian countries prompted the total mobilisation of the unprepared Swedish military. The defiantly neutral nation hurried to equip and prepare itself. 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 planes – and their equipment – were destroyed. It would seem that one of them, however, surrendered its cargo intact – a fully functioning German aerial surveillance camera. Exactly where and how the Swedish military gained the camera is perhaps uncertain, but one thing was clear: this was a piece of equipment that the Swedish military could sorely use. Capturing a German camera, however, and knowing how to produce similar cameras were two separate things –a fact that the Swedish government soon realised.

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 almost a given that the Swedish military would turn to Victor for help.

A man with small hands

In the spring of 1940, the Swedish government approached thirty-four year old Victor Hasselblad and asked him if he could produce a camera identical to the recovered German one. Legend has it that Victor responded, “No, but I can make a better one”. That April, Victor established a camera workshop in a simple shed in an automobile workshop in central Gothenburg.

Close by was a junkyard, a resource that came in handy and supplied much-needed raw materials. In the evenings, with the help of the extremely talented mechanic from the automobile workshop and his brother, Hasselblad began reverse engineering the German camera and designing what would be the first Hasselblad camera, the HK 7.

Within a few months, the company had a proper factory with twenty workers and later, in 1941, the small business, originally named Ross Incorporated, moved into proper premises and began serial production of the handheld HK 7. The camera format was 7x9cm using 80mm film and had two interchangeable lenses, the first a Zeiss Biotessar and the second either a Meyer Tele-Megor or a Schneider Tele-Xenar.

At the end of 1941, Victor received a new order from the Air Force for a new camera, this one to have a larger negative format and a fixed mounting in the aircraft. The military was extremely pleased with both the HK 7 and its successor, the SKa4, which had several unique features that would prove important for Hasselblad´s post-war production, including interchangeable film magazines. More cameras were to follow.

In 1942, Karl Erik Hasselblad died, and Victor purchased the majority of the shares in the family company, F.W. Hasselblad. Camera production for the Swedish military continued, with Hasselblad delivering a total of 342 cameras between 1941-45. All the while, Hasselblad viewed the production of military cameras as merely the first step towards the development of a civilian camera. He was quick to relay his plans to his co-workers, saying that he did not intend to make cameras solely for the military. Victor explained that he had his sights on the consumer market, and that he had in mind a new type of camera – a top-quality, portable camera. A camera that would fit in his hand, he said. And Victor Hasselblad had very small hands.

The young camera company set out to realise this dream, designing and redesigning camera prototypes all the while they produced the other cameras for the military. The war would have to end, however, before Victor could fully apply his research and development to his new camera. In the meantime, Victor busied the workers at his plant with the production of sensitive watch and clock works. Over 95,000 clock works were produced all in all. Good training for the detailed mechanical work that would be required for the cameras to come.

A new age camera

Once the war ended, Victor turned his team’s full focus onto the job of producing this new style of consumer camera. And on October 6, 1948, Victor introduced the world to the first Hasselblad produced consumer camera, the Hasselblad 1600F.

This model – a single-lens, mirror reflex, 6×6 camera with interchangeable Kodak lenses, film magazines, and viewfinders – was unveiled to great acclaim at a press conference in New York City. The 1600F camera met with great critical acclaim and was a truly groundbreaking feat of engineering.

There were flaws, however. The first Hasselblads were technological marvels in many ways, and were indeed beautiful to look at, but their technologically advanced interiors were very delicate. Producing an entirely new type of product is never without its pitfalls, and Victor’s camera was no exception. The watchmakers at Victor’s plant were experts at making precision parts, but not used to producing mechanics that could stand up to the mechanical strain a handheld camera must endure. Improvement led to further improvement, and design element after design element of the 1600F was refined and honed.

Some of the “defective” cameras survived despite Victor’s efforts, much to the delight of collectors and historians alike. These early 1600Fs, while not up to Victor’s uncompromising standards, have still survived for more than half a century. Eventually, the design improvements led to a new camera, something Victor himself was proud of – the new 1000F.

The new 1000F had many refined and improved features and a new lens series that now comprised six lenses. In 1952, the camera truly came into its own. The American magazine Modern Photography field-tested the new Hasselblad 1000F and reported spectacular results. The magazine’s testers ran 500 rolls of film through the camera – and even deliberately dropped it. Twice.

The Hasselblad never broke or even went out of alignment. To say that the durability issues had been resolved would be putting it mildly. A legend was born.

One small step

The success of the designs and cameras, and the money they generated, helped Victor’s company to expand. Development continued and new designs were invented. At every step of the way, Victor took advantage of his large contact network and his own experience as a photographer, incorporating the input and advice he received.

