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E is not for Excellent

A nice all black export version
A nice all black export version

Back to Zenits it is, then. Now, what’s after Zenit 6? Zenit 7? After the 6, them guys at KMZ decided that they were done with numbers and that they would start using letters. ‘E’ was as good as any other, I guess. Numbers weren’t the only thing over, as you can see: the external design departs fully from the Leica-ish rounded corners body and becomes more Contax-ish: an irregular octagon. It’s arguably a more comfortable design. Maybe. No, I’m not going to admit that the Contax handled better than the Leica.

As we said in the last article about Zenits, the 4-5-6 series were a dead end. Not everything was lost, as the E inherited its shape from them, a shape that wouldn’t change too much for another 20 years.

Its guts, which were pretty much the same as those from the original Zenit, got to live even longer: no further innovation was ever introduced in its (limited) shutter mechanism ever. Yes, you can repair a Zenit 412DX made in 2005 with parts from a Zenit E made in 1965 if you feel like fixing a 30 buck camera is worth your while.

What happened to Soviet innovation? What happened to those geniuses that created the only true SLR based on a Leica body? The USSR happened. I mean, it’s not that there wasn’t any innovation in the Soviet design bureaus, but rather that it failed to translate into actual products. With Brezhnev in power, all resources and talent were diverted to the military, and less emphasis was put on consumer goods design and production.

In the Zenit SLR line, this meant that hardly any changes were made from 1965 to 2005, when the last leica-based-shutter Zenit was made. Two things remained constant: the Leica II-based 1/30-1/500 shutter without slow speeds and the same die-cast one piece alloy cage, which was introduced with the E model. Everything departing too much from the ur-Zenit was either deemed too expensive go into production or had to be taken out of the market due to poor design. Instead of great changes, the same dated camera blueprint was re-used over and over, with only minor changes to it. They gave it a selenium meter; then they added an instant-return mirror; the next model had TTL measuring, and an in-between transition model incorporated a split screen with focus aid; then a new model was given a plastic casing… You get the picture. The one thing that still amazes me is that the greatest issue that the Zenits have, the one which always deters me to load a Zenit with film when I feel in the mood of shooting a Helios 44, which is its downsized mirror, was never addressed.    

The Zenit line just took advantage of the enormous momentum generated by the creation of the Ur-Zenit in the early 1950’s, which was a landmark in camera history. The Russians just expected this momentum to last forever, which obviously didn’t. Zenits were great pro cameras in the 50’s, stuff for afficionadoes in the 60’s and the 70’s, and a joke from the 80’s onwards. The average Joe in the USSR shouldn’t have found it funny.

But then it was 1965 and the Zenit E was just an unexciting, cheap camera for amateurs. One thing I have to give to the E: it enjoyed incredible success in its niche. Including its 11 submodels, it may have been the most produced SLR camera ever, with the highest estimates at 13 million, sold in more than 70 countries. That’s a lot of cameras. This made the E a really ubiquitous and recognisable model. Chances are that if you go to any flea market you’ll come across one or two, and you will see it a lot in ex-communist countries, where it remains a viable option for taking pictures.

It is, perhaps, the greatest icon of Soviet consumer goods industry, which makes it a lovable collectible, but which also says a lot about what conditions of material precarity them guys in the communist bloc had to endure.

Now, I’m supposed to say that I may have one or two Zenit E in my evilbay shop for sale, but I strongly advise you against buying the cheaper models. Buying the expensive stuff will support me longer. But buy the cheap ones too. Buy something. Please.   

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