The Strange Case of Yuri’s Camera: Part 1

Surprisingly, it appears Yuri didn’t have a camera with him on his famous flight. In fact, there is a logical reason for this: Sergei Korolev, the mastermind of the Soviet space programme, only got permission for a manned flight by insisting that he needed some human eyeballs to check if there was even anything you could usefully photograph from space, before spending money on developing expensive spy satellites.

One of the biggest concerns in designing any space mission is the payload budget – how much in the way of equipment and accessories your rocket can actually lift. Given the uncertainty as to whether photographs from space would show anything scientifically or militarily useful, together with the need to save weight, it is perhaps not so surprising that Yuri didn’t pack a camera for the ride.

It is not as if Soviet industry didn’t have the resources for the job. The later unmanned missions to Mars and Venus carried impressive fully automatic camera systems. Back on Earth, the Soviet camera industry also produced some high-end cameras for ground-level use, together with a range of more everyday models both for domestic consumption, and for export. These proved to be quite successful products, even in capitalist markets. In particular, the ‘Zorki’ models, produced in large numbers, are still popular with collectors and vintage camera buffs today.

One of the problems of the Soviet system was finding enough money to spend on design and innovation. Unless you were part of a crucial space or military programme, the budget for new ideas could be limited.

The problem was solved in many industries by simply copying western products, a strategy which played into the hands of western Cold War propagandists who wanted to portray the Soviet Union as lacking the ability to innovate. (In fact, it may have lulled western experts into a false sense of security, leaving them surprised and shocked at what Soviet space engineers could achieve with a decent design budget.)

For earth-bound cameras, the Soviets chose to follow the lead set by Leica, the famous German firm whose compact, modern 35mm cameras had achieved a good reputation among professionals and amateurs worldwide throughout the thirties, forties and fifties.

Soviet Leica copies had little of the fine build-quality of the originals. The mechanisms were much less refined, and the detailing of knobs, buttons and dials was coarser. In the West however, they sold for considerably less than the real thing, and had one other feature which endeared them to generations of photographers on a budget: the lenses were actually rather good.

Many photographers felt that a slightly less refined body was a good trade-off if the lens, the soul of a camera, was good. Consequently, the ‘Zorki’ and other similar models, acquired a strong international following. Even today, they are still popular with camera collectors, and people -including me- who like to run real film through real cameras from time to time.

Zorki camera logo USSR

This entry was posted in Sergei Korolev, The Space Race, Yuri Gagarin, Zorki camera. Bookmark the permalink.

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