Jacques Bolsey, né Yacov Bogopolsky (December 17, 1895–January 21,1962) was born in Kiev (or Zlatopol), Russia, and raised in Astrakhan, eldest of five children in a highly educated family. As a child and young adult, he was already a talented painter, sculptor, and photographer.
His father was a pharmacist, his mother a concert pianist, and his younger brothers were to become a surgeon, a metallurgist, and a doctor. His youngest sibling, his sister Emma, was studying to become a pediatrician when her life, together with that of both of their parents, was cut short by the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kislovodsk in the fall of 1942.
Yacov left Russia in 1913 or 1914, at about 18 years of age, for Geneva, Switzerland. There, he studied medicine at the University of Geneva from 1914–17/18, until war and revolution—and the destitution they brought to his family back in Russia—prevented him from continuing.
Once World War I broke out, followed by the Russian Revolution, Yacov was effectively cut off from his family in Russia—a situation that was to continue with few breaks for the rest of his life. During this decades-long separation, Yacov was to lose a brother to Stalin’s purges, and both his parents and his sister Emma in the Holocaust.
In Switzerland, Yacov paid the bills as a portrait artist while attending medical school. Even while studying medicine, his interest in photography and cinema was obvious: one of his first film cameras was designed to photograph the beating heart of the dog, when a professor said he wished he could film the surgery . Yacov designed and built a device and it was subsequently used in surgery.
Soon after his arrival in Switzerland, he began using the name “Jacques Bolsky”, and, occasionally, “Boolsky”. He quickly turned his attention to photography and began developing a series of still and movie cameras, including the well-known Bolex movie camera—later bought by the Paillard Company. After a successful career in Switzerland, Yacov left for the US in 1939, changing his name once again to “Bolsey”.
There, he founded Bolsey Corporation of America, which produced cameras for the US military, as well as the commercial market and became quite prominent by the mid-1950s. He mastered the English language as he had French—perfectly and with astounding speed. Within months of his arrival he was corresponding with his sons, back in Switzerland, in flawless written English.
Born in the nineteenth century, he had a Russian disposition—passionate, impatient, judgmental—combined with an enormous zest for life and truly prodigious creative energy: he created and marketed a new still or film camera (together with scores of related devices) nearly every year of his working life, and concurrently designed and sometimes produced, hundreds of other devices of every description: civilian gas masks, anti-tank devices for the military, electric cars sixty years ahead of their time, film faders and splicers, kitchen appliances, and more. At the time of his death, for example, he was revisiting designs for several electric cars, which he had first begun decades earlier.
He was never happier than when surrounded by his family, but, due to divorce and the separations of war, by the time his daughter and grandchildren were young children, he was in his early sixties. All his family adored him, though they sometimes found his autocratic patriarchal ways intimidating. If he was often judgmental and impatient, he was also tender and consoling after any blow-up.
If he was sometimes shocked and dismayed by the American teenager his beloved daughter became, he believed fiercely in her art and talent, and fostered it in every way. He even organized a one-person show of her precocious collages in a New York City gallery when she was only twelve years old.
He worked with his adored son Emil in a friendly and collaborative way, though he and his eldest son Raphael were often at odds, and did not collaborate easily. All three men were exuberant thinkers and arguers, and in some cases perhaps too much alike. In 1948 he facilitated his son Emil’s emigration from Switzerland to the US.
As a businessman, he believed in trust and commitment. In the world of American business, this was not always a successful approach. However, it is worth noting that, deep as he was in the world of business and patents, working internationally and in close contact with many associates, he seems to have avoided most clashes and seems never to have been embroiled in a lawsuit. Earlier, in Switzerland, there were differences with the Paillard Company, for whom he consulted for five years after selling them the Bolex, but with the eventual worldwide success of the camera, Paillard tried unsuccessfully to convince him to stay on. Instead, he opted to leave Switzerland, where he had been refused citizenship for twenty-two years, and seek greener pastures in the US, leaving in 1939, just months before such travel became impossible. Devoted to the ideals of the United States, he became an American citizen almost immediately upon arriving.
The 1940’s saw Bolsey’s creation of a major American camera company, but in the 1950’s it was hit by two very damaging events: apparent malfeasance by a trusted employee, and industrial espionage. Japanese manufacturers who had been guests in his home and factory began marketing similar designs and eventually Japanese cameras became dominant in many parts of the worldwide camera market.
