We use our photographic equipment every day. So much so that the names adorning them become as familiar as a comfortable pair of slippers. Take a step back though and think about your early forages in the forest we call photography. Names like Canon and Nikon would have already been etched on to your subconscious, other names, however, might have seemed somewhat exotic. Leica, Hasselblad, Zenit, there are many names that would seem strange to a non-photographer, perhaps even to experienced photographers. So how did these famous companies get their names?
The granddaddy of photographic companies has an unusual origin to its name. If you are a person that sets pub quizzes, this one is rarely answered correctly. Kodak is, in fact, a completely made up name. George Eastman, the founder simply thought the letter K was “strong and incisive” He wanted a name that was short, could not be mispronounced and was unique. Hence the name Kodak was born.
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The name sounds like the lead detective in a Scandi Noir thriller. That's because it originates in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was not originally a photographic company, however, the founder's son, Arvid Viktor Hasselblad had a keen interest in the emerging art of photography. He created a photographic division, without much expectation of high sales. In 1888, the company became the sole Swedish distributor of the products from a certain Mr. Eastman. This partnership created a highly successful business that exists to this day.
One of the most iconic names in photography today has had a rather convoluted route to its modern brand. The company was founded from the merger of three smaller optical firms in Japan in 1917. They called the company Nippon Kogaku, KK which translates to Japan Optical Company. In the 1930’s they produced a range of lenses with the brand name Nikkor.
At the end of World War 2, the company decided to create it’s first full-size camera. After discarding numerous names, they finally settled on Nikon. The Nikon brand became a worldwide success and in 1988 Nippon Kogaku became Nikon Corporation.
Leica was founded in 1849 as Optical Institute by Carl Kellner. In 1869 its new managing director, Ernst Leitz, changed the name to Ernst Leitz Optical Industry. In 1924, under his heir and successor Ernst Leitz II's management, the company released its famous small 35mm camera the Leica O. The name was simply derived from the combination of LEI(tz) and CA(amera). In 1986 the company changed its name to Leica GmbH and became Leica Camera AG in 1998.
Older photographers may remember Pentax by the name Asahi Pentax. The name had its roots in Tokyo in 1919 when the Asahi Kogaku Goshi Kaisha company was formed. In 1938 it changed its name to Asahi Optical Co Ltd. Its first camera was the Asahiflex, the first Japanese made 35mm SLR. To brand its cameras, the company bought the trademark Pentax from the East German company VEB Pentacon, later to become Zeiss Icon. The name itself is a contraction of the words Pentaprism and Contax. The name Pentax as a company name was first used in 1976 when the Pentax Corporation was created in the United States.
Anyone who has spent time amongst the pungent aromas of the darkroom will recognize the name Ilford. Despite the digital age, this manufacturer of traditional photographic papers and chemicals survives to this day. They started out making photographic plates in the basement of a house in 1879. In 1880 the business was named Britannia Works Company. In 1890 the company published the Ilford Manual of Photography, named after the town east of London where they were based. In 1900 the company requested to change its name to Ilford Ltd. However the local district council objected to this. Eventually, they comprised, allowing the name Ilford Limited to be used. In 1989 the company was bought by International Paper and renamed Ilford Anitec. In 2004 the company went into receivership. However, the management bought out the company renaming it as Ilford Photo in 2005.
Many of the photographic brands that we use today have names that have changed many times over the decades. Some come from mergers, some from founders surnames, others simply invented to be strong identifiable brands. When you pick up a Sony camera, you can trace it’s origins all the way back to a company called Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten founded in 1928 in Osaka Japan. That to me is fascinating.