Great cameras are designed with honesty, simplicity and effortlessness

OM System OM-1
The OM System OM-1 exhibits a quite distinct character that is surely ‘la bellezza élo splendour del vero’ (Image credit: OM System)

I recently read a very interesting article about the three key elements of Italian car design... the concepts that have produced many of the world’s most beautiful cars, but also turned everyday vehicles into cult classics. The original Fiat Cinquecento – the 500 – is one very obvious example, but there are more.

The first of these design principles is expressed in Italian as “la bellezza é lo splendour del vero”, which translates as ‘beauty is the splendor of the truth’, but can be distilled right down to one word ‘honesty’. A design has to have integrity to be meaningful –and it’s about form and function in equal parts.

This leads to the second concept, which is “il coraggio della semplicità” or ‘daring simplicity’. This is as much about the clarity of intent as the simplicity of the styling or, specifically in automotive terms, the shape that is so often perfectly balanced and proportioned. 

Finally, there’s “sprezzatura”, which is an Italian word from medieval times and describes the art of making the difficult look deceptively easy or effortless. In other words, there is more to than meets the eye, although what meets the eye is beautiful or, at the very least, distinctive and original. Evaluating the candidates for the 2023 Australian Camera Magazine Imaging Awards – which are announced in this issue – I started wondering how these design principles might be applied to cameras... products that share some similarities with cars in that there’s often an emotional (or even psychological) aspect to the purchasing decision and the subsequent relationship can be both deep and long-lasting.

If we’re talking fundamentally about integrity, simplicity and mystery, then we can see some very clear examples of how this has worked with great success in the past – the Leica M3, Hasselblad 500C, Nikon F, Olympus OM-1 and Polaroid SX-70 spring immediately to mind. It also helps to explain their enduring desirability which turned usability into collectability over the decades.

Fujifilm X-Pro3 deals

Fujifilm X-Pro3: daring to be different has produced a camera that is totally involving and rewardin (Image credit: Fujifilm)

But what about today’s camera designs? As in the automotive world, technology has brought with it a degree of uniformity that makes individualism harder to achieve, but it is still possible to evidence both the integrity and intent. I think it can be very clearly seen in the likes of the Fujifilm X-Pro3 where daring to be different has produced a camera that is totally involving and rewarding. 

Likewise, Hasselblad’s X-series medium format cameras, behind which is a deliberate attempt to express an essence of Swedishness... the simple but also coolly sophisticated styling is visually irresistible and surely the embodiment of both ‘sprezzatura’ and ‘il coraggio della semplicità’. 

It’s also evident in the OM System OM-1 which is quite remarkable in a design that technology demands conform in so many areas, but it also exhibits a quite distinct character that is surely ‘la bellezza élo splendour del vero’ where, also, the form harmonizes in complete unity with the function. 

It’s interesting that the Japanese sense of style and harmony – evident in everything from food to floral arranging – does not seem to manifest itself in its cars (although, of course, some are designed by Europeans).

The Ferrania Rondine reimagined the box camera as a thing of beauty back in the late 1940s (Image credit: Australian Camera)

The Italians did have a few goes at designing and building cameras, and managed to find style in simplicity quite a few times. A great example is the Ferrania Rondine from 1948 which is, in essence, a basic box camera, but still manages to
look sophisticated with its chromed edges, colored leather inserts (there was a choice of green, red, burgundy and blue), and all-metal construction. The styling is restrained, but distinctive and... truly delightful. Significantly, it still appeals today – the blue example illustrated above is from my collection and inevitably attracts attention even when sitting on a shelf with 20 or 30 other cameras. I love just handling it, enjoying its solidity and the way it just sits so perfectly in the hand.

Undoubtedly ‘la bellezza é lo splendour del vero’ and ‘il coraggio della semplicità’ mixed with just a little ‘sprezzatura’ – the Italian recipe for great design.

• This column first appeared in the September/October edition of Australian Camera magazine

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Paul Burrows

Paul has been writing about cameras, photography and photographers for 40 years. He joined Australian Camera as an editorial assistant in 1982, subsequently becoming the magazine’s technical editor, and has been editor since 1998. He is also the editor of sister publication ProPhoto, a position he has held since 1989. In 2011, Paul was made an Honorary Fellow of the Institute Of Australian Photography (AIPP) in recognition of his long-term contribution to the Australian photo industry. Outside of his magazine work, he is the editor of the Contemporary Photographers: Australia series of monographs which document the lives of Australia’s most important photographers.