by Johnny Martir
You may have heard by now that Ricoh/Pentax have announced that they have a new 35mm camera in the works.
Hopeful photographers speculated that the product would be a re-released K1000; The classic, utilitarian, all-mechanical 35mm SLR that Pentax sold from 1976 to 1997.
The K1000 was my first proper camera and I credit it with teaching me the effect manual camera shooting has on not only photographers but their images. So I’m among the many consumers who would love to see the return of such an influential camera.
But I’m sorry to say that this kind of talk is just an old man screaming into the clouds.
Just as the world’s newly built K1000 faded in the 1990s, I’d say the shower water goes with the baby.
There is no infrastructure for mass-producing delicate mechanical devices in the camera industry anymore. Skilled workers working on machines and assembling precision parts by hand have all been replaced by robots and less skilled workers in large-scale manufacturing facilities long ago. This shift, in nearly every industry from the 1980s to the 2000s was a way to lower costs while increasing features that appealed to consumers. Who was programmed to think that automation would be the future of photography. At the initial pitch of the so-called Digital Revolution, this bet seemed a safe bet for all but the few of us who never stopped using our K1000s.
But even digital photographers should read the writing on the wall. Such was the time in 2013, after many news organizations fired their photographers and gave journalists cheap digital cameras, the CEO of Yahoo! States that “there’s really no such thing as a professional photographer anymore. But for those who still believe that the trajectory of our industry is safe, in 2023 only the most technocratically devout can justify continued advances in automation. The collective unspoken desire for artist-free artwork has led to the birth of AI art. I mean, we don’t even need a camera in the Metaverse, do we? What used to be photography will soon become screenshots.
If an SLR is a Spotter…
But there is still one camera maker that is in the business of making cameras for flesh and blood photographers. The only people who can manufacture metal, mechanical cameras en masse are the people who started it all; gestalt gangsters… Leica.
Leica is routinely stacked with building cameras that don’t have a larger feature set than the humble K1000 but retail for around 18 times that. Love it or hate it, Pentaxians have something to learn from Leicaphiles.
Leica has stayed where Pentax and others have failed because they have not invested in automated manufacturing processes and annual obsolescence is near the same level.
Leica instead chose to invest primarily in people. People make cameras that are designed in such a way that people can assemble them. And people buy and use these cameras with their own eyes and hands. Just as my Leica 1930 was endlessly serviceable due to the simplicity of its design, the manufacturing methods of the 35mm Leica film cameras seem equally sustainable, at least more so than others seem to be.
By outsourcing various proprietary electronic components, assembling materials inaccessible outside of production volumes, automating product assembly, and allowing prices to be driven down by unscrupulous market competition, camera makers like Pentax are causing their own extinction.
As the motor replaces the muscle and the algorithm replaces the artist, the unexpectedly durable K1000 of the past stands like a stone relic; a reminder of all that photographers lose whenever they turn over part of their process to an impartial gadget.
Looking back it’s been 20/20, the reignited love for the K1000 was evident by the counter-increasing resale price and this popular repeat echoed in the comments section on the Ricoh announcement; “give back the K1000!”
And that desire isn’t just nostalgia. Today, many K1000s have gremlins in their viewfinders or require repairs that cost more than one pays for the camera itself. Just as the K1000 was once a mainstay for student photographers, so now the new K1000 can cater to beginners who want to concentrate on shooting, not servicing. Of course, there are also many collectors who will buy a new K1000 just to complete their fleet from the original Asahi, SE, to the plastic Chinese version. And as a working film photographer, demanding reliability, I would gladly accept a guaranteed body to mount my 50mm 1.2 SMC.
According to Wikipedia, the MSRP of the K1000 in 1976 was $299.50. And at the peak of its MSRP, from 1994 to the end of production in 1997, the K1000 cost just $315 even though inflation had grown nearly 200% in that period. These low prices were the result of large-scale production, and in 1990, shifting production to China and integrating cheaper materials into products.
From a consumer perspective, it made little sense to pay for the K1000’s declining quality in the 1990s when you could buy an older one carefully made in Japan for less than half the price used. At this time, and especially after its life cycle, it’s getting cheaper to use the thrift store-strewn K1000 as photographers “go digital” and shed their analog ancestry.
The precarious situation of manufacturer quality, vintage products competing with their new products continues to put up a fight against the new film camera market which has sadly atrophied. Just as inflation has caused the value of money to decline, time and deviation from traditional construction have caused the cost of high-quality brass components to increase.
Would you pay $1620.53 for the K1000? That’s what the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says the original K1000 MSRP is priced in today with inflation. But given that Pentax had to start from scratch when setting up the assembly line to produce far fewer all-metal and mechanical cameras than it has made in the past, the new K1000 will likely cost more than many vintage Leicas.
While it may seem crazy to suggest spending so much on what will likely be a technically inferior iteration of the K1000, this is what I believe is needed to forge a sustainable path to normalize production of quality 35mm cameras again. So don’t be surprised if the new Pentax, despite its promised manual breeze, is more of a fantastic plastic persuasion than the King of the SLR pedigree.
Between going back to normal magic camera prices and today’s post COVID film prices, sadly, we’re just parents. Scream at the clouds.
In the meantime, the best we can do is help prove that film can survive by not taking our available, albeit expensive, resources for granted – shoot lots of movies and buy other new film-oriented products when possible. Support the market and maybe, just maybe, the market will support us.
Thanks for reading. Happy shooting.
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