I bought my Pentax MG for 5 dollars. It had a leather case, a SMC Pentax 50mm f/2 lens with seized-up aperture, and it was taped shut on the side, because the latching hooks were bent and someone, probably a photography student, had been too scared to bend them back. I fixed it in the thrift-store before I ever bought it. Then there was the broken rewind crank. I had a broken Pentax Spotmatic that was all too happy to give up its slightly-larger, but compatible rewind column, which has the added benefit of sticking up so far that it’s much easier to access the exposure-compensation dial.
Finally, before I ever used the camera, I sold the non-functional lens to a repair shop and doubled my five dollars, tossed the camera (gently) in a box of non-functional cameras and old 3×4″ holders that I have for some reason, and let it be for about a year.
Then, the other day, I bought a K1000 (the Spotmatic’s ugly, but competent younger brother) with the same lens in good condition for $30 at a thrift store that was, incomprehensibly, still open. Now, I would have immediately done a test roll in the K1000, but I didn’t have a battery that fit ite. So I took the lens and put it on the MG and put a roll in. I knew there would be light leaks, since the foam had long since dry-rotted (and I’ve misplaced my replacement foam), but I decided to gamble that they wouldn’t be bad.
And somehow, despite the utterly basic feature list of this camera, I ended up really enjoying it. It’s tiny in my hands, and aperture priority is very fun to shoot if you can just turn off the old-fashioned, manual photographer part of your brain that has to second-guess it. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised to see something I hadn’t noticed when I bought the camera: a split-image focusing patch. Now, that’s not unusual for some brands. Nikon and Minolta seemed to alternate between split-image and microprism-only focusing screens freely, and I have no idea what was more common for Pentax. I just know that most of the SLR’s I shoot with have microprism-only screens: Nikkormat FTn, Minolta Sr-T 200 and back when it still worked, Yashica TL Electro X.
Now, the split-image screen on this is, surprisingly, almost as good as the best one I’ve ever used, the one on the Nikkorex F. There’s a very fine break between the two parts, such that even diagonal lines can be good enough to focus critically with.
(I once owned a Rectaflex from Italy, with what may have been the first split-image screen ever, and boy have they come a long way. There’s… there’s really no comparison.)
So somehow, the little camera got on my good side. It’s still far from a semi-pro or pro camera like most of the ones I use, but I appreciate its design philosophy. I think they wanted to make a compact vacation camera that was also an SLR. Consider the features:
A compact default lens on a compact mount
A camera smaller even than most of the Olympus compact full-frame SLR’s
Uses aperture priority by default: someone’s dad can use it, but an experienced photographer can get a lot out of it
No complicated settings to mess up
Oddly, a self-timer
I think the Pentax M-line, especially the ME, the MV and the MG, really were aimed at bringing an SLR back to the amateur vacationer market, who, in 1981, would be using pocketable, autoexposure or fixed-exposure point-and-shoot cameras, made even more attractive with the recent introduction of reliable autofocus. If you need further evidence, consider that the same year, Pentax also released a very similar camera, the ME-F, with the very first SLR focus-confirmation system, the year before Canon’s more cumbersome, half-hearted AL-1. Before autofocus, the ME-F was perhaps the closest an SLR had come to point-and-shoot operation, and it’s barely a step above the MG in features.
I can barely respect this camera taken as an SLR, given that I can only select one manual shutter speed, and, as on the K1000, I can’t stop down the lens for previewing, short of precariously unlatching it from the mount and twisting it. However, taken as a compact camera, it blows away the early 80’s compact camera market’s Autoboys and Konicas and such. I give it a 6.5/10, or almost the same as I give the K1000, somehow. Eventually I might get some adaptors and put an old Soviet SLR lens on it or something…
I was over-the-moon to be alone on Christmas Day. The night before, I’d gotten two presents: a box of real, new dry plates (ASA 25 Speed Plates from a Mr. J. Lane on Etsy) and five more sheet-film holders for my 4×5, with cheap ASA 100 Shanghai B/W film loaded. I was itching to do some quality large-format work, so I loaded up my car with a borrowed large-format tripod, my Speed Graphic, and eight shots for it: two plates in a 100-year-old wooden plate holder, and five sheet holders of various stamps. I also took my Nikkorex with a couple of shots left on it, and a 12-shot short roll of 100 ASA film that somebody had thrown my way.
Setting out, I almost went to New Orleans. I had enough spare money to get there and back, park for six or seven hours, take some candids with the high speeds of my Graphic, and maybe get a beignet. Then I thought “New Orleans on Christmas Day,” and recoiled from the image. I went to Morgantown, Mississippi.
Now, this is a little place just outside Columbia and Foxworth. Columbia itself is a spot on the map an hour from Hattiesburg, and Morgantown is, by my estimation, a satellite of a satellite on Columbia, down along MS Highway 587, or more properly, in a net of different state highways that all dead-end somewhere out in the bush. I don’t know that there’s a notable thing in Morgantown, or even if I’ve properly seen Morgantown or Kokomo or any of those little villages. But just outside Morgantown, in some of Mississippi’s most hilly land, there’s a deep canyon formed initially (I assume) by the vicious Pearl River, a complex and active site where the earth is actively eating its way away from the river. Over the course of the last ten years I’ve watch it expand thirty feet, swallowing a patch of road that used to be part of the 587 and dozens of trees. The size of the thing, though, is difficult to get across in a picture, at least without a wide lens and an aerial perspective, neither of which I had that day.
The place is a local legend. People jump into it, slide down and land in the soft clay. People climb the sheer parts in the dry part of the summer when the clay is more reliable. It is occasionally used as a landfill. People have driven cars into it for reasons that are beyond me. There is (do not laugh) a coven that performs certain rituals in the immediate area. It is rare to go there and not see other hikers, and on Christmas Day, of all days, it was a busy joint.
I came down the 587 from the opposite direction than my normal route, and was overcome by the rolling hills, so unlike other parts of Mississippi in its airiness and depth, brutal in the baldness of the timberlands (the third pine-logging cycle of my life is in its middle stages), that, when I got to the inlet to the abandoned road, I had to backtrack on foot with the camera and tripod to take this photo:
Unfortunately, I miffed it. I didn’t have my magnifier on me to focus with, so I trusted my frankly infirm eyes and ended up with an image quality that could have been done handheld.
Finally, I went into the bluff area itself. It is always a stunning moment when I come up the abandoned road on foot and finally see the cliff’s edge and the vista of you may see the pictures and say “so what.” The answer is that the horizon is not a common sight in Mississippi. This is a land of small hills and dense pine jungle. Normally, the trees block the horizon and a good part of the sky too, wherever you go in this state, with the exception of the big highways, where a little false horizon might show as the road rises and dips, leading you on. But to see the trees themselves small and marching to infinity, with only cell towers and a water tank breaking the surface: it gives me pause.
I had my best pipe in my mouth, charged with cheap, heady Carter Hall tobacco, an old fishing hat on, and the tripod, extended full length with the camera mounted, over my shoulder like a bindle-stick. I do not know, but I may have looked like some kind of adventurer. When I got to the edge, I set up the big camera and struggled to find a shot that took it all in. The Pacemaker Speed Graphic came with an Optar 135mm, which is a normal on 4×5, and not a bit on the wide side of normal. Looking through the big frame-finder, I found the field of view damn narrow. Finally I tilted the tripod head ninety degrees to the right and lined up a portrait shot that communicated something of the vertical scale of the place, with a spidery branch out-of-focus in one corner, and two white pickups on the opposite cliff. I thought it was a visually rich shot, and I liked the composition of it. I could be wrong. For the first time in my life, I focused with the ground glass and a loupe, a big, powerful brass loupe that came with a microprint compact dictionary. I decided that the time was now, and I shot both plates and two sheets of film to be sure I got a good negative of it. This was also where I killed most of the remainder of whatever was in my Nikkorex. There was this odd tree clinging to the canyon’s edge that I found very compelling. The last of its kind, perhaps.
