When I was still a kid, maybe 8 years old, I got to take some pictures with my parents Kodak Duaflex 620 camera, flash bulb and all. It was at some big family gathering and when the photos came back from the drugstore a family joke came into being as I had taken a picture of the bare legs of three of my Aunts sitting on the couch, cutting off their heads. What did I know of parallax, or women’s legs for that matter!
Sometime later, my Dad bought a used Argus C-3 from a man who came to the house, and paid 25 dollars, which was probably too much. That was the family’s first 35mm camera. As a high school yearbook photographer I used a Yashicamat twin lens reflex a couple of times but when I graduated, bought my own camera, a Pentax Spotmatic II with a super multi-coated Takumar 50mm 1.4 and a 35mm Soligor 3.5 lens. I also bought a table top Durst 35mm enlarger with a Schneider Componon lens, all new. In the camera store there were all kinds of cameras, but somehow, it was in my mind that a camera WAS a 35mm, and the 4X5 monorails and medium format cameras on the shelves never even caught my attention.
As I was growing up the National Geographic photographers shot 35mm Kodachrome and the Life Magazine photographers were mostly 35mm shooters. Gene Smith and Leonard McCombe, Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank made the 35mm the camera of choice for all those younger shooters who wanted to be photographers with a capital P. In the days before Canon and Nikon became dominant, there were plenty of choices: Ricoh, Petri, Exakta, Contaflex, Agfa, Werra, Asahiflex, Argus, Mercury, even Kodak with its Retinas and Retinettes. Because I had grown up in a house with a regular procession of foster babies and kids, and had been crowned the movie maker for them all by my parents, I came to the still camera rather late. Thus the Spotmatic became my first regular still camera and I read photo magazines to reorient myself to it.
The virtues of the 35mm were obvious. Film was affordable and it was easy to process without an elaborate darkroom. Instead of hand processing 616 film from my Dad’s Kodak Folder in the dark in an open tray, I could load the film on a reel and use a daylight tank. A half dozen years later, hanging the Pentax around my neck I was able to roam the streets of Chicago on long lunches with free rolls of Ektachrome when we switched at the studio I worked in from E-4 to E-6. The Pentax Spotmatic with three lenses (I had acquired the 100mm telephoto) was not much of a burden for a 20 something dude in a denim jacket and blue headband! Back at the office my friend Bill would process the slides and I’d mount them and take them home to roll a tube on the kitchen floor making Cibachrome 8X10’s.
Years later when I taught photography at Gonzaga University, the modus operandi of 35mm played a big role in my instruction. “Carry your camera with you everywhere and if something catches your eye, even if you don’t know why, shoot it.” The Spotmatic finally fell apart around the time my youngest son was born, which is the main reason why there are fewer photos of him. I had my second (used) Spotmatic when I studied in Israel in 1986 and if I had known more about photography at the time, especially light, I would have shot negative film instead of the usual Ektachrome. The contrasty light frustrated me and my failures from that trip convinced me to relearn the whole business of photography. The 35mm camera, on the other hand, was a perfect tool for walking the streets of Old Jerusalem or hiking up to the Mount of Olives in the Summer heat. Without a tripod to burden me, I could whirr around to take a photo of something happening behind me, and when I photographed three old Arab men in traditional headdress deep in the shadows of the Via Delarosa, and the one in the middle whacked at me with his cane, I was mobile enough to miss the force of the blow. Quickness of use is dependent on a lot of factors beside the camera however. In a memorable encounter on Michigan Ave in Chicago one Winter, I heard an explosion of female laughing and chattering behind me. It was the days of “the Dodge Boys wear white hats” and I turned around and at the curb two white Dodge vans had pulled up and pouring out of them were about 20 girl models in hot pants and white cowboy hats rushing towards me into the Tribune Building. I had the camera in my hand loaded with film and as they ran past me waving and laughing, with their legs, I would suppose, goose bumping in the frigid Chicago wind, I could not take a shot. Some other factor had interfered with my photographer’s instincts.
I still regret that during the Spring of my first year of college when I went with 3 friends to Washington, D.C. to see for ourselves what was going on with the peace demonstrations and the Nixon White House, I went without the Pentax. Because, I suppose, of all those years of making Super 8 baby movies, I left the Pentax in the dorm and took a Canon movie camera and all I have of a major historical experience are two 50 foot roll of movies film and not a single 35mm negative. The Pentax would have been a wonderful tool for the marches and the police lines and the camps at the Jefferson Lagoon with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and the Welfare Rights Organization and Black Panthers in black leather jackets hawking their papers.
I got my first rangefinder camera by trading a 4X5 monorail someone had given me for a Canon IVSB2 with a Leitz Elmar lens (uncoated). I had become convinced that my best photos had been made with a 35mm and I wanted to move up to what I thought would be a higher level of equipment. The Canon was an aesthetically beautiful camera and the Elmar was a nice clean cutting lens. Meanwhile I was learning photography on my own with a voracious consumption of library books and lots of film. Then my friend John Iacula handed off to me for a few hundred dollars a 2 body Spotmatic set with three lenses, a Minolta SRT set with 4 lenses, a Leica IIIc with a 90mm Elmar and a broken Nicca rangefinder body with a shiny chrome Nikkor 50mm 1.4 lens, the kind that David Douglas Duncan made famous during the Korean war. I still use the Nikkor.
Using a rangefinder camera reduces the bulk of equipment even more and I can throw a couple lenses in bags in my vest and with the camera around my neck I can walk miles just keeping an eye out for whatever might catch it. Nowadays I have newer equipment, a 1962 Leica M3 and a 2001 Voigtlander R2 that has its own meter! Because I shoot a lot of large format I tend to be very careful with composition, and because I wear eyeglasses, the rangefinder can be a little difficult in getting my edges true. The pleasure of shooting with the M3 overrides for me any of the difficulties.
One thing I’ve learned is that even though I can get a shot with a slower shutter speed handheld, image quality improves with a faster shutter, even with the rangefinders and no mirror. Because the small format comes with naturally bigger depth of field, this isn’t much of a problem. While the gritty look of the 50’s and 60’s when magazine photographers push processed their Tri-X to extremes had a certain charm, I make too many big negatives to want that for my 35mm shots and I’d much rather use a cell phone with its dinky flash in those situations. So with 35mm, image quality remains for me just as important as it is with a 5X7 inch negative.
Kathy is shooting a series on a copy stand with an SRT body and a Minolta 25mm lens intended for the auto bellows attachment. She photographs objects that can be no bigger than a dime with this non-focusing lens on Tmax 100, and then enlarges them to 16X20 prints and they are sharp and finely detailed. The idea that 35mm cannot produce image quality is just nonsense. It produces under the right circumstances excellent quality but with a different feel than large or medium format film.
Today, one can get hold of a 35mm camera and lenses inexpensively and easily either at an online auction or from a local listing. Millions and millions of cameras are out there and there is still plenty of film available. It’s true that the cellphone has replaced the 35 as “everyman’s camera”, but then, that means that it is the cellphone that has become ordinary while a 35mm hanging on your shoulder will catch the attention of passers by. And if you really crave the attention, get one from the 50’s, shiny and solid and no plastic!