In Memoriam – S. F. Spira

S. F. Spira, born Siegfried Franz Spira in Vienna, Austria in 1924, passed away September 2nd.  Everyone knew him as Fred but also as the founder and CEO of Spiratone, a company that started out as a small photographic laboratory in the 1940s and grew to become the largest supplier of photographic accessories in the U.S. by the 1980s.

Fred was the father of Basex’ CEO Jonathan Spira.  As a trusted advisor at Basex, he was always the voice of reason.

Fred was the retired founder and CEO of Spiratone, until the late 1980s.  He was also an eminent photo-historian and created The Spira Collection, which many experts considered to be one of the world’s finest collections of photography-related items.  He was the principal author (along with Jonathan as co-author) of The History of Photography, published by Aperture, and which the New York Times named a best book of the year in 2001.

Spira left Vienna  with the Kindertransport, having placed an advert in the Manchester Guardian stating “Austrian boy, age 14, with affidavit for America, needs temporary home in England.”  Although he left his parents behind in Vienna, they were reunited a year later and started a new life in the United States.  His first accomplishment was graduating from high school in New York as the class valedictorian.

The family had gone from a very comfortable existence in Vienna, where his father had been a bank executive and later the owner of a camera shop, to almost nothing.  To survive, they started a small photo-finishing laboratory operating out of their apartment.  This grew into a fairly substantial business (the lab’s customers included many Austrian emigrés, including members of the Habsburg family, the former rulers of Austria).  In the late 1940s, Fred saw opportunity with the Japanese and became one of the first if not the first to open up the U.S. market to quality Japanese photographic goods.

Among his many innovations, he invented the first Through-the-Lens (TTL) metering system for still cameras and is credited with many other innovations in filters, lighting, darkroom, and other areas of photography.  He also created the concept of interchangeable lens systems, which allowed one lens to work with multiple cameras such as Canon and Nikon, simply by changing an adapter mount.

John Durniak, former picture editor of the New York Times and Time magazine among his many titles, had written the following about Fred in a feature article in the 1980s:
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile and Fred Spira did not invent photography, yet, both these men have had almost as much influence on their respective fields as the original inventors.  What Ford did to our economy and culture with the concepts behind the Model A and Model T, Spira has done to photography with his accessory lenses, close-up attachments and processing machines.

The funeral service, held this past Tuesday, was longer than usual because of the number of people who eulogized Fred.  In addition to a touching eulogy by Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein (who had worked for Modern Photography briefly as a free-lance writer before going to the Seminary), Jonathan and his brother Greg spoke, as did our v.p. and editorial director Basilio Alferow, who prior to his life at Basex, was vice president of R&D under Fred at Spiratone.  The photographic industry was represented by Herbert Keppler, who ran both Modern Photography and, more recently, Popular Photography, and Bernie Danis, who started working for Fred in 1946 and ended up as a lifelong friend and colleague at Spiratone.

Several people, Michael Pritchard, Managing Director of Christie’s, a friend of Fred’s since 1986, where distance precluded their attendance e-mailed in brief eulogies which were read at the service,

I’ll close with an excerpt from comments by Joe Pompeo, a former manager at Spiratone.

“Fred left his mark on me and on society. Fred was always fair, patient and helpful. Working for Fred remains one of my most memorable experiences.

Fred inspired me and I learned so much, especially common sense and modesty.

Today those wonder years working with SFS remain my fondest memories.  Hardly a day goes by I don’t flash back to Flushing and hear Fred’s words of advice.  In my mind Fred will always be that hyper man in the gray business suit huddled behind his typewriter knocking off letter after letter.”

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

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