Saturday, January 10, 2015

Graflex Ciro 35: One Camera, Three Manufacturers

Just before this last Christmas I found a remarkably unblemished American-made camera, a Graflex Ciro 35, on eBay for 20USD. I had seen many of these cameras over the years and had always passed on acquiring one for one reason or another. I took a chance on this one due to the thrifty price. 

The Graflex Ciro 35 arrived complete with its case and a bulb flash unit. Cosmetically, it's in great shape. Mechanically . . . . well, there are a few small problems. No matter. The Ciro is going on display and was never intended to be a "shooter" anyway.

Graflex Ciro 35 - "S" verion, circa 1952

Every camera has a back-story and the Ciro 35 has one that's really more about who made the cameras than about the features or performance of the units themselves. As I've said, this is a GRAFLEX Ciro 35. There were several manufacturers that birthed this particular camera model, ending with the folks at Graflex, Inc. in Rochester, NY. Though this camera's story ends with Graflex, I'll start out explaining its origins there. 

Graflex at one time was a very famous builder of large-format bellows cameras for news photographers. Graflex was the fairly secret professional camera division of Kodak. At least they downplayed their lineage. Their manufacturing facilities went out from underneath their corporate master's control in the mid-1920's when they emerged as a separate company called Graflex, Inc. The new company was the result of the loss of a monopoly lawsuit against Eastman Kodak. 

Graflex cameras were always big, big rigs. Huge things. Their mainstay model for decades was the Speed Graphic that shot sheet film one exposure at a time. Pros in those days would not accept that good images could be made with any film under 4 x 5 inches in size. Speed Graphics defined the genre of cameras called "press cameras". You've seen them in movies from the 1930's. Huge squarish black hulks of cameras equipped with big silver cylindrical bulb flash units hanging off their sides like small stove pipes (the flash handles made the ideal base form for Obi Wan Kenobe's light-sabre prop in the original Star Wars movie). 

Anyway, when WWII ended, lots of GIs returned home with high-quality Leica 35mm and Rolleiflex 6x6 cameras stuffed into their duffel bags. Younger pro photographers quickly began turning away from exclusively using those monstrous Graflexes as civilians. Those fickle Philistines. 

So - I imagine - Graflex must have recognized a growing problem on their hands as the 1940's drew to an end. Should they spend engineering effort to design smaller format cameras, something they clearly knew nothing about, or (in true-blue corporate American fashion) should they simply buy someone who did. You can already guess the answer. But we have a couple diversions first before we get there.


At about the same time, the Candid Camera Corporation of Chicago, Illinois was retooling to fill the bursting American consumer's post-war drive for new and different photo products. You may know CCC for their late 1940's Perfex 35mm camera line. 

By 1949 CCC had designed and released a new 35mm rangefinder camera they called, no let's say dubbed, the "Cee-Ay 35". Where they got that clunky name is anybody's guess. As opposed to the hefty bulk of the previous Perfex models (heavier than an Argus C3s for God's sake), the Cee-Ay was a smaller, sleeker and, um, almost handsome improvement. Outfitted with a fine Wollensak Anastigmat 50mm f/4.5 lens, it was poised to be a winner.

Unfortunately, they didn't get too far with production run. Only a few months after introducing the Cee-Ay, CCC sold the all tools, dies, drawings and parts to the Ciro Company. Why? Unknown, but CCC vanished soon afterward. So, we could guess financial problems, eh?

So who the heck is Ciro? First located in Detroit, Michigan, Ciro made a very well-constructed series of Twin Lens Reflexes called (wait for it) Ciro-flexes starting about 1941. Not so great timing to sell an expensive medium-format TLR. Post-war, Ciro moved to Delaware Ohio and, like Graflex, must have decided to hitch their sales future to the ascending "miniature" 35mm camera market. Same problem as Graflex, make or buy. They chose buy, too. Someone in sales or marketing was introduced to the CCC Cee-Ay 35 and, boom, problem solved. Someone went home with a nice bank check.

So by 1950, Ciro retooled and re-introduced the previous design as the Ciro 35. The engineers smoothed some lines and changed the faceplates. Wham-bam market 'em ma'am. All went well, a stronger business fish had swallowed a weaker business fish and America had a bright, new 35mm rangefinder camera to buy. Yay!

Then the big Graflex Grouper swooped in from the north and swallowed the smaller Ciro business fish with the CCC fish still fresh inside it. Boo!

The Ciro 35 became the Graflex Ciro 35 in 1950. All Graflex did was to modify some engravings on the top plate and pump-out the units into their much larger and much more professional sales distribution channel. 

Graflex Ciro 35's were available with the same Ciro-chosen Wollensak 50mm lens design (now called a Graftar) in three different lens speeds/designs: f/4.5 (the "R" model, not so common, found on the sexy black painted models); f/3.5 (the "S" model, most common); and f/2.8 (the "T" model, would buy one if I could find one). 

After all this rework and corporate takeovers, the Graflex Ciro 35 lasted only until about 1955, which isn't a bad run for a camera, I guess. Graflex retooled the Ciro 35 platform and beefed it up into being the quite popular Graphic 35. By the end of the decade, Graflex was having new models made in Japan. The then typical last stop before oblivion for an American brand.

I happen to like this camera for its build and its back-story. There is a black painted version out there that is absolutely a gorgeous piece of industrial engineering. Though the same camera, it looks dramatically better.

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