Hasselblad 501CM

Like many objects of fanatical devotion, the Hasselblad camera is both physical artifact and mythical symbol – at once a technical device of superlative quality and a facilitator of ritualized engagement with the world.

Photo of a Hasselblad 501CM

My induction into the mysteries of the Hasselblad came as a result of a sort of photographic catharsis in the fall of 2005. Two months of near-constant wandering through, under, and around European capitals with wide-eyed and shutter-happy enthusiasm had left their mark in the form of tens of thousands of esoteric digital photos; but though my hard drive was full, I still felt hungry for something more. I had reached one goal, but was left with no desire to continue doing the same thing, and had little idea of what to do next.

I knew I wanted to slow down and think. I had seen sights and thought thoughts, but few of the latter were to be found in my images of the former. What was missing is what I’ll describe as the “scene-thought:” an image that represents not just the quantitative nature of reality, but also the qualitative state of one’s mind.

As a photographer, I react to the world around me and express that reaction through the technology of the camera. I hoped to train myself to create those “scene-thoughts”: by finding a new camera that would force a slower, more reflective reaction-expression process. The tool that answered this call was a Hasselblad model 501CM medium format film camera, serial 10ER13994.

Barely changed in appearance or function since the introduction of the 500 series in 1956, the 501CM has no auto-focus, LCD screen, light meter, or even a battery. It can’t automatically recognize faces or shoot 12 frames a second – in fact, you have to wind the camera before taking every shot. A modern classic in chrome and leather, what it does have is ruthless simplicity, a huge lens and mirror through which to see the world, and a impressive (and addictive) *THWACK!* when you hit the shutter. It’s a fully-mechanical clockwork device hand-made in Sweden, once taken into space – to the surface of the moon – and used to this day by many of the world’s most famous photographers. This is the stuff of which the Hasselblad myth is made.

This ruthless simplicity is found in operation as well as capability. Because it captures square 2.25”×2.25” images, you don’t have to rotate the camera back and forth to take portrait or landscape photos. A modular system comprised of lens, body, viewfinder, and film magazine, each has a simple set of primary controls: aperture, shutter, and focus on the lens, cocking and release on the body, and winding on the magazine.


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