Sunday, May 30, 2010

Purma Cameras - Raymond Loewy?

Purma Special Camera. Photograph by Tim IrvingThe Purma Special

There have been a handful of great designers who have put their names to cameras. Of all the designers that I wish had designed a camera, Raymond Loewy the father of American industrial design (he was actually French), would be at the top of my list. He did in fact design a consumer camera for Ansco, which although nice, doesn't have the style of, say, his $100, 000 pencil sharpener.

Raymond Loewy's name has always added value to a product, sometimes his name was used by advertisers without him knowing. The newspaper advert below states "Beautiful streamlined design by Raymond Loewy". I wish it were true but it's a myth dreamed up to sell a product.

Purma Camera Advert.The art deco design is by two Englishmen. That wonderful shape was created by the brilliant poster artist Tom Purves. The job of making it work was cleverly done by Alfred Croger Mayo. And, if I may say so, Raymond Loewy couldn't have done it better. The name PURMA comes from the founders names, PURves and MAyo.

Let me introduce you to the Purma Special!

The Purma is the work of great minds. The modernist design wouldn't have looked out of place in Fritz Langs Metropolis. It's made of black bakelite, that's grooved like a 78rpm disc. The lever to cock the shutter and the indent for the shutter button have the same profiles as 1930's airliners, in fact the shape of the body is borrowed from a pair of wings.

There is no design compromise on this camera, knobs and buttons would have ruined those modernist lines and a lens is un-thinkable. So all the controls are either blended in, or like the shutter, recessed. The most troublesome bit, the lens is hidden (except for when you need to take a photograph) behind a discreet bakelite lens cap. On removing the cap, the lens telescopes out.
Purma Special. Photograph by Tim IrvingThe shutter was the brainchild (it's patented), of Alfred Croger Mayo, it is ingenious if odd. The shutter speed control, which selects the three speeds (slow, medium and fast), is invisible. To change speed, you turn the camera clockwise to the vertical position for fast, turn it 180 degrees for medium and tun it horizontal for slow (it helps if you're a bendy cartoon character). Somewhere inside the camera gravity does it's job and the speeds do indeed change, you can hear a metallic noise! There is no visible indication, you have to have faith. Because the photos are square, it makes no difference if the camera is held vertical or horizontal, clever eh!
Back of Purma Special. Photograph by Tim IrvingAperture and focusing are fixed, no worries there.

All this design, but what do the photos look like? Well I have to be honest and tell you that I haven't used my Purma to take a photo, but I will one day. The 127 film is readily available, in the UK you can buy it from AG Photographic and in the US from The Frugal Photographer. There's an active user group on Flickr, some of whom make stunning photographs with the old Purma.

I'm sorry Mister Loewy didn't have a hand in the design of this camera. If you want one of his original designs, he did design the Lucky Strike logo which is still available and affordable, but sadly not this camera.


  1. How unusual, but fascinating, that one has to rotate the entire camera to change shutter speeds. Something in me wants to hear that metallic noise you referred to.

    Well, it's a lovely camera. I like that the case looks like a record album (I guess the grooves help you hold on to the darn thing while turning it every which way), and that brass ring around the lens looks beautiful next to the grooved texture.

  2. I'm interested that you are so definite that the camera was not designed by Loewy; something I have been trying to prove (one way or the other) for over 25 years of researching the Purma company.

    I have for many years shared your view, but the existence of this advert has to suggest a Loewy link, because I find it hard to believe that two companies like Bolex and Purma would make such a public assertion linked to a major US/International designer if there was not some truth in it.

    My view is now something like AC Mayo designed the technical layout (based on his earlier Purma Speed) Tom Purvis had some input to the overall design (he was an industrial artist) and Loewy's London Office had some input into the final styling (perhaps brokered by the personal contacts of Tom Purvis, or the DeLaRue company who actually moulded the camera parts).

  3. I admit, I have not been on this web page in a long time... however it was another joy to see It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to help making people more aware of possible issues. Photo cameras user manuals



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