ALPA of Switzerland



Tops and flops - a short history of ALPA


"... the ALPA was designed for an exacting and methodical scientific user accustomed to the standards of laboratory instruments and appealed to other photographers who enjoy a beautifully engineered, heavy and immensely versatile camera..."
Ivor Matanle
Collecting and Using Classic SLRs
Thames and Hudson, London 1996
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1918 December 19th: the company Pignons SA was founded in the village of Ballaigues near the railway junction of Vallorbe. The area, located in the Swiss Jura mountains close to the French border, had long been a center of traditional Swiss watchmaking skills. Until 1990 the company was to remain wholly or in part in the hands of the Bourgeois family. Initially, activities were limited to supplying mechanical parts to manufacturers of watches and other precision instruments. 
1933 In that year, Pignons SA first made contact with the technical designer Jacques Bolsky, who also called himself Boolsky or Bolsey at times. Born in the Ukraine under the name of Bogopolsky, he studied medicine in Geneva and in 1924 opened a company there, Bol SA, to market his 35mm movie camera Cinématographe Bol and later his 16mm Bolex. To this day Bolex is a world-famous name in 8mm and 16mm motion picture cameras. In 1930 Paillard SA of Ste-Croix took over Bol/Bolex SA and appointed Bolsky engineering consultant to the newly-created department Ciné-Bolex. Ten years later Bolsky exchanged Europe for the USA, leaving the ALPA forerunners (developed since 1933) to Pignons SA. In the USA, Bolsky had some success with the movie and photo cameras of his Bolsey Corp. of America, New York. The very first Bolsey cameras were manufactured by Pignons SA, but soon newly developed designs appeared under the Bolsey name, manufactured by the Obex Corp. of Long Island, NY. On 1st of June 1956 this company also took over the marketing of Bolsey Corp. products. Jacques Bolsey died suddenly in the USA on January 20, 1962, at the age of 66. 

Happily, the chance offered by Bolsky was seized at Ballaigues. His proposals involved the expansion of the company into the manufacturing of photographic cameras. Until the 1940s, prototypes and experimental cameras were developed - some as single specimens, some in limited series - under a variety of designations: Bolca, Teleflex and Viteflex. A special feature to be found in some later ALPA cameras, too, was the combination of the reflex principle with a built-in additional non-reflex viewfinder. 

1942 While war raged all around Switzerland, Pignons SA produced a first series of ALPA Reflex cameras as well as one model, the ALPA Standard, with a non-reflex viewfinder only. Although the world had too many problems to take much notice of these premieres, a few of the new cameras nevertheless made it to the USA under the names of Bolca and Bolsey Reflex.
1944 In that year, the Spring exhibition at Basle, the Mustermesse, at long last introduced the ALPA Reflex to a wider public. It can rightly be regarded as the year in which ALPA entered the exclusive world of top-of-the-range cameras.
1949 With the ALPA Prisma Reflex appeared one of the very first single lens reflex cameras with a pentaprism. This roof prism device, by virtue of the cross-over of internally reflected rays, gives an erect, laterally correct image. The viewing eyepiece has a view-angle of 45º - a typical ALPA feature up to the model 6c of 1960. 
1951 Pignons SA, resp. ALPA, has never produced its own lenses, preferring to buy them from the most reputable manufacturers. A list of suppliers reads like the "Who is Who" of optical manufacturing: Angénieux, Asahi, Berthiot, Chinon, Enna, Kilfitt, Kinoptik, Schneider, Yashica, Zoomar, etc. From 1951 onwards, the 50mm lens MADE IN SWlTZERLAND of Kern Aarau - made exclusively for ALPA - played a special role. The 1:1.8 Switar introduced that year was replaced after 1958 by the Macro-Switar with Visifocus depth of field indicator which in turn was given a reduced largest stop of 1:1.9 in 1968. Kern Aarau had thrown away all the relevant tools, so a lens mounting by Chinon of Japan was used after 1982 for the last Macro-Switars. 