But JB had heart to an extraordinary degree, recovering and rebuilding again and again, through war, upheaval, economic depression and the loss of family in the Holocaust. Where a less-determined and optimistic man would have been defeated and given up, he continually reinvented both himself and his life. After the devastating blow to his 35mm camera business, he reinvented, and re-launched his business, with new camera designs, including an 8mm movie camera the size of a pack of cigarettes, the Bolsey 8 and Uniset 8. It was loaded with an innovative cassette of film, required only one setting change, produced superb film and still pictures, fit into a pocket or small bag, and looked sleek and chic. The FBI bought them by the carload, and Jackie Kennedy was photographed carrying one. He also created innovative plastic Fresnel lenses printed by the Columbia Record Company, used in overhead projectors, magnifiers, and a host of other applications.
However, in 1962, and in the midst of his efforts to launch the Bolsey Uniset 8, JB suffered a sudden devastating heart attack, and died within the hour.
Fifty two years after his death, a document JB wrote five weeks before his death was found by his great granddaughter, filmmaker Alyssa Bolsey, as she researched his life for her documentary film (see Beyond the Bolex) of his life and work, Beyond the Bolex. Apparently, Jacques had just had some bad news from his doctor regarding the state of his heart. The letter, written to himself, reads as follows:
I am not afraid to die. I am not afraid of death. I just think of the amount of experience, know how and certain knowledge I have accumulated during my over 50 years of activities and hard work. There are still so many things to be finalized, I am afraid I have not the time to finish. I believe that these things are beneficial, not only to my family, and interesting to me as a challenge, but they are also possibly beneficial to some humanity at large. I am afraid I may die before I have time to finalize them. Another disturbing thought that does not help my work. Many new ideas keep coming all the time, incessantly. That means I have to live even longer to fulfill the task I assign to myself. Methuselah, why didn’t you leave me your secret to longevity?
In the mid-1950s, Jacques Bolsey was invited on Edward R. Morrow’s groundbreaking program, This I Believe. This was his statement to Morrow:
I have a family crest that goes back a long, long time. On it, this message is symbolically inscribed: “Be straight as an arrow in your dealings with men. Always look forward and up. Never despair. As long as the sun shines there’s a hope. Always be faithful to your friends. Loyalty is the most valuable virtue. Always be loyal to your country and be ready to fight for it and for freedom.”
These simple yet vital rules in life on a family crest were explained to me as a boy by my parents in Europe. Little did I realize how—as a youth—how important these rules would be to me in my later years. Nor did I realize how much self-discipline was necessary in following them. The crest hangs in my office today as a daily reminder of the counsel of my father and mother, a reminder of what is possible as a man and as an American.
I applied for citizenship the day I arrived in the United States, in 1939. I wanted to become an American because I believe that this country is a living example of the benefits available to all, of democratic ideals and freedom which we want to preserve and which we are ready to defend for our own good and the good of the world. I am happy and proud now to be an American citizen, and I realize the responsibility of this citizenship.
I realize too, that human respect and decency is a must in all my contacts with people, big or small, of any color or race or creed. I realize that human relations is a two-way street, giving and taking, and I must never forget this. Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus gave us a Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This is just as applicable today as it was then. I believe that when I and my fellow men all adhere to these principles, communism will not have a chance of survival in this country.
I believe that as congestion of the big cities is relieved by decentralization of our enterprises, the small communities grouped around their production centers will have a new lease on life; and here, children of the “bigs” and of the “smalls” will live and love together. Here I am sure all responsible for large enterprises will learn, as I have, that their success in life depends on their workers, and that proportionately a larger distribution of benefits will bring unified effort by each of the members of these communities, making them co-owners immunized from any so-called “communistic disease.”
I believe that so long as I follow these guideposts set by my parents, I will prosper and be happy. Not everyone has a family crest or shield, but I’m not alone in having been given, as a child, sage counsel by parents on the ways of life, the ways of right and wrong. I am proud and happy to have a home in a country which respects this right. This I believe.
(Jacques Bolsey, speaking to Edward R. Morrow on This I Believe, 1950s)
Jacques Bolsey was truly a Renaissance man: the enormous range of his interests and accomplishments are testimony to this.
His legacy continues in his children and their families. His sons Raphael and Emil were inventors and engineers in their own right. Emil’s invention of an electronic image correlator (which compensated for the enormous velocity of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft as it overflew the moon’s surface) was the basis of the Lunar Orbiter’s ability to photograph high resolution images of the lunar surface in preparation for the Apollo moon landings.
Jacques’s daughter, Carole Bolsey, is an artist and designer, who taught painting, drawing, and visual studies for many years at Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard University.
Yacov – Documents
Jacques Bolsey (Yacov Bogopolsky).
Yacov – Photos
For Yacov (Jacques Bolsky/Bolsey) we currently have much more historical material than for the other members of the family. This is due in part to the fact that Yacov left Russia just prior to the revolution of 1917 to continue his studies. During his years in Switzerland and later the US he was able to pursue his many professional and personal interests, and his prolific output and social visibility has left us with a great deal of documentation.