Soon, it was time to go down through the canyon to the banks of the Pearl. Now, the Pearl River is a fast-flowing, wide river, not as dark and deep as the Mississippi, but with an evil look to it. People drown in the Pearl. It pulls you under, and the last thing you feel is the euphoria of the brain losing air. My mother drowned and was brought back, in the Pearl if I remember right, and the story never failed to send shivers down my spine when I was young, not the drowning but the peace of it. I avoid touching the water as if it were the Lethe.
But there is something primal about the vista of the Pearl as it crosses under Red Bluff. You pick your way to it across the train tracks, listening for diesels, and down through the graffiti-colored wreckage of a freight train that derailed from the same track one hundred and eight years ago. You look out, and you see the opposite shore, bare of any artificial features, and you imagine that the Choctaw still hunt in those woods, or that you’ve just stepped from the wreck of your ancient and rusted spacecraft on a virgin planet, yours in no sense except that you could probably name it after your sweetheart and have it registered on the Human Union starcharts. That is, if you ever get off of that rock… I ran out of film, this time, shooting the graffiti with the Nikon, and I didn’t get to catch any shots of the river. Well enough; it doesn’t transfer to film well.
The graffiti is really something. I had seen the names “Eliza Jane” and “Lacey Jane” all the way from the black-top of the ruined highway down to here; their tags were about every hundred feet on the cross-ties of the ancient track, and among the forest of images and names sprayed up inside the most accessible of the hopper cars, tilted upside-down and on its side at twenty degrees in much the same spot where the earth received it in 1901. There was a massive and well-rendered Pokemon, evidently not one of the ones I grew up with, and the symbol of the theta, which had followed me down from the old highway as well.
I’d left the big camera standing on the tripod near the tracks, where I’d gotten it ready to shoot the wreck and then ruined both pieces of film in the flimsy wooden holder I was using. After I finished the second roll of 35mm, I walked back up and caught sight of yet another ancient symbol on the face of another downed car: first I thought it was the Sanskrit Aum symbol, but then I realized it was just “23.” I saw an Aum in a headshop the next day, and boy, had I been wrong.
Back at the tracks with the Speed Graphic, I shot one shot of the railway receding into the distance–to look at it, you would never know that a well-off residential district was a short walk up that way. Suddenly, I heard a roaring sound approaching fast. I pulled all my stuff and laid it down behind a log and crouched out of site, ready with my SLR to shoot the train if it presented a good shot. But the sound passed behind me and I swung around. It was a fanboat with four or five indistinct figures on it, making mighty wake on the river, and there was no train. I snapped a shot through the trees on the Nikon, but it didn’t turn out and I didn’t think it would.
My film spent, I began the arduous climb out of the canyon. To this point, when I moved, I went like a hobo in my old hat, with my briar pipe hanging out of my mouth and the tripod and over my shoulder. Now, to get back up the most difficult part of the path, I collapsed the legs and clutched it close to me like a priest clutching a big crucifix inlayed with the bones of saints. To get up, there were a couple of choices, and in retrospect, I picked one of the worst. The ridge that the path runs on top of comes to a head with a clay slope up above the tracks that can only be scaled by gripping a rusty steel wire rope–I got down that way, and thanked God for my up-to-date tetanus vaccine before the end. I did find a dollar up on the clay, which was nice. But there was no going up by that path today–the clay was extra slick, and I wasn’t about to fight gravity with that frayed steel cable in my free hand, and me in cowboy boots. So I went up the side of the ridge some two or three hundred paces up the creek, through a dense thicket where I lost my hat, nearly dropped both my cameras several times, and got a few thorns in my knees and chest for my efforts. I got up on top of the ridge and felt like I’d really won something. Then I realized that the hat was gone from my head, and I had to backtrack through the thorns to get it. That, by my estimation, was when I lost the pipe.
It was a peculiar, ancient thing, unlike any other pipe I’ve ever seen, except for one. It was large, with an in-tapering bowl that burned hot and a wide stem. The mouthpiece, bakelite, I think, had a chip out of it in such a way that it was easier to block off the opening with my tongue. I never saw another one like it, until one day, while researching Manu Chao’s background for an album review I never wrote, I came upon a picture of a socialist guerilla general from down in Mexico, a man known only as “Subcomandante Marcos,” sitting on a beautiful horse with a balaclava around his face, a fishing cap on his head, and an expression in his eyes that I have seen in the eyes of more than one of my relatives, and once in my own eyes in the rear-view mirror of a car I no longer own. In his teeth was a pipe closely resembling the one I inherited from my great (or great-great?) uncle Oscar. I do not know whether I’ll ever see another like it. No matter, I still have a dozen other briars and a good unused Meerschaum I can start.
Finally, I trudged up, pausing only to tell some other hikers about the state of the path below. They asked me who I was photographing for. I almost said “I work for the FSA.”
At last, back at my car, I made my way back out through Foxworth, which I passed through in the happy knowledge that, down whichever road it was, a dear friend of mine would be celebrating Christmas with her family. I treated myself to a cheap lunch at what seemed to be the only open gas station in Columbia, and a little bourbon and eggnog on the road, and spent the rest of the day developing photos and getting sopping drunk.
All in all, a serviceable Christmas day.
Postscript: Unfortunately, the shots I took of the downed train got ruined in processing. It’s a shame. What little I’ve been able to recover of the mis-processed negatives would have been very nice pictures. Unfortunately, I tried a trick while processing them that I didn’t have the expertise to pull off.
Do not use my images without my prior written permission. I reserve all rights.
The photo of Marcos by José Villa of Villa Photography, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Thanks to Mr. Villa. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
This combination of lens and film is, by far, the fastest traditional photography setup I have ever held in my hands. On my SR-T 200, the 58mm lens looks the best of any of my Minolta lenses; the two are from the same era and the same product line, and while it’s a deluxe lens and a stripped-down budget camera, they feel right together.
The lens is one of the ones I got in a shoebox for ten dollars at a flea market in Statesville, NC. It’s not in the greatest shape as far as the front coating goes, but it looks fine through the viewfinder and I don’t tend to worry about it. The helical could stand to be re-greased, but who even does that anymore?
Physically, it’s a nice lens, with what I take for a painted brass housing, milled metal grip, easy-turning aperture ring (with positions in between the full stops) and a massive front element. As a lens with a lot of outward-bulging forward surface area to catch the light, it really needs the factory clamp-on hood, which I was lucky enough to get with it. That being said, I shot this roll without, and most of the time I did alright shielding it with my left hand when I noticed any flare.
As for specs, it’s not at all unusual for its time, as much as it is for us: for some reason that no one has ever adequately explained to me, there was a time when it was easier to make a 58mm with a wide aperture than a 50mm with a wide aperture, and so for a while, 58mm was a pretty common length for a normal lens. Actually, I believe that’s how the normal went from being 45mm (sometimes called “ideal length”) to 50mm in the first place: it was easier to make a faster lens in the longer focal length. Why is beyond me: it should by all rights be the opposite, according to my tenuous grasp of the math involved.
The maximum aperture was by no means groundbreaking (there had been 50mm f/0.95 Canon RF lenses by this point (not that they gave good images), and the Stanley Kubrick Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 Planar lens, used on the moon and for filming by candlelight, was either in the works or recently finished) but for a consumer lens it was fast and it remains so. I’ve never owned a faster-specced lens in any focal length, with the exception of phone cameras, and that barely counts.
As for actual light transmission, that’s really the question, isn’t it? I don’t really notice a difference in light transmission looking through my Canon FD 50/1.4 on my AE-1P and this 58/1.4 on the SR-T. Now, obviously this is both subjective and dependent on the transmission of the mirror, pentaprism, condensers and oculars inside each of these two cameras’ viewfinders, but these cameras each had famously bright viewfinders. The SR-T used an over-sized, double-jointed mirror and a focusing screen that was mostly a fresnel lens, and so with the exception of certain obscure, failed Zeiss Ikon products, it was almost certainly one of the brightest SLR viewfinders ever made when it came out in the 60’s. The much later Canon AE-1P uses specialty precision optic glass in the pentaprism to achieve an about equal brightness. So when I look through the two cameras and the two lenses and say that the transmission seems equal to me, there’s no reason to assume any complicating variables. The Minolta lens is seemingly quite equal in transmission to the much later (and now probably more expensive) “super-coated” Canon. At any rate, from the low-light performance I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if its actual light transmission was close to T1.5 or 1.6.