1952 That year saw the presentation of the second ALPA-generation, designed by André Cornut and showing major technical advances: in place of the sheet-steel construction a new die-cast alloy body was introduced as well as the ALPA bayonet lens mounting. The new body was extraordinarily robust and of remarkable, purely functional beauty. For many aesthetes, the ALPA models 4, 5, 7 and 8 as well as the early model 6 are among the best that the camera designers' art has ever produced.
1956 With model 6 a split-image rangefinder was introduced. 
1959 With the b-models the rapid return mirror and the typical ALPA film advance lever made their first appearance. The latter had to be operated front-to-back rather than in the more common back-to-front mode. This unusual arrangement simplified the construction and allowed the user to keep his eye close to the camera's eyepiece while operating the lever.
1960 Model 6c introduced an asymmetric form of the prism head covering, combined with a new selenium exposure meter. Moreover, the shoulders of the upper part of the body that had hitherto been rounded were now redesigned to be angular. As a first for ALPA, there was also a horizontal viewing eyepiece - until then there had either been a waist-level viewfinder (ALPA Reflex) or a vertical (model 4), respectively a 45° viewing angle eyepiece (models Prisma Reflex, 5 and 6 - except for 6c - as well as 7 and 8).
1964 With the model 9d ALPA achieved a technical masterstroke: one of the earliest cameras with a TTL (through-the-lens) exposure meter. There is some controversy as regards the camera that was the very first with this technical advance. Ihagee Dresden/Exakta can point to patents dating back to 1939 while Pentax and Topcon held presentations in 1960 and 1962, respectively. There is also the distinction between market introduction in Europe and the USA. In any case: ALPA was there among the first.
1968 The third ALPA-generation appeared: the redesigned upper body of the models numbered 10 and 11 did not necessarily look more beautiful but they did have a coupled exposure meter. Some models also carried a family crest, a feature more popular with some than with others.
1970 The match-needle exposure control was replaced from model 11e upwards by LEDs (light-emitting-diodes). At the end of the 1960s and at the beginning 1970s, Pignons employed an all-time record of about 70 people and produced around 200 ALPA cameras per month. This was a huge number for a camera that was manufactured manually by skilled craftsmen. It is, of course, only the output of a few minutes on an automated camera production line. 

In that year did Pignons SA finally give up their original business of supplying parts to the watchmaking industry. 

1972 With the ALPA 11el a new model appeared on the market with improved mirror and shutter.
1975 A local parson, Charles-Louis Rochat, was fascinated by electronics and developed prototypes of an exposure meter and a control unit for slide projectors. The control unit entered serial production at Pignons SA under the name Varidia.
1976 With the introduction of the model 11si, the CdS-cells (cadmium-sulphide) that had been used since model 9d were replaced by Si-cells (silicon). The Pignons stand at the Photokina '76 in Cologne presented yet another surprise to visiting aficionados: a camera from Japan bearing the ALPA label: the ALPA Si 2000.The new model was built on the Chinon CE II Memotron with M42-screw-mount. The metamorphosis from Chinon to ALPA was accomplished through a few deft changes on the outside of the camera. Brilliant marketing idea or an own-goal against the image of a superior brand? In any case, this escapade ended when both the Si 2000 and its successor the Si 3000 with K-bayonet-mount (introduced 1980 and based on the Chinon CE-4) ceased production some years later.

