In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the neutral country the Netherlands without any warning or formal declaration of war. Four days into the invasion, German officers negotiated a temporary cease-fire with Dutch ground forces in the city of Rotterdam. Almost immediately after, the German Luftwaffe began an aerial bombardment that leveled the city center, killed over 900 Dutch civilians, and rendered 85,000 others homeless. The following day, the Dutch government surrendered to Germany.
Five years later, World War Two had ended. More than 60 million people had died in a conflict that had wrought incalculable destruction across the whole of the European continent. The economies of Great Britain and France were crippled, and the former industrial dynamo of Germany was all but destroyed. People had no homes, no work, no food; Europeans were starving to death. The United States’ Secretary of State George Marshall, speaking at Harvard University, implored government to assist in the economic restoration of Europe, a call that would be answered to the tune of more than $13 billion spent over a four year period.
This was the reality of the world in 1945; a moment in history in which a small, Dutch company successfully manufactured and sold some of the most beautiful cameras I’ve yet seen. Old fashioned even in their own time, these cameras might never have existed without the unique circumstances brought about by the then recently ended global conflict. They were a true product of their time and place. Materials were scarce throughout Europe, and those that were available were appropriately used to fill more critical needs than camera-making. The economic environment and materials squeeze meant that the cameras should be cheap and undeniably primitive (they’re essentially metal boxes with a lens attached). But this over simplification is just that. For all their simplicity, these cameras were and are pretty wonderful creations.
The company that made them was called Tahbes, an acronym for Technisch en Algemeen Handelsbureau Brokmeier en Steegers. J. B. Brokmeier (who designed and built the company’s first prototype) and a colleague named Steegers established the firm in Voorburg, the oldest city in the Netherlands, and a place situated just 2.5 miles from where Dutch forces repelled German invaders at The Hague just a few years earlier. Advertisements from the period pointed to the specific address 503 Kon. Wilhelminalaan, where Tahbes would make three cameras; the Synchro, the Synchrona, and the Populair.
The first camera produced was the Synchro, an incredibly beautiful medium format camera that exposes 6 x 6 centimeter square images on 120 roll film. It uses a simple meniscus lens, offers only a single shutter speed plus a timed exposure setting (in which the shutter stays open until manually closed), and the ability to shoot at one of two available apertures via a rudimentary metal flap that can be extended over the lens opening.
Its polished metal body is something we just don’t see anymore. The muted brilliant nickel coating of its wind knob, top and bottom plates, and retractable lens barrel is simply stunning. Its concise design and perfect proportions make me think of a far more basic, medium format sized Leica M, with its bauhaus curves and rounded ends. The viewfinder (a design by the famed Dutch military officer and optical designer Lieuwe Evert Willem van Albada) displays an almost magical view of the world seen through it, and this perfectly rounded peeping window is perched atop the sparse top plate like a cherry on the proverbial sundae. There’s a tripod mount on the bottom, and a flash mount on the top. A frame counter in the form of a red tinted viewing window hides behind a flap on the back of the camera, the whole of which is removed for loading and unloading film. A simple slide lock on the bottom of the machine holds the assembly together when shooting.
The second camera produced by Tahbes, the Synchrona, is a camera that’s both a simplified and more complicated version of the Synchro. It adds to the earlier camera’s abilities by incorporating a multi-speed shutter that’s capable of exposures of 1/100th, 1/50th, and 1/25th of a second, plus timed exposures. The adjustable aperture improved to allow three settings, f/7.7, f/9, and f/11. All of these controls are arranged on the front plate of the lens barrel and are articulated via tiny levers settling into detents. The Synchrona also offers adjustable scale focusing with two settings, one for shots in which the subject is from 1.5 to 3 meters away, and one for shots in which the subject stands from 3 meters away to infinity. Internal components are fundamentally improved as well, with the newer camera showing an overall higher level of refinement and finish, most obviously in the inclusion of light-sealing felt, film transport slides, and a more precise film gate.
These improvements make the Synchrona a much more usable camera compared to its predecessor, the Synchro. But with its leatherette covering and its much-simplified viewfinder, some of the most interesting design elements of the Synchro have been abandoned.
The last camera, the Populair, is a simplified version of the first camera, with all of that basic camera’s limitations and then some. It loses the Synchro’s flash capability, replaces the original’s Albada viewfinder for one that’s even more primitive than the lower-spec VF found on the Synchrona, and hides the original machine’s gorgeous metal finish with a coating of paint. It’s the least capable and least attractive of the three Tahbes cameras. These criticisms leveled, it’s a rare bird indeed. Find one, and you should buy it.
In use, the Tahbes cameras are equal parts limiting and liberating. There’s very little a photographer can do to influence the final image, but there’s also very little to think about. Like shooting the earliest Kodak box cameras, photography with the Tahbes machines is something of an act of faith. We approximate our framing with a noncommittal viewfinder, point a laughably basic lens at our subject, and fire one of the most limiting shutters in all of photography. There’s no live view, no depth of field preview, no focusing aids, no metering. Shooters who’ve shot only digital cameras will find themselves on another planet, and even experienced photographers who’ve shot plenty of film machines will guess, and second guess, every exposure.
And let’s not even mention accidental double exposures, over-running the manual film advance, and light leaks. These things happen. They happen a lot.
Images produced through Tahbes lenses are mostly typical of what we see from primitive cameras of earlier generations. With general softness, vignetting, imprecise focus, and large apertures, we’re left with shots that are more suggestive than they are photographic. We see the idea of an image.
Compared to cameras produced contemporaneously, the Tahbes is cripplingly underdeveloped. Consider that elsewhere in Europe, Leica was making their IIIc and Kodak was making the Retina. Comparatively speaking, the Synchro and its siblings were simply cheap, basic cameras produced under a decades-old design ethos. Had the Tahbes cameras been released in the early 1900s, they’d have likely found more success outside of their native country. As it was, Tahbes solved the temporary problem of camera import shortages in the Netherlands, filled a specific market need, and succeeded in giving the people a camera to use following a war that continued to hinder the resumption of normalcy throughout the course of the following decade. In 1957, Tahbes ceased operations.
Today, the cameras Tahbes made are rare, especially in the United States. It took me three years to find these machines in anything close to working condition, and I had to source them from a camera dealer in Spain who’d only ever seen the two in question. Information on the brand is sparse, no patents were filed outside of Europe, and to the best of my knowledge, these cameras were never sold in the United States.
Are these cameras worth owning? Worth seeking out? That’s up to the individual collector. It’s possible to use these cameras today, and even with all the guessing and hoping that comes with doing so, shooting them is fun. Do they make excellent images? Not at all. Are they exemplars of precision engineering and masterful craftsmanship? Not a chance. But they’re important nonetheless, as gorgeous and rare machines indicative of the time and place in which they were made. And I think they’ll look pretty nice on my shelf of keepers.