And 58mm is a surprisingly easy length to work with. You imagine it’d feel too long to be a normal lens, but in fact, I barely notice the difference from my other Minolta normal, a 45mm. Focusing is a pain when the depth of field wide open is minimal, and I still don’t have the hang of focusing it precisely.
My main criticism of this lens is that its close-focus distance is a little weak compared to my other f/1.4, a Canon FD 50mm. Actually, I think this is true of most Minolta lenses. I would say it’s just that it’s a 60’s lens, but I briefly posessed a Meyer Primoplan 59/1.8 from the mid-50’s that could focus even closer than any of my 70’s Canons, so I tend to think of it as more of a Minolta thing. None of my Minolta lenses do extreme close-up photography the way some Canons do.
(God, I wish I had pictures from that Meyer lens. It was very nice-looking, but I didn’t bother keeping it when I sold my Prakticas, because the only m42 camera that left me with was a Yashica with rotten light seals and bad metering, and using the two together would require juggling three or four different controls.)
I haven’t figured out the sweet spot for bokeh just yet, but the overall blur wide
open is very soft and very nice, with very selective focus possible at close range. At f/8, the lens performance is crisp and contrasty, with good sharpness and a decent depth of field. At f/16, quality doesn’t suffer all that much.
Now let’s talk about the film: I was apprehensive. For almost eight bucks a roll, and knowing Lomography’s reputation for uneven quality, I was really apprehensive about getting my money’s worth. I was worried that I was going to pull the film off the development reel and see that it had taken some hideous color cast. Instead, even looking at it with the colors reversed I could tell that this was quality film stock. When I shoot film at box speed, I expect it to have some thin frames, because no meter is perfectly attuned to every shooting situation, but the latitude on this film must be incredible, because there are none: I shot and processed it metering at its rated speed, with very little manual compensation, and portraits shot indoors under modest artificial light are almost as thick and healthy-looking as landscapes shot in bright daylight–indeed, some of these latter are thinner, because I likely overcompensated on one or two. It probably helped that this was the first roll I did with my current batch of color chemicals, so the developer was at its most active, but that can’t account for this consistent performance. I’d have to look again but I think I got thirty-seven full frames out of the roll, so that was also nice.
So how did the combination work out? You know, I think they work well together. I’m trying to get the hang of focusing this lens precisely, and I wish the film were cheaper so I could explore the combination at more length. At any rate, I’m much more excited about the results I got with my Nikkormat…
I have always lusted after the Speed Graphic. I don’t know, there’s something about it: the large format is forgiving enough that a mediocre lens blows expensive 35mm SLR lenses out of the water; it has direct focusing when you want it and a rangefinder when you don’t; all kinds of tilt-and-shift action; my idol used one.
Yeah, I call the creepy cigar-chomping AP man known as Weegee my idol; an honor he shares with Diane Arbus and Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and very few other
photographers. There’s something about him; he never changed the focus, speed or aperture on his Speed Graphic and developed sheet film in the trunk of his car. Usher Fellig, you creepy man, you taught me the most important lesson about documentary art: you must be there.
The first time I encountered a large format camera, I had been a photographer for less than a month, about a year and a half ago. It was another Graflex, an early SLR the size of a small microwave oven, with shoulder straps, a leather hood you put your whole face down to, and a complicated array of controls for the ponderous, slow-moving single-curtain shutter. It was a hundred dollars at an antique store on Pass Road in Gulfport and I had no desire for it.
The second time was on Decatur Street in New Orleans, in the antique shop of an enthusiastic photographer who tried to convince me that film was “making a big comeback.” Yeah, right, I thought. He had, I think, a 3×4″ Horseman press camera in a case with several lenses and a rollback and a 4×5″ Pacemaker Crown Graphic, both of them in the $150-200 range. Believe me, if I’d had the money… He also had a working Univex Mercury, mountains of expired film, decently-priced lenses, a refurbished Nikkormat FTn that made me want one…
I don’t see these things often, and I’d thought about shelling out $60 for a Polaroid 600 at the other antique store because in a pinch, you can shoot 4×5″ sheet film and 120 in one, if you know the trick and have the knack.
Then, one day, I walked into Leaman’s. This is without a doubt the premier antique store in my hometown, Hattiesburg, M.S. The owner and proprietor is what we call a mensch. He’s extremely fair when he prices, and he owns most of the merchandise in the store, so I check with him regularly for cameras and gear. I bought my Nikkorex F and my Argus C3 from him, and probably one I’m forgetting, at exceptionally fair prices. I walked in to look for 9×12 film holders for my Kodak AG Recomar 33, a primitive but elegant large format that was my first foray into “grownup photography.”
I found another camera hunter there, a rich stoner with a face like Evan Breen and a hot girlfriend, who had come up to Hattiesburg to escape the Friday 13th storm that was flooding New Orleans, and who were buying all of Claude Leaman’s Polaroids. All the power to them, I guess. I was showing him where Claude keeps the nicer cameras, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar shape sitting off on its own. It was a Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5″. If you don’t know, this is the upmarket version of the Pacemaker Graphic, the third or fourth iteration of the Graflex Graphic press camera. It has both a focal plane (cloth-curtain) shutter and a leaf shutter mounted on the default lens board.
I made my move immediately; I suspected that if I didn’t, it might become a shelf warmer for the stoner; the price on it was $15. I could not believe my eyes. I pried it open with a collectible silver spoon to find that, while it had the sick turquoise crust of corrosion on many of its surfaces, it had a supple bellow and a mostly-working front shutter, albeit one that could use a good soak in some volatile solvent. I’ve had good experiences with a Wollensak shutter before… they’re basically American copies of Compurs with all the delicate little tricks removed: no self timer, simpler gear trains, et cetera.
I walked to the counter. Claude wasn’t there, but his sole employee was. I asked her if she’d seen “North by Northwest” with Cary Grant. Now, Claude will surprise you. He looks like an old Pentecostal but he’s well-read, woke to racial tensions and things like that, and he knows when to drop the F-bomb tastefully and to good effect. He’ll surprise you. The same is true of the 60-something-year-old woman at the counter, who must be a wife or sister. She said “duh.”
So I recount my favorite scene from the movie, where the ambassador (who turns out to be a red herring) is killed by a thrown knife to the back and collapses into our hero’s arms. He pulls the knife out and is promptly photographed in an extremely guilty pose by an AP man with a Speed Graphic and, I’d bet you anything, one of these old Press #25 flashbulbs I have lying around. That photograph becomes the leitmotif of the film, the shadow self that haunts him on his journey.
(God, I love flashbulbs. I recently photographed a real, old-world farrier at work on a horse’s hoof with a Brownie Hawkeye and a flashbulb, and the light was so intense, so sun-like, that I think for a moment he was actually stunned by it. Now a Press #25 is to an amateur-grade flashbulb what that flashbulb is to an electronic flash. I always want to say “Now I am become death!” when I let one off with my Argus or my Medalist. It’s a little glass sphere full of wire so fine it looks like smoke, but it classes as a small nuclear weapon.)
Even at the absurdly low price of $15, it was more money than I needed to spend, especially after buying my beautiful Recomar for $44, but listen; the last time I saw one it was in the three-figure range. The next time I see one, it will surely be as well. On eBay, you can list them with a starting bid in the one-figure range and no reserve and watch the bids roll in until it goes for $150, $300, even $600 with a nice lens. I’ve watched five or six and always been disappointed to see that that was invariably the result.
So I bought it. In the car I screwed around trying to fire the back shutter for several minutes, until the stoner in the Ralph Lauren shirt tapped on my window and showed me the Polaroids he and his girl had bought. I directed him to another place where he could find something worth his time, and drove home through the schizophrenic weather.
