REVIEW: EBONY CO., LTD.
From the December 2004 issue of Axis, a bilingual Japanese industrial design magazine.
Ebony Co., Ltd. in Itabashi-ku, Tokyo, manufactures handmade wood view cameras. These are the masterwork cameras that professional photographers yearn for, and 55% of the total number manufactured by the company is exported overseas. Most of the camera body is made of ebony, with other parts made of titanium. When the skills of the sashimono (wood joinery) artisan are combined with the skills of assembling precision machines the result is an extension of the photographer's hand, a camera that transcends the domain of tools and ventures into the realm of artwork.
The materials - ebony and titanium
Wood view cameras are, as the name suggests, cameras with bodies made not of metal but wood. Ryuji Miyamoto, known for such publications as Architectural Apocalypse, cited the Ebony camera's light weight and compact size as the main reasons he started using it. Sure enough, the wood material does make the camera light. It is also highly portable since it can be folded. For Miyamoto, who travels all over the world alone, this is the most important factor: "The camera's greatest features include the fact that it's ideal for using wide-angle lenses; it's made elaborately with ebony and titanium; it's highly operational for its minimal required functions; and it is extremely simple."
Most of the company's cameras utilize ebony. It is the heaviest and hardest wood available, and according to material dictionaries it is extremely difficult to process and does not allow the use of nails as it splits easily. Titanium is also a difficult material to process. According to Ebony's president Hiromi Sakanashi they opted for these materials because their motto is "to make easy-to-use and durable products." Sakanashi says, "Athough ebony has disadvantages regarding processability and weight, after that it has mostly advantages, such as its stability and immunity to warping and distortion." Titanium is difficult to process because it is rustproof, light and rigid, but Ebony sought it for its durability.
Cameras returned to Ebony for repair demonstrate the durability and advantage of their handmade quality. There was a camera dropped from the sixth floor of a building. Another was thrown out of a car driving down the highway and bounced 10 meters. After repairs they were as good as new. That would be impossible with metal cameras.
0.1mm precision with ebony
Hiroshi Fukuda, who used to make fine Buddhist altars, is solely responsible for the sashimono joinery stage in which the body of the camera is assembled.
Fukuda explains that the body requires a degree of precision far beyond that needed when making altars. "Because the camera requires a precision of 0.1mm, which no woodworking machine can accomplish, I convert metal processing machines for the task." He uses a hammer to adjust the handle when attempting 0.1mm precision with the cutting machine. Precision is further secured by always making more pieces than necessary. Even so, he readjusts the blades after every cut, tries them out and measures their length with a sliding caliper. The frequency of such testing is greater than any woodwork I have seen before.
The body is assembled without using a single nail. Here he employs the skills of the sashimono artisan, joining parts by means of interlocking shapes. The depth of the interlocking mortise can be as shallow as approximately 2mm, but the pieces are joined tightly. When the body is complete the seams are almost invisible, although the ebony is not coated, and the body looks as solid as a single piece.
A camera tailored to the individual
There are approximately 100 ebony parts to be assembled. In this stage too, the parts go through a repetition of trial fit and sanding, and adjustment work such as checking horizontal and vertical alignment. The assembly requires the utmost caution since the ebony will split if the prepared hole for the screw is too small by as little as 0.1mm. Like Fukuda, the assembler always keeps a slide caliper at hand.
Even the screws are original and threaded all the way up the head. All the other parts are also made by the company in consideration of ease-of-use and functionality. Many are patented, such as the part used as the rotational axis for the movements.
Although Sakanashi makes cameras that professional photographers yearn for, he says if he were to make them solely according to his own ideas he would end up with complacent products, so he makes improvements through meeting with users. "Since each person has a different way of using the camera, there should be a camera just for that person. That's all we are really doing."
Taishi Hirokawa, who published a photo collection entitled Timescapes, shot scenes in a desert during the day and night by leaving the shutter open for a total of six hours. Unexpected accidents happen with sandstorms, and under such rough, long-exposure conditions. Hirokawa consulted Sakanashi often, making improvements each time before finally succeeding in shooting the scenes. "Mr. Sakanashi never said it was impossible. My encounter with Ebony has led to success in my work," Hirokawa explains. "Although I was absorbed in shooting at the time, I was incredibly fortunate to be able to have my own camera made while communicating directly with the maker."
Hirokawa's experience suggests that even precision instruments are no match for the dexterity of the artisan's hand. Although we are surrounded by industrial products, these handcrafted cameras have attained a level of precision and perfection that no other cameras could, and are objects of desire among users. There must be something about these cameras that goes beyond the already special qualities that cameras naturally possess.