Describing a product as a ‘class of its own’ means exalting it, not in this case. The Fotochrome camera is in a class of its own; in the worst possible way. I am looking at this camera in search of anything positive, minor as could be, in vain. It exemplifies a miserable idea, bad design, and poor manufacturing. Even my spell checker doesn’t like it, keeps changing it to Photochrome.
The story begins in the mid-1960s, in Florida or New York, depending on which version you wish to follow. A photo equipment dealer running a network of photofinishing labs decided to take on Polaroid. At the time, Polaroid cameras were everywhere, offering the eager photographer a tangible image at the touch of a button. However, there were three disadvantages: poor image quality, inability to duplicate, and high print price. Fotochrome had a plan: make images and hardware cheaper, even at the cost price of worse images. In theory, it could work; in reality, it enormously failed. It was a flea taking on a lion.
The concept behind the idea had some precedence. A decade earlier, the American Simmon Brothers designed a press camera and seconded production to Konica and Mamiya, which cameras are the Omega line. The Omegas, with their many variations, were successful in both civilian and military markets. On the business model side, Traid Corporation offered the Fotron line, AKA con cameras, sold on the East Coast door to door, where the user depended on the manufacturers for processing. I don’t know how many Fotrons were sold, and I have one on the shelf to explore. I assume that Fotochrome imported the concept to the East Coast.
For hardware, they partnered with Petri, supposedly whom Fotochrome distributed in the US. For media, they used Ansco. The project got marching orders just to go downhill.
The camera specs were meager. A 4.5/105 lens could perform in fair weather only. Combined with 10 ASA, it is a wonder how an image was registered. One speed, 1/30, one size fits all, couldn’t promise much, let alone shooting buzzing kids. An impressive selenium meter crowns the lens, where all it does is show a red dot in the viewer to indicate low light. The trigger will fire at any event, with no regard to red or white dots. A flip-up cover on top is an enormous flash reflector surrounding a single-use flash bulb. A compartment for two AA batteries is behind the flash reflector, used to operate the red dot (?) and to fire the flash bulb. The camera is a plasticky bulk. It is oversize in any aspect, save for the viewer.
On the design side, it is clear that they kept any industrial designer out of the loop. A committee of engineers designed the camera without regard to usability, practicality, or even styling. It resembles the Minolta 110 Zoom SLR on steroids, although the Minolta came to market a decade later. The eerie similarity makes me wonder whether the Minolta designers played a practical joke on management.
It is beyond comprehension how to use this camera. German ads show a young woman holding it in the most awkward position, akin to trying to play a piccolo roll with a tuba. The German ad leads to another wonder, did the distributor think this atrocity would have followers there?
The media was a coated paper, positive like the Polaroid media. The image size of about 2”x3” was not a promising feature. Where Polaroid offered an immediate print, here you still needed to drop it at a specialized photoshop or mail it there. I am old enough to remember sending 8mm cartridges to Kodak for processing, but sure here it was just a downer. I have no reference to what the prints were made of; I gather that the processed photographs were the media, cut to size.
It is said that the production run was about 600 units. I doubt that, as it is too little to justify tooling. Out of this number, at the short life span of the Fotochrome, sales were library style. One unit was sold, and another came back for replacement. Legend has it that 125 units were sent back to Japan and converted to a conventional film, whatever it was. I doubt that, as there was no merit in keeping this model alive.
Quality, or lack of it, contributed to the failure. It is said that the moving part had failed. The unit I have came with a focusing ring dead stiff. After forcing it (oops) it now turns kind of freely, with noticeable bumps. In the film chamber, anything that is not plastic is rusting, including screw heads. The mirror looks as if been salvaged from the Titanic. There is sure a reason that Petri did not add their name tag to it.
The camera price was on par with other low-end models. Prints were cheaper than ordinary, but not cheap enough for users to entertain this model. BW and color prints were the same price, a historic $2 for ten prints.
All that is left of this affair is random cameras floating on eBay at dirt-cheap prices. For some reason, perhaps to show that they have a sense of humor, there are numerous sites in Japanse dedicated to the Fotochrome.
For the collector, it is more of a curiosity than of real value. Short-lived vintage cameras can lie dormant for decades until a virus hits the collectors, and they become a hot commodity. See the Konica AA-35, and Yashica Samurai.
|790 gr, Body with lens
|Class average weight