Now, whenever I try to repair something on my own with my cheapass black and yellow screwdrivers and my piss-poor eyesight (a severe astigmatism, in fact), I make the problem exponentially worse: if bad, disastrous, if terrible, ruined. This is especially true of focal plane shutters. They have it in for me. I literally could not open the back of the camera (a Graphic back on this particular instance), so I consulted an old, wise wizard: my maternal grandfather. He has just turned 70 and is debating whether or not to quit teaching introductory science at USM. He looks rather like Sam Elliot and is a champion at puttering. Now, his sons are creative geniuses and his daughters can solve advanced crossword puzzles in the time it takes you to fry an egg, while holding an intelligent conversation. It only figures that Doc has a few superhuman attributes. One of them is that he can remove any stuck screw; literally any. He brings an array of screwdrivers, pliers and diag cutters and slaps them down in a pile and goes to work.
It turns out that the back of a Pacemaker Graphic is held on by five soft brass screws that go into wood. All of them we got out without damaging the underlying materials, but the screws themselves were uniformly shot. Basically he had to crush the brass screw-heads and twist them out with special flat-tipped pliers. I have no idea where he got them or for what purpose, but they’re top-dollar stuff with special rubberized handles.
This didn’t reveal much; only the shutter curtain. It was time to open the shutter mechanism itself. My hands shook, but I got the screws out and put each one in a shot glass. Then, because the winding key wouldn’t budge, to get the cover plate off the shutter, I had to take the case off the rangefinder mechanism.
So I looked for the first time at a Pacemaker Speed’s legendary focal-plane shutter. This design is simplified from the Speed Graphic’s already bombproof mechanism; it’s a layout so simple I could have thought of it: there is a long cloth with four slits of different widths in it. You wind it until the proper slit is in position, ready to fly across the film plane, adjust the spring tension to one of two settings to yield the proper speed, load the film and pull the awkward rectangular trigger. (It’s definitely a piece of American engineering.) There’s some simple gearing so that, when the shutter is released, one slit and one slit only will
move down across the focal plane (bottom-to-top in relation to the image, which is, naturally, inverted) at a decent but not breakneck pace. The top speed is 1/1000th of a second, which we take for granted now, but which was fast enough to justify calling the camera a Speed Graphic at the time. The lovely thing about this shutter, other than the fact that it’s reportedly easy to repair, is that it tends to impart a pleasing forward lean to moving objects; sports photography from the first half of the 20th century has a certain look to it because of this effect.
It was surprisingly easy to work the stuck curtain roller free, and the curtain was in good shape over its length. I felt for the first time that I’d made a good purchase. The shutter was still sluggish, and it still wouldn’t fire with the slow speed switch on and there was something wrong with the trigger mechanism, so I could only fire it by using the “trip” position on the selector switch. I opened it up and immediately broke everything.
I love rangefinders. They’re quiet, usually compact, and with my vision problems, I find them so much easier to focus than SLR’s. Unfortunately, most of them tend to cost more than SLR’s. Today I’m going to review two of the cheapest interchangeable-lens rangefinders, both of which go in the 20-40 dollar range. Yes, you read that right. If you’re eBay savvy, you already have some idea which ones I’m talking about.
Now, I’ve owned a number of rangefinders, from the huge and unreliable Kodak Medalist II to the hyper-advanced Canonet QL17 G-III. But I’ve only owned two with interchangeable lenses. One was mass-produced (and I mean mass-produced) where my grandparents went to college, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and one was hand-made by juvenile delinquents (or maybe adult convicts, or maybe not; it’s hard to tell) in Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine.
Like most American cameras, the Western contender doesn’t have much going for it at first glance. The Argus C3 is shaped like a brick, difficult to hold, doesn’t cock itself and doesn’t have a combined finder. That means you’re looking back and forth between the focusing window and the composing window, several times a second if you’re like me. This is one of the slowest cameras you’re liable to use. You actually have to unlock the advance mechanism and turn a knob until it locks, click the awkward lever that looks like a self-timer, frame your shot, look through the rangefinder, line the blue (or yellow) image up with the clear one, re-frame your shot because you inevitably threw it off, and fire, bracing yourself for the loudest shutter you’ve ever heard, louder even than a poorly maintained East German Praktica. And that’s assuming that you know your exposure beforehand. There’s a clip-on meter but let’s face it, it’s not going to work after all these years. Changing the lens is also slow and fiddly work and must be done in a clean area because it leaves the actual blades of the leaf shutter exposed.
But it’s great. This is literally the ideal camera to learn on. It does you exactly no favors. If you can learn how to use it, you can learn how to use any camera. It rewards both zone-focusing and careful, precise use, with or without a handheld meter. And the camera can do everything. It has 35mm, 100mm and 135mm lenses (though they will cost more than the camera), a 50mm kit lens that’s a very good copy of the Elmar, and a bomb-proof shutter. And you can get one without a case for 20-something dollars most of the time, or 30 dollars in the case. They made millions of these, from the 30’s to the 50’s, and most of them still work, so they’re not scarce. Mine is a late 40’s example and the worst thing wrong with it is that some pieces of leatherette have broken off. I mean, the focus is stiff enough with the main lens that you can barely use the finger wheel, but that’s not a big loss. Nobody used the finger wheel anyways. It’s not a Contax. Twist the stupid lens.
My favorite feature is the lens, which is really that good, whatever you may have heard. This lens has colors and it has contrast, and if you calibrate the rangefinder, which anyone can do if they read the documentation and own a smallish flat-head screwdriver, it has sharpness, too. Tony Vaccaro took award-winning war photographs in the European theater of WWII with this camera, sometimes against orders. He may still use the same one at the age of 97; I don’t know, but it’s possible. That’s what this camera is. That’s what this camera is like.
So the Argus represents how the American camera industry, such as it was, responded to the Leica II. Let’s turn this on its head for a minute: How did the Soviet camera industry respond?
Well, there wasn’t a Soviet camera industry until some of the work communes started copying the Leica II directly, both before and after WWII. Eventually, in the 50’s, the Felix E. Dzerzhinsky commune (named after the founder of the secret police that became the KGB, and a noted mass murderer), which had been one of the main producers of these Leica copies, came up with its own design, the FED 2, a sort of fresh take on everything that made the Leica II great. This camera kept the body-style, the shutter and the lens mount and added a Contax-style removable back, a combined rangefinder, a diopter for near- and far-sighted users, basic flash sync and eventually a Leica III-style self-timer. In essence, this is the Leica II without most of its weaknesses.
Granted, it has weaknesses of its own. Whereas it was dangerous to change the shutter speed before cocking the shutter on a Leica, it’s downright suicidal on any Soviet rangefinder. In nine cases out of ten, it will break the selector mechanism. Now, later FED 2’s (model C and later) are supposed to be one of the few cameras that’re better about this, but I’m not going to risk finding out on my FED 2C. And like the Leica II, this camera has no slow speeds. This is not your rich uncle’s Leica M3, but it is easier to load.
(If you don’t know, by the time the M3 came around, they still wouldn’t put a Contax-type back or an SLR-style swing door on their cameras, and so the bottom still came off and there was a little door on the back to help you push the film through and inspect the shutter._
This camera is one step up from the Argus in price (40-something when you factor in shipping from Ukraine or elsewhere in the FSU) and several steps up in convenience. It cocks itself when you wind on, the shutter dial is right where you want it to be and you can focus and frame in the same window. Plus, most of the lenses that you’re liable to get will have depth-of-field markers, which the C3’s default Cintar doesn’t have
And using it is still an educational experience for the young photographer. I discourage buying a clip-on meter or using a handheld, at least at first. Learning to estimate exposure manually, perhaps from the baseline of “Sunny f:16,” is incredibly freeing and it will teach you how to check the meters on aging SLR’s and compacts, which often tend to underexpose after all these years.
And it comes with a pretty decent Tessar copy, any one of three that were the default over its lifetime. They’re all called “Industar,” which is the Soviet trade name for Tessar copies/four element, three group formula lenses. I only have experience of the Industar 26m ~50mm f:2.8, which replaced the collapsible Industar 22 50mm f:3.5 (based on the Elmar, but more of a Tessar copy, all told) and was replaced by the very similar Industar 61 L/D 50mm f:2.8. I like this lens, but it’s not perfect. It usually has a lot of air bubbles, worse even than most old lenses, and in some cases these can affect image quality. It’s also prone to flare.
