"The object of photography is to express what is in your heart and mind. A camera is just a tool for taking pictures. As a designer, I want to design a camera that becomes an inseparable part of the photographer, a camera that dose not get in the way.." -Yoshihisa Maitani
Yoshihisa Maitani passed away on Friday at the age of 76. How familiar you are with Yoshihisa Maitani probably depends on how familiar you are with the cameras made by Olympus in the 1960s and 70s. Maitani was the designer chiefly responsible for the Olympus Pen and Pen F cameras, the OM 35mm SLR system, and the XA ultra compact rangefinder cameras. In short, if it was produced by Olympus from the late 50s through the 1980s, Maitani was likely involved. He retired from Olympus in 1996.
The cameras of Maitani were innovative for a variety of reasons, but their most defining characteristic was their size and weight, which was consistently smaller and lighter than other cameras produced at the time. The original Pen was a half frame camera released when no one else was making half frame cameras. The OM-1 was essentially the world's first compact SLR, and the XA is still to this day the smallest rangefinder camera that I'm aware of. If I could describe his overall design aesthetic in just a few words, it would be to make the camera as compact as possible while keeping the controls full sized.
Maitani was truly unique in the photographic world, in that he was a well known and a well regarded designer in an industry that normally does not have individual stars. This is particularly true in Japan, where corporate culture treats products as the creation and property of the company. In spite of this, in the late 1970s Maitani was featured in a series of advertisements in the US that promoted him as the mastermind behind Olympus, using slogans such as:
BEHIND THE GENIUS OF OLYMPUS CAMERAS IS A GENIUS.
THE CAMERAS OF MAITANI. THEY'RE MORE THAN CAMERAS. THEY'RE INVENTIONS.
And my personal favorite:
I CANNOT TAKE SOLE CREDIT FOR DESIGNING THESE LENSES. I HAD HELP FROM A COMPUTER.
Ah... the modesty!
(For the record, I also had help from a computer in writing this blog post.)
You can read the full text of these ads at the Maitani Olympus fan page. [Sadly, this link is no longer working]
Other than Oskar Barnack (who created the first Leica) and Victor Hasselblad (who has a company named after him) I can't think of any other camera designers who received anything close to this level of notoriety. Does anyone know who designed the Nikon F, for example? How about any Canon or Pentax camera?
Of course, this leads to a chicken and egg question. i.e. Which came first, Maitani reputation as a camera designer or the ad campaign by Olympus promoting him as a genius? In other words, would we have known who this man was without the ads? I have no way to answer this conclusively, but I believe that we would, and the simple reason is that his cameras are still being bought and sold today on ebay, and still being used by photography enthusiasts around the world.
Also, his design aesthetic to make cameras smaller has continued at Olympus in his absence. Readers of this blog will have noticed that Olympus has recently relaunched the Pen branding with the Digital Pen System. We'll probably never know what Maitani thought of these new camera-- which are admittedly vastly different from his original creations-- but I suspect he was happy to see his vision moving forward into the digital era.