Cameras and Nostalgia (Part 1)

May 2008

Until fairly recently I regarded cameras primarily as tools, largely purchased for their utility and functionality. This isn’t to say I didn’t get a lot of pleasure out of poring over specs before acquisition, or “playing” with the new instrument when it arrived. Indeed, there is a distinct tactile pleasure to be gained from handling many cameras, and I’m certainly not immune to it. And there are some cameras that are simply good to look at!

Even so, my rational self told me that a camera was a means to an end and its purpose was to enable me to take better pictures. I didn’t fool myself completely – I knew that sometimes I simply wanted the “latest and greatest” even though its ability to enhance my artistic expression was no improvement on my previous gear. But a camera was to be used to take photographs, not to decorate my den.

During the last year or so I found myself wistfully contemplating some of the cameras I used to own. What were they really like? How would they function today? Do they even exist any more?

I set out to answer these questions, and after many hours on the Internet and eBay, came to the conclusion that the best way to do so was by acquiring the cameras themselves. Not the actual copies that I once owned, of course, but examples of the same make or model.

In a word (or two) I resolved to become a camera collector. Not a collector of any particular make or genre, not a collector for investment purposes, but a collector of what was once mine.

I have owned cameras for nearly sixty years since my father gave me one when I was five. Unfortunately, the mists of time have obscured my memory of just what that camera and its immediate successors were – and those mists don’t lift until my twelfth year, when I won a school photo competition. The camera I used for that first heady success has stuck in my mind.

It was a used Ilford Craftsman, a pseudo twin lens reflex where the upper lens was actually a “brilliant” viewfinder. It had just two f stops, f9 and f18, and two speeds – 1/25th and 1/75th of a second. It took nice clear 6 by 6 cm pictures as long as you worked within its limitations.

After several foiled attempts to get one on eBay, where one example sold for roughly ten times what it cost new, I managed to find a fairly decent specimen. Opening the package when it arrived from England took me back 50 years almost instantly! It is in working order and I’m sure I shall run a film through it soon. (The picture below is courtesy of Adrian Gotts in the UK as I wrote this piece before my specimen arrived.)

Ilford camera

Swifter success greeted my next search – a Bilora Radix, which I found at a decent price in a store in England after some intense Googling. It’s weird little camera, first made in Germany in 1947. It takes sixteen 24 by 24 mm square pictures on 35 mm film. It has a single shutter speed of 1/60th of a second and a 38 mm f5.6 Biloxar Anastigmat lens. As you can see, my example is pretty beat up cosmetically, but the lens is clean and it still works. Actually, it’s built like a tank.

In those days I was also becoming very interested in bird photography. Not very easy with a 3In those days I was also becoming very interested in bird photography. Not very easy with a 38 mm lens, so I purchased an army surplus long focus lens and proceeded to dismantle the (fixed!) Biloxar so I could use the “new” glass. I don’t recall how well it went, but I know I ended up junking the camera some months later….and I have no bird photos from those days!

Ironically, I then left 35mm for a while and went back to medium format. While attending university I did a number of commercial photographic assignments ranging from architectural shots for a book all the way to a little fashion photography and weddings. For these tasks, in that era, only one camera would suffice – a Rolleiflex.

My first Rollei was a 1950 Automat with a Tessar lens. After a couple of my bills had been paid, I traded it for a 1958 model with the Xenar lens. It was a wonderful camera, probably 6 or 7 years old when I got it, and still functioning beautifully a couple of years later when I had to give it up – but that comes later.

Of all the cameras I’ve owned, the Rollei has got to be one of the most satisfying to hold and use. It is not just a camera – it’s a work of art.

(In those days I also used an unidentified full-plate camera from Victorian times. It took real glass plates about 4 by 6 inches. It was a good learning experience but not one I feel very nostalgic about and I won’t be trying to replace it today.)

For my collection, I decided to go with the Rollei model I always wanted back in 1965 but could not afford – the Rolleiflex 2.8F, one of the last of the “vintage” Rolleis. I found one on eBay, supposedly mint (yeah, right!) being auctioned by a lady in Texas. I won the auction at what I thought was likely too high a price and waited to see what I’d really bought.

The photo below may tell the story. This camera looks like it just came off the production line – and I swear the case looks absolutely brand new. I have run several films through the camera and it is sweet.

Rolleiflex camera

Enquiring of the seller, I found that it had belonged to her late husband, a meticulous German architect who really looked after it. It is presently the highlight of my collection. I sold my 1956 Rollei in anticipation of emigration from England to Canada in 1965; with a wife and a brand-new daughter, the cash was more important.

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