But there are so many lenses you can mount on it. Unlike the Argus, which is pretty much
where it’s always been in terms of lenses and accessories, the FED can grow with you. When you outgrow the potential of whatever Industar it came with, you can get any number of better, faster M39 lenses; eventually, I’ll get a Canon normal for it, or maybe just the lauded Soviet Sonnar copy, the Jupiter-8 50mm f:2.
Even with the flawed Industar 26m, and even with a shutter that occasionally glitches out when I change speeds, my FED 2 is a joy to shoot. It has a little of the
feel of an SLR in some ways, but it’s light, compact and with the collapsing Industar-22 you can carefully put it in your pocket and carry it around that way, a feature no SLR has ever had, to my knowledge.
The viewfinder isn’t huge, but for me it’s sharper than a lot of viewfinders thanks to the diopter, and I appreciate how sharply the images in the rangefinder spot mate up.
So which one wins?
Oh boy, is it ever hard to call. Now, some people would make this kind of innocently political. “The FED is a commie camera!” And the Soviet Union was a deadly, authoritarian regime, don’t get me wrong. But to apply national politics to cameras is just idiotic jingoism.
On their own merits? Well, that’s difficult too. The Argus was introduced in the late 30’s. We forget that this camera is so old that Kodak 135 format was only one of the 35mm formats going around. And indeed, this camera was sort of a kingmaker: where the Leica popularized 135 in Europe, the Argus popularized it here. So obviously, for its time, the Argus was a real feat: a precision small-format rangefinder camera with the possibility of interchangeable lenses, cheap.
On the other hand, there was nothing so revolutionary about the FED 2. Every feature it has was a derivative of prior art from Leica or Contax, and compared to contemporaries from the rest of the world, it was already obsolete just by virtue of being a screw-mount rangefinder. And it wasn’t a camera for the people. This was what reporters and military correspondents carried in the Soviet Union; for the proles, there were folding cameras and box cameras and so on.
So any comparison is going to be loaded. I’m going to make a case for the older and simpler camera, and I would do so even if it were the Soviet one.
Listen, the Argus C3 (and C2, and Matchmatic…) can be had ridiculously cheap in working condition. There’s very little you can do to screw up the shutter, besides trying to force it the wrong way from 1/10 to 1/300. The normal lens is better in quality than the kit lenses you’ll get with a FED, although the other lenses are probably crap. (I have the Soligor version of the Fujitar 135mm, but I haven’t used it yet.)
Furthermore, you don’t want to deal with calibrating a Leica-style cam-coupled rangefinder as a beginner. If there’s a problem with the rangefinder calibration on a C3, you can try taking the big gear off and adjusting the point at which the lens and the gear mate up.
I recommend the Argus C3 for a beginner, because it’s bomb-proof, prepares you for every other camera you’ll ever deal with, and has such a nice look to it. It’s also a thousand times easier to load than the FED 2 if you know the trick. I wish more cameras had the takeup spool from the C3.
I recommend the FED 2 or one of its successors for a slightly more advanced photographer who’s ready to deal with re-tensioning the springs on a focal-plane shutter by hand (and believe me, you’ll need to, and it’s a nightmare.) The FED 2 requires a bit of delicacy, but because of the lenses available for it, it can stay your shooting camera.
Best Features of the Argus C3:
Sharp, color-corrected lens
Shutter that can last a lifetime
Easy to calibrate
Worst features of the Argus C3:
Hard to carry: sharp corners and no strap lugs
Top speed of only 1/300th S.
Shutter sounds like exactly like you just opened up a stapler
Overall score: 8/10
Best features of the FED 2:
Easy to carry: Leica-shaped and most have strap lugs
Shutter can be adjusted by a determined amateur
Mounts practically any m39 lens
Diopter for bad eyes
Worst features of the FED 2:
Allegedly made by juvenile delinquents; even if this is not a moral issue for you, it can be a quality-control issue
Unless you live in a European country, you’re gonna have to have it shipped
Shutter can start to make that obnoxious “zeeep” sound
Having shot a roll on it, I generally like the Nikkormat. Mine has a bad frame counter and some apparent non-linearity of the meter, as well as a problem with B and an occasional failure to cock the shutter when advancing the film. I try not to hold these issues against the model.
I have some problems with the model as a whole, though. While I like the shutter-speed ring, I don’t like the little lever that sticks out of it. I just wish it had been bigger and knurled a little so that it could be turned directly. And while I’ve gushed about Minolta cameras with the same feature, I don’t like that it has a microprism-only focusing aid. I think a split-screen device would be a very useful and professional touch on this camera.
Overall, I feel oddly… indifferent to this camera. The image quality is great, but it’s the same quality I get on my Nikkorex, and I don’t have to worry about a faulty meter throwing me off or that hard little lever on the shutter speed ring.
As you can see, there’s some blown highlights in the image of the lake, indicating rather severe overexposure. This, by the way, is one of my standard throwaway test shots. Good contrast, good range, and I like the place. It’s about four hundred feet from my house. Now, I swear this lens is razor sharp. I developed this film in Dektol as an experiment, and it’s a little grainy, but bear with me.
In this selfie in a mirror at a friend’s house, you can see that the len’s performance wide
open is quite good, with much subtler flare than some faster lenses would have. I rather like that kind of flare, but I’d like to see it without. I don’t overall like the shot, as the mirror frame makes it too busy. I’m not sure whether to credit the exposure on this shot as a mark in favor of the meter, as I have two shots of this and one of them is underexposed, and I think I cheated the exposure on one of them.
But yeah, that’s me. I needed a haircut, and I still do. If you were expecting a woman based on my name, believe me, you’re far from the first.
Those highlights are a little bright, but not completely blown, and to the camera’s credit I was metering for the shadows in midframe. At least, I think I was. On most of these old cameras there’s a circle on the ground glass that tells you the weighted area for the meter.
I think we have good contrast and rather nice, classic-looking rendition of the dark tones on the ground.
So the Staffordshire terrier at right is actually standing like that. It boggles my mind trying to figure out how his hips do that, especially at his age. He’s fourteen, which is like a hundred and ten for an AST. I didn’t want him, and he’s the reason my house has fleas right now, but I love the little bugger.
Overall, I continue to be extremely satisfied with the lens. It has the best contrast of any SLR lens I’ve ever shot, very nice sharpness at middle apertures (which you can’t see here) and a really nice feel to it. Since writing the last post, I’ve learned that this was the kit lens on the very first Nikon F’s, before the Nikkor-H with equivalent numbers and a different formula was introduced.
But the camera? I don’t want to give it a bad review because mine happens to be missing some features and has a janky meter. I think if this camera were fully functional, it might have rivaled the SR-T 200 as my metered-manual shooting camera. As it is, when I want to shoot that Auto Nikkor-S lens, I mount it on the all-manual Nikkorex it came with.
So here’s my breakdown:
Ease of use: 6/10
Comfort in the hand: 6/10 (somehow it’s smaller than the Nikkorex but also more ungainly. I prefer even an early Praktica for ergonomics.)
Shutter noise: 7/10 (a massive improvement on the Nikkorex)
Range of available lenses: it’s a Nikon. Let’s be honest. 10/10.
Convenience of loading: 8/10, about on par with an AE-1.
Overall rating (of the model, not my example): 7/10
Please do not use my images without crediting me and asking for permission.
So how about the name on this one? I have to assume that’s pronounced with the long “I” as in “Nikon.” In fact, I’ve heard an old photographer say “Nikkor lenses” with a long “I,” so that has to be right.
