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The Gandolfi Legacy

Analog photography’s recent comeback draws attention to a stronger than ever generational nostalgia, which finds its roots in the current economical and political system.

The roots of Capitalism are to be found in the phenomenon of mass production which is to be dated all the way back to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Due to significant technological improvement, a rise in wealth and a subsequent need of the masses to consume more and more, manufactured objects have naturally replaced handmade artifacts. We are constantly being pressured to buy cheap, short-lived and replaceable objects for the sake of a consumer market.

It is exactly during this period of significant change that the ‘last independent camera makers’ – the Gandolfis - originated. In contrast to the modern idea of mass production, the Peckham based and family run business founded by Louis Gandolfi in 1885, provided a unique service to those passionate and specialised in photography.

Despite having two main original designs, the Universal and the Imperial, the specific characteristics of each camera depended on the customer’s requirements, following a one off production manufacturing system.

A further aspect rendering the Gandolfi camera-making business still hugely inspiring nowadays, is its focus on quality rather than quantity: the business only produced around 35 cameras a year with an average of three weeks of work for each camera. Due to the increasing mechanisation and technological improvement, craftsmanship has quickly lost popularity over the years and hand-made artifacts have become, in this case, both museum and collectors’ pieces rather than practical objects.

The attention to every single detail, starting from the choice of materials (mahogany and brass), continuing with the individual construction of the items and finishing off with a specific set of skills for each family member, made the business flourish and acquire an astounding reputation among technical and professional photographers.

As shown in Ken Griffiths’ comprehensive film on the matter, the Gandolfi family business has had critical historical importance: it has provided the most essential tool for documentative and historical purposes in a series of public and private instances. Some examples include: providing cameras for government contracts based in India (which main challenge was to endure particurlarly hot weather); supplying the suitable gear for both Lord Caernarvon’s Tutankhamun expedition and Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition; providing aerial camera equipment for the Royal Naval Air Service; creating a suitable camera to take mugshots of prisoners at a time when the practice was still new.

It is fascinating to trace back the Gandolfi business’ first steps as a camera-making workshop and to realise how we have lost some of those values, adaptability and skills. This creates a bittersweet nostalgia for a past that we never got to experience: technology, despite making life ‘easy’, can also cause detachment from oneself and from one’s surroundings which is the reason why a reminder of past practices, such as that of the Gandolfi & Sons, is extremely important. Fred Gandolfi, in an episode of the 1974 BBC documentary ‘the Industrial Grand Tour’, implicitely addresses his own connection to natural materials and to the physical sphere, which we lack today, as follows:

‘If I can’t see what the customer wants, I’m in a bit of a flutter… until I get hold of the plane and a piece of wood and then all is peace.’


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