And finally came the first Zenit. Zenit = Russian for zenith. Zenith = directly above from you. Well, well, what are you, Soviet Union, trying to tell me here?
Serious now. Yes, I know what you guys are thinking: it looks like a Leica II with a pentaprism on it. God, you’re sharp. See, I don’t know why, maybe it’s because copying has stuck so hard on Russian culture since the good ol’days of the Soviet Union, but all descriptions of an old Zenit in evilbay auctions look very much the same. Try to google this sentence: “the simplest approach was taken”, and you will find a zillion pages speaking about the first Zenit. All those people are literally and shamelessly copying from a JL Princelle, a prophet of sorts, of whom someday we will talk here…
But now, yes, the simplest approach was taken by the commies in thinking what an SLR should look like. A leica with a pentaprism on it. This cutie you see above is a production model from 1952. Yes, fifty-two. That’s two years before the Leica M, six years before the Nikon F and TWELVE years before the Leicaflex. Sure, all those cameras beat the Ur-Zenit hands down, but hey, it came before them all.
Many agree with me in that, had Leica done what the russkies did, simply incorporating a prism on the top of their tried and trusted 1930’s Leica body, things would have gone very different for them. But no: they had to deliberately and dogmatically ignore the most apparent fact in 35mm photography, which is that once all technical problems were solved, reflex is intrinsically, inherently, WAY, superior to rangefinder. Rangefinder, they thought, was king. This was so pathological that, when the Nikon F was kicking their ass out of everywhere in the late 50’s, the CEO of Leica was asked about a Leica SLR and he said that Leica would not make an SLR ever. The market, not them, was wrong.
Back to Russia, this is not to say the Ur-Zenit is the most imaginative or convenient camera ever, no siree. It is more like very advanced German technology from the 1930’s… just made in the 1950s. Don’t take me wrong, German tech from the thirties was, in some fields twenty years ahead from anything abroad. Camera engineering happens to be one of these fields, so the Soviets, who took all kinds of German blueprints and even technicians as war reparations, could live well in the 50’s with the German tech breakthroughs from twenty years before, but those were starting to show their limits.
Because the Zenit could have been a more advanced camera: it could have had an instant return mirror, or automatic iris lenses… But remember that those only came more than five years later with the Asahi Pentax. It was one of the very first. The commies were really proud of it; Zenit in Russian means exactly, what it looks like: zenith the highest point above a particular location. My, they loved it: Soviet tech was going to take over the world.
One thing I really have to give to the Ur-Zenit: it is one of the most beautiful SLRs ever made, and shooting and handling it is very much like the real thing (yes, the real thing is Leica)… totally spoiled by typical Soviet mundanity in areas such as functional design. I mean, dear Soviet design, you see, leather cover on a camera IS NOT part of a capitalist scheme to dominate the world. A camera, pretty much like a watch, is both a tool and a jewel, and making one pleasant to touch, to use and to use is not incompatible with the ideals of the Soviet revolution. Why then, you dear Soviet Union, who launched the first satellite into space, had to, instead of giving the Zenit a leather, or even vulkanite cover, had to model fake vulkanite on the very metal casing of the Zenit and paint it glossy black? What did Baron I do to you? Why did you break my heart like that?
When we look at a camera, we must see that it’s more than just what we see: it’s also part of a context and it tells a story. Or something. Yes, the Zenit could have been the most beautiful camera ever. Instead it was painted glossy black. Which looks great on BDSM stuff, but is totally awful on a camera.
Baron I is getting old you may say. He didn’t try to sell anything to us or promote his ebay store… HAH! GOTCHA!