In a culture that is economically driven by consumerism, we are impressed with the notion that new stuff is better than old stuff. Get rid of that iphone 4 and get the new, improved iphone 8! Your Hybrid Toyota is 8 years old! Get a loan and buy the 2018 model! Sell off your old film camera equipment and get a new Canon digital with 10 gazillion megapixels! I’ve been, I confess without shame, regularly out of step culturally for most of my life, and so with photography and its tools.
We had our annual Holiday Open House the first weekend of January, where Kathy and I make nearly our whole house a gallery space, cook up some spiced wine, and invite folks in over three days to hang out, look at the prints either framed on the walls or in sleeves in racks. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. During that weekend a man who in the Spring is going to take a workshop with us handed Kathy a cardboard box with “some old film camera junk”. I didn’t get a chance to look it until Sunday evening. There were a couple small foldable flashbulb units, some bulbs, a couple odd 35mm cameras, a light meter labeled TOWER and one brown leather case that proved to hold an AGFA Karat 36, a rangefinder folding 35mm camera, made in Germany in about 1951. With it was an instruction manual.
In such situations my response is to get out a few basic cleaning materials, canned air, Pec12, micro fiber cleaning cloth, and so on, and while cleaning, check things out. I get the back open, check the shutter, move the aperture, and in the process get a better idea of what I have. The next step is to load with film and shoot. This I did the next day on a 2 mile walk with my friend Jerry. Then to home, to the darkroom, process the roll. When the film comes out of the photo-flo distilled water bath I hang it up, turn on the light box hanging flush on the wall and look over negatives with a loupe. Now I know much better what I have.
There is a sense of satisfaction when I find good negatives, on several levels. First, if the camera has worked properly that is good. It becomes a user and I enjoy using older cameras. The second level is just that; the satisfaction of using equipment as old as or older than me. This second kind of satisfaction is one way that I refute and reject that cultural norm that we must use the newest to do good work. It’s simply not true. The third level of satisfaction is making good images in this antique process of shooting and processing film. When I developed my first roll of black and white film, (Verichrome Pan 616) at 11 years old, and had my first look at the negatives in the light, I got the same thrill that I get now when I pull a roll out of the photo flo.
A friend of ours pulled out a big brown leather bag a while back to show us her Dad’s old camera. It is an EXAKTA V, sold about 1951 as well, with three lenses, a nice GE Golden Crown light meter and again, a good instruction manual. Holding it up and looking through the 58mm Zeiss lens was a disappointment. The image was dark, and dirty with just one clear circle at the center. She wanted me to try it out. I took it home and pulled the removable viewfinder. The mirror was yellow and brown with places of missing silver. A front surface mirror like this can be very bright but atmospheric acids and other pollutions had basically ruined it. Such a thing is an affront to my sense of the beauty of old equipment. I got on line, found someone selling an original equipment replacement mirror for a different version of the EXAKTA, a mirror that itself was probably 50 years old. I learned, however, that EXAKTA equipment tends to be interchangeable, and I ordered it even though my friend’s husband said “Aw, she’ll never use it.” When it arrived I did a little research online, found a suggestion, pulled the lens and lens mount and looked closely inside with a lens, figured out what teeny metal strips to bend, and I was able to pull the old mirror out and slip in the new, in about ten minutes.
Now both viewfinders are bright and clean and I am on the third roll of film with the old EXAKTA V.
During the Summer we do a couple outdoor Art Fairs. Our black and white prints turn out to be very rare and unusual at such events. A couple Summers back a lady was very interested as we had on display a print of the campus of Gonzaga University and she told me that her Uncle Leo had worked there long ago and that he was a photographer. “Leo Yates, S.J. ?” I guessed. “Yes!” So I told her I have one of his lens and shutters, a Protar VII convertible, in a Compound shutter. It probably dates before 1920 and I got it in a junk box full of old abandoned darkroom stuff. Only later did I trace it to the Jesuit. But this old lens and shutter has produced some of my best 5X7 negatives over the years. I had to have the cable release plug replaced once and sent it to a camera tech in California, Fred with a German accent who used to work on Ansel Adams’ equipment. Fred called me up and said, “Bill, I have been showing your lens to my assistant. Dis is a good vun. Let me go over the shutter and get everything good again.” So, of course, I did and that was maybe 12 years ago and it is still a good one. I used it to shoot Ektachrome 5X7s at a ghost town in Montana a few years back. No problem.
Old equipment is fun and often beautiful in itself. So often Kathy and I have had people stop us and admire our cameras. Modern lenses are multi-coated and so display more contrast and color saturation than our old ones , but that they are sharper than older lenses is questionable. I had to scan an original 8X10 silver print on matte paper of the first graduating class of Gonzaga University. The glass plate negative was long lost. On the monitor it seemed that the print was extremely well detailed and I made a 16X20 ink jet print from the file. The detailed texture from the brick work on the original Gonzaga College building was indeed incredibly detailed. The photo was made in about 1892 and I was working from a matte contact print. Whatever formula that lens was, it did its job very well. For us, the task is to use such equipment to the best of its ability and get good, printable negatives. And then, on to the first print of a new image.