History of the Ansco Automatic Reflex

Ansco camera factory.

On November 5, 1947, Ansco, the second-largest photographic supply company in the United States, launched their new premier, flagship camera: the Ansco Automatic Reflex. It was beautifully engineered, all shiny glass, chrome and fine leather. It looked every bit modern, even slightly futuristic. It was intended to establish Ansco, based in Binghamton, NY, as a major player the serious amateur photography product market.

At the end of World War II, American camera manufacturers had an opportunity to capture more of the domestic market while the Germans struggled to get back on their feet. Kodak launched a number of products, including their mid-market Reflex TLR. Ansco, a long-time competitor of Kodak, announced the Ansco Automatic Reflex in the November/December 1945 issue of their house publication, the Ansconian. The Automatic Reflex was a stretch for Ansco: they’d never produced a camera so complex nor one aimed squarely at the serious amateur market. It was a serious shift for a company that was known for snapshot cameras and professional studio cameras.

Ansco signaled their intent right up front. In announcing the Automatic Reflex, they declared: “in appearance, construction and operation it is designed to appeal to those discriminating photographers who take pride in owning and using nothing less than the finest.” The camera, they claimed, was “accurately machined to highest possible standards of mechanical perfection.” The “coated Wollensak anastigmat” was mounted in a “precision set-and-release type shutter.” These were cues to the potential buyer that this camera was no ordinary Ansco.

E. Allan Williford, vice-president General Aniline & Film Corp., announced the Reflex to the general public in an article published in on December 5, 1945 in the Binghamton Press. It was the most expensive amateur camera Ansco ever made at their Binghamton plant.

Ansco billed their new camera as:

“a precision-built twin lens reflex camera taking 2¼x2¼” pictures. In appearance, construction and operation it is designed to appeal to those discriminating photographers who take pride in owning and using nothing less than the finest.”

The Reflex, the first of its kind to be manufactured in the United States, was intended to compete with Rolleiflex and other quality TLRs that had only been available from Europe.

Ansco immediately began advertising and press relations for their new camera. News of the new Reflex appeared several months later in Popular Photography and other trade publications. Publications called it the Reflex “35”, a reference to the taking lens’ aperture. At the time of its announcement, Ansco fully expected the camera to sell for no more than $100.

They placed ads in trade publications like Photo Trade News, National Photo Dealer, the National Association of Retail Druggists (N.A.R.D) Journal as well incorporating mention of the camera in film advertisements in photo and popular magazines like Life and Time.

Ansco’s advertisement in the January 1946 issues of Photo Trade News and the National Photo Dealer, featuring the same prototype shown in the Ansconian, suggested that the Reflex was “6 years ‘old’”. According to the ad, the “Ansco Reflex embodies the refinements and improvements resulting from six years of research … plus those suggested by the United States Army Signal Corps … and desired by the serious photographer who helped us.”

The prototype camera even appeared in retailer photographic catalogs, such as Montgomery Wards, alongside the Kodak Reflex, where consumers were cautioned “do not order before Dec. 1” and to “write for price.”

Initially promised to dealers in June 1946, production of the Reflex was delayed by almost a year and was delivered at a significantly higher cost.

What happened?

Ansco was a company almost paralyzed by government ownership and supervision of the Alien Property Custodian. Every move they made bordered on conservative: funding was difficult to acquire and once in hand, they were slow to spend the monies. On top of that, they were not equipped to make this camera entirely by themselves, unlike their competitors in Rochester and Europe.

Prior to the war, they had made very simple box cameras for the least sophisticated consumer photographer. Their more advanced cameras were built with parts from Agfa and Wollensak or manufactured entirely by Agfa. As Jack Frye, board president, observed during congressional testimony in the early ’50s, Ansco “was never in the strict sense a camera manufacturer. It lacks facilities for grinding lenses, making shutters, and molding cases.”

The Reflex required new manufacturing machinery and production personnel. This was complicated by the loss of expertise when the government took over Ansco and fired German management and leadership. During the time Ansco was trying to get back on its feet and launch the Reflex, they lost numerous key employees, including a director of marketing research, a camera plant manager, and many production employees.

Their camera plant, tooled to produce war materiel, had yet to fully convert back to producing cameras. According to an October 23 article in the Binghamton Press, production on the Reflex was expected to start in December 1946.

Cut off from Agfa, Ansco looked to their existing relationship with Wollensak for the key component of their new camera: the shutter and lenses. Wollensak had a long history of producing shutters and lenses for large to small format cameras. Ansco had used Wollensak shutters and lenses on earlier cameras. This particular shutter and lens combination, had already been used in other consumer cameras, including the Ciro-Flex, a competing TLR built in Detroit and on the market since 1941.

Ansco finally began production of the Reflex in late 1946. The first model rolled off the assembly lines in late February, 1947. Wallace Cowans, an Ansco salesman based in New York City, received the first production model around February 28th.

The Reflex was released to the public on November 6, 1947, two full years after it was announced. Ansco made the camera available to Binghamton residents first, four days before its national release, in recognition of their enduring support of the company.

The buying public in Binghamton, at least, were enthusiastic. Retailers who displayed the camera reported receiving numerous phone calls and showed the camera to large numbers of amateur photographers.

Binghamton’s mayor, Walker B. Lounsbery, was the first person to purchase an Ansco Automatic Reflex.