At around 1960, a man the Americans called “Mr. Zenza” came to the USA and had lunch with Burt Keppler, the former well-known publisher of Modern Photography and Popular Photography magazines in the United States and one of the most respected and influential figures in the history of the camera industry. Keppler, who passed away in 2008, was a driving force behind the success of the Japanese camera industry. Mr. Zenza was in America to sell his camera, the Zenza Bronica. It was to become a widely used camera family, not least by recording millions of weddings shot on medium format film.
Zenzaburo Yoshino was born in 1911 as the third son of a prosperous rice dealer, which even at that time had over 150 employees. Yoshino initially continued his family’s rice business. However, in the aftermath of WW II and the resulting US occupational forces’ rice rationing and control over rice distribution he was keen to expand and diversify the business into new areas. Why he got interested in cameras is not clear, but he was known to enjoy a stroll over Ginza and looking at the various camera stores there. Being from a wealthy family he was certainly in a position to afford the expensive hobby of photography. Yoshino began to be known as a real camera mania, an obsessive photo enthusiast. He admired Victor Hasselblad, the Swedish inventor and photographer, known for developing the modular Hasselblad 6×6 cm medium format camera.
In 1946, Yoshino opened a used camera store called 新光堂写真機店 — Shinkoudou Shashinki-ten in Kanda-Tachō (神田多町), the ward of Chiyoda in Tokyo. Despite the hard times of the post-war era, many still affluent Japanese would sell off their cameras to buy the latest models. The shop was a viable business and prospering. Nonetheless Yoshino grew tired of simply buying and selling cameras. Thus behind the shop’s premises the 新光堂製作所 — Shinkoudou Manufacturing workshop was established in 1947, with the primary intention to design and manufacture cameras. They failed to do so, but to improve their skill and workmanship the workshop started producing delicate fashion accessories made of metal, such as metal cigarette cases, brooches, lighters and women’s compacts (portable beauty accessory with powder and mirror). In 1952 Yoshino wanted to try building a camera once more but realised that a better workshop was needed.
The actual birthplace of Bronica was an old Japanese-style building in Kami-Itabashi in Itabashi ward in northern Tokyo, a district known for its numerous small manufacturing operations. Zenzaburo Yoshino was a child of the Meiji era and was content with a modest and simple factory. It even served as a home for the Yoshino family, including their two children aged two at the time and a maid, on the first floor and the machinery, reception and delivery areas on the ground floor. The division of the house was not too dissimilar from his earlier experience of running the rice store.
The accessory business blossomed and a large proportion of the company’s income was re-invested into the development of a camera. Yoshino was not a trained camera designer, but he had a dream and two common Japanese personality traits: persistency and tenacity. It took eight years to finalise the design and build the camera, which he named Zenza Bronica – the name being partly derived from his name Zenzaburo and the Japanese term for 120 medium format sized film, buroni (Brownie).
Originally that first camera that went on sale in 1959 was simply called Zenza Bronica and later renamed Zenza Bronica type D (Deluxe) and the follow on model type S (Standard). The Bronica D was the Japanese answer to the Hasselblad and in several ways outclassed the Swedish offerings.
It was a 6×6cm single-lens reflex camera similar to Hasselblad in design style and size, but this camera had various advantages over the original Hasselblad 1600F and 1000F with focal plane shutters:
the reflex mirror and aperture are returned to the original position after exposure
to allow intruding retro-focus lenses, the reflex mirror is not just flipped up but sliding down
very long exposures up to 10 seconds using self-timer
inserting a dark slide automatically detaches the back preventing accidental exposure
the film can be loaded fully automatically just as with the Rolleiflex without aligning the start mark
However, the Bronica D was not just a technical feat, it also was a very pleasing object to handle and showing Yoshino’s workshop’s experience in manufacturing fashion accessories. The chrome (actual stainless steel) elements and subtly curved lines gave it a delicate and precious appearance, not simply a metal box with a lens in front, despite the modular design. More information and pictures on Cameraquest.
The following Bronica Z and successor Bronicas, using large-coverage, high-quality Nikkor lenses, became instant successes. Bronica later introduced lenses of its own manufacture with its later camera designs.
Zenza Bronica Ltd. was eventually acquired by the lens manufacturer Tamron in 1998. Zenzaburo Yoshino died in 1988. As a response to the digital revolution Tamron discontinued the brand’s single-lens reflex models (SQ, ETR and GS) in October 2004. Bronica’s last model, the RF645 rangefinder camera, was discontinued in October 2005 and Tamron announced the termination of the Bronica brand and medium format cameras.
Maintainance of Zenza Bronica cameras: The son of Zenzaburo Yoshino established a company named “1st Technical Service”. They have many genuine Bronica parts. Electronical circuits also stocked. No parts for type D and type S. Tel +81-3-5390-2833 (Japan) [Note: not verified whether this still exists]
Tamron are still providing parts and service to the more recent Bronica medium format cameras. In case you need help, please take advantage of our Camera Parts & Repair Service.