Something in the universe keeps drawing me back to my early days in photography; film days, the days of no autofocus or automatic exposure. My path in photography started as a teenager processing and printing my own black and white photographs in my aunt’s basement. I can easily recall my excitement watching an image come up in the developer and the smell of fixer in the air. A few years later I had a complete darkroom, with running water no less, in our house. When I started my pro career I’d send my transparency film off to a lab that would develop overnight and deliver the film the next morning.  Unlike now, with digital cameras’ LCD screens, I had to wait, with a bit of anxiety, to view the result of my efforts.

This recent Back-To-The-Future experience started with a visit to  Pro Camera in Charlottesville VA last May, a film shooters nirvana with film cameras for sale, processing and printing, expert repair, a gallery and knowledgeable staff (see my “Time Travel” post of June 8, ‘23). On a trip to Ireland last summer I came across John Dunn Camera in Dublin, another film oriented photo shop with a steady stream of customers coming through the doors. There is a post on the blog last August about this multi-generation family business. Now as you might expect, I got a big kick out visiting these two classic photo shops, feeling like I was 22 years old again for a few moments and talking to their owners. There is life after Amazon. 

John Dunn, owner John Dunn Camera Dublin

Pro Camera, Charlottesville

Pro Camera, Charlottesville

A few weeks ago my BFF Bob asked me if I could help his friend Diane with a bunch of camera equipment left to her in her father’s estate. He was a dedicated photo hobbyist, Diane’s passion, however is motorcycles, so she didn’t know what to do with this box of old stuff, so he brought it to me to evaluate. I told them if I could, I would sell it. I opened the case and saw filters, straps, a couple of point and shoot cameras, selenium cell light meters, 4 non-working on camera flash units, two were the somewhat famous 70s vintage Vivitar 283. Mixed in with that flotsam & jetsam were some nice old cameras, some from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. 

To me, cameras are analogous to cars. The 1950s and 1960s were pretty much the heyday for automobile design,  cars had memorable profiles, consider the sweeping fins of a 1959 Chevy Impala to the futuristic lines of the 1953 Ferrari 212 Inter Coupe or the low slung 1963 Jaguar XK-E. Today’s cars pretty much suffer a bland sameness, in part, driven by aerodynamics to achieve mileage standards. Mercedes, Genesis and Lexus could be kissing cousins. I can barely tell them apart from 100 yards. It’s the same thing with cameras, and it too is driven by features to capture market share. It doesn’t matter if it is Canon, Nikon or Sony, they all have a myriad of features, 80% of which I’ll never use, from eye detection to multiple exposures, buttons, touch sensitive switching, video capabilities and of course, LCD screens. I  would love an affordable contemporary camera that is oriented only to still photography. Right now the closest to that is the Leica M11, without lens at $9,000 - yikes! Getting my hands on these straight forward, uncomplicated, classic cameras was a reprieve and a refreshing experience. 

The first camera is the Leica IIIc. This was a 35mm rangefinder camera, which meant you had to look through a tiny window on the back of the camera and superimpose two images to focus the camera, when the two images were in perfect registration the image would be in focus. It was built from 1940 to 1951 of a one piece die-cast body, making it a robust camera with a surprising amount of heft to it. It used screw mount lenses. Today’s Leica M digital versions use bayonet mount lenses. Photographic luminaries Alfred Eisenstadt, Elliot Erwitt, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Douglas Duncan, and I believe Robert Capra all relied on Leica to create their iconic photographs.

The second camera is the legendary Rolleiflex. You will notice two lenses on the front of the camera. You would look down into the top of the camera, the focusing screen would show you an image viewed through the top of the two lenses, it is through the lower lens the exposure is made. Unlike the Leica, the Rolleiflex used roll film 6X6cm (2 1/4 inches square) more acreage than the 35MM. Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Vivian Maier are among a large group of famous and accomplished photographers who worked with the Rolleiflex.  

The  Kodak Medalist II, the successor to the Medalist I used by the military in WW II,  is a 1947 vintage rangefinder camera that used 620 or 120 roll film. Producing only eight 6cm by 9cm exposures to a roll, the negatives were 5 times the square area of a typical 35MM frame. The camera has a retractable lens with a helical thread, linked to an accurate rangefinder system. This is a true medium format camera of beautiful design, with art deco accents.  Amazingly, the Kodak Medalist II was 100% made in the good old USA. The Medalist II was followed in 1957 by the Retina Reflex, a 35mm single lens reflex made in Germany. 

When I opened the back I found a sticker indicating it was serviced in 1955. Gotta love it. It turns out the Medalist II was a favorite of many photojournalists. Not surprising as it was considered the best camera made in America. It was built like a tank, and at 46.37 ounces, feels like it when worn on my old shoulder. 

Well, now it’s back to my gee-whizified computers with lenses. A blessing and a curse. 

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