If a camera could tell a story
Sometimes I wonder what story a camera would tell if it could. We can see a visual record of everything that camera has seen, as long as we know the provenance of that camera and have access to all of the images it took. But that is almost impossible for most classic cameras. But something happened recently that made me think a bit more about this.
Recently I got a camera from Dave at ShootTokyo in an Epic Trade Deal (I still swear I wuz robbed). Well, not just one camera, but loads of cameras. One of those cameras was a Nikon F3HP. It has soon some roadwork and has obviously been lovingly used. The F3 is a popular camera and it sold almost immediately. Which is when I got a mail from the original owner of the camera. He told me that the camera had been his fathers in Europe, before being brought to Japan and then sold to Dave. Dave passed the camera to me and now it is going back to Europe, to a very happy home that will make good use of it I might add.
It was really cool to hear about the history of a camera and where it had been. To know some of the history of the camera and to know the distances it has travelled give me a real sense of satisfaction. This made me think about some of the cameras that I had seen in the past and it made me wonder about the stories that they could tell. Where have they been? Who has owned them? What have they shot?
I get to see an awful lot of old cameras. Many are beautiful, pristine items that have barely a mark on them and tell you little of their origins. Certainly in some cases these cameras have not seen much as the collectors don’t want them to. But some of the cameras are different. They have been used and in some cases they have the battle scars to prove it. Like the M3 in the top image. Oh how I wish I could speak to the camera and find out how it got the dents and scratches.
This Leica M4 had been used by a South African photojournalist until it went to a new home in Japan. The camera was beaten and bruised, but still ticking merrily along without issue. When I held the camera in my hands it was almost like being connected to a time machine. Although I could not see the images it had taken, I could feel the life that it had lived and my imagination overflowed as I thought about where the camera had been, the sights, the sounds, the shots.
And this one, it was made for the German military, so you know it has the camera equivalent of a thousand yard stare. Sure, nowadays it is a collectors item, and handled with white gloves and deference. But back when it was made it was a government owned tool, and was treated as such by the people that used it. I have no doubt that the majority of the images that were taken with this camera probably still exist in a government archive somewhere.
On a modern camera there may be some dents or scratches, but very few of them are from anything other than general use (unless you happen to be a conflict photographer). I am talking about these really old cameras, that have passed through many hands (some legit, some less so), in some cases survived (and documented) wars and life changing events. There is almost no limit to what they could have seen.
This Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic is very nearly 100 years old (and still working too). It has lived and survived through 2 world wars! Although it looks mint, it has definitely been used. This to me is amazing, it is like a miniature time capsule which we cannot crack open. The memories are tantalizingly close, but forever beyond our grasp.
Sometimes I like to make up stories about a camera past in my head, just let my imagination run wild and see where it ends up. It is fun and gives me the chance to really get to know the camera. I think this is one of the reasons that I do this job, I love the history of it all.
If your camera could tell a story, what do you think it would be?
You gave up a Leica MP LHSA BP?
Yup, had to. Couldn’t keep it.
Film develop and scan are expensive here in Singapore. Which deter me me from getting.
While I love the color And B&W from film photography, thinking of Nikon FM2n and 50mm ais.
I’ll second that. Singapore sucks for film photographers. Even more expensive than Australia and so few labs and film stocks available.
Much agreed! Which is why I suggested our friend Bellamy develop a service where by he sells film + service of developing and scanning for one single low price. Any takers?
My Leica M2 has a name J.F. Ellison stamped intho the back. I heard that Leica did this at the factory as an option. I’ve googled the name but nothing comes up. Guess I’ll have to make up my own stories for my camera.
I have owned my BessaR since it was new out of the box (it sat on a shelf unsold for a few years) so I guess I’m responsible for all of its stories so far.
I was thinking of this exact topic yesterday after Eric Kim posted a paparazzi photo from the tarmac of an airport that had a bajillion Rollei’s in it; “when you buy an old pro-level work horse camera, who has it photographed in the past..?”
Check out what this camera saw…great ad:
Great ad, that’ll be Robert Capa then I take it.
Yes the ad would seem to be based on Robert Cappa. Ironically he mainly used zeiss Contax gear in ww2 and the related Nikon range finder system in the 50s. He died with a Nikon in his hand. I believe he did own a leica screw mount camera but traded up to zeiss when he could afford to. Cool Ad non the less.
I have got a Nikon F at home that was a war photographer’s cam in Vietnam.
To be honest, I wouldn’t really want to know what it has seen. But I love to have it here and give that vet a good home.
For years, during my Nordic skiing and ice speed skating trips to Lake Placid, New York, I had admired the photography of a local commercial/large format photographer. Years later, on Ebay, I bought a complete SINAR Norma outfit from a camera broker. In the original case, there was documentation that this was the SINAR norma of the photographer who I had admired all those years!
This post reminded me of this article http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/10/books/review/13ware.html
I have a Leica IIIf in beautiful condition with the name ” Harry Partington embossed into the back of the top plate just to the right of the viewfinders. I search online for a photographer of that name and found his granddaughter, who is also a photographer. I learnt from her a little of Harry’s life. I offered her the camera too but she declined.
I also have. Seagull TLR that I discovered had been stolen. I managed to locate its previous owner but they didn’t want it back. They were happy to hear I was using it.
hi, I have recently had the same thought as I have just purchased a very well used Leica M2 that is covered in dents and scratches. A quick search on the internet and I found that it was manufactured in 1958. I would love to know the history of this camera. What if there was a serial number database that people could log their cameras, so over time a history for that camera would be built. Also previous owners could help build past history!
This is a wonderful topic :)
I was born in U.S. Grew up in Warsaw, Poland, went back to U.S. for few years, then came back to Warsaw to get Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa (German-made) in Poland with the U.S. name and address from Arizona in it :) Can You imagine?!
Now I am back in Chicago and jut got
Minolta AL-s rangefinder with old sticker wirh Chicago address on it. And it’s tempting to find R Fisher.from Oak Park and meet her :)
I had a Leica M2, it came from an auction in Sweden, travelled from there to my friend in Holland, as it was part of his won lots from the auction, from Holland it came to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, I used it for a year or two and sold it off to it’s new owner in Canada, it looks well used overall and it should give some service to it’s new owner.
I now own this camera with the name J.f.Ellison engraved on the back, serial number 938 340, I am a retired leica tech, the camera was a completely corroded and required a total overhaul; when I purchased it nothing functioned. I now have it working nicely. Where did you get it from?
Thanks for the story Bellamy, every camera is a bit of a time machine, but the Kodak Vest Pocket, how cool! Love to see what it shoots like.
One of the Joy’s of using classic film gear is the sense of history it conjures up in our imagination.
I received a 1939 Leica iiib with a 1936 50/2 collapsible Summar last Christmas. I can only imagine the scenes that have passed through this lens and shutter….
I’m reassured by the fact that the Leitz family took an active role in getting Jews out of Germany in the 30s.