Right? God, I hope so. Japanese names for things just don’t often translate well into English, which is understandable given the vast distance between the two languages on a linguistic level. The Nikkormat’s predecessor, the Nikkorex F, just sounds like a prescription nicotine patch for smoking cessation when you say it with a short “I,” but “Nikkormat” sounds inexcusably rude said that way. And it’s not intuitive to say it any other way. I mean, we could try a longish “E” sound like in Japanese…
Now, I have experience with the Nikkorex F. It’s a camera built like a main battle tank, weighty and tall in the hand. It’s a manual-only camera unless you happened to buy the clip-on selenium match-needle deal; in fact, it was my first manual-only SLR, when I
bought one from Leaman’s Antique Shop in Hattiesburg a year ago. I learned the value of shooting half box speed (or lower) on that camera. And it’s solid. I fully expect it to outlast many of my other cameras, with its metal-blade Copal Square shutter.
But when I had a little extra money in my pocket last week, and saw a listing for its shiny, fully-TTL-metered little sibling the Nikkormat FTn for only $10 plus shipping, I bought it. I had seen one in an antique store on Decatur St. during my adventure losing a roll in the Minolta, and been rather taken with it. Moreover, any number of people had talked it up to me online.
Like the Nikkorex F, it’s a working-man’s Nikon. It doesn’t have interchangeable viewfinders or fancy add-ons like the Nikon F, but it does have a superior shutter (a Nikon-built version of the Nikkorex’s Copal) and center-the-needle metering, plus shutter-speed display in the viewfinder and mirror lock-up (for rangefinder-style ultra-wide lenses that stick into the camera.)
But that’s only part of why it has a cult following, I think. It’s big, but balances gracefully in the right hand. It has an aesthetic like no other camera, resembling at first glance a hybrid of the Nikkorex F and the Nikon F, but upon closer inspection resembling neither too closely. In fact, looking at it, you can’t quite place it in time, even if you know your history well. The lettering of the nameplate is almost Comic Sans, and the standard lenses of the time had happy pastel color-coding for the apertures, but overall this camera has the look of a 30’s or 40’s typewriter with slick styling but
a lot of exposed mechanisms; as if advanced 35mm SLR’s were even a figment of someone’s imagination in 1945. If my SR-T 200 is rather forward-looking in its design, its contemporary over here is oddly and pleasantly backward-looking. It’s as if someone at Nippon Kougaku in 1967 decided that Oliver typewriters, steam trains and the original Kodak 35mm’s were all great things to draw on when designing a brand new, advanced SLR.
So how is it? It takes getting used to, that’s for sure. The only way to control the shutter speed is a tab that sticks out from a ring around the lens mount; the actual ring is too slick and too recessed to grasp. As the mechanisms for sensing the aperture stick out too far, you can barely see the numbers on the ring; the indicator for the current shutter speed is only visible from the front. Luckily, the designers continuously adjusted the design of the FT series according to popular criticism and suggestions, and on the FTn, they put an indicator in the viewfinder so that you can always see what shutter speed is set–as long as you’re in good light. There are a lot of coaxial rings moving around the lens, and finding the aperture ring can be tricky on some lenses. For another thing, like the metered prism for the Nikon F, there’s a complicated procedure for mounting the lens, a little something old photographers call the Nikon dance. Basically, you have to tell the camera what the aperture range on the lens is. Why it needs to know is beyond me; the SR-T’s just sense the number of stops down from wide open and do just fine. This process got simplified from the FT, but it’s still complicated and the big selling point of the otherwise-similar FT3 was that it could sense the aperture range on AI-type lenses automatically. Setting the film speed is a real pain. Finally, like most 60’s SLR’s it lacks a hot shoe, since most flashes used a PC cable back then, and you were apparently supposed to buy a cold shoe that was attached to the eyepiece, if you didn’t want to hold the flash. It’s a lot to figure out.
But there’s something wonderful about the quirkiness of this damn thing. I can’t disagree with the designers’ ideas of aesthetics, because in fact, the camera looks incredible. There are odd little features, like the exterior meter needle and the stop-down button in a semi-convenient location on top of the camera, rather than on the crowded lens mount area. The advance lever is a single piece of metal with light knurling, and it feels quite comfortable and solid to advance. The frame counter (broken on mine) is huge and conveniently placed (because there’s no shutter dial there in the crook of the advance lever).
You know what it reminds me of, in the end? A Retina Reflex IV. This was an unreliable, over-engineered Nagel A.G. camera sold by Kodak a little before the Nikkormat was built, but based on engineering philosophy dating back to the 50’s. It had the exterior meter needle, the ability to meter for bulb exposures, the shutter speed in the viewfinder, that kind of aesthetic that would have never seemed quite new and so never seems quite old… and I’ve always wanted a Retina Reflex IV. Sure, it’s not very practical, but there’s something about it, and there’s something about the Nikkormat.
I guess what I’m saying is, this camera is a little like vaporwave*. It doesn’t seem to belong to its home era, or even another era, not cleanly, at least. But like vaporwave, it gives you that feeling of false nostalgia you maybe had when you were younger, when you didn’t know what time it was that you were yearning for, when the details of that time could be vague. I dunno, is that why people watch Stranger Things? Is Stranger Things still popular?
So next I’ll fiddle with the film-speed settings some more (because this thing is sensitive to voltage differences, apparently,) shoot this roll, develop it and talk about the results.
* Vaporwave is a whole genre that’s basically the feel of the synth line in Gary Numan’s Cars. It’s designed to make you feel untraceable false nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, even and especially if you only marginally experienced them. Press play and you’ll understand.
All images in this article were found marked for commercial reuse and are not mine.
Sorry there weren’t more pictures when this was first published. I couldn’t get the images to stay the size I set them at at first.
There’s a pain you digital whippersnappers don’t know. (Now look, I’m not old. I’m twenty going twenty-one at time of writing. But my engagement with photography has been mostly the equipment I can pick up in increments of ten or twenty dollars, and the knowledge I can pick up free. Now, in the age of mirrorless cameras with delicate white balance and so on, that puts me about ten to thirty years behind the times, so if I sound elderly at times there’s a reason.)
Now picture yourself as a street photographer. Maybe you already are, and maybe you have an old screw-mount Leica and walk around New York City with it, and maybe you knew this pain thirty years before I was born. But if you’re not a photographer, or if you shoot digital, picture yourself with
an SR-T 200 (if you can’t picture that, it doesn’t matter; an old manual SLR, at any rate.) You’ve finally picked up a PX625 battery at the wonderful little camera shop on Canal Street, New Orleans, and are operating your camera with the meter on for the first time. You snap some pictures of the tall, futuristic buildings along the far side of Canal, adjusting the ASA setting all the while (because new batteries cause underexposure and you want to be sure). You snap a picture of your father and stepmother, in silhouette against the racing crowd, his greasy long hair tangled and madly strewn from spending the night in an Air B&B in the slums, hers oddly intact.
Your stepmother climbs up in one of those weird little niches on the Customs House for some reason and you take a picture.
You find a plate glass window with darkness behind it, and take a selfie, telling yourself it’s mainly to see how the CLC meter handles reflections.
Up in that damn sky-scraper mall at Peters and Canal, you snap a picture of the cool neon sign for the fitness club, shooting handheld at 1/60th and 1:2. You remember a dream where you saw a neon sign much like it, in which your uncle offered to make you a cat sandwich in his diner at the Heathrow Airport.
While waiting for them to get out of the bathroom, you reflect on some of the shots you snapped on the same roll of film this morning, on Magazine, un-metered: a punk rock chick you’d love to know, sitting on the porch of the huge cigar shop on Magazine. You remember how smooth it was, looking back and raising your camera, portrait-wise, to your eye, framing and snapping, secure in the knowledge that your study of the nuances of zone-focusing has let you catch her both in focus and well-exposed on your roll of film.
There was the time, a little before or a little after that, when you were sitting in that damn café your dad likes, also on Magazine, and saw a family of Japanese tourists sitting outside the plate-glass window, and cleverly set your aperture to snap one of those candid shots of the two old ladies with their floral dresses talking to their husbands, and the husbands framed between them, all in business attire despite the massive heat.
