A to Z of Photography: Yashica and Madame Yevonde

A to Z of Photography: Yashica and Madame Yevonde

In this article we turn to the society photographer, and fortune teller sounding, Madame Yevonde, but before her another Japanese brand that bit the dust. Yashica were prominent in the post-war photographic world, but when did they cease production?


Founded in Nagano, Japan, as Yashinma Seiki in 1949, it's eight employees began by making components for electronic clocks progressing to manufacturing it's first camera, the Yashimaflex, by 1953. This was a 6x6 twin lens reflex that used lenses produced by the Tomioka Optical Works, a relationship that lasted many years. The Yashica subsidiary was formed in 1957, the same year as the release of its popular Yashica Mat TLR, growing to 2000 employees by 1958. The Yashica Pentamatic, a 35mm SLR, arrived in 1959 with a proprietary lens mount. This failed to gain popularity and so was redesigned to Zeiss Ikon's more popular M42 mount in 1962.

In 1965 they introduced the first commercially successful electronically controlled 35mm, eventually selling 8 million units. In 1968 they finally acquired their lens manufacturer — Tomioka — giving Yashica an enviable reputation for high quality camera electronics and optics. 1968 saw the introduction of the TL Electro-X, an SLR which incorporated in-camera metering. In 1973 they began a long-term collaboration with Zeiss Ikon, producing the Contax RTS that could take all Contax lenses using the C/Y mount. It was a commercial success. They then produced the lower cost Yashica FR which retained many of the same features. The practice of producing a high end Contax and lower cost Yashica continued for the next 10 years, marking a high point in the four-way race with Canon, Nikon, and Minolta.

In 1983 Yashica was acquired by Kyocera and continued production of both Yashica and Contax cameras. Whilst Yashica had innovated extensively including features such as electromagnetic shutter release, full PASM exposure modes, and TTL flash, they were slow to jump on the autofocus bandwagon. Kyocera repositioned the company in the 1990s to point-and-shoot cameras, moving production from Japan. This was a race to the bottom, a mistake made by a number of companies around this time. All camera production was halted in 2005 and the trademarks sold in 2008.

If there is one thing I've learnt from reviewing the history of camera companies it is this — you are only as successful as your last model. The more product categories you have, the greater your capacity for success, whilst the bigger the company the greater the ability to withstand difficult times, but the harder it becomes to pivot. Yashica, Bronica, Fuji, Minolta, Kodak, and Leica are all abject lessons in how to pivot — or not. And how the success of one company can rescue the fortunes of another, as Minolta did with Leica, before being buried in a corporate sale to Sony. Or were they the foundation for the success of the mirrorless e-mount? Who knows what the future will hold and what the next successful pivot will be?

Madame Yevonde

Yevonde Philone Cumbers was born (1893) in to a wealthy family and educated at progressive boarding schools in England, France, and Belgium. Independent of nature, she joined the suffragette movement in 1910, but then moved on to a 3 year apprenticeship with society photographer Lallie Charles. This was a pivotal moment as she was heavily influenced by the success of Charles and her sister Rita Martin, subsequently setting up her own studio in 1914.

She used the classic marketing ploy of "influence begets influence" by inviting well known figures to free portrait sittings. Her photos were widely printed (including the newly arrived Vogue and Harper's Bazaar), leading to a number of commercial commissions as well as photographing the likes of A.A. Milne, Noel Coward, Barbara Cartland, and Louis Mountbatten. Whereas Lallie used soft, diffuse, natural light to produce pictorial images popular at the time, Yevonde remained firmly contemporary in style, posing her subjects, styling off-camera gazes, along with the creative use of props. Indeed, she remained at the forefront of "real" photography which can be seen paralleled in the works of Paul Outerbridge and the f/64 Group in California.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was the color photography she created, a result of being an early adopter of the Vivex process which accounted for 90% of the UK market. Vivex used three negatives for the subtractive colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow. These needed to be exposed sequentially using a bespoke camera back or simultaneously using a Vivex camera. The three negatives were developed separately before being printed one on another - this created problems with image registration but allowed the creative manipulation of color. This suited Madame Yevonde's vibrant use of color in fashion, alongside her fantastical still lifes.

In 1932 Madame Yevonde held her first exhibition with color photos — remember that this was a period where color was considered vulgar, something that Paul Outerbridge also found challenging. The public reaction was positive which led to commercial commissions and she switched almost exclusively to color. It was during this period that she created her highly acclaimed "Goddesses" series that grew from portrait sittings for a high society ball, as well as receiving royal commissions which were as exclusive then as they are today.

In 1936 she traveled to New York to tout for work. Cunard subsequently commissioned her to photograph the artists and craftsmen working on the Queen Mary with all 12 submitted photos published in Fortune.The 1930s brought an untimely end to her color work with the closure of the Vivex factory as war broke. In a similar manner to Outerbridge, she refused to transition to kodachrome when the rest of the industry pivoted. She continued her studio business, now offering to visit clients as well as commercial commissions, well in to her 70s. A retrospective (see examples of her work through the National Portrait Galley and Madame Yevonde Archive) was organized for her 80th birthday, marking 60 years as a professional photographer. She died at the age of 82, a life lived to her creed of

Be original or die

Other Ys

Other Ys that weren't on the cards this time include Jose Yalenti and Yongnuo.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Lenna and Leica

Inge Morath and Minolta

Noise and Helmut Newton

Paul Outerbridge and the Orton Effect

Panorama and Pillars of Creation

Wayne Quilliam and the Queen

Reflex Camera and Tony Ray-Jones

Shooting Sex and Strip Photography

Tilt-Shift and Train Wreck at Montparnasse

Ultimate Confrontation and Umbo

Von Wong and Vivitar

Weegee and Wet Plate Collodion

X-Trans Sensor and Xiaoxiao Xu

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the public domain. Body images courtesy of Ashley Pomeroy and Wikipedia used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Used to have a YASHICA T4 before it fell apart. LOVED the waist level viewfinder!

Was that first"proper" camera? Mine was a Pentax p30. Very fond memories

Canon AE-1, loved that camera!