1979 In that year the ALPA Roto SM60/70 appeared, a unique 360° panoramic camera. The famous Swiss photographer Emil Schulthess and the technical designer Hermann Seitz, each played major roles in its development. Today, the Seitz Roundshot is the leading instrument of its kind worldwide. Seitz Phototechnik AG, Lustdorf/Switzerland, also designs and produces the new ALPA 12WA wide angle medium format camera.
The 80s The model 11si of 1976 marked the technological apex as well as the end-point of the ALPA 24x36mm SLR development. While the ALPA 11si gold (18 carat gold plated, 10 micron layer) offered in the 1980s for somewhat less than US$ 7,000 may have delighted some collectors of exquisite luxuries, a refinement of photographic technology it was not. The production of ALPA 11si cameras fell throughout the 1980s to reach a low of 4 to 5 per month. At the same time, Pignons was developing such exotic products as a special camera for identity cards on behalf of the Zaïre government. Work also continued somewhat haphazardly on a new 24x36mm SLR model for which drawings, tools and even prototypes are said to have been made. The whereabouts of this material today is as unclear as that of many other parts and semifinished goods made by Pignons at that time. A film transport motor of considerable technical ingenuity and interest is reported to have reached an advanced stage of development. A new vertical-travel metal blade focal plane shutter was under development that is rumoured to have been a brilliant feat of engineering. Some of these developments are said to have been sold to Far Eastern buyers.
1990 On 14th August 1990, bankruptcy proceedings were instituted against Pignons SA at Ballaigues. The official receiver moved in to administer the remaining assets. How and why did one of the world's most distinguished cameras reach such a low point?
Remark 1: it is easy to be wise after the event.
Remark 2: similar comments to those we are about to make below may be made about a number of well-known camera manufacturers. We feel that the reasons behind the decline and fall of ALPA's original owners are primarily the following: 
  1. Lack of interest in the product and lack of personal engagement by the producer's decision-makers. 

  3. The company did not concentrate on its core business but spread itself over too many other activities. Its core business was the design and manufacture of high-quality, hand-crafted cameras for a small but demanding circle of connoisseurs. In other words: ALPA.

  5. The ALPA cameras produced in the 1980s did not match the spirit of the decade. Today, on the other hand, we are witnessing a veritable renaissance of classical mechanics at the highest level of quality. 

  6. There is no disputing the advantages and convenience of automated functions for some photographic purposes, e.g. in action-photography where speed and reaction time is everything. Nevertheless, more and more sensitive photographers realize:
  • That the enjoyment of their art and profession is in growing danger of being buried under an avalanche of ever more automated gizmos, multi functional buttons with displays fore and aft, the whole show being run by current-guzzling and often far-from-quiet electric motors

  • That in photography genuine quality only very rarely comes from automatic processes

  • That in camera technology simplicity and reliability often correlate closely
1990-96 Why did the simple bankruptcy case of Pignons SA take six years to reach a conclusion? We (Capaul & Weber) have tried since December 1990 to purchase ALPA and succeeded only in 1996. We still do not know why it took so long. Well-informed sources do not lay the blame entirely on the overworked official receiver's office. Instead, they hint at the peculiar social, economic, political and even religious complexities of this rather remote corner of French-speaking Switzerland.
1996 On 29th February 1996 Capaul & Weber, Zürich/Switzerland, purchased from the official receiver under a "vente aux enchères privée" the worldwide rights to the brand name ALPA. 

Already at the Photokina in the autumn of 1996 the first prototypes of the ALPA 12 were presented to the public. They were the result of a close cooperation between Capaul & Weber with Seitz Phototechnik AG, Lustdorf/Switzerland. At the ALPA stand at Cologne as much as in the international specialised press, these prototypes of the first ALPA for the medium format were the target of lively interest.

1998 We, in cooperation with Seitz Phototechnik AG, Lustdorf/Switzerland, have turned the suggestions and wishes that have been made regarding the ALPA 12 prototypes into reality. The result of all these changes are two production models rather different from the original prototypes: 
  • the ALPA 12S/WA (SHIFT/WIDE ANGLE) with built-in perspective control and
  • the ALPA 12WA (WIDE ANGLE) without perspective control 



2000 The ALPA camera's outstanding technical and aesthetic characteristics triumph. ALPA was presented with the top award of the Red Dot for Highest Design Quality in the contest Design Innovations 2000 (Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, Essen/Germany). Roter Punkt fuer hoechste Designqualitaet
Again: ALPA has received the award 
Design Distinction in Consumer Products
in the 46th International Design Magazine's Annual Design Review (2000, I.D.® Magazine, 116 East 27th Street, Floor 6, New York, NY 10016, USA). 
"... Projects like yours keep I.D.'s Annual Review at the forefront of contemporary design..."

I.D. Magazine NY


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ALPA Capaul & Weber
Neptunstrasse 96, P.O. Box 1858
CH-8032 Zürich, Switzerland
Telephone: +41-1-383 92 22, Fax: +41-1-382 01 80

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