In 1957, Hasselblad followed the success of his first cameras with a new revolutionary product, the Hasselblad 500C. This sensational camera had lenses with a central leaf shutter and flash synch on all shutter speeds. Then came the Hasselblad SWA in 1954, followed by the wide angle Hasselblad SWC (1957), and the motor operated Hasselblad 500 EL (1965). These cameras formed the base of the Hasselblad system for many years. The basic philosophy behind the system – its modularity, versatility, and reliability – has guided the Hasselblad product line for over fifty years. The Hasselblad approach has been copied and emulated by many, but never equalled. The Hasselblad name became synonymous with the utmost in camera reliability and image quality.

This reputation was surely an influencing 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.

Hasselblad in space

In 1969, the Hasselblad space saga continued with Apollo 11 and the first images of man on the moon and of earth from the moon captured by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. with a Hasselblad 500EL/70. There are perhaps no images in the history of photography more famous and more influential than those taken with Hasselblads in space. And true to form, Victor and his engineers used the advances and product developments that arose from the space cameras to add groundbreaking features and functions to the cameras they sold here on earth. The world had been his development lab before, and now the lab got bigger still.

More about Hasselblad in space

The dream lives on

In 1966, Victor Hasselblad sold the distribution company and retailer network “Hasselblad Fotografiska AB” to Kodak, ending their long-term partnership, but not the friendships upon which it was based. In 1976, Victor was ready to turn over the reigns of his company and chose the Swedish investment company, Säfveån AB, who bought Victor Hasselblad AB.

In 1978, at the age of 72, Victor Hasselblad passed away. In his will, he left the majority of his sizeable fortune to the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to promote research and academic teaching in the natural sciences and photography. The annual photographic prize, The Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, is the most prestigious photographic award in the world and a fitting memorial to Victor and the world of photography that he loved so much. For more information about the Hasselblad Foundation and its activities and awards, log on to their website.

In 1984, VHAB (Victor Hasselblad AB) was listed on the Stockholm Stock Exchange, with Säfveån retaining 57.5% of the shares. In 1985, VHAB, still at the forefront of camera development, 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 establishment was one of the first dedicated approaches to the new digital photography market. That same year, the Swedish company Incentive AB acquired 58.1% of the shares in VHAB, making it the majority shareholder. In 1991, Incentive acquired the remaining shares and VHAB became, once again, a privately held company. In 1996, Incentive sold the company to UBS, CINVen, and the Hasselblad Management.

Throughout the company’s history, Hasselblad has carefully selected its suppliers and collaborative partners, forming long-term relationships with such renowned companies as Kodak and Zeiss to name but a few. In 1998, the result of one such partnership allowed Hasselblad, along with Fuji Photo Film, to once again revolutionise the camera industry with the introduction of the new Hasselblad XPan camera. This unique system was developed and produced by Hasselblad in close co-operation with Fuji. The XPan utilises standard 35 mm film to produce medium format panorama images or standard 35 mm shots on the same roll of film. The camera represents the fruit of a long term research and development collaboration project relating to 35 mm, film-based, dual-format cameras for professional and discerning amateur photographers. With this camera concept, Hasselblad adds a new dimension to the world of 35 mm film and a perfect complement to the already extensive Hasselblad camera system.

In 2002, another revolutionary camera system was launched. This time it was a 6×4.5 medium format camera incorporating the latest in technological developments including autofocus and very advanced electronic chip control. It was designed with digital technology in mind and became an immediate success. A few months later, The Shriro Group – a long-standing Hasselblad distributor for the Asian Pacific region – acquired the majority shareholding of Victor Hasselblad AB. Changes also occurred in general production when a new facility was built in Gothenburg to relieve the pressure from the outgrown Hasselblad building which had been home to the cameras almost from the outset. In line with the new facility and the new technologically advanced camera system, Hasselblad took another large step forward when Shriro acquired Imacon, the Danish digital back and scanner manufacturer. The two companies then merged into a synergistic combination with a good deal of focus on digital developments to meet the growing demand from professional photographers.

This move was a key step in the evolution of the medium format camera market. Up until that point, medium format camera makers made cameras and lenses, and separate companies made digital camera back attachments to enable those film cameras to take digital pictures. Most back companies sold products to be used with several different brands of camera. Imacon was one such back manufacturer; by merging with Hasselblad, it became evident that Hasselblad intended to cut other back manufacturers out of access to their new product line, enabling them to seamlessly transition to fully integrated all-digital cameras while the competition was still producing cameras in which the film-based controls and digital capture were not fully combined. This secured Hasselblad's market position, and on 30 June 2011, private equity firm Ventizz announced it had acquired a 100% stake in Hasselblad.

And the story continues, in space as here on earth. Our development and evolution does not stop. We are constantly progressing, constantly perfecting the cameras that bear Victor’s name. And we are constantly striving to follow his example – to take the most useful aspects of modern technology, infuse them with traditional quality and craftsmanship, and produce cutting edge tools that will be just as reliable fifty years from now as they are innovative today.