Then you leave the mall and, back on Decatur, heading towards the Fauborg Marigny neighborhood (not half so fancy as it sounds,) and trying to adjust the Minolta strap that came with the camera so that it doesn’t hurt your neck, you see a pack of wandering millennials, or more likely post-millennials: your generation, and moreover, your people. There’s a girl among them, enchanting, more so because you’d never have a chance with her; she bats for your team for sure. She has pink hair with rainbow highlights and she’s wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off over a tank top. She has anime freckles painted on her face and tattoos of a cartoon you seem to have both watched as children. You like some of the same characters as she does, it seems.
You take a few snapshots of her pack, candid and potentially hashtag artistic. They probably know that a camera is going off in roughly their direction; old Minoltas are not quiet cameras and you are not a person known for your discretion. But they know the score and they’re all exhibitionist types in the City of Exhibition.
Indeed, halfway to test your meter’s low range and halfway because you like living dangerously, you snap one last shot inside the coffee shop called Envie. The girl with pink hair and some of her pack are in the shot, ordering coffee, and so are plenty of interesting people. Your father, coffee addict, in line ahead of you, wheels around on you when you take the picture. He’s the only one who noticed or cared about the metallic click of the mirror hitting the top of its arc; everyone else here is used to things like that.
You promise not to do it again, but here is the fateful moment. In the little window on top of your camera, the number reads “24.” That should have been the last shot on the roll. Now you get to have the satisfaction of cocking the lever once more and feeling it stop short, feeling the tension, as of a guitar string, of the film inside the camera back, pull taut and refuse to pay out any further. Then comes the last little fun part; you get to push in the little button on the bottom and turn the little crank as fast as humanly possible.
But you cock the lever. It goes to 25 and you are tempted to swear hard in front of your socially-conservative father and stepmother.
You didn’t take a single picture today, not really. Let that sink in.
There are two spools inside a loaded camera: the payout spool, inside the film cartridge, and the takeup spool, opposite. To load the camera, you have to attach the end of the film to the takeup, which requires some tricky maneuvering. If you do it right, you’ll advance the film and the rewind knob will spin with the payout spool, informing you that your camera is safely loaded. If not, the film will just sit there, not moving and every picture you take will vanish into thin air.
Most of the major manufacturers had different solutions to the problem of how to attach the film to the spool, and most of their solutions blew. Canon found the perfect solution long ago, before even making their greatest SLR’s, and then they abandoned it after making a few rangefinders and one or two early SLR’s with it. Minolta barely even tried. The SR-T series’ one flaw is that the takeup spool, with its ineffectual plastic tongues, is painfully hard to attach the film to, and it’s possible that the film slips off after you advance it once or twice, so you can even watch the rewind knob spin and feel sure and still lose the roll.
This is what has just happened to you: you did everything that, on the AE-1 Program you learned on, should have resulted in a safely-loaded camera. Dammit, you hooked the film under the little tongue and watched the rewind knob spin around twice, and you still lost the roll.
True story. All of it. Happened to me last week.
And friends, there are very few exact analogues to that twinge of pain. Maybe losing a draft of a really good story, but in my experience that’s a slightly different (and worse) sensation.
Sorry for the lack of pictures this week. I don’t have to tell you why!
All content mine except where otherwise noted. Thanks to Mr. Butkus for the image, and for the many free PDF manuals I have consulted over the last year and a half.
I shot the film from Julia within two days, not because I always shoot film the moment I get it, but because the moment came and I happened to be there. I wanted to get a good test of both my new TLR’s.
I have three, not counting the “Lee Harvey Oswald” camera, which is a box camera made to look like one. Not one of them is in perfect shape (ironically enough, the Oswald is), but they all looked to be in good enough shape, good enough for a college kid amateur who shoots sunny 16 and develops his B/W in coffee. My first was the Argoflex EF, a 40’s-50’s budget model that feels like it was cast from solid iron. It’s still my baby. It has a dim viewfinder and the magnifier fell off, but the shutter’s clean, 200 through T, the lenses are sharp, coated affairs like Argus C3 lenses*, and it says “argoflex” with a little “a” in the happiest, most-50’s raised metal letters.
(*Anyone who thinks that Argus C3 lenses aren’t sharp never shot with a properly calibrated C3.)
My second, which I got for fifteen dollars at a thrift-store in the last few months, was the Kodak Reflex I, which is another Ricoh-style geared-lens TLR like the Argoflex, but bigger, lighter and with faster lenses; it’s very much the Kodak Medalist’s 6×6 cousin. The shutter is dirty at slow speeds and T and B don’t work, but the fast speeds are crisp and the ground glass in the viewfinder is huge. I hadn’t gotten around to shooting or even loading it yet.
My third was sold to me for twenty at another thrift-store because it was in such bad shape; that’s the Yashica Mat 124G I’ve already written about. I fixed the shutter release while sitting in the car outside the store, but the film advance just clicks when it’s supposed to stop for the next frame. I ruined one roll to find that out, and I hadn’t had any 120 to load and try again. It’s also got fungus on the mirror. Beyond that I didn’t know anything.
So Julia, the street photographer, gave me two rolls of film. I decided, since I so seldom have the chance to shoot 120, to load the two TLR’s I hadn’t properly use-tested yet. That night, I loaded the Yashica and re-spooled the second roll onto a 620 spool to load the Kodak. This step used to be hell, but a relative just bought me a dark bag, so now I can do it in two minutes, indoor or out.
I pulled out an old leather camera bag I had laying around, zipped both of them up in it and put it in the car. The next day I went out to my Mom’s horse farm to do some work for her. The rain was intermittent and the ground was drenched, so I didn’t get anything done. But her new therapy horse had just been delivered, a Belgian draft horse from Amish country with one of those country-people horse names. I pulled out the Yashica and went out into the field to see him. As I went, I dusted off this red powder that flaked off from the lining of the camera bag and got into every crevice. I remembered why I don’t use that bag.
I walked out, and walked, and walked. The horse seemed to loom near. Finally I got to him. Now, I had been told he was a hand taller than our tallest horse at the time, Yankee, a big gelding to be sure, but when I first stood next to this unreal creature I knew it wasn’t true; he was even taller. I stand five eleven, and this horse’s withers were at eye level to me, on flat, marshy ground. I felt small, and remembered instantly the feeling of hugeness I felt when I saw horses as a child, In the moment I saw him, I felt I had only seen a real horse once, long ago, and had been working with ponies ever since.
I looked down; his hooves were as wide as dinner plates. His mane was wild, long but not shaggy, clean and airy, rather, like a lion’s. He had a hairless patch on his nose where the Amish farmer had left a leather halter on him year in and year out as they worked the ground, two horses and one man at the plow. I could no more think of riding him than of riding a lion or a black rhinoceros. I found out later that he weighs something like 1400 pounds, and needs to gain. He’s also around my age, which is early old age in horse years.
As I contemplated him I snapped the first three or four pictures on the roll, un-metered and erring on the side of overexposure, but I felt like his size wouldn’t come through without someone in the frame for scale. It was also mildly frustrating to have to crank slowly and listen for the click, but it’s not much worse than using a red-window camera, to be honest. I’ve always wanted the convenience of an automatic crank-advance, and I feel so close to having it.
I will say that the comparison between the Yashica viewfinder and the Kodak viewfinder is a little one-sided. The Yashica’s ground glass is dim in poor light conditions, practically demanding the use of the loupe, and I’m not sure what the red lines are for, since they’re surely not for parallax and they don’t follow the rule of thirds. I know that there was a Yashica that could take 35mm and shoot vertical frames, and I think it had similar lines in the glass for framing that, but why put the same viewfinder on a 120-only camera? The Kodak, on the other hand, has a big plain piece of ground glass, bright in the middle with pleasant vignetting that I certainly hope isn’t as noticeable on the film. I hear the old photographers used to send it back to the factory to be equipped with a Fresnel condensing screen like the one on the Argus, so much so that it became standard on the Reflex II. I can’t see why.
I went back and dropped off the Yashica and got out the Kodak just as Mom and her friends were heading out to groom him for the first time. I only then realized that I had arrived less than an hour after he had.
