Foma: A major player in the black and white photography market
It may be a little known fact, but Czechia houses a company that was once the main producer of photographic materials for the Eastern Bloc. The foundations of Foma Bohemia’s success were set up during the First Czechoslovak Republic. Today, the company is a leading manufacturer on the black and white photography market, as well as producing essential equipment for medical and forensics professionals.
First Republic origins
The origins of Foma can be traced back to as far as the early 20th century. In 1919, Evžen Schier, together with his associate Gustav Bárta, set up a small workshop for making photographic and diapositiv sheets in Nusle - a town that was back then not yet a part of Prague. The products made in this workshop were sold under the brand Ibis.
Schier, a chemist by education, was already a successful engineer in his own right. He played a major role in the development of photography in Czechia, where the craft was still very much in its infancy at the time. Moving to Prague after the First World War, Schier was full of ideas from the experiences that he had gained while visiting chemical factories in England, France and Russia during his studies. By now in his 40s, he was also committed to starting his own company
After delving into the basics of the photographic craft together with his brother, Shier registered the brand Fotochema in 1919 and, a year later, bought land in Hradec Králové together with three associates - Antonín Kopista, Richard Dubský and Vilém Porkert. It was in Hradec that the company saw its establishment in 1921. The East Bohemian city was a bustling and modern place in what was then still the infant Czechoslovak state, offering Schier and his associates the perfect setting for developing their company.
Foma first focused on the production of photographic plates and processing chemicals. Its golden age came a decade later, during the 1930s, when it began producing black and white papers and roll films. By then the business was already exporting to Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania. The products of the company also took first place at exhibitions in Paris, Brussels and Ljublana during this period.
While photography has made great strides over the past century, black and white photographs, Foma’s speciality, are still made from the same essential substance. Foma product manager Vítězslav Krejčí explained how this works to Czech Radio.
“Silver nitrate is the main substance needed for the production of film. As they say, black and white materials are made using silver. Then you also need halogen ions such as sodium chloride, potassium bromide, ammonium bromide, potassium iodide and so on. Through a precipitation reaction you get silver halide which is then dissolved in gel forming crystals. These crystals gradually acquire a certain form. These substances are then cooled and spread onto various thin sheets.”
In 1935, the revenues of the company reached 7 million Czechoslovak crowns, a large amount of money at that time, allowing it to employ 150 workers. The business also changed its brand name from Fotochema to the more simple Foma. Its logo depicted the four letters F-o-m-a in red and white on the backdrop of a blue circle, symbolising planet Earth. Eventually, the blue background would be replaced by yellow.
During the Second World War, when the Czech lands were occupied by Nazi Germany, Foma became a part of the centrally administered convention of photography manufacturers. This led to a further increase in production. Workers in morning shifts worked for the German company Langebardus Berlin. Meanwhile, those on nights shifts made Foma products.
Evžen Schier remained the director of the company after the end of the war, with the ownership structure of the business unchanged as well. However, Foma was now declared an important enterprise for state defence and a national administrator was assigned to the company. In practice this meant that the original owners were prevented from disposing of company property according to their own wishes.
Foma was then nationalised after the Communist coup in 1948 and a new state company called Fotochema was set up, amalgamating not only Foma but also the firms Neoprom Brno and Ako Český Brod. Evžen Schier was fired and the company porter instead became the new director.
A year after the Communists seized power, the company’s product range was extended by X-ray films for medical uses as well as X-ray materials for non-destructive defectoscopy. Fotochema’s strategic importance grew even more after Europe became divided by the Iron Curtain, as all other important photochemical companies in Europe were now located outside of the Eastern Bloc. Fotochema thus became responsible for the production of all photographic materials for all of the states that were part of the socialist Council for Mutual Economic Assistance COMECON.
In 1955, a major explosion occurred in the company’s factory with the subsequent fire destroying the original production hall. Despite this setback, Foma maintained its base in Hradec Kralove, introducing greater safety measures, especially in the form of replacing flammable materials with safer ones. Hradec still houses the Foma factory to this day.
The company’s head of production for roll and cinema films, Dana Novotná, took Czech Radio on a tour of the facility, explaining what happens to the film after it is made.
“First the film is dropped into a sort of magazine, then the conveyor belt moves it to another part of the machine that we call ‘the carousel’, where the film gets its characteristic sprocket holes. After the casing process, the films are then packaged in groups of ten. These boxes are then weighed. The weighing helps for example to identify whether any of the packages is missing a case. Finally, the packages are packed further into groups of 100 each.”
She also explained the difference between films used for movies and those intended for photography.
“The chief difference is of course in the size of the surface which can capture the details. From roll film photographs you can get a relatively detailed zoom with high definition, so they are increasingly in demand. For this you need a particular type of camera, the medium format one. It is possible to achieve even greater detail by using sheet film, which we make in the sizes 9x12cm or smaller. Then there are also larger 24x30cm sheets, which were already used by cameras more than a hundred years ago. Even bigger formats are made nowadays, based off customer wishes.”
In 1958 Fotochema also began producing colour photographic papers Fomacolor which, thanks to their quality, soon became the only coloured papers of their kind being produced in the Eastern Bloc. The subsequent two decades saw the introduction of further successful colour photographic products. In 1964 Fotochemia started making colour negative films and, seven years later, the Fomachrom colour reversal film. The latter would remain as the company’s most popular product for quite some time.
Aside from its venture into colour photography, Fotochema also became more active in supporting photographers. In the late 1950s the company set up its own exhibition hall on Prague’s Jungman Square, the first in Europe to specialise solely on photography. Here, regular exhibitions were held from 1958.
Black and White niche
Just as most other Eastern Bloc businesses, Fotochema found it difficult to compete with Western companies after the fall of Communism, loosing almost all of its export destinations from one day to the next. The company changed its name back to Foma in 1990 and chose to abandon its colour photographic product line, as it was unable to compete with companies such as Kodaq or Fuji. The company underwent a transformation process during the mid-1990s, being reconstituted under the name Foma Bohemia. Vítězslav Krejčí explains how the company’s product range has changed to fit the demands of the global market.
“Not everyone knows this but we produce black and white, light-sensitive photographic materials. These are intended for the final photographic image that is created by the use of black and white film and papers.”
Asked about whether there still is demand for black and white photographs in a digital world, he says that this old style of photography has come back thanks, in part, to a new generation of photographers.
“They want to try out taking photographs with an analogue camera and developing them in their own homes. There still are a lot of these cameras around in the world and, because they are mechanical, they can easily be repaired. They even make new ones. It’s also a bit of a retro trend that has spread around the world of course. It gives us, as a company, the opportunity to export our products around the world where there is a demand for these back and white materials, whether they be films or foils.”
That focusing on this niche may have been the right decision is suggested also by the fact that Foma now ranks as the second largest black and white photographic material producer in the world.
But that is not all that Foma makes. The company also manufactures a diverse range of X-ray photography materials, says Mr Krejčí.
“We produce X-ray films for the purposes of non-destructive defectoscopy, which concerts the checks used in maintaining machine parts, such as cogwheels, or the welding of pipelines. Our X-ray film range also contains products intended for dentistry. Furthermore, we make materials used by criminologists. By this I mean dactyloscopic foils, or other foils used in forensics. Last but not least, we produce papers used in tachography for checking the speed of trains.”
Today, Foma is a medium-sized enterprise. Its products are exported to 90 countries across five continents. It remains the largest company of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “Czech Republic”?