My idea for this series (I think it will make a series; let’s see how the first few go) is to dig deep into the real meaning of camera lenses. Does that sound strange? A lens is just a lens, after all, an optical design and a piece of engineering. As an arrangement of glass I’m not sure that it’s very interesting at all to most people, but the surprise comes when you look at what kind of images it can make. Imaginatively produced images of all kinds give a great deal of pleasure, and what comes first to most people’s minds when confronted with the history of art is visual art. Flat visual art. Paintings, and later photographs. Different lenses contribute to this by helping to create different visual experiences. There’s sharpness, blur, magnification and panorama, which you might expect, but there are also less expected contributions, like involvement, distancing, disorientation, clarity. I’ve always been fascinated by what lenses can do for visual sensation, more than just the cold angles and fields of view.
So, I’m attempting a marriage between the technical and the creative. Yes, there is a real gap, and finding the balance between these left-brain and right-brain processes has never been straightforward in photography. It’s as easy to get lost in the boys’ toys of optical engineering as it is to get vague, wistful and meaningless about imaginary qualities of presence, crispness and bokeh (a term that adds nothing at all to what was already known about the structure of defocused imagery).
Sometimes we choose lenses to do a job we have in mind, but sometimes lenses… I was almost going to write that they choose us, but it does happen that lenses can inspire imagery and deliver surprises. Bill Brandt (1904-1983) wrote about his famous series of distorted nudes, “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” That’s one kind of spirit in what I call lenswork, the deeper image-making relationship between photographer and optics. It’s also highly relevant to the first lens I’m going to introduce, the Hasselblad Super Wide’s 38mm Biogon, because when it appeared Brandt snapped it up to continue his nudes series outside the studio.
Let’s see if I can get this balance right. It’s not often that I buy a new lens, but when I do it’s quite exciting to anticipate what new kinds of image I’ll be able to make with it. I felt that from my very first camera, and I still do today. This may not suit everyone, because it means being willing to accept both the optical engineering (which can’t avoid a bit of history) and the art-crit, aesthetic side. But here we go.
THE HASSELBLAD SUPER WIDE
Everyone has their own definition of the classics in any field, so I’m not going to agonise over whether mine will fit with any others. The Hasselblad Super Wide, launched in 1954, is definitely on my list of the classic lenses. And on the list of cameras. In fact, it was lens as camera, because it was so special that there was no other way to use it than house it in its own body. Which, incidentally, went completely against the main point of the new Swedish Hasselblad system launched in 1948, which was a modular camera with interchangeable lenses and film backs. Nevertheless, this was an important new addition for the Swedish manufacturer, because it would be the widest medium-format lens/camera ever. And indeed, it was this Super Wide and the new 1000F for interchangeable lenses that Viktor Hasselblad took to the 1954 Photokina, where the system first got serious attention, and it took off.
The Zeiss designer Ludwig Bertele had created the Biogon design in 1934 for aerial mapping, using 10 elements that were almost symmetrical, which meant that the front and back group were pretty much identical. It was heavy on glass, but fairly wide, fast, sharp throughout and, importantly for its original purpose, distortion free. That’s what you get with a symmetrical design, so there’s no need for correction profiles, which of course didn’t even exist when this lens was created. Bertele had had other successes under his belt, including the Ernostar super-fast ƒ2 lens from 1923, which had achieved fame at the hands of photographer Erich Salomon, who used it on a single-shot Ermanox for his candid images of European statesmen in the halls of power.
The name sounds a bit odd today, when ‘bio’ is used to inject a feeling of organic (bionic, biotechnology, bio-foodstuffs and so on). In the thirties it simply gave a sense of dynamic and new, while ‘gon’ came from the Greek for angle, and was a Zeiss term for their wide-angle lenses. But while this symmetrical design was new, the angle was pretty modest, just 35mm in its first use in a Contax rangefinder camera in 1936. It was not until until 1951 that Bertele designed a 21mm version, also for 35mm cameras. It had a 90º angle of view—something very fresh and graphic. This, and the edge-to-edge sharpness and absence of distortion, made it a sensation in the camera world.
At the same time, there was a new Swedish camera manufacturer, Hasselblad, making medium-format cameras, and it wanted a piece of this action. Magazines, and particularly the commercial clients who advertised in them, were still suspicious of the tiny 35mm film negative, and most felt that you could get a good quality enlargement up to the size of a page only with a larger negative. They had a point, especially when it came to colour. Printing technology was still manual, and scanners had yet to be invented. The owner, Victor Hasselblad, wanted a wide-angle lens to round out the system, and the Biogon was new, exciting, and perfect for the purpose. But it needed re-designing for the larger scale, and that job went to another great lens designer, Hans Sauer, who translated it for 6×6 cm rollfilm. Because the symmetrical design meant that the rear element of the lens needed to be very, very close to the film, it could not fit into the standard Hasselblad body. This, like any other SLR, needed enough space in front of the film for a mirror angled at 45º, which projected the view from the lens up to the ground-glass screen. That mirror also needed the space to flip up when it came time to shoot.
The result in 1954 was that the new Biogon 38mm ƒ4.5, trimmed down a bit from 10 glass elements to 8, was given its own permanent body—the Super Wide C. Given that the Hasselblad was a system camera, with not just interchangeable lenses but also interchangeable film backs, this sounds like a bit of an aberration, but photographers took it another way. This was something special—a compact, rugged little number that did just one job incredibly well. It was so well made, with special Hasselblad touches like the mechanical linking of the aperture and shutter speed rings on the chromed lens barrel, and the red depth-of-field indicators that moved by gears in little windows on the lens barrel. Famously, when you set the aperture to ƒ22 and the focus to 1.2 metres (all manual on this camera), everything from 65 centimetres to infinity is in focus.
Who could resist? This was a medium-format camera with the equivalent of a 21mm lens on a 35mm model. And wide-angles were on the cusp of hitting the big time. That’s not to say they were totally unknown, but they were not considered a part of ‘normal’ image-making. The kind of lens used by Bill Brandt to make some of his famous ‘distorted nudes’ series in the 1950s, a Kodak Protar 85mm for a whole-plate camera came from around 1900, but it was relegated to specialist use. And Brandt’s experimental nudes in the forties were very much avant-garde.
Mainstream use of extreme wide angle depended on two very different processes coinciding. One was technical, the other social. Zeiss more than any other manufacturer had taken care of the technical issues by the fifties, but the other ingredient was the explosion of fashion and social liberation that happened in the 1960s. This was post-austerity and a new world of consumerism. And sensation. Magazines like Vogue, Look, Town and the new Sunday Colour Supplements were the delivery system, and they all explored. Art directors and photographers explored with sharp typography, dynamic cropping, and angles. Not the least being wide angles. Imagery needed to be different, and between the compression of telephotos and in-your-face distortion of extreme wide angle, the new lenses did their bit. No surprise, then, that Bill Brandt bought the Hasselblad Super Wide and made the best known of his nudes with this new lens, not the old Kodak.
That was why I bought mine. Not because of any of the technical stuff, which I wasn’t really aware of at the time, being callow and a know-it-all. I bought it because I wanted to be different. Extreme wide-angle at 90º meant stretched angles in the image, distortions (often hard to manage), sharpness throughout, and endless possibilities for juxtaposing foregrounds and backgrounds. Funnily enough, 60 years later the same camera is still being made, with very few changes. And Hasselblad will still service and repair any of their models, no matter how old. Mine dates to the early sixties, and they just gave it a full service. Admittedly at three times the price I paid for it, but that’s inflation for you.