Now, the Kodak is what I always pictured a TLR as looking like: big lenses, one bright, one dark, steampunk gearing, real leatherette and a big knob on the side that emphatically doesn’t focus the camera. I, on the other hand, am nothing like I picture a photographer, especially the kind of photographer who would wield the Kodak Reflex: that day, I was wearing modern tan army boots, the kind that were apparently just phased out, cargo shorts with bleach spots from another job years ago where I had to sanitize dog cages with uncut bleach, a skate-shop T-shirt with the sleeves pushed up onto my shoulders, and when it started to drizzle, a straw cowboy hat. I felt that something about me demanded explanation, explanation I could not adequately give. I suppose I was self-conscious because I’m badly infatuated with one of the volunteers that was hanging around that day; we’ll call her Susan for the purposes of this story.
I was surprised to find that, except for having to cock it before every shot, it handled like a dream in the field: the advance knob is big and easy to turn, unlike the one on my Argoflex, and unlike the Argoflex, the lenses turn very freely and the image on the ground glass is very sharp, making the camera fantastically easy to focus, even without flipping up the loupe. I think of TLR’s as fussy cameras that take forever to frame and focus, but there, out in the field with Mom and these two women, I caught snapshots I probably would have missed with an SLR or a rangefinder, moments that would have passed while I raised an eye-level camera to my face. Susan pulled a lead-rope around the horse’s neck to keep him still while someone put his halter on. For a moment, a moment I had the luck and the wherewithal to catch on film, her hands above and below his neck and her legs were all I could see of her. It’s one of those frames that makes you look twice before you’re sure what’s happening.
I ran out the entire roll out there; the little “fireworks” bloomed in the red window, touching scenes between the little women and the mountainous horse played out in the ground glass, the shutter clicked now and then, and presently it was raining quite hard and we had to scramble for cover.
I had to order some D-76 powder; the film was too fast for my caffenol soup; even 200 film tends to come out unusually grainy from that stuff, which is fine because it costs almost nothing. The D-76 turns out to be scary stuff; the label says it causes birth defects and lung damage all like that, which makes me wonder how long all those old guys who developed sheet film with their bare hands ended up living. Anyways, as a basic developer it exceeds expectations; I did the Yashica roll for something like 8 minutes and it came out very dense, so I tried the Kodak roll for 6:30 (about the same time as the packet gives for TMAX 400, I think) and it came out about right. Unfortunately, the Kodak came out with noticeable light leaks; I tried dodging them digitally in GIMP but there’s too much of a soft edge on the bright area. I know some tricks for replacing light seals, though.
As for why I don’t have pictures from the Yashica up? Well, turns out that there are other things wrong with it… while the advance is clicking, it’s not clicking at the right time. The negatives came out with an inch or more between each frame, and with some odd distortion. I only got seven pictures out of it, and I didn’t feel like paying seven bucks and change to have it scanned. I’ll try to fix the camera eventually, but for now my TLR’s are the Argus and the Kodak.
Due to the light leak and a few moments of sloppy focusing on my part, the pictures turned out closer to lomography than the kind of art photography I was going for, but in the end, I’m really happy with the roll and the camera.
The shock of the horse doesn’t go away, incidentally. Every time I see him his size and ponderous, unstoppable movement hits me all over again. I compare it to meeting a dinosaur; he is a reminder to me that man is small among the animals, even if he likes to pretend otherwise. Encountering an animal that makes you feel small is like stepping out into an older world, before man could alter his environment so utterly. I rather like the sensation.
All content here belongs to me unless otherwise noted. Contact me to discuss using my pictures.
So I was downtown, running errands and I came back across the tracks into the old city. I had to slow down, not because of the tracks (my suspension is piss-poor to begin with) but because there’s a defunct gas station where the cops hide out just on this side of the tracks, as if we’d think they were getting gas at what’s left of a 1970’s pump. As if cops ever leave the pump when they’re getting gas.
There was a woman and a man on the side-walk right across from the Sack’s store next to the station, and as I passed I saw that the woman had struck a pose that I recognized, like a saint in an icon. She was looking down into the viewfinder of a TLR, one hand on the knob and the other cupped under the base to steady it and pull the trigger. In the absolute moment that I passed, the gold number caught the light: “124G.”
I had to talk to her, seeing as I had just bought (or practically been given, at the price) a Yashica 124G myself. I pulled in to the Sack’s parking lot and walked up to her. I introduced myself, told her I had one just like it, and we talked for five minutes, about how tough the little bastards are, mainly. She told me where she got hers repaired, which told me she had money, because who can sink a hundred dollars into a film camera and have money left to put 120 in it? I told her that I’ve heard one of the assembly workers from Yashica does (or did) repairs too, but I couldn’t remember his name. Mark Hama? Did I just make that up?
Well, I looked close at her camera and I felt even more like she was a kindred soul, because like the one my mother’s friend had sold me, it looked like it had been dropped a story onto concrete, all worn edges and dents, like a camera you might see around the neck of a man who has lived ten years among the Masai, or just come back from Mars with it.* The only difference I could see, the way she was holding it, was that hers still had the little leatherette circles on the shutter and aperture wheels.
(*But we all know that astronauts carry multi-thousand-dollar custom Hasselblads.)
And let me pause here for a second: the Yashica 124G is no Rollei. It feels heavier than a Rolleiflex (the only one I ever held) and yet somehow it feels a lot flimsier too. The lenses are said to be no match for Rollei glass. And Yashica forums are full of threads asking how to fix the advance mechanism, which seems to stop catching or start seizing up after a few decades of light use. But it has all the same shutter speeds, a coupled meter that can take modern batteries, and even if it stops catching when you turn the crank, you can still usually figure out a way to use it anyway. I doubt you can find a cheaper true Rollei-type TLR (except from Seagull, and I’ll tell you about Seagull later on on this blog) and especially not one that can take 220. In a way, it’s the Canon AE-1 of TLR’s, the same way my dear old Argoflex EF is the Argus C3 of TLR’s. I felt better about mine, seeing a seasoned old photographer use one in the same condition like it was the most natural thing in the world.
That brings me to the title of this blog: one of the great news photographers of the last century was an Austrian immigrant named Arthur (or “Usher” or “Ascher”) Fellig. He was famous in New York for seeming to show up at every crime scene, day or night, in the Lower East Side to snap a picture with his Speed Graphic and sell it to the AP. They called him Weegee, under the assumption that he used a Ouija board to predict killings and robberies. Actually, I was disappointed to find out, he used a police scanner. But here was a professional photographer who, by his memorable personality and his vast portfolio earned fame even outside of photographic circles. What was his advice? Have the best camera? Spend years learning to use it? No. He was a simple ex-lab rat who taught himself on the basic press camera of the day. His focal distance stayed set to 10 feet and he never changed apertures either. His advice to the budding photographer was “F/8 and be there.”
To me, Weegee was right. A nice camera helps, but no camera will bring the moment to you: if you’re there in the moment, one camera is as good as another. Well, back to the story:
I told her I had an advance problem on mine, and her husband said, “well, look at this.”
She took her hand off the crank to show that there was none. There was an improvised knob made out of a thin nail, some wire and a big fold-over clip (the kind you hold together a paper file with.)
She offered me a roll of film as I went to leave; I was a little shocked. Who just has film to throw away? But I realized that they were retirees, Joe and Julia, and that they were as delighted as I was to have met. I accepted, and she pulled out not one but two rolls of Ultrafine Max 400, which I had never heard of. I thanked her heartily and we went our separate ways, I back to Purvis, and she and her husband to New Orleans to continue whatever adventure they were on. I feel like they were perpetual wanderers, the sort of people who are always heading “furthur,” as it were, like sailors on a tramp ship. I don’t know, I just got that impression.
I felt bad for having accepted the film. I still do, in fact, writing this three days later. If you’re ever reading this, Julia, thank you. If you’re ever in Hattiesburg again, I usually have chemicals and I know someone with a scanner, if you want a few rolls done. It’d be the least I could do. I owe you one, for the film, for introducing me to a good brand of film, for the story, and for a moment of your time.
As for what I did with the film, well, tune in next time…
(Sorry, no pictures this week because I’